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Friday, October 15, 2010

The Politics of Porn: Two Short Essays (2006)

http://news.infoshop.org/article.php?story=20060727160939833

The issue of pornography I feel falls at the center of the issues of feminist liberation and equality for women. To some, the argument becomes one of free speech and the right to see and experience whatever one wants. To them, support of pornography is veiled in arguments of victimless crime and freedom of symbolic speech. This side purposes that this “victimless crime” must not be subject to any social restriction, ethical reproach or regulation. Since the women are supposedly free to choose sex work as an occupation, it becomes a matter of freedom, which is something that is not easily argued against. Originally published in How to Smash Everything: an Anarchist Sourcebook

http://casyslantern.blogspot.com

Pornography and Liberation:
False Parallels, Dangerous Illusions
by Harjit Gill

The issue of pornography I feel falls at the center of the issues of feminist liberation and equality for women. To some, the argument becomes one of free speech and the right to see and experience whatever one wants. To them, support of pornography is veiled in arguments of victimless crime and freedom of symbolic speech. This side purposes that this “victimless crime” must not be subject to any social restriction, ethical reproach or regulation. Since the women are supposedly free to choose sex work as an occupation, it becomes a matter of freedom, which is something that is not easily argued against. Most people like to believe they are for liberty and freedom, not for censorship and it is precisely this impulse that has been used by the proponents of pornography and the pornographers as a crutch to gain support from the mainstream of America.

The opposing side argues against this by using moral or biblical arguments. This is the side of Jerry Falwell and other evangelists who make the argument about what God would allow and want our society to be. This argument uses ideology that expressly invokes a “Christian society” that successfully divides the society among those who support Falwell and those who disagree with him, independent of their views of pornography. Put in this position, I would choose to disagree with Falwell, regardless of the other side’s argument.

The final side is the one I’ve found most recently that attacks pornography not as a moral point, but goes to the heart of the free speech argument and dispels the myth. This is the debate brought forth by Katherine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin, as well as many male critics of the societal support of this crime.

The basic problem with pornography is this: there are victims. This is not a “victimless crime.” There are victims during production, and there are victims that suffer because the effect it has on men who view it. There are victims throughout the process and it creates a society that ignores these victims under the guise of free speech. By virtue of the detrimental social consequences of pornography, it can therefore be viewed as a crime.

“Imagine that for hundreds of years your most formative traumas, your daily suffering and pain, the abuse you live through, the terror you live with, are unspeakable – not the basis of literature.”

This is the first line of MacKinnon’s book, “Only Words.” She goes on to give painful real life examples of historic rape and sexual abuse perpetrated on women by men who had full control over them, from husbands to grandfathers, to show the context that women’s sexuality is shaped by. We must first look at the sexual history of women in society; pornography cannot be looked at in a vacuum. This abuse by men set the historic precedent for pornography. MacKinnon goes on within this very chapter and destroys the whole argument of pornography as speech. Her argument is that this historic abuse of women by men for sexual gratification has branched out into the “victimless” world. Pornography is just a modern solution to historical, social and indeed physical enslavement. It simply enables more men to take advantage of each individual subjugation of women.

Furthermore, in this context, MacKinnon argues, “speech is not your right to object, but what your abusers do to you.” By calling pornography speech, you give it precedent on the same level of consideration as the women who are affected by it. This diminishes women’s equality by saying their basic right to not be exploited falls below the right of men to be gratified. The debate comes down to this fundamental principle, as MacKinnon puts it: “Protecting pornography means protecting sexual abuse as speech, at the same time that both pornography and its protection have deprived women of speech, especially speech against sexual abuse.”

It can also be argued that pornography takes the meaning out of sex and leads to sexual abuse by turning the women into a faceless object for use. This objectification of women means that pornography, according to Gloria Steinem, “is not about sex. It’s about an imbalance of male-female power that allows and even requires sex to be used as a form of aggression.” Further, we cannot separate from this the fact that pornography happens in the real world; it is not a mental act, there is physical action occurring. The industry is what gets women into these positions to be in these films, not the ideas. There is a reality that is not abstract and theoretical.

“Women are gang raped so they can be filmed. They are not gang raped by the idea of a gang rape.”

These women are victims quite often of circumstance and financial problems which lead them into being cajoled into the industry, although no blame should be attached to the porn itself, because the videos themselves have no intrinsic evil; it is their use, production and the associated unequal social dynamic that causes the problems. In this as well is not an argument against sexuality, but rather an argument against a society were the objectification of women is acceptable.

As a final point, the utilitarian principles put forth by John Stuart Mill should be examined. As Peter Singer applied Mill’s principle of equal consideration to the issue of animal rights, we must apply it to women’s rights and to pornography. The principle states that equal consideration must be applied to the subject and object of any action. Singer points out that while death is not intrinsically bad, suffering is. Causing another suffering must be done only in the most extreme of cases. Singer points out that one’s appetite and pleasure of enjoyment of food does not justify the suffering creatures face in factory farms, that this is unethical and must stop immediately. So too we must apply this to women’s rights. The gratification of some men and women does not justify the suffering of the women who are raped by men who are pushed by pornography. There must be equal consideration paid for those women who do become victims of abuse. Since suffering is occurring for some, we must stop the practice of allowing pornography to be produced for the gratification of those who gain from it. Suffering is always wrong, so we must do our best as a society to stop suffering from occurring.

