Pornography is an increasingly ubiquitous presence in society; its unprecedented accessibility makes it a source of heated debate. This essay will explore the morality of pornography. It will investigate the effects associated with the rise and availability of free porn that many believe has an inevitable effect on our sexual and social relations.
Sex is everywhere and moreover pornography has become so ubiquitous that 'porn culture' has seemingly infiltrated the public consciousness. Is pornography therefore an ‘evil force’ that is perpetuating stereotypes and providing the backdrop for the subjugation of women (amongst others)?
The fact that porn has become so readily available for free has led to a sharp decrease in the number of paying customers. This is reflected in pornography that is produced in the mainstream industry. Here, there is less money for productions and therefore the performers are not paid at the same level that they had been some years ago. There are more extreme acts on display, which may be due to lack of funds, reserving more extreme acts to porn that is paid for. Rashida Jones states that it is the ‘niche stuff that pays more, and the niche stuff is harder on your body.’ A 2010 study by Adult Video News reportedly found that most of the scenes from the top 50 rented films involved physical or verbal abuse towards the female performer. Others argue that more hardcore porn is a result of the onslaught of information which has desensitised us to more vanilla forms of pornography, with viewers expecting more shock value. Theorist Gail Dines remarks that this is due to pornography users eventually seeking out ‘more extreme acts as a way to keep them interested and stimulated.’
Gail Dines and Lierre Keith posit that porn culture is symptomatic of the wider subjugation of women. It is a visual representation in the most visceral manner of the endemic, systematic oppression of women (especially women of minority groups and non-gender binary women). It establishes the patriarchal value system and takes it to its logical conclusion, with interpersonal relations and interactions reduced to their most base level in which power is removed from the vulnerable, who are then taken advantage of. Pornography is not deemed the harbinger of the decline of 'civilised' society nor the root of a raft of social problems, but rather a cipher of the predatory patriarchal-capitalist society in which it is produced. In this way, pornography comes to represent the consequences of that system; a society demarcated by hierarchies in which many social interactions and relationships are delineated by a dynamic of domination versus subordination.
The emergence of violent porn (whether physical; hate porn or psychological; revenge porn) is viewed by some as emerging from the rise of free pornography. Reduced funding has meant that industry performers are often expected to perform more extreme acts in order to fulfil the insatiable demand of viewers. Furthermore, Gerard Schaefer, psychologist at the Institute for Sexual Psychology in Berlin, suggests that a performer's fear of being labelled 'difficult' plays a role in taking part in scenes that they are not necessarily comfortable with. This again can be attributed to a patriarchal system in which women feel the need to be unobtrusive. The paradoxical line between actual and staged violence is therefore blurred. Tabea Freitag, a trauma therapist, suggests that this line does not exist in the reality of those who work in the sex industry.
However, it can be argued that pornography is a form of empowerment. Why do people find it so shocking for women to have complete and full control over their body? The patriarchal value system is uncomfortable with a woman who is unashamed of her nakedness. A woman in full control, fully aware of her bodily autonomy and asserting her sexuality and sexual independence. This is a threat to the patriarchal hegemonic narrative; policing women's bodies and defining limiting rules on their sexuality is necessary in perpetuating their systematic oppression. To this end the expression of female sexuality also serves as a form of female liberation, reaffirming female independence. Those who asseverate their personal stance on pornography as a moral absolute, inferring that society at large should adhere to their viewpoint are refusing to respect and acknowledge a woman's individual voice and bodily autonomy, effectively repudiating a woman's right to choose - a central tenet of feminism.
At the heart of the new wave of independent pornography is consent. In a world where attention is being drawn to the propensity of ‘lad’ and ‘rape’ culture, to assert the rights of female bodily autonomy and to actively showcase healthy sexual relations is powerful.
Consent is sexy; pleasure is a turn on, ethically produced pornography showcasing consent and female pleasure is a powerful mechanism to counteract the pervasive rape culture (in addition to the manner in which the mainstream porn industry portrays sexual interactions).
The harm attributed to pornography, the lack of future career prospects, lasting emotional distress (as cited by Dines et al), can be (and have been by the likes of adult actresses Bree Olson, Erika Lust and theorist Emily Nagoski) attributed to the way in which society treats pornography and those involved in the industry rather than a symptom intrinsic to pornography itself.
