Saturday, October 22, 2011

Has (or can) the internet make pornography less misogynistic?

One of the best known viewpoints within feminism is opposition to pornography.  Many prominent feminists, including Andrea Dworkin, Catherine MacKinnon, Diana Russell, and Jill Riddington, oppose pornography on the grounds that its production involves exploitation and abuse of women, and that it sends misogynistic messages regarding sex.  However, their critiques do not apply to all visual or artistic portrayals of sex designed to titillate.  Indeed, some feminists explicitly differentiate between different explicit portrayals of sex for entertainment.  For instance, in her book Confronting Pornography, Jill Riddington writes “If the message is one that equates sex with domination, or with the infliction of pain, or one that denies sex as a means of human communication, the message is a pornographic one.... Erotica, in contrast, portrays mutual interaction.”  Thus, much material which would be defined colloquially as pornography is not defined as negative by those who accept anti-pornography feminist theories.  In this paper, I intend to show that much of the pornography proliferation seen on the internet is proliferation of material Riddington would define as erotica rather than pornography.  Further, by decentralizing the means of producing pornography, the internet has made pornography less exploitative.  By decentralizing the means of pornography production, the internet has enabled feminists and other marginalized communities to produce empowering yet titillating content, all the while decreasing incentives for abuse and exploitation.

One prominent critique of pornography stems from the assertion that performers are often abused and exploited during the production process.  In some cases, this involves violence against women, even in pornography which appears to be non-violent. For example, Linda Marchiano, who starred in the seemingly non-violent film Deep Throat, has written several books on the rape and abuse she suffered during that film’s production.  In 1983, a variety of porn actresses gave testimony on their own similar ordeals at hearings on a Minneapolis ordinance which would define pornography as a civil rights violation.  Such testimony indicates that at least some pornography involves violent abuse of women, which leads anti-pornography feminist legal scholar Catherine MacKinnon to write “before pornography became the pornographer’s speech it was somebody’s life” as a rejoinder to those who argue that pornography is protected as free speech (Russell, 43).  Further, even in cases where violence is not employed, professional pornography has elements of exploitation which become morally dubious.  Producers operate in a position of power over actors.  This workplace hierarchy, combined with financial pressures, blurs lines of consent, pressuring people to participate in sex they may not otherwise enjoy or be comfortable with.  Even from a sex positive feminist perspective, this is problematic, as it separates sex from consent, fulfillment, and pleasure, instead placing it in a context of hierarchy and economic pressure.

However, the internet has the potential to largely pornography away from hierarchical professional models of production.  “Amateur porn” has become more popular since the advent of the internet permitted anyone with a camera to produce and post pornography.  Many fans praise amateur porn for possessing superior realism compared to professionally produced pornography.  But more importantly for our purposes, amateur pornography is about the pleasure of the participants, rather than workplace hierarchies or economic incentives.  Indeed, the internet has permitted pornography to be made which focuses upon key parts of pleasure which are largely ignored by professional pornographers.  For instance, most professionally produced pornography focuses on pleasure for male target audiences, even adding unrealistic elements to lesbianism and female masturbation for the sake of men.  However, features amateur videos and pictures of women engaging in masturbation.  By portraying female sexual pleasure as women actually experience it, treats sexuality as providing pleasure in a mutual way rather than exploitative or hierarchical manner, and thus meets Jill Riddington’s definition of erotica rather than pornography.  However, regardless of the message sent by amateur pornography, when consensual it does not involve exploitation in anything resembling the way professional pornography does.
The internet may eventually permit pornography to be decentralized enough that hierarchical models of production are almost entirely abolished, replaced instead by various types of amateur porn.  As the internet has enabled people to produce and distribute pornography for free, the supply of pornography, including free pornography, will rise while demand remains constant, thus decreasing the average price people are willing to pay for pornography, potentially bringing it down to zero.  This dramatic increase in competition will decrease the amount of concentrated capital possessed by pornography production companies, and decrease the incentive to make porn for money.  Thus, exploitative models of pornography production could be entirely subsumed by amateur pornography, which we have demonstrated to present fewer problems from a feminist perspective.

It should be made clear that this has not happened yet.  Indeed, the internet currently is home to many large pornography companies.  For example, many pornography sites are run by Bang Bros, a production company founded in 2000 which currently operates 29 websites.  In the year 2007, the company generated 1.9 million dollars in sales revenue.  It is noteworthy that in spite of using a commercial production model rather than decentralized and voluntary amateur productions, Bang Bros advertises many of their sites as “amateur porn,” presumably to cash in on the superior realism often associated with amateur pornography.  This misrepresentation of commercial pornography as “amateur” has likely slowed down the diversification and decentralization of pornography that the internet enables.  In order to limit the commercial aspects of pornography, which introduce dubious power relations and exploitation, the internet’s full potential must be used to undermine commercial pornography’s profitability.  Such an approach would involve those who are comfortable doing so producing their own independent amateur pornography.  It could also involve violating intellectual property restrictions by distributing existing commercial pornography on image and file sharing sites.  This would undercut commercial pornography in the same way other proprietary content industries have had their profits undercut by internet piracy.  A combination of the two tactics would dissolve pornography production towards smaller scale production, with sexuality being recorded for the love and pleasure of sexuality, rather than to appeal to lucrative target audiences.

