“If I go to the debate on pornography, I’ll just fume about the fact that everyone’s got stupid analysis but me.” I said that a couple of months ago, and I was joking, but only a little bit.
Feminist discussions on sexually explicit material tend to be heated, and change no-one’s mind. The latest discussions on The Hand Mirror have followed this pattern. I want to explore why.
Media that has been created for the purpose of sexual arousal and produced to be bought and sold (which is a mouthful, but I think more precise than ‘pornography’) sits at an intersection: Desire, sex, the construction of men’s sexuality, the construction of women’s sexuality, bodies, work, the role of the state, objectification, the creation of rape culture and commodification (and much more, those are just what’s on top for me).
It only takes small differences in feminists’ analysis, weighting or experience of a couple of these before they’re coming at the issue that we call ‘pornography’ from completely different angles.
As well as making the issue complicated, these many facets also mean that those no such thing as a disinterested party. Everyone has a stake in what is being discussed, but what is most triggering about the discussion about sexually explicit material varies widely.
To simplify one example more than is really justified: discussions of sexually explicit material may trigger some women’s experiences of having their sexuality and desire denied, while the same discussion might trigger other women’s experience of having other people’s sexuality or desire forced on them. (I don’t mean this as a dichotomy, just an example of the sorts of talking past that can happen in these discussions).
I think it’s very difficult even to talk about, or articulate any of this, because the vocabulary we have around sexually explicit media is so limited. The distinctions I think need to be made about are numerous and complex:
Was it made by an individual expressing their personal desires?
Was it made to be bought and sold?
Did everyone involve in making it give genuine consent?
Does it normalise misogynist ideas about women, women’s sexuality, women’s bodies, or sex?
Do they normalise racist ideas about any group of women or men, their bodies or sexuality?
Does it normalise a limited view of human sex or sexuality?
How do the ideas it contains interact with rape culture?
Does it normalise a particular type of body?
Now the answer to most mass-produced mainstream pornography from Ralph to are yes (or no depending on the question). But my point is that these are different questions, and they’re different again from:
What do we do about it all? What do we expect other organisation, or the state to do about it all?
Those are just my questions, I’m sure other people have different ones (I’m sure I’d have different ones if I wrote them on a different day, after reading different material). Unless we are clear about what exactly we’re talking about, unless we actively try and overcome the difficulties I’ve outlined, we’ll never have anything useful to say.
I wrote this post - I decided to continue talking about pornography, despite my cynicism, because I think it’s important. I think untangling these threads, understanding the role of sexually explicit material in women’s oppression is vital. I think the first answer to the question: ‘what is to be done?’ Is that we have to figure out how to talk about this.
I'd like the comment thread on this post to remain focused on the specific issues I raised. I see the issue in this post discussion of sexually explicit material within the feminist movement. If you don't consider yourself within the feminist movement I'm asking you not comment on this post.