‘Porn: A tool for liberation or oppression?’

Feminist Fightback was invited to take part in a discussion event hosted by SOAS Student Union (organised by the Women’s Officer) entitled ‘Porn: A tool for liberation or oppression?’

The speakers’ in addition to Fightback were Zak Jane Kier from Feminists Against Censorship (who also worked producing pornography) and Art Mitchells-Urwin, a Masters student at SOAS specialising in pornography from a Gender Studies perspective with specific regional focus on Thailand – investigating the interaction between Thai and ‘western’ porn in terms of deconstructing images of bodies and sexuality. The organisers explained that Object had been invited but failed to send a speaker.

The meeting was absolutely packed, with a whole lecture theatre filled, and surprisingly quickly established a critique of censorship particularly within a morality framework. This is not only in terms of the panel speakers but also in that no-one from the floor (despite extensive contributions) advocated censorship or a simple ‘anti-porn’ position like that of anti-pornography feminists, such as Andrea Dworkin, and groups like Object. Art Mitchells-Urwin interestingly pointed out that porn is already heavily censored – not only in relation to a more general understanding of censorship as being the decision(s) to allow or enable something to be made within the industry but even in the more specific context of state control. He demonstrated his point by an illuminating anecdote about a sex film being banned because it displayed female ejaculation (on the so-called grounds that female ejaculation was not possible and it was obscene to depict sexual urination!).

This not to say that the discussion was framed by a simple ‘pro-porn’ position either. In fact, it was very rich in drawing out the nuances and complexities which surround this issue and really emphasised to me that the ‘pro-verses-anti’ porn debate binary (inherited from the ‘Sex Wars’ of the Women’s Liberation Movement in the 1970s and beyond) isn’t very helpful in that it plays out a ideaological conflict between two very entrenched crude positions. Often we, as anti-capitalist feminists, are so concerned at arguing ‘against’ the Object line of calling for state censorship, despite it being in fact not very representative of how a lot of people feel and think. The event provided a really positive space in allowing for ideas to be broken down and unravelled. It certainly challenged me.

I just wanted to highlight a couple of key issues / observations from that discussion:

1. Porn As a Million Pound Industry

Zak Jane Kier superbly articulated an anti-moralism and libertarian view. She clearly laid out the problems with state censorship and in particular warned of moralism (that often goes in hand with certain types of feminist critiques) which can often lead to an ‘anti-sex’ position. She emphasised that one person’s erotic is another person’s obscene. However, although she did mention working conditions briefly, a lot of the tenure of her contribution was that more women should get involved. What was meant by this was unclear to me and I felt that she conflated the democratisation of porn, in terms of collectives of women making, owning and playing with material, with the porn industry. In particular, it was discussed that having female heads of porn business, directors etc… would improve the situation. The Feminist Fightback speaker did well in unpicking this idea of feminist porn by making the distinction between porn which happens to be made by women and porn which has an explicit feminist agenda. She also did well in placing an anti-capitalist perspective firmly on the table (she even said the words ‘smash capitalism’) in terms of critiquing any multi-million pound industry and employer – employee relationships. How does pornography as a product for consumption (bought by the viewer) and the people appearing in them, as workers (exploited potentially in many ways but most significantly as a waged labourer without control over the means of production) affect our understanding?

2. A mirror to society or secret behind closed doors?

Zak Jane Kier also argued porn was ‘just a reflection of society’ and that its increasing prevalence (along with more women becoming bosses in the industry and developments across the internet) means that people can pick and choose what they like. And, to a certain extent (obviously not the bosses bit) I agree with this line (and might even say this in a debate i.e. you can’t change society by simply changing porn). At another point in the discussion, porn was presented as an alternative to sex education. All of which raised the question in my mind what porn are we talking about? I felt that this (and indeed quite a lot of the whole debate) drifted in to the liberal ground (implying that people as individuals can just negotiate what they like) without critiquing capitalism, socialisation and the fact that we are not all equal individuals able to determine our lives as such. These latter remarks were actually raised by a couple of women in the audience, who presented the observation that society constructs very limited and repressed categories of sexual identities and behaviours – that whilst porn can be an arena to escape from this, it can also be very much a part of this hegemony. It is fairly obvious to me, that porn does not create constructs about sexuality from a vacuum (those ideas already exist), However, to say that society is racist or sexist (or whatever) and therefore much of porn is likewise, feels somewhat of a cop-out in terms of the more interesting discussion regarding how we (as a movement for men and women’s liberation) understand, engage with and navigate around images and constructs of sexuality under capitalism.

3. Thought Police or making the Personal, Political?

The SOAS meeting also firmly and rightfully established the distinction between fantasy and reality. However, it also struck me that whilst clearly what consenting people explore and desire should not be policed (nor can we extrapolate crude linear social conclusions from such activities), to suggest that this activity has no relation to society seems really problematic and contradictory. For example, when porn is accused of being sexist it is argued that this is because society is sexist and when porn is accused of participating in oppressive discourses it is argued that, sexual desire is a private, separate and individualised arena. Just thinking about our own sexualities, how can we match up what feels to be deeply individual sexual desires with our understanding as sex and sexuality as social entities?

I also have concerns about this notion of the individual and sex as a privatised individual act. Of course, it is invariably important to take this position in terms of arguing against the moral policing of our sexualities but if as anti-capitalist feminists we understand the existence of the intersection of a whole host of oppressive cultural and economic structures and that we are all a product of our socialisation (whether we struggle against it or not), then do we say as soon as we enter the bedroom this all changes?

This all, of course, relates to general conceptions around sex and sexuality. Focussing on porn begins to seem somewhat of a strange red-herring – as really what we are talking about is sex and sexuality. Again, whilst people should not be made to feel guilty or judged for certain sexual preferences or activity, can we really say this bares no relation to the socialised world? Is sexuality finite, determined and simply imposed upon us? Are we doomed to act out and/or subvert the tropes of existing categorisations or is there the possibility of a site of struggle to re-configure or liberate our identities and sexualities? How can we create safe non-judgemental but also conscious-raising spaces in which we can explore all of the above?

Moreover, I think that the discussion was really refreshing in terms of it wasn’t that tired censorship verses non-censorship stuff. It really made me think. In particular it raised the question to me ‘what is a Marxist analysis of porn and sexuality’ as opposed to simply a libertarian viewpoint? Or are they the same?

Actually, I am really not sure what I think, just wanted to throw some ideas out there to get others’ feedback.

By a member of the Feminist Fightback collective
(These views are personal and may not be representative of the whole collective).