The British feminist Natasha Walter has an article in the Times today talking about the problem that is Pornography. I read it, thought, “hey, this would be good to post about on Harpyness!” and my very next thought was, “I hope it doesn’t incite an internet riot.” Not that I think any of our regular commenters would really disagree with it, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned from the feminist blogosphere generally, it’s that people are not that great at talking about Certain Issues with any degree of complexity whatsoever. Porn is one of them. If you like it, you are allegedly (1) selling out other women; (2) existing in a false consciousness; and/or (3) are allied with rapists. If you don’t think it’s all sunshine and rainbows, you are allegedly (1) erasing the vast amount of pro-woman pornography produced by avowed feminists; (2) condescendingly denying the experiences of others; and/or (3) are allied with right-wing conservatives. You just can’t seem to win in this fucking discussion because a vast majority of people fly off the handle immediately, and so most days I skirt it altogether.
But let’s tempt fate. Here’s the part of Walter’s piece I really liked:
Now that the classic feminist critique of pornography — that it necessarily involves or encourages abuse of women — has disappeared from view, there are few places that young people are likely to hear much criticism or even discussion about its effects.
Many women who would call themselves feminists have come to accept that they are growing up in a world where pornography is ubiquitous and will be part of almost everyone’s sexual experiences. I can see why some are arguing that the way forward really rests on creating more opportunities for women in pornography, yet I think it is worth looking at why some of us still feel such unease with the situation as it is now.
I do not believe that all pornography inevitably degrades women, and I do see that the classic feminist critique of pornography is too simplistic to embrace the great range of explicit sexual materials and people’s reactions to them. Yet let’s be honest. The overuse of pornography does threaten many erotic relationships, and this is a growing problem. What’s more, too much pornography does still rely on or promote the exploitation or abuse of women. Even if you can find porn for women and couples on the internet, nevertheless a vein of real contempt for women characterises so much pornography.
The massive colonisation of teenagers’ erotic life by commercial pornographic materials is something that it is hard to feel sanguine about. By expanding so much in a world that is still so unequal, pornography has often reinforced and reflected the inequalities around us.
This means that men are still encouraged, through most pornographic materials, to see women as objects, and women are still encouraged much of the time to concentrate on their sexual allure rather than their imagination or pleasure. No wonder we have seen the rise of the idea that erotic experience will necessarily involve, for women, a performance in which they will be judged visually.
Seems entirely reasonable, well-stated, and qualified, right? I don’t really agree with her characterization of the “classic feminist critique of pornography,” but then she doesn’t identify anyone in particular as holding these beliefs, and I guess I am willing to grant that there certainly were (and are!) feminists who thought this. (I used to think this was the critique of only the extremely simplistic but oh, how the internet has opened my eyes to the bluntness of certain people’s analysis!)
But of course the commenters are up in arms, and I’m sure this article will get coverage in the feminist blogosphere in the coming days along the lines of, “Well, this is condescending pearl-clutching!” “Teenagers watch lots of feminist porn like Burning Angel!” “Why can’t feminism keep its hands out of my pants???” Personally I see my own perspective as treading the thin line between pearl-clutching and concern, and I’m aware of that and trying to rein in personal impulses for hysterical and hyperbolic language, but perhaps you disagree.
As you know if you’ve been reading here, I am pretty sympathetic to the work of MacKinnon and Dworkin, which has won me no end of abuse in my life, frequently from people who have not read them, at all. This is not always true, of course. I note it only to say that in general I find it hard to place any credence in the critiques of people who have not bothered to read them, simply because there is so much misinformation about the two of them out there in the public sphere that I think people have to get the story for themselves first. To say their names with any tone other than shrieking dismay has become foolish, if you’ve any intention of getting out alive.
Before I continue, I do want to say that in both MacKinnon and Dworkin’s work there is a tremendous amount of hyperbole, much of which strikes me as counterproductive, for sure. (It’s at least equally as counterproductive as the confusing language and refusal to clarify that characterize the work of Butler et al.) I’m not here to defend every little thing either one has said, written, or done. I have no interest in defending the form or content of the ordinance that they tried to enact in Indianapolis. But I want to talk about some basic, boiled down ideas at the moment, and I particularly want to account for my understanding of these ideas and their implications.
I am sympathetic to MacKinnon and Dworkin largely because, from reading and thinking about their analysis of porn for several years now, I understand them to be starting from a place where they define pornography as material that exploits women. This is something akin to the line some people will draw between pornography and erotica – they are saying that if there is sexually explicit material out there that does not actively collude with the subjugation of women in either production or effect, great! Then it isn’t pornography. And I think there are situations in which the production and public exposure to pornography (again: defined as sexually explicit material that promotes the subjugation of women) has deleterious effects, including, as Walter says above, “that men are still encouraged, through most pornographic materials, to see women as objects, and women are still encouraged much of the time to concentrate on their sexual allure rather than their imagination or pleasure.”
One thing people often say in response to this argument is that they want to know who or what is going to get to define what is exploitative to women. My answer, of course, is that like most people, I don’t want it to be the state, because I don’t think feminists can trust the state, particularly as the state currently exists: which is to say, it is patriarchal/racist/hetero-and-cis-sexist etc. (Neither, for the record, does MacKinnon – in fact, she wrote a whole book about that, though she largely missed race, which is an admittedly enormous thing to miss, to use her own phrase.) I don’t think some dude on a bench somewhere, generally steeped in hetero cis privilege (of course not always!) is the person I want defining my or anyone else’s sexuality. What I do think is that discussion of this sort of thing is key, and that all terms in a conversation about what kind of world we’d like to live in ought to be up for debate. Including the term “exploitation.” This, I think, personally, is a conversation worth having. I imagine most people who blog in the feminist/womanist/lady-friendly blogosphere would agree, because by and large, we are people who believe that rape is bad, and that we’d like to live in a world that agreed unqualifiedly with that statement.
This is why I am open to having a discussion about what kinds of pornography are and aren’t “okay,” at least insofar as the matter of it being a tool for progressiveness is concerned. Most people I know seem to be; most people I know are okay, for example, with the notion that child pornography ought to be illegal to produce. Most people are comfortable saying that, say, the tapes Paul Bernardo made of his murders of young women oughtn’t to be disseminated publicly. And funnily enough, most people are okay with criticizing, say, the director of Observe and Report for filming a rape (in which the actress consented to filming) which, had said criticisms been directed at something that announced itself as “pornography” instead of “dudebro comedy,” would have launched a thousand arguments about false consciousness and censorship in the same community that embraced the critique. I recognize fully that we can all get too wrapped up in the force of our own rhetoric in these discussions; I recognize that some people are going to feel shamed in the context of them for liking certain things that others find objectionable. I guess I just don’t understand – and this is maybe what gets me in trouble – how one justifies excluding pornography as a target for cultural critique.