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Don't ask if porn "empowers" women - instead, ask if your feminism does

We don’t demand that waitresses feel "empowered" in their jobs for us to recognise their agency in choosing the work, and we don’t tell other workers who serve male customers that they can’t be feminist.

On International Women’s Day "empowerment" was a word I heard a lot. It makes sense - as feminists we know that power is not distributed fairly, and we are concerned with challenging those oppressive structures. But I was disappointed when, as part of the Women of the World festival last week, Woman’s Hour decided to debate the question “can porn empower women?”

This question not only relies on misguided assumptions that limit the framing of the debate, it also misses the point. I could tell you that I have felt empowered by both watching porn and making it (which I have), but the truth is that it doesn't matter. When we are talking about the porn industry as a site of labour, it doesn’t matter whether porn performers are empowered or not by their work – they still have agency, and they still have rights.

Porn is one of the least marginalised jobs within the sex industry, but it still suffers from the same fallacy as every other discussion about sex work - the idea that it is only a legitimate choice if it is ‘empowering’. We don’t hold other industries to this standard. Fewer than 8 per cent of the top-grossing films in 2014 were directed by women  and Hollywood movies perpetuate just as many toxic narratives about sex and relationships as porn, and yet we are not asking “can film empower women?”

We don’t ask this question of other industries because it assumes - falsely - that they are monolithic. Porn is a creative medium, as varied as any other. Like most of our entertainment media, a lot of porn is sexist and too much of it has historically been made by men for men, but claiming that all porn is sexist because you’ve only seen the worst of it is like saying that all TV is sexist because you’ve only watched Baywatch.

Why do we only expect "empowerment" of sex work, and not of other jobs? In this patriarchal society a lot of labour is gendered, most of it in service industries of one sort of another, from nursing to child care. We don’t demand that waitresses feel "empowered" in their jobs for us to recognise their agency in choosing the work, and we don’t tell other workers who serve male customers that they can’t be feminist. The empowerment fallacy is only applied to the sex industry - and it’s deeply insidious.

We all sell our labour to pay for food and shelter. Some of us, like me  - the lucky ones - would do the work we do for free sometimes, but we wouldn’t do it this much, or in exactly the same way, if we didn’t have to pay the rent. If anything debases us it is capitalism, not our individual choices within it.

Our society has huge structural inequality, decreasing social mobility, an increasing wealth gap, and limits and expectations imposed on us by our gender, race, class and plenty of other factors we can’t control. Most of us have felt degraded or exploited in the workplace at some point - and the fewer options we have, the more likely that is. Demanding that porn "empower" performers is deeply classist.

Empowered workers are usually privileged workers, but all workers deserve basic labour rights. Personally, I love shooting porn that expresses my authentic sexuality, and I love that I can get paid doing something so rewarding. But I’m well aware that my experience has been empowering because I benefit from an intersection of race, class, cis and body privileges. Only giving airtime to "empowered" sex workers perpetuates the oppressive structures that feminism should be fighting against. When I, rather than a more marginalised worker, am invited to debate porn, and then I am told that I am "not representative", my opponents are using the empowerment narrative to silence and dismiss all sex workers.

Even if a performer hates doing porn, if they grit their teeth through a long day of hard physical labour which bears no relation to their own sexuality, they still had their reasons to choose the work and they deserve to have that choice respected. We all deserve decent working conditions, to keep our job and get paid without being criminalised, and to find our own way through capitalist patriarchy without being told that we are "brainwashed" and "harming women" just because we need to pay the rent.

If you truly care about empowering porn performers, start by reducing poverty. Fight to improve our welfare state, for a citizen’s basic income, for more flexible working options for parents and people with disabilities, and for decreased tuition fees for students. It is possible to work full time in this country without earning a living wage, while others who want to work full time may not be able to. If you want to make someone more empowered, you need to give them better options, not fewer options.

In my ten years shooting porn I have had varied experiences, most good, some bad. What I discovered was that the more creative control and choice I had on set, the more empowered I was. That's why I started directing - to take control of the means of production, and to create a new kind of gender-critical porn that is authentic and performer-driven. And that’s the beauty of the feminist porn movement; when performers are empowered, viewers are empowered. Ethically-produced porn not only affirms and celebrates the performers who make it, it makes for a happier viewing experience - porn that enriches not just women, but humanity as a whole.

If you dismiss all porn as inherently degrading, you are dismissing the work done by the amazing feminist porn activists and revolutionaries who are working to make porn that empowers participants and viewers alike -  porn that challenges gender expectations and subverts stereotypes. Feminist pornographers know that misogynistic male-gaze porn does not serve us as a society. Rather than complaining about it, we are putting our energies to creating something better.

This is a global movement, and thanks to the internet it has gained huge momentum. Feminist porn now has its own category, Feminist Porn Release of the Year, at the XBiz awards. The Feminist Porn Awards is already in its ninth year, and in 2014 the University of Toronto hosted the second Feminist Porn Conference alongside the launch of the Journal of Porn Studies. All of these projects focus on radical, political porn that critiques the industry and offers an alternative vision. Nearly half of the films screened at the Berlin Porn Film Festival last year were directed by women. This is an oceanic shift.

If you don’t think the porn industry empowers women, help us change it. Look at the nomination lists for film festivals to see what’s worth watching. Buy ethical porn direct from the makers. Don’t rifle through the bins and then decide there’s nothing in the supermarket to suit your taste - go inside, read the labels, and vote with your wallet, just as you would with any other fairtrade product.

Feminist porn is the future of porn.  In a few more decades, it will be mainstream. Are you with us, or against us?

