Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Pr0n Wars Part I: Teh 4play

Welcome to another infrequent installment of 'Lowering the Tone: Third-Wave Drivel with Ms Enid Tak-Entity'. In this installment Ms Enid throws down with fellow THM blogger Anjum Rahman who frankly, works much, much harder. Because clearly, the only thing that can get Ms Enid out of bed these days is porn. And war.

THM was asked to do some kind of publicity interview with a new women's erotimag called Filament, recently pimped by Emma Hart on Public Address. Anjum's initial response: porn is objectifying and wrong no matter who the object is. Ms Enid's initial response: ooh, new porn for chicks? *cli-click*

Sadly, Filament turned out to be, well, erotically disabled (we're not saying 'lame' these days on THM). It may have the right idea to an extent, but it's somewhat pretentious, not particularly hot, and overpriced. But during a few emails with the crew, it became clear that we hadn't had this discussion yet on the blog. What counts as porn? Can porn be feminist? And can a liberal feminist Muslim woman be convinced that the answer is yes?


To have this discussion logically, we must start with the premise that the notion of 'porn' must be dealt with separately from the notion of 'the porn industry'. One is an issue of sexual psychology and textual meaning. The other is an issue of socioeconomic structures and social justice. I will get to both. But you know, one never wants to rush into a threeway. Stuff gets tangled and you end up with a toe in your eye.

So, we will get on to the social implications of porn in Part II, where I'm sure Anjum and I will have a lot of common ground, and my conclusion will probably be that she just hasn't seen the porn that's right for her - but for now, I hope she can mostly stick to these very specific issues.

The intent and purpose of porn
First, what is porn? And is it different from 'women's erotica'? I believe that these semantic distinctions only have meaning as consumer categories. That is, what makes something 'porn' or 'erotica' is not its content, which may slip across any boundary at any moment, but the purpose to which its production is intended. The purpose of porn is that it gets you off. The purpose of 'erotica', is actually the same. If the 'erotica' product doesn't get you off, then it's not very good 'erotica'. It's just a bit sexy.

I looked through Filament's sample pics, and I wouldn't classify it as 'erotica', just sub-Calvin Klein moody shots of pretty boys. Perhaps the market for Filament is a bit more easily aroused than I. Frankly, I got way more het up just looking at the Vanity Fair outtakes of this Johnny Depp shoot.

Mmmm.

Um, right, where was I.

Obviously, men and women work differently. The goalpost that is set for 'getting you off' is a distinct goal for men (ejaculation) whereas for women, getting off can be a much less discrete and categorical experience. The Vanity Fair/Depp example is a good one. We feel we know Johnny. Who are these boys in Filament, and who cares? Are they waiting for us to do their crumpled laundry? Actual 'women's erotica' is more explicitly sexual than the content of Filament, although it will still seem different-looking from, say, Hustler. Women are far bigger consumers of written 'erotica', not visual porn, being more stimulated by acts of imagination, compared with visual imagery. This rather dismissive review of Filament covers the bases quite well, although frankly, any women, should have a perfectly sound understanding of what gets us off and why, and how different that is to men. And so, within the mainstream porn market, 'women's erotica', is different in style from what people perceive as 'porn'. But for all intents and purposes (and I use the phrase 'intents and purposes' very precisely) porn and actual erotica are the same thing. That is, they are both porn. To be exact, 'erotica' is a marketing subtype of porn.

Porn is something that is used for gratification as its primary purpose. The use of the word doesn't even have to specify sexual gratification anymore, except as a metaphor. We have, for example, food-porn. We have disaster-porn. War correspondent-porn. The reason we criticise these kinds of experiences as being 'porn' is because what they profess to be about is not what they are about - and you know as soon as you watch it. They are not about practical cookery, humanitarian aid efforts or international relations. They are about gratification of a fantasy or a need. The way women do their fantasizing may seem more 'well-rounded', but let's face it; it's just the fantasies that are more three-dimensional, not the emotional experience or the connection to reality.

