Hugo Schwyzer: ‘Suicide Girls’, Empowering to Women?

On his blog today, gender studies professor Hugo Schwyzer critiques the feminist credentials of the alt-porn website Suicide Girls and wonders whether porn can ever empower women. Hugo writes:

The Suicide Girls site (I won’t link to it, but you can figure it out yourself–it is not “work safe”) is the pioneer “alt-porn” center on the web. Begun in 2001, the idea of Suicide Girls was to provide women-friendly erotica with a counter-cultural sensibility. Many “Suicide Girls” were tattooed and pierced, relatively few had bodies that matched the surgically-enhanced proportions of women in mainstream porn. The “girls” had their own photos on the sites, and kept journals as well–often including cultural and political commentary that went far beyond what might be found in, say, Playboy. The attitude was one of a certain kind of youthful, feminist edginess….

I’ve made it clear that I am deeply troubled by pornography. The fact that I insist on making the unfashionable claim that visual erotica has a corrosive and destructive influence on society does not mean, however, that I can’t make distinctions! Different kinds of porn trouble me for different reasons. Obviously, pornography/erotica that emphasizes the humanity and the agency of the people depicted in it is preferable to porn that treats women or men as disposable objects. By the same token, porn that has a broader and more inclusive range of body types is, in some sense, less objectionable than porn that provides examples of only one unattainable ideal. But “less objectionable” is thin praise indeed, at least as far as I’m concerned.

On the other hand, one of the things that I find even more objectionable about sites like the Suicide Girls is that they’ve dressed up porn in the language of rebellion and female empowerment. In a sense, this is where I find the likes of Larry Flynt (publisher of Hustler) to be less offensive than men like Sean Suhl of Suicide Girls. Flynt doesn’t pretend he’s empowering his models; he embraces raunch with a bracingly candid enthusiasm that even his detractors often find to be–almost–winsome. Fellas like Suhl are out to make money off women’s bodies in much the same way Flynt is, but in Suhl’s case, greed seems hidden behind the rhetoric of edginess, alternative culture, and a rather shallow feminism. It’s hard to respect that. And if many of the women of Suicide Girls have caught on to what’s going on, then I can’t say I’m not pleased. [emphasis in original]

I’ve had three students in the past few years tell me, through journals in my women’s studies classes, that they were among the hundreds of Suicide Girls. (No, I didn’t verify their claims by visiting the site.) As I’ve written before, I’ve had a number of both current and former sex workers of one kind or another in my classes. Some have described their experiences as horrific; others as exciting and empowering; others as “just a job.” Of course, I’ve probably had far more than I know of, as it’s not the sort of thing everyone feels comfortable disclosing. I’m respectful of those whose experiences in the “industry” have been positive. There are few things more absurd than a pro-feminist man trying to convince an adult woman that she’s being exploited when she’s quite convinced she’s not! I won’t try and play that game.

But to be a feminist is about more than individual empowerment. Young women who defend certain niches of the porn industry as woman-friendly must be willing to ask hard questions about who really controls sites like the Suicide Girls. They also have to be willing to consider not just the impact on the individual models/performers, but on the broader culture. The fact that doing a shoot for Suicide Girls makes you feel empowered doesn’t mean that the audience masturbating to your pictures is going to recognize you as any more of a human being than if you had done a shoot for, say, Hustler! Authentic feminism asks us to consider how others might interpret our actions. Our good intentions are not enough. We have to be mindful of the broader context, of the repercussions, of everything we do. [emphasis in original]

4 thoughts on “Hugo Schwyzer: ‘Suicide Girls’, Empowering to Women?

  1. Feminist Credentials of “Suicide girls”?

    excuse me for a second..
    “bwa ha ha ha ha ha ha….”

    That shit was put together by the patriarchist pigs at Vice Magazine, really does it take a professor to tell us its garbage? COME ON!

    This is the problem that i have with what passes for “third wave discourse…” sorry, but that was too much.

    You people at no porn northhampton rock though, whoever you are!( Suspect there is a gang from Smith college involved somewhere here)…lol. I have 2 Words for Suicide Girls.
    The first word is Catharine.

  2. Honestly, can’t a woman do what she wants? Suicide Girls is ART, not PORN. These women are art in motion, not porn-stars. They’re showing society that mainstream beauty isn’t the only kind of beauty there is. Yeah, they’re naked.

    Guess what? Underneath our clothes — WE’RE ALL NAKED!!!!!!

    Try not to look at yourself when you’re in the shower, for heaven’s sake! You could poison your mind!!

    Balderdash. I know you won’t post this, but I had to get it off my chest. Suicide Girls is art, not porn. It’s in pin-up girl style, but it’s more of a statement than chicken-choke material.

    And who cares what the audience thinks about it? Someone could masturbate to a photo of a flower, that doesn’t mean that the flower is porn. And what about all artistic nudes? I’m sure SOME people masturbate to them, too. That, similarly, doesn’t make them porn.

