By Chloe Sariego | December 1, 2016

“The ‘sexual mosaic’ of modern society is a dynamic network in which the optimization of power is achieved with and through the multiplication of pleasures, not through their prohibition or restriction.”

Spargo, T., 1999. Foucault and queer theory.

Concern regarding pornography and the effect on women is a notorious issue among feminists. Inciting what later came to be known as the “porn wars” (Smith & Atwood, 2014), the issue of pornography’s positive and negative effects on women divided feminists into “anti” and “pro” porn camps. Often radical feminists aligning with the anti-porn camps emphasized porn’s harmful effects, it’s reproduction of patriarchal and oppressive structures and focused on the way women are represented, treated and controlled in pornographic content. They saw pornography as a major inhibitor of equality. On the other side of the camp, pro-porn activists advocate for positive aspects of porn such as reclamation of sexuality, exposure to female pleasure and non-censorship. Neither arguments have yet to be settled in the mainstream, and while anti-pornography feminists have yet to achieve full censorship of pornography through policy, much of pornography’s production remains highly contentious and one question remains: is pornography harmful to women? In coming to an answer, this paper will break out of the binaric form of “anti” and “pro”, instead invoking a Foucauldian analysis of the discursive production of pornography. Focusing on the ways in which power is produced, we can easily conclude that porn itself is not necessarily harmful and has created key modes of resistance.

While the wealth of literature on anti-pornography is deep, at the heart of many objections is an essentialist approach to what porn “is”. In 1989, Katherine Mackinnon wrote, “…[P]ornography is the essence of a sexist social order, it’s quintessential social act” arguing that all pornography reinforces binaric and oppressive norms inside and outside of the porn itself. In 1992, Catherine Itzin lobbied for strengthened censorship of porn and sexually explicit materials and remains notorious for conflating pornography with violence, sex abuse and child molestation (Itzin, 2001). All of the notable names in anti-pornography theory, Andrea Dworking, Robin Morgan, Diana Russel, Alice Schwazer, Gail Dines and Robert Jensen to name a few, have variation in their discourses but agree that pornography is harmful (Shrage, 2005), incites violence (Morgan, 1978), and reduces women to objects (Mackinnon, 1989). While these claims may be true in some instances, their focus on the content within pornography is suspicious, especially when the argument insists that “…