Binarism and Repression in Feminist Pornography Debates Lola Olson
Prompt: “Eroticism constitutes play whilst pornography signals violence.” Do you agree? Discuss.
Declaring and contrasting the terms ‘pornography‘ and ‘eroticism’ often comes with many loaded assumptions that, upon further examination, can be traced back to sexism and sex negativity. Via this essay, I wish to explore the connotations behind assumptions about pornography and eroticism and what that means in terms of privilege, sexuality, and gender theory. While I acknowledge there are many things about mainstream pornography that are problematic, I wish to highlight the sexist and binarist connotations behind differentiating between “pornography” and “erotica” and how drawing sharp lines around sexuality can create an environment that excludes; the broader point being that any distinguishing between “erotica” and “pornography” is arbitrary and often contrary to feminist causes. First and foremost, a working understanding of the debates surrounding pornography vs. erotica must be established because there has been much discussion of what “pornography” is and what “erotica” is within feminist discourse. A common definition among anti-pornography feminists is to equate pornography with “unequal sex”, “degrading sex”, or sex that depicts men as dominating women; whereas, erotica is often defined as something that depicts sex equally; the importance of equality between gender as well as race is noted. Catherine McKinnon and Andrea Dworkin are
Lola Olson two popular anti-porn feminists who have defined pornography in these explicit terms in Pornography and Sexual Violence (1988, p. 2). Lynne Segal and Mary McIntosh affirm this in the introduction of Sex Exposed: Sexuality and the Pornography Debate: “The basic feminist anti-pornography argument is that pornography is central to the way in which men subordinate women. Pornography, it is argued, both depicts and causes violence against women…” (1993, p. 5). In Gender Violence: Interdisciplinary Perspectives, which comes from an anti-porn feminist stance, Editors Laura L. O'Toole, Jessica R. Schiffman, and Margie L. Kiter Edwards echo these sentiments by claiming that pornography sexualises, celebrates, promotes, authorises, and legitimates rape, battery, sexual harassment, prostitution, and child sexual abuse, adding that dominance and submission is a dynamic common to all pornography (1997, p. 376). Harry Brod further asserts that pornography involves a lack of emotional commitment and intimacy because of it’s commercialisation (1997, p. 398) and Diana E. H. Russell echoes the same sentiment, asserting that pornography’s is degradation against not just women but also specifically lesbians and gays, as well as animals (1993, p. 2-3). Russell further clarifies that it is this degradation that is the problem with porn, rather than its sexual explicitness (1993, p. 4). Popular feminist theorist Audre Lorde also defines the difference in these terms, stating that pornography represents suppression of emotion and feelings, and instead emphasises sensation over those feelings (1981, p. 278). Another notable feminist, Gloria Steinam, cited by Harriet Gilbert, has noted that pornography is any depiction of sex in which love has been extracted from power (1993, p. 218). A variety of feminists, whether staunchly anti-pornography or not, choose to define pornography by the presence of dominance and submission,
Lola Olson degradation, and humiliation. Feminists construct the term “erotica”, in contrast, as something completely egalitarian. Elizabeth Wilson, noting the differences anti-pornography feminists make between the terms, states that “pornography is contrasted with erotica: erotica is the life-loving, positive expression of affirmative sexual values and erotic love…” (1993, p. 23-24). Erotica, in this context, is typically defined and presented in strict contrast to pornography. Harriet Gilbert highlights how both terms are used together when she says that some “… appear to use 'pornography' simply as the masculine form of 'erotica': the latter the woman-made product, being 'good'; the former man-made, product being 'bad'” (1993, p. 217). Gender Violence also cares to note the difference between pornography and erotica, stating that erotica may be sexually explicit materials that are “premised on equality” (1997, p. 380) and Russell agrees, adding that erotica specifically refers to material that is not just free of misogyny, but free of racism, homophobia, and respectful of all persons portrayed (1993, p. 3). In many instances, when distinguishing between pornography and erotica, feminists take extra care in noting that it is not the explicitness of the content that defines the difference between the terms “erotica” and “pornography”. Brod mentions that distinguishing between porn and erotica is problematic, but concedes that he defines the difference, not in its risqué content, but rather “by the extent to which autonomous personhood is attributed to the person or persons portrayed” (1997, p. 404). Audre Lorde also chimes in, drawing differences between the pornographic and the erotic, stating “the erotic is a resource within each of us that lies in a deeply female and spiritual plane, firmly rooted in the power of our unexpressed or unrecognised