There is nothing wrong with the intent and purpose of porn
Divorced from social context, there is nothing instrinsically wrong with gratifying a fantasy or a need. It is neither feminist, nor anti-feminist. I would go one step further and put to Anjum, that divorced from social context, there is nothing instrinsically wrong, feminist or anti-feminist about the objectification of human bodies for the purposes of sexual gratification. This, I believe, is Anjum's main sticking point. Well, I just think she's wrong.

Can you can have sex with anyone without objectifying them in some hot way? Physically or mentally? If you can, my guess is that you are not having sex that is much fun, or maybe you are lying. Is sex even possible without the interplay of subjectifying and objectifying? I don't think is. But if I'm wrong, that sex sounds boring.

I support the right of people to sexually objectify each other, in ways that do no harm. In particular, I reserve the right to sexually objectify hot guys, and I will try my best not to harm them in doing so, 'cos I'm ethical like that. I believe it is a morally justifiable position, without which the human race would die out.

And as the great blind Indonesian Muslim President Abdurrahman Wahid said, of his memory of watching Brigitte Bardot in 'And God Created Woman', if such beauty was created by God, it was meant to be appreciated.

So now, we come to harm: Porn within social context; Porn as an industry. A full post will follow soon, but for now, I leave you with a few metaphorical tools. Being 'anti-porn' is like being 'anti-television'. There is a lot of crap television out there. Much of it is harmful to political and civil society, to social progress, and to individuals. It is exploitative and unimaginative. Does this mean that our position should be 'anti-television'? Does it not makes more sense to be 'anti-Fox News' and 'pro-The Wire and Samantha Bee'?

Next: What would 'The Wire' of porn be? Does it exist? Is Ms Enid going to review some actual porn? (Of course she is.)

35 comments:

stargazer said...

ok, wow, i didn't realise that this post was going to be so directly targetted towards me! but never fear, i shall rise to the challenge and have a post up in a couple of days. i need time to process and think about it all, since i obviously don't spend nearly as much time thinking about porn (and no time at all watching it) as compared with you!!!!

The Bewildering Case of Ms Enid Tak-Entity said...

That's all Third Wave feminists do. Think about porn.

The Bewildering Case of Ms Enid Tak-Entity said...

/sarcasm.

Tidge said...

Hmmm... I'm not sure what I think about that Daily Mail review. It seems to be a bit reductive to me. It trots out the old trope of "women are less visual than men" a bit too much for my liking (which has been repeatedly proven as complete bollocks). I think that social conditioning has a lot more to do with it than biology - naked women are the universal signifier of sex, for both men and women, so women gazing at men sexually has been left a bit out in the cold, if that makes sense. We are not accustomed to gazing at naked men with the intention of being turned on, and if we try to do so, we are often distracted by the female involved in the image and get caught up in other socially conditioned acts such as comparing ourselves to them, which rather inhibits the arousal mechanism. That's what I find to be the case, anyway. As such, I find (some) gay porn more of a turn on, although in general, I'm not a big porn fan at all, for industry-based reasons. I think that Filament, if nothing else, is trying to break down some of that conditioning, and remove some distractions. And I certainly do find their models attractive, although I concur that the Deppster blows them out of the water. I've ordered a copy, more from academic interest than from any real expectation that I'll find it super arousing (truly! lol). I might comment more when it arrives.

Tidge said...

Sorry, that was a bit Filament-centric. I agree with your premise that objectifying people/bodies is not innately bad. I look forward to hearing your qualifying arguments re: social context and the industry.

Hugh said...

Interesting to see it's not just me and Ms Liechtenstein at the Daily Mail who think Filament's not the wonderment it's made out to be. At the risk of being seen as promoting my own blog at the expense of the discussion, my thoughts about it are here:

http://doesnthurt.blogspot.com/2009/06/case-against-filament_08.html

Enid, I agree with you on two crucial points - that 'erotica' is simply a way of marketing pornography, and that objectification isn't wrong.

You've covered the erotica/porn distinction very well yourself, but I think it's worth noting that, if we feel objectification for sexual purposes is wrong, we are essentially saying that all sex outside of a committed relationship is wrong.

