Feminist Debates: Pornography

The women’s movement is a diverse, complex, multifaceted one with many differences of opinion and ways of thinking. Although most mainstream feminists generally agree about issues—such as being pro-choice or against genital cutting—there are several controversial issues about which no one general consensus has formed. This article on feminist debates is half explanatory, half experiment: After giving each side of an issue equal fair time, there will be a poll to ask you, dear readers, what you think.

While almost all mainstream feminists agree that the pornography industry is problematic in the way it is currently produced, some feminists are against porn in principle, some are critical of the industry’s current state but not against pornography’s existence and other feminists’ opinions lie on a spectrum in between. What follows is meant to spark discussion about mainstream pornography; illegal and undeniably horrific pornography (such as child porn or rape videos) will not be addressed.

The anti-porn argument:

The pornography industry is a complex machine that turns sex into a commodity that is more about power and profit than pleasure (read more about the relationship between porn and capitalism here). By turning sex into a product, the industry contributes to the commodification and objectification of bodies, particularly women’s bodies. Providing sexual pleasure for consumers is not inherently wrong, but there are problems with the ways porn is created, packaged and sold.

The effects of porn stretch beyond whatever actors do or say and have a far broader impact than simple titillation. This is especially true when parents and schools are not properly educating children and young adults about sex, which can lead youth to porn for answers. This trend is indicative of a larger problem regarding sex education, but let’s focus on what porn inadvertently teaches its viewers: It’s not depicting safe and consensual sex when there are hundreds of revenge porn sites (a genre that involves posting sex tapes made with former partners without those partners’ permission) and when no condoms are required during the filming of porn (although a controversial bill recently passed the state assembly in California that would require performers to wear condoms). Although it is not porn’s responsibility to teach its viewers about sex, it unfortunately contributes to misconceptions about sex.

Porn also contributes to already dangerous ideas about the role of women during heterosexual sex. While BDSM and other forms of kink can be practiced safely and consensually in private, displaying these forms of sex as the norm online can be harmful. Without scenes that depict performers choosing a safe word and discussing what they are comfortable with, porn depicting rough sex shows viewers that potentially degrading acts can be done at any point during sex without proper communication. Even porn without the kink label generally depicts heterosexual sex as a violent act against women. Women are slapped, spit on, choked and used for male pleasure with little or no effort given to provide their own. Even lesbian porn is generally made with male viewers in mind, with women fingering each other while wearing long, fake nails that are dangerous for sex.

Anti-porn feminist Robert Jensen has written extensively on the topic. In his book, Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity, he says,

People routinely assume that pornography is such a difficult and divisive issue because it’s about sex. In fact, this culture struggles unsuccessfully with pornography because it is about men’s cruelty to women, and the pleasure men sometimes take in that cruelty. And that is much more difficult for people—men and women—to face.

Porn also sexualizes young women, calling them “teens” or “barely legal” and frequently dressing them in schoolgirl or cheerleader outfits. While acting out a fantasy can be fun and fulfilling, these repeated tropes can lead to the sexualization and exploitation of underage girls. Countless sites also separate videos by race, which contributes to the fetishization of racial minorities (more on the porn-is-racist debate here). Intersex and trans* individuals are also fetishized and degraded in so-called “tranny” or “hermaphrodite” porn that perpetuates stereotypes and uses harmful and stigmatizing language.

Pornography is an apparatus of the patriarchy because of the way it is aimed at male consumers. The women who participate in pornography deserve dignity and respect, but are still engaging in acts that perpetuate ideas about male domination over women and place an emphasis on male pleasure over female pleasure, even in non-heterosexual videos. Performing in pornography turns women into sex objects and is simply an example of how deeply ingrained and coercive patriarchal oppression is today. As feminist and law professor Catharine MacKinnon says, “Pornography is a harm of male supremacy made difficult to see because of its pervasiveness, potency and, principally, because of its success in making the world a pornographic place.”

The pro-porn argument:

Why should we completely censor the fantasies that allow people to explore their desires and interests from a safe distance? Why not allow porn to be an opportunity for minority directors and actors to create media that does not stereotype or degrade them? In a previous Ms. Blog article, pornography scholar Mireille Miller-Young says,

Surely there’s racism in the porn industry. It affects how people of color are represented and treated, but there are counter-stories–especially among women of color who are creating and managing their own product. This doesn’t get enough attention.

While acknowledging that porn the way it is now can sometimes perpetuate harmful ideas about sex and further objectify the bodies of women and minorities, many do not believe that this means that porn is inherently wrong. There is an upswing of “female-friendly” videos that depict sex as a shared and mutually enjoyable experience rather than purely a male pleasure-focused activity, as well as instructional pornography videos that show viewers how to safely participate in fun and consensual sex. A quick Google search can lead pornography consumers to safe and informative websites, and there are many books written on the topic of feminist porn.

And at what point do we stop holding the media accountable for how people interpret pornography? Following the same logic about how porn should be banned because of the potentially harmful and misleading information that it presents, shows like SpongeBob SquarePants would have been cancelled because of children who drown looking for the characters. Mary Poppins would have been banned because she encouraged me to try flying with an umbrella when I was eight years old. Why, then, is porn held so accountable for the way people think about and act out sex? Why are the squeamish school systems and parents not held responsible for teaching children and young adults to respect each other’s and their own bodies? Why does the responsibility for teaching the nation’s youth about sex fall to strangers on the Internet?

Many anti-pornography feminists believe that porn is an apparatus of the patriarchy that reduces women to sex objects and is a part of the systematic oppression and degradation of women, but this claim robs the performers of control over their bodies and shames them for participating in an industry that provides them with financial stability and the opportunity to explore their sexuality. As feminist writer Ellen Willis once said, “The claim that ‘pornography is violence against women’ was code for the neo-Victorian idea that men want sex and women endure it.”

Why do people assume that the women performing in porn are not enjoying it themselves? Claims that the women who perform in porn are being coerced or indoctrinated into the patriarchy simply belittle women and question their right to bodily autonomy. By hating porn and considering it to be a shameful pastime, profession or method of achieving sexual pleasure (both as performers or consumers), we force performers into the role of being lesser humans and hurt efforts to empower or legally protect performers.

The problems within pornography stem from larger patriarchal frameworks, so while the industry may require drastic improvement, pornography cannot be blamed for sexism and violence—particularly when there are institutionalized policies that repeatedly shame and debase the female body. Rather than blame pornography or attempt to censor it, we can think critically about the way it is packaged and sold as a commodity for men rather than as a universally enjoyable and empowering method of exploring sexuality. In order to reform the pornography industry, we must first work to destigmatize it, starting with accepting it as a legitimate method of employment and sexual enjoyment for women.

So where on the feminist spectrum do you fall in terms of pornography? Do you identify as anti-porn, pro-porn or somewhere in between? Leave your comments and take our survey to choose the opinion with which you most identify.

How do you feel about pornography?1) I am against pornography.
2) I am against pornography that is currently being produced but not against pornography in principle.
3) I am completely fine with the current state of pornography.
4) I am not for or against pornography. 

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Photo courtesy of Pejman Parvandi via CreativeCommons 2.0

Simone Lieban Levine is a rising junior at St. Mary’s College of Maryland and an intern for Ms. Follow her on Twitter: @though_she_be.


Simone Lieban Levine is a rising junior at St. Mary's College of Maryland and an intern for Ms.