Pornography and adult filmography have long been extremely divisive issues in feminism — especially in the Western countries. While some feminists condemn pornography as a form of violence against women, others embrace it as a great medium for feminist expression. The wider debate surrounding pornography is concerned with views on sexuality, prostitution, sex work, BDSM etc.
The Anti-porn argument
Providing sexual pleasure for consumers is not inherently ‘wrong’, but the primary argument against porn is that women are objectified and reduced to mere sex objects. The industry turns sex into a product and therefore contributes to the commodification of women’s bodies, in particular. Anti-porn advocates and activists also charge that pornography eroticizes the domination and humiliation of women. Porn is conducive to the fetishization sexual orientation, race and ethnicity, as evidenced by the various categories of porn available for viewers on websites like Red Tube and Porn Hub. Teen porn videos reinforce pedophilic culture.
One of the problems feminists have had with critically analyzing porn, is that there is a parallel anti porn movement stemming from people who believe sexual desires are shameful. This notion has historical roots in various religious traditions — pornography and sex have deeply rooted cultural moralistic overtones indicating that expressing sexual desires or even having sex is seen as “wrong.”
The most prevalent argument is that porn is seen as a form of patriarchal oppression — often filmed from a “male gaze” and male-centered heteronormativity thought process. This perpetuates a wider culture of sexism and male hegemony. Pornographic films showing sexual and erotic acts without any form of verbal or non-verbal consent, are very problematic. Physical and sexual violence is rife in pornography — from choking to slapping/hitting to forceful penetration, violence is very often used as a tool of subjugation and oppression.
Anti-porn activists place emphasis on forms of BDSM and potentially degrading sex acts that can be physically harmful, without proper communication. This, thus, can and will lead to an increase in sexual violence against women all while being complicit in rape myths and rape culture. An example of a rape myth is that a ‘no’ really means a ‘yes’ and that women are asking to be raped according to the way they dress and behave. These depictions of violence and abuse do not merely exist in a vacuum. They have an influence of real world attitudes towards sex and towards women.
Violence and compulsion is not limited to the screen, unfortunately. The production for pornographic films often entails physical and psychological coercion on part of the women who perform in it. Even when the women are presented as enjoying themselves, there have been numerous cases of young actresses and models are pressured into it by others or by unfortunate circumstances like blackmail. Economic hardships (among other factors) could force women into unwanted sexual encounters just for the sake of “promising” future career prospects.
Although it is not porn’s responsibility to teach its viewers about sex, it contributes to wider misconceptions about sexual intercourse. The trend is indicative about a larger problem in sex education: a lot of pornographic videos do not depict safe and consensual sex but rather depict rape and revenge porn. It reinforces sexual and cultural attitudes that condemn and in cases, promote, rape and sexual harassment. In 2014, a controversial bill was passed in the Californian state assembly that would mandatorily require performers to wear condoms (among other precautionary measures) to prevent STDs. Measures like these can go a long way in changing the patriarchal production and depiction of pornographic films. It can also help create safer working environments for actors and workers.
The Pro-porn argument
Over the past decade, a growing number of feminists — labeled ‘pro-sex’ — have defended a woman’s choice to participate in and to consume pornography. Pro-sex feminists affirm a consistent interpretation of the principle ‘a woman’s body, a woman’s right’ and insist that every peaceful choice a woman makes with her own body must be accorded with respect, consent and security. They also vouch that porn helps promote body positivity as well as sex positivity because it helps people (especially women) appreciate their bodies and feel confident about themselves. It also allows women to safely experience sexual alternatives and healthily satisfy sexual curiosity — all in attempt to reclaim female sexuality.
Pro-pornographic stances are many times synonymous with the advocation of free-speech and anti-censorship. These people believe that restricting political expression would be suppressive i.e. a creative culture requires freedom of speech. They argue that Pornography is free speech applied to the sexual realm. This protection of freedom of expression is especially important to women, whose sexuality has long been controlled by censorship. Pornography breaks cultural and political stereotypes, so that each woman can interpret sex for herself. Pornography provides reassurance and eliminates shame, urging viewers not to be ashamed of sexual desires and fantasies.
The pro-pornography lobby argues that ‘it is just fantasy’ and thus it shouldn’t be subject to the rigors of moral examination. Frequently, pornography is defended as being a place where people can explore fantasy and desire without real world consequences.
Pro-porn feminists also state that legitimizing pornography would protect women sex workers, who are stigmatized by our society. Sex industry workers, like all women, are striving for economic survival and a decent life. Therefore, making pornography illegal will further alienate and endanger women sex workers. If porn is treated as a legitimate form of expression and profession, it can help in removing the stigma attached to sex work, as well.
The feminist porn genre has become more popular these days, in effect promoting a conversation about the breadth of human sexuality and healthy sex. This particular genre focuses on a woman’s desires and pleasures and seeks to portray women in more power-equal positions, loving and intimate relationships and show safe/healthy environments for sex workers of all genders. Feminist porn is also noted for representing marginalized groups that does not fetishize them. Featuring different kinds and sizes of bodies, feminist porn is touted to be both body-positive and sex-positive. Many women activists and film-makers have embraced this particular component of pornography in order to display and convey their feminist views on sexuality and relationships.
What further classifies porn as feminist is if the performers are treated with dignity and respect off camera (as well as on camera). Some key questions to ask when deciding whether or not porn is feminist/making feminist porn include: Are performers being pressures into scenes? Are safe words respected on set? Is every performer tested properly?
Erika Lust is one of the pioneer film-makers of this genre. The self-described “indie erotic film director” from Stockholm began her career in Barcelona, back in 2000. She is one of the feminist film makers who hopes to subvert the dominant male gaze and the misogyny so inherent in mainstream porn by allowing women to embrace and understand their sexuality within empowering adult entertainment.
Lust’s work is ethical — ensuring equal and fair pay, good working environments and obligatory consent to what the performers are comfortable with. She often shoots films from the female perspective and places emphasis on developing engaging storylines and depicting scenes showcasing female pleasure and healthy portrayals of female sexuality. Lust has also asserted her dislike towards disturbing (yet commonplace in adult film) scenes which show simulated abuse, rape and coercion.
Feminist porn could possibly be the solution that feminists, who argue for and against porn, are searching for. Not only is it ethical and fair, but also is it not one-dimensional as it places emphasis on many important elements of film-making. As it attempts to reconcile the arguments posed by both pro-porn and anti-porn feminist advocates, perhaps feminist genre is the signal for the best of both worlds.
Author: Vaishnavi Pallapothu