Is Porn Hijacking Our Sexuality? A Response

by Maeve McKeown

New Left Project recently hosted a vigorous debate on pornography between two feminist writers – the journalist Sarah Ditum who took a pro-porn stance, and the academic and activist Gail Dines who holds an anti-porn stance.  After a brief summary of the debate (which can be skipped if you have read the articles), I argue that while the two authors represent the intractable philosophical positions of liberal and radical feminism respectively, there is a glimmer of hope that they can find common ground with regards to public policy on pornography by virtue of the fact that they are both feminists.  I argue specifically that the law against “Extreme Pornography” ought to be extended to include depictions of rape.  My response is to the debate presented in these articles – I have not read Dines’ book Pornland.


Sarah Ditum opened the debate with a critique of Dines’ influential book, Pornland.  She argued that Dines’ approach is flawed because she lacks a clear definition of pornography.  Moreover, Dines’ argument that pornography shapes the attitudes of men towards women in a misogynistic way is not founded on strong empirical evidence.  She accuses Dines of “essentialism” about sex, arguing that Dines has a view of what “natural” sex is compared to the type of sexuality portrayed in pornography which she considers inauthentic and mass-produced; when there is in fact a great diversity of pornographic material.  Finally, Ditum claims that Dines completely ignores the fact that there are women producers and consumers of porn.

Dines responded that she is guilty as charged in terms of not adopting a formal definition of pornography or engaging with niche varieties of porn.  Her reason for this is that she believes these two issues to be irrelevant to her project.  Dines is taking a macro approach to assessing the impact of pornography.  Therefore she took the majority variety of porn – gonzo – and made her arguments based on that.  Moreover, there is plenty of empirical evidence to back up her claims that porn is harmful to women.  She cites a recent academic study which found that in the top-fifty most rented porn movies, ‘90% of scenes contained at least one aggressive act.’  Dines refuted the claim that her approach is essentialist because she recognizes the fact that sexuality is shaped by culture, which is precisely the reason for fighting against violent pornography.  Dines concludes that the pro-porn position is a position of privilege, and that feminists have lost sight of their radical roots.  She writes, ‘what is there not to love about a “feminist” who fights for the rights of men to jerk off to porn?’

Ditum responded that actually in this instance, she will defend the right of men to masturbate to whatever they want.  She writes:

they have a right to jerk off to whatever materials they find arousing, so long as those materials are produced without coercion or deception.  If exposure to pornography were demonstrated to be a cause of harm to the psyche of the viewer, then it would be necessary to weigh up the public goods of a right to free speech and a right to a private life (in which an individual may make or consume pornography), against the public ill – if that ill could be proven. But it has not been proven.

Ditum argues further that Dines misinterprets the evidence that has been gathered on the effects of porn and uses it in a disingenuous and hyperbolic way.  And how do we know that gonzo porn is in the majority if we have no definition of porn?  Until we have a functional definition of porn and substantiated evidence that it is harmful, freedom of speech must be defended.

Dines concluded with a short post arguing that this debate demonstrates that feminism is like ‘a marriage gone sour.’  Ultimately liberal and radical/Marxist feminists will never agree, because while liberal feminists are interested in individual rights such as free speech, radical and Marxist feminists are interested in structural forces.  This profound philosophical difference means that the debate is intractable.

Philosophical Differences

I agree with Dines that the debate, as framed by these two authors, is intractable.  The two authors represent fundamentally different philosophical traditions.  On the one hand, Ditum’s perspective represents liberalism, which is based on a series of rights that are inalienable.  She claims that Dines’ call for a ban on pornography represents ‘an implicit attack on two rights (the right to a private life and the right to free speech) that are correctly held to be key human rights.’  Therefore, according to Ditum, it must be rejected outright, otherwise the consequences will be ‘horrible.’  For liberals, freedom constitutes non-interference with individuals.  If individuals choose to make or consume pornography, that is their choice and the government should not intervene.  Government intervention is an attack on individual freedom.

Dines, on the other hand, takes a radical feminist view inspired by Marxist political economy.  From this perspective, freedom of speech is not sacrosanct.  If the choices of uncoordinated individuals result in harmful structural outcomes, such as an excessive wealth gap or the subordination and domination of women, then the state ought to intervene to try to address that imbalance.  So when Ditum argues that porn is permissible so long as it is produced ‘without coercion or deception’, a radical or Marxist feminist will find this unpersuasive because it only considers the individuals involved, rather than the collective impact of the porn industry on the lives of women as a whole and how that contributes to the domination of women as a group.  From this perspective, freedom is not constituted by non-interference with individuals, but democratic political institutions can be harnessed to secure the conditions for the freedom of all people by equalizing power relations, which may mean the restriction of certain types of speech or behaviour.

So the liberal individualist perspective that individuals have a right to freedom of speech or expression, conflicts with the radical feminist and Marxist perspective that focuses on structures of power.  Ultimately, as long as these authors hold fast to their philosophical convictions, they cannot and will not agree.  Indeed this is the debate that split feminism apart in the 1980s, and from which it has never fully recovered.

