Can pornography be feminist? The issue of pornography has divided feminists for decades. So much so that it deeply marked feminism, principally in the United States, in the 1970s and 1980s. This tense debate which foreshadowed the end of what is considered to be second-wave feminism is known as the sex wars (also called porn wars). Today this debate continues, but one thing is certain, pornography is gendered.
On one side of the spectrum, sex-positive feminists spotlight sexual freedom as an essential component of gender equality. This brand of liberal feminism focuses on women’s right to sexual pleasure and the elimination of sexual taboos, arguing that sexual desires should not be judged. In essence, removing shame around masturbation, kinks and fetishes, and of course, eliminating slut-shaming and the policing of women’s bodies. When it comes to pornography, sex-positive feminism centres on destigmatising those who work in the porn industry, stressing women’s bodily autonomy, sexual agency, and empowerment while arguing for the right of both the viewer and the performer to pursue sexual pleasure.
Conversely, the anti-sex stance or anti-pornography feminism considers pornography degrading and as endorsing violence against women. It argues that porn glorifies images of sexual violence and therefore normalises brutal treatment, rape, incest, paedophilia, battering and other forms of physical and sexual abuse. This brand of feminism further insists that pornography materialises gender stereotypes and blocks true sexual freedom.
In fact, according to research by the campaign “ We Can’t Consent To This”, a third of British women under 40 have experienced unwanted slapping, spitting, choking, or gagging during sexual intercourse. According to data from 2020, at least 60 British women had been killed during “consensual” rough sex since 1972, with at least 18 women dying since 2015. To top it all off, in 45% of those deaths, the claim that their injuries were sustained by a sex game gone wrong resulted in a lesser criminal charge, a lighter sentence, or even acquittal. As the Instagram content creator and column writer @lalalaletmeexplain states, has the sexual revolution failed, leaving us with a model of sex created by cis-heterosexual men? This is certainly an argument to take into consideration, especially given that the data shows that porn continues to be overwhelmingly consumed by cis-heterosexual men. Bearing this question in mind, let’s complicate this further.
Academic research on pornography recognises racist and colonial structures behind the vilification of porn. These arguments show how porn is used as a border marker, marking, on the one hand, good sex (white, respectable, loving) and, on the other hand, bad sex (animalistic, deviant, pathological) ergo, porn. This type of marking emulates racist labelling born out of colonialism. For example, these discourses have been found concerning the indigenous community in Australia, where indigenous men have been portrayed as hyper-masculine lustful sexual deviants, to the extent that in 2007, a piece of legislation was created to restrict the consumption of pornography in indigenous communities. This legislation included a ban on the possession and dissemination of pornographic material and compulsory checks of publicly funded computers. Additionally, large signs were erected outside the communities declaring “NO PORNOGRAPHY” in large bold text. On the other side of the debate, racism is also found in many of the stereotypes that exist in porn, for example, the undersexed stereotype of the Asian man in gay pornography or the oversexed stereotype of Black men in heterosexual porn.
The issue of pornography raises a multiplicity of questions. Do anti-porn stances replicate sexist tropes of saving women from debauchery, from controlling their desires? Do pro-porn stances ignore the blatant disregard for women’s pleasure and autonomy in the plot and mise-en-scène of sexual positions? Does porn replicate cis-heterosexual imposed fantasies? What about consent?
As a response to some of these issues, feminist pornography as a genre has become more prevalent. This type of pornography focuses on the sexual fantasies of women, and queer spectators, is produced ethically, and challenges the male gaze. Similarly, platforms such as OnlyFans, have been praised for giving performers a safe platform to create their own sexual content outside of exploitation. However, this has also been contested. There are multiple claims that the site fails to prevent minors from appearing in pornographic videos, and has also featured bestiality, guns, knives, and probably incest. OnlyFans has also been criticised as acting as a pimp, given that it takes 20% of any pay.
Before we end, it is important to remember that porn is fiction and fantasy. Pornography depicts true sexual encounters as accurately as the sit-com Friends depicts the lives of a struggling waitress, a failed actor and a masseuse in their early twenties living in Manhattan. Nevertheless, given the lack of comprehensive sexuality education available to most of the world’s population, it is not unimaginable that people would turn to porn for educational purposes. However, this is a topic for another day. The point is that pornography has as much responsibility in showing the use of condoms, general sexual health or consent as do Hollywood films, sit-coms, or even fiction novels. Yet, the question remains, can pornography be feminist?
I would like to end this debate with a quote from the legendary porn actress and author Stoya: “porn isn’t inherently more oppressive than anything else under capitalism”, and, if I may add, patriarchy.