We objectify somebody whenever we reduce them to something less than the whole person. This sounds pretty horrible, and it certainly can be. However, if somebody meets somebody in a bar, takes them home for sex and never calls them again, this is objectification - they are only interested in the person for sex, and they don't care about their hobbies, goals, dreams, ideas, etc etc. The process of 'getting off' (however we define it) on an image of somebody is no more objectifying than this, IMO.

I will be very interested to see how Stargazer responds.

suraya said...

The factual accuracy of The Daily Mail article on Filament really does leave quite a lot to be desired - which was expected because "they're not a very well-respected newspaper in the UK" would be the understatement of the century. The Independent loved Filament, but then they both called it 'an erotic magazine' - which it isn't - it's a women's magazine with some erotic content. So yeah - if you want to be running off to the loos for a wank, probably don't buy Filament. If you want a good read and some nice boys to look at, maybe do.

The objectification argument really interests me. I find the idea that looking at someone is inherently objectifying a bit of a problem. If you are truly stripping the human from the image, that might be, but looking itself is such a basic human thing - it seems like it would be a very odd world if we didn't do it. And we still live in a society where broadly speaking, women are looked at but men aren't. Even when it's often women doing the looking.

ms poinsettia said...

"Can you can have sex with anyone without objectifying them in some hot way? .. Is sex even possible without the interplay of subjectifying and objectifying? I don't think is. But if I'm wrong, that sex sounds boring."

This, for me, gets at the heart of the issue I think. What is sex? And how much of what we think sex 'is' is influenced by cultural norms. I see a parallel between subject/object and submissive/dominant, and the potential for porn to reinforce that power imbalance is why I haz issues with teh porn. i.e I'm not convinced that subject/object is necessarily inherently part of sex, because it frames sex as something you do to someone else.

Now I need to go away and think about this some more because I'm not sure this is consistent/logical, but that was my gut reaction. Thought provoking:)

Tui said...

The process of 'getting off' (however we define it) on an image of somebody is no more objectifying than this, IMO.

I would disagree because in casual sex you have to deal with an actual real person - yeah, you don't really care about their dreams and hopes, but morally acceptable casual sex at minimum (IMO) requires reciprocity. There's no reciprocity with a Playboy centrefold.

the Scarlet Manuka said...

I find that I cannot experience porn 'divorced from social context' as you seem to, Enid. In my experience, written or visual porn encourages objectification in my subsequent interactions (personal and impersonal) with women.

To borrow from ms poinsettia, it frames sex as something you get from someone. Then it enhances my existing sexism where every woman reduces to somebody I might 'get some' from.

(I say 'get from' rather than 'do to', because porn seems hugely about availability at my convenience. I contrast both of those with 'enjoy with'. I also note, with regard to Hugh's comment, that I do come from a perspective that sex is optimally enjoyed within an extended relationship.)

Hugh said...

Before I go any further, Tui, by talking about morally acceptable casual sex you're strongly implying that there's such a thing as morally inacceptable casual sex. How does that work?

Tui said...

Casual sex where you do not disclose to your partner whether or not you are carrying STDs; casual sex where you do not use protection; casual sex where you do not have a verbal conversation about sexual gratification and what each partner expects to get out of the one night stand.

Hugh said...

OK thanks for clearing that up.

Although there's no direct contact between the porn reader and the model, I don't think that direct discussion is necessary to make sure that both parties' expectations are clear. If the model realises people are potentially going to be getting off to their photograph, I don't see a problem.

Likewise I would view an actual discussion about sexual gratification in the context of a one-night stand as unecessary as long as what all parties* wants matches the default expectation - mutual sexual gratification. Expecting a casual sex partner to be OK with not having an orgasm as akin to expecting them to be OK with potentially getting pregnant.

The obvious difference is that the porn model consents to being objectified under the pressure of earning a wage in a capitalist society, while the one-night stand partner doesn't.** I agree that it's possible to view consent to be objectified as not genuine for this reason, but if we take that view the problem of pornography becomes at best an illustrative example of an extraordinarily broad issue.

