Monday, November 27, 2017

A Dilemma for Anti-Porn Feminism




Feminism is a complex school of thought. Indeed, it’s not really a school of thought at all. It’s many different schools of thought, often uncomfortably lumped together under a single label. Within these schools of thought, there are some that are deeply opposed to mainstream, hardcore pornography. The radical feminist school — led by the likes of Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin — are the obvious exemplars of this anti-porn point of view. But there are also more liberal feminists who have defended variations of it, such as Rae Langton and Jennifer Hornsby. Are they right to do so?

Alex Davies has recently published a fascinating and well-researched article arguing that they are not. Focusing on the anti-porn arguments of MacKinnon, he claims that liberal feminists cannot consistently embrace a view that prioritises female autonomy and views pornography as something that necessarily silences and subordinates women. The reason for this is that there are female pornographers, i.e. women who seem to freely and autonomously choose to produce and distribute pornography that falls within the remit of that to which MacKinnon et al are opposed.

In this post I want to provide a quick overview and analysis of Davies’s argument. I tend to agree with his reasoning and explaining why reveals something pretty important about the political and ethical aspects of pornography. That said, my overview won’t be a substitute for reading the full thing. Anyone with an interest in the debate about the ethics of pornographic representations should do so.


1. The Structure of Davies’s Argument

To understand Davies’s central argument, we first need to take a step back in time to consider MacKinnon’s case against pornography. That case was premised on three things: (i) a narrow definition and understanding of ‘pornography’; (ii) a particular conception of the harm constituted by that narrowly-defined form of pornography; and (iii) a unique legal remedy for this harm.

Let’s start with the narrow definition of pornography. Anyone who campaigns against pornography faces an obvious definitional problem: you don’t want the campaign to be over-inclusive. Many fictional and pictographic representations are sexually provocative and arousing. Sometimes they are presented as ‘serious art’; sometimes they actually are serious art. MacKinnon was conscious of this and tried to target her campaign at a specific subset of sexually provocative material. She offered an elaborate definition of this type of pornography (which on previous occasions I have called ‘Mac-Porn’ and will do so again here). Mac-Porn is anything that involves the ‘sexually explicit subordination of women through words and pictures’, and consists in imagery or words that dehumanise or objectify women, or depict them as enjoying rape or sexual humiliation, or reduces them to body parts, or otherwise brutalises and degrades them. Furthermore, although it is initially defined as requiring the depiction of women, it is subsequently expanded to cover ‘the use of men, children or transsexuals in the place of women’. I’ve tried to illustrate this in full detail in the image below, drawing specifically on the lengthier characterisations in the work of MacKinnon.



Note that Mac-Porn, as defined, may avoid the problem of over-inclusivity at the expense of under-inclusivity and value-ladenness. Nevertheless, it is what we will be working with for the remainder of the post.

The second premise of MacKinnon’s case against pornography focuses on the harm constituted by porn. Note how I say ‘constituted by’ and not ‘caused by’. MacKinnon studiously avoids making claims about the empirical consequences of exposure to porn. Instead, she argues that pornography itself constitutes a kind of harm to women. Specifically, she thinks that the production and distribution of porn is itself an act that subordinates and silences women. This helps her to sidestep defences of pornography that use the principle of free speech. If you’re really interested, I’ve examined some ways to make sense of this argument in the past. We don’t need to dwell on them here. We just need to accept it, for the sake of argument, and move on.

Finally, MacKinnon’s case against pornography advocates a particular legal remedy to the problem. MacKinnon does not favour government-run censorship as this would not empower women (although she did, controversially, appear to support censorship in the R v. Butler case). She favours the creation of civil rights ordinances that would enable women to sue producers and distributors of pornography for the harm caused to them by porn. This would be a legal option open to all women since the purported harm is not done to specific, individual women, but rather to women as a collective.

That’s everything we need to understand Davies’s argument. His argument works like this (this is my reconstruction of the reasoning, not something that appears in the paper):


  • (1) We should not silence women (assumption, presumed by MacKinnon’s argument).
  • (2) There are female pornographers, i.e. women who produce and distribute pornographic material that falls within the definition of Mac-Porn.
  • (3) If we introduced a legal remedy like MacKinnon’s anti-porn civil rights ordinances, female pornographers would be silenced.
  • (4) Therefore, we should not introduce a legal remedy like MacKinnon’s anti-porn civil rights ordinances.


I should clarify that Davies doesn’t fully endorse (4) in his article. His aims are more modest than that. He merely wants to highlight the tension or dilemma posed by accepting that we should not silence women while at the same time acknowledging the existence of female pornographers. He points out that this neglected tension leads many anti-porn feminists to either reject or deny the existence of female pornographers. He claims that this is not a credible position, at least not if you are a liberal feminist. If you are a radical like MacKinnon, it may be possible to deny or overlook the existence of female pornographers, but only if you accept that all women who produce pornography are victims of false consciousness. Let’s see how he fleshes this out.


2. Do female pornographers exist?
The existence of female pornographers should be relatively uncontroversial. There clearly are women who produce, direct, design and distribute pornographic material. If you doubt this, I encourage you to read The Feminist Porn Book, which contains over two dozen essays from prominent female/feminist pornographers. These are not just women who produce and distribute porn; they are women who produce and distribute porn that they are proud of and that they feel lives up to the ideals of feminism. (I should clarify that not all the contributions are from women, though the vast majority are; some are from men and others are from transgender or genderqueer individuals — I sidestep that important detail here because the MacKinnon-style argument seems to focus primarily on cisgender women).

