So I haven’t blogged in a little while now. The reasons for this are various, including working on an article (now due to be published some time next year in The Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics) developed from my blog on ‘Girly Porno Comics’ and a chapter for the Routledge Companion to Media, Sex and Sexuality on Representing BDSM and Kink. I’ve written quite a bit here (as the blog’s title would suggest) about the censorship of pornographic comics, but I’ve also written about both pornographic comics and the censorship of comics more generally, so I thought it might be time to dedicate a blog to talking about the censorship of porn.
I’m particularly interested in the ways in which censorship works to limit diversity in pornography and, while it’s a claim I’m wary of making, how greater diversity in porn might contribute to an increased degree of sexual freedom in society more generally. I’m wary of making this claim because it sails pretty close to being the direct inverse of an argument made frequently by anti-porn campaigners best summarized by the phrase ‘cultural harm’.
The ‘cultural harm’ argument, at its core, is that the existence of pornography contributes to a culture which perpetuates and normalises violence against women. This of course requires us to accept a number of fundamental premises, some of which I’ll address below, but is particularly founded on a view of pornography as always already exploitative. Within this framework any argument about pornography that does not begin from (and ultimately end with) a position of condemnation also therefore contributes to violence against women by ignoring the harm it is seen to cause. This makes any more substantial analysis of pornography difficult to pursue and any discussion of diversity in pornography appear misguided at best and the work of rape apologism at worst (see an interesting challenge to this by Obscenity Lawyer Myles Jackman here).
Many anti-porn campaigners use the concept of cultural harm to allow a continuation of an argument initially introduced in the 1970s by anti-porn feminists, most notably Andrea Dworkin, Catherine MacKinnon and Robin Morgan, that the existence and viewing of pornography increases the likelihood of sexual assault being perpetrated by men against women. This is perhaps best surmised by Morgan’s statement that ‘Pornography is the theory; rape is the practice’.
There have been a great deal of studies conducted (more or less rigorously) intended to determine the extent to which this statement might be true. While I won’t go into all the details here, it is worth noting that by far the majority of these studies have been conducted using US college students or convicted sex offenders as their subjects, almost all of them have focused exclusively on men, and their results are far from conclusive.
Generally speaking, anti-porn campaigners have now moved on to using the ‘cultural harm’ argument, rather than the much more stark ‘porn causes rape’ argument. Whether this is due to the difficulty of substantiating the latter or for a range of other reasons isn’t entirely clear, but it is an important shift nonetheless. The ‘cultural harm’ argument does not require a one for one causal correlation in the way that the ‘porn causes rape’ argument, in its most extreme forms, might. Rather, in order to claim cultural harm it can easily seem like enough to point to the existence of harm – violence against women – and to draw a link between this harm and the representation of women in pornography that goes something like this:
1. Women in pornography are represented as sexual objects.
2. Being a sexual object is dehumanizing.
3. Dehumanization is a common means by which violence against a given person or group is legitimized.
(This is where the ‘porn causes rape’ argument ends, but the ‘cultural harm’ argument takes a few crucial further steps.)
4. The representation of women as sexual objects has, particularly in recent years, spread beyond the already broad reach of the (singular) porn industry to produce images of women as sexualized across culture more generally – ‘the sexualization of culture’.
5. The way a given group is represented in culture will affect the ways that others will treat people identified as belonging to that group in society.
6. This means that all representations of women as ‘sexualized’ anywhere in culture contribute to the dehumanization of women and therefore to the violence perpetrated against them and is therefore directly attributable to the influence of pornography on culture and therefore society.
Well beyond the limitations of ‘porn causes rape’ the ‘cultural harm’ argument holds pornography (particularly identified as a monolithic porn or sex industry) accountable for all representations of women seen as inciting the (presumed male) viewer to regard women as dehumanized sex objects and therefore legitimate targets of violence.
It’s an incredibly clever argument and I’m genuinely in awe of its scope. I disagree extremely strongly with its conclusions and with many of the steps taken to get there, but there are a few steps in the process that I don’t entirely disagree with and it’s these that I (with reservations) recognize as contributing to my own argument about diversity in porn.
The first claim I don’t quite want to abandon, but would like to reframe a little is:
Women in pornography are represented as sexual objects.
This is true(ish), although I immediately want to rewrite it as:
Women in some pornography are sometimes represented as sexual objects.
As noted by Nichi Hodgson, the link between being sexually objectified and being dehumanized isn’t all that clear. But far more than that, I think I’m also unclear on how being seen as a sexual object – and it’s not clear to me how this differs from being an object of desire – precludes someone also being a sexual subject.
I’m reasonably prepared to accept that the majority of women characters – n.b. characters, not performers1 – in pornography are fairly two-dimensional representations without much of the background development and motivation we generally expect from other forms of culture. But I don’t accept that this is exclusive to the women characters. In a wonderful (although perhaps more optimistic than my own will be) article about the representation of sadomasochism, Eleanor Wilkinson gives a lovely explanation of this:
‘Pornography does not attempt to explain why or how the actors came to experience sex like this, it simply just is: a vivid representation of fucking for fucking’s sake. The visual representation of sex acts reminds us that sexuality is a doing rather than a being. Maybe this is why porn is seen as so dangerous; it makes no attempts to explain or excuse itself, and therefore does not fit into the conventional methods of telling sexual stories.’ p.189
Pornography as a genre is often uncompromising in its pursuit of representing sex, but that really isn’t disproportionately levelled at women. Bodies of all kinds are frequently split up, framed, filmed and photographed in pieces with only those body parts deemed most relevant – for better or worse (and I do happen to think it’s usually for the worse) – to the sexual representation at hand. Incidentally, this is far from only being the case in live-action or photographic pornography – comics porn uses many of the same framing techniques.
