Wendy McElroy doing a terrible job of defending pornography.


From Sinfest.

I have previously written an entry about Wendy McElroy, a so-called “individualist feminist,” and her defense of pornography against radical feminism. Her basic argument was that radfems think women are “damaged” and therefore cannot consent to pornography. This “argument” has been uttered by no radfem ever, and McElroy cannot provide any references because none exist. It is a ridiculous strawwomyn.

For those who won’t read my original entry, I will give a brief rehashing of my rebuttal. Radical feminism is about making a systemic analysis of our patriarchal institutions, not criticizing individuals. Women sometimes can and do consent to pornography, but that has no relevance to the evils of pornography as an institution (or any other patriarchal institution, for that matter). Radfems also do criticize our concept of consent and how we apply it to sexuality, but I know of no radfem who believes that women who are not capable of consent are “damaged.”

I thought it would be a good follow-up to analyze a more rigorous defense of pornography by McElroy, called “A Feminist Overview of Pornography — Ending in a Defense Thereof“. She posits four reasons why feminists oppose pornography, and puts forward four arguments in defense of pornography. Let me go through these in turn:

1. Pornography is Degrading to Women.

‘Degrading’ is a subjective term. I find commercials in which women become orgasmic over soapsuds to be tremendously degrading. The bottom line is that every woman has the right to define what is degrading and liberating for herself.

The assumed degradation is often linked to the ‘objectification’ of women: that is, porn converts them into sexual objects. What does this mean? If taken literally, it means nothing because objects don’t have sexuality; only beings do. But to say that porn portrays women as ‘sexual beings’ makes for poor rhetoric. Usually, the term ‘sex objects’ means showing women as ‘body parts’, reducing them to physical objects. What is wrong with this? Women are as much their bodies as they are their minds or souls. No one gets upset if you present women as ‘brains’ or as ‘spiritual beings’. If I concentrated on a woman’s sense of humor to the exclusion of her other characteristics, is this degrading? Why is it degrading to focus on her sexuality?

It is quite bizarre that someone who claims to be a feminist cannot define the term “objectification” adequately. Feminism 101 gives us the answer:

Sexual objectification is the viewing of people solely as de-personalised objects of desire instead of as individuals with complex personalities and desires/plans of their own. This is done by speaking/thinking of women especially as only their bodies, either the whole body, or as fetishised body parts…

Women are universally viewed as the Other across all cultures, a role which is both externally imposed and internalised, and which means that women are generally not truly regarded as fully human.

Objectification is not an arcane or obscure concept: even non-feminists are well aware of what it is about. But “feminist” McElroy apparently is not very familiar with it, reducing it to showing women as body parts, which is only the most superficial aspect of objectification.

To answer the point, obviously there is nothing wrong in talking about someone’s body. Objectification does not mean that you focus on someone’s body, it means that you treat them, the whole person, as an object: an object of desire, a sex object, a commodity. Pornography is not wrong because it focuses on women’s sexuality: so does a class on sexual satisfaction for women, but such a class typically does not objectify women. Pornography is wrong because it objectifies women, by treating women as an object of desire, a sex object, a commodity, instead of treating them like human beings.

Likewise, it would be equally offensive to talk about someone’s brains being a tool or a commodity. So I don’t see how McElroy’s analogy works here. People do very much get upset when they are objectified on the basis of their intelligence or their spirituality. Unfortunately, her misunderstandings about objectification leads her to make these very basic mistakes.

McElroy is making another strawwomyn here, implying that radfem think saying a woman is beautiful or that she has sex is offensive. But no radfem I know thinks this. It’s just nonsense.

2. Pornography Leads to Violence against Women.

A cause-and-effect relationship is drawn between men viewing pornography and men attacking women, especially in the form of rape. But studies and experts disagree as to whether any relationship exists between pornography and violence, between images and behavior. Even the pro-censorship Meese Commission Report admitted that the data connecting pornography to violence was unreliable.

Other studies, such as the one prepared by feminist Thelma McCormick (1983) for the Metropolitan Toronto Task Force on Violence Against Women, find no pattern to connect porn and sex crimes. Incredibly, the Task Force suppressed the study and reassigned the project to a pro-censorship male, who returned the ‘correct’ results. His study was published.

What of real world feedback? In Japan, where pornography depicting graphic and brutal violence is widely available, rape is much lower per capita than in the United States, where violence in porn is severely restricted.