By showing that the issue has nothing to do with free speech and then by using a utilitarian approach to ethics to undercut the arguments of pornographers, the burden of proof then falls on the pornographers to prove that what they are providing is beneficial to society. If it is not, then it is not pragmatic and is harmful to society. This means we should work on eliminating it to help our society move forward with real equality and equal consideration.

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3 Myths About Sex Work

by Sarah Patterson

Whores...are the dykes of the nineties, the lavender menace whom it's still considered okay to ostracize.
-- Jill Nagle, Whores and Other Feminists

Myth #1: Sex workers are different than other kinds of workers because sex work is more oppressive.

Though every worker has their own unique experience of work, sex workers are commonly portrayed as being placed under a particularly oppressive, degenerative set of circumstances, not comparable to those of experienced by the average worker. It is often argued that because the body is the site of sex workers' commercial gain, the locus of the laboring that a sex worker does, that sex work is in some way a greater violation of the worker than more traditional work might be. The commodification of the body can be extended, though, to other kinds of work. For example, if an assembly worker develops severe arthritis from the repetitive nature of his/her job demands, it can also be said in this case that the body of the worker is compromised by his/her work. Yet when a street walker is raped by a john, the common reaction is that although this act is unfortunate, it is part and parcel of sex work; it is not given the same legitimacy as a similar act or incident would be in other lines of work.

Additionally, this distinction also has gender ramifications. To make a unique case of sex work is to ignore the sexual divisions present in all work, whether it is focused on the body's sexual aspects or not. As Vicky Funari points out in the essay “Naked, Naughty, Nasty: Peep Show Reflections” of the collection Whores and Other Feminists:

“What is the difference between jobs within work systems that hypocritically deny the importance of sex to their smooth operation as opposed to those that exploit it as their very reason for operating? If capitalism was structuring my work experience, and if sexism was structuring roles within capitalism, what had I to lose by facing overt rather than covert realities?”

Without evaluating all work as having sexually exploitative, physically and emotionally degenerative possibilities, the truth about sex work (and indeed, all work in general) remains unevaluated. Sex work is not special in its ability to posess drawbacks; making a unique case of it denies the oppression of work circumstances in general.

Myth #2: All sex workers are women and all pornographers are men.

When reading about sex work in the essays of such anti-pornography feminists such as Andrea Dworkin and Katherine A. MacKinnon, it is clear that for them, women are always the sex workers and men are always their bosses. In the anthology Feminism and Pornography, MacKinnon goes so far as to describe sex work as, “institutionaliz[ing] the sexuality of male supremacy, fusing the erotisization of dominance and submission with the social construction of male and female.” If society is indeed, as many feminists believe it to be, a patriarchal one, then the entire landscape of American society is shaped by male desire and its supremacy; in this way, the gendered subtext of sex work is not unique, as it mirrors the subjugation present throughout American living. The problematic nature of this line of thinking extends further, though. To believe that there is always a male oppressor and female victim creates a heteronormative vision of power structures that is dangerous in its narrow vision. It ignores the possibility of sex workers who are male or TS/TG and therefore provides them with no representation as workers. It suggests that oppression can be boiled down in one way only, which removes the possibility of other worker's voices being recognized and examined.

When looking at power dynamics in these terms, they seem overly simple. For example, who maintains power and who loses it when two men perform in a porn that is directed and produced by men? Do they have power? Is this a situation in which, somehow, power does not exist? Though that seems highly improbable, there is no way to find an answer without a discussion of sex work that is not only gender-based, but also examines the rights of ALL workers. It is too easy to believe that one person in a work situation maintains all power (or even that those with power have a stable possession of it), while the other has none; it also erases the possibility that the vision of the sex worker is a multitude of images, not just that of a female.

Myth #3: The sex industry hurts both the women in sex work as well as women in general.

There has long been a fissure between sex workers and feminists regarding the the role that sex work plays in the subjugation of women. Obviously, for anti-pornography feminists, the existence of sex workers perpetuates negative images of women; Dworkin expains in her essay, “Against the Male Flood,” that for those who watch pornography, it is “what women are and what women are for and how women are used in a society premised on the inferiority of women.” In contrast, sex workers argue that this kind of thinking is what makes things harder, not easier, for those working in the sex industry. By presenting all sex workers as victims of circumstance, it places feminists in the role of “saviors” who know better about the nature of sex work than the sex workers themselves.

First of all, maintaining a discussion of workers' rights without engaging the worker in that discussion alienates the worker from his/her own representation and experience. There is also a question of the chicken or the egg. Think back to your own experiences of pornography. When you sought out porn to watch, did you already imagine what you might want to see, before you'd even seen a pornographic image? Or did pornography fill in for you what your imagination hadn't? When examining the oppressive systems society creates, it seems difficult to know whether pornography is the source or result of oppression. Perhaps it is both. Finally, there is merit in having feminist sex workers within the sex industry, who, despite what non-sex worker feminists might believe, are empowered individuals changing the face of the sex industry through the way in which they engage their johns, the choices they make for themselves, as well as by their mere presence within it.

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