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.