Does Porn Demean Women?

I don’t think this is a very helpful question.

Porn is a compendium of human fantasies about sexuality—and, therefore, about power, pleasure, connection, anger, fear, gender, desire, beauty, comfort, and the exotic, and many other things.

Of course, human sexuality involves enormous doses of imagination. That’s part of what gives it so much impact in our lives.

So when some people criticize that “porn demeans women” I wonder if they’re objecting to men’s and women’s sexual imaginations, or men’s and women’s sexual behavior, or to some hypothesized interaction between the two.

A small amount of porn depicts male characters committing violent acts against female characters who seem to be suffering. Watching this appears to be erotic for some men (and more than a few women). Some people don’t like this fact—a fact that shouldn’t be blamed on porn. Do these depictions “demean women?” No. They are fictional portrayals that many people find distasteful, which is a quite different thing. They show situations, emotions, behaviors—and yes, sometimes cruelty—drawn from the human sexual imagination.

This material represents a very small amount of pornography, precisely because most consumers do not find such things erotically engaging—which is the whole point of watching porn.

On the other hand, some amount of porn depicts characters engaged in erotic power play: teasing, spanking, constraining, controlling, pretend coercion. Men and women have found stories, music, or pictures of such things exciting throughout history. And many lovers do these or related activities in real life. In the world of human sexuality, power is a primary currency, so our sexual imagination is rich with it.

This power dynamic in consenting relationships is paradoxical: two people cooperatively agree to divide up power in an asymmetrical way for a specified time period (the asymmetrical arrangement typically ends when the sex is finished, sometimes even sooner). For erotic purposes, they then pretend this division of power is real and not under their control. So regardless of handcuffs or stern words or candle wax, this dynamic really exists only in the imagination. Depicting this visually is an artistic challenge, whether for pornography or Sharon Stone, for Andy Warhol or Fellini.

So does porn demean women?

(There’s overt violence in mainstream TV, films, and video games. The vast majority of it is directed toward men. While there are voices decrying violence in media, I don’t hear anyone claiming that that violence “demeans men.”)

Overt violence in porn (NOT the pretend coercion of sexual games common in both porn and real-life sex) is of interest to a very small number of consumers. Aside from that, what else does porn typically depict that activists such as Gail Dines, Pamela Paul, and Melissa Farley critique as demeaning to women?

Fictional depictions of female lust. Female sexual desire. Female exhibitionism. Female submission. Female domination. Women flaunting their bodies. Woman-woman sex. Women taking joy in their sexual pleasure. Women taking joy in their partner’s pleasure. Women enjoying sex without being in love. Women valued as sexual partners without reference to their intelligence or sensitivity—and women valuing men in exactly the same way.

Why would anyone object to any of these fictional depictions? If those things are demeaning to women, how wholesome, how puerile, how stripped of eroticism does a woman’s sexuality need to be before activists like John Stoltenberg, Rebecca Whisnant, Catherine MacKinnon say it is not “demeaning” to her?

* * *

To say that porn demeans women is to deny the reality of some women’s passion, lust, and desire. It’s to say that women never enjoy what men enjoy. It’s to say that women don’t enjoy playing games with their sexuality, including power games. It’s to say that women shouldn’t be who they are or enjoy who they are, but that they can only enjoy “authentic” sexuality within limited (and historically stereotypical) bounds.

This is NOT feminism.

Saying that men are exploiting women when men are enjoying female eroticism is what demeans women. It objectifies women and cheapens the erotic world they create. To say that women are being exploited when a male gaze is enjoying their pleasure or enjoying images of female eroticism is to rip the partners’ collaboration out of sex. It actually says that female sexuality is defined by the male gaze, that the male gaze trivializes female eroticism. No, female eroticism has its own authenticity and integrity whether men are observing or not—meaning yes, it has authenticity even when men are observing.

Exactly what version of (1) female sexuality and of (2) male-female erotic interaction is being promoted by pathologizing female passion, and the male enjoyment of it?

Does this mean a woman can’t dress sexy for her lover? Can’t dance for her lover? That a woman can’t give her body to her lover? Does it mean that women have to control their eroticism lest it excite men too much? Does it mean men and women can’t play power games in bed? That they can’t use sex to pretend they are different creatures than they actually are?

If—if—in the act of watching a porn film a man reduces the actress to a body, to an object, why is this bad? If it is, why then is it OK to watch Meryl Streep work—with her fake accents, wig, and scripted lines, who is merely a vessel for the ideas of the playwright and director? And why then is it OK to watch professional athletes, dancers, and singers, who indeed sacrifice their health and comfort to train and then perform for us? If the answer is, “because our objectification of athletes and other performers takes place within a specific space,” the same is true for pornography.

Do we care about the person inside of LeBron James, Serena Williams, Miley Cyrus? Do we really care when Kobe Bryant says his abused knees won’t let him get on the floor to play with his kids, or that Britney Spears or Bristol Palin make a series of bad life choices—as long as they entertain us? For that matter, do I care about my letter carrier as a person, or do I only care that she does her job, no matter how much her feet hurt, or her back’s being injured?

The issue of relating to people merely as impersonal entities performing a task is a fundamental critique of capitalism, and it’s worth a discussion. But porn didn’t invent this problem. And if this dynamic seems “worse” because sex is involved, that reflects our attitude about sexuality rather than a sophisticated analysis. It does NOT represent some special kind of compassion for people who perform in adult films—who, by the way, aren’t asking for anyone’s special compassion. They want what the cashiers at Wal-Mart want—a raise, better health insurance, and the flexibility to leave work early when their kid gets sick.

If men get inaccurate ideas about women from porn, does it mean that porn demeans women? Virtually all media products depend on exaggerated or selective portrayals of human beings—from Euripedes’ Medea 2500 years ago to the Bronte Sisters, the Merchant of Venice, Sherlock Holmes, the Supremes, and John Wayne, for starters. The National Football League provides inaccurate ideas about men every Sunday.

Should we stop watching movies, professional sports, video games, Broadway productions? Stop listening to music, stop looking at paintings? No. To best enrich our lives by consuming the creations of imaginary worlds by artists or performers we value, we simply need a bit of media literacy—not to stop watching or listening.

Although a small amount of pornography depicts gruesome behavior, not only does porn not demean women, it celebrates female sexuality—typically without the culturally redemptive context of love, relationship, intimacy, etc.. This is what people from across the political spectrum find so upsetting. Demeaning to women—that women are imagined as truly sexual beings? Really?

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