About That “Porn Objectifies Women” Thing

ethicalporn_objectification

I look forward to the day when we can illustrate porn articles with actual porn

I was recently interviewed for an ABC news article which appears today: Ethical porn: does it exist and who makes it? I had a long chat with Kellie Scott who wrote the piece but alas, I feel like my quotes only really skim over what I was trying to say. Still, it’s always nice to get a mainstream media mention.

The reason I’m firing up my long-neglected blog today is because the piece includes comments from anti porn RMIT research person Meagan Tyler. I’m just going to quote the first bit because this is what has me rolling my eyes:

RMIT research fellow Meagan Tyler is writing a book on the ethics of commercial sex and says there are questions around whether or not an industry which fundamentally trades in the sexual objectification of women can ever be ethical.

“The claims about ethical porn, at this point in time, are more industry propaganda than anything else, and are — what would elsewhere be rightly recognised as — corporate whitewashing,” Dr Tyler says.

“It’s a selling point, like a lot of ‘amateur porn’, most of which is not amateur at all.

“It’s for a small segment of consumers who would like to think that their pornography consumption is unproblematic and they would like to think that what they are doing is totally different from what others are doing when, in reality, it all feeds the same commercial sex industry.”

So, I’ve seen these arguments so often, it’s kinda tiresome to see them again. See my post How To Be An Anti-Porn Campaigner to get an idea of the standard playbook that gets trotted out. And this is a mainstream media article which means it has to be “balanced” and offer an alternative point of view.

Still, I just gotta say… why can’t these anti porn people come up with something other than “objectification of women” as their argument? Because it always feels trite and doesn’t really give a decent critique of porn nor does it really understand the ultimate purpose of porn in general.

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What does it really mean, “the objectification of women”? Are we talking about reducing a woman down to how she looks or what function she performs rather than as viewing her as a whole person? If that’s the case, then sure, porn often does that but it is in no way a unique example. Hollywood films, computer games, television, magazines, music videos and advertising all are experts at presenting women as one-dimensional, focusing on body parts and sex appeal, not bothering with giving the viewer a whole view of that person. “Objectification” like this is rife in our patriarchal society. Why is it that only porn is singled out as a media that should not be allowed to exist?

Pornography can be a lot of things but in general its purpose is arousal and masturbation. It’s a visual aid to getting off which typically involves looking at other people who are naked and doing sexual things. This inspires physical arousal and mental fantasy. Looking at body parts is often a standard part of this process and sometimes focusing purely on the physicality of the images is enough to create orgasm. It’s also been shown that in women, arousal is not limited by what type of visual stimulation occurs; images of sex tend to automatically stimulate women whether they are consciously getting turned on or not.

The question arises: is it fair to call this process “objectification”? Because the term implies that there’s a negative thought process inherent in viewing sexually arousing images. It assumes people view porn, automatically dehumanize the performers and then take that thought process back into the real world, dehumanizing others.

I don’t think this is an inevitable outcome of viewing sexual images, though it may well occur. The research on this is all over the place (e.g. here and here and here) so I can’t say one way or the other. One could argue that porn is not inherently “objectifying” in itself but there are ways of filming it (e.g. cutting off the man’s head, focusing mainly on a woman’s genitals) that encourage a singular, “objectifying” way of thinking. And even then, I’m still not sure that’s a negative outcome.

It should be noted that it’s always “objectification of women” that gets trotted out. The majority of porn is intended for a male audience but the repeated use of this phrase denies the existence of gay and queer porn, and of porn created for straight women who enjoy admiring male bodies. In theory I’ve been “objectifying” male bodies since I began making porn in 2000. Except for me, creating and curating images of male bodies that I find sexy has been a feminist process. I’ve been flipping the gaze, turning admiring eyes on male bodies and erect penises, so often hidden from view (even today, and yes Game of Thrones, I’m looking at you). I find it hard to believe that there is something inherently wrong with admiring the male form, especially when it’s done from a place of respect.

Immersed – Trailer from Ms Naughty (Louise Lush) on Vimeo.

If you want an idea of my version of “objectifying”, watch my video of Immersed starring Bishop Black. Bishop is an extraordinary performer, a wonderful person and a friend. He’s also got a beautiful, sculpted body that is a joy to film.

With Immersed, I’ve done my best to combine an admiring gaze that openly enjoys looking at Bishop’s body with an attempt to portray some aspect of his personality; in this case, his love of dance. I draw your attention to this because I think it shows that porn can “objectify” and illuminate at the same time. One doesn’t preclude the other. We can admire a person’s body and their mind simultaneously; to assume otherwise doesn’t give people a lot of credit. But then, a lot of anti-porn feminism is based on assumptions about how people – men in particular – will behave and think after viewing porn.

Does the porn industry “fundamentally trade in the objectification of women”? I’d say it depends on your definition of “porn” and your definition of “objectification”, and you might also want to drill down into what they mean by “women” while you’re at it.

And that’s why the idea needs to die. It’s just a crap, black-and-white argument. By all means, point out that the majority of porn made for men is often sexist, racist, cliched, badly made and does a terrible job of showing what good, pleasurable sex looks like. That’s an argument I can get behind. But the “objectification” thing blithely ignores whole swathes of the porn genre, makes assumptions about the intentions of the filmmakers, the consent of the performers and it also assumes it knows how the audience thinks. It’s just a bad argument.

Meagan Tyler also goes for the other standard anti-porn banner: that ethical porn is just a buzzword made up by an evil, corporate industry. Painting the spectre of Big Porn™ is another pillar of anti-porn arguments because it creates a handy ogre to wave a pitchfork at. In the article, Tyler goes on to assert without evidence that most amateur porn isn’t amateur. Doing this totally ignores the fact that the internet has created a huge cottage industry of individuals, couples and small companies making their own brand of porn. I’m one of those people. It’s just me and Luke, working out of a home office. I am not a giant porn company creating billions of dollars of profit, I’m just a small time filmmaker looking to create positive depictions of sex.

Of course, I still want to make money, we all do. It should be pointed out that it’s a feminist undertaking to earn your own income and to be able to pay your performers fairly. Unfortunately, anti-porn people equate capitalism with exploitation, another black and white argument that doesn’t allow for nuance. If we can have ethical, fair trade coffee, chocolate and textiles, it’s not a huge leap to realize you can have ethical fair trade porn.

See also: Anti porn feminists can’t acknowledge feminist porn

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One Reply to “About That “Porn Objectifies Women” Thing”

  1. She’s also been active on “The Conversation” but strangely not very keen on engaging in the comments. A couple of slams against commenters, that’s about it. And the articles… in this case, rather than “don’t read the comments”… read the comments, don’t read the articles.

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