Lola Olson feeling.” (1981, p. 277). It seems that while all of the feminist writers may take different stances on pornography and erotica, one idea remains constant in their critiques: erotica is often presumed good, while pornography is often presumed bad, both regardless of sexual content and explicitness. Deconstructing the differences between these two terms by anti and pro porn feminists is incredibly important because throughout all of these definitions there is a repeated, unaddressed sentiment. The first item of contention with these assumptions is expressed in two parts: there is an underlying assumption of gender essentialism that contradicts the feminist tenant that gender is a construction and thusly there is a binarist assumption that “males” and “females” are the only identities one is working with. “Gender binarism”, or the shortened noun “binarist”, is the assertion that there are only “males” and “females” and involves the erasure of any experiences or bodies that prove otherwise, including those experiences of intersex, non-binary transgender (e.g. transgender people who do not identify as “male” or “female” exclusively), genderqueer, or gender variant individuals. When approaching feminist discourses, it is useful to remember that using the terms “women” or “female” isn’t inherently binarist, because it’s often useful to identify behaviour by distinguishing how people who are assigned “female” are treated in misogynist society. For example, while in my own experience I may identify as genderqueer, I realise that I am living in a binarist world that does not recognise the existence of those who deviate from the “male”/”female” dichotomy and, because of that, I am labelled as “female”, including all the Western cultural significances that come along with this term and as such, discussing my experience as a “female” is relevant in identifying how sexism operates.
Lola Olson Feminist discourse has evolved over the years, in considering the meaning of the word “woman” and what that definition implies. Judith Butler in her essay Variations on Sex and Gender: Beauvoir, Wittig, Foucault argues that the body exists in and of itself, but is interpreted and humanised through gender (1987, p. 26). Butler argues further that because the body is constituted through gendered means within society, it becomes nearly, if not completely, impossible to interpret the body without cultural imprint or to decide what parts of the body are “natural” as no body exists outside of this locus of meanings (1987, p. 23). But these gendered meanings and strict identities, Butler argues in Bodily Inscriptions, Performative Subversions, create norms which are used to humanise or de-humanise people and act as a reinforcement for heterosexuality (1990, p. 101). When we are discussing the problems that can be found within any sexually explicit material, it is important to remember these fundamental ideas about gender and its construction. Nothing can be taken as essential to any “male” or “female” identity, because when we assume there is something essential about either identity, we are reinforcing ideas of gender norms. However, when discussing “porn” and “erotica”, some frequently rely on stereotypes about “male” sexuality juxtaposed with “female” sexuality, treating both like oil and water. This is not only contrary to these basic tenets of gender theory but also binarist. It not only ignores that any gender variant person could exist, but also ignores that there may be “males” or “females” who do not find these particular traits are akin to their sexualities at all. In almost all of the discussions concerning the differences between “pornography” and “erotica” lays this nugget of binarism. Segal and McIntosh assert, in defining porn that “pornography caters to men’s sexual
Lola Olson fantasies of female availability and eagerness for sex” (1993, p. 5). Indeed, there is a very large problem when the vast majority of sexually explicit material markets this type of fantasy exclusively within the context of a misogynist culture where sexual harassment against those assigned female is tolerated or even joked about. But the key problem with this definition of pornography is that it asserts that there are “men’s sexual fantasies”, and by extension, “female sexual fantasies”. It asserts, whether meaning to or not, that there is something about a sexual fantasy that makes it inherently male or female; and this is a binarist assumption in many arguments defining the difference between “erotica” and “porn”. The aforementioned quote from Gilbert states explicitly this binarist assumption – pornography is “male” and erotica is “female” (1993, p. 218). Linda Williams illustrates the problems behind these assumptions as well: “In the name of what norms do feminists condemn the perversions of dominant masculine heterosexual desire evidenced in art, mass culture and a muchmaligned pornography? Where is the enablement of female sexual agency in this condemnation of masculine dominance? Should we even speak in such binary terms of female (versus a male) sexual agency?” (1993, p. 235) Some anti-pornography feminists openly state that there is a binary, that there is a key difference between “female” and “male” sexual imagery, and that pornography is defined by it. Gender Violence asserts that pornography only includes material depicting violence against women and blankly asserts: “This is erotic to the male point of view” (1997, p. 377). Brod argues that pornography is completely void of emotional intimacy, and, while he acknowledges that there is a pervasive stereotype that females
