“So What If Your Porn Is Feminist?” So, This.

lauramcnallyI’ve just written out a list of standard anti-porn arguments in How To Be An Anti-Porn Campaigner. These are the plays that I keep seeing whenever someone writes a panic-driven article about how porn is bad.

That post was inspired by this article in the ABC’s The Drum website: “So what if your porn is feminist? The collusion of feminism with sexual violence“. It’s by Laura McNally, who is a psychologist and consultant as well as a contributor to a book called The Freedom Fallacy: Limits of Liberal Feminism. This book is keen to argue against “choice feminism”.

I feel the need to refute this article so I’m wasting my day picking it apart. Because sometimes, you just gotta sit down and call out the bullshit.

The article is an extension of Laura McNally’s ongoing crusade against pornography. In May she wrote this piece which follows the usual pattern. I commented on it recommending that she look more into feminist porn. Well, now she has decided that feminist porn needs to be denounced, hence this latest tirade.

So, the piece begins with an anecdote, that standard of most anti-porn pieces. We hear of a woman who goes to a doctor complaining that her husband’s use of porn is ruining her marriage. He’s requesting physically harmful things, apparently, because he saw them in porn. We don’t know if this story is true or entirely made up. It doesn’t matter because it allows the author to segue into a cheerful listing (with links) of all the harms of porn. She offers quite an impressive swathe of “evidence” to back up her assertion that pornography is causing harm in the community.

What I want to do firstly is point out where her “evidence” is anecdotal or problematic. Trying to dig down to find the actual source of some of the statistics quoted is an effort; often it involves clicking from one news link to the other and wading through commentary.

The Anecdotes

1. “There are many adults who report partners using and demanding the same.” McNally links to an anonymous first-person essay called “A letter to … my ex-husband, who preferred pornography to me.” One person. Anecdotal evidence.

2. “Back in the therapist’s office in Canberra, Susan, who wrote to me with her story after she read an article I wrote…” Apparently Susan was upset because her therapist suggested finding good porn to enjoy together. One person, as told to Laura McNally.

3. “Girls are reporting to GPs with sexual injuries.” McNally links to a News Ltd article as her evidence. I actually spent a bit of time dissecting this particular piece of “porn truth” and discovered that it is entirely anecdotal. The source is cyber-safety author Susan McLean, who has not done any actual research into this but has simply said she has spoken to doctors who report it. Her comments were widely reported as fact across local media. But this “evidence” is purely anecdotal.

The plural of anecdote is not data.

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The Dodgy Research

1. “As neuroscientist Ogi Olgas said on feminist pornography…” McNally quotes Ogas (not Olgas) to back up her claim that “sexual coercion and violence is what makes pornography so thrilling to many of its users.” I have blogged before about how the methodology used by Ogas was biased and non-scientific. I’ve also talked about how he made broad generalizations about the audience of my site For The Girls in his book without actually bothering to ask me (e.g. he used Alexa to calculate that 50% of our audience was gay men. Wrong, it’s over 80% female.) Any dismissive claims Ogas has about the popularity of feminist porn should be ignored, since his data set is not at all reliable.

2. “According to Pornhub 2014, teen, MILF, anal and rough were all top categories for women, similar to male users.” Actually, according to Pornhub, the top five categories that women searched for were lesbian, gay, teen, “for women” and “ebony” (black performers). Rough sex ranked third last. McNally describes her list as evidence that women preferred “volatile” porn. Not sure what is “volatile” about age differentiations – or anal sex for that matter. I should also point out that using Pornhub’s statistics on “what women want” isn’t really such a reliable source of information, given the sexist and male-oriented nature of that site. I wrote in detail on why these stats aren’t great here.

3. “Brands like Brazzers and RedTube are commonly used by children as young as 11 through to adults.” The statistic that 11-year-old children are regularly using porn has become yet another panicdote but few provide a source for it. Back in 2005 Forbes showed that the “11 year old” stat came from a self-published self-help book by a “porn addict” who said “I don’t remember where I got that from.”

When I went looking for an actual study that said 11 year old kids commonly used porn I found a bunch of religious and anti-porn sites quoting the figure but not much in the way of actual research. I did find Fox News reference to a University of New Hampshire phone interview study that had found 17% of 10-11 year olds had unintentionally found porn online. I also found mention of an interview with Michael Flood in Psychologies magazine that said a third of young kids had accessed porn (that article no longer available, here‘s the Daily Mail’s panicked piece about it). But stumbling across porn when you’re 11 is different to “commonly using” it.