    Get real. Suicide Girls rock.

  3. It’s inaccurate to imply that most of today’s porn is produced in an egalitarian way or conveys egalitarian messages of love, art, eroticism and empowerment such as parts of Suicide Girls might. This is the same whitewash strategy employed by Peter Brooks at TalkBackNorthampton (porn=high art painting) or Libby Spencer at Last One Speaks (porn=century old sepia erotica photograph). Have a look instead at the porn produced and/or sold by major corporations like Hustler, Playboy or Capital Video.

    I agree that art exists and erotica exists, but porn is neither. Porn is not sex-positive. It is violence-positive and abuse-positive. You assume consent, but most porn isn’t really big on portraying consent and mutuality. It’s about power, dominance, and coercion. Let’s check in with porn producer Lizzy Borden about the role of “lovey-dovey stuff” in the porn industry:

    The idea that women don’t make good directors is a commonly held belief
    in the porn industry, [Borden] says, because women “shoot all the soft
    stuff, all the lovey-dovey stuff that there’s not a big market for. In
    the video stores, that’s not what you go see: You want to see hardcore
    ass-fucking, DP [double-penetration], cum, piss, shit, whatever you
    can.”

    This site gives people the tools to decide for themselves what’s porn and what’s erotica. Let’s revisit our FAQ on this subject:

    • Porn vs. Erotica

      We distinguish porn, which is generally harmful, from erotica, which
      can be harmless or even beneficial. The distinction is not absolute,
      but we suggest that erotica is that which supports love, and porn is
      that which destroys love. An article in The Guardian suggests that porn is much more about power and domination than erotica is.

      Here are some characteristics we associate with porn:
      mechanical
      mindless
      uncaring
      exploitative
      imbalance of power
      lack of consent
      taking without permission
      selfish
      careless
      heedless
      simplistic
      shallow
      objectifying
      deceptive
      cheating
      violating
      rough
      harsh
      inflicting pain
      degrading
      humiliating
      unloving
      actors not proud of product
      actors disdain audience

      Here are some characteristics we associate with erotica:
      humane
      mindful
      caring
      respectful
      communicative
      listening
      consensual
      balance of power
      mutual pleasure
      integrity
      wholeness
      sharing
      thoughtful
      deep feelings
      loving
      actors proud of product
      actors respect audience

      A complex work of art may have characteristics from both groups. It
      might be hard to apply a simple label to it. However, most porn is not
      that complex. You will not find much Henry Miller or Anais Nin in your
      typical porn shop.

      While erotica may empower women, porn disempowers them. This is easy to see in the workplace, where porn has been used to harass and intimidate female coworkers.

      Ultimately, the biggest difference between porn and erotica has to do with the long-term effect on the viewer, as well as the conditions
      under which the entertainment was made. By educating people as to the
      potential harms of adult materials, we hope they can look inside
      themselves to judge the healthiness of their media diet.

      The following might be signs of unhealthy consumption of porn:

      You feel guilty, ashamed, alienated, sad, confused, unsatisfied, or angry after viewing porn.

      You’re afraid other people might discover what you’re watching.

      You experience negative consequences at work from your consumption of porn, or you fear possible consequences.

      You start looking at pretty people purely as sex objects that you’d like to possess.

      You treat people the way you see people in pornography treated.

      You become more hostile or aggressive toward other people in your life.

      You find that you are becoming increasingly critical of other people’s physical imperfections.

      You find it stimulating when porn performers appear to be experiencing pain, or are crying.

      You notice your relationships, particularly your intimate ones, becoming unstable, coarse and conflict-ridden.

      You become dissatisfied with how your partner expresses himself or herself sexually.

      You need to remember images or scenes from pornography in order to have sex with someone.

      When you are having sex with someone, images or scenes you’ve seen in
      pornography “get in the way”–they come into your mind and won’t go
      away, even if you want them to.

      You find that you prefer spending time alone with porn, rather than engaging with a companion or attempting to find one.

      You sense that you are not growing emotionally as time passes, that you are stuck in habits that are not very satisfying.

      You find that you have to consume more and more porn, or more explicit and violent porn, to become stimulated.

      You experience unwelcome attention from the law due to your porn consumption or sexual activities.

      [Some of the above appears in Men Confront Pornography, p.294]

      ——–
      Clinician M. Douglas Reed offers further warning signs of porn addiction here.

      ——–
      Robert Jensen offers these definitions of pornography in Pornography: The Production and Consumption of Inequality (p.3):
      “Pornography is the material sold in pornography shops for the purpose
      of producing sexual arousal for mostly male customers… Second, from a
      critical feminist analysis, pornography is a specific kind of sexual
      material that mediates and helps maintain the sexual subordination of
      women.”

      ——–
      The films sold by Capital Video appear to us to be firmly on the porn side of the spectrum. They are violent, misogynistic, and promote despair and infidelity.

      Porn is education–bad education.

Leave a Reply