Violent porn denies women’s human rights

In a piece published here earlier this month, ethics teacher Georgia Fagan argued that violent pornography was not incompatible with feminism – that it could even be a ‘feminist choice’ compatible with ‘gender equality’. Naturally those of us who have engaged in this field for many years did a double-take.

Fagan argues that feminist efforts to dismantle the pornography industry deny the rights of female performers to “use their naked bodies for profit”. She claims such content represents a “celebration” of “emancipated female sexuality”.

The notion that violent pornography can be ‘feminist’ is evidence of one of two assumptions; that filmed acts of male violence against women for men’s sexual gratification can be a feminist endeavour, or that the violence done to women in the production of pornography does not count as violence. As feminist legal scholar Catharine MacKinnon noted, pornography is a record of men’s violence against women. It is not fantasy, not speech, but acted out on the bodies of real women who are directly used to produce it – “what pornography does, it does in the real world”.

Mainstream pornography is the graphic, sexualised depiction of male dominance and female subordination. It eroticises men’s violence, aggression, cruelty, degradation and humiliation of women. It is hate speech, anti-woman propaganda and sexual terrorism against women. It dehumanises women as sexual objects existing wholly for men’s sexual use and abuse, as whores who love to be fucked, a set of hands and holes, as “cumdumpsters”. As such, feminists have argued that pornography – particularly, violent pornography – is at odds with women’s dignity, humanity and human rights.

Research bears this out. A 2010 content analysis of popular porn videos found that 88.2% of scenes contained physical aggression, and that perpetrators were usually male and the targets of their aggression overwhelmingly female. Research has also found pornography consumption is statistically significantly correlated with physical abuse (both victimisation and perpetration), sexual abuse (both victimisation and perpetration), acceptance of rape myths and negative gender equitable attitudes.

The defence of pornography as “empowering” for women is rooted in liberal ‘choice’ feminism, which is centred around individual empowerment rather than challenging power structures that harm women collectively. There is no recognition of women as a sex-class, with a shared condition or experience of oppression, and no acknowledgement of the social constraints under which women make choices. Rather than a collective movement to liberate women as a whole from oppression, ‘choice’ feminism serves to justify women’s participation in harmful and misogynistic practices at the expense of women as a class.

But focusing on individual women and their consent to male violence and abuse invisibilises those who perpetrate, produce, profit from and take pleasure in viewing it – men.

The reality is many women are seriously harmed in the production of pornography. They report experiencing violence and rape (as Stoya, the porn star Fagan quotes, has), coercion, exploitation, drug and alcohol abuse, trauma and suicidality. Some leave the industry after just months with irreparable damage to their bodies.

The mainstreaming and proliferation of pornography has not emancipated women and girls outside the industry who are forced to engage with men and boys who are regular consumers of it. In addition to a climate of sexual harassment, including daily requests for nudes and sexual moaning in the classroom by male classmates, young women and girls report feeling pressured to participate in painful, degrading and unwanted sex acts their male partners have seen in pornography. They report being expected to want to be choked, hit, have anal sex (coerced anal sex is rising) and to have their faces ejaculated on – the signature acts of the porn industry.

Young women have “unlimited rape stories”, documented in the thousands of accounts from Sydney students compiled by Chanel Contos. Recently at the consent roundtable she organised, domestic violence workers described the link between porn and violence against women, describing the majority of porn which depicts “aggressive, non-consensual, violent, and degrading behaviour.”

Violent pornography influences consumers’ sexual appetites, attitudes and practices and women and girls are paying the price – some even with their lives. A 2019 study from Indiana School of Public Health found that nearly a quarter of women in the US have felt scared during sex, having been choked without warning by their male sexual partners. UK-based campaign We Can’t Consent To This has documented at least 60 cases so far where women have been killed by men who have claimed it was due to “rough sex” or a “sex game gone wrong”.

While we support sexual consent education as a possible solution, better education around consent will have limited success when boys are being raised on and regularly masturbating to violent and misogynist pornography depicting women enjoying being degraded and brutalised.

“Either it is ethical and honourable to ‘play with’ and promote the dynamics of humiliation and violence that terrorise, maim and kill women daily, or it is not.”

As feminist researcher Rebecca Whisnant wrote of so-called feminist pornography, “Either it is ethical and honourable to ‘play with’ and promote the dynamics of humiliation and violence that terrorise, maim and kill women daily, or it is not.”

Violent pornography is the filmed abuse of women, and as such, both the production and consumption of it are fundamentally at odds with women’s human rights. It can only be defended if we accept that men’s sexual gratification is more valuable than women’s humanity.

