Saturday, May 20, 2006


The Maria Blog has a really interesting post about pornography.

At the time, within leftish feminist circles, there was a clear distinction made (or at least debated) between erotica and pornography and WAP was definitely pro-erotica and anti-pornography. Talking to a few younger women recently this distinction seems to have been almost entirely lost.

I think the distinction is useful and powerful. If all images or depictions of sex and sexuality are lumped under the title of pornography then everyone who challenges any of those images or depictions are also lumped together. So a homophobic christian objecting to a picture of two naked women kissing is lumped in with someone who objects to an image of a woman with a knife being pushed into her vagina. Or someone upset by an erect penis is lumped in with someone upset by picture of a woman dressed in pigtails and in a school uniform surrounded by a group of older men. Or someone morally disturbed by consensual threesomes is the same as someone disturbed by the endless repetition of women shown always with her legs apart, always on her back, always skinny with large breasts. All of us can be dismissed as prudish and uptight and anti-sex.
I know I write a lot about language. I also know that the pornography debate within feminism is a substantive one, and language isn't the major thing that divides people. But reading what Maria wrote, I do think language is part of the problem. Maria uses the word pornography in a very specific way:
The analysis I hold to is that pornography is stuff which depicts sex and sexuality and that involves a power imbalance or objectification. This can be through the eroticisation of pain or the eroticisation of lack of consent. Or it can be through focussing on a particular aspect of a woman's body, and objectifying a part of a woman. Or through promoting the idea that when women say no they mean yes, or promoting the idea that children want adult sexual attention.
But the thing is that's fine, but there are actually very few people who use the word 'pornography' in the same way Maria does.

Of course you can use a word to mean whatever you want it to mean (you just have to pay them extra), but I think we're fighting an up-hill battle if we're trying to redefine a word, as well as win the argument. Words have meanings and resonances, and you can use a word specifically as you like, but it doesn't mean anything unless the people you are talking to have the same specific understanding.

I think there is another way we could talk about sexually explicit material, and that is name what we object to, and not expect the word pornography to do the work for us. When you say pornography most people think of anything with nudity. So a debate over pornography quickly becomes an all or nothing venture about sexually explicit material. It doesn't become a debate about sexism, misogyny or objectication.


  1. Yes well put. My view is that we need an 'alternative' erotica/porn, just as we need alternative and more healthy body images.

  2. That's a clever sort of porn troll. Acting all polite and reasonable, and then suggesting (ah, the sting in the tail) that "feminists" (as if they were a homogeneous group) should "allow" such-and-such, as if they policed women's conduct (or were capable of doing so).

    News flash, dude: the feminist problem with pornography isn't about whether some women like it or not. It isn't about telling people what they can and can't like. Frankly, I can't even be bothered telling what it *is* about, because it's not my job to educate you.

  3. WHat sofiya said.

    I use the term 'pornography' in the same way as I use MacKinnon's and Dworkin's legal defintion of pornography. But that definition, no matter how many times I say it and explain it still gets pushed to the wayside and people tell me that I'm just a hairy legged prude, as if that's an insult!

  4. I do think part of the problem is trying to use the word 'pornography' in a specific way that most people you're talking to won't understand.

    Rather than just talking about pornography why not talk about 'pornography that objectifies women' or 'pornography that eroticses non-consent.'

    This servces several different purposes, firstly it's more specific, secondly it sets the debate on your terms, and thirdly it enables you to make links with other non-sexually explicit material which do the same thing.

  5. This is an interesting subject but it seems very complex and also something of a minefield.

    How do we define bad porn? One dead end might be to attempt to fetishise (oops! I mean that in the Marxist sense) certain images and practices. We might say, for instance, that B and D is bad because it shows power and control etc

    The trouble with this approach is that the same practices and the images they produce can have vastly different meanings in different contexts. There are probably important differences between, say, amateur lesbian B and D images being swapped by the couples who produced them and a commercial porn site paying two hard-up straight women to act out a male audience's B and D fantasies.

    A second and I think better approach would involve investigating the contexts of different uses of porn and making judgements of them on a more or less case by case basis. But it's difficult to use such an approach to generate broad definitions and rules.

    And even if we decide upon the second approach and end up with some
    general rules, what do we do when we find other people or even ourselves breaking them?

    For example, we might agree without too much trouble that pictures of young women in pigtails and school uniforms having group sex with much older men is pretty dodgy on a number of levels. But what do we say to someone who finds such a scene sexually exciting and fantasises about it? Do we accuse them of thought crime?

    I had an ex-girlfriend - this is a long, long time ago and nobody here could possibly guess who she was, so I feel it's alright to mention this - who did find this exciting and liked to look at images of it. I'm not sure if it would have been very useful to say to her 'You are bad for liking this stuff, there's something wrong with you that you need to fix'. That seems uncomfortably close to the sort of lectures that conservatives give about masturbation or gay sex. It could produce anxiety and even self-hatred, and for what?

    On the other hand, there are many imaginable cases where it would seem appropriate to 'intervene' and criticise someone's use of porn and sexual fantasies. An obvious because extreme example is the person who uses child porn. I doubt whether many of us would not be alarmed by that.

    But there are other examples which apply to larger sections of the population. The idiot who slapped Maia on the arse could quite possibly have been encouraged to act in that way by some of the idiotic porn movies that show female strangers enjoying such approaches. But what about the person who enjoys watching such movies yet would never dream of approaching a stranger and groping them?

    I certainly don't have any firm answers on questions like this. My very general view is that porn has always been around and always will be, but that we need to decommercialise it and open it up to the depiction of radically different images and practices, not to mention body types.

    It is arguable that the internet-driven rise of amateur porn, which at its simplest involves individuals or couples simply swapping images of themselves by e mail, has opened up possibilities for the transformation of porn. On the other hand the net has also led to a proliferation of traditional commercialised porn.

  6. Maps I think you're arguing against straw at the moment. I've said that we should be more descriptive about what we object to about porn. No-one has taken that up to define what they object to about pornography.

    I agree with some of your arguments, but I think you're missing a lot of the major problems with mainstream pornography, and I think it'd probably be good to listen to people's views before arguing against them.

  7. Im not really arguing against anyone - just trying to work out my views on the subject. But I'd be interested to hear where you disagree with me.