Is fighting pornography a waste of time?

I’ve been writing a lot about Wendy McElroy and the individualist arguments for pornography. But her arguments, while important enough in the pro-pornography world, are hardly the final word. There’s a lot of people ready to defend pornography out there.

The most common argument, I think, is that the anti-pornography movement is just a waste of time, that it doesn’t address the real problems that women face, that pornography is just a symptom, that pornography doesn’t cause men to rape and that we should fight the real reasons why men rape.

This can be rephrased in an even better radical-sounding argument: why don’t you concentrate on the social conditions that give rise to the objectification of women, instead of attacking the objectification itself?

My first answer would be, why can’t we do both? What’s so bad about some people fighting pornography and other people gnaw at the roots? The latter can be a rather frustrating endeavor and something like antiporn has a greater chance of success, for one. A movement cannot be single-minded, and enforced conformity has never been healthy.

On the other hand, while people who make the argument may be honest, when it comes from men it does sound to me a lot like “stop attacking my boners.”

One example of this attitude comes from a paper called “Pro-Sex Feminism: Redefining Pornography.” The author’s argument is that the problem is not “all porn” but only “bad porn”:

There are many ways that feminists can change the impact porn has on society without resorting to laws that will only backfire. One way is for there to be more feminist porn producers. If there is more female-friendly porn on the market, the impact of the bad porn will lessen. As Betty Dodson states, “The answer to bad pornography is good pornography, not no pornography” (Dodson).

Although the term is not used here, it’s obviously another instance of the “feminist pornography” myth, that if only women were in charge of manufacturing the hierarchy-reproducing facsimiles of sex instead of men, they would produce “good pornography” which would not have any effect on sexual desire.

But this is a basic economic misunderstanding. All corporations seek to make and increase their profits, and they do so by manipulating and exploiting desires. It doesn’t matter if you put demons or angels in the command chairs, the result will be the same because the system will not change based on who’s taking what post. Female politicians, female policemen, female judges are subject to the same incentives as their male counterparts, and they do not change the world.

I might agree that “good pornography” would be one of the responses we should be making, if there was such a thing as “good pornography” and if such a thing was not doomed to failure within a pornography industry which is escalating the threat of violence, and actual violence, against women.

By educating women in the porn industry without taking away their free will, the flow of degrading materials will slow as quality ones are put into the market.

So these women would be “educated” (about what?) in a way that would somehow get them to create “quality materials” (“good pornography,” I assume), so cause them to change their behavior, but without taking away their “free will,” which is the (non-existing) ability to make “choices” without any external influence. What you’re seeing before your eyes is an incredible, wonderful Gordian Knot of bullshit. And this is supposed to be the workable solution?

But anyway, this education process is explained a little more in the preceding paragraph:

The key to battling the influence that the “bad” forms of pornography have on women is educating women about their sexuality. Education, along with other tactics, can prevent degrading, violent porn from disturbing those sensitive to its messages.

So educating women about their sexuality (women’s sexuality, not any specific person’s sexuality, I assume) is some kind of mental shield that prevents “bad pornography” from reaching their brains. Got it.

Another pro-pornography page tries to use Chomsky to make their point:

As Noam Chomsky has pointed out (see “ATC” 56, 25), whatever “harm” some pornography may be charged with, its effects (on women in particular) are surely insignificant compared with the effects of the continual barrage of sexist, racist, imperialist propaganda that spews forth from the mainstream, non-sexual media.

This, I think, goes to the core of the argument. The point raised by the author by referring to Chomsky is actually pretty great, but they obviously haven’t thought it through:

1. In this argument, pornography is designated as a source of harm, which defeats the author’s whole reasoning.

2. Obviously pornography is only a small part of the media, but the influence of objectifying images extends to the “mainstream, non-sexual media.” Objectifying images, poses that originate in pornography, become part of the “barrage of sexism.”

3. Radical feminists, being radicalized, don’t generally support the State either. They are also very well aware that pornography is only one of the sources of Patriarchal conditioning, and that it finds its roots in a deeper ideology of objectification and hatred of women.

They also argue that censoring pornography means giving more power to the State, especially power to censor women’s sexuality. I find that argument specious. As I’ve pointed out before, pro-pornography advocates don’t complain about the fact that we censor many other things, including child pornography, defamation, threats, and so on. I don’t know of any pro-pornography advocate who argues that censoring defamation and threats could give the State the power to censor run-of-the-mill gossip or healthy expressions of anger.

Of course as an Anarchist I am against the State by definition, and I’d rather live in an Anarchist society, but that’s not what we have right now. Given the situation we’re in, I’d rather the State censor pornography than simply ignore it, just as I’d rather the State prevent murder, rape, corporate fraud, and so on and so forth (it won’t, but it would be nice if it did).

The slippery slope argument is extremely weak, anyhow, because we want to censor corporations, not individuals. Pornography is manufactured and distributed by corporations. Surely there’s not a lot of ambiguity between a corporation putting out a pornographic video and two people filming themselves in their bedroom.

But I also agree that censorship is not a long term solution, although I don’t see why that would prohibit us from seeking it in the short and medium term. The long term solution is to take down the Patriarchy. But we can’t really challenge the Patriarchy in any meaningful way if we refuse to deconstruct and challenge its institutions, no matter what size they are.

8 thoughts on “Is fighting pornography a waste of time?

