3 reasons the war on porn is really a war on women

When it comes to porn, some unlikely political groups are united in their hatred of women.

Mar 1, 2020, 3:42 pm*

Internet Culture

 

S.E. Smith

The hatred of porn claims to be all about protecting women: Rescuing innocent women from exploitation, looking out for the safety of female performers, and ensuring that society remains clean and wholesome so women aren’t rampantly abused by sex-maddened men. Critics of porn also usually cite the “think of the children” argument, but at its core, the anti-porn movement is focused on misogynistic attitudes about women, female pleasure, and empowerment for women who choose to work in the sex industry.

Porn haters form sometimes uneasy and unlikely alliances; one of the few places, for example, where radical feminists and conservatives are willing to share the table is when they’re meeting to talk about porn. They’re united in one simple cause, that of abolishing porn, and it often involves punishing women along the way. No matter the origins of anti-porn attitudes, the core belief underlying them is usually the same: Women are not autonomous and able to make their own decisions, so wiser people need to do it for them.

Here are three examples of how a movement to “save” women really just ends up targeting them instead.

1) The great British sex act ban of 2014

News broke this week that the Audiovisual Media Services Regulations for 2014 in barred a truly bizarre assortment of sex acts from U.K.-produced porn. Notably, the list included things like female ejaculation, fisting, and face-sitting, suggesting that Britain’s censors have a problem with women getting off. That issue doesn’t extend to male pleasure, as men can still freely ejaculate all over womentalk about a double standard. 

As Lauren Razavi put it at the New Statesman, “Regulating depictions of these acts—those relating directly to female sexual pleasure—makes it seem like society is at risk from exposure to women’s enjoyment of sex, at least according to the government.”

Apparently the British government believes that female pleasure and sexuality are dangerous, to the point that it wishes to regulate them out of existence in adult-oriented materials people consume for their own personal enjoyment. By setting female pleasure up as something furtive, it also cultivates a culture of shame, suggesting that women should be embarrassed by their sexuality. Furthermore, the regulations also attacked kinky Britons by banning a number of BDSM-related activities, including caning, spanking, and choking—another reminder that those from marginal communities are not welcome to express their sexuality.

Rebecca Vipond Brink at Bustle elegantly states the problems with the BDSM ban embedded within the larger list: “The language around it makes it seem like submissives don’t know what they actually want, like they’ve been bamboozled by their dominant and have to be saved by vanilla society with laws like the U.K.’s porn production ban. In reality, their dominant is far less abusive to them than a government that tells them that their sexual desire is wrong, that it’s shameful, that it’s violating them when the only entity violating them is, in fact, the government.”

2) Anti-porn radical feminists

One of the most virulently anti-porn communities for decades has been that of the radical feminist community. Radical feminists argue that porn is degrading to women, that sex work inherently feeds into the patriarchy, and even when women “claim” to be consenting or in fact empowered by their participation, they’re still being used and tricked by an abusive social paradigm. They rally for the abolition of porn specifically and sex work in general, suggesting that they’re saving women.

Feminists like Kathy Barry, Robin Morgan, Adrienne Rich, and Andrea Dworkin, as well as many others, are infamous for their aggressive, hardline stances on pornography. Through organizations like Women Against Pornography (WAM), they made their views on the subject clear starting in the 1960s, picketing adult businesses and protesting the sale of pornographic materials. 

“The battles are not between generations or waves (as some would argue),” says anti-porn feminist Gail Dines at the New Left Project, “but between those who adopt a radical understanding of power, institutions, capitalism, empire, and liberation, and those who seek safety in a more liberal, don’t-rock-the-boat ideology that celebrates individual empowerment over collective social change.”

Yet, this attitude is inherently patronizing, and bizarrely misogynist, coming from people who identify themselves as feminists, including anti-porn male feminists. It suggests that women are not capable of making informed choices for themselves, and that, instead, they need to be “rescued” by women who are wiser than they are. 

It also puts women in an inherently disempowered position with regard to their sexuality, turning sex and power into a play that inherently favors men by suggesting that women who have sex with men, especially for pay, are victims of the patriarchy.  “[W]hat is there not to love about a ‘feminist’ who fights for the rights of men to jerk off to porn?” Dines concludes in her crisp indictment of porn, highlighting the tensions between anti-porn feminists and their more moderate counterparts.

What’s not to love about a “feminist” who denies the lived experiences of women?

3) Conservatives

This might seem like an obvious inclusion on the list, and it is, but its inclusion is more complicated than the simple moral panic exhibited in the conservative community over anything conservatives don’t approve of when it comes to sexuality. It’s not simply that conservatives are uncomfortable around queer communities and don’t like people who have sex before marriage. They specifically target women’s rights—as evidenced by the “war on women“—and porn is one arena where this campaign is carried out.

It’s not enough for conservatives to punish women for being sexually active by denying access to birth control, limiting abortion rights, and shaming women who are open about their sexuality. Conservatives are also staunchly opposed to the porn industry, and especially offended by content that explores female pleasure, including not just mainstream porn that dares to depict women enjoying themselves, but indie porn with a feminist focus that addresses many of the concerns about exploitation and safety in mainstream porn. Indeed, female pleasure-focused porn provokes particular discomfort, as it suggests that sexuality should be a tool for pleasure, not just procreation.

Porn is often painted as a corrupting influence by conservatives. It’s blamed for rape, social discord, and more, with conservatives arguing that it should be abolished or at least curtailed in order to protect innocent members of society. Strikingly, conservative arguments against porn often sound like those of anti-porn feminists, right down to the argument that porn is harming young men and boys by exposing them to aggressive sexual imagery.

In a world where women face repeated attacks on their social autonomy and independence, it’s telling that such a broad spectrum of people think that curtailing their sexuality is an act of protection. Attempting to suppress the industry, and collapsing various types of porn—including exploitative and abusive examples—into one blurry mass, doesn’t help with the larger issue: How do we address violence against women, sexism, and the consequences of misogyny in society? The solution certainly doesn’t lie in censoring porn.

Photo via Frank Kovalchek/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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*First Published: Dec 3, 2014, 10:00 am