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Thursday, 26 January 2012

A feminist reports! - On Porn

By Sidonie Bertrand-Shelton

So, as gender equality rep for RHUL, I tend to get to as many feminist activities as is physically possible. Unfortunately, as I go along and learn new and wonderful things, I forget to report back to all the curious feminists back on campus (I cannot possibly be the only one?!) Last week, I went to an open discussion at SOAS University called “Porn: A tool for liberation or oppression?” with guest speakers from Feminist Fightback, Feminists Against Censorship and the former LGBT SOAS Officer. I also went to the protest outside parliament against Dorries’ abstention bill, and finally a discussion on “Muffs, Magazines and the Media” by Women’s Fightback. I could break it down by event, but I’m going to juggle this and split it into three topics: firstly Porn and the Media, then Porn and Oppression, and finally Porn and Sex Education.

A few disclaimers: when I refer to feminists, I do not mean all feminists. Just like any belief, there is no binary. Secondly, the talks I went to were generally pro-porn and against oppression of class. Thirdly, my opinion on porn is still undecided. Fourth, this information is from my notes that I made during all of
the events, which tried to be as accurate as possible. They do not necessarily reflect my own opinions.

Porn and the Media

So, we all know that men disproportionately run media and porn, and that both are multi-billion dollar industries. Porn is, in fact, the third biggest industry in the world; but as the Feminist Fightback speaker pointed out “there are very few multi-billion dollar industries that I’m pro.” Fair point. What’s interesting is that porn is run by men, for men. The British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) actually checks porn, and one classification requires asking a Doctor if “the human body is physically capable of doing this?”. A little scandal, actually, as one film had a woman ejaculating, and the Doctor deemed it physically impossible. So BBFC approved films will have no liquids coming out of the woman (for want of a better word). This ties in with the SOPA and PIPA censorship bills that were being put
to America earlier this week. The speakers at the porn talk were against any form of censorship, as it would deny any of our autonomous desires whilst simultaneously encouraging guilt or marginalising those who like different things. They were worried, because the need to protect our freedom is very real.
The current internet is fantastic because it also allows expression of the sexual fantasies of other genders and sexualities that may not be mainstream. Thanks to the internet, it is very easy for anyone to make their own porn and to share it with the world. One example is Dirty Diaries, made by feminists for women (but if you’re sitting there thinking that all feminists are lesbians, I’d just like to clarify that lesbian and feminist porn are not always the same thing. They can be, but not exclusively). The accessibility and freedom of the media allows the construction of porn by women for women, or by women for men, or any other combination of the multitude of genders and sexualities out there. It allows
freedom of speech, of sexual preference, and curiosity.

To reclaim erotic entertainment through the main media channels can be challenging. A speaker had launched a porn magazine by women, for women in the 1980s, but the overwhelmingly male shop keepers refused to stock it, as they decided it would not appeal to their wives, and consequently, not to their female customers either. The magazine didn’t last long, and I’m not sure how different this tale would be today.