I would be inclined to call this another strawwomyn. McElroy wants you to believe that radfems make claims about pornography viewing leading to rape. But this causal relationship does not, as far as I know, concern most radfem. What concerns them is the relationship between the sex acts that men watch in pornography and the sex acts they perform on women of all walks of life, but especially prostitutes. They are also concerned about the sex acts women in pornography are pressured to perform in order to earn more money.

On these points, McElroy remains entirely silent, again because McElroy doesn’t understand radical feminism and has never interacted with the materials of actual radical feminists. The viewpoint she presents in this article is entirely made up by herself. The only feminist she names in the whole list of arguments is Thelma McCormack, which she sloppily misspelled “McCormick,” a name which I’ve never seen in connection with radical feminism and who seems to only do high-level academic and governmental work.

To answer her initial point, it may very well be that pornography does not correlate to higher rates of sexual violence. So, suppose we also demonstrate that racist materials do not lead to higher rates of hate crimes. What does that prove? It doesn’t prove that racism is acceptable, or that pornography is not harmful to women as a class.

No one, as far as I know, claims that pornography in isolation leads to violence against women, but pornography participates to the objectification of women, which does lead to violence against women. Whether a given man, after watching Anal Inferno #2, will go out and succeed in raping a woman in the ass does not prove anything about pornography. Radical feminist analysis is concerned with how the system works, not the behavior of any single individual.

Her point about Japan is particularly egregious. As an intelligent woman, she cannot have been blind to the fact that by far the biggest challenge to fighting rape is the lack of reporting, and that women in Japan are particularly oppressed (as regards to rape, see for example Decisions not to Report Sexual Assault in Japan, by Dussich, Fujiwara and Sagisaka). Otherwise she must be very naive indeed. And given the point just below, I think accusations of naivete are warranted.

3. Pornography is Violence

a. Women are coerced into pornography.

Not one woman of the dozens of woman in porn with whom I spoke reported being coerced. Not one knew of a woman who had been. Nevertheless, I do not dismiss reports of violence: every industry has its abuses. And anyone who uses force or threats to make a woman perform should be charged with kidnapping, assault, and/or rape. Any pictures or film should be confiscated and burned, because no one has the right to benefit from the proceeds of a crime.

Despite my previous accusation, I have a lot of trouble believing that McElroy is this naive or sheltered. I already commented on my previous entry that McElroy completely ignores the studies which show that approximately half of prostitutes report being used for the purpose of producing pornography. And yet she has the arrogance to declare that, because the women she spoke to personally (one presumes, relatively privileged white women, like she is) have not been coerced, therefore women are not generally coerced in pornography. It’s almost as if McElroy is trying to be a parody of funfeminists (which is an improvement for her, since funfeminism, despite its stupidity, is not ridiculously self-contradictory).

I agree with her about using force or threats to make a woman produce pornography should be a crime. But because there can be no such thing as consent in pornography, this should logically result in all pornography being illegal. Of course McElroy doesn’t care about consent, so such considerations do not enter her mind.

I also like the concept that pornography is an “industry.” Really? What other industry in the Western world not only flaunts its refusal to obey the most basic safety rules, but openly opposes laws that would bring them about? Criminals do that, not serious businesses. In fact, that seems to me to be a good criterion to differentiate between honest people and crooks or fraudsters.

b. Women who Pose for Porn are so Traumatized by Patriarchy They Cannot Give Real Consent.

Although women in pornography appear to be willing, anti-porn feminists know that no psychologically healthy woman would agree to the degradation of pornography. Therefore, if agreement seems to be present, it is because the women have ‘fallen in love with their own oppression’ and must be rescued from themselves.

A common emotional theme in the porn actresses I have interviewed is a love of exhibitionism. Yet if such a woman declares her enjoyment in flaunting her body, anti-porn feminists claim she is not merely a unique human being who reacts from a different background or personality. She is psychologically damaged and no longer responsible for her actions. In essence, this is a denial of a woman’s right to choose anything outside the narrow corridor of choices offered by political/sexual correctness. The right to choose hinges on the right to make a ‘wrong’ choice, just as freedom of religion entails the right to be an atheist. After all, no one will prevent a woman from doing what they think she should do.

