One of the concepts that I have often struggled with when expounding on the subject of pornography is whether or not the female stars are themselves victims. Recently there has been a lot of discourse regarding the topic of sex workers in mainstream media, Women’s Hour on BBC Radio 4 recently had an illuminating discussion, in which one sex worker passionately, articulately and convincingly argued that she was no victim.
The problem is that mainstream soft-porn such as the ubiquitous 50 shades of grey, and Belle de Jour’s Diary of a Call Girl, has brought the taboo into the mainstream, giving practices which are often seedy, grim, painful and unpleasant, an alluring and glamourous appeal. It is not sufficient to be well-educated or cultured, or professionally successful, ideally we should all be sexual gourmands willing and able to indulge in and expand the flavours of our sexual palate, if we are to be considered true sophisticates.
Catholic culture and theology will naturally eschew and reject such worldly thinking, nonetheless this narrative of women involved in pornography as victims, is a difficult one to unpick when discussing on a secular level. One doesn’t need the reams of emerging data on the dangers of pornography and of porn addiction to believe that pornography is essentially the misuse of another human person, whether that’s the person involved in the making of it, or the person viewing it. Pornography is not only damaging to the individuals associated with it or who choose to use it, but to society as a whole.
Which is why this piece, written by a mainstream feminist is an essential read, as it rejects the entire frame of sexual empowerment, expressing sympathy with someone who is the target of abuse as a result of their sexual activities does not mean that one has to embrace their choices as valid. It rejects the frame of pornography as being an issue of individual choice and validates critique of pornography as being about the manufacture and commodification of sexual desire.
By asking “how does porn – its material production, its normativity, its wide availability, and its ubiquity in pop culture – affect our desires and our capacity for intimacy?” feminists can offer a critique of porn without falling into the honey trap.
Summing up, the author asks
“The issue isn’t whether porn is liberating for her. The issue is: is porn liberating for us?”
Now that’s my kind of feminism and of course it will give fuel to those who would wish to despairingly equate feminism and/or Catholicism with Puritanism, whereas actually both Catholics and feminists would agree that sex is a good and pleasurable thing which should be enjoyed by women and men alike, but we would differ on the appropriate context. The default Catholic position is one of sex positivity, so long as the parameters of sex were described as being heterosexual and within marriage. It’s not that sex per se is harmful, dirty or bad, we accept the sheer power of the thing, which is why we wish to harness the power as a force for good, namely reinforcing intimacy between a married couple and procreation.
But what really struck me about this intelligent piece was that it, perhaps subconsciously rejected individualism and moral relativism and the popular feminist mantra that woman’s choices must automatically be celebrated by virtue of her gender. Female solidarity does not mean that we have to applaud, ostracise, shun or pity women who choose the lucrative career of working in one of Hugh Heffner or Peter Stringfellow’s establishments, but rather that we ask deeper questions about the nature of female flourishing and freedoms and use reason to explain, persuade and convince others of our point of view.
The technique is similar to Catholic humanist apologetics however, feminists will be at an advantage in that they may not have to face the ‘you are an irrational believer in the sky fairy’ schtick, but that they will invariably have to fend off some critique of their appearance, sexual appeal and perceived lack of desire (such as the shameful treatment of Clare Short) demonstrates that sexism is still alive and well. This isn’t the fruits of patriarchy however but the consequences of the sexual revolution which held that every women had not only to be constantly ‘up for it’ but must also conform her appearance to a sexualised male gaze.
For all its coherence nonetheless, I couldn’t help but be frustrated, particularly when I noted that it had been picked up and tweeted, naturally enough, by pro-choice feminist and writer Sarah Ditum. If feminists are able to see the illogical and harmful stance of choice feminism, recognising and accepting that certain individual choices can contribute to and propagate wider harms, why can they not apply this principle to abortion. If they are able to identify the key issue about pornography, what it actually constitutes and signifies, then why are they quite so blind to the nature of abortion? If Naomi Wolfe, a key pro-choice feminist can state that abortion rights activists ought to acknowledge a death involved, then why is mainstream feminism unable to engage with and unpick the harms done to mother and child by abortion. And why are those of us who have been hurt by abortion, or who attempt to highlight the damage caused to womankind as a whole, rejected by the mainstream movement?