Lola Olson always tie emotion with sex, instead of challenging this stereotype, Brod asserts that males also need emotional intimacy, in the same stereotyped ways that women do (1997, p. 398). Lorde, as mentioned before, argues that there is something inherently female and inherently spiritual about the erotic and furthermore that the erotic has been “misnamed by men and used against women” (1981, p. 278), and that pornography and eroticism are diametrically opposed, the latter being more “psychic and emotional” than the former (1981, p. 279). These debates leave no room for an understanding of where gender variant people exist in this “male” vs. “female” sexual war. Lorde’s approach to the spirituality and inherent femaleness of the erotic reminds one of the urgency with which people have tried to say that child rearing and care giving where spiritually, psychically, and naturally inherently “female”. Lorde once wrote that “The Master’s Tools Will Not Dismantle the Master’s House”, but here doesn’t seem to realise how asserting there is something inherently spiritually female about egalitarian erotica is using the same binarist stereotyping that has been used to oppress women for years. Even when not discussing “male” and “female” sexual agency or fantasies, there are attitudes behind the approaches to differentiate “pornography” and “erotica” as mediums that stereotype both words in terms of gender. But (one may ask) if pornography is defined as something so horrific - something that relies on stripping people of, seemingly, their humanity - why, then, is this pervasive attitude the problem? Because it contradicts the fundamental idea that gender is a construct. Pornography is characterised as “male” because it is explicit, it’s rough, it’s unemotional, it’s in-yourface; whereas erotica is characterised as “female”, soft, sophisticated, emotionally
Lola Olson mature, and sensitive. There is a massive problem behind this blue and pink dichotomy because it is the same philosophy of assumptions that has told those identified as female that they can’t work, that they’re made for the home and child-bearing, that men are more apt for the tough work of the world. It’s an oppressive attitude not just toward women, but also toward anyone who doesn’t fit within these terms, and it continues to erase the experiences and existences of gender variant people. Furthermore, it’s an attitude that is ages behind current feminist discourse on gender. Butler argues that gender is performative and people must continuously perform gender in order for these categories to be sustained (1993, p. 12). If we consider mainstream pornography and the repetition of certain acts which some have labelled as degrading, this can be seen as another continuation of gender performance. Does that mean that these performances aren’t problematic within a culture that endorses misogyny? Absolutely not. But when we suggest there is something inherent about “femaleness”, that this can be reflected within pornography or erotica, we are maintaining gender norms and oppressive identities. Butler writes in Imitation and Gender Insubordination that identities tend to be the products of regulatory regimes, whether the intent is to normalise or to rally (1990, p. 129). One can make arguments against mainstream porn and industry practices without believing that there is something inherent about the categories of “male” and “female” and their respective sexualities. While that may be done for the benefit of proving “female” sexuality egalitarian while dismissing “male” sexuality as unequal and domineering, and that may seem positive, it is inherently problematic within modern feminist discourse because these overwhelming statements of assumed identity have been part of the
Lola Olson same oppressive regimes that feminism has fought against. Anti-pornography feminists reflect some awareness of this backdrop of assumptions and ideas. They repeatedly assert, as aforementioned, that their objection to pornography is not about its sexual explicitness. The entire effort to define the differences between pornography and erotica is so meticulous precisely because of these overwhelming gender assumptions about sexually explicit material. Antipornography feminists exist within the same world: where explicit and widely available magazines like Playboy and Hustler decorate newsagents and the robust, though nevertheless mostly clothed, but arguably equally as explicit, romance novels are hidden in corners of bookstores. We live in a world that sees pornography as something distinctly “male” because it involves the “rough” side of sex, which obviously “females” can’t handle and therefore choose the softer romance novel counterpart. But the aforementioned feminists who choose to make such sharp contrasts in their definitions of “pornography” and “erotica” are dealing with this dichotomy without confronting it and what it means to anyone who doesn’t identify in “male” or “female” terms. Instead, their efforts to define the differences between pornography and erotica reinforce the idea that there needs to be a difference: that there is something so wrong with the unemotional that it needs to be defined in such a way that avoids gender stereotyping, without really acknowledging that there is a pervasive stereotype. Therein lies the second problem in the approach to differentiate pornography from erotica: it almost overwhelmingly argues that there is something wrong with roughness and that roughness can’t co-exist with love and in that, it often excludes anyone who doesn’t express love in a certain way.