Extra links: The seven problems with research on young people and porn
Michael Flood and Defining the “harm of porn”

The Inconclusive Links (or Did Your Study Really Say That?)

1. “The link between porn and domestic violence has been briefly touched on,” writes McNally. The link goes to one of her own articles in the Religion and Ethics category of the ABC website. That piece discusses research on the attitude of young people to relationships via a survey called The Line (official website). I managed to find a summary of the findings but not the full result. From what I can see, the methods used did not specifically address porn use, though it’s difficult to tell. The official press release about the findings does not mention porn, even though subsequent media articles do.

The pdf does mention porn, though only in its introduction: “Young people are left to figure it all out for themselves from other sources: their friends, their ‘heroes’, the media’s portrayal of women, pornography, and porn-inspired popular culture.” It would appear The Link survey sees pornography as part of a wide range of media and social circumstances that have an influence on young people’s attitudes to relationships, control and gender stereotypes. From what I can see, it doesn’t provide a concrete link between porn and domestic violence.

2. “Statistical evidence indicates nearly 90 per cent of popular pornographic films include violence against women.” Here McNally links to this 2010 study in the journal Violence Against Women. I can’t read the full paper, only the abstract. It says the study looked at 304 scenes and found “88.2% contained physical aggression, principally spanking, gagging, and slapping.”

So firstly, I think there’s a lot of discussion to be had on the meaning of “violence against women” here. I’m sure fans of spanking have a lot to say about how their particular fetish is vastly different from violence. If the spanking, gagging and slapping are part of a consensual sexual encounter, I don’t think it can be classified as “violence”. Simply sitting and counting spanking scenes without taking context into account is something of a problematic research method. Secondly, it’s quite a stretch to use this one study to imply that almost ALL porn contains violence against women. And rest assured, that’s what Laura McNally wants us to think.

Actual Research

Some of links in McNally’s article do point to peer reviewed research. One of those is a meta analysis: “Pornography and attitudes supporting violence against women: revisiting the relationship in nonexperimental studies.” Again, I can only read the abstract but this article says that there is a correlation between watching porn and accepting attitudes towards violence against women. Interestingly, the research discusses the difference between”violent pornography” and “non violent pornography” and once again I wonder about definitions there.

“Despite evidence of pornography’s harm,” she writes, linking to her own article, “denial continues.”

Nope, no denial. I know that there is a lot of research out there that suggests porn can generate harmful attitudes. Fair enough. But there’s also a lot of research that says the exact opposite e,g, The Porn Report and The PornResearch.org project.  There’s a lot of wriggle room with definitions, methods and motives. I’m not an academic, I don’t have access to many of these peer reviewed articles and I don’t have the time to read them all; I’m just trying to make porn. I share Laura McNally’s concern about the way that some porn depicts sexuality and gender stereotypes and I am open to reading all peer-reviewed research on the topic. It’s why I’m a supporter of the Porn Studies journal which aims to scientifically study all aspects of pornography without bias or judgement.

If we are concerned about pornography, we need to make sure we look at our sources and question the data. All of us.

Gish Galloping

When it comes to arguing against feminist porn, McNally is all over the place. I’ll try and distill (and speak against) her many confused arguments here

1. Feminist porn is harmful. The first thing she does after introducing the idea of a better, more positive and feminist pornography is to say that all porn is harmful, no matter the type. But she doesn’t really provide solid evidence for this assertion about the nature of ALL porn, even though she’s pretty keen on linking to various articles and studies (which address mainstream “violent” porn but don’t specifically talk about feminist porn). The assertion that feminist porn creates harm seems to arise from ideology alone.

Next she says: “Feminist porn, the refrain goes, is about equality, pleasure and empowerment.” Great. And you know what? Aside from the snarky phrase “the refrain”, McNally has nothing further to say on that at all. Nothing. Which is an interesting stance since feminist porn is supposedly harmful and violent and shouldn’t be recommended to Susan The Anecdote by her counselor. So the author chooses to ignore these three vital aspects of feminist porn, perhaps because she can’t allow herself to consider the idea that you can make porn that wasn’t harmful or sexist or bad. All porn has to be bad within McNally’s framework; there is no room for discussion.