And of course there is pornography that doesn't take place within a capitalist context, largely on the internet.

*I was going to say 'both' but I don't want to get pinged with the anti-group sex label!
**Although obviously there might be other pressure. Incidentally, for me, it's this that poses the biggest moral obstacle to casual sex - can we be sure that the person isn't seeking casual sex out of low self esteem, peer pressure or some other negative factor that we are unknowingly taking advantage of? But that's another issue.

Deborah said...

Incidentally, for me, it's this that poses the biggest moral obstacle to casual sex - can we be sure that the person isn't seeking casual sex out of low self esteem, peer pressure or some other negative factor that we are unknowingly taking advantage of? But that's another issue.

But... but... but if the other person is a consenting adult, and explicitly says that this is what she or he would like to do, and you are sure that you have not coerced them in any way, then what's the problem? It's kind of a little paternalistic to not take them at their word. "Oh, I won;t have sex with you even though you're keen and I'm keen and we have both freely consented, because I know it's bad for you."

Maia said...

I agree with ms Poinsetta about the impossibility of divorcing porn or sex from the social contexts that they are created in (although while I have concerns about objectification I don't think they are the same ones).

I don't think it's compatible to try and divorce pornography and objectification from its social context, but make arguments about what is inherent in sex.

I think the most useful discussions about pornography, sex and objectifications look at them in the social context that we live in now, rather than the theoretical

I don't think there's anything inherently wrong, or anti-feminist about depictions of sex designed to arouse, and I think it is possible to imagine a society where objectification carried quite a different meaning from what it does in ours.

But I think if you're talking about pornography and objectification it's important to acknowledge the power systems that exist in the world that we do live in. Most importantly the construction of women as the sex-class, and the power which is associated with objectification in the world we live in. (I actually think the lack of sexiness of the images in Filament (which do nothing for me) show this quite clearly, as you can imagine similar pictures of women, which would be considered sexy).

So while I'd agree with most of the hypothetics in the OP that there is nothing wrong with the intent and purpose of porn. I think that is a completely separate discussion from the role and reality of porn in our society (both in terms of what is produced and the conditions under which it is produced). I also think both of these should be separated from any discussion of what the law around sexually explicit material should be.

Hugh said...

I agree Deborah. I guess I probably didn't clarify that as much as I should have. I don't think that sort of thing is enough of a problem to make casual sex always or even mostly immoral. It's just that, for me personally, it looms morally larger than the matter of objectification. But I wouldn't necessarily regard somebody else who did it as immoral. Quite apart from anything else, even with the best will in the world, it's really hard to tell with somebody you don't know well.

lauredhel said...

"Sadly, Filament turned out to be, well, erotically disabled (we're not saying 'lame' these days on THM)."

Have I misunderstood you? If you mean that it's bad, useless, and/or distasteful, I'm not at all sure that replacing a generically pejorative "lame" with a generically pejorative "disabled" achieves what you want it to achieve.

belledame222 said...

What lauredhel said.

Chally said...

I couldn't get past the disability reference. What lauredhel and belledame222 said.

Nance said...

Too add to the last few commenters...
By not using the term "lame" but still making it clear thats what you *really mean* by putting it right afterwards, you're not helping stop that word from being pejorative.
Otherwise a thought provoking post. Thanks!

ms poinsettia said...

"if somebody meets somebody in a bar, takes them home for sex and never calls them again, this is objectification"

I disagree. My position is that since sex *shouldn't* be something you do to other people or get from other people but do with someone else, it's just an encounter rather than objectification. Now of course, there are situations where one person could definitely be objectifying the other, but it doesn't have to be that way. That it may often be speaks to the way we think about sex in this culture, which I think has been reflected and reinforced in a lot of porn.

My perspective is not that every sexual encounter has to be loaded with emotional significance and rainbows and fairy dust - just that you interact with the other person as a person, not an object. Being attracted to someone is not objectifying them, unless you're attraction is solely based on a body part but I think a lot of people experience attraction as being quite a bit more complex than that.