Lola Olson One identifying commonality with the distinctions between erotica and pornography made above is the term “degrading”, often coupled with suggestions about “domination” and “violence”. There is an overwhelming assertion that, when domination or violence is found within sex, it is almost always degrading, bad, and horrible. Gender Violence’s introduction explicitly states that pornography “… makes dominance and submission into sex. Inequality is its central dynamic; the illusion of freedom coming together with the reality of force is central to its working” (1997, p. 377) arguing that the “lust for domination and submission” (1997, p. 378) is both central to pornography and problematic. I would never argue that violence is something condonable within everyday life and I realise that misogynist culture influences violence against those assigned and identified in society as female differently than those assigned and identified as male. But when applying these terms to sexuality, there are a few considerations one must take into account. While I don’t wish to say sexuality exists in a vacuum that’s uninfluenced by society, I do wish to identify that the discourse behind sexuality and the definition of domination as a negative within sex is something that stems from sex negative discourses. Michel Foucault reconstructs our concepts of Victorian sexual repression in The Will to Knowledge and asserts that the act of creating taboos and restrictions on sex, rather than preventing sex from occurring or being discussed, created and instead ensured the production of a large amount of discourse on the subject (1998, p. 23). Foucault continues to explain how sexuality was medicalised and thus the disorders of the homosexual, the hypersexual woman, and many others were created and treated (1998, p. 44); thus also began the growth of “perversions” as a recognised category,
Lola Olson and so-called “acts against nature” were criminalised and prosecuted (1998, p. 38). While Foucault spoke specifically about a variety of examples which became the perversions of the Victorian era (the homosexual, child sexuality, the hysterical woman) he didn’t speak much about another category which I believe has become more of a modern day construction of the “perverted”, especially within the discourse of identifying erotica as contrary to pornography: the sadomasochist. While “the sadomasochist” is just a title for the purposes of familiarity with Foucault’s work, what should really be explored or identified within the context of the difference between “erotica” and “pornography” is the sexual subculture, BDSM. BDSM is a combination acronym that includes: “B&D” (Bondage & Discipline), “D&S” (Dominance & Submission), and “S&M” (sadomasochism)” (2011, p. 1). These categories are not seen as one identity, but rather a variety of things one could be interested in. Essayist Franklin Veaux, in explaining BDSM to outsiders who have often seen porn depicting supposed BDSM exchanges, notes that: “These materials show little more than women being used in various unoriginal ways for men's enjoyment, often by force. The reality is that there are at least as many, and perhaps more, male submissives than female submissives; and that BDSM is a mutual activity that is driven as much by the needs of the submissive than by the needs of the dominant” (2011, p. 1). While there may be many pornography films depicting abuse rather than BDSM, Loretta Loach cites a study that “found that out of three hundred titles roughly 7 per cent involved s/m [sic] with women being submissive and 9 per cent involved the man in that role” (1993, p. 272) which confirms Veaux’s assertions. Dossie Easton and Janet
Lola Olson Hardy in The New Bottoming Book explain that BDSM allows them the ability to experience things safely that they could not in real life, that S/M is “play, theatre, communication, intimacy, sexuality” (2001, p. 6). Loach further states, in her exchanges with women who buy and interact with pornography, that they “see antiporn feminists as terrorising their sexuality” (1993, p. 272). No doubt, if antipornography feminists continue to define pornography as anything which involves domination and submission, asserts that this causes sexual violence, and can never have an emotional or intimate component, it’s unsurprising that anyone, especially those involved in BDSM, would feel that their agency and their consent isn’t being taken into account. There is also a vast assumption that anyone depicted within a sadomasochist exchange is not only without sexual agency (especially if the one depicted at the receiving end is a woman) but also that the person in question isn’t a feminist nor have they thought about their fantasies or likes in terms of society. Ani Ritchie and Meg Barker, when discussing practices of BDSM with self identified feminists noted that many of these people enjoyed playing with power for a variety of reasons but enjoyed the sense of gender play it gave, that it allowed them to change or reconstruct their identities within sex and subvert the power relations they felt day to day (2005, p. 9). The women interviewed by Ritchie and Barker were also self identified feminists who had thought long and hard about their participation in BDSM in conjunction with their identities and that the greater power dynamics of the world were not lost on them (2005, p. 13). What does this mean in the context of anti-pornography feminists like Catherine MacKinnon who identify pornography specifically by its “humiliation”
