Friday, 17 February 2012

Sexual Revolution

Broadly speaking, feminists who see pornography as a problem tend to come from sexual and domestic violence activist backgrounds. They point to research like Michael Flood's 2009 review of children and young people viewing pornography:

Especially among boys and young men who are frequent consumers of pornography, including of more violent materials, consumption intensifies attitudes supportive of sexual coercion and increases their likelihood of perpetrating assault.

I’ve supported women whose rapes were filmed, and later made available as porn. Who found naked pictures taken by pimps online years later, advertising commercial sex. Who were taught how to work in the sex industry, after being trafficked from another country and held captive, by being forced to watch pornography. Who have been raped, often repeatedly, by men who used porn to prepare themselves to cause pain.

And the largest category, women who have been pressured into particular sexual activities because their male partner has seen porn featuring that activity. Often these experiences were painful and/or unpleasant. Sometimes they were sexual violation.

Broadly speaking, feminists who see censoring pornography as a problem tend to come from sexuality rights backgrounds or anti-state censorship backgrounds. They point to research which suggests the causal relationship between rape and viewing pornography is not established.

Feminists in this camp are concerned about what happens when sexuality is repressed. When we teach young people to wait until they are married, and rates of sexually transmitted infections increase, or when the first books about sex taken out of schools are those featuring queer identities. They point to sexually explicit material in which participants were explicitly consenting, narratives did not demean women (or anyone else), and exploring the erotic was sexy. They also ask us to pay attention to how demeaning narratives about women are found in Hollywood movies, or music videos, or advertising, and they argue that pornography can be re-fashioned, made feminist, if we make it ourselves, talk about what turns us on, don't harm or exploit in making it, and produce a range of images.

Many feminists today tend to believe feminist porn is possible, desirable, sexy and fun. I think this is positive and hopeful - if sometimes naïve to the realities of sexist objectification for women with less structural power.

Positive because unless women believe we can live in a world in which we are free sexual beings - people able to decide what turns us on, explore that with lovers, take part in not just consent but enthusiastic mutual agreement - then I don’t think those changes will happen. We don’t live in that world now - but in all the examples of my own work I gave above, pornography is not the problem. Sexually explicit material with degrading narratives about women is part of a package of women hating behaviours, supporting, encouraging and providing a site for violence against women. It is also, critically - but far from uniquely - a part of our culture that reduces women to “just sex."

Paying attention to the stories porn tells, just as we might pay attention to the stories music videos, or advertisements, or Hollywood movies tell, is, I think, the critical issue.

We live in an era in which sexualised imagery of women and girls seems all pervasive. Exploitative, heteronormative, damaging to our senses of what we should look like, how we should behave. Damaging to men, especially young men, who learn how to be sexual from watching images in which women are often active beings only in their desires to please men.

This isn't porn - it's MTV. Or how about this Guinness ad from 2008? Trigger warning for women-hating.

The issue is the narrative, the story, not the medium.

What we need are narratives, in every medium, that explore enthusiastic consent. That treat our bodies as beautiful parts of whole people, in which the choices we make to explore different activities at different times are freely given and joyful. We need to know about sex - not from stories which are only interested in male pleasure - but because sex can be fun, may be about as meaningful a connection as we have to others, and is, for many of us, an area of our lives we enjoy.

We also need narratives, in every medium, in which sex is not the only reason women are there. At the moment, we see sexualised images of women in all kinds of contexts. What we don’t see enough are women living our lives with all the humdrum realities that come with working, parenting, having friendships, playing sport, singing, making art, shopping for groceries or climbing mountains.

Women, like men, have a wide range of interests, concerns, areas of expertise, not all of which are reducible to our breast size, how short our skirt might be or whether we perform particular sexual acts. Sex is important - but it’s not, ever, all we are - and increasing acceptance of sexualised, and only sexualised, images of women is no kind of sexual revolution.

Sexual freedom - the freedom to be sexual in the ways which turn us on - has to include the capacity to not only, not always, be sexual.


I.M Fletcher said...

