Friday, 19 June 2009

Talking about talking about pornography

“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.


Anna said...

I think it's a confronting topic because, as you say, everyone's got a personal 'stake' in the idea of sexuality. Feeling that a sexual practice you participate in is being disapproved of can feel like quite a fundamental attack on your dignity - that's why homophobia is so hurtful.

I also think the porn debate has a tendency to polarise in a way that disguises the many things that pro- and anti-porn feminists agree on, eg the right of all people to be free from sexual coercion, etc.

I think the 'porn as a commodity' issue is also incredibly important, but I won't waffle on about it any further (just yet, anyway). ;-)

ms poinsettia said...

I think your characterisation of porn as being situated at an intersection is very true. In the initial post thread, I found it quite difficult to limit my comments to 'just' objectification because a number of other issues impinged on my understanding of objectification (ie. cultural constructions of sexuality/sex, commodificiation of sexuality/sex etc).

Like you also, I think it's an important discussion to be having.
I think its often complicated by the polarisation of anti-/pro- porn. I don't situate my self in either of those camps but somewhere near the middle, probably hovering closer to anti- than pro-. When I critique porn, I'm not doing so from a position of 'it should be banned' or 'good feminists don't 'x,y,z' but the hisotry of these debates often leads to these kind of assumptions (as well as the reverse). Hugh mentioned earlier how feminist women who are critiquing porn feel obliged to say "I'm not anti-sex" or "I'm no prude" as a preface to their comments. I refuse to do that because I think it's ridiculous to have to do so to critique porn (partly because I see porn as being quite different from sex). I guess my point is that the legacies of feminist debate re: porn also obscure and polarise the debate.

TidgeH said...

Oof, excellent, very thoughtful post (and comments so far).

I don't know the answer to your questions re: what do we do about it. All that I really feel like I can do is educate the people (read: men) in my life as much as I can on how, like in all matters, they have a duty to be informed, educated and thoughtful consumers of porn, and give them a feminist perspective. I know I won't always get through, but I am willing to engage in these discussions with them most of the time.

I really don't know that there is a place for the state in what I guess you could call 'revolutionsing' pornography/pornography consumption/associated patterns of sexual power, except to try to minimse harm done, but to be frank, I think they are already doing about all they can on that front. I'm quite anti-censorship (to a degree) which sometimes puts me in a difficult position, internally.

Yes' the "you're a prude if you don't like porn" thing is quite weird. I know a guy who felt very conflicted about having sex before marriage but had never thought of porn as problematic, and who I think was a bit shocked about my (relatively) blase attitude towards sex but dislike of (most) porn. I really don't see the intellectual difficulty in seperating the two, but it seems like many men (and women) are rbought up to think that it is a male right to consume porn. Even more than a right - it's pretty much expected, I think. I wonder what would happen if we raised our dauighters to feel expected to consume (feminist) porn (I think it exists, others may disagree).

Maia said...

I agree absolutely about the polarising nature of the debate. I find the term 'pro' and 'anti' pornography almost meaningless.

Ms Poinsetta - I agree absolutely about the assumptions. I've had posts where I critique sexually explicit material have comments "So you want to ban it do you" - even though I haven't mentioned the role of the state at all.