Lola Olson and “degradation” towards women in Pornography and Sexual Violence (1988, p. 2)? Assuming there is always a sinister nature of violence within a sexually explicit scene or act leads to many issues when it comes to practices like BDSM, which are often misunderstood because the elements of consent and thought processes that go into deconstructing power are not easily identifiable through a camera lens. Essentially, BDSM is dealing directly with power exchange and concepts of play in sexuality. It is bridged by consent, understanding, and often discussed, explored, and controlled by the “bottom” or “submissive” in the scenarios, which Veaux asserts contradicts the very psychology of “abuse” (2011, p. 1). Within these frameworks, can we continue to illustrate that there is something always inherently negative about an act of what we call violence depicted in film or in a novel? Russell asserts that a requirement of non-sexist material, or what she calls “erotica”, must be that males and females are “equal”, meaning that men should never be clothed while a woman is naked and men cannot enact a dominant role (1993, p. 3). With this, Russell and many others like her make a vast assumption that any presence of power within a sexually explicit film or interaction is inherently degrading – or even that that “degradation” is something unwanted by a sexual counterpart. Trying to construct an image of “erotica” as egalitarian makes a fundamental philosophical mistake that the presence of BDSM which Foucault illustrates when he discusses how discourse about sexuality inherently involves power: “… You would have us believe, wrongly, that you have rid yourself of the problem of law… namely the fact that there is no escaping from power, that is always-already present, constituting that very thing which one attempts to
Lola Olson counter it with” (1998, p. 82) An attempt to differentiate “erotica” from “pornography” on the contexts of “play” and “violence” is an arbitrary effort to escape the power relations found in any sex act, whether it be on film or not. Foucault’s understanding of power as not one penultimate force enacted upon a helpless victim, but rather as a matrix of sources and interactions (1998, p. 94) is completely applicable to the effort to differentiate porn from erotica. When some attempt to suggest that violent porn creates sexual violence they are participating in an old anti-sexuality discourse that Foucault references: a discourse that sees sex as suspicious, with meaning that reflects our intimate consciousness (1998, p. 69), often resorting to using “the sadomasochist” as the same scapegoat for which Victorians utilised “the homosexual”. Anti-pornography feminists pushing for complete censorship are incredibly similar to those wishing to create sexual repression that Foucault mentions. Both demand sex speak the truth (1998, p. 69) and their truth specifically, but trying to contrast these two terms in an effort to eradicate the power dynamics that exist in a misogynist culture doesn’t work and BDSM practitioners who use this power, interact with power, and find intimacy within their interactions are a testament to the fact that such broad conclusions not only about “male” and “female” sexuality within porn can’t be made, but that the assumption that any domination or submission added to sex is inherently degrading and unemotional is incorrect. In this case, while BDSM is actively engaging in overt displays of domination and submission, often it is doing what Foucault describes that discourse can also be used for: to undermine, expose, and thwart the power relations that exist in everyday life (1998, p. 101).
Lola Olson Does this mean no pornography should be critiqued, examined, or questioned? Absolutely not. But instead of focusing ourselves on the trappings of pornographic films, on who’s wearing clothes or who’s tied up, instead we should focus on the power behind it, or as Foucault asserts, we must understand “the pattern of the modifications which relationships of force imply by the very nature of their process” (1998, p. 99). In that regard, the ways that mainstream pornography is created as a commercial industry, the standards prevalent in it, the reasons behind some of the images antipornography feminists classify as degrading, are what is specifically worth looking at. And while classifying these images or films into two arbitrary categories of “pornography” and “erotica” seem like a solid approach to ridding ourselves of these problems, creating taboos and repression does not solve the problem. Because power is something that is all around us, it cannot be cast out by the simple censorship of pornography. Instead, we must challenge and critique the foundations behind the industry of pornography. If one targets certain depictions of “male” and “females” within pornography, one runs the risk of creating a binarist scapegoat for a problem that goes unaddressed. While pornography can and should be critiqued, as should anything labelled “erotica”, attempting to push one or the other into categories based on “violence” or based on “play” often comes with binarist assumptions: that pornography is something for the visual, crude men whereas erotica is something refined and feminine. These terms continue to construct and reaffirm the archaic gender roles that make up some of the key problems behind the mistreatment of those who identify as women, the crude enforcement of masculinity on those who identify as men, and the boxing and
Lola Olson policing of those who identify as both or none of the above. It over-simplifies, painting the world in blue and pink terms, and erases anyone who could identify as something other than males or females. It perpetuates the idea that there are only men and women, and that there is behaviour or something inherent about either that merits different treatment. It furthermore creates a misunderstanding of the nature of sex and power, generates wide assumptions about the agency of anyone within a power exchange, and makes â€œperversionsâ€? out of people who wish to play with power.
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