Pleasure and porn

Issue 

"When I was 15, I remember going to parties and being really uncomfortable when someone put on porn. Porn told me how, as a woman, I needed to look, act and experience sex; and that people found women being treated this way funny or arousing rather than frightening." — Anonymous.

Porn reflects ideas about what is considered explicit and arousing. But the meaning of "porn" is altered by historic, cultural and economic contexts.

In 19th century England, any depiction of any sexual scene, in all forms of art, was defined as "pornographic". Repressive Victorian morality meant it was likely to be banned.

Today society is more open about sex; holds expectations that we act a particular way based on our gender; and accepts the commodification of arousal at the hands of a multi-billion dollar porn industry.

Gail Dines, author of Pornland: How Porn has Hijacked Our Sexuality, describes porn today as "a never-ending universe of ravaged anuses, distended vaginas, and semen-smeared faces". It is sex that is hard and fast, and punishes women's bodies and shuns intimacy. And the narrative says: "she loves it."

Anti-porn writing often says porn is bad because it sexualises violence, domination, injury and degradation. Some porn is violent and involves non-consensual sex, but some does not. But the vast majority of porn today reduces women to objects, prioritises male demands and pleasure (either in content or of the viewer), and implies female pleasure is about pleasing men.

Even queer porn — while challenging heterosexism — often adopts stereotypes about femininity and masculinity, and is overwhelmingly about male pleasure.

Porn is not simply fantasy. It has the power to shape and limit the kind of sex we have, want or enjoy. As a form of expression in the context of a sexist society, this means particular, distinct roles for men and women.

This places limits and expectations on all people based on their gender. It’s worse for women because it equates female worth and pleasure with the pleasure they give men.

Viewing porn can distort and limit men's sexuality, but men as a sex are not oppressed by sexist porn. It is women’s bodies, women’s consciousness and women’s sexuality that are exploited by sexist imagery — whether in porn or in other cultural expressions.

Moreover, there is a profit-making incentive for the porn industry to define what is arousing as something impossible to find elsewhere: if it can’t be found for free it will have to be bought.

The impact is huge. Porn is a key source of information about sex for young people. A 2007 Swedish study found 92% of men and 57% of women aged 15-18 had watched a “porno film”. But porn informs people much more broadly than just the young: the most common consumer of internet pornography is 35-49 years old.

Bringing sex and women's sexual pleasure out into the open was an important “sex-positive” victory for the women's rights movement. But this is not the same as porn. Most porn does not reflect that women can play an active role in sex, one that is pleasurable for women.



A 2009 British survey, for instance, found that “four out of ten [women] have 'always' been a bit tipsy when they have slept with a partner for the first time. But … 48.5 per cent said they preferred sex while under the influence. The study also found that 75 per cent of women said they liked to drink before getting into bed with their husband or boyfriend. Some 6 per cent of women have never had sex while sober.”

Sexism, and the gender roles shown in most porn, mean women feel they need to be more “adventurous” and “lose their inhibitions” — in other words, perform sexual acts they otherwise would not be comfortable with.

In fact, a woman quoted in the November 9 Sydney Morning Herald said: “Our boyfriends take it for granted that we want to participate in a range of sexual acts, including ‘back-door’ sex. Some of us don't really enjoy this, but we don't know how to tell our partners without seeming uncool, prudish or uptight. Instead, we say nothing and go along with it.”

The SMH said the mainstreaming of porn and raunch culture was the cause.

But porn isn’t the cause of sexism. It can certainly reflect and reinforce sexist ideas, but women’s oppression has an economic basis that emerged with private property and the division of society into classes. The oppression of women is good for profits because, within the family unit, women look after the workforce and care for unproductive members of society, at no cost to business.

The women’s rights movement allowed women to enter into the workforce, but women’s main social role under capitalism is still to do unpaid domestic labour and raise children.

Sexist social norms justify the economic role of women and this will inevitably be reflected in porn and other in cultural expressions as long as women are unequal in society.

Challenging sexist imagery, including in porn, is an important part of the struggle for women’s equality. But to win women’s liberation, we must oppose sexism and the economic system that fosters it.

Porn has the potential to reflect a diversity of women’s desires and pleasures. It can help challenge sexist norms, describe sexual possibilities and pleasure free from limiting categories. It has the potential to help change society but society will also have to change to win sexual liberation.

Comments

Hi Tim and Jess,

Thank you for taking on this subject. I think the issue of sex education and sexual liberation in media is incredibly important and there's still not a lot of data out there. In fact I noticed a lot of statistics in your article which I would love to know the sources. As well as statements that seem to be personal sentiments which I would love to see expanded upon. Mostly, because it is within the work I do, I'm interested in how you define "queer porn", and what examples you can site as sources.

