Most discussions of feminist views on porn separate positions on porn into categories such as libertarian feminists, anti-porn feminists and so on. While these categories are quite valid this lecture will suggest another kind of division based on the kinds of arguments that get used.
A: Arguments that could be applied to any media form.
Feminist critics of popular media could and do use any of these arguments against other examples of popular media — for example Cop Shows, Mills and Boon, Dolly magazine. The debate in each case is about whether the facts support the claims made in the argument.
1. Most porn is sold to men and presents women as sexual objects to cater for heterosexual men’s desire.
- A problem for feminists is that this pattern of media messages suggests that men are the only ones with active sexuality and women’s most significant social role is as the objects of men’s desire.
- Another media example would be ads for cars or tools that feature a woman as bait to interest the male customer.
- Counter arguments by pro-porn feminists would point to sexual objectification of men in Mills and Boon, Forum magazine etc. and would recommend this as an antidote to the problems of men’s pornography.
- Most feminists would agree that the gratuitous sexualisation of women throughout the media is a problem because women are not often enough presented in other roles. But pro-porn feminists would not see the sexualisation of women in porn as itself a problem.
2. A lot of porn is demeaning to women and anti-feminist. These messages are either in the porn itself or are presented in association with porn. For example many pictorial spreads of women are accompanied by a text that presents the model as stupid, naïve etc and uses patronising diminutives to indicate that she is less fully an adult that the reader of the text. Often porn is accompanied by nasty cartoons that suggest that older women are unattractive or editorials that rant against feminists.
- The same critique could be made of other items in the media, for example Ray Warren’s commentary on Susie O’Neill when she was swimming the world record in Butterfly — "Come on my girl"! Nevertheless porn is a site where these kinds of patronising and demeaning comments are common.
- Pro-porn feminists would agree that this feature of porn is disturbing but would not think that this kind of commentary was a necessary accompaniment of male porn.
3. Women as sexual objects in porn for men are almost always young, made-up, a certain body type etc.
- Feminist critics would object to this because attractiveness is being defined in ways that imply male power.
- For example, an older man with the social power that comes with age is encouraged by porn to see only young women as attractive — i.e. women whose youth makes them less powerful. Older women who are more likely to have social power and experience are stigmatized as unattractive.
- Make up is worn by women to signify that they are the objects of sexual desire but men do not wear it, meaning that men are the ones who act upon sexual desire, and are not sexual objects for women.
- Women are encouraged to judge themselves constantly as sexual objects and to spend time and attention on their appearance, rather than on the world of public affairs that preoccupies men.
- Clearly feminists often make these criticisms of other media forms such as women’s magazines but they also can be applied to porn. Pro-porn feminists would seek to widen pornography to avoid these stereotypes.
Other arguments of this type:
There are a number of other arguments against porn which are similar in that they have a structure which is analogous to other arguments in media analysis. E.g. that some porn involves violent fantasies in which men assault women [ the same argument could be used against horror movies or Mills and Boon]; that there is a causal link between porn consumption and sexual assault [similar to the argument that cigarette advertising causes lung cancer].
The point is that different feminists will have different opinions about whether these arguments apply or make a good case against pornography but there is nothing strange about them as arguments in the field of media analysis in general. Another thing about all these arguments is that they leave a loophole in which it is possible to believe that porn could be reformed in ways that feminists would approve.
B: Arguments which seem to make sense only when applied to pornography.
The point is that the minute you try to apply the following arguments to another kind of media form they immediately sound ridiculous. Their apparent merit as arguments derives from the support they get from people’s dislike of porn.
They get used by anti-porn feminists because they are knock down arguments — they imply that porn is necessarily and always bad no matter what the content.
So long as men are buying media products representing women and using them for sexual purposes, this whole process is anti-feminist, according to these arguments.
Dworkin and the Lederer collection are good sources for these arguments but they are quite widespread. It is rare that they are put clearly because their weirdness as arguments immediately becomes apparent.
- Women are "objectified" in porn.
i.e. because the man reading porn is stimulated by a physical object that represents a woman, he is led to believe that real women are just objects, whose only function is to stimulate men sexually.
This argument ignores the fact that a porn image is a representation, not a real person. If we apply an analogous argument to another media form it immediately seems ridiculous. For example, when we are watching Jurassic Park we see a picture of a Tyrannosaurus Rex on the screen. However we do not assume that a Tyrannosaurus is merely a flickering light.
We do not make assumptions about how to deal with a real dinosaur based on sensible decisions about how to deal with the movie image — stay in your seat and the dinosaur can’t get you.
- Because women are shown in porn as available to men, men are encouraged to think that real women are available to men, regardless of consent.
Men buy pictures of women and use them sexually. They are used regardless of consent because a picture does not say ‘yes’, or ‘no’ and it makes no sense to ask it what it wants. The argument says that men think that real women can be used like they use the picture.
This is just another version of the first argument. What men look at in porn is a representation of a woman. Their fantasy is that the woman pictured is available to them but they know that all that is really available to them is the representation.
In fact what is usually pictured in porn is women who want to have sex with men — the fantasy that men have is one of being wanted by a woman for sex. e.g. the shot of the woman with her legs spread looking at the viewer. So what is actually being represented here is not a woman who is available regardless of consent but a woman who wants to have sex.
As with the first argument, it looks very strange when you apply it to another form of media. Say I get a poster of Andrew Johns and hang it in the bathroom. I do this without consent. I do not ask the picture if it is OK if I hang it in the bathroom. The anti-porn argument implies that in doing this I must think I have a right to make Andrew Johns come and stand in my bathroom.