Why feminists should be the first to praise ethical porn

Women should be empowered and supported within the industry, rather than being made to feel ashamed about their jobs. 

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Sex is a hard thing to describe well. It’s why each year since 1993, the Bad Sex in Fiction Award has strived to recognise the cringeworthy sex scenes that dominate the pages of otherwise fine literary works. It’s why the descriptions in the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy have been so widely mocked (“‘I like your kinky fuckery,’ I whisper”).

Porn, meanwhile, the stigmatised sister of your everyday sexual encounter, seems yet to have received the regular literary treatment it deserves. Anti-porn activists are intent on portraying the industry as brutal and exploitative. Which ultimately does more harm than good.

In view of the recent deaths of five female porn performers in three months, the language that some of these activists use is profoundly dehumanising. “You get up, you’re covered in five men’s semen, every single orifice is sore and red-raw, and the next day you have to get up and do the same thing again, and you have to pretend you like it, and you know that men are jerking off to that image,” writes Gail Dines, an anti-porn feminist and the author of Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked Our Sexuality, describing the aftermath of a sex scene. “It’s an unbearable emotional experience.”

Dines has never filmed a sex scene and, she concedes, struggles to speak to female porn performers. Her approach is calculated. Yet one understands why such language is used by anti-porn feminists: it’s shocking and visceral. For many women, after reading it, support for the industry is unthinkable.

Yet these descriptions are deceptive: they deny agency to the women involved. At a debate at the University of Cambridge in 2011, the US sex academic Jessi Fischer pointed out that during the event, Dines spoke of “gagging… ejaculate covering their hair… fuckholes… cumdumpsters… sluts… whores”.

She went on: “If there was an award that night for the most profanity-laced speech, Dines would have won in a landslide. The award for most angry would have also been hers for the taking.”

There is nothing wrong with being an angry feminist. But by using such language, anti-porn feminists infantilise and degrade the women working in an already maligned industry. One walks away not with greater empathy for the performers themselves, but with the idea that there must be something “wrong” or “broken” about them.

Yet performers in porn are not “damaged goods”: this hypothesis has been repeatedly exposed as false. Performers themselves state that the pressure they face from those outside the industry is often a greater concern than how they are treated within it.

There are serious issues in relation to consent and the treatment of women in porn (including abuse and coercion, child abuse and trafficking). But having researched the topic while investigating the deaths of porn performers Olivia Lua, Olivia Nova, Shyla Stylez, August Ames and Yuri Luv, I fall firmly on the side of pro-sex feminists who oppose the banning of pornography.

For me, what we need is ethical, consensual feminist porn. It can and does exist – and we need to see more of it.

This can be achieved only if women are empowered and supported within the industry, rather than being made to feel ashamed about their jobs. And language plays a crucial role. We should be seeking out books such as Coming Out like a Porn Star by Jiz Lee, A Taste for Brown Sugar: Black Women in Pornography by Mireille Miller-Young and The Feminist Porn Book, which includes writing from scholars and those in the industry.

In the meantime, don’t fall for the descriptions of pornography by those merely looking in from outside. As noted by the writer and porn performer Lorelei Lee, many people do not see performers as “human”.

“You are an advertisement,” she says. “You are currency. You are a performer, but the public sees no line between when you are performing and when you are not.”

Anti-porn feminists are doing nothing to change that reality: it is best that we engage with those who are.

Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff is deputy editor of the magazine gal-dem

 

Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff is a freelance journalist and deputy editor of gal-dem magazine.

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia