From Anti-Porn Feminists.
Libertarian Wendy McElroy, who is a so-called “individualist feminist” and a cheerleader for pornography, has written two books defending pornography against radical analysis. She has written an article summarizing her arguments against the radfem position (which she calls “gender feminism,” a rather bizarre moniker since feminists are against gender):
1. Feminism is no longer a stronghold of freedom of speech;
2. Women’s unacceptable sexual choices are now under new attack;
3. It involves rejecting the principle “a woman’s body, a woman’s right.”
So basically McElroy’s strategy consists of the same old attempt to reduce systemic arguments to an attack against individuals. Of course, as an “individualist feminist,” she believes that “feminism should no longer be about communal solutions to communal problems but individual solutions to individual problems.” I guess feminism has won, our societies are perfectly egalitarian, and all the problems that remain are individual problems (hmmmmm… nope).
McElroy is quite aware of the fact that her Libertarian individualist “feminist” position is aberrant:
The dominant school, however, is still ‘gender’ feminism which is politically correct and far-left leaning. They consider the free market to be one of the twin pillars of the patriarchal system that is, in turn, the oppressor of women. They also approach politics almost exclusively on the basis of class analysis and class interests. Predictably, an individualist feminist who touts the free market and reduces politics to individual rights is usually dismissed, accused of being a shill for male power, or otherwise treated with contempt. It can become a mite unpleasant.
Although it is an obvious lie for her to state that radfem is “dominant,” and is probably meant for her to assume the position of victim, she is correct that her Libertarian position is harmonious with the exploitation and oppression of women, and that she is a shill for male power. It may be somewhat harder for her to deny this charge given the fact that she also happens to write for FOX News. I’m glad that her propaganda work is making her life “a mite unpleasant,” although I wish it was a great deal more unpleasant, because she is bringing actual physical harm to women by her actions (but I still wouldn’t wish her a fraction of the harm women go through in prostitution or pornography).
So McElroy’s agenda, as an individualist, is to hide institutional exploitation and oppression, and to blame individuals for their own bad life situations. Because she believes there is only individual action, she must attribute this same ideology to her opponents. Therefore, radfem arguments are “actually” about blaming individual women for their choices, not about systemic analysis at all. Dizzying nonsense, but that’s what individualist feminists actually believe. Here is McElroy’s analysis of radfem arguments:
Moreover, consider how contemptuously radical feminism is treating the “unacceptable” choices of these adult women. If a woman enjoys consuming pornography, it is not because she comes from another background, has a different psychological makeup, different goals in life or an unusual perspective. No: it is because she is mentally incompetent. Like any three-year-old, she is unable to give informed consent regarding her own body.
To anyone who actually reads radfem materials, it’s hard to see this characterization of radfem arguments as anything but dishonest. I don’t know a group of women who are more compassionate towards other women, but most importantly, radfem says absolutely nothing about individual choice, except that it takes place within a patriarchal context. Radfem is a systemic analysis (which McElroy rejects out of hand) which opposes pornography as an institution, not as a set of individual choices.
So to answer McElroy from a radfem perspective: no, the choices of adult women who consume pornography are not “unacceptable.” Women who consume pornography are not “mentally incompetent” (who seriously believes this? what a blatant straw man). There are many reasons why women consume pornography, and pornography as an institution being good or bad has relatively little to do with pornography consumption being good or bad. In the same way, capitalism is evil but people participate in capitalism for all sorts of reasons, mostly by necessity. Being forced to participate does not make one evil: in the absence of consent, blame cannot be given.
I mention consent because, to McElroy, the issue revolves around consent. This is fair enough, as radfem also agrees that consent is at the center of the issue. So we have to address McElroy’s beliefs about consent head-on. She first explains the radfem position (that in a Patriarchy there can be no such thing as meaningful consent) and then qualifies it in a weird way:
Women who thought they agreed were so damaged by male society that they were not able to give true consent.