  1. Abolissimo November 29, 2014 at 21:07

    I stopped watching porn for two reasons. First: It brought so much anger and violence into my fantasies. Anger and violence that were not there originally. This was not me. I felt that I have to put an end to it. Second: I realized that by watching porn I take part in creating a demand for filmed prostitution, because that’s what porn is – filmed prostitution.
    Porna = whore, Graphya = documentation. And: Prostitution was nobody’s childhood dream. It is always a result of trouble and distress. I gradually became aware of all that when I was volunteering at the field with people from the sex industry, some of them victims of human-traffic. But on the personal level, you don’t really need to serve aid in brothels or in street corner and under bridges in order to understand how this mechanism works.
    Porn is never about erotica or healthy sexual communication. It is all about male domination over women. The only free will a woman is allowed to have in porn, is the will to be dehumanized as a sexual object for the use of men. Catharine Mackinnon wrote that if we were to ask pornography ‘What defines something as sexual?’, pornography would laugh at our faces and answer: ‘What defines sexual? Whatever men find arousing!’
    If it arouses men to have brutal sex without even one hug or kiss or tender caress – than it is sexual! It arouses men to choke a woman? To see a woman or a child cry? Ok, than that’s sexual. It arouses a man to beat up a woman? To abuse her? To ejaculate sperm all over a woman’s face along with ten other guys? To rape women? Well, it is sexual!
    Every mainstream porn gallery on the web has a rape section. It is considered to be a legit category. Just like the abuse category, the violence gallery and the humiliation titled flics. As if regular porn in not full of these motives already.
    Even in its mildest version, what porn is showing us 80 percent of the time or more, is actually sex with no hands involved. I want to repeat that for a second. Sex without hands. If you are not going to give up porn, please notice the next time you watch, that porn cameras have no interest in sensual natural behavior. Such as petting, caressing, making out, kissing, hugging. No. What porn cameras are into is the penetration.(…)
    -Ran Gavrieli –

    • Miep November 29, 2014 at 21:23

      Abolissimo: great comment. Back in the 1970’s I remember my first stepfather defining porn as being “whatever gets the Supreme Court off.” He was onto something there. He turned out to be a predator too though (he has been dead 20 years now).

      Living with him as a small child, in an atmosphere of porn, messed up my sexuality early on. He never did my body, but he sure did my head. Other girls were, shall we say, less fortunate.

      Really good point about sex without hands. Well, except for hitting, choking and hair-pulling! But the point is well made.

  2. Independent Radical November 30, 2014 at 01:55

    I wish pornography advocates would leave Noam Chomsky alone. He is opposed to pornography. He said so pretty plainly. The pro-pornography movement seems like it is trying to squeeze pro-pornography ideas out of him. This particular article quoted him in a way that implied that he was pro-pornography. I would like to know what Chomsky actually said. I have a hard time seeing how anyone who was capable of spotting sexism and racism in the “non-sexual” (what planet are these people living on, the mainstream media is anything but “non-sexual”) could think that pornography did not cause harm or that its harm is trivial.

    The only way such a claim would make sense is if Chomsky thought the mainstream media played a major role in causing US aggression. While the media certainly pushes a pro-imperialist viewpoint, I think the US government would go ahead with its imperialist activities regardless of whether the general public endorsed it and I am sure Chomsky recognises this. The graphic violence in pornography does play a role in desensitising people to the violence of war, as do some forms of mainstream media (such as war-themed video games). It is also important to point out that the mainstream films and television shows can get away with sexism and violence to the extent that they do, because the hard core pornography industry has normalised such things.

    • Francois Tremblay November 30, 2014 at 02:06

      I can’t say I’ve heard Chomsky express any opinion for or against. His deal is the mainstream media, not sex, and pornography is just not part of his area of expertise. Of course he would put emphasis on the area he studies and not others. I am not aware of him being pro or anti feminist either, although as a socialist I expect he at least gives lip service to feminism.

      • Independent Radical November 30, 2014 at 17:41

        Chomsky expressed anti-pornography opinions in this video: and I think I have heard him give speeches where he listed the feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s as a progressive movement of the era, though I will admit that he does not make a clear endorsement of it.

        It is true that he does not know much about pornography or popular culture. His critiques focus largely on the news media and the distorted way it represents US military aggression, though I think he makes some valid critiques of popular culture.

        Pro-pornography activists have been pressuring him to express a pro-pornography stance, like in this video for instance:

        He is honest enough to admit he does not know much about the subject, but he clearly recognises that pornography is harmful and does not give in to the “but there must be some porn you like!” idea.

        Also, I am curious as to what legal definition you would use to ban pornography and how you would implement the ban. I am not saying it could not be done, I am just curious how.

        • Francois Tremblay November 30, 2014 at 17:58

          I am not a lawyer, and I’m sure any definition I give would have legal holes in it. Basically, pornography is prostitution with a contract and a camera. Pornography is the mass manufacture of depictions of sexual activity. That’s about as clear as I can make it. Banning the corporate production, and import, of pornography would be enough for me.

          • Miep November 30, 2014 at 20:40

            That’s one of the most interesting points made about porn and prostitution, that in so many places prostitution is illegal – until it’s photographed.

  3. vyechera December 3, 2014 at 17:30

    I would argue that pornography is assault on those participating, excused by an adhesion contract ( and a camera.

    The US has been very badly served by the American Civil Liberties Union and its decision to support “free speech” over women. Pornography is not free speech and judicial acceptance of that idea is a blatant proof of patriarchy.

    Seems to me that Noam Chomsky is in his dotage and has been exploited by the porn industry:

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