I ask specifically because I feel the queer pornographic content I've seen -- or participated in -- makes very little effort to adopt masculine/feminine stereotpyes, nor do I see it as being overwhelmingly about (cisgender?) male pleasure. Can you elaborate on your thoughts about this? I'm curious! :-)

Thank you and looking forward to your reply.
Jiz Lee
www.jizlee.com

PS As a genderqueer porn performer, I have been in many titles marketed as queer porn, including the works of Shine Louise Houston (CHAMPION, crashpadseries.com, heavenlyspire.com ) and Courtney Trouble (nofauxxx.com, Roulette), cocksexual.com and others, and feel the pornography is feminist/ethical in that it grants sexual agency (and equal pay) to performers regardless of gender or sexual orientation. As part of this, our choices for risk-based safer sex practices are respected. And, perhaps most telling of all, we're well fed. :-)

Hi Jiz,

Thanks for responding to the article. I think that mainstream discussion about porn, sex education, raunch culture, sexual liberation and media depictions of these things need to happen lots more.

First, the sources for the statistics in order are: a 2007 study carried out by Johansson and Hammaré called "Hegemonic masculinity and pornography: young people’s attitudes toward and relations to pornography"; and a 2009 study carried out by Kathryn Lakeland of Femfresh.

By queer porn I simply mean LGBTI, not genderqueer specifically. Given this, you probably don't need me to post examples. If you type "lesbian porn", "gay porn" or "bisexual porn" into google, what comes up is overwhelmingly porn industry (worth more than the music and film industries combined) driven examples that define sexual pleasure narrowly. And while the intended audience for most gay porn is men, so is the intended audience for the majority of lesbian porn.

Even some lesbian porn, that's made for women, still shows "feminine" and "masculine" roles. And while the progressive element of gender is that one can choose a category - be a masculine woman, for example - neither "gender" nor "sex" should limit us to one of two categories.

Not all porn is this. just the majority of viewed porn - most of which is made for and viewed by heterosexual men.

There are certainly lots of examples that consciously challenge narrow mainstream ideas about sexuality and sexual pleasure. And these help can both bring pleasure; and advance and inform the idea that there is another way, with many more possibilities. Like counter culture to mainstream pervasive sexist cultural expressions is important, so too is counter culture mainstream sexist porn.

Are the examples you give, and your own experience, a challenge to mainstream porn? Or do you think they're mainstream.

I think that culture is no bad thing (and full of wonderful possibilities), but mainstream culture is sexist. And I think the same goes for porn.

Thanks, and I'm very interested to know more of your thoughts,
Jess

To find actual lesbian porn for lesbians, you have to type in "porn for lesbians". Not "lesbian porn". What comes up when you search "lesbian porn" is not what I would call queer porn at all! It's straight porn. It's two straight women pretending to be queer for the enjoyment of straight men.

Jess I think you have to think a bit more deeply about gender roles in lesbian porn. There is no way the power relationship between women playing masculine and feminine gender roles is comparable to that between men and women in mainstream straight porn. Read Pat Califia, Joan Nestle, and there is also a great book called "Render Me, Gender Me" by Kath Weston.

I want to clarify that when I refer to the majority of queer porn I mean depictions "of" not "for" - while of course there'll be cross over. So when I say that lesbian porn is overwhelmingly about male pleasure, that is precisely because it is made for men. I reckon it was poor form not to make this clear in the article. I hope this clarifies the point.

I also think that porn for queers can be about reflecting a diversity of desires, possibilities and pleasures; and can help challenge heteronormative (as well as sexist), limiting categories.

Finally, Canberra, could you explain your last point? I actually didn't mention "power" at all; I simply noted that neither "gender" nor "sex" should limit us to one of two categories. They are social constructions and I don't think anyone should be limited to one or the other.

I agree that counter cultural portrayals of sexuality have an important role to play in fighting back against sexist stereotypes. I thought that the sexual scenes between Aileen and her girlfriend in the movie Monster were powerful examples of this.

But I think it's a far stretch to say that we need to positive and healthy portrayals of human sexuality to saying that some sections of the pornography industry should be supported. The pornography industry is a subset of the prostitution industry. The difference is that the profiteers in the pornography industry have upgraded technologically and instead of only being able to sell a sex act once, it can now be sold an infinite number of times.

So we have to look at pornography not just from the perspective of analyzing the messages that it sends but the impact that the presence of the industry has on workers within the industry and importantly (and often forgotten) the impact that it has on workers OUTSIDE the industry.

When you ask a so-called 'sex-positive' person about pornography, 9 times out of 10 they will have a very liberal analysis, ‘my choice, my body’ etc. As socialists we must reject this analysis in this context because it is actively hostile to class analysis. And in other industries we do reject it. When we want to pass laws to prevent building workers having to inhale asbestos at work we reject such liberal claims. If a worker was to get up and say, 'it's my body and my choice to inhale asbestos' we wouldn't see that as the be all and end all of the argument. In such a case defaulting to such liberal analysis, which sees no class, only disembodied ahistorical 'individuals', we would severely undermine the working classes ability to fight for their rights.