The Liberal Critique of Radical Feminism

What was fascinating about this debate was that many of NLP’s readers sided with Sarah Ditum’s position – the liberal position.  This was surprising, because as a website for leftist debate, it demonstrated how entrenched liberal concepts such as individual rights, free speech and consent are even among persons who consider themselves of the left.  In this section, I want to explain why the Ditum’s liberal critiques of Dine’s radical feminist position are not as persuasive as they first appear.

1. The Definition Debate

Ditum argues that Dines only focuses on one type of porn – gonzo porn – meaning that she is basing her arguments on an inadequate definition of what porn is.  Porn is much more diverse, with various strands, not all of them degrading to women; in fact some porn is actually created by women, there is also gay porn and many niche varieties. 

It seems to me, however, that Dines can concede that there are different types of porn and still focus on the majority type of porn that people consume.  When carrying out an academic study of what people today are experiencing in terms of porn and its wider effects on society, it is essential to look at the majority strain of porn, at least in the first instance.  This is because that will tell you something important about what is happening on a meta-level; individualized experiences of porn are not really pertinent to the argument. 

Consider this point in relation to other feminist concerns.  Whenever feminists discuss issues like domestic violence and rape, which in over 90% of cases affect women, people always comment, “these issues affect men too and you’re not talking about it, therefore your argument’s wrong”.  But feminists are well aware that these issues affect men too; the problem is that in the vast majority of cases they affect women, so the question is why?  Why are women affected by these issues so much more than men?  In the case of Dines studying gonzo porn the question is, why is this type of porn, which is so humiliating and degrading to women, the most-watched type of porn?  What does this tell us?  And in what ways is this harmful?  These seem to me valid questions. 

But Ditum argues further, how do we know gonzo porn is the majority type of porn unless we have defined exactly what porn is.  She writes:

Dines is dismissive of my references to non-gonzo forms of pornography, claiming that gonzo is the overwhelming market leader. But how do we know? Are we counting every winsome, semi-dressed self portrait on the internet as pornographic? Do “pornified” pop videos – seen by millions more than any throat-fucking video will ever be – count? Dines has to say whether these things are pornographic or not. If they are, then her assertion that gonzo is the preeminent mode of porn simply cannot stand. And if they aren’t, why not? After all, all these things are perfectly valid and likely things for someone to have a wank over.

This argument does not stand up to scrutiny, however.  The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) uses the following definition:  ‘An image is pornographic if it is of such a nature that it must reasonably be assumed to have been produced solely or principally for the purpose of sexual arousal.’  An individual may be able to ‘have a wank’ over pop videos, self-portraits or anything else for that matter, but it does not make it pornographic material.  It is pornographic only if it is designed ‘solely or principally for the purpose of sexual arousal.’ 

Now, Dines may not have used this definition herself, but it does seem fairly self-evident that pornography is a specific type of material produced for the purposes of sexual arousal.  And Dines’ failure to explicitly say this is not a problem as since I’ve pointed out, there is nothing disingenuous in focusing on the majority type of porn when looking at the issue from a macro perspective.  Moreover, Ditum’s point about definition is a diversion.  If Dines had used a more considered definition of porn, no doubt Ditum would have found ways of critiquing that.  Really this is simply skirting around the core issue of the debate – to what extent porn ought to be regulated.  And I think, in fact, that there is common ground to be found on this issue, as I argue below.

Before coming to that, however, a final comment on the definition issue.  If Ditum wants to have an expansive definition of porn, including the many diverse niche varieties, some of which are not exploitative of women and are made by and enjoyed by women; she also has to accept that there are minority types of porn that are even more degrading to women than gonzo porn.  If you want to assess non-majority strands of pornography this means taking into account all of these strands in their infinite variety, not just the ones that suit your argument.  We may find that the niche varieties of pornography that are not harmful to women are a minority within a minority. 

2. The Need for Evidence

Ditum also argues against Dines that she has not gathered sufficient empirical evidence to prove that pornography is objectively harmful.  Dines says that this is not the case, that she has gathered a multitude of evidence as demonstrated in Pornland.  Since I haven’t read Pornland, I’m not going to comment either way on that.  Instead, I want to make a different point – that you don’t need empirical evidence to make normative arguments.

Radical feminist arguments against pornography include the claim that women are objectified and viewed through heterosexual male eyes (the male gaze), reducing women to mere sex objects that exist for men’s pleasure and this encourages women to see themselves through male eyes.  Portrayals of violence against women and rape in pornography normalize this behaviour for the viewers.  The crux of all of this is that it reinforces male domination of women – patriarchy – reducing the chances of women achieving equal status and freedom to men.  Porn is about power. 

Ditum clearly wants empirical evidence to back up these claims.  But these are normative arguments.  Arguing that women ought to be equal to men is not something that is empirically falsifiable and can be quantified by gathering statistics.  You either believe it or you don’t.  The further radical feminist claims that pornography exacerbates the objectification of women is a philosophical argument.  We can hash out the claim in theory, but it is not something that can be tested using empirical methods.  Power cannot be measured.  It is a relation, not a thing.

