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Examining the feminist critique of pornography

In Doyle and Lacombe’s “Porn Power: Sex, Violence and the Meanings of Images in 1980s Feminism,” they argue feminists in the 80s who saw pornography as violence against women and their chief rivals, the Feminists Against Censorship, both missed an important point-many women use pornography for positive purposes.  Though the latter group argued the sexist images of porn came from sexist society, not men’s violent desires to use women, they still implicitly disapproved of it.

The authors argue that this agreement that mainstream porn could not be positive as well as their unwillingness to listen to women who enjoyed porn or worked in the sex industry meant that although the sides fought bitterly, their stance was effectively the same.  In the 80s, the only point of view allowed by feminists was that porn is bad, is against women, and cannot be enjoyed by women without harming them.  Doyle and Lacombe argue this simply is not the case.  They cite a Time poll that showed 40 percent of x-rated video renters were women.  More importantly, both sides failed to get above conventional ideas about power.  For example, some women find mainstream porn to be empowering in that it often breaks class barriers and shows women pursuing pleasure guiltlessly.  The lines between porn and art are often blurred, and most porn actresses do not find their work unpleasant at all-despite the assumption by most feminists that they are forced to do this demeaning thing by circumstances.  Porn created with a male audience in mind arouses even liberated women, and many porn workers consider themselves feminists.

I think they’re bringing up a valid point.  I truly doubt that 40 percent of porn consumption is done by women, and other studies I’ve read about Internet porn viewership usually place the number lower.  But it is true that modern mainstream pornography (which isn’t that different from 80s or 70s porn) is created and used by women who are not being deluded into victimization by the patriarchy.  As a fairly strong supporter of the First Amendment, I am against the efforts to ban obscenity altogether, but I’m not sure the Feminists Against Censorship can be so easily disregarded.  Their notion of resisting sexism in porn and perhaps creating a new kind of porn I think is admirable so long as they keep in mind it’s their opinion.  One thing I’m not sure I completely buy is the recent notion (reflected by many of the sex workers in this piece) that “acting” in porn and using your body for profit is real empowerment.  First of all, many of these performers are not valued for their performance, skill, artistry, and certainly not for their personality or worth as people.  They are valued as disposable objects by 15-year-olds with modems and creepy old men in quarter-fed viewing booths.  Empowerment is having the ability to choose to do anything and if you work hard enough, to succeed.  The fact that you are paid well is not empowerment in any sense outside catalogue shopping.  Second, they are doing nothing to change society’s basic attitudes that such women are sluts and such men are studs.  The overall effect is not as negative as many feminists think, but I doubt it’s very positive.