So, the claim that women in pornography are represented as sexual objects isn’t one necessarily that I’d want to throw out, but reframing and replacing the emphasis so that it reads something like this:
In addition to their roles as sexual subjects, characters and bodies in pornography are often represented as sexual objects as ‘fucking for fucking’s sake’ forms part of the premise of the genre.
How does this relate to diversity and the censorship of porn?
While most pornography does in fact strive to represent women’s sexual pleasure (realistically depicted or otherwise), the censorship of pornography is disproportionately levelled against women (alongside gay men: see for example, the disproportionate prosecution of representations of gay male sex for breaching the Obscene Publications Act) who are working explicitly to bring women’s sexual pleasure to the fore.
A good example of this is the recent (ultimately successful) battle by Itziar Bilbao Urrutia, creator of the Urban Chick Supremacy Cell (UC-SC), against the Authority for Television on Demand (ATVoD). ATVoD’s role is as a regulator of video-on-demand content, delegated by Ofcom. They are responsible for ensuring that on-demand content doesn’t breach the Communications Act 2003, as amended by the Audiovisual Media Services Regulations 2009 and the Audiovisual Media Services Regulations 2010. Interestingly, ATVoD’s Chief Executive appears also to see their role as enforcing the Obscene Publications Act and having been overruled by Ofcom in their attempted regulation of Playboy TV (on the basis of most of the editorial work taking place overseas) seem to have firmly committed themselves to the pursuit of Femdom (female domination themed) pornography. Urrutia’s work blurs the (supposedly) clean-cut category boundaries between art and pornography (and according to ATVoD, between internet pornography and video-on-demand services like BBC iplayer), but crucially UC-SC focuses primarily (even exclusively) on women’s sexual pleasure, deliberately deconstructing precisely the kind of fantasies so often identified as problematically underpinning mainstream pornography (whether they do or not is a whole other question).
The second step in the ‘cultural harm’ argument that I actually really don’t want to dispense with is this one:
The way a given group is represented in culture will affect the ways that others will treat people identified as belonging to that group in society.
I don’t want to dispense with this because I think culture matters, because I think culture really does have an effect on society, because I want to be able to argue that diversity of representation matters and that control over the ways in which a group is represented ought primarily to rest with that group. This is where I part company with a lot of the anti-censorship campaigners, many of whom argue that the ‘cultural harm’ argument is nonsense because culture isn’t that powerful, because it doesn’t really matter, because how people treat each other has nothing to do with the representations we see. As a researcher, scholar and teacher of culture, I utterly refuse to accept that.
However… that is not at all the same as saying that therefore culture ought to be intentionally, explicitly censored. The fact is, and I know I’ve argued this on this blog before and I’ll keep repeating it, the power to censor is always in the hands of those already in power.
In doing research for an article (hopefully to be published next year sometime in a special issue of Porn Studies focusing on Sex Critical approaches to pornography and based on a conference paper the prezi for which is available here) about the Object and UK Feminista ‘Lose the Lads Mags’ campaign, I came across a related argument being put forward by US legal scholar, Vicki Shultz, that ‘regulatory initiatives to stamp out sexual conduct are often mobilized disproportionately against stigmatized minorities.’ (p.2068) The claim here is that calling for censorship doesn’t improve the representation of those who are already represented poorly. If anything, it intensifies that poor representation, because it makes alternative representations (those produced by people from minority or marginalized groups) more vulnerable, more likely to be subject to legal (or other) censure.
So in my article about ‘Lose the Lads’ Mags’ I argue that the ‘no porn policy’ employed by Tesco and much cited by the campaign is far more likely to restrict the representation of black and minority ethnic sexualities, lesbian, gay, trans* and bisexual sexualities, disabled sexualities and fat sexualities, along with other sexualities deemed outside the mainstream of acceptable sexual expression and identity, than it is to restrict the extremely narrow range of images available in lads’ mags, or indeed in the far more financially successful women’s magazines. This is due to the fact that these representations are far more likely to be deemed pornographic in the first place. That the magazines which carry sexual images currently available in Tesco almost exclusively depict white, heterosexual, slim, young, cisgender, British and American women suggests that improvements to the representations available are unlikely to come through an intensification of policies based on exclusion. On the contrary, this narrowness of image – both in terms of those who are represented and in terms of those who are not – might best be combated through a call for more images rather than less.
And ultimately this is where the ‘cultural harm’ argument takes me:
My response to the role and power of culture to affect the ways in which people treat each other is to call for more representations. For all her at times problematic treatment of other sex workers, Annie Sprinkle makes a powerful argument when she suggests that ‘the answer to bad porn isn’t no porn, it’s better porn’. This is something I have come to slowly, cautiously, worriedly even and I recognize that more doesn’t necessarily equal more diverse, but less? that certainly doesn’t either.
1 Unless we assume (as indeed the majority of anti-porn campaigning does) that women who perform in or pose for pornography do so unwillingly or unwittingly – they are either unable to escape their exploitation or unable to recognize even that they are being exploited – then we have to recognize that for at least some women porn performers, at least some of the time, their work is something they actively engage in and contribute to as much as any of the men involved in the production process. Therefore, the sexual stories that are being told, to whatever extent they belong to those who are telling them, must also belong to the women too.