Exercising your moral muscle

Day-to-day decisions carry more weight in the context of the pandemic.

Previously simple choices like whether or not to go to the shops are now shadowed by dire consequences, and the act of constantly weighing up those consequences can lead to ‘moral fatigue’.

“This is the kind of wearing down of a person who is constantly making ethical decisions in conditions of fundamental ambiguity,” Ethics Centre executive director Dr Simon Longstaff recently told the ABC.

“It’s the sense of the weight of your decision that can be the source of the fatigue.”

Much like physical exercise, Dr Longstaff says there are ways to exercise our moral muscle so that it becomes stronger. Our choices matter because of the cumulative effect they have, and if exercised every day, building up moral fitness can also help prevent moral injury and its effect on our mental health.

Here are four ways to exercise your moral muscle and help with decision-making:

  1. Build a support system of friends and family members around you who are open to the conversation. Nobody can be expected to know exactly what to do in any given situation, but having a support system of peers, friends and family to bounce ideas off and get perspective can be invaluable.
  2. Is there urgency to the problem? If not, setting it aside for a period of time and going for a walk can help with clarity. “Allowing a bit of time and literally going for a walk is one of the really good things you can do,” Dr Longstaff says. “It’s amazing how much just walking helps things just sort out in your own mind.”
  3. All muscles need time to recover, so factor in rest days to help manage mental exhaustion and take time to do something you enjoy. “Think creatively about ‘what makes me happy in life? What are the things that I really love doing, that I find relaxing?’,” researcher and psychologist Professor Jolanda Jetten told the ABC. “We know that feeling in control is a very good predictor of good health, physical and mental. People should think of ways they can encounter situations and contexts where they feel fully in control, where they don’t have to worry.”
  4. If all else fails, or you’re not sure who to talk to, make a booking with the Ethics Centre’s hotline Ethi-call and speak with a qualified counsellor to help shape your perspective and find a pathway that’s right for you.” A service like Ethi-call helps you become really clear about the facts of the matter,” Dr Longstaff says. “Most importantly, what it does is give you the ability to shape your perspective so you can see the problem from different angles, and in that you might open up an option that never occurred to you that resolves the situation.”

Free, independent helpline Ethi-call provides guidance and support to anyone facing a difficult ethical dilemma or decision. Book a call with a qualified counsellor here.

Violent porn and feminism

Does pornography, especially violent pornography, contribute to gender-based violence, and if so, is censorship the answer? Or can the pornographic industry coexist with the drive towards gender equality?

We occupy a world plagued by sexual and gender-based violence. The United Nations declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women (1993) asserts that such violence need be recognised as “a manifestation of historically unequal power relations between men and women”.

Globally in 2017, 219 women were killed each day by either a member of their own family or by their own intimate partner. Debates about the complex causes of such violence and reasons for the persistence of gender inequality remain. The role that pornography may play in both the maintenance and propagation of these harms is one of many factors considered relevant to the debate. Specifically, ethicists are needed to address the question: Could pornography and feminism be compatible bedfellows after all?

Renowned feminist philosopher Catherine Mackinnon argues that pornography “works as primitive conditioning”, meaning that its content is likely to inform the desires and subsequent actions of its viewers. Mackinnon asserts that if pornographic images are violent, this is likely to result in unwanted sexual violence being inflicted onto others by pornography’s consumers.

Contemporarily, debate and disagreement persist regarding how pornography should be managed for adult audiences.

Various philosophers and feminist theorists, such as Mackinnon, argue in favour of some form of criminal action being taken against certain types of pornography due to its capacity to harm women. In 1983, Mackinnon, alongside feminist writer and activist Andrea Dworkin, brought forward an Antipornography Civil Ordinance which proposed that pornography needs to be treated as a violation of women’s civil rights. The pair aimed to remove the freedom of speech protections pornography had been granted under United States law. The ordinance was ultimately struck down by the courts.

Debate continues as to whether pornography, particularly forms of pornography which depict explicit violence against women, can remain conducive with the feminist project of gender equality.

To this day, feminists remain largely divided over MacKinnon’s antipornography ordinance. Debate continues as to whether pornography, particularly forms of pornography which depict explicit violence against women, can remain conducive with the feminist project of gender equality.

Calls to dismantle the industry of pornography are often taken to be synonymous with feminist action. In such cases, this action is thought to be the best means of protecting women from an industry rife with exploitation. Similarly, calls to cease pornographic productions are often thought to serve the function of preserving women’s dignity by allowing them to avoid careers centred around sexual objectification.