I think the assertion that sex without objectification would be boring sex speaks to the influence of porn on our everyday pop culture; we see objectification portrayed every day as sex. Just as porn addicts speak of needing to find increasingly hardcore porn and preferring porn to actual sex, I think its very easy to become so inured to the cultural messages we get everyday that it's hard to conceptualise sex in any other way or see other conceptualisations as 'exciting'. I think that the problems with porn in practice should ring alarm bells because they stem from problems with our cultural understandings of sex.

Tidge said...

But surely some measure of physical objectification is necessary to truly enjoy having sex with someone? That is the case for me, anyway. Certainly, my overall attraction to someone is based on far more than their physical appearance, but me perceiving them as sexually attractive rather than platonically attractive is differentiated, to a reasonable extent, by my objectifying them physically/sexually? And with regards to casual sex, the relative importance of my judgements based on physical/sexual objectification rises markedly. Maybe the term 'objectification' needs to be further unpacked, as it seems like it is interpreted slightly differently by different people. I don't see it as being all or nothing, but maybe others disagree.

The Bewildering Case of Ms Enid Tak-Entity said...

Maia's comment raises an important question: Is there any point separating porn from its social context in a discussion of porn? Does that not simply do harm by reinforcing accepted power dynamics?

I think the point of this 'Part I' post is to press home the point that 'porn' refers to a specific, definable thing on its own. Something that can exist and be 'porn' as a part of any social context, whether oppressive or empancipatory. It's like 'cake'. It's like 'shoes.' That is what I believe. The static nature of these nouns serve a purpose; you can liberate them. If we can't shift gear and look at something outside the existing world as a thought exercise, we won't be able to take it out of that world, if that, indeed, is the aim.

The Bewildering Case of Ms Enid Tak-Entity said...

Also, I would have made it one post, except I had to go to bed.

Hugh said...

Maybe the term 'objectification' needs to be further unpacked, as it seems like it is interpreted slightly differently by different people.

Agreed.

miss poinsettia said...

"'porn' refers to a specific, definable thing ... that can exist and be 'porn' as a part of any social context, whether oppressive or empancipatory. It's like 'cake'. It's like 'shoes.'"

On the face of it, this statement seems obvious. But actually it makes me think of an episode of 'Ask your Aunty' where a mother wrote in asking for advice about her son's request for money to buy porn mags. One of the aunties said part of the problem was that porn was not sex and that it could be a negative influence, at which all the other Aunties looked utterly nonplussed. So while porn has gratification as its primary purpose, I'm not always convinced it's necessarily sexual gratification or that its being is as concrete as cake or a pair of shoes. The example of food-porn is innocuous enough but disaster-porn, crime-porn etc also point to the issues of what exactly is being gratified? And where does this need come from?

ms poinsettia said...

RE: objectification issue

To me, objectification is seeing someone else only in terms of how their appearance or actions will get you off. I don't see appreciating someone's appearance in terms of being attracted to them as objectification, even in the context of casual sex where you may not know much about them because presumably it's a mutual interaction, rather than the object/subject dynamic. Hugh's mention of one's expectations from a one night stand points to how it's not possible to see a partner as an object the way actors in porn are.

Tessa said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tidge said...

ms. poinsettia, I take your point, but I'm not sure I agree with you. I personally feel that I am much better able to successfully objectify the people I have casual sex with than porn actors, precisely becasue (I think) I feel that the one night stand partner is objectifying me back - there is an equal objectifying power on both sides. So I don't agree with your subject-object analogy. I think there are instances of mututal objectification.

And I also don't feel that one has to totally objectify someone or totally not - my current partner is someone who I recall objectifying when I first met them (i.e. I thought "Oh, he's hot" with no care whatsoever for who he was). Now we are in a relationship, the objectification has been overtaken by many other forms of attraction, but a small part of the overall attraction is still made up of me objectifying him as being physically attractive. If that was not there, I imagine we would be friends rather than in a relationship.

