Feminists, both for porn and against it, hardly ever address the many ways in which racism, classism, ableism, etc conflate to turn porn into a cultural minefield
By Flavia Dzodan
I love porn! I do! I have even written about porn recently! Yet, I really resent that I need to offer this disclaimer any time I would like to address something about the genre. Because it seems that there is a dominant trend within feminism where you are either for porn or against it. And the thing is, for me, one can be “for” porn and still have serious reservations.
However, this lack of nuance in most of the discussions leaves so many important and necessary arguments out because, being in favor of porn, for the most part, means you do not align with the critics of porn, you just play along, you tout the usual favorable talking points, namely
- porn can be empowering for some people
- there is a way to produce consensual non exploitative porn
- there is a market for feminist porn
- as long as the participants partook out of their own volition, we should not stick our noses into their choices, after all, people should live their lives in any way they see fit.
And I agree with all of the above. These are the reasons why I believe that porn and erotica, and the producers of said media, should be respected for their work and not treated like people who are incapable of making informed decisions about their own bodies and well being.
Then there is the camp that staunchly opposes porn and sex work on the basis that it is always exploitative and degrading. Organizations like Object in the UK, who carry on the ideological legacy of Dworkin, aggressively campaigning against it, conveniently leaving out the arguments of sex workers, porn producers, people in the industry and consumers alike. Theirs is a specific brand of “neo puritan feminism” that seeks to empower women by silencing those who are deemed “oppressed” and not capable of making decisions about their own bodies and lifestyles.
This condescending, binary dichotomy of “what is good for women” vs. “what is degrading” leaves no room for counter points or personal autonomy. Either you are for “exploiting women” or you are against it.
Still, both camps share an inherently similar approach towards porn: it is hardly ever intersectional. It hardly ever addresses the many ways in which racism, class-ism, able-ism, etc conflate to turn porn into a cultural minefield.
If you point out that there are ingrained elements of racism within certain sub genres of pornography, to wit, some stuff that is presented as “fetish”, the usual defense, even from many in the sex positive feminist camp, is that “people like what they like” and, as long as it is consensual, we should not question it. This kind of determinism due to preference remains unexamined, unchallenged, as if our personal taste would develop in a vacuum, devoid of any other socio-cultural influence. As if we could separate ourselves from the environment where we exist.
I suspect this uncritical “we like what we like” argument stems from a need to anticipate the attacks based on moralistic arguments. I understand that anything that deviates from the heteronormative and patriarchal ideas of “acceptable” is criticized on tenuous arguments involving “values” and supposed “deviance”. However, “we might like what we like” and still, that supposedly personal preference might not be as simple or as harmless as we might want to believe. Kyriarchy, after all, infiltrates even the most seemingly disconnected areas of our lives.
So, I have to ask the obvious question here: how “consensual” is some of this fetish porn when it involves extreme and brutal forms of racist degradation? Sure, we say, the women were paid for this, they agreed to be featured, they signed consent forms, they knew they were going to take part in porn. And yet, nothing prepares us for the horror involved in some of these fetish productions that Jamel Shabazz so well illustrates in this piece at Hycide, GHETTO GAGGERS: A Nation Can Rise No Higher Than It’s Women. From the piece:
“I clicked on a video. As it begins, the women are asked, “Why are you here?” Many say they want cash because their boyfriends were “broke ass n*****s” or because they needed money to support their children. “Ghetto Gaggers” allegedly pays $2,000. Some say they want to be porn stars. Some are college students or unemployed, and some are even pregnant. They have names like Mecca, Ashanti, Precious, Ebony, and Destiny. Maybe they are expecting to star in an erotic video, or maybe they think this is gag porn, in which women who sign a release form are humiliated and hurt to satisfy fetishistic viewers. But it’s hard to believe they expect the level of degradation that comes next, or the resulting emotional trauma.
Some porn stars who reportedly knew what they were in for have quit the industry after starring in “Ghetto Gaggers”. “After we get through with them they’re going to have to see a psychiatrist for the rest of their lives,” one attacker boasts on camera. In a typical video, three or four men take turns physically and mentally destroying their victims. During 90 minutes of barbarism, the perpetrators spit in their faces, slap them, stomp them and force some to crawl on all fours with chains around their necks. In other scenes, the women have watermelons smashed on their heads and then are forced to eat the melon, along with the men’s semen. Some women have their faces shoved into a toilet, much to the pleasure of the assailants. During the grotesque finale, the men shove their penises deep inside the women’s throats until they vomit into a large dog bowl, which is emptied on them. As the humiliated women cry, a host promises fans there will be new girls every week!”
I can hear the arguments already “but this is the BAD kind of porn!”, this is the “non feminist!” kind. True, however, missing the point entirely, since, as feminists, even for those who identify as sex positive, we should concern ourselves with all issues involving matters of gender and gender representation. Even more so, when they involve the systematic degradation of an entire group of women based on their ethnicity.
Here’s where the argument in favor of unexamined fetish becomes flimsy and harmful: people like what they like and as long as it is consensual, what is the problem? Except that something like precisely this case illustrated above can be simultaneously consensual (the women initially agreed to participate) and extremely harmful (obviously, if they needed therapy to overcome the experience, nobody would claim that this was just an innocuous form of indulging in fetish). Because consent, especially for women who are already viewed as targets, whose bodies are already viewed as “ready for abuse” is more complicated than signing a release form and agreeing to be filmed while a bunch of racist white guys degrade you.
‘People like what they like’
Now, imagine the same line of argument invoked in any other area of racist critique. When the editor of a fashion mag calls Rihanna a “ni**abitch”, would we, as feminists, accept this idea that “people like what they like”? When the fashion industry does something racist, would we agree that people just “like” that kind of fashion and leave the subject alone because well, “as long as the models took part in the production consensually, then who are we to critique?”.
Even in my last piece, where I critiqued the penis centric nature of porn and erotica for straight women, some commentators felt the need to inform me that “that’s what they like and I had no business criticizing it”. However, again, I repeat myself: how can this personal inclination be isolated from everything else? How can our desire be isolated from the rest of our influences?
And I am sort of exhausted of this individualistic defense that because “someone likes it”, these notions cannot be challenged or analyzed as part of a bigger framework. Because that is at the very root of an intersectional approach to gender politics, we cannot separate the personal circumstances involving race, class, gender, dis/ability, etc, from the overall frameworks of consent, fetish, porn production and the consumption of said products. All of them are interconnected and, “BUT I LIKE IT!” is a poor defense focused on individuals when the focus should perhaps be better directed on how the sum of each individual adds up to create a system of representation.
“We might like what we like” and yet, that very same media might as well be based on the systematic portrayal of certain individuals as “inferior”, unworthy of love, of care, their ethnicity solely “a fetish”. The idea of consent, only in paper, unexamined because we are supposed to operate under the assumption that agreeing to a sex act for the camera only stems from personal choice. Although for women of color depicted in porn, there is obviously more than meets the eye.
Flavia Dzodan is a writer, media analyst and activist living in Amsterdam. This article was originally appeared on Tiger Beatdown. Special thanks to the author for sharing this with FeministsIndia