Porn and Oppression

The main difficulty we have with porn is that it is by men, for men, and it makes a hell of a lot of money. There is a growing trend of Ethical Porn, which focuses on the workers rights. I’ve heard from someone who knows someone in the porn industry, that they get frequent STI check ups among other assessments
of their rights and what they feel comfortable with. So, in regards to workers rights, it’s not all doom and gloom.
We’re going to move swiftly onto the controversial yet important subject of female pubic hair (or lack thereof!) in porn films. Some people claim that the pressure to have a bare lady garden originates from porn, when in fact it stems from fashion. Models could be photographed up to where their pubic hairline
began, and as bikinis and underwear became smaller, the pubic hairline receded. What can make people feel uncomfortable is that the lack of hair is pre-pubescent and therefore childlike, inadvertently encouraging paedophilia. This is a big statement to make, but the pressures for this style of pubic hair are very real. The speakers agreed that this paedophilic connotation was ridiculous, and is invented
to make those who prefer no hair, feel guilty. They were against any denial of autonomy, as everyone has the right to like what they like.
Now, we’ll move along to the idea that the competition for the ideal body comes from capitalism. The idea that we can be better, stronger than what we already are by making money for ourselves and spending it on ourselves. The very idea of body image comes from competition, and comparing ourselves to a third party.
The ideal body however changes across the decades; for your average Victorian female, a small waist was desired due to the popularity of whalebone corsets. Moving on to the 1940s, and the ideal female body is very flat with simple short dresses, which reflect the rationing of food and material at the time. Compare this again, to the 1950s female hourglass shape with full skirts and excess fabric, due to the end of the war and the increase in income. The reality is, in your current average magazine targeted at women, you will hardly ever find a curvier woman than a size 8-10 (the average UK woman is a size 12-14), nor will you find the very athletic woman. It hardly needs mentioning because we all know it, but they are all as beautiful as each other, and yet are not equally presented in the media.
Interestingly, one of the women from the Women’s Fightback is a photographer in the fashion industry, particularly for ethical clothing. She had an internal debate with the designer over the size of the models they were using: most of the customers are the average size 12-14, and yet they use size 8-10 models. If they were to sell ethical clothing on a size 12 model, they would be making too much of a statement, and the magazines wouldn’t publish their adverts. The sad reality. Women’s Fightback concluded that it is important to know your enemy, and to know why you are unhappy with your body (if this is the case).

Sex Education and Porn

Nadine Dorries had a bill for a compulsory sex education for young females, compromising of abstinence. She wanted to make it cool to say no. There is nothing wrong with abstinence and for some it’s a valid option, but it really should be an informed choice! If this bill had passed, it would have been the only compulsory sex education, so the information about STIs and contraception and enjoyment would not be covered. Also, her bill was sexist, blaming it only on the female’s incapacity to say no. The protest outside parliament wanted an informed, unbiased sex education for all genders, so that individuals can make up their own mind. Thankfully, an hour into our protest, she retracted her bill. Hurrah!

Now, sex education in the UK as it stands is pretty appalling. In fact, for the gay speaker at “Porn: A tool for liberation or oppression?” porn was their sex education. I don’t know about you, but my sex education was only about sex between a man and a woman, and nothing else (and I went to school in Brighton!). In fact, one thing that porn does teach us that sex education in the UK fails to, is the possibility of enjoying sex, and the pleasure that can arise from it. One example, is that where as in sex education pretty much ignores the clitoris, in porn it is praised and shown how to, well, use it.

The internet has allowed a such a vast stream of information, that many previous generations hadn’t had access to until a certain age. This quite plainly leads on to the dilemma of young children watching porn, and that being their only form of sex education. The speakers here concluded that nobody who
watches porn sees it without criticism, no matter their age or experience. This criticism means that it is not always replicated when doing a significant thing with a significant other. Something else to consider is that people choose the kind of porn that they watch; even when stumbling upon something new and
unexpected of an uncomfortable nature (for that individual), it can easily be avoided.

The conversation then flew to the distinction of fantasy and reality, and whether the inexperienced young would be able to tell the difference. Whilst some argued that porn is only as fictional as Harry Potter and Doctor Who, and young children are already exposed to a lot of sex and long kisses in films on T.V.,
others argued otherwise. The latter argued that porn can be a very negative first experience, and that there is an “appropriate” age for autonomy. This, however, is better judged by the parents and schools than the government, which ties back in to the censorship scare in the US.

Finally, the fear of porn was mentioned. The fear of the extreme fetishes, such as BDSM (Bondage and Discipline, Dominance and Submission, Sadism and Masochism), and the influence this can have on young viewers. Here, the idea of choice in porn arose again, but also the fact that we are all a little afraid of porn. What’s important to remember in BDSM porn films, is that they show the consent process in the film, and they have very strict workers rights. This means that even if people were into BDSM and wanted to replicate it themselves, they are fully aware of the implications of consent. This can only be a good thing, really, if it’s something you’re interested in.

So, I leave you with this muddle of facts and opinions I discovered in one week, and they were just from the pro-porn opinion. But, put the date in your diary: Monday 20th February, 2012, 7pm to 10pm: in Rialto at SURHUL we’re hosting a “Let’s Talk About Porn” session to explore the ethics and pleasure principal further. I’m still to make up my mind, are you?

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