The porn debate

Posted at 17:23 on 13 Mar 2015 by Pandora / Blake

Tags: empowerment, gender politics, in the news, media, sex worker rights, SWOU, Woman's Hour

I've been doing a lot of advocacy work recently. A couple of weeks ago I was invited to participate in a Woman's Hour debate on whether "porn can empower women" (click to read my deconstruction of the myriad ways that question is unhelpful) hosted by the Women of the World festival on the South Bank. The two hour recording was edited down to 38 minutes and broadcast a week later on Radio 4 - you can listen to it on BBC iPlayer here. (I haven't listened to the broadcast. When we were chatting before the recording, Dr Clarissa Smith and Sam Roddick advised me "never watch your own press".)

The week before it went out, I dreaded an unsympathetic edit. The debate audience had been dominated by members of feminist groups such as Object and Stop Porn Culture, who are vehemently opposed to the existence of pornography and consider any woman who willingly participates in it to be either an abused victim or a gender traitor. Sitting on the stage, I was all too aware that the first few rows of audience members were very hostile towards me - not only towards my political position, but towards me personally. There was a lot of jeering, heckling and yelling, and from where we were sitting the atmosphere in the room felt very tense. When the debate opened to the audience members, individuals from these groups seemed to spend twice as long on the mic as the rest - and some even started preaching, delivering emotive impassioned rhetoric which felt very out of place.

It was emotionally exhausting to experience; although that's fine, because that's what you sign up for when you put yourself out there. But I was concerned that it would be all too easy to edit the debate in a way that privileged the anti stance. Each of the panel members only had three minutes to introduce our position at the start, and if any of that were cut I feared we would end up being misrepresented.

So I didn't listen to it on Sunday, but friends told me that the edit was more balanced than I'd feared. If you heard it I'd be interested to hear what you thought. Apparently most of what the panel said was kept in, and most of the cuts were made to the audience participation - which meant that the audience seemed more balanced than it was, as the waffly and preachy anti speeches were cut more than the rest.

I did listen to the 45 minute radio phone-in on Monday morning, though, which is also on iPlayer. Again, the anti perspective seemed to dominate, with much more chat about the harms of porn than about how it had helped people, or more nuanced critique of the way that the harms of porn arise from its intersection with capitalism and patriarchy. I know a lot of people were waiting on the phone and never invited to speak, but perhaps those who were included accurately represented the proportion of opinions on the line.

The stance that porn can be anything other than bad and evil still definitely seems to be in the minority, even if a lot of the people arguing that seem to be doing so from a completely irrational perspective; such as the caller whose argument boiled down to "me and my wife are Christians, and we don't want to see it". Personal taste is all very well until you try to impose it on other people!

I guess if I didn't listen to the broadcast, I definitely shouldn't have listened to the phone-in - the equivalent of "don't read the comments". Still, I live-tweeted it and it got some discussion going on Twitter, and some of the calls were well worth listening to.

After the debate I wrote my comprehensive breakdown of the topic, which has been shared quite a lot - if you want a low-graphics link that won't make your boss look twice, there's a copy on Medium here. During the recording presenter Jane Garvey had asked me to keep the language accessible and jargon-free, avoiding anything "too academic". She also asked me to "keep it sexy" and wanted to hear more about my personal experience than about my critique of capitalism. Given that was the majority of my argument, I was keen to get those points out there somehow or other.

I wrote a pitch and sent it off to a few places, and to my surprise the New Statesman decided to run my piece on empowerment, class and capitalism. The long read is 4500 words, so 1200 was a bit of a squeeze - but I managed it, and that went out on Tuesday morning: Don't ask if porn "empowers" women - instead, ask if your feminism does. It's my first article in a mainstream publication, and it's already got 3200 Facebook likes and has been sitting at the top of their "Most Read" list for a while. So that's cool.

That it was Helen Lewis at the New Statesman who came back to me was surprising because pretty much everything else they've ever published on sex work has been strongly anti. It's good that they feel the need to give airtime to another perspective, but I admit I'll be very surprised if they publish enough pieces by sex workers to provide actual balance.

So what with one thing and another, I've been feeling pretty drained. I'm nourishing myself by getting more involved in the Sex Worker Open University, whose solidarity and refreshingly evidenced-based point of view are the activist equivalent of a power-up. Plus it means I get to spend more time hanging out with other sex workers, which is awesome, because sex workers are the best.

Sex Worker Open University

In retrospect, the Woman's Hour debate was well worth doing. At the start of the event when the presenter got an informal vote, 10% voted in favour of the idea that "porn can empower women" and about 80% voted that it couldn't, with the rest abstaining. By the end, it was more like 20% for, 20% against, with the majority abstaining. That's a huge loss to the anti side. The fact that people abstained is really encouraging, suggesting people hadn't really considered the other point of view before - perhaps had been indoctrinated in anti-sex-work feminism by default, and now weren't sure and wanted to go away and think about it before making up their minds. Persuading 10% of the room to my point of view, and sending half the audience home to think and read and educate themselves, is a pretty damn good result.

So it was valuable. But it took at least a week to recover my energy, and it completely took my head away from the process of actually making porn. I haven't got much editing or promotional work done since. So I don't intend to make a regular practice of doing this sort of advocacy work. The emotional, mental and psychological cost of exposing oneself to a hostile room bent on attacking not only your politics, but your personal choices, is very high, and given I wasn't even offered travel expenses it's an awful lot of unpaid labour.

While sex workers are the experts on our own lives and our own industry, we are all too often excluded from debates and policy-making that directly affect our health and wellbeing. When discussing issues that directly concern us, we are the primary stakeholders, and our voices are fundamental. I was glad that Woman's Hour invited me to their debate, but I shouldn't have been the only porn performer on the panel.

If the mainstream media started paying panellists for their time, and if discussions consisted of all-sex-worker panels, taking part would be much more accessible - and interesting. But until then, I don't think I'll make a habit of it.

Comments

afc19712004@yahoo.co.uk

totally agree with your stance, and I think your side of the debate came out very well. it's good to see that these viewpoints are being given more access in mainstream media and getting people thinking

Thanks. It is good that they included a porn performer on the panel, and I'm glad I was able to change people's minds - but wouldn't it be awesome if porn performers and other sex workers weren't called upon by pundits to "debate" their existence at all, and instead we were able to have nuanced discussions with each other about the complexities of the industry? As soon as an event invites someone who has never worked in an industry to 'debate' that industry with someone who has, they are giving airtime to ignorance.

I heard the 38 minute show Pandora and it was very engaging, but I was really impressed by all that Pandora was able to communicate in her time and the reaction she got from it.

I can appreciate the different sides of the argument, because I both love and hate porn. I grew up with access only to porn magazines which I didn't find very satisfying and I hate most of the porn videos they sell in sex shops which i guess you could generalize as "penetration porn" that focusses firmly on vaginal, anal and oral penetration. It was when I discovered Rosaleen Young's spanking film/photos in 2004 that I felt I'd found a niche of sorts. But I became really impressed when I discovered Pandora and Dreams of Spanking which is without question, different from any other porn site I've ever seen. Pandora i'm sure is easily the best pornographer I know of.

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