Many lament the rise of the internet, believing it to be responsible for the death of eroticism and the harmful portrayal of sex which has lead to unhealthy sexual relations (a third of all internet traffic is pornography, this is an unmistakable reality). There is not enough communication around sexual relations and by extension pornography. Pornography is important in that it is the mode in which many first encounter sex, therefore the way it is produced and what it portrays is important.
Prominent porn decriers (theorists Julie Bindel, Gail Dines and Dr Julie Long) also suggest that pornography can be read as a construction of patriarchal capitalism. The feeling of 'needing' to watch pornography rather than merely desiring to do so comes from a system in which all things are commodities. They suggest that feminist pornography advocates have misread the system in which they exist, which reduces sexuality to a product for consumption. Are women then inevitably expressing a sexuality that is not an expression of themselves, but rather one that is constructed on the basis that it is to be consumed by others?
However, Anna Arrowsmith (one of the first female pornography directors in the UK) argues that within the current system commodification is unavoidable. Everything is a commodity 'from what you eat, to what you wear, to what you see.' The only way in which you can change the market is from within; you must first infiltrate it in order to change it.
Therefore, following Arrowsmith’s argument, the only way to counteract the harmful effects of mainstream pornography is to change the industry from within and provide an alternative narrative. Through the production of ethical, feminist pornography, independent pornography is presenting a healthy, positive sexual attitude, with consent and pleasure at its epicentre.* People watch pornography, it is therefore imperative to present sex in a form that does not negatively impact those who work in the industry or sexual relations on a wider level.
Independent pornography is not only important due to its emphasis on female agency but rather its portrayal of inclusiveness and its authentic and delicate portrayal of human sexual relations. Carlyle Jensen highlights this point; communities that are often underrepresented in wider society become stereotyped and fetishised in mainstream pornography, it could be taken further to denote the commodification of these communities. Now these communities are making pornography on their own terms.
Feminist, ethical independently produced pornography works towards inclusiveness, therefore breaking down the harmful portrayals in mainstream pornography that perpetuate existing stereotypes.
Beyond these moral implications, independent pornography places an emphasis on quality. The aesthetic care given to sex by these female producers is important not only due to their expression of artistic intent, but in the dignity it gives to the participants that is all too often conspicuously absent from mainstream pornography. The portrayal of authentic pleasure, with a sense of naturalism is a clear defence of a woman's right to choose.
When it comes to sexuality it is difficult to define what is right and wrong. Whether you agree with pornography or not, as feminists we need to acknowledge that pornography can be a weapon or a tool. To counter the prevalent mainstream monster, independent female producers are portraying sexual relations in a manner that subverts dangerous attitudes. They are emphasising consent, female autonomy and a healthy attitude toward sex. Furthermore they are expressing their artistic sensibility. Through the production of independent pornography they are undermining and rewriting the prevailing narrative of the patriarchal culture in which women are passive objects witnessed via the male gaze. Instead women are in control; they are the agents of their own pleasure. Issues surrounding consent, rape culture and inclusivity must be addressed and it is independent pornography that is doing so. Pornography is ubiquitous, it is therefore imperative that a culture around pornography is born in which women are respected and in control.
Recommendations/further information: Erika Lust (Xconfessions, Lust Productions) Vex Ashley (A Four Chambered Heart), GodsGirls, Suicide Girls, Emily Nagoski.
* “Feminist porn uses sexually explicit imagery to contest and complicate dominant representations of gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, class, ability, age, body type, and other identity markers....It does not assume a singular female viewer, but acknowledges multiple female (and other) viewers with many different preferences. Feminist porn makers emphasize the importance of their labor practices in production and their treatment of performers/sex workers; in contrast to norms in the mainstream sectors of the adult entertainment industry, they strive to create a fair, safe, ethical, consensual work environment and often create imagery through collaboration with their subjects. Ultimately, feminist porn considers sexual representation — and its production — a site for resistance, intervention, and change”
From The Feminist Porn Book: The Politics of Producing Pleasure, edited by Tristan Taormino, Celine Parreñas Shimizu, Constance Penley and Mireille Miller-Young