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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.

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After Article 50 is triggered, what happens next?

Theresa May says Article 50 will be triggered on 29 March. The UK must prepare for years, if not decades, of negotiating. 

Back in June, when Europe woke to the news of Brexit, the response was muted. “When I first emerged from my haze to go to the European Parliament there was a big sign saying ‘We will miss you’, which was sweet,” Labour MEP Seb Dance remembered at a European Parliament event in London. “The German car industry said we don’t want any disruption of trade.”

But according to Dance – best known for holding up a “He’s Lying” sign behind Nigel Farage’s head – the mood has hardened with the passing months.

The UK is seen as demanding. The Prime Minister’s repeated refusal to guarantee EU citizens’ rights is viewed as toxic. The German car manufacturers now say the EU is more important than British trade. “I am afraid that bonhomie has evaporated,” Dance said. 

On Wednesday 29 March the UK will trigger Article 50. Doing so will end our period of national soul-searching and begin the formal process of divorce. So what next?

The European Parliament will have its say

In the EU, just as in the UK, the European Parliament will not be the lead negotiator. But it is nevertheless very powerful, because MEPs can vote on the final Brexit deal, and wield, in effect, a veto.

The Parliament’s chief negotiator is Guy Verhofstadt, a committed European who has previously given Remoaners hope with a plan to offer them EU passports. Expect them to tune in en masse to watch when this idea is revived in April (it’s unlikely to succeed, but MEPs want to discuss the principle). 

After Article 50 is triggered, Dance expects MEPs to draw up a resolution setting out its red lines in the Brexit negotiations, and present this to the European Commission.

The European Commission will spearhead negotiations

Although the Parliament may provide the most drama, it is the European Commission, which manages the day-to-day business of the EU, which will lead negotiations. The EU’s chief negotiator is Michel Barnier. 

Barnier is a member of the pan-EU European People’s Party, like Jean-Claude Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. He has said of the negotiations: “We are ready. Keep calm and negotiate.”

This will be a “deal” of two halves

The Brexit divorce is expected to take 16 to 18 months from March (although this is simply guesswork), which could mean Britain officially Brexits at the start of 2019.

But here’s the thing. The divorce is likely to focus on settling up bills and – hopefully – agreeing a transitional arrangement. This is because the real deal that will shape Britain’s future outside the EU is the trade deal. And there’s no deadline on that. 

As Dance put it: “The duration of that trade agreement will exceed the life of the current Parliament, and might exceed the life of the next as well.”

The trade agreement may look a bit like Ceta

The European Parliament has just approved the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (Ceta) with Canada, a mammoth trade deal which has taken eight years to negotiate. 

One of the main stumbling points in trade deals is agreeing on similar regulatory standards. The UK currently shares regulations with the rest of the UK, so this should speed up the process.

But another obstacle is that national or regional parliaments can vote against a trade deal. In October, the rebellious Belgian region of Wallonia nearly destroyed Ceta. An EU-UK deal would be far more politically sensitive. 

The only way is forward

Lawyers working for the campaign group The People’s Challenge have argued that it will legally be possible for the UK Parliament to revoke Article 50 if the choice is between a terrible deal and no deal at all. 

But other constitutional experts think this is highly unlikely to work – unless a penitent Britain can persuade the rest of the EU to agree to turn back the clock. 

Davor Jancic, who lectures on EU law at Queen Mary University of London, believes Article 50 is irrevocable. 

Jeff King, a professor of law at University College London, is also doubtful, but has this kernel of hope for all the Remainers out there:

“No EU law scholar has suggested that with the agreement of the other 27 member states you cannot allow a member state to withdraw its notice.”

Good luck chanting that at a march. 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.