McElroy is again trying to smuggle in her false premise that radfems believe women who participate to the Patriarchy are somehow defective and worthy of scorn. These women are not “damaged.” Again, women who participates to the Patriarchy in some way do so for a variety of reasons, many of which have nothing to do with them being “damaged” and more to do with them coping with living in a society that devalues and exploit their gender.
In over a decade of defending pornography against such attacks, I have avoided First Amendment arguments and preferred to challenge the anti-porn zealots on their own terms. The key questions became: Are women coerced into pornography? and How does porn relate to general societal violence against women? A secondary – but essential – question was whether pornography provided any benefit to women.
Regarding the first question, I appealed directly to women who were involved in the production of hard-core pornography such as S/M, where it seemed most likely that violence would occur. In the hundreds of such adult women I spoke with, every single one said they had not been coerced into performing pornography, nor did they know of a woman who had been. I decided to take the articulate voices of these adult women seriously and not dismiss them, as anti-porn feminists were doing.
First of all, it’s a known fact that prostitutes are coerced into producing pornography, so we have a fundamental factual problem here. McElroy considers only the voices of the most privileged pornography and dismisses the voices of prostituted women. Radfem women are not dismissing the voice of pornographic actresses who consider themselves well-served by their job, they just listen to the privileged and to the dispossessed. Some women are in pornography and are not being coerced, but most women are. The fact that McElroy listens only to the first category of women is more indicative of her class bias than of any fact.
To such evidence, radical feminists routinely answer that no “healthy” woman would consent to pornography. Therefore, such women were damaged by a male culture and incapable of rendering consent. The Minneapolis ordinance had argued that women, like children, needed special protection under the law…
I find it interesting that McElroy quotes no radfem saying that “no healthy woman would consent to pornography.” It is obvious that such women do, all the time (it is also obvious that many “damaged” women, to borrow McElroy’s derogative term, consent to pornography too). I would be keen to know her sources on that.
As for the association of women with children, I think she is projecting there. She probably does think of prostituted women as “damaged” and “child-like,” which would explain why she ignores their voices. At least that would be consistent with the individualist approach to prostitution, which holds that prostitutes are not being exploited and raped, they’re just dumb.
So what argument does McElroy have to demonstrate that consent to pornography is meaningful? Here is the only one I can see in the article:
As to whether cultural pressure has influenced the decisions of porn actresses – of course it has. Our culture has some impact on every choice we make, including the choice to become a feminist. To say that women who participate in pornography cannot make a choice because of cultural pressure, however, is to eliminate the possibility of choice in any situation.
How ironic that she does not realize the consequences of what she states. Of course “the possibility of choice” is eliminated: there is no such thing as choice in the literal sense. Anyone who has any commitment to science must come to that conclusion. Of course, this is an unacceptable conclusion to a Libertarian individualist, so she must ignore any scientific challenge to the concept of “choice”; but this places McElroy squarely in the camp of pseudo-science.
Porn advocates can crow all they like about the ‘industry’ being a celebration of the choices that the women involved make, but it takes only a little bit of education for the illusion of ‘choice’ to erode away. Financial coercion, substance abuse, deception – these things are the backbone of these ‘choices,’ creating a world wherein ‘no’ means little, and ‘yes’ means little more than that.
No, we don’t really make choices. We are the product of societal influences, our education, our genetics, and so on. This means that any attempt at blaming people for their “choices” is misguided, no matter how much McElroy tries to argue that this is what radfem is about. Granted, I don’t think all radfem are determinists, although I think they are at least sympathetic to the notion, like all radicals are by nature (there is no point in examining the institutions in our society if those institutions have no part, or only a minor part, in who we are or what we do).
So if this is her only reply to the consent argument, then it falls flat on its face. She has not demonstrated that sexual consent is possible in a patriarchal society.
In another article, she tries to provide an argument:
The pivotal difference between individualist feminists and radical feminists lies in the concepts of coercion and consent. For individualist feminists, these concepts rest on the principle of self-ownership: that is, every woman’s inalienable right to her own body. If a woman says ‘yes’ — or if her behavior clearly implies ‘yes’ — then consent is present. If a woman says ‘no’ — or clearly implies it — then coercion is present.
As I have already pointed out here and here, the principle of self-ownership is nonsense both logically and biologically, therefore her whole argument is null and void. If McElroy is correct in saying that “individualist feminism” is based on self-ownership, then “individualist feminism” is fundamentally false.
This error leads her to the equally nonsensical conclusion that agreement equals consent. But we know that necessity can generate agreement, and that someone acting under necessity is not consenting. If I need to submit to a capitalist work contract in order to have a place to live and food to eat, I am not consenting to capitalism by doing so. There was no alternative there in the first place.
In previous entries, I have listed a number of criteria that make an action non-consensual:
1. The absence of a viable signal of refusal. If there is no signal that one or the other party would accept as a refusal (i.e. there is no actual alternative to agreement), then there is no consent.
2. Any signal given under a threat of force is the product of duress, and is therefore not consent.
3. A signal given where there is a credible alternative but said alternative is not viable due to pre-existing conditions is as invalid as one given without actual alternatives.
4. In a situation where there is no possibility of consent, one should never infer consent (this may seem painfully obvious, but a lot of people believe the exact opposite).
5. If consent cannot be given prospectively, then there is no possibility of consent.
Principles 1, 2, 3 and 5 prove clearly that agreement does not equal consent. If a person gives agreement but had no viable way to refuse, there is no consent. If a person gives agreement under threat of force, there is no consent. If a person gives agreement because pre-existing conditions prevent them from taking alternatives, there is no consent. If a person gives agreement in a context where it cannot be given prospectively, there is no consent. And if there is no consent, there is coercion. So no, just because someone says “yes” does not mean they are consenting. That’s not a proper foundation for any ideology.
If women actively choose pornographic, prostituted sex, can we consider that sex as harmless because it is chosen? These questions collapse the experience of harm into the act of consent, rendering invisible the harm of the prostitution exchange, dissociating it from the fullness of lived experience, and locating it only in human will. This is a variant of liberal ideology, which drives economic markets by elevating individual choice in order to maximize consumerism. In this way, the sex of prostitution is reduced from being a class condition of women to a personal choice of the individual.
Kathleen Barry, The Prostitution of Sexuality, p69
Anyway, McElroy then summarizes (what she thinks is) the radfem argument:
The radical feminist argument runs: Pornography leads directly to violence against women, especially rape. Thus, every woman is a victim because every woman is in danger.
There is a great deal of debate on how much pornography affects violence against women. I will leave that to the social scientists, since it is a pragmatic issue. My position is that pornography is wrong, and that pragmatic issues are not relevant to this fact. So I am not interested in this part of McElroy’s article.
I am however interested in her supposed benefits of pornography, where we find this spit-take-inducing proposition:
Pornography and feminism have much in common. Both deal with women as valid sexual beings.
Of all her statements, this has to be the most ridiculous of all. It’s hard to imagine anything that has less to do with actual female sexuality as pornography! If McElroy seriously believes that female sexuality is expressed by verbal and physical abuse, which is what most top-selling pornography is about, then she has a lower opinion of women than even MRAs (let alone radfems). It’s hard to believe she wrote such an absurd statement without sarcasm or irony.
On the other hand, she is correct in saying that feminism deal with women as valid sexual beings, but it deals with women as more than sexual beings. Pornography, on the other hand, deals with women as sexual objects and nothing more. Radical feminists don’t even portray men nearly as depraved as pornography portrays them. So what could they possibly have in common?
On the other hand, it’s easy to see what “individualist feminism” and pornography have in common: they both treat women like shit, especially women who are dispossessed. It’s also easy to see what “individualist feminism” and the rape culture have in common: they both blame women for their “choices.” McElroy doesn’t want to talk about women who make “bad choices,” but if she believes some women make “good choices,” then there must be women who make “bad choices” as well. They never talk about the flip side, of course, because telling people they should blame themselves for their problems never sells… and to a free market fanatic like McElroy, not selling is the greatest sin of all.