TRIGGER WARNING: This post contains reference to sexual violence and violence against women.
This blog post began to germinate amid All That Debate it became obligatory to have last year, about badly written slash and the way that it gave mainstream traction to abuse narratives in erotica “for women.” I haven’t linked to any reviews here because it was so long ago that I’ve lost my tabs on any interesting commentary and I am… NOT wading through everything The Internet has to say on the subject to get to it again. My final conclusion on that particular text was that it’s a trigger-fest of abuse narratives and misogyny, and that I don’t really find it surprising that women’s erotica, when it finally crossed over into being culturally normal (at least for a while) did it in an officially-published, best-seller way. Because guess what? We love to marketise women’s sexuality. If we’re going to have to admit that women have some kind of sexual volition, it had better be packaged, glossy, expensive, in a competetive market. Something you can obviously read on a train, you know? Something to be seen with and therefore culturally constructed by. No point having private sexuality, all shut away in the bedroom like.
So I think that marketisation – of our bodies, our desires – is part of the reason that the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon was possible, if not inevitable. I also think it’s important that the naturalisation of porn-for-gurlz happened in novel form, rather than in hardcore movies or photographs of the kind that we instinctively think of when someone uses the word “porn.” It isn’t just because female sexual identity is a commodity that we’re supposed to compete to buy (from Ann Summers, from Victoria’s Secrets, hell from Durex, with these babies). It’s also because, with the exception of a very few websites and film companies, women’s perspectives, variant as they are, are closed out of hardcore pornography. Of course I’m not saying NO WOMAN HAS EVER FOUND A HARDCORE MOVIE AROUSING. That would be an unevidencible nonsense and, even from a personal perspective, a lie.
I have to play the “in my younger and more vulnerable days” card there: I have watched mainstream hardcore pornography, filmed and distributed for a male audience and adherent to patriarchally constructed conceptions of sex. Of course I have also had, and enjoyed, “patriarchally constructed” sex: radical sex and re-definitions of sex didn’t come into my life until a) after I came out as a woman-who-sleeps-with-women, and b) until I became conscious of violations of consent in my own, and in my friends’, relationships. When you’re queer and you can’t stand what’s being done to you socially and when you’re a woman – probably any individual – who can’t stand what’s being done to you personally, you start to think about things differently, and I ABSOLUTELY SURE AS ALL HELL wouldn’t watch random internet spit-roasting/ skull-fucking/ probable rape and abuse right now.
This is where this blog-post changes direction. A lot of my activist life (roughly 2001 – 5, then 2007 – 11. Possible resurgence on cards.) was spent working on sex workers’ rights, their recognition and the way they’re treated within the women’s movement and in the world at large. I’ve had to cut something from this wall of text, so I’ve cut further discussion about the role of sex-workers in pornography – but I’d like to talk about it A Lot More later, is why. Also I’m never going to think boycott or banning will be a good way to proceed because I am in every instance opposed to courses of action that make vulnerable people more vulnerable, and by criminalisation makes already-tabboo professions more marginal, and de-regulated. Consensual pornography is possible and does exist. That doesn’t stop much of the industry being founded in rape, abuse and coercion.
With that in mind, I’m switching over from “How-I-got-here” mode, to What I Think About When I Think About Porn. To frame some questions for myself, and hopefully open up some debates. Who knows? First ever post right here! So I want to talk about: Women’s Volition and the Theoretical Porn argument; the “Pornification” of Every-Day Sex; Fictional Porn, Sex and Capitalism; Sex Education for Social Change.
STUFF THAT’S NECESSARY BUT NOT INTERESTING.
Women like porn. Or – women like sexy pictures of people being sexy, which isn’t synonymous with MOST PORN. (At least many women do. Some women never did. Some women have been so traumatised by abuses in the real world that they don’t anymore.) Many of us? Hells yeah. Totally into that.
I believe that it is possible for adults to do more or less anything with one another’s bodies, and take pictures or make films of it, and share them with other adults, with absolutely everyone involved at every level giving total consent to what is happening. So no, I am not “anti-porn” in that sense. Let’s knock that one on the head and move forward now.
THE “PORNIFICATION” OF EVERYDAY SEX.
Pornification is a horrific word that I picked up off the Kind Of Feminists I Tend To Disagree With, but it’s got a lot of cultural traction in the debate it seems, so… I’ll pinch it, thanks.
I recently realised that social expectations of what (hetero) sex is going to be like have changed radically even in the short time since I started being involved in it. As my friend succinctly put it in conversation not so long ago, “I mean… when did doggy-style become first-date sex?” The particular position isn’t important: see my prevous comment about things people can consensually do together. What matters is that, in general, we now do more stuff with less conversation. Obviously, the lifting of taboos can be a great and emancipatory thing; however, I think the assumption that everyone is or should be willing to perform physically or emotionally demanding acts without prior discussion is enormously problematic, and in fact very quickly becomes a conversation about whether common cultural standards of consent are anywhere near good enough, or whether we allow conceptions of what’s likely to be expected to colour what we are willing to do, without due consideration of what we, as subjective individuals, would actually like to do, at this moment in time.
I think that this change has come about because of the internet – more people have more access to more pornography, and it’s become more normal for younger people, especially men, to have been exposed to it. It’s also of course in part because I’m getting older: sex isn’t such a massively big debate every time, because there’s a higher expectation that everyone involved will have some experience. Assumed experience is also the fault of a culture that fetishizes sex and defines us in terms of our gender and our relationship to it, and pornography reinforces this process.
