Feminism and Pornography5 Min Read
The relationship between pornography and feminism is complex — and it seems that it’s always up for debate. To properly address this topic, I sat down with Val — a researcher, writer, and community manager of Lips, a social media and commerce platform for women* and the LGBTQIA+ community. As an undergrad at Harvard, she wrote her senior thesis on the ethics of pornography from the perspective of feminist and queer theory. She also wrote and directed two erotic films as part of her research, which were produced by the feminist filmmaker Madison Young. Who better to talk with?
Before we dive into our conversation, I’m going to briefly outline the debate we are seeing surrounding pornography and feminism:
"Porn can often be seen as a mechanism of sex inequality, treating women merely as objects, producing and reproducing misogyny in men and therefore in direct opposition to our feminist aims,” Val wrote in here thesis. Consider the inequality of pleasure that's often depicted in porn: In 2018, a group of researchers found that of the top 50 most-viewed porn videos, 45 showed a heterosexual couple. (The other five showed a variation of group sex.) Of these clips, only 18% of the women were shown having orgasms, in stark contrast with 78% of the men. Furthermore, the orgasms the women experienced were induced by vaginal intercourse 45% of the time and anal intercourse 35% of the time. It’s likely no surprise to you that depictions like these can present a falsified view of what sex looks like: In reality, 80% of female orgasms are stimulated by external pleasure (1).
Even more dangerous, studies have shown that teenagers turn to porn for sex education — and if they’re receiving inaccurate depictions of what sex can look like, that’s going to carry over to their own bedrooms, too. "Sex is portrayed as something that men do to rather than with women,” Peggy Orenstein explains in her book, Boys & Sex.
Yet as Val described in her thesis, "Porn is everywhere. Porn studies scholars, no matter their position on the issue itself, characterize the 2000s in America as a pornified culture.” In other words, porn isn't going anywhere — but it’s still worth assessing if porn, like any industry, can be ethical and affirming. “I say we take a step back and assess the complicated role that pornography currently plays in our society and ask ourselves what role we want it to play in the future," Val asserts in her thesis.
How can we as consumers make better choices when it comes to porn? And is it possible to make porn as positive, safe, and consensual as possible? During our discussion, Val and I touched on two main ideas: ethical pornography and understanding porn as an effect rather than a cause.
1. Ethical Pornography:
Val: “Ethical pornography is a really complicated and loaded idea. I think one way you can start to think about it is the difference between the ethical production practices and the part that consumption plays. I'll start by briefly going over the main pillars of the production side of it, which are essentially about treating humans like humans... It sounds so obvious but really a lot of work in this world doesn't do that. So that is looking at sex work as work, and making sure the work is approached ethically from all of the roles, such as the performer, director, producer, or writer; everyone has a duty to play when it comes to the porn set and to creating something that can be considered ethical.
“So in other words, it’s about answering a lot of typical workplace questions: is there fair pay? Are people being well treated and respected on set? Do they have autonomy over the decisions that they make? And if the work is sex, things are a bit further complicated — you also have to think about what makes ethical sex.
“Following the whole idea of consent, if the intercourse on set is not consensual, then the production practices are not ethical either. This violation of consent in porn was a bigger problem during the early days of internet porn than it is today. However, it still happens unfortunately and sex workers have come out and spoken about different abuses on set: For example, directors that have purposefully mislead performers about the expected video content such as telling them that they were doing vaginal intercourse with a man, and then it turns into anal with three men. There has been some stretching of the rules just for the sake of getting a certain shot. While this problem has gotten better over time, it is still important to understand what production can look like and work to support creators who prove that their production practices are ethical.”
2. We live in a patriarchal society where porn is not a cause but rather an effect, or a symptom, of that society:
Val: “We all know what a majority of pornography looks like in this world. But now we have to ask, ‘How did it get to be that way? What has that done to us as a sexual culture?’
We can start from the fact that we're in a patriarchal society. Whose pleasures have been prioritized? And this happens in a wide variety of ways, such as the systems that makes it hard for women to have access to things like birth control or abortions. So if we can get by the idea that there's patriarchy just infested in so much of day-to-day life, we can fathom how the pornography industry has come to look the way it does.
“Many content creators, specifically women and LGBTQ-identifying people, have been making all different kinds of porn for decades now, trying to defy that norm and pump into the landscape different content — whether it’s different ways of having sex, different looking bodies, and so on.
“The mission for a lot of us in the industry is both to normalize pornography and create erotic films that provide variety and representation. I always say sex has too much power. If we just think about it and work to improve it, rather than freak out about it, it takes away its power. And furthermore, if we take away its power, we can take away its ability to do really bad and harmful things to society. There is a lot of work that needs to be done, but ultimately we need to live in a shame-free, sex-positive society and I believe pornography helps us get there.”
Stay tuned for more!
To contact Val or see more of her work, you can check out Lips or her personal instagram!