Ditum might then claim that the argument is no good.  If it cannot be proved empirically, we shouldn’t believe it.  But of course, she holds fast to normative arguments herself.  The idea that freedom constitutes non-interference is a normative argument; it is not empirically falsifiable.  Human rights may be legal prescriptions, but they do not exist as objects that we can reach out and touch.  Dines may have been gathering empirical evidence to shore up her philosophical convictions, but even if she hasn’t fulfilled this sufficiently in Ditum’s eyes, it doesn’t mean the philosophical ideas are null and void.  The normative philosophical position can still be defended in its own terms.  What Ditum needs to do is prove it is logically incoherent, which she hasn’t done.

Treating philosophical theories like scientific ones is a misinterpretation of the practice; or at the least a very narrow interpretation of what philosophy can do.  So when Dines and other radical feminists suggest that porn is harmful to women they are putting forward a philosophical argument that can be tested via logical argumentation, not necessarily requiring empirical evidence.  There are different theories as to what constitutes “harm”, and different theories about the kind of harm that porn does to society.  I’m not sure why Ditum is so utterly insistent that Dines solve these difficult philosophical problems in two short articles.

Just to note, the radical feminist position has nothing to do with being puritanical about sex, it is about exposing the underlying gendered power relations that are perpetuated by the porn industry.

In sum, while we are on philosophical and methodological terrain, Ditum’s arguments against Dines are not persuasive.  But my aim in responding to this debate is not to exclusively defend one author over another, and I have not done nearly enough here to defend one philosophical position over another.  Instead I have a more modest aim – to suggest the possibility of common ground.

Current Regulation of Pornography

One of the core issues that both authors have avoided in this debate is the legal status of porn.  Ditum accuses Dines of not having a clear and coherent definition of porn; but as I have pointed out, this is not problematic if what we are interested in is what the majority of people are seeing that is called “porn”.  It becomes a problem, however, if we want to discuss the legal status of porn, and the issue of whether or not porn ought to be banned or regulated.  I think Ditum’s real concern is that if “porn” is banned, this means that non-abusive types of porn will be banned, which is not only a free-speech issue, but means that some women – those who make and enjoy porn – will be missing out.

The free speech point, however, is moot.  Porn is already regulated. The possession of images depicting paedophilia, bestiality and “extreme pornography” is illegal.  In 2008 it became illegal to, ‘possess pornographic images that depict acts which threaten a person's life, acts which result in or are likely to result in serious injury to a person's anus, breasts or genitals, bestiality or necrophilia.’ The law banning the possession of extreme pornography was prompted by the case of Graham Coutts, who was found guilty of the sexual assault and murder by asphyxiation of Jane Longhurst, and who was found to have 699 violent pornographic images on his computer. The pragmatic purpose of this legislation is to prevent harm and protect the vulnerable who are unable to consent to what is being done to them (children, animals, dead people), and to prevent the use of porn as an excuse for murder or other forms of violence against persons. It also incorporates and gives effect to long-standing criminal law presumption that, generally speaking, even capable adults cannot consent to actual bodily harm for which there is no public interest case to be made. Presumably feminists who defend free speech do not object to these legal constraints, because they are founded on the concept of lawful consent.

There is also a normative foundation to legal prohibitions on certain types of pornography regarding public morality, however.  The Obscene Publications Acts of 1959 and 1964 make the publication or distribution of certain types of material illegal.  The material 'must be taken as a whole and have a tendency to deprave and corrupt (e.g. make morally bad) a significant proportion of those likely to see it.'  Now this is where we get into more difficult territory from a liberal perspective, because how can the government determine what is “obscene”?  From a liberal perspective, consenting adults should be able to engage in whatever activities they want behind closed doors.  The government should not be given the authority to decide what depraves or corrupts a rational adult individual; interfering with consenting adults’ private behaviour in the name of public morality is an infringement of civil liberties.  And as the CPS itself admits, what was considered obscene in 1959 has changed in the present day, so for example, consensual anal sex involving men or women no longer fits into that category.

So from a liberal perspective it is possible to argue that the government has no place determining what consensual sexual activity between adults is moral or not.  But surely from a liberal perspective, it is justifiable for the government to intervene in cases of harm to others.  If we conceive of morality in terms of causing no harm to others, then the government does have a role in safeguarding morality, even from a liberal perspective. 

Material portraying the following activities is outlawed by the current version of the obscene publications act:

• sexual act with an animal
• realistic portrayals of rape
• sadomasochistic material which goes beyond trifling and transient infliction of injury
• torture with instruments
• bondage (especially where gags are used with no apparent means of withdrawing consent)
• dismemberment or graphic mutilation
• activities involving perversion or degradation (such as drinking urine, urination or vomiting on to the body, or excretion or use of excreta)
• fisting

These activities in reality cause harm to others, and viewing these forms of material legitimates the idea of causing harm to others for the purposes of sexual stimulation, as well as creating a market for the commission of acts that harm others for the purposes of sexual stimulation of the viewing public.  For that reason, I think even liberal feminists can agree that they ought to be banned.     

Towards Common Ground on the Issue of Rape

I have suggested that from a liberal perspective some regulation of pornography is justifiable.  The problem is to what extent do we want to regulate the consensual behaviour of adults that does not cause physical harm.  If adult individuals have consented to participate in pornography and other adults are consensually watching it, then from the liberal perspective of individual freedom as non-interference, the law shouldn’t get involved.  As I’ve pointed out, certain types of pornographic material are already illegal and can be justified as being illegal even from a liberal perspective; the question is whether or not the scope of illegality ought to be extended.  To what extent we think porn ought to be regulated is where Ditum's insistence on a definition becomes relevant.  For the purposes of regulation, we need a careful and considered definition of what we are addressing.  And it is at this point that I think we can find some common ground among feminists.

