Column: Feminism and pornography are not oxymorons

While porn can be problematic, we can address this without resorting to censorship.

When I wrote about racism in pornography a few weeks ago, I received an odd amount of attention from an anti-pornography activist circle on Facebook, who somehow got ahold of my writing and praised it.

The irony in their appropriation of my critiques of racial porn for their broader anti-pornography mission is that I happen to be pro-pornography, or at least far from anti-pornography. One can be critical of aspects or consequences of pornography while still believing in its virtues and possibilities. Or, in a broader sense, one can hope for changes in pornography as it stands without resorting to banning it, as is currently being discussed in Iceland.

Anti-pornography feminists like Gail Dines and Catharine MacKinnon argue that pornography, specifically BDSM and “violent” porn, perpetuates views of women as sexual objects and glamorizes the beating, slapping, spitting on and harm of women in general. These activists, feminists and intellectuals argue that violent themes in pornography are symptomatic of a patriarchal culture in which female sexual autonomy does not exist, where women are faceless vessels for male desire of any form and, consequentially, where porn will inevitably encourage men to harm or rape women in real life.

These are powerful arguments that have ignited important conversations about pornography and our broader sexual and social culture. As I argued in my prior column, pornography (and the desires it represents) does not exist in a bubble. Being able to unpack what influences our desires and what makes pornography popular (i.e. profitable) is crucial for a comprehensive understanding of our problems and how we might be able to address them.

But many anti-pornography arguments, rightly critiqued by people inside and outside of the industry, unfairly treat women who act in adult films as powerless and in need of help through exterior intervention. Moreover, myopic views on BDSM and kink obscure the reality that women can (and do) seek pleasure and even power in kink sex. Moreover, these arguments wrongly presume women are always in the submissive role and, tacitly, that they are immobile and must simply relent to male physical violence.

Indeed, women acting in adult films are not a monolith, nor are they simply victims to their male counterparts (nor are they always straight or cisgender). Women choose to work in the adult film industry for numerous reasons, not just because they had no other choice.

There is still clearly problematic behavior in the industry, but these issues are increasingly being brought to light, and some studios (Naughty America, for example) have established rules prohibiting the slapping, choking or spitting on of female performers (spanking is permitted only if it’s requested). While I run the risk of creating an overly rosy picture of the industry as it stands, I remain optimistic that porn as a business model can adapt to necessary changes that benefit performers and consumers.

A subset of feminist pornography, led by women like Nina Hartley and Cindy Gallop (who, by the way, is speaking at MU on Wednesday), has been effective in addressing the need for female perspectives and sexual pleasure in pornography. As feminist Tristan Taormino has written, “… if you’re going to go to the trouble of calling a woman a slut and smacking her while you fuck her, there damn well better be an awesome orgasm in it for her. If she’s not having a great time, what’s the point?”

While activists like Gail Dines have critiqued the “plastic, formulaic and generic images” in porn, they ignore the possibility for porn to be a platform for empowerment, pleasure, subversion or resistance for women. Feminism can influence pornography in a way that is more inclusive of women who have otherwise been marginalized or fetishized in a way that renders them cold. Plus-size porn, trans porn and disability in pornography have all been addressed by feminist pornography, and these are certainly optimistic developments in an otherwise overcrowded industry lacking in creativity and originality.

We need to move beyond seeing pornography as a taboo and stop treating adult actors as either victims or just whores who “deserve what they get.” Publicly critiquing pornography while taking into account the perspectives of actors in the industry is crucial to reforming it in a way that makes it more desirable as a product and as a profession.

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