Versus column: A hardcore debate on porn

Sexuality is complicated, and it’s important to avoid one-kind-fits-all-women prescriptions

Sex is weird. It’s even weirder than most of us think, because most of it, most of the time, happens behind closed doors.

But some sex, some of the time, occurs for public consumption. And because this sex is visible, because its weirdness is out there for the whole world to see, this sex becomes the touchstone for whatever it is you think is wrong with American sex as a whole.

But feminists who support porn, like myself, do so for a fairly simple reason. We recognize that all sex and sexuality is complicated and that, historically, attempts to delineate “good sex” from “bad sex” have been used to persecute women and queer people — the exact same people feminism is supposed to be by and for.

Women sometimes embody their own sexualities in ways that make gender theorists nervous. They perform submissive, degraded characters for lovers. They choose to take jobs that temporarily lease out their sexualities. They masturbate, as one 2009 study found 20 percent of women do, to rape fantasies.

As it turns out, women disagree on the definition of sexy. But when anti-porn feminists advocate what feminist scholar Rosemarie Tong describes as “gentle, touchy-feely [and] side-by-side (no one on the top or bottom)” sex as the only right way to be a feminist and have sex, I hear old ideas that feminism fought so hard to eliminate: Moral people only have penis-in-vagina, procreative sex in the missionary position. The argument against porn, largely, is an argument against certain forms of sex and sexual embodiment.

One need only look at Mike Huckabee for evidence that these ideas are connected.

In his new book, Huckabee asks, “Does it occur to [Jay Z] that he is arguably crossing the line from husband to pimp by exploiting his wife as a sex object?” The assumption, of course, is that Beyoncé’s portrayals of sex, both on video and in lyrics, are demeaning and even a potential example of exploitation by the men in her life.

This, perhaps, is the biggest “ugh” factor about many anti-porn arguments. They assume that millions of women are being hopelessly duped into making decisions that aren’t really their own, consenting to practices in which they don’t really want to participate and that they need to be saved from their own hijacked sexualities. My feminism teaches me to trust women over any other source when they speak about their own experiences. So when porn performers join with other sex workers to create massive advocacy organizations that explicitly call for the respect of women who choose careers in all forms of sex work — like Sex Workers Outreach Project and Sex Work Activists, Allies and You — I try to listen.

They don’t want their jobs banned. They just want better legal protection and industry regulation.

The further assumption in Huckabee’s argument against Beyoncé is that there’s something inherently wrong with any situation in which a woman might choose to associate herself with her sexuality rather than, say, her emotional, spiritual or intellectual self.

But performing sexuality can be very empowering for women who have been denied the right to be a whole person before, with an identity in all four of those spheres.

We now have women installing poles in their homes for private use and couples filming their own homemade porn. The oldest lesbian bar in the country, Phase 1 in Washington, D.C., hosts monthly queer burlesque shows.

Compare these forms of porn sexuality to other, totally accepted cultural phenomena. What has encouraged more people to have the kinds of sex that anti-porn feminists think are inherently degrading to women — hard-core porn, or “Fifty Shades of Grey?” Given Hollywood’s obsession with portraying fellatio and simultaneous near-ban on images of cunnilingus, is porn really solely responsible for de-centering women in sex?

Porn fails as a touchstone for whatever it is you think is wrong with American sex as a whole. There’s a lot wrong with the way our culture treats sex, and some of it finds an expression in porn. But a lot of it finds its expression in other places, and porn and other performative sexualities can be used by women to subvert patriarchal ideas about sex.

Plus, sometimes, it’s just damn sexy.

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Jacquelyn Oesterblad is opinions editor. Follow her on Twitter.



Watching porn helps support an industry built upon sex trafficking and the abuse of women

Valentine’s Day is right around the corner — time for a night full of sex, chocolates and, for all the single people, probably some Pornhub. However, it’s probably better to keep the porn away; in fact, it’s for the best, as watching porn is really rather unethical.

The problem with porn is two-fold: It’s not just about what’s going on the screen but also what’s going on behind the screen.

On screen, there’s the problem with the way the actors, especially women, are portrayed. It only takes a quick peek at the home page of any porn site to see why: The video titles tend to be about women being dominated, used or humiliated, if not outright raped.

Watching the videos, including those without such titles, is no better. Men who watch them, especially young men and boys under 18, learn to associate sex and orgasms with these words and actions. They normalize the abuse of women during sex. Women are often merely used in the videos, which usually end with the men having orgasms. There’s generally little time given to the women any pleasure.

Pornography also tends to not depict sex in the way actual people tend to have sex — or even depict people as they actually exist. Not every man has a 7-inch penis and not every woman has DD-sized breasts.

These problems tend to revolve around the treatment of women in porn by men, which makes porn focusing on non-heterosexual couples less likely to be grounded in sexism. That doesn’t necessarily make it better, especially when men are directing the women or the relationships depicted are problematic, but it certainly removes the sexism otherwise inherent to porn. In fact, according to The Huffington Post, a study done by Pornhub and BuzzFeed shows that the top categories of porn for women are “Lesbian” and “Gay (male).”

There’s also an argument to be made for so-called female-friendly porn, or porn for women, where the participants actually have an emotional connection that isn’t based on women being used by men. However, this leads into porn’s second problem: The viewer has no idea what is actually happening behind the camera.

One recent example of this is Jessica Mendes, whose stage name was Jessie Rogers. Mendes spoke to a class at Arizona State University last year on the abuses in the porn industry. She told the class that many of the women tend to go to shoots high to dissociate from the sex, and that in her opinion, the industry is no different than a prostitution ring, with agents pimping out actresses for money. She also related the story of a male performer who beat and choked her off camera, almost killing her.

Stories like this may not be the norm; it’s not possible to know unless more porn stars speak out about the industry. Not every performer, regardless of gender, necessarily dislikes what they’re doing.

However, that doesn’t mean this experience is an aberration. Nonprofit organization Fight the New Drug published an article in August of 2014 called “Porn’s Dirty Little Secret,” using data from multiple academic studies to look at the industry’s treatment of actors. The studies show that the industry sometimes forces people into porn and that men who visit prostitutes are twice as likely to have watched porn in the last year.

And, of course, not every porn film is made with unwilling participants, but it’s often impossible for a viewer on Pornhub to know whether they are watching someone getting raped or not. And when people do watch those videos, the ad revenue has the potential to help fund studios that participate in sex trafficking.

None of this is to say that porn itself is inherently bad, but the porn industry certainly is — and watching porn funds that industry. If the viewer knows that the participants in a video consented, that there’s no abuse and that no money is going toward sex trafficking, then watching porn wouldn’t be bad. But without the ability to know any of that, perhaps it’s better to stick to reading smut or just using the power of your imagination. At least those don’t hurt anyone.

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Ashwin Mehra in a physiology major. Follow him on Twitter.


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