Now a radical or Marxist feminist may intervene at this point and say that all porn is degrading to women.  Moreover, many women end up in pornography due to economic coercion – they have no other choice.  An obvious point to make is that we need to sort out our economic circumstances so that no women feel forced into having to work in pornography just to get by.  However, there is no reason why we cannot work towards an economically more progressive society and simultaneously look for plausible immediate policy solutions to the regulation of pornography.  In the meantime, while we are waiting for an economically more equitable society, it seems plausible that we need to categorize porn more clearly in order to protect those who are exploited by this industry and to mitigate its most pernicious effects.

Again, I think the practice of pornography regulation can be instructive.  The British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) is tasked with classifying all ‘video works’ that are available on data storage devices, e.g. DVDS, tapes etc.  It has a category of R18 (‘Restricted 18’) to classify hardcore pornography.   You can read a list of the activities that are not acceptable by BBFC standards even for an R18 film here.

In 2006, the BBFC rejected one R18 film in its entirety, “Struggle in Bondage”.  The reasoning is as follows:

The work consisted of a series of sequences depicting women bound and gagged, writhing and struggling against their restraints. The struggling and whimpering of the women appears calculated to suggest that they have been bound against their will and it is clear from the manner of presentation that the work is intended to stimulate sexual arousal in the viewer. Because of the lack of obvious consent, and in line with the Board’s policies on sexual violence, the work was rejected as cuts would not have left a viable work.

And so we can see here, that the problem is the combination of pornography (material designed to sexually arouse the viewer) with violence as intended to sexually arouse the viewer.  The problem is not depicting rape or violence against women per se, there may be reasons for doing so for artistic purposes, or campaigning purposes or for other reasons.  The problem is when sexual violence or violence against women is used with the specific purpose of sexually arousing the viewer.  This combination of violence against women with sex to stimulate the viewer is where I think as a feminist you have got to take issue, as the BBFC have done in this ruling. 

Feminists may disagree over their philosophical foundations – be it liberalism, Marxism or other political theories.  But they surely all agree that women deserve, and are entitled to, equal respect.  The regular depiction of rape and other forms of violence against women in pornography are a cause of concern in this regard.

Changing the Law

The depiction of rape is already illegal according to the Obscene Publications Act.  But it is my contention that it ought to be included in the category of “Extreme Pornography”.  This is because it is not possible to prosecute those who produce “obscene” material outside of the UK under the Obscene Publications Act.  Those responsible for the distribution and retailing of the material can be prosecuted, but if the material is produced in the UK, those who produced it or distributed it in the first instance are the persons liable for prosecution.  Under the Extreme Pornography Act, anyone possessing extreme pornographic material can be prosecuted and imprisoned for up to three years.  This is a much stronger deterrent, therefore, making it less likely that people would keep this sort of material in their possession.

The current definition of extreme pornography is 'images that depict acts which threaten a person's life, acts which result in or are likely to result in serious injury to a person's anus, breasts or genitals, bestiality or necrophilia.'  So not rape.  As feminists, can we not agree that the law on “extreme pornography” ought to be expanded so that this does not just constitute harm to the breasts, anus or genitals but also depictions of rape?  Can we not agree that pornography that depicts rape ought to be included in the category of “extreme pornography” and banned on that basis?  This seems to me to be a way to exclude hardcore pornography which depicts rape from mass consumption, whilst preserving the niche varieties of pornography that pro-porn campaigners want to defend on the grounds of free speech. 

Two problems.  The first is what if a woman participating in a pornographic video consents to portray a rape.  Then, from a liberal perspective, it seems to be acceptable, as the individuals involved have consented.  I’m not sure how this can be a feminist argument however.  Does anyone have a right to watch the portrayal of a woman being raped in order to achieve sexual arousal?  Perhaps a right-wing libertarian or anarchist who believes that the state has no business regulating anything would think so, but I can’t see how anyone who calls themselves a “feminist” could think so.  Whether or not the individual woman in the film has consented is not the point; it is the portrayal of non-consent as legitimate and as something that can sexually arouse that is problematic. 

The second problem with such a policy solution is obviously enforceability.  There must be computers all over the country with porn videos depicting rape and other forms of violence against women.  How can all of these people be caught and prosecuted?  Enforceability is a problem facing any law, however.  Part of the point of making something unlawful is to say as a society we think it is wrong.  So if we take a stand and say brutalising women for the sexual enjoyment of pornography viewers is unlawful, we are taking a principled stand, not necessarily assuming that every participant in this practice will be caught.

