The Sex Wars

The debates over porn are part of a larger conflict over the validity and need for freedom in the context of sexual rights, says Paramita Banerjee.

Growing up in an academic family, it was inevitable that I would be exposed to shelves full of books from a very early age. The supply of books and children’s magazines was also far more regular than that of new clothes, strictly limited to three occasions a year. The habit of reading was carefully nurtured and books were seldom marked as beyond reach.


Except one particular shelf that housed a number of Bengali novels, including some by Tagore. Because there was such strict prohibition on even touching these books, by the time I was eight, I made sure that I was reading precisely these books behind my parents’ back, irrespective of whether I could make head or tail out of them. Tempting is the fruit that is forbidden, as we all know.

This adage, about prohibition and taboo being counterproductive, has only been further entrenched in my personal belief pattern as I’ve journeyed through life to this stage of having increasingly more silver strands in my hair. Of course, I wouldn’t go as far as to say nothing should ever be prohibited, for I’m also a firm believer in a few principles.

I sometimes argue that there would be no pornography if we did not have norms of moralistic control on expressions of sexuality and sexual desire.

For instance, abusing power to take advantage—physically, emotionally and/or sexually—of a person with comparatively less power is a taboo as far as I’m concerned. It is never okay to do that, and zero tolerance is my stand. My freedom ends where your nose begins is equally important, with hardly any exceptions to this rule. Infringing upon others’ rights, therefore, is prohibited. But beyond some such very broad principles of equality, tolerance and inclusive social justice, taboos and prohibitions related to specific forms of behaviour and modes of expression are counterproductive in my opinion.

In line with this belief pattern, I sometimes argue that there would be no pornography if we did not have norms of moralistic control on expressions of sexuality and sexual desire. Irrespective of the logical tenability of this personal position, it does not obliterate the fact that pornography exists in the world we inhabit, so that debates around the need to control pornography have been rife for a very long time.

 

These debates, in my understanding, are actually part of a larger conflict of opinions on the validity and need for freedom in the context of sexual rights and expressions, which have not spared feminist discourse also. Feminist debates on and around issues of sexuality, with conflicting positions on pornography as one of the major manifestations, assumed such serious proportions in the 1980s that they are known today as the Feminist Sex Wars. Anti-pornography feminists, such as Diana Russell, Robin Morgan, Alice Schwarzer, Andrea Dowrkin, Catharine MacKinnon, Gail Dines and others, have vehemently argued that pornography is detrimental to women’s wellbeing since it systematically commodifies women as sexual objects for male pleasure, and facilitates the perpetration of violence against women.

“Sex forced on real women so that it can be sold at a profit to be forced on other real women; women’s bodies trussed and maimed and raped and made into things to be hurt and obtained and accessed, and this presented as the nature of women; the coercion that is visible and the coercion that has become invisible—this and more grounds the feminist concern with pornography.”

There are minor differences in their positions, but the overall argument offered by the anti-pornography camp may be summarised as follows:

  1. The production of pornography is possible only through perpetuating physical, psychological and economic abuse and coercion of women. In MacKinnon’s words: “Sex forced on real women so that it can be sold at a profit to be forced on other real women; women’s bodies trussed and maimed and raped and made into things to be hurt and obtained and accessed, and this presented as the nature of women; the coercion that is visible and the coercion that has become invisible—this and more grounds the feminist concern with pornography.”[1] This view has been championed and substantiated by the anti-pornography lobby of feminists with testimonials from women participants of pornography.
  2. Consumption of pornography reinforces and perpetrates social harm to women through privileging male domination on women in sexual acts, as also by endorsing violence against women in sexual situations. Through researches on deliberate and inadvertent exposure of young adult males to hard and soft pornography, feminists belonging to this school of thought have attempted to prove that pornography facilitates sexist mindsets that view women as sexual objects for use and abuse by men. Some of them, like Robin Morgan, have gone a step further to insist that pornography is directly linked with rape and other forms of violence against women. In Morgan’s oft-quoted words, “Pornography is the theory, and rape is the practice.”[2]
  3. There are strong arguments, of course, against child pornography, with Gail Dines as one of the major champions who sought to establish through research the intimate connection between regular consumption of child pornography and rape of pre-puberty children by men who had previously felt disgusted by the very idea of using children as objects for sexual pleasure.
  4. Alice Schwarzer, a radical feminist from Germany, has argued that pornography contributes to the development of distorted notions about female and male bodies, as also sexual acts, since the use of synthetic implants and exaggerated acts are presented as “normal”. She has many supporters in the anti-pornography lobby.

