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porn, like sex work, defies easy generalisations

Posted at 00:19 on 18 Mar 2010 by Pandora / Blake

Tags: Body positivity, Gender politics, Politics, Sex worker rights

When I arrived at Women's Question Time at Westminster last night, a panel debate on feminist issues hosted by Eaves, I was dismayed to see that the literature being handed out included a copy of The Big Brothel Report, the controversial report on sex work and trafficking which alienated so many sex worker campaign groups. As we sat down and waited for the event to start, my companion and I found ourselves debating the issue. She was in favour of the Policing and Crime Bill, and I found myself once again explaining that it hasn't, in practice, improved things for sex workers; that the Swedish model is rejected by many people who campaign for sex worker rights.

I have a whole bundle of links I've been meaning to turn into an article about this, but I don't have time to write that article now, so I'm just going to do a mini-link dump. I'll find time to write more at some point, but in the meantime if you disagree with me, please do read the following:

Belle de Jour is the New Pretty Woman - by Nine, a former staff member at a support project for sex workers, who also wrote:

Sex Industry Apologist, a zine examining sex work, feminism and the media. It only exists in hard copy, but it is well worth the 1, and if you ask nicely I'll lend you mine.

A commentary on Challenging Mens Demand for Prostitution in Scotland', a report commissioned by Rape Crisis Scotland
(Here's the report being commented on, which commits many of the same errors as the Big Brothel Report.)

Right, that'll do for now. I'm intending a proper review of Sex Industry Apologist at some point, but for now I'll just say that the key element of Nine's perspective, for me, is the emphasis on consent. Sex work is about making choices - often from a limited number of options, but so are many other choices - and maintaining boundaries. If a sex worker chooses to have sex, right now, right here, with this client, and her boundaries are respected, then it fulfils the criteria for consensual sex and the rest is no-one else's business. A financial transaction has no impact on whether the sex is consensual or not. Non-consensual sex is called rape, and is already illegal; just as assault, kidnapping and human slavery are already illegal. And such abuses would be much easier to deal with if exchanging sex for money was not driven underground by being illegal regardless of consent.

Okay, so that's basically my position, although there's obviously a lot more to say than that. Our discussion was truncated by the event getting underway, but it set the stage for the evening.

The panel consisted of three female MPs (Vera Baird for Labour, Lynne Featherstone for the Lib Dems and Teresa May for the Conservatives) and one MEP, Caroline Lucas, the leader of the Green party. For the most part, the debate was engaging and intelligent - there was very little of the ego-stroking waffle and jargon which dominates Prime Minister's Question Time, and although there was still a certain amount of antagonism between the parties it was less petty and sarcastic than one normally sees.

Questions were asked on issues from statues commemorating womens' contributions to society, and seeking a fairer gender balance within Parliament, to improving rape conviction rates. Caroline Lucas (who represents my views pretty well on most other issues) mentioned lapdancing clubs, saying she was glad that the licensing laws had changed because their public presence "sends a message" about attitudes to women, and shapes many men's expectation that they are entitled to women's bodies. I don't have a problem with licensing lapdancing clubs as adult environments, but in our hasty opening debate my friend had used that phrase, too. She said that the Policing and Crime Bill "sent a message" that mistreating sex workers is unacceptable. I can see the argument, but I personally feel the safety of sex workers is more important; they shouldn't be sacrificed to send a message. Improved education around consent, raising young men in a culture of respect for women, is one thing; punitive legislation which damages the very people it's claiming to protect is quite another.

There was lots to unpick in the minutiae of the answers from different parties, but for the most part I found value in what was said. Towards the end of the discussion, however, I found myself increasingly alienated from the consensus of the audience. One question which raised a passionate cheer was:

What will you do to tackle the sexual objectification of women in the media, and challenge the mainstreaming of the sex and porn industries?

I became acutely aware, from the rising level of audience noise, that in that room my position on sex work was in a tiny minority. The conversation turned to the "sexualisation" of children, and some interesting stuff was said. I mean, I hate the objectification of women by the media and entertainment industries. I hate beauty adverts, the diet industries, the women's magazines exhorting you to starve yourself, spend too much money and too many hours of your life making yourself look different, pay thousands of pounds to cut yourself up, pay more attention to what some mythical man wants than what you yourself want. I hate that female children are taught to buy into these ideals.

However, these things are not the same, to me, as the "sexualisation" of children, or the "mainstreaming of the sex and porn industries". Children are, have always been, sexual - it disgusts me that female children, like female adults, are encouraged to subsume their natural sexuality and perform a male-gaze, commercialised artifice; but pretending that all children are asexual is as misguided as abstinence-only sex education. (This article by M G Durham, author of The Lolita Effect, offers a good introduction to this topic.)

