Monday, November 10, 2008

Blaming Pornography?

by Josh Franklin

At a presentation by Dr. John Foubert I recently attended, I was forced to confront some of my unexamined attitudes towards pornography. I have always had what might be considered a permissive or liberal view of sexually explicit material; people should be allowed to do what they want in the privacy of their own homes. However, when Dr. Foubert claimed that watching any pornography, even consensual pornography, has a causal relationship with supportive attitudes of sexual aggression, I was forced to consider the social institution of pornography in the context of culturally held beliefs about sexuality and a culture that normalizes sexually violent behavior. Can pornography be acceptable if it supports a culture of sexual violence? And more broadly, can pornography be in line with feminist ideals of gender equality?

The fact of this investigation that was most striking for me was the idea that watching even consensual sex incited people to have supported attitudes towards sexual aggression. How is this possible? I'm inclined to believe that merely watching two people having sex is insufficient to send a message that reinforces sexually violent attitudes. Rather, when we watch pornography, what we see is in a way a reflection of what we already believed; that is, the meaning of the sexual activity is always mediated by a cultural system of signification. If we watch consensual sex and see sexual violence, it is because we are participants in a sexuality that is itself contaminated by sexual aggression.

Dr. Foubert quoted several adult industry executives saying that pornography gives men the sexual violence against women that they want to see. This seems to indicate that sexual violence is normal in some respect independent of pornography. Of course, violent pornography normalizes sexual aggression; what I want to propose is that if it seems that pornography, just by the virtue of its explicit portrayal of sex, promotes sexually aggressive attitudes, it is only because we interpret that portrayal through a lens that is already sexually aggressive. So all I've said is that pornography isn't bad--that is, it doesn't create negative attitudes towards women--by definition or by its essence, but rather due to the matrix of sexist culture in which it is situated.

And so, the 'answer' to pornography is not to condemn it absolutely, but rather to engage with pornographic media in a transformative way. If sexual violence and sexism are opposed by a consent culture of gender equality, we see this opposition in virtually all media. Mainstream television and print media tend, as we see over and over again in countless examples posted here and elsewhere, to support sexism. I would argue that much non-violent pornography does not, for example, bolster a phallocentric conception of pleasure any more than Cosmo magazine does. The point is that pornography is just one medium by which we receive messages about sexuality; the solution to images that objectify women in a particular medium is not to categorically condemn that medium, but rather to reconsider the meanings being transmitted. There is little more possibility for 'outlawing' pornography than there is for outlawing magazines. Rather, the progressive path lies in changing the meaning of pornographic images. It's not really a question of removing erotic images of women from the public, but rather opposing representations of women as inferior or sexually objectified--just as we ought to view any such representations critically.

Pornography is problematic in many ways. For example, the idea that people find watching sexual violence arousing is troubling, and I don't know what to make of it. However, I think that when we evaluate pornography and its relationship to sexual violence and gender issues in general, it would be good to inform our discourse with the perpetrator-centric conception of responsibility that is central to the discourse on sexual assault. That is, if we condemn pornography absolutely as Dr. Foubert tells us to, what implications will that have for our construction of personal responsibility? If explicit sexual materials cause people to become sexually violent, how are we to hold the perpetrator of a sexually violent crime accountable? Instead of declaring an absolute judgment on pornography, we ought to view pornography as we do any medium; porn is a small space within our culture in general through which we communicate ideas about sexuality and create the matrix of behaviors in which personal responsibility functions. Right now pornography predominantly transmits a misogynistic vision of sexuality. The question for feminism is how to transform those messages into ones of gender equality by participating in and engaging in the cultural 'discourse' of pornography.

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