This is the same argument as the one I debunked in my previous entry, so go read that one if you want my detailed answer. All I will say here is that McElroy suffers from some kind of delusion. I have never heard anyone from any perspective make such an argument.

She seems to be trying to set up a false dichotomy between “the right to choose” (which is a nonsensical concept) and that women are “psychologically damaged.” Both options are non-explanations. Saying that women do pornography because they are exhibitionists makes about as much sense as stating that a person becomes a physicist because they’re good at math. Being an exhibitionist makes it possible for women to become sex objects, but for what reason do they do it?

Well, for a lot of women, pornography is one avenue to try to escape poverty, and a lot of women are primed for sexual abuse in adulthood through child abuse. You will note that McElroy does not mention the words “poverty” or “child abuse” anywhere. There is an obvious reason for that.

Finally, even if we assume the validity of McElroy’s belief in “choice” for the sake of the discussion, her reasoning only undermines her pro-pornography position that much more. For pornography and prostitution are one of the only avenues available to women who have lost their “freedom of choice” because of poverty, abuse, or lack of education (which is also a form of abuse). For McElroy to glorify pornography as a “choice” is the exact opposite of the truth, and only serves to censor the social conditions that lead to women making themselves into sex objects.

Now that I’ve debunked McElroy’s four rebuttals, let’s continue with her four arguments for pornography:

1. It provides sexual information on at least three levels:

Frankly, I see no point in reproducing what McElroy wrote in this section (you can go see it for yourself). It is absolutely insane for her to claim that pornography serves an informative role when the vast majority of top-selling pornography is violent in nature (whether verbally or physically). Is McElroy seriously suggesting that women should learn about their own sexuality from violent content which is almost entirely geared towards male fantasies? That’s messed up.

2. Pornography strips away the emotional confusion that so often surrounds real world sex. Pornography allows women to enjoy scenes and situations that would be anathema to them in real life. Take, for example, one of the most common fantasies reported by women — the fantasy of ‘being taken’, of being raped. The first thing to understand is that a rape fantasy does not represent a desire for the real thing. It is a fantasy. The woman is in control of the smallest detail of every act.

The first two sentence are correct, in that pornography does enable people to watch abhorrent, criminal acts without the slightest tinge of remorse because it is being done to a person who is less than human. I agree about that, but that’s an argument against pornography and the resulting woman-hatred, not for pornography.

The rest of her argument is absolutely false. The rape fantasy as depicted by pornography is very much a “real thing” done by real people. When we use pornography to portray criminal acts, we are subjecting real women to real violent acts for our amusement. It is not a fantasy for anyone except the viewer, who is isolated from the act of production.

3. Pornography breaks cultural and political stereotypes, so that each woman can interpret sex for herself. Anti-feminists tell women to be ashamed of their appetites and urges. Pornography tells them to accept and enjoy them. Pornography provides reassurance and eliminates shame. It says to women ‘you are not alone in your fantasies and deepest darkest desires. Right there, on the screen are others who feel the same urges and are so confident that they flaunt them.’

Pornography does not “break cultural and political stereotypes,” but rather reinforces them. In pornographic narratives, gender and ethnic inferiors are portrayed as being always sexually ready and insatiable. It says to women, “you are sexually useless unless you conform to the male gaze, the same gaze that is admiring what these fantasy women are doing.” It tells women that they are disposable sexual objects just like the women on the screen. It tells women that men want to violently fuck them.

4. Pornography can be good therapy. Pornography provides a sexual outlet for those who — for whatever reason — have no sexual partner. Perhaps they are away from home, recently widowed, isolated because of infirmity. Perhaps they simply choose to be alone. Sometimes, masturbation and vicarious sex are the only alternatives to celibacy. Couples also use pornography to enhance their relationship. Sometimes they do so on their own, watching videos and exploring their reactions together. Sometimes, the couples go to a sex therapist who advises them to use pornography as a way of opening up communication on sex. By sharing pornography, the couples are able to experience variety in their sex lives without having to commit adultery.

I think this is probably true of women too (although I won’t speak for them), but men don’t need pornography to masturbate. Any man who tries to tell you otherwise is a fucking liar and a fraud, and should be dismissed from the debate without further consideration. Any woman who tries to tell you otherwise is either ignorant about male masturbation or a liar and a fraud. To be fair, from this article it seems pretty clear that McElroy has no fucking idea what she’s writing about, so I err on the side of “ignorant” in her particular case.