I agree with some of your post, and not with other parts. You seem to be saying (and please correct me if I am wrong) that porn is only bad if it is done in circumstances where all parties taking part do not consent.

I do not believe that any porn can be separated from the objectification of women - and it is women most often made objects of desire in porn to be used and abused by men, because men are stimulated visually. has an Anti-Porn Resource Centre which includes myths about porn, FAQs, and survivors stories here -

LudditeJourno said...

Hi IM Fletcher,
No I'm not saying that, I'm saying context and narrative is everything.
Your second paragraph - how are you defining porn? Any sexually explicit material? Because doesn't that take us, awfully quickly, to any kind of visual images of people being sexual is always and only exploitative of women?
Which I don't believe. I think this discussion is tricky and complex and both "sides" I've outlined here have important and crucial points.
And I also don't agree that it's only (or even always) men who are visually stimulated. Desire is also complex - while for me, talking to someone and touching someone is always going to be the most exciting way to connect, I'm not going to deny that I find the odd thing pretty visually delicious :-) and I suspect I'm far from alone as a non-man who feels this way.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts - I think this is a painful and difficult area to talk about for many of us, and I'm trying to do it gently and respectfully.

Hugh said...

"I do not believe that any porn can be separated from the objectification of women"

What about porn that doesn't have any women appearing in it?

I.M Fletcher said...

Hugh, I think you'll find that most porn of the visual kind (movies, magazines and the like) is aimed at men and features women. Although LudditeJourno says that she can be stimulated by imagery (and I've heard other women say they can be as well), according to what I have read, women are more turned on by words and ideas than imagery. That's why Mills & Boon and other erotic fiction is targeted at women, and sells to women.

A woman yesterday pointed me in the direction of a song on youtube called Bilingual by Jose Nunez, which, although only spoken words against music, is very much porn (and needless to say, I got the gist of it without listening to very much of it). It didn't do anything for me, but seemed to float her boat.

I'm not saying all sexual imagery is porn, but it is used to titillate and to sell anything and everything. We all know that sex sells.

LudditeJourno said...

IM Fletcher - I think Hugh's referring to the fact there is plenty of porn for men into men out there.
I think women are turned on by all manner of things. Sometimes looking at someone I'm really attracted to is terrifying, I have such a strong body reaction. And I've never read a Mills and Boon - I've stereotyped them as stories about women being "seduced" and "won over" to sex - I'm way more interested in women being desiring and able to ask for what we want. Or at least up for talking about it.

Anonymous said...

Where does this idea that watching porn including the dodgy stuff is "woman hating"...? Quite the reverse I would think...Its not love sure...but its not hate either.

dad4justice said...

Total insanity on this blog.

LudditeJourno said...

Anonymous at 3.49pm - please use a handle and keen to hear you explain how watching 'dodgy stuff' is the opposite of women-hating.

Dad4justice - thank you. You'll need to actually put up a discussion point if you want to comment here again.

Hugh said...

Luddite Journo, got it in one.

I don't know if there is more porn out there aimed at men who are attracted to women than there is aimed at men who are attracted to men. Probably not, since men who have sex with men are a smaller part of the market. But there is certainly a hell of a lot of the latter and any theory of pornography that fails to account for it loses a lot of credibility for me.

Hugh said...

I also think the "Men are visual, women are verbal/textual" divide belongs with most of the other Mars/Venus type dichotomies.

Moz said...

Hugh, the only theory I've heard in that respect is that some men in gay pron are "taking the role of women", which is doubly problematic to those theorists because there's usurpation as well as denigration going on. But I like that theory, because it locates women squarely in the "always victims, all the time" box, making the viewpoint of the theorists blatant and undeniable.

But, you know, I'm male, I read porn, I respect women[1], what would I know.

[1] note that I only claim to do these things. And some people will claim that I can't do all of them at the same time. I would laugh at them but that's disrespectful.

Hugh said...

Personally Moz if somebody tells me I'm not respectful to women my response is self-assessment, not laughter. But whatever floats your boat, bro.