This fact alone might be enough to support premise (2) of Davies’s argument. But, of course, the position is more complicated than that. It might be the case that all the pornography produced by these female pornographers is of a softer, more genteel nature than that envisaged by MacKinnon in her definition of Mac-Porn. For example, consider the work of the Candida Royalle. She was one of the pioneers of female-made pornography in the 1980s, and her filmography favoured relatively softcore content. She was a female pornographer, for sure, but she did not make Mac-Porn. Consequently, her existence does not support premise (2) of Davies’s argument.

But not all female-created pornography is of this ‘softer’ type. Some of it is quite hardcore and involves the eroticisation of women in submissive and objectified positions. Davies’s presents a few examples of this in his article. First, he reviews back issues of the ground-breaking lesbian-porn magazine On Our Backs, and describes how they:

[D]epicted women being penetrated by objects, women on display, and fantasies that involved the use of coercion, humiliation, and violence. They also depicted fantasies that involved none of these things. The contents were designed to appeal to an audience of diverse sexual tastes and curiosities. 
(Davies 2017)

He also looks at the female producers of pornographic films that came after Candida Royalle and notes how many of them have produced films that eroticise domination and submission, with different motivations and intentions:

[These female pornographers] include: Nina Hartley, Jacky St. James, Erika Lust, Tristan Taormino, Courtney Trouble, and Madison Young. Each has produced material that eroticizes doominance/submission. They have various motivations for producing the material that they do. Hartley and Taormino believe that sexually explicit material can function as good sex education. Taormino also believes that well-designed sexually explicit material can be used to expose what she calls the ‘fallacies of gender’; by which she means the gender binary and the stereotypes common in male-oriented pornography. Trouble aims to produce material that shows people like her (larger, queer women) as desirable. Young wants to produce depictions of authentic desire. Lust wants to produce material that reflects her sexuality better than male-oriented. 
(Davies 2017)

Davies points out that not only do women produce this material; they also seem to desire access to it and value it quite highly. He cites a focus group study done by Rachel Liberman, which suggests that feminist pornography of this sort was held in high regard because it provided more authentic insights into female sexual subjectivity.

I could go on. Davies provides many more examples of female pornographers in his article and his engagement with these examples is one of the real strengths of his piece. Hopefully, this handful suffices to make the critical point: that premise (2) seems to be robustly well-supported by empirical, real-world examples of female pornographers.

This then leads to the dilemma at the heart of Davies’s argument. If we were to accept the MacKinnon style argument, we would have to assume that (a) all these female pornographers are silencing and subordinating women through their work and (b) that they ought to be subject to legal sanction for doing do. This seems strange given that this would, in effect, silence this particular group of women.


3. Resolving the dilemma?
Is there any way out of this dilemma? Davies suggests that the most popular route out of the dilemma is to simply deny or overlook the existence of female pornographers, and he spends a good deal of time in his article highlighting how prominent liberal anti-porn feminists do this, either implicitly or explicitly. But let’s say you don’t deny their existence. Is there anyway to then maintain the opposition to pornography?

One possibility would be to view the women in question as victims. They need to be saved from the system because they are being oppressed by it. The problem with this is that none of female pornographers discussed above (or elsewhere in Davies article) see themselves in this light. Oftentimes their view is the opposite. They think they are being empowered through the production and distribution of porn. They, and the people who consume their content, view the pornographic material as something that makes a positive contribution to their sex lives. Why should we deny their testimony?

Davies argues that only MacKinnon can maintain a consistent position on this. Because of her radicalist leanings, she views all (or virtually all) women as victims of a patriarchal false consciousness when it comes to sex. She thinks that men set the conditions for sexuality and that we cannot trust women’s testimony concerning their sexual preferences and desires until we have achieved meaningful gender equality. Indeed, on one occasion, MacKinnon even went so far as to suggest that female pornographers were like abuse victims defending their abusers (her exact words are cited in Davies’s article).

This is a pretty extreme view, one that is not shared by the typical liberal feminist, and one that leads to certain conceptual difficulties. After all, MacKinnon must believe that at least some women can see through the veil of false consciousness that has been foisted upon them by the patriarchy. I assume, for example, that she sees herself as someone who has managed to do this. But why assume that she is the only one in this privileged position? Why not trust the voices of the female pornographers?


4. Conclusion
This is why I think Davies’s argument is important and interesting. It highlights two uncomfortable truths about our attitudes towards sex and sexuality.

First, it highlights how we often have a ‘standard model’ for normative sex/sexuality in our minds. This model affects the kinds of sex and sexual self-expression that we deem appropriate or acceptable (for women in particular). Classically, this model consisted of heterosexual sexual intercourse, within marriage. We’ve expanded the standard model since then, but there are still forms of sex that trouble many of us because they lie outside the boundary lines (e.g. BDSM, non-monogamous sex, etc.). This is why people often assume that women could not authentically desire these forms of sex, or seek to represent them in words and images.

Second, the article highlights the importance of taking individual testimony seriously, even when it conflicts with our standard model. This is something that is particularly pertinent at the moment as more and more women come forward to openly share their stories of sexual harassment and assault. But just as we are now taking this testimonial evidence more seriously, perhaps we should also take the testimonial evidence of female pornographers more seriously? If you read someone like Tristan Taormino or Nina Hartley, it’s very hard to believe that they are victims of false consciousness. They seem to have thought this through and are fully aware of what they are doing and the conditions under which they are doing it. They are not rose-tinted idealists, but nor are they oppressed victims. What they say may make us uncomfortable (given the implied commitment to the standard model), but perhaps we should take it at face value?




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