The sex-positive or pro-sex feminists, on the other hand, argue that to oppose pornography on the grounds cited above is to subscribe to the patriarchal notion that men enjoy sex and women merely endure it, thereby denying women’s sexual agency.

One of the strongest arguments proffered by this school of liberal feminism is that pornography privileges women’s sexual autonomy by clearly depicting that they can and do enjoy sex beyond relational contexts. There have also been researches carried out by supporters of this school of thought to emphasise that women participate in pornography for different reasons and not all of them are coerced into it. Valerie Webber’s work may be mentioned in this context.

One of the strongest arguments proffered by this school of liberal feminism is that pornography privileges women’s sexual autonomy by clearly depicting that they can and do enjoy sex beyond relational contexts.

They further argue that pornography often represents women in dominant sexual roles—a direct challenge to the patriarchal paradigm of women as passive participants in sexual acts—apart from portraying a wide range of women’s body types that challenge the archetypes privileged by mainstream entertainment, beauty and fashion industries.

 

Neither group stopped at just writing academic articles, of course. Anti-pornography feminists have gone ahead for legal and judicial reforms to generate greater control against the production and consumption of pornography, as also to institute compensation norms for victims of forced participation in pornography. Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon’s efforts have been particularly notable in this context. Others like Nikki Craft, Ann Simonton and Melissa Farley have organised civil disobedience against pornography.

The pro-sex feminist camps have challenged such legislative changes with the argument, backed by specific incidents, of these laws being used to target women’s free speech on sex and sexuality, especially that of lesbian, bisexual and queer women. There have also been attempts at creating feminist pornography, with a view to responding to the patriarchal sexist bias in prevalent pornography and creating an iconography of its own. Many women participants in this small but growing industry have spoken in public to clarify that their engagement in feminist pornography has been out of free choice, apart from stressing that women participants in pornography earn considerably more than their male counterparts. The crux of the arguments of this school of thought has been succinctly expressed by American activist Susie Bright: “It’s a far different criticism to note that porn is sexist. So are all commercial media. That’s like tasting several glasses of salt water and insisting that only one of them is salty.”[3]

The debate really becomes far more complex around the issue of censorship. Irrespective of their views on pornography, many feminists believe that censorship has traditionally been used to silence women and other marginalised voices and expressions, thereby repressing and derailing attempts at social change.

The debate really becomes far more complex around the issue of censorship. Irrespective of their views on pornography, many feminists believe that censorship—legal and/or social—has traditionally been used to silence women and other marginalised voices and expressions, thereby repressing and derailing attempts at social change. Feminists Against Censorship (FAC), a large unfunded network of women in the United Kingdom, was established in 1989 specifically to oppose a resolution by the National Council for Civil Liberties against pornography. Activists Linda Semple and Roz Kaveney took the lead in opposing censorship of sexual materials, defending free speech and expression of sexuality as an individual right. Similar groups were established in the US also, such as the Feminist Anti-Censorship Taskforce (FACT) and Feminists for Free Expression.

 

Personally I’ve never found it easy to side with either lobby with reference to the pornography debate, since there are elements of truth in the arguments of both camps. For me, the binary in itself is questionable; it is not an either/or situation at all.

Having worked for many years in the sphere of trafficking and forced entry into the sex trade, I cannot honestly deny the reality of exploitation and torture that more often than not characterise girls’ and women’s unintended association with pornography. However, I also find it difficult to entirely deny that such association—even when it is initially due to coercion—does at times give women a certain agency and a lifestyle beyond the contours of moral chastity sanctioned by the heteronormative patriarchy.

I cannot deny the reality of exploitation and torture that more often than not characterise girls’ and women’s unintended association with pornography. However, I also find it difficult to entirely deny that such association does at times give women a certain agency and a lifestyle beyond the contours of moral chastity sanctioned by the heteronormative patriarchy.

I am reminded of my interactions with a number of tribal girls in Pune’s Budhwarpet, who had been trafficked as 13- or 14-year-olds for initial use in pornographic audio-visual materials, later to be pushed into the sex trade. They were unequivocally articulate about one thing: they hated the life they lived, but they did not want to return to their villages. They did not want to substitute their ability to eat whenever hungry with continuous starvation.

Of course, the realities that delimit their choices between forced entry into and continuation of the sex trade on the one hand, and starvation on the other, merit a much larger discussion. But still, within those limitations, these women—in their early 20s when I met them—undeniably exercised some kind of a free choice in their refusal to be “rescued”.