I see a lot of arguments, from progressive feminists and right-wing prudes alike, which assume that any sexualisation of children is de facto wrong; that any sexual expression featuring female bodies is de facto objectification. Of course objectification exists in our society - it's a huge problem, and it's impossible to separate from the wider rape culture. But not all sexual representation is objectifying; not all sex work is non-consensual; not all porn is misogynistic.

A lot of the campaigns against the widespread sexual objectification of female bodies in our culture are at odds with a position which values freedom of expression and decries state censorship. Adding a gender equality duty to media regulators seems like a sensible approach, and I think labels on adverts are worth a try, although surely they'd become so ubiquitous as to lose any meaning. I like the idea of introducing regulatory duties to the fashion industry to make sure it makes use of a representative spread of body types, and I'm equally in favour of other exhortative (rather than prohibitive) proposals, such as stepping up engagement with female children to increase their self-esteem, self-confidence, and awareness of the options available to them. But in all these debates, it was hugely frustrating that not once did any of the questioners or panelists acknowledge the variation within sexual imagery and activity. 'Porn' was used indiscriminately to mean 'misogynistic porn'.

At one point, Vera Baird commented that many teenagers learn their sexuality from pornography (and, by implication, pornographic content in media and advertising), and they learn to mimic the gender roles and modes of sexual expression it portrays. I have two immediate problems with this:

  • Two recent Danish studies (undertaken by "a highly regarded scholar of pornography who has often argued for its supposed ill effects") strongly suggested that viewing pornography is beneficial for young people. It was a relatively small sample, and there's a difference between people construing positive effects on themselves and those benefits being independently observed, but it's a fascinating, peer-reviewed counter to the meme that porn is harmful to women. As in the case of the debate on extreme porn, no direct link is demonstrable between viewing porn and, for example, committing acts of violence against women.

  • It's highly flawed to talk about the impact of "pornography" on young people as if it were a monolithic entity. Of course there is some porn which contributes to the general objectification of women in visual media. Some porn is misogynistic, tasteless and dehumanising. But to tar all sexually explicit content with the same brush shows a woeful ignorance of what's out there. A lot of porn is pro-woman; even more is pro-human, quite simply a celebration of real human sexual expression without any strong bias either way.

My frustration peaked with the next question, addressed to Lynne Featherstone (who had spoken strongly in favour of the Campaign for Body Confidence). She was asked how she reconciled what she'd just said with the Liberal Democrats' endorsement of Anna Arrowsmith as a parliamentary candidate.

The room was fizzing by this point. Jeers, laughter, cries of outrage rippled through the crowd; the anti-porn sentiment crackled around me. Featherstone tried to make herself heard above the crowd, but she didn't have an answer prepared - she hesitated, said something about "I have nothing against sex", and completely failed to make the point that you can't make generalisations about porn. When she tried to explain that Arrowsmith was working to make porn more accessible to women the crowd exploded with laughter. It was obvious why: they were picturing empty-eyed, violent double penetration scenes; characterless, sexist tropes. I don't know if Featherstone is even familiar with Arrowsmith's work, but it doesn't take much research to know that this is not all there is on offer.

I knew that sex work was one of the biggest, most hostile ideological divisions within feminism, so while I was dismayed to see an uncompromisingly abolitionist view presented at this event, I wasn't particularly surprised. Within my pro-porn, pro-sex, pro-kink bubble, though, I hadn't realised quite how aggressively hostile most of my sisters are to my ideals. The group immediately behind me sounded like an evangelical Christian group, loudly proclaiming the sanctity of sex as an argument against sexually explicit material - how sad that critical thinking should be undermined by patriarchal ideology on this issue. It was a strange feeling, sitting in in the middle of an intimidatingly loud audience, not knowing how many other silent listeners in the crowd might agree with me, preferring to scribble strongly-worded notes rather than stand up and try to make my point in one of the few follow-up questions that were permitted. I was disappointed that Featherstone had failed to take the opportunity to make a badly needed point, but at the same time I wanted to go up and tell her that she wasn't the only one in the room who saw grey areas in this issue.

It was an affirming event in many ways; I'm glad it happened, and I'm glad I was there. But it's worrying that so many of the best female politicians, even when I agree with them on most other issues, seem unable to see nuance when it comes to the sex and porn industries.

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[...] Porn, like sex work, defies easy generalisations Posted in Fairtrade porn, Gender politics, Kink activism, Politics, Sex worker rights [...]

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