My only response to this is: I do not believe that porn is inherently harmful. Media depicting sex and sexuality is not automatically bad or degrading or sexist. It is entirely possible to visually depict sex in a positive, feminist and inclusive way. (Insert “Your Argument Is Invalid” meme here).

2. Feminist porn is in collusion with The Porn Industry which is capitalist and therefore evil. Having proven beyond any doubt that all porn is bad, mmmkay, McNally immediately gish-gallops into a somewhat muddled anti-capitalist tirade. Apparently when Tristan Taormino calls feminist porn “fair trade” she reveals the whole dastardly plot because a. Fair trade things are expensive and not available to everyone and b. Porn is a “trade” and an industry and thus it has huge lobbying power and this makes it available to everyone. Or something. I’m not actually sure about what’s going on here.

In any case, it’s time to summon the chimera that is the evil Porn Industry and talk about how “there has long been a move toward making unethical commerce appear ethical.” Yes folks, we feminist pornographers are part of a wider cabal, apparently. And we’re helping the mainstream porn industry to “femwash” its product, simply by offering “diverse genres”. Because that’s all feminist porn is, apparently. A few different categories. But it won’t help because porn is inherently unethical and the industry “necessitates sexual dissatisfaction, disconnection and exploitation to grow its profits” (don’t ask Laura McNally for evidence of this, just roll with it OK?).

Ahem. I’m getting a bit sarcastic here. Back to the serious dissection.

Notice how “The Industry” is presented as a monolith, a large and unstoppable force that seeks only to exploit. Even though McNally acknowledges the diversity of porn (“with millions of films produced, diversity is unavoidable”), she still doesn’t hesitate to talk about it as a single entity, a hivemind of sorts. This is Big Porn, just as bad as Big Tobacco, willfully selling their dangerous products to poor, defenseless customers. Except that, you know, porn isn’t actually harmful like cigarettes. And “porn” is a ridiculously varied type of media that can encompass commercial films, amateur movies, iPhone recordings, art photography, short films and political material. It’s made by corporate studios, queer collectives, independent filmmakers and performers creating and selling their own work on cam. To talk about “The Porn Industry” is ignore the vastly diverse nature of what’s out there. To turn it into a capitalist bogeyman makes for a very simplistic argument. But never mind that because…

3. Feminist porn is capitalist and therefore can’t be ethical. McNally writes: “A commercial industry cannot feasibly work to end harmful practices when it requires them for profit” and “At the end of the day, the industry operates under a commercial doctrine, not a social or moral one.” There’s a whole bunch of ideology to unpick in those two sentences. The idea that seeking to earn a profit automatically wipes out any social or ethical concerns is deeply flawed and suggests a particularly nasty and neoliberal view of how capitalism operates.

I would argue that one of the important discussions I’m seeing within the feminist porn movement is how to balance ethical and commercial imperatives (I wrote about this in this post). Just because people are making money from porn doesn’t mean they aren’t interested in creating fair working conditions for performers, or showing sex in a positive light. Just as organic and fair trade food is increasingly successful with empowered and aware consumers, so ethically produced feminist porn is able to cater to people who want to see a better kind of pornography.

At this point I would like to point out the irony that occurs when anti-porn campaigners use anti-capitalist arguments. Laura McNally makes a living writing about pornography. In essence, she profits from porn. This doesn’t sit well with the assertion that any commercial involvement undermines one’s ethics.

4. Feminist porn is too small to make a difference. Having just denounced feminist porn for colluding with Big Porn into “femwashing” their product, McNally then says that feminist porn isn’t really making any difference. “The problem with ‘change from the inside’ initiatives, as with the ‘feminist porn’ model, is that minor tweaks do nothing to adjust the total impact of the industry,” she writes. And being “fair trade” means only rich people can buy it so you’re not reaching the everyday consumer. Apparently feminist porn is the “not all men” of the porn debate. By pointing it out to anti-porn campaigners, we just derail the point.

So, which is it, Laura? We’re Big Porn and we’re evil and harmful or we’re a pointless distraction and should Just Shut Up?

