Debate: okay to like porn?

Submitted by cathy n on 26 February, 2007 - 11:45

By Cath Fletcher

It “encapsulates pretty much everything we find objectionable and upsetting about representations of women and of sexuality as a whole”. What is it? Woman’s Weekly? A Mills & Boon novel? Heat magazine? Page 3? Celebrity Love Island? No, in fact, it’s “mainstream heterosexual pornography”, so described by Sofie Buckland in her article “Is Pornography Free Speech?” (Women’s Fightback, Nov 2006).

While I agree with much of Sofie’s article, I think this is the wrong attitude for socialists to take. Because by starting off from the position that mainstream porn is sexist and objectionable, Sofie implies that women who enjoy watching that porn are at worst enemies of feminism or at best poor little victims either of false consciousness or of their nasty oppressor boyfriends who are making them watch the stuff even though they’d rather not.

Maria Exall, in her response to Sofie, is quick to pick up on that attitude, and goes on to argue that “the vast majority of commercial porn promotes a single narrow view of how sex should be, how women should be”. Well, it’s true that there’s a lot of poor quality porn out there. But Hollywood has a far worse record than the porn industry – surf the internet and you can find pretty much any type of sex or shape of person you fancy. You’d search in vain for the same variety in a Hollywood film. That women might enjoy mainstream porn is not a concept which either Sofie or Maria is prepared to accept. Which is strange, because despite Maria’s assertion that the porn industry is “99% plus aimed at men”, the big recent expansion of the commercial sex industry in the UK has been in products marketed to women.

Capitalists have been quick to pick up on the fact that women have money to spend on sex. The most obvious phenomenon, in the UK, has been the rapid growth of Ann Summers, the lingerie and sex toys chain aimed at women. There are more porn films being produced specifically for women, like the Anna Span features; upmarket shops like Agent Provocateur and Coco de Mer sell pricey dildos alongside the pricey knickers. Even Mills & Boon have launched a new raunchier imprint. And, of course, what we don’t know is the extent to which women use porn online. These developments are clearly linked to women’s increased independent spending power: vastly more women now earn a wage than they did 20 years ago, and if they want to spend it on sex toys or porn then why not? Isn’t this something socialists should favour?

It is, arguably, only the highly-restrictive licensing laws which are slowing down an equivalent expansion in marketing porn to women (sex shops which sell R-18 videos can’t allow under-18s in, and have to screen off their windows; they are subject to strict planning controls and often located away from town centres).

As Sh! the women-only sex shop in London points out on its website, if it had a licence to sell porn (for which, it says, there is customer demand), it would have to ban its customers from bringing their babies into the shop. We should be arguing for the abolition of laws which restrict access to pornography.

Maria’s article takes a further turn for the bizarre when she argues that we should defend people who have sex in ways that society disapproves of, like the Bolton 7 (seven gay men prosecuted for having sex together). It’s almost as if Maria wants sexual behaviour (and presumably porn too) to be judged by its political correctness: it’s okay just so long as it’s right-on, and – to borrow her words – “experimental and innovative”. This is just silly. If people want to log on and watch a man and a woman having sex in the missionary position then, well, that’s up to them. Who are we to insist that, no, what they really want to see is people dressed up in gas masks and PVC because somehow that’s a “freer expression of sexuality”?
Maria is also wrong when she argues that there is something particularly bad about the porn industry because it is “intimately connected to human trafficking, forced prostitution, the illegal drugs trade and gang violence”. How is that worse than the chocolate industry being linked to slavery, or the diamond industry being linked to funding civil war? Capitalism is bad – yes. Is the sex industry uniquely bad? Only in the sense that it still carries a particular moral stigma of shamefulness, one which we as socialists should oppose. There is no reason why the porn industry should be subject to any regulation that we would not demand for industry in general under capitalism: a living wage, shorter working hours, proper measures to ensure workers’ health and safety.

As for porn being “censored” in the workplace, as Maria suggests it should be, presumably what we’re actually in favour of is controls over the display of sexist material in the workplace, not necessarily over the display of sexual material. This is not an idle distinction: a worker at Morley College took a tribunal case arguing that she had been forced to leave her job because the display of students’ life drawings in a corridor was so offensive to her religion. And, of course, there is plenty of sexist material that you would not want to see displayed in a workplace that is not pornographic at all.

Finally, Maria says: “the aspiration for non-exploitative, respectful and loving human sexual relationships… is part of our liberation”. I don’t see how watching a film or looking at pictures of people having sex is incompatible with that. Furthermore, I think Maria’s formulation comes dangerously close to implying that there is something wrong with casual sex – hardly an attitude consistent with the fight for sexual liberation. Socialists should positively encourage more open discussion of sex and sexuality. Denouncing “mainstream porn” is not a good way to do that.

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