Feminist Pornography?: Towards a Socialist-Feminist Approach

On July 8 self-described feminist pornographer Tristan Taormino was a panel member on the Melissa Harris-Perry talk show discussing “Porn in America” with others such as Michael Eric Dyson and Zephyr Teachout. Self-described anti-pornography feminist Gail Dines created something of a buzz as she objected that her viewpoint – which she takes to speak for all women’s real interests – wasn’t represented on this program. Betty Dodson responded in Taormino’s defense against Dines’ brand of feminism, thus re-opening the question of how can feminists be so polarized on this point? Even more broadly, what is the status of feminism and sexual emancipation in our time?

Pornography is a product, a commodity that is bought and sold on the market. Its production shares common features with other media productions, most notably that of the glamor magazine and the live-action video/film industry. Gail Dines’ view that pornography requires a sustained protest by feminists and their allies against its creation begs the question of whether such action might be called for against glamor magazines and other media productions that employ people in displays of their bodies with or without clothing. Does Dines consider Playboy magazine – the largest selling porn magazine, even in this era of ready availability of much more explicit kinds – more of a threat to women’s freedom and equality than Cosmopolitan, which outsells Playboy by nearly double? If Playboy sells women’s nude bodies to men, Cosmopolitan sells women an ideal of sexuality and womanhood that is not that much different.

Perhaps Dines does care about opposing Playboy and even Cosmo, but in her public lectures her most intense animus is directed against video and film pornography that directly pays women to engage in sexual acts for the camera with other actors who are also paid. For Dines, the fact that a visual recording is being made of a sexual act for a profit elevates the risk of harm that all women face as they daily defend themselves against a male-dominated sexually aggressive culture. One might ask whether there are other live-action visual media that also contribute to this culture in Dines’s view? Did the Oscar-winning film The Accused in which Jodie Foster’s character is gang-raped in the final scene in a bar elevate the risks of male aggression against women? Did it perhaps contribute a critique of male aggression? Might feminist pornography create such a contrast to male-dominated sexuality?

Addressing that male-dominated sexuality brings one to the question of male aggression and violence, specifically the sexualized violence of rape. Tristan Taormino’s most popular porn videos are her Rough Sex series which features couples engaging in various mildly sado-masochistic scenarios. What sets this series apart from most in the genre is that each scene is created by the lead actress, who is filmed in an interview with Taormino beforehand. All the hair-pulling, verbal sparring, sexual coercion, and other aspects of the scenes are planned by women and directed by a woman. Not all scenes are of men as aggressors, since a significant number feature men or women being dominated by their female partners. While not all feminist pornography is quite so fixated on sexual aggressiveness, Taormino’s approach offers a window into the questions that feminists ask about rape as a social force, but does it really answer the questions? If some or even many women find male sexual aggression erotically desirable, does that place the desire itself above criticism? Do some women’s fantasies of being forced into sex against their will truly reflect an innate aspect of sexual desire, or rather of the fact that men already are in power, so sexually egalitarian and consensual relationships are impossible or perhaps too bland to be deeply enjoyable?

If Gail Dines overestimates the centrality of pornography in the structure of male domination, Tristan Taormino underestimates the pervasive power of male dominance and how it obstructs the struggle of women for genuine social equality. The problem with censoring pornography is the problem of censorship in general, it gives those who already have power a warrant to apply that power to further restrict critical discourse about the structure of our society, including its sexual dynamics. The limitation of feminist pornography in furthering women’s emancipation is that the power men exercise over women isn’t primarily located in the bedroom. Male domination is structured throughout our economic, political, cultural, and social institutions. Men possess more wealth, hold more political offices, control the production of culture, and maintain social influence that outweighs women in nearly all arenas.

Furthermore, this male dominance is not equally distributed. Men are not all elite masters of their own fate. Most men share with most women in a variety of conditions of exploitation, disempowerment, and repression, albeit in significantly distinctive ways. The systemic structure of sexuality in our society is intertwined with a broader complex of social power systems. Dines’ radical feminist viewpoint eliminates this complexity so that the very fact of pornography is reductively seen as a creation of men purely for the purpose of maintaining sexual control over women. However, which men are doing this creation? If women create their own feminist pornography are they incapable of shaping an alternative viewpoint to male domination? Dines would deny this, since in her view, all men seemingly collaborate to repress all women, and her central emancipatory project is to stop men from creating any pornography at all.

One of the unusual features of the modern history of sexual power is that the rise of pornography has coincided with relative increases in the social power of women. If one compares the status of women at the beginning of the feminist movement at the 1839 Seneca Falls Convention to today’s situation, only someone with ideological blinders would say that women now have less power than in 1839. This suggests that male domination isn’t tied mechanically to the creation of pornography. In fact, most women tolerate pornography, even if they don’t view it themselves or even personally find all of it offensive. Especially more younger women have come to consider it part of their sexual development.

The relative gains in women’s power over the past 119 years are not because men have decreased their view of women as sexual objects, but because they have decreased their view of women as slaves to motherhood. The justification by the Right throughout the past century for confining women to subservient roles has been carried out as a defense of the sacredness of the family and a central division of labor within it. Christian ideology about the male as God’s chosen leader in the home serves to enforce a life of cultural and social deprivation upon women. This is justified because children seemingly deserve a full-time caregiver who must be a woman divinely outfitted for this task. This logic has been shaken, especially for women of the middle and upper classes who now expect to become college educated and enter the workforce. Poorer women have always been denied the full-time mothering role. Concomitantly, these newly privileged women have themselves begun to rethink the question of their sexual fulfillment and to divorce sexuality from this nostalgic notion of romance and domestic bliss.

Of course, this de-romanticizing of motherhood has actually not been carried out in such a way as to equalize male and female participation in child-rearing, but rather by the creation of a laboring class of women to carry out this function, daycare workers and in-home babysitters. It would seem that yet more radical changes need to be made in the gender dynamics of society before we can truly emancipate all women. Battling against all pornography, feminist or not, seems a distraction from this larger project.

In fact, if one returns to the question of pornography as a product that requires labor to create, the disparity between male and female contribution to this product seems to harbor similar imbalances as childrearing. Men are the main consumers, the overwhelming majority of porn directors, of screenwriters, keep the lion’s share of profits, and are the primary driving force behind the industry on nearly all levels. Feminist pornography tries to redress at least some of these imbalances, and feminists could do more by advocating for sex worker rights, supporting legislated labor standards, encouraging women to exercise their civil rights in cases of job discrimination, elevate healthcare standards, greater unionization, and other forms of activism that not surprisingly parallel the general needs of all workers in our late capitalist economy.

Replacing the cultural regime of compulsory motherhood with either the reclamation of “slut” as a badge of honor or by empowering middle class women to rise into positions of power within capitalism seems to leave the majority of women still trapped in the lower tiers of a wildly stratified social order with the majority of men who also reside there. Social inequalities of class, race, and political power frame, structure, and frustrate the quest for human fulfillment, sexual and otherwise, for most of the world’s men and women. Feminism definitely has a central role in this task, if it can break out of its middle-class captivity and achieve radical solidarity with its sisters and brothers below.

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