What I’m seeing with this article (and in her previous piece at ABC) is a determination to misunderstand and misrepresent what is actually happening within the feminist porn movement. We’re not a “front” for the porn industry. We’re not a buzzword and we’re not a way to pretend that bad porn is OK.

Those who identify as feminist pornographers are primarily independent, sole operators and performers, creating their own vision of good porn. Very few work with the larger US companies, although there have been a few such as Tristan Taormino who have made films for the big labels, hoping to encourage change within those organizations. But primarily we are still a small group working for ourselves. We don’t tend to phone Steven Hirsch at Vivid and say “Hey, you know you should start calling your films feminist, you’ll make millions!”

The pornography we make is hugely varied and covers the entire spectrum of human sexuality. It seeks to represent all bodies, all genders, all fantasies – and that can include kinky sex that is often misrepresented as being “violent” and “harmful” in research. The common element you’ll see in feminist porn is a focus on respect, consent and pleasure.

One of the key things that unite feminist pornographers is that we don’t just make porn; we are also a community and we talk about things. We have conferences and we critically think about all aspects of pornography. We participate in academic studies, we write for Porn Studies, we blog, we read, we get together and talk about what’s wrong with porn and what we can do to change that. We are being the change we want to see in the world.

We also talk about ethical production methods and sex work. Part of the feminist porn movement is a discussion about labour and how producers and performers can work together for mutual benefit. Of course, ethical production is by no means exclusive to those who identify as feminist within the porn world. What is different is that we are bringing this issue into the conversation and making our ethics and methods explicit to the audience, seeking to dispel any concerns that they may have about how that porn was made.

McNally talks of “trade” but she doesn’t speak of the exploratory nature of feminist porn. Some of us may be straight-up capitalists and others are doing it for political reasons, for personal reasons, for charity, for love. Some of us are making a profit, some are struggling to pay the rent. Some of us are finding new ways to interact with the public and to create a user-generated experience that centres the viewer and their desires and politics. Some of us are crowdfunding, some are trying to create a sustainable non-profit payment model for porn, others are developing payment models that profit-share with performers.

And here’s the thing that Laura McNally dismissed in her article: we may be small but we are making a difference. Feminist porn is becoming a “brand” of sorts. The media is increasingly reporting on it. Consumers are becoming more aware of the possibility of a more positive kind of porn. More importantly, the US mainstream porn industry IS taking notice. Industry awards night XBiz has introduced a “Feminist Porn Release” category and have been hosting panels on feminist and women-made porn for several years at their annual conference and trade show. Similarly, AVN has come on board with a feminist porn discussion at their conference. There is an increasing awareness in the industry of consumer demand for ethical porn.

Better still, a new performer advocacy group has formed – APAC USA. Not quite a union, it is still a vital step toward a more transparent and ethical porn industry. APAC aims to “provide representation for performers in the adult film industry and to protect performers’ rights to a safer and more professional work environment.”

Sure, some of these changes may well just be “femwashing”. And yes, a lot of porn remains sexist and sex-negative, especially what you see on free tube sites. But change is happening and it is worth celebrating.

Unfortunately, we still face a lot of obstacles. And that includes anti-porn campaigners who advocate for censorship. It would be nice if Laura McNally would take the time to read The Feminist Porn Book and reconsider her dismissal of the feminist porn movement.

As I’ve said before, there’s actually a lot of common ground in these discussions. I am concerned about the messages that sexist porn conveys. I hate the negativity and lack of creativity displayed by of a lot of mainstream porn. I’m also concerned about the lack of sex education and porn literacy among young people. I want to change things. I just wish our conversations weren’t as dumbed-down as Laura McNally’s article. Because it wastes time and doesn’t help matters.

OK. I’ve lost a whole day to this post and it isn’t necessarily as coherent as it needs to be. But I’m going to hit publish and just put it out there. I may edit it when I have time but for now, it’s done.

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One Reply to ““So What If Your Porn Is Feminist?” So, This.”

  1. Thank you for this write up. Been trying to think about how to phrase my rebuttal to so much poorly written drivel. “The plural of anecdote is not data.” is the perfect footnote rebuttal for her entire opinion piece.

    If you are going to write a piece and pretend it’s NOT an opinion piece but based off logic, facts and studies, you should actually learn to research, cite and reference properly. Academics like this woman are exactly why people think academics are corrupt and cherry pick research. The bias is so loud it’s deafening.

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