Sometimes the interests of the society may even be in conflict with the majority of workers in an industry see as their interests. And example of this would be the logging industry. We don’t just say ‘we’ll if it’s your choice you can chop down as many trees as you want’ because of the effect that the industry has on the rest of society. The prostitution industry and it’s sub-sections do have an effect on society more broadly than just the individuals who actively participate in it.

One argument that people often make for the legalisation of the prostitution industry is that it would create safer conditions for the people in the industry. This has an inch of truth and a metre of deception it. The false assumption that this rests on is that legalising the industry will not effect the total number of people in the industry. This is not true. For example in Victoria the total number of people working in the sex industry (illegal and legal) has grown significantly since the legalisation of the sex industry. So you haven’t for example taken the 200 prostitutes that you had before legalisation and moved them into safer jobs. Some of them might have. But the number of women working in the illegal industry has in fact grown since legalisation. So where as (for example) you might have had 200 illegal workers, you’ve now got 300 illegal workers and 900 legal workers. It ultimately it doesn’t increase safety. A country can then has a greater chance of becoming a sex tourist destination. So support for the industry is not just coming the capitalists who are directly profiting from prostitution, but all the other sections of the tourism and hospitality industry.

This is a CLASS analysis of pornography and prostitution. Trouble is the po-mo liberals have taken over feminism so you hardly hear it any more.

It's semantic but kind of important - I reckon probably for most scene dykes, we use the terms "queer porn" or "lesbian porn" to refer to porn by us, for us. This is what scene dykes who read your article will think you're criticising. We don't use these terms to refer to depictions of "hot girl on girl action" for the benefit of straight men. I think we can all agree that stuff is generally horribly demeaning.

Okay, I suppose I should address what you actually said about lesbian gender roles, that queer porn often adopts stereotypes about femininity and masculinity that we shouldn't be limited to.

I don't think lesbian culture as it is in Australia today limits people's gender expression in the way you infer. Some people take on "butch" and "femme" roles in porn and in life. But I don't think these gender divisions are imposed on people, for the most part. People adopt them more or less freely. For some people it's just a fetish, like dressing up in a rubber nurse outfit or whatever. In all my time in the queer community I have never felt pressured to identify as either butch or femme.

I suppose there are some restrictions though, like how some people think femmes aren't "real lesbians" and they get marginalised in the community. Which is crap and divisive and we should fight it, but I think it's different to what you're talking about.

Be aware that there is a lot of historical baggage involved in what we're talking about. Things like butch-femme roles, bisexuality, porn, transgenderism, and the like have historically copped a hammering from radical feminism. This wasn't healthy. It just made people already marginalised for their sexuality feel even more marginalised by their own community. Which is why it's important to be careful what you say about queer women, gender divisions and porn.

I've noticed that alot of the way gender and sex politics is discussed has a narrative-type quality to it, heavily resting on statements that are not supported by any other statistics. This renders them more like value judgments and undermines their overall arguments and analysis. It's easy to fall back into this narrative style of argumentation, especially as we all have personal experiences with sexism that have affected us deeply, but anecdotes and opinions are not enough. The document "The DSP's position on prostitution" is a good example of a document which repeatedly returns to the scientific analysis underlying the arguments: http://www.dsp.org.au/node/112

This article contains some sweeping and unclear statements which have started to be teased out in these comments. The reason I believe it is so important not to make unsubstantiated statements is that it's not just our politics which is crucial but *how* we discuss our politics.

There's alot of very healthy and very political queer porn around. For example, in Sydney, there was an ongoing event called Gurlesque at an artist-run queer venue called Red Rattler that had explicitly political and usually nude performances that challenged not just "heterosexism" but took up other questions about sexuality, gender roles and the role of the media. This show takes place in the context of a healthy, political queer culture and has a community rather than commercial imperative.

Obviously not all queer sex material has this political content or takes place in this context but the fact that there is this healthy, political queer community has to be recognised in our analyses, as it shows concretely what "sex-positive" erotica looks like.

Further, there are many other shows and spaces like Gurlesque at Red Rattler (eg. Sex Intents) that are not explicitly political but are valuable in that they provide a safe space for people to explore their sexuality. We defend this right to exploration of sexuality absolutely.

Most people in the left agree that mainstream/corporate porn is exploitative - very few think it is empowering (though there are some). We can see by the recent coverage in the Guardian and SMH that this issue has has enjoyed, to a degree, a recent surge in mainstream interest. The question is, what alternatives are to exploitative porn and the ideas it reflects/reinforces are there, and how can we bring this issue into the mainstream even more?

Talking about the positive and the good queer porn examples in a nuanced manner is really important, as it shows how non-exploitative porn or erotica (however you choose to define it) can play a positive role, it poses an alternative to the demeaning stuff. It's about having a nuanced approach to an issue where there's alot of grey area.

I think the reason for why there is pornography is because people aren't more open about sex, and talking about it and having those issues about it in the open with their partners and just in society in general. If we really truly were open about it there would be no need for pornography, and that is something a teacher told me that I absolutely agree with. Just thought I'd put that out there.

Peace!

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