While many feminist arguments against pornography appeal primarily to exploitative working conditions, some are largely based on the notion that pornography sends misogynistic messages and promotes misogynistic behavior among viewers.  For instance, Riddington writes that pornography “equates sex with domination, or with the infliction of pain” and “denies sex as a means of human communication.”  Moreover, many feminists have argued that viewing pornography increases predilections towards sexual assault.  For example, in an article for the Yale Law Journal on the subject of sexual equality and law, Catherine MacKinnon expressed this position by stating:
In one study, one third of American men in the sample say they would rape a woman if assured they would not get caught.  The figure climbs following exposure to commonly available aggressive pornography.  Pornography, which sexualizes gender inequality, is a major institution of socialization into these roles.  The evidence suggests that women are targeted for intimate assault because the degradation and violation of women is eroticized, indeed defines the social meaning of female sexuality in societies of sex inequality.  Sexual assault thus becomes a definitive act of sexualized power and masculinity under male supremacy (MacKinnon, 1302-1303).

MacKinnon’s basic argument is that pornography eroticizes and glorifies acts of sexual assault, thus tying it intimately to how males see sexuality and implying that women are sexual objects open to assault.  This perspective is expounded upon empirically by Diana Russell in an article for the journal Political Psychology.  In this article, Russell cited a variety of studies which showed that men are surprisingly willing to commit sexual assault, and that this willingness increases when they are aroused (43-45).  Russell then described data on how often adult entertainment features aggressive or violent content, finding that one fifth of all sex episodes in erotic paperbacks involved rape or sexual assault, that less than 3% of the rapists in these books experienced negative consequences, and that in a sample of 150 pornographic home videos 19% of scenes featured violence or aggression, with the aggressors portrayed in a positive light 60% of the time (46-47).  Such empirical data bolstered Russell’s theory of pornography providing a social model for sexual assault, which is very similar to MacKinnon’s theory on this subject.  However, MacKinnon and Russell both wrote their articles before pornography became a primarily online phenomenon.

While the internet has dramatically increased the availability of pornography, sexual assault has declined.  According to the FBI, forcible rape has declined from 41.1 per 100,000 people in 1990 to 28.7 per 100,000 people, an all time low, in 2009.  If Russell and MacKinnon’s theories regarding how pornography can impact inclinations towards sexual assault are correct, this may indicate that porn has become less misogynistic in its message.  The diversification and proliferation of pornography online has made it difficult to gather statistics on how much internet porn portrays sexual assault in a positive light, or sends other misogynistic messages.  However, one trend which can be documented is a rise in porn which portrays female sexual pleasure in a positive light, and generally operates in line with feminist principles.  The example I typically refer back to is, which portrays real women masturbating and experiencing pleasure and orgasms.  However, entire genres of feminist, alternative, and queer pornography have emerged to portray sexuality in both titillating and empowering ways.  Perhaps the best illustration of this is the emergence of the Feminist Porn Awards, issued each year by  The award’s site states that “the world is inundated with cheesy, cliche, degrading, and patronizing porn” but also that “erotic fantasy is powerful” and “women and marginalized communities deserve to put their dreams and desires on film, too.”  Thus, the awards recognize porn which uses visual erotica not to degrade, marginalize, or exploit, but to portray sexuality in a manner which empowers women and the sexually marginalized.  Specifically, to be eligible for a Feminist Porn Award, a film must meet the following criteria:
1) A woman had a hand in the production, writing, direction, etc. of the work.
2) It depicts genuine female pleasure
3) It expands the boundaries of sexual representation on film and challenges stereotypes that are often found in mainstream porn. 
That the Feminist Porn Awards find so many eligible nominees each year indicates that pornography is being used for its positive potential.  It indicates that while some pornography may have the rape promoting messages described by MacKinnon and Russell, there is a growing genre of pornography which serves to expand sexual representation and benefit women and other marginalized groups.

This potential for pornography to be used for sexual liberation has been noted before, specifically by individualist feminist Wendy McElroy, the author of XXX: A Woman’s Right to Pornography.  In her book, McElroy argues that pornography benefits women both personally and politically.  One benefit she identifies is that “provides sexual information on at least three levels: it gives a panoramic view of the world's sexual possibilities; it allows women to ‘safely’ experience sexual alternatives; and, it provides a different form of information than can be found in textbooks or discussions.”  These purported benefits have all been enhanced by the internet fueled diversification of porn.  As pornography begins to be made for nearly every imaginable topic, and the means of pornography production are made available to women and other marginalized groups, the “panoramic view of the world’s sexual possibilities” expands to encompass many sexual topics which would normally be taboo in our puritanical society.  Similarly, because pornography has become more diverse online, the ability pornography grants women to “‘safely’ experience sexual alternatives” is expanded by the internet.

Ultimately, the internet has had several impacts on pornography, all of them positive from a feminist perspective.  It has provided a means to decrease exploitation, by decentralizing the means of pornography production, allowing people to produce amateur and cooperative pornography based upon pleasure rather than economic pressure.  This same decentralization has provided feminists and sexually marginalized communities with an outlet to develop their own pornography and erotica as an alternative to degrading and misogynistic pornography.  This decentralization also means pornography has diversified, thus permitting its beneficial and exploratory aspects to be applied to a broader and less confined range of sexuality. 

Works cited include, but are not limited to: 
Russell, Diana.   “Pornography and Rape: A Causal Model.”  Political Psychology  9.1 
(1988): 41-73

MacKinnon, Catherine.  “Reflections on Sex Equality Under Law.”  Yale Law Review 
            100.5 (1999): 1281-1328

McElroy, Wendy.  XXX: A Woman’s Right to Pornography. New York: St. Martin’s

I Feel Myself.  1 April 2011. Web.  1 April 2011.

Ridington, Jillian.  Confronting Pornography: A Feminist on the Front Lines
Vancouver, Canada: CRIAW/ICREF, 1989.  Print.