However, demands for censorship or a general production shutdown of pornographic films are also calls to severely limit the career opportunities and subsequently the financial resources of pornographic actresses. Doing so may risk further degrading these workers’ rights. The profitability and questionable legality of the porn industry often permits it to function below industry standard, resulting in inadequate worker protections being extended to porn actors and actresses.

Stoya is a female adult entertainer who has spoken openly about a form of feminism which she worries hates both sex work and pornography. She is concerned that female sexuality is only being embraced within narrow margins, neglecting the possibility that hardcore pornography may empower women, both actresses and viewers, rather than degrade them. Stoya argues that a contemporary feminism which celebrates women’s right to work and earn an independent wage is flawed if it simultaneously rebukes women who freely choose to perform in pornography to acquire that wage. For Stoya, performing in hardcore pornography (produced under fair working conditions) does nothing to degrade the status of female performers. Rather, it stands as a celebration of a tirelessly campaigned for and emancipated female sexuality.

Denying pornographic actresses the rights and representation which permits them to carry out their work safely is an injustice to women which should be feared.

Denying pornographic actresses the rights and representation which permits them to carry out their work safely is an injustice to women which should be feared. Doing so puts these women at increased risk of assault and exploitation out of fear their allegations will not be trusted or that they will meet with legal consequences. Stoya herself brought forward rape charges against famous male pornstar James Deen, and she holds that the remedy to such injustices lies in improving workers’ rights and the legislative systems surrounding the industry of pornography, rather than in trying to shut down the industry altogether.

This lack of regulation constitutes an injustice far greater than the supposed, yet largely unarticulated, harm of women being free to use their naked bodies for profit. The mere existence of agential and passionate hardcore pornographic actresses importantly signals the beginnings of a world where women’s bodies are no longer policed in ways which unjustifiably align sex with shame and exploitation.

So long as the porn industry is made to function on par with other industry’s standards, there is no reason to consider the bodies of female pornographic actresses anymore degraded, or exploited, than non-pornographic actresses, tradespeople, or frontline healthcare workers.

Calls to censor or morally condemn pornography are often less concerned with the rights of pornographic actresses and more with the potentially negative impact pornography has on its consumers. There are concerns, for example, that viewing violent pornography may increase sexual assault rates, a causal link which is yet to be definitively established. However, even if particular depictions of women’s bodies were found to increase the likelihood that men assault women, it is not immediately apparent that the desirable solution would be to forbid those depictions.

This censorship style solution shares particular characteristics with victim blaming culture, in which victims are blamed for the actions of perpetrators. In both victim blaming and pro-censorship anti-porn positions, the onus of change is placed on those who are determined to be the cause of any given injustice. The pornographic actress, for example, is told she cannot continue to do her work, instead of alternative interventions being sought which target perpetrators who may have been inspired by viewing particular pornographic depictions. We do not think it suitable to tell women to wear more clothing to stop men raping them; why should matters of pornography be handled any differently?

There are more desirable, alternative solutions to address contemporary issues of misogyny. First is the formation and endorsement of a safe and responsible pornography industry where the agency and security of actors and actresses is guaranteed. Unfortunately there will always be room for exploitation and abuse, however, these risks can be mitigated by extending workers’ rights and fair working conditions to pornographic actors in the same way such rights are endowed to workers in other industries.

Content subscription service Onlyfans stands as a site moving the pornography industry in this direction by allowing performers greater control over their content and income. OnlyFans allows performers to safely and independently produce pornographic content. However, the platform hasn’t avoided trouble for hosting adult content: Onlyfans recently announced it would be banning explicit content in a bid to attract investors, only to reverse its decision within a week after outcry from users.

Ongoing periphery interventions are also required to address gender-based violence and gender inequality more generally, such as improved sex education curriculums which provide more comprehensive education on consent and respectful relationships to school age children.

Interventions such as bolstering the regulatory bodies surrounding pornography and improving sex-ed curriculums allows societies to place adequate accountability on those who commit or are at risk of committing acts of violence against women. These interventions should be favoured over those which risk undermining the agency of both female performers and consumers of pornography.

Pornography, even violent pornography, need not be incompatible with the feminist project of gender equality.

Pornography, even violent pornography, need not be incompatible with the feminist project of gender equality. Theorists and feminists alike need to engage in critical discourse regarding where the onus of change need be placed. The porn industry, pornographic actresses and perpetrators of violence against women are all potential targets of this change. The decisions we make regarding what actions should be taken will determine whether or not pornography is compatible with contemporary feminism.