Not talking about sex, assuming a common familiarity with certain pornographic tropes and defaulting to them, is one aspect of porn culture that’s saddening because it stops people from having the sex they want to have, and, by repeating this process, stops us from being able to have the conversation about the kind of sex we want to have. This is also something that cuts both ways down the gender divide: we are all performing acts the we think other people want us to based on an externally constructed idea of sex. Since I started calling this stuff out in my own life, probably a little over a year ago, literally every time I’ve said, “Hey that thing you might do Because Porn? Don’t do it with me,” the men I’ve been talking to have said, “Whut really? Oh thank god, I hate that shit.” Which is probably in part because, with age/ experience, I’ve gotten marginally better at identifying partners I’m likely to be compatible with, and in part because pretty much everything we do that has to do with sex and gender is a performance we’ve learned from social observation – and many of the things we’ve observed are miles from being the things we actively want.
FICTIONALLY CONSTRUCTED SEX UNDER CAPITALISM.
Pornography is fictional sex. Okay the acts are actually being performed by the actors, the sex workers; but they’re part of a fictional narrative, and the people having the sex, the characters, aren’t any more real than the characters in Moby Dick, and they are considerably less well realised. And it’s a cheap, easy, mainstream fiction that is designed to sell. It’s my belief it’s not just The Internet that’s made more and more extreme types of pornography more easily available, and therefore shifted the norm a long way towards male gratification at the expense of everything else, caricaturing of women and of power roles and dramatization of violence, but rather our consumerist desire to be getting MORE from every product we consume. We want it bigger, harder, more dominant, more extreme – until masturbatory response to pornography becomes essentially codified, rather than relating to our subjective experience of the things we’re looking at. I hold the same thing to be true for the predominance of bad fiction across contemporary culture: if it’s big and bold and easy to read, and doesn’t challenge either syntax or cultural hegemony in any significant way, it will sell. And just like women’s careers are reduced to the point of parody in pink-covered books, so sex is parodied by pornography. There are other elements at play here, but I think this is a big one that isn’t much talked about.
Of course, sex is also a cultural taboo – and one of the only easily available resources we have for “learning” about it, is pornography: and so begins our tendency to repeat pornographic acts, parrot-fashion, with actual human beings in our own sex lives. Without a good apparatus for talking about this – it is notoriously hard to talk about sex, especially with somebody you’re fucking – we endemicise traits that are at worst, seriously damaging, and at best… not really conducive to good (i.e., enjoyed by everyone) sex or honest inter-personal relationships.
SEX EDUCATION FOR SOCIAL CHANGE.
If we’re being kept from having sex that’s even better than the sex we’re already having by the fact that we don’t have a sufficient framework for talking about it, we have to address that. And if we’re inhabiting a culture – which we are – that gives one gender an upper hand certainly in terms of decision-making about sex, if not in subjective appraisal of it, then we sure as shit need to change that too. Pornography isn’t the only element in constructing the patriarchy, but because it’s aimed at men, more men are using it than women; because of poor communications around sex, it’s serving as a kind of sex education. Specifics aside, the message of most mainstream pornography (as far as I know) is “what matters is your own, male pleasure: How To Please Yourself.” What women are getting, from similarly mainstream magazines, is “How To Please Your Man”: the two sides of the coin are supporting the currency.
I’m going to take it as read that most people who have any sympathy with anything I’ve written here, also believe that sex education should happen, in all schools, should be compulsory, begin at a young age and have nothing whatever to do with any private institutions and their own agendas. Further to that, I think that it should have an increased emphasis on the following points:
- CONSENT. Saying yes and saying no.
- SEXUALITY. And respect. And rainbow possibilities.
- GENDER. Non-binary approaches and not making assumptions about what someone thinks from the package.
- CONSENT. Hearing yes and hearing no, not applying pressure.
- CONSENT. Discussing active desires: “Do you wanna…”
- PRIVILEGE. And checking it. Men not expecting women to apologise if they don’t want to go out with them/ sleep with them etc.
- HEALTH AND SAFETY. AIDS, STDs, HPV and Ovarian Cancer.
- FAMILY PLANNING.
What I can’t see under the present system is any way to bring this into effect. Section 28 is being snuck back in under the radar by the government and they’re doing everything they can, through academy and free school systems, to take this kind of basic fucking being-a-human-being training out of schools’ hands. They let Nadine Dorries near an important decision-making process and nearly put us all at the whim of the Christian Right. But I think we can make spaces to talk about this stuff amongst our adult selves, as well as with our own children, right? I mean, I know that organisations like Feminist Fightback, who have been discussing sex and relationship education for a long time, do just that; but it’s not only feminists who need this apparatus. They’re just at the head of the curve in identifying the problems: that’s what “feminism” as a theoretical discourse is for.
This is a long post, and not totally linear. That’s because I’ve been sitting on some of this stuff for years, waiting to be brave enough to shout it at the world. So I’ll finish with an exchange I had with a friend, when I told him I was writing this:
“I’m writing a huge long article about porn.”
“Because you think porn is an important vehicle for social betterment?”
“Because I don’t see why it shouldn’t be – but I see why it isn’t.”