I hope that all makes sense, and I hope it doesn't seem like I'm trying to say 'your definition is wrong' because that's not what I think - I just think we define it quite differently.

Hugh said...

To me, objectification is seeing someone else only in terms of how their appearance or actions will get you off.

Well, if our interest in a casual sex partner is purely in what they can offer us sexually, how is this not objectification - as you've defined it?

Moz said...

To me, objectification is seeing someone else only in terms of how their appearance or actions will get you off.

I think you've just built a very nice strawman. Specifically, you've introduced the "but I learned their name" defence and used it to rule out what *we* do as objectification while leaving open the option of the other as doing what you describe. But even the most depraved sex attacker cares about more than this, if only "is she likely to get me convicted".

So no, I don't accept that as a useful definition.

IMO a better definition of objectification is more open to shades of grey. Perhaps "the degree to which we objectify others is the degree to which we discount their feelings and wishes". Unfortunately that would mean that it's difficult or impossible not to objectify others, so I can understand unwillingness to accept it.

ms poinsettia said...

"the degree to which we objectify others is the degree to which we discount their feelings and wishes".

Admiring someone's body and being attracted to them isn't, to me, discounting their feelings and wishes. It's not so much the 'but I know your name' defence as saying sex is interaction not objectification. Presumably casual sex involves interaction, whereas the rapist is attacking their victim as if their feelings or desires do not exist - the victim is interchangeable in that regard. The person watching porn is similarly getting off on watching the body of someone who is interchangeable with any other porn actor. When feminists talk of objectification, this is what I take it to mean so I don't see it as a natural part of sex. Obviously we're all going to have different views but I find it a problematic justification for considering porn as just like any other product.

Moz said...

The person watching porn is similarly getting off on watching the body of someone who is interchangeable with any other porn actor.

I don't have a substantive reply to your whole post, but I'd like to point out that your idea above appears not to work in practice. The mere existence of famous porn stars argues against it. They're not famous because they're generic... Ron Jeremy for his particular abilities (and for not being a bastard), sure, but women like Adele Stephens epitomise a particular body ideal and Sylvia Saint performs in a way that some men are drawn to. Much like Brad Pitt or Arnold Schwarzenegger do.

I've worked in the industry and the customer feedback we got (and the comments from people I know) was that as well as the style of the site, some models were much more popular than others. It was not unusual for one "generic" small, slim model to be 5x more popular than another with similar face and near-identical body. We spent a lot of time trying to work out what the X factor is and how to reproduce it. I suspect the fashion and media industries do the same thing for very similar reasons.

A gentle introduction to this would be reading some of Asia Carrera's geek writing. She's one of the early "real person porn stars" who had her own web site (a non-porn one) while working as a porn star. Read her FAQ.

ms poinsettia said...

After musing a little more on this objectification definition issue, I think what I'm trying to highlight is the power imbalance in the objectification inherent to porn which I don't believe is inherent to sex.

For instance, you could argue that a prostitute has more power than a porn star because she retains more control. If she sleeps with one client, he and only he has a mental image of it and it's a one-off act. Whereas, the image of porn actors is no longer theirs once produced and sold and can be used by as many consumers as often as those consumers wish - so they lose control of their image and often lose out financially too (in terms of how money porn stars make compared to producers). This is a level of objectification which I think is incomparable to casual sex or even prostitution because there's such an inherent power imbalance between the consumer and 'the product' - than between two consenting adults (as in casual sex; not implying that acts taped in porn are not consensual.)

Moz, Re: interchangeability of porn stars, I will have a read of that link you mention. In the meanwhile, while there are obviously big name stars, I've read that many actresses have a limited career in the sense that they often have to be willing to do increasingly hard-core films to maintain an audience until eventually they have no pull with an audience. Obviously this sort of dynamic would be limited to a certain section of the industry.

lauredhel said...

Is the author going to address the issue of how "disabled" is used in this post, and the crack about how they really wanted to use "lame", har har, but we don't do that anymore?