Further, I have never found it easy to clearly define/describe/understand what differentiates pornography from erotica. Feminists like Gloria Steinem and Page Mellish have argued that pornography depicts domination while erotica foregrounds mutuality. But Andrea Dworkin scorns such distinction, arguing that erotica is nothing more than better produced pornography with more refined packaging, aimed at a higher class of consumers—since all sexual materials produced in a patriarchal system are expressions of male desire and dominance.

To quote Ellen Willis, “In practice, attempts to sort out good erotica from bad porn inevitably comes down to ‘What turns me on is erotica; what turns you on is pornographic.’”

Pro-sex feminists obviously scoff at such distinction, emphasising the subjective elements that are bound to creep into any such attempt. To quote Ellen Willis, “In practice, attempts to sort out good erotica from bad porn inevitably comes down to ‘What turns me on is erotica; what turns you on is pornographic.’”[4]

 

My position on censorship is far less ambivalent, though. Historically, there are too many instances of the use of state coercion to thwart marginalised voices, including those of women. In addition, censorship to me is not just a legal term—a wide spectrum of censorship exists in the form of social, cultural and religious sanctions.

Towards the end of 2000, I was involved in coordinating an interactive workshop with women writers from Bengal on the issue of censorship. Soi[5] – Women Writers’ Association of West Bengal, a not-for-profit collective, was born out of that workshop. Each and every participant, amongst them stalwarts like Nabaneeta Dev Sen and the then upcoming writer Mandakranta Sen, spoke clearly about how various kinds of censorship—including self-censorship—adversely affect free expression of women’s experiences.

Censorship to me is not just a legal term—a wide spectrum of censorship exists in the form of social, cultural and religious sanctions.

Ours is a country where an entire sequence from the Bollywood movie Dum Laga Ke Haisha had to be thrown out since a dialogue containing the word ‘lesbian’ was beeped by the censor board. Social censorship still allows witch-burning and honour killings. Right-wing political outfits happily take over the task of moral policing, deciding what is desi enough to be celebrated and what should be vandalised. Police consider it within their rights to raid rented hotel rooms and slam charges of obscene public behaviour (inside four walls with closed doors!) on consenting adult women and men engaged in sexual acts, presumably to keep the standards of public morality sacrosanct. Hindu, Muslim and Christian belief systems render menstruating women “unholy”, forbidding them from participating in any religious ceremony.

In such a country, the prohibition of so-called pornographic sites—without any clear definition of what constitutes pornography and how the magic number of 857 was arrived at—could only contribute to further strengthening of moral policing, the inevitable brunt of which is worst faced by women. Think of incidents of dress code imposed in colleges, inevitably for women. My ambivalence about pornography notwithstanding, I am happy that the union government had to quickly backtrack on this proposed ban.

 

[1] Mackinnon, Catharine A. (1984) “Not a moral issue.” Yale Law and Policy Review 2:321-345. Reprinted in: Mackinnon (1989). Toward a Feminist Theory of the State Harvard University Press. ISBN 0-674-89645-9 (1st ed), ISBN 0-674-89646-7 (2nd ed). Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Feminist_views_of_pornography#cite_note-4.

[2] Morgan, Robin. (1974). “Theory and Practice: Pornography and Rape”. In: Going Too Far: The Personal Chronicle of a Feminist. (1977). Random House. ISBN 0-394-48227-1. (1978 ed). 333 p.

[3] Bright, Susie. (October 1993). “The Prime of Miss Kitty MacKinnon”. East Bay Express. (Republished, 1995 in: Sexwise, p 121–127, ISBN 1-57344-002-7. Available at SusieBright.blogspot.com

[4] Willis, Ellen. (1979). “Feminism, Moralism, and Pornography”. In Beginning to See the Light: Pieces of a Decade. New York: Knopf : distributed by Random House. ISBN 0-394-51137-9, (1st ed); ISBN 0-8195-6255-6, (2nd ed).

[5] The word ‘soi’ in Bengali encapsulates multiple meanings. Girls and women with intimate friendship would call each other ‘soi’. It also means signature, and ‘I endure’. This name was chosen for the collective in that workshop, keeping in mind these different meanings packed into one word.

Paramita Banerjee works as an independent consultant in the sphere of child protection and gender justice. Her expertise lies in research, training, evaluation and community mobilisation. This black-coffee drinking queer activist dreams of wielding the pen to ruffle the feathers of status-quo-ist survival.

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  • […] they do not know what they are watching is actually a patriarchal rhetoric (perhaps this merits another piece on the pornography debates in the West between radical feminists and the sex-positive ones) that […]

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