Pornography is not conducive to communication about sex either. I have made the analogy before that pornography is to sex as McDonalds is to food, and it’s apt here too: would one go to McDonalds to explore one’s tastes in food? No. McDonalds is bland, manufactured, exploitative food, and pornography is bland, manufactured, exploitative sex. Anyone who learns anything about sex from pornography must be extremely deprived, but either way they would be better off going into different avenues.

McElroy concludes her chain of terrible arguments with a bombastic conclusion which misses the mark by a metric lightyear:

The porn debate is underscored by two fundamentally antagonistic views of the purpose of law in society.

The first view, to which pro-sex feminists subscribe, is that law should protect choice. ‘A woman’s body, a woman’s right’ applies to every peaceful activity a woman chooses to engage in. The law should come into play only when a woman initiates force or has force initiated against her. The second view, to which both conservatives and anti-porn feminists subscribe, is that law should protect virtue. Law should enforce proper behavior. It should come into play whenever there has been a breach of public morality, or a breach of ‘women’s class interests.’

This is old whine in new battles. The issue at stake in pornography debate is nothing less than the age-old conflict between individual freedom and social control.

I already pointed out McElroy’s scurrilous, laughable attempts to paint radical feminism as ideological sisters of religious fundamentalists. In this she is absolutely and completely wrong. Radical feminists fight to liberate women and eradicate the Patriarchy; religious fundamentalists fight to enslave women and enforce the Patriarchy, by law if necessary. In this, McElroy merely demonstrates her bestial ignorance.

But most importantly, McElroy is correct that the core of this issue is a clash of wordviews. She is a libertarian and an individualist, and as such anyone who performs systemic analysis is her enemy. To her, agency is paramount.

But radical feminists do not, by and large, believe that “the law,” a construct made by men for men, can eradicate the Patriarchy (mainly because doing so would eradicate “the law” itself). Most radfems are radicals and seek the highest level of freedom for everyone. McElroy makes a good act of grandstanding for freedom, but it’s just an act. She does not think women should be afforded the highest level of freedom, only the “freedom” to be objectified. Power to privileged white people like McElroy, servitude for everyone else.

The issue of pornography, to me, is a litmus test to determine whether someone is committed to attacking the Patriarchy. Anyone who supports pornography falls onto the sexist side, and anyone who, like McElroy, makes such profoundly ignorant arguments for pornography really can’t be differentiated from your run-of-the-mill woman-hater. Unlike radical feminism and religious fundamentalists, individualists like McElroy actually do have a lot in common with MRAs and other woman-haters. Both refuse to acknowledge the existence of the Patriarchy and agree that whatever happens to a woman is her own fault. Both support pornography as a man’s privilege. Both support a woman’s “choice” to serve men or starve.

5 thoughts on “Wendy McElroy doing a terrible job of defending pornography.

  1. Miep January 17, 2014 at 20:37 Reply

    That’s an excellent rebuttal, but I’d like to add one thing. It’s not about seeing women as less than human, it’s about seeing us as less than people. Similarly, many humans in this culture are comfortable with various sorts of nonhuman animal abuse because they see nonhumans as less than people. It’s the same sort of mentality in play.

    Human is just having human DNA. My fingernail clippings are human, but they’re not people. My dogs aren’t human, but they are canine people. Etc.

  2. Elynn Valentine January 18, 2014 at 11:06 Reply

    This is a very good argument against pornography that I had not really thought about before. Unfortunately I think most people who watch it (not those who produce it) have a blind spot when it comes to what it actually does to women in the real world. McElroy, like so many Libertarians, tends to think in either/or terms. Either you support the right to participate in or view pornography or you support laws enforcement against it. To them there are always only two choices.

    • Francois Tremblay January 18, 2014 at 14:19 Reply

      Glad you liked it! Also see my other entries against pornography like that first link in my entry.

  3. […] of the most visible “feminist” pro-pornography advocate, Wendy McElroy (see 1, 2). Her defense of pornography is a mishmash of lies (e.g. radfems think women who look at […]

  4. […] else) and how irrational it is (see for instance Wendy McElroy: “pornography is liberatory” and Wendy McElroy doing a terrible job of defending pornography). But McElroy does a lot more scummy things than just defend pornography. Sometimes she also […]

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