NPN’s Jendi Reiter reviews an essay by Rebecca Whisnant, “Confronting pornography: Some conceptual basics”. This essay is published in Christine Stark & Rebecca Whisnant, eds., Not for Sale: Feminists Resisting Prostitution and Pornography (North Melbourne, Australia: Spinifex Press, 2004, pp.15-27).
This is the first in a series of reviews of the essays in this book.
In “Confronting pornography”, Whisnant, a philosophy professor at the University of Dayton, addresses misconceptions about porn that prevent us from recognizing the seriousness of the problem. These include lack of awareness about the centrality of violence and humiliation in contemporary porn scenarios; a false distinction between porn and prostitution; and overemphasizing the “free choice” of porn performers.
Violent vs. Nonviolent Porn
Porn is not just images of sex. It’s a particularly distorted vision of sex, with a very predictable script and aesthetic conventions which eroticize dehumanization and violence. She writes:
It’s common for well-intentioned people to respond to feminist critiques of pornography by quickly intoning ‘Well, of course I’m against the violent stuff’. While the attempt to distinguish the ‘violent stuff’ from the rest of it was always a dicey proposition, ongoing changes in the content and emphasis of pornography have rendered the violent/nonviolent distinction almost entirely obsolete….Whisnant describes a typical image from a porn magazine, in which a naked woman is shown from behind, bent over a chair. “The woman’s anus is gaping and distended, misshapen, a black hole around an inch in diameter.” (p.18) She has obviously suffered serious physical damage from anal intercourse. But all we see of her is this body part, which is supposed to arouse us–her face, her humanity, are concealed. The porn aesthetic encourages us to separate sex from any concern for our sexual partners.
Some things in pornography never change: the body fragmentation, photographically cutting up women’s bodies into isolated and fetishized parts; the sexualizing of childhood and the infantilization of adult women; the contemptuous and mocking cartoons; the bondage; the rape myths; the vacant, taken-aback, and/or fearful expressions on the women’s faces. (p.17)
Porn & Prostitution
We’d like to think that porn is different from, and not as bad as, prostitution, but both are paid sex acts, often performed under the same conditions of inequality. “[M]any men who would regard patronizing a prostitute as beneath them see nothing wrong, pathetic or shameful in their use of pornography.” (p.19) While prostitution is illegal, porn is legal and even protected by the Constitution. Whisnant says this is a false distinction. “Pornography is the documentation of prostitution. It is a technologized form of prostitution–prostitution at one remove.” (p.19)
Think about it: a man who sells a woman’s sexual favors to one man at a time is obviously a pimp. Why is he any less of a pimp because he is selling a video of her paid sex acts to thousands or millions of other men? The woman is still having sex for money, just like a prostitute. The only difference is in the mind of the consumer, who can pretend he’s not a john because he doesn’t have to meet the woman face-to-face. (p.20)
The porn industry encourages and even glamorizes pimping by its consumers. Hence the growing market for “amateur” porn, explicit photos and videos of wives and girlfriends that men post on the Internet or send in to magazines like Hustler. Sometimes the women don’t even know that their images are being circulated. (p.21)
Freedom of Choice and Harmfulness
The argument that women freely choose to perform in porn films is often presumed to end all debate, but not every free choice is a good choice for one’s self or society.
The problem with porn is not that it’s offensive, but that it’s harmful. Offense is subjective, and can be avoided by refusing to look at the offending material. Harm is objective: to be made less safe, to have one’s interests set back. Women can be harmed by porn even if they are not aware of it. Mass consumption of porn creates a climate where women are more likely to be harassed, discriminated against, and treated as sex objects rather than real people. Porn performers also suffer long-term physical and emotional damage. (p.22)
What about women who choose to participate in porn? Whisnant acknowledges that feminists have overemphasized the coercion argument. It’s not helpful to blur the difference between actual compulsion and choices that are distorted by a woman’s lack of opportunities or sexual abuse history, serious as these problems are. Free choice is certainly better than being forced into the industry, but it is not the only relevant consideration. (p.23) She observes:
Rather than always putting ‘choice’ and ‘consent’ in scare-quotes, we need to clarify what does and does not follow from the observation that something is a choice, or is consensual. That something is chosen or consensual is perfectly consistent with its being seriously oppressive, abusive, and harmful–to oneself and or to a broader group of which one is a member (e.g. women). (p.23)In other words, a free choice can still be a bad choice. Individual choices also don’t exist in a vacuum. A woman’s decision to be a porn star may feel empowering to her, but if it helps normalize and perpetuate an industry that disempowers many other women, it’s not just a private matter. (p.24)
Moreover, our emphasis on the woman’s choice conveniently keeps the focus away from porn producers and consumers, and whether they are making harmful choices. The option of becoming a porn performer wouldn’t even exist if consumers didn’t create the demand for “a sub-class of women (and children, and men, and transgender people–but mostly women) who are available for their unconditional sexual service.” (p.25)
What We Can Do
“Men: don’t use pornography. Throw it away and start dreaming your own dreams.” (p.25) Women: demand that your intimate relationships be porn-free. How long would the industry last if women said they wouldn’t date, have sex with, or marry men who used porn? Imagine a sexual life that springs from your own individuality and personality, not one that’s controlled by loveless mass-produced fantasies. (p.26)
Coming tomorrow: Our review of Gail Dines, “King Kong and the white woman: Hustler magazine and the demonization of black masculinity”.