 

Editor's Note: This article was updated on 10 March 2015 to correct a reference to the AVN awards. It is the XBiz awards which have the "Feminist Porn Release of the Year" award.

Photo: Getty
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Sheepwrecked: how the Lake District shows up World Heritage's flaws

Here's hoping future statements about farming and the environment aren't quite so sheepish.

“Extremists like George Monbiot would destroy the Lake District,” tweeted Eric Robson, presenter of Radio 4’s Gardener’s Questions. But he’s “just standing up for nature”, others shot back in Monbiot’s defence. The cause of the clash? The park’s new World Heritage status and the continuing debate over the UK’s “sheep-wrecked” countryside.

Tension is such you can almost hear Cumbria’s Vikings chuckling in their hogback graves – for sheep farming still defines the Lakes as much as any poem. Hilltop farmers, like Lizzie Weir and Derek Scrimegeour, have sweated the landscape into shape over generations. And while Wordsworth may have wandered lonely as a cloud, a few hundred pairs of pricked ears were likely ruminating nearby.

UNESCO’s World Heritage committee now officially supports this pro-farm vision: “The most defining feature of the region, which has deeply shaped the cultural landscape, is a long-standing and continuing agro-pastoral tradition,” says the document which recommends the site for approval. 

And there’s much to like about the award: the region’s small, outdoor farms are often embedded in their local community and focused on improving the health and quality of their stock – a welcome reminder of what British farms can do at their best. Plus, with Brexit on the horizon and UK megafarms on the rise, farmers like these need all the spotlight they can get.

But buried in the details of the bid document is a table showing that three-quarters of the area's protected sites are in an “unfavourable condition”. So it is depressing that farming’s impact on biodiversity appears to have been almost entirely overlooked. Whether you agree with the extent of George Monbiot’s vision for Rewilding or not, there are clearly questions about nibbled forests and eroded gullies that need to be addressed – which are not mentioned in the report from UNESCO’s  lead advisory body, ICOMOS, nor the supplementary notes on nature conservation from IUCN.

How could so little scrutiny have been applied? The answer may point to wider problems with the way the World Heritage program presently works – not just in Cumbria but around the world.

In the Lake District’s case, the bid process is set-up to fail nature. When the convention was started back in the 1970s, sites could be nominated under two categories, either “cultural” or “natural”, with the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) advising on the first, and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) on the second.

Then in 1992 a new category of “cultural landscape” was introduced to recognise places where the “combined works of nature and man” are exceptional. This means such sites are always evaluated principally by ICOMOS, giving them more resources to research and shape the verdict – and limiting the input IUCN is able to make.

Another weakness is that the evaluation bodies can only follow a state’s choice of category. So if a state nominates a site as a Cultural Landscape, then considerations about issues like biodiversity can easily end up taking a back seat.

According to Tim Badman, director of IUCN’s World Heritage Programme, this situation is in need of redress. “The way in which this separation of nature and culture works is increasingly out of tune and counter-productive,” he says. “Every natural site has some kind of relationship with people, and every cultural site has some major conservation interest, even if it might not be globally significant. We should collaborate much more to make that a virtue of the system.”

The more you think about it, the madder the notion of a “Cultural Landscape” sounds. Landscapes are, after all, inherently scoped out by man, and there is little in the natural world that humanity has left untouched. Especially those in Western Europe and especially those, like Cumbria, that have been felled and farmed by a succession of historic invaders.

Relationships between advisory bodies are also not the only failing in UNESCO’s approach; relationships between nations and the convention can be problematic too. At this month’s meeting of the committee in Poland, it was decided that the Great Barrier Reef would, once again – and despite shocking evidence of its decline – not be on UNESCO’s “In Danger” list. It prompts the question, what on earth is the list for?

The reluctance of many nations to have their sites listed as In Danger is a mixed blessing, says Badman. In some cases, the prospect of being listed can motivate reform. But it is also a flawed tool – failing to include costed action plans – and causing some governments to fear attacks from their domestic opposition parties, or a decline in their tourism.

On top of this, there is the more generalised politicking and lobbying that goes on. Professor Lynn Meskell, an Anthropologist at Stanford University, is concerned that, over the years, the institution “has become more and more political”. At the most recent session of the World Heritage Committee earlier this month, she found nominations being used to inflame old conflicts, a continuing regional dominance by Europe, and a failure to open up many “at risk” sites for further discussion. “All Yemen’s sites are in danger, for instance” she says, “yet they couldn’t afford to even send one person."

Perhaps most challenging of all is the body’s response to climate change. At the recent committee gathering, Australia raised the subject by way of suggesting it cannot be held solely be responsible for the decline of the Great Barrier Reef. And Turkey attempted to water down a reference to the Paris Climate Agreement, claiming the language used was overly “technical” and that the delegates present were too inexpert to comment.

According to Tim Badman, climate change is certainly an area that needs further work, not least because World Heritage’s present policy on the subject is now a decade old. Even the most ambitious interpretation of the Paris Climate Agreement would still see very significant damage done to Heritage sites around the world, Badman says.

There is hope of change, however. For the most polite yet sturdy response to Turkey’s objections – or, as the chair ironically puts it “this very small ecological crisis” – I recommend watching these encouraging reactions from Portugal, Phillippines and Finland (2h30) -  a push-back on technical objections that Meskell says is rare to see. IUCN will also be producing the second edition of their World Heritage Outlook this November.

Positions on the Lake District’s farms will also hopefully be given further thought. Flaws within World Heritage’s approach may have helped pull wool over the committee’s eyes, but future debate should avoid being quite so sheepish.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.