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.

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