This kind of pragmatic solution may not be very satisfactory to those who hold very firm philosophical convictions regarding pornography.  But I simply wish to suggest that it highlights the possibility of common ground.  There is undoubtedly a wider debate to be had about whether or not porn is right or wrong in its entirety.  As I have argued, however, one’s answer to this question this will depend on a person’s philosophical starting point, and so presents an intractable debate.  And since porn is now so ubiquitous in the internet age, there is an urgent need to find some real-world solutions to the problem.  As feminists, surely we can all agree that depictions of rape as erotically arousing are impermissible.  To argue that depictions of rape are permissible under the rubric of free speech seems to me that you have hung up your feminist hat and abandoned it.  I don’t see what can be “feminist” about that kind of argument; it is straightforwardly libertarian argument with no feminist component.  To be clear, I am not arguing that pursuing a ban on porn that portrays rape will solve the porn debate in toto.  What I am suggesting is that it is potentially a practicable policy solution that liberal, radical and Marxist feminists can agree upon.  And it seems achievable in practice.  For too long, feminists have engaged in endless mud-slinging over these issues.  It is time to set aside our differences and look for the common ground.

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First published: 07 May, 2012

Category: Activism, Culture, Gender equality, Law, Philosophy and Theory

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14 Comments on "Is Porn Hijacking Our Sexuality? A Response"

By Jules Evans, on 07 May 2012 - 07:55 |

Thanks for this. I also think the government should crack down on those porn corporations who make money from rape porn - particularly Manwin, a Swiss corporation that owns sites like YouPorn. If Manwin dont desist from doing business with rape porn sites, they should be blocked from UK ISPs. 

I argued that here:

However, the position tha I think we’re both taking has to consider consensual S&M porn - a great deal of which is, basically, rape fantasies. Would banning rape porn mean banning all S&M porn? Or is there some way to put protections into S&M porn - like safewords, as it were - to make it clear at the end of the video that this video was made by consensual and mutually respecting adults who are into this sort of thing (rather than young female actors forced to be beaten, choked etc not because theyre into it but because the industry expects it). 

all best



By JLOsm, on 07 May 2012 - 09:55 |

This is one of the best articles I have read to date about the feminist porn wars.  Really well structured, easy to follow, and logical right up until the end.  Thank you.

By AllyF, on 07 May 2012 - 10:59 |

Have to say I think this is a pretty feeble hatchet job on Ditum’s position, rather than a fair appraisail of the debate.

One passage in particular I have to take issue with:

“Ditum clearly wants empirical evidence to back up these claims.  But these are normative arguments.  Arguing that women ought to be equal to men is not something that is empirically falsifiable and can be quantified by gathering statistics.  You either believe it or you don’t.  The further radical feminist claims that pornography exacerbates the objectification of women is a philosophical argument.  We can hash out the claim in theory, but it is not something that can be tested using empirical methods.  Power cannot be measured.  It is a relation, not a thing.”

No, these stop being normative arguments the second that Dines or anyone else makes an empirical claim, such as that porn is a causal factor in the rates of sexual violence or that it has material consequences on women’s socio-economic status - then it becomes quite clearly an empirical matter.

Even the notion of power is hugely problematic. One can take Foucault’s position that power is everywhere, and extrapolate from there that men have sociopolitical power over women, or that some men have that power over everyone, or that women have sexual and emotional power over men or whatever, and it might be true normatively, but try to apply it to policy and economic structures and it quickly becomes a mush of relativism and competing narratives. WHen we talk about power in the context of politics, we either have agreed measures of how it is materialised, or the entire debate might as well be about angels on the head of a pin.

I’d even go so far as to dispute whether issues of ‘objectification’ are indeed normative. What they describe are cognitive processes which, to the extent that any psychology can be, are testable and falsifiable. It is indeed possible to devise empirical experiments to test whether pornography affects the way subjects behave and think. Indeed many people have done so, with ambiguous results.

Above all, that passage strikes me as the worst kind of sophistry. Radical feminists like Dines have spent 40 years making specific empirical claims about the social and individual impacts of pornography. If someone then demonstrates the flaws and failings in their claims, it is utterly unacceptable to then turn round and say “ah yes, it might not be empirically true but it’s still normatively true”

By Alex Doherty, on 07 May 2012 - 12:22 |

Personally I’ve never entirely understood why it’s necessary for anti-porn activists to focus so much on the empirical data, which at this point does appear to be inconclusive. For me (and for a great many others who find porn problematic) the fact that there is an enormous industry which almost entirely portrays women as the subordinate playthings of men is in and of itself a problem. Even if there is no a-to-b causality between porn and violence it is absurd to suppose that porn does not shape the sexuality of users and, as a result, the broader culture. Do any of us feel that we need to wait for empirical data before we can acknowledge and critique the portrayal of muslims in western media? If there were a media genre in which black people were routinely portrayed as subordinate to whites would we feel the need  wring our hands about whether or not there is empirical data to show that it causes white on black violence? The fact that there is a serious strain of feminist uncle tomism which somehow has convinced itself that the porn industry is an ally of liberated sexuality should not lead us to ignore these rather obvious points.

By ChrisR, on 07 May 2012 - 12:45 |

I wouldn’t say it was a hatchet job on Ditum, Ally, although the passage you highlight is a little confusing and unnecessary. As you say, there is a need to demonstrate that the consumption of violent pornography leads to changes in male attitudes and behaviour and it actually doesn’t make any sense to say this need for tangible evidence can be circumvented by making it a ‘normative’ point instead.  But it’s an unnecessary tangent either way because there is an absolute wealth of empirical evidence demonstrating that men who consume violent pornography do have their perceptions, behaviour and social attitudes warped over time. I would say that the article is very fair and balanced - perhaps too fair to Ditum, whose arguments about ‘what is pornography’ and the need for free speech are either disingenuous or blinkered. Liberal feminism isn’t worthy of the name Feminism.

By Vicki Wharton, on 07 May 2012 - 16:08 |

I would say that rather than waste valuable time trying to prove that porn as the media arm of the sex industry causes harm to the way people view women - I would argue prove that it doesn’t.  The media in general is well known and documented to change the way people understand a topic - perception is 9/10ths of reality - and their behaviour, hence why media owners are meant to be responsible decent people and why the advertising and PR industries exist to manage their client’s images in the media.  So say that the media of porn somehow bucks the trend of every other media in changing people’s perceptions and behaviour in infantile.  Where is the data and evidence to say that it flies in the face of everything that is known and proven about how people understand the world.  And to keep talking about porn as fantasy is pure bollocks - the women and girls that are taking part in porn are not pretending to have two penises stuck up their backsides, they are actually having two penises pushed into their anus.  To say this is ‘acting’ is disingenious and a lie - a bit like really shooting men in a war movie and then saying they are acting.  The only bit of acting is the bit that most of this extreme pain inducing sex is actually pleasureable - without pointing out that anyone that gets pleasure from severe pain has very often undergone a large amount of sadistic grooming in their childhood or immense trauma.  We’ve done all this propoganda stuff with the Nazis in the run up to WWII, why are we having to separate out truth from fiction with regard to hurting women as a legitimate pastime as opposed to hurting Jews, or black people, or Indians or homosexuals?  Have we really such short memories?

By AllyF, on 07 May 2012 - 17:09 |


“But it’s an unnecessary tangent either way because there is an absolute wealth of empirical evidence demonstrating that men who consume violent pornography do have their perceptions, behaviour and social attitudes warped over time. “

I’d strongly dispute that.

There are few fields of social science which have been so heavily studied with such unconvincing results in either direction.

There is actually better evidence that men who consume violent and /or overtly misogynistic porn have their perceptions etc warped in the short term, much less convincing evidence for the long term.

There have also been excellent opportuniities for serious sociological study in recent decades, if we compare countries where there has been widespread consumption/liberalisation of porn compared to those with heavy censorship oir restricted access. Nobody has found a shred of evidence between greater access to porn and greater incidence of viiolene against women or anything else.

On the more individualistic, psychological studies, it remains true that for every study finding evidence of harm, there’s another contradicting it.

Personally I’m far from convinced that widespread access to and consumption of pornography is a healthy thing either socially, politically or personally, but I’ve followed the research fairly closely and I’m far from convinced by any arguments on any empirical measure of the harm principle.

By J, on 07 May 2012 - 22:41 |

The problem with the porn-industry is the industry, not the porn. People used to be enslaved and beaten in order to build amazing buildings. Does that mean amazing buildings are a bad thing? No. The sex industry like any other industry is based on exploitation, and a true socialist feminist would realise that we should focus on the fact that we live withing a system where many people do things they really don’t want to because they desperately need money, as opposed to deciding to limit a women’s agency and prevent her participating in acts that some may find distasteful.

It also irritates me greatly that they lump in socialist feminists with radfems.

  “Presumably feminists who defend free speech do not object to these legal constraints, because they are founded on the concept of lawful consent.”

Wrong. The anti-obscenity law is fucking ridiculous. People can consent to harm, even serious harm, because it is their body and some people enjoy it or derive pleasure from it.

  “These activities in reality cause harm to others, and viewing these forms of material legitimates the idea of causing harm to others for the purposes of sexual stimulation, as well as creating a market for the commission of acts that harm others for the purposes of sexual stimulation of the viewing public. For that reason, I think even liberal feminists can agree that they ought to be banned.”

Just NO. Fisting? Bondage? Piss play? Bullshit. We are adults and we can consent to this sort of thing, enjoy it, and enjoy being filmed doing it. This completely denies kinksters of their sexuality. Your argument may be normative, but that doesn’t mean you can just make wild claims and spout fallacy with no justification. Bondage doesn’t “legitimise harm to others”, because the point of bondage is that the participants enjoy the illusion losing control, and it’s a consensual activity. Did the people making it consent to making it? Then it should not be banned. Just because you can’t understand why someone would ever want to do something (like being tied up and pissed on), it doesn’t mean there aren’t people that want to do it or film it or watch it.

By Vicki, on 08 May 2012 - 20:49 |

The problem is that a number of the more sadistic activities now being mainstreamed in the sex industry are being pushed on to women in relationships where they don’t want to take part in that activity but are being confronted by partners who do and who, like asking directions, are unwilling to ask for consent in case the answer is no.  Living in a society, sometimes individual freedoms have to be sacrificed for the majority good, especially around the area of abusive behaviour involving another person.  The problem with alot of the abusive and degrading language and behaviour in porn is that its defenders state that everything is ok as long as both parties consent, but what about the numerous reports of women being subject to this behaviour who have not consented to this type of language being used at and about them or sexual sadism being introduced into their sex lives without their consent.  I have started dating recently again having come out of a long term relationship and have been really disheartened by the amount of abusive behaviour directed at me by men on on line dating sites where they haven’t asked whether I am happy to have pictures of their genitals flashed at me, or being called sexy bitch or having my hair pulled etc whilst having sex.  Men are as reluctant to ask for consent as they are for directions - and I don’t think my experiences are the minority judging from the number of other women on line’s comments on the blog sections.

By robert, on 09 May 2012 - 11:45 |

“The idea that freedom constitutes non-interference is a normative argument; it is not empirically falsifiable.”

I’m really not sure it’s sustainable to criticise ditum’s ‘liberalism’ from a supposedly radical marxist standpoint whilst maintaining the  Kantian distinction between ‘is’ and ‘ought’. 

Isn’t idea of an insulated ‘normative’ sphere of discourse in which verification comes from logical consistency - that is, political philosophy as an autonomous world - an idealism? And contrary to the interdependence of means and ends in practice. Practice with indifference to the empirical ( a kind of ‘indifferentism’) is the road to voluntarism and ruin. 

Further, if one accepts the Marxist problematic about social being, then the pseudo-autonomous ideality of ‘the normative’ rests on a surreptitious specific empirical input, generalisation from which may arrive at impasses when it is taken far from its origin - impasses that have ‘forcible’ solutions that may themselves be damaging.

 “There are different theories as to what constitutes “harm”, and different theories about the kind of harm that porn does to society. “

But isn’t the problematic of ‘harm’ from Mill, a liberal? If it’s usable at all I think it needs separation from the notion of society as being a unitary object rather than necessarily irreconcilably broken along a class line, which must rebound into the structure of arguments about harm (in ‘who, whom?’ questions, and the potential for alliances in the effectuation of transition from class society which may determine specific foci of critical attention - and patience - rather than total war on all fronts understood as a single general front.)

By V Wharton, on 09 May 2012 - 19:28 |

To be quite honest, until people stop trying to discuss women and children as if they are a philosophical argument rather than people - real living breathing human beings who feel pain, humiliation, fear etc - then this debate is worthless.  The porn industry is the media arm of the sex industry - the biggest commissioner of human slavery in the world at present.  People seem to have an enormous disconnect between their right to enjoy a product that is born out of such hideous human rights travesty and women and children’s rights not to be bought, sold, abused and humiliated either directly or indirectly by this industry and its consumers.  We have around 120,000 women and girls raped in the UK every year - and a prosecution record of 600 rapists a year successfully going to jail in a crime where 97% of victims can name and know their attacker.  1 in 3 women suffer sexist violence in the home, 1 in 3 girls suffer it in school.  None of this abuse is consensual ... and the porn industry is the biggest propoganda machine for churning violent sexism out on an industrial scale.  When does any of the porn industry’s apologists start dealing with the culture of violence against women it gives step by step instructions on?

By Neil, on 26 December 2012 - 17:16 |

I decided to read this article after having a discussion with my ex-wife about an item on Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour about a university freshers party organised on the theme of ‘Pimps and Hoes’ (‘hoe’ apparently being slang for whore). I consider this story to be a prime illustration of the pernicious effect that the mainstreaming of pornography is having on our sexuality, gender identities, and culture. With two teenage children soon to be forced to step into this gutter I despair, hence this comment. 

I thought this review of the preceding debate was very well done and overall fair and balanced to both sides. Like Maeve I personally favour the radical feminist perspective, and for  me it  illustrated the moral, intellectual, and political poverty of liberalism and its close relationship to empiricism. It was  once again a bit depressing to see how ubiquitous liberal conceptions of freedom are amongst many readers of NLP, particularly when it comes to mainstream cultural orthodoxies and perceived infringements on their ‘freedoms’ by the state.  

There are a few further points I wish to make.  Firstly, it seems to me like a dead-end for radical feminists (and others dedicated to realising our full human potential) to concentrate on the issue of ‘harm’ and prevention of harm - to me this is engaging the problem on the liberal philosophical terrain of negative freedom where one’s adversary tends to drag you the into issues of empirical proof; in addition I think it is de facto limited in being purely oppositional and an ethical protest of the weak.  I feel would be more beneficial for radical feminists to move from focusing on the harm caused by pornography to talking about the virtues and positive and emancipatory psychological and spiritual aspects of sexuality which are precluded and crushed by ALL forms of pornography.  This requires in my opinion the need to intellectually articulate from a feminist - and socialist - perspective an alternative ‘healthy’ form of representation of sexuality - maybe ‘erotica’ - standing in opposition to pornography.   Only by doing this do I see the possibility of eventually finding common ground with the Ditum’s of the world ensconced in their belief in individual freedoms of expression and their view that there are versions of pornography that are non-degrading, non-exploitative and supposedly liberating to certain groups and individuals. 

The second point I wish to make is that there seems to be a great deal of emphasis in this debate on (male) violence and physical domination.  Naturally representation of this behaviour is extremely worrying and dangerous in its implications, however I am concerned that this may cause critics to overlook the more subtle and possibly more prevalent issues of commodification of sexual identity which I believe my ‘Pimps and Hoes’ anecdote helps highlight.

Lastly, while I have admittedly not given this a great deal of thought thus far, it strikes me as ironic, counter-productive, and maybe even naive for radical feminists to conclude that the primary solution to this problem lies in the hands of the state which needs to increase and improve its regulation of pornography. I am much more inclined to think that this is a war that needs to be fought out primarily on the terrain of culture and society - not only through a negative critique of the status quo but by providing a positive alternative vision of gender relationships and sexuality.

By Pedro, on 16 May 2013 - 02:53 |

My goodness.
I came here atracted by the New Left Project - a badly needed project.

But I - sadly - must say that this reads like more of the same PC  ideology of last 20 years in the left. 

Here are a few simple questions:
humankind, notably in the 60’s, produced the concept that repressing sex and corresponding ideology was key to social oppression - therefore refusing to feel guilty about sex and refusing to accept societal control over sex “normatives” was key to liberation from other social opression.  This theory nicely explains, for instance clitoris mutilation rationale, as well as why soldiers that are “trained” to accept to kill other beings, in name of the state and dominant class, are separated from multi-gender natural environments & relationships, and men soldiers sex is chanelled for brothels and prostitutes.
Many other current examples hold with this. Question: do you consider this wrong? have feminist movement (marxist? are you serious?) forgot conveniently class exploitation, human slavery of poor by the rich, of the disposessed by property owners, of working people by speculative finaceers and capitalists, and now porn industry is just violence of men against woman? Isn’t this so, so, so convenient to divert women (and men) to fight the real source of exploitation, INCLUDING the one that uses patriarchal morals to double exploit woman?  Is it not that sexual repression and a climate of encouraging women to fear men by default (as sometimes it seems you do!), is not precisely what favours unhealthy dependency of porn as a substitute for normal sex interaction?
Just another simple issue:
I am always amazed how short sighted many feminist discussions on porn are. So, a movie depicting some kinky sex is the ultimate woman degradation, but daily movies and sitcoms showing wealthy woman (and men) living a lifestyle that is only viable thanks to the most extreme and miserable exploitation of billions of persons in miserable working conditions and living in miserable conditions, is not much more severely harmful on (de)forming and (un)educating men (and women) mindframe? 
 if a sex video will cause men to rape women, then videos depicting killing people as a casual phenomena, as long as the people shot are “not like us”, should not then make all of us, including you, killing machines? and if it is, shoulnd you, as social activist, also dedicate some arguments to this, in this very same analysis? or are we now either gender blind or class-blind?
I am appaled on how similar posture and language we can find here to the language and arguments used by puritan, hipocritical, sex-fearing prudes of last century. Shouldn’t that similarity concern just a little bit a modern social activist, woman or man?  
It is also amazing how some feminisit, including you, do not realize how agresive and sometimes near offensive these arguments are to common, decent men and woman. I recall another article from you where you recommended that Occupy should distribute panflets to men threatning them with police and prison if they rape. That is a xclear stateent how you look upon men  as a potential menace in the first place, like women are your tribe and men are “the others”.  So you deal with all men by threatning ? So woman are inocent by default as men are guilty by default? Doesn’t this teint all these arguments of religious rightneousness, rather than any credible humanistic or scientific rationale? 
I admit you are not as radical as Dowrkas, a feminist who wrote “all sex is rape”; and not as social blind as the feminist leaders that launched a fierce atack, including in court, because the US army discriminated against woman in the army, by not allowing them to be on the front line of the invasion of panama, in combat role, in the 80’s. The little detail that that this invasion was motivated by big business and geopolitical power play of a superpower, was out of their sight. The small, little detail that this invasion killed hundreds of slum dwellers (a uoops mistake of the B2 bombs), and that the human beings shot at by US army were as morally entitled to life that the US soldiers, was irrelevant. Feminists sued the state because it did not allow woman to join men murdering human beings in an absurd war, not provoked by the people of panama. My goodness.  If this is modern feminism, Bring me back hippies with “make love not war”.
And here is the sad, sad, sad thing: I am sure the majority of feminist leaders do not think that way. But not a single one of them criticized this actions and writings.  
Is the feminist movement now captured ideologically by the dominant class, even in “New Left” initiatives? Is this posture not a disguise of promoting some men vs woman war, to distract and divide both women and men from waging a united front against the real exploitation and adversaries? Shouldn’t the ideological fight against demeaning, neandarthal behaviour of some men towards some women be waged exactly by showing these men (and accepting women) they are just acting as debased manipulated marionettes of a system that ultimately keeps human being exploited by others, and therefore uses the repression of healthy sex framed in love relationships, by promoting deviant and sick violence between men and women, to benefit from it?

PedroI lived as an illegal citizen persecuted by a fascist dictatorship, risking daily my freedom , my future and even my life, to fight  for democracy, against a colonial war and the bloody dictatorship. I experimented famine, and was shot at. So this is not simple academic debate for me.

By V Wharton, on 16 May 2013 - 09:07 |

And I have buried two unborn babies after violent attacks from my ex partner who was a violent chauvinist, so I think that this is not an academic arguement for me and most of the other feminists that have experience of men that think of women and children as female dogs/bitches, who*es and all the other ways they refer to us.

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