Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Guest post: Allowing men to control our sexual imagination – an argument against pro-woman porn

Further to our ongoing discussion about pr0n, Anita from Kiwipolitico has offered this addition to the divergence of views we've been hosting. Big thanks to Anita for sharing.

In the midst of the posts debating porn a few weeks ago I offered Julie a post showing an anti-porn perspective from a sex-positive third-wave point of view. This is a somewhat challenging exercise for me as I believe that women who want to can and should make empowering pro-women porn, but my views remain conflicted.

This is my strongest area of conflict: can we reclaim porn for ourselves, or do we just give men another control over our sexual imaginations?

Imagine, if you will, your best case scenario for positive respectful pornography made by women for women. Perhaps that scenario requires that all profits are returned to the actors, or that there are no profits; perhaps that it is distributed only to friends and acquaintances, or free all over the net; perhaps that the actors as doing it as an act of empowerment, or that the stories are deliberately those of strong women; perhaps the set is full of laughter and joy as the make it, or what they make is really hot. Whatever it takes, imagine your best case scenario.

Then think about how those women will be constructing the shots, thinking about the lighting, the angles, the narrative, the sets, the stories, what to show and what to hide.

Their thoughts, however politically conscious they are, will be rooted in the male pornography paradigm. The male porn industry is so dominant it frames everything we think about porn. Even when we consciously work to construct something different it is framed as being not-like-that: the male paradigm remains the dominant force. A quick look at the photographers' guidelines of Filament demonstrate this: every explanation is grounded in a shared understanding of stereotypical male porn, every difference is an exception worth mentioning, every similarity unmentioned.

So the dominant exploitative anti-woman porn provides the frame for all pro-woman porn, either by providing norms we accept, or by being the norms we react against. So whether we want it to or not, by making porn we allow that destructive paradigm to control our sexual imagination.

It's an easy and obvious argument to make, but answering the question it poses is much harder: how then do we create pro-woman sexual images for us to share?

Rather than trying to bridge from anti-woman sexual images, perhaps we would be better to bridge from other pro-woman forms. There is a long tradition of strong pro-woman writing, and a younger tradition of pro-woman written erotica, perhaps we need to strengthen that tradition, then move from there to more explicit images of that erotica, then build out from there. Or strengthen our young tradition of pro-woman movies, then add more sex, and build from there.

Perhaps we wouldn't end up with something like the current male dominated porn, but isn't that the point? It's not so much that I'm arguing against porn altogether, as that I'm arguing against porn being the starting point to our development of pro-women sexual images, and against assuming that porn will be the end point.

The female sexual imagination at its truest and most powerful is not the exploitative imagination of the male porn industry, and we shouldn't be controlled by their damaging dominance.



Anonymous said...

Adult content (Warning: extreme; not for the faint of heart)

Lew said...

Adult content (Warning: extreme; not for the faint of heart)

That is some painfully ironic spam.


Tui said...

Anita, you seem to me to be suggesting that it's impossible for women to make pornography or erotica that is a)unexploitative of women and b)erotic to women (my personal definition of for-women porn) without c) buying into some kind of sexist porn standard. I think you're wrong. The reason people refer to a male-dominated porn industry is because visual film/photo pornography has been made by men for men for ages. And while what they produce can be and usually is exploitative of women and frankly not all that exciting to many women they do get some things right.

This is like suggesting to me that women shouldn't write nonfiction or - OK, no, I have quite a good example: replace every use of the words "pornography" or "erotica" with "superhero comic/graphic novel" and it becomes plain why it's problematic. Superhero comics (in the western tradition) have long been a male-dominated industry and this has led to some things which have made it extremely off-putting to women - particularly the depiction and treatment of women they perpetuate. But women can and do write and draw great superhero comics that aren't exploitative, but *do* refer to tropes of the industry, because while not everything about comics is good, some stuff about them is *great*. To be honest, Anita, what you're suggesting is very much akin to people telling women to go and write (or read) manga and not get their girly cooties in proper superhero books like JL or whatver. This is a very common response to people who complain about the treatment of women in the industry and frankly, it sucks! Because a medium always has been exploitative, does not follow that it must always be exploitative.

Lew said...

This seems to be a sort of "master's tools can't dismantle his house" argument, and I'm not sure it holds.

I can see an argument along the lines of: to the extent which women-originated or pro-woman porn employs the narrative, technical and aesthetic techniques and conforms to the norms of the 'male pornography paradigm', then the end result will be problematic; but you're arguing it's not possible for women to do otherwise than ape then men's form (even subconsciously because it frames our understanding of what porn is). I don't accept that; or at least, I think partial successes which can lead to the development of an alternate paradigm.

This crosses over to an extent with so-called 'ethnic' cinematic traditions: Māori and other indigenous peoples have for a long time (and still to an extent) feared the camera as a tool of colonisation; however people like Barry Barclay demonstrated that there were ways of adapting and employing those norms in order to shoot films which weren't colonising, even in an industry and genre (pseudo-ethnographic documentary, eg.) which was thoroughly framed by colonialism.

In principle I see no reason why the same shouldn't be possible for women and pornography. In my mind, this would be the 'best-case' - a cast and crew who know what they're composing and set out to do so in a way which is non-patriarchal. Even if it's only partially successful, to the extent that it forms a partial basis for pro-woman norms, it would seem to have value. Without the partial, incremental successes, what hope is there of ever changing a dominant aesthetic paradigm? It seems abandoning altogether a genre which has declared value for some (many?) women is the worst possible response, because it means abandoning those women who see some value in pornography to the more or less unfettered patriarchy which exists at present.


Lew said...

Bah, no matter how I preview, I always fail.

Second para should end with "partial successes which can lead to the development of an alternate paradigm have value."


Tracey said...

I like to think that choice comes into it a little. If a woman voluntarily wants to make porn then she should be allowed to.

Anita said...


To continue your analogy I'm not saying that women can't/shouldn't draw superhero comics. What I'm saying is if they surround themself with male drawn misogynist superhero comics and use those to inspire/frame them then the comics they draw will come from that tradition, and their imaginations will be constrained by the male drawn form.

If we want to find a true kind of for women by women non-exploitative sexual images then we would do better to start with existing for women by women non-exploitative media and build toward sexual images from there.

Anita said...


To answer only the first 1/3 of your comment right now, and to borrow your analogy.

If the master's house is made of bricks and we have lived our live surround by bricks houses then we can use the master's tools to tear down the house, but when we go to build our own house we will build another brick house designed like his.

P.S. I do not know enough about Māori film-making, can you suggest a good place to start reading?

Tui said...

Anita, what you said is:

Then think about how those women will be constructing the shots, thinking about the lighting, the angles, the narrative, the sets, the stories, what to show and what to hide.

Their thoughts, however politically conscious they are, will be rooted in the male pornography paradigm. The male porn industry is so dominant it frames everything we think about porn.

That sounds to me like saying women shouldn't make porn because porn is intrinsically male-dominated. This is exactly the situation that exists - or that existed ten or twenty years ago - in superhero comics, and still exists now in the most part. A woman who wants to write something about, say, the Batfamily, *has* to surround herself with male-written comics like previous runs of Detective Comics, Robin, Batman, Nightwing, Batgirl, etc. People like Gail Simone and Devin Grayson have still managed to make woman-friendly comics (which also appeal to men - you seem to be implying that woman-made pornography should not be erotic to men) that are rooted in the history of comic books.

Anyway, who said women who make porn are necessarily surrounding themselves with male-produced porn? How do you know women who ar producing porn haven't watched Thelma and Louise a couple hundred times and aren't intimately familiar with the female-written erotica industry? You seem to be making a lot of assumptions about women who make porn that are unfounded, while simultaneously saying that if people come at pornography from any angle that you don't think is utterly pure and free of the male influence then it will be automatically corrupted by the patriarchy and worthless. I just don't think that's true, or I hope it's not - the patriarchy is everywhere, we are surrounded by it. If it's not possible for women to make porn that is not patriarchal given the mere existence and influence of the male porn industry, how can I ever hope to do anything that is not somehow corrupted by the patriarchy? and if I cannot hope to do anything that isn't, should I just give up?

Lew said...


I'd start with Barclay's "Our Own Image", written well after the Tangata Whenua series and I think also after Ngāti, and encompassing his filmmaking method and purpose.

It's been a decade since I've done any reading on NZ cinema, but at that time a more general anthology by credible people in the industry was Dennis and Bieringa's "Film In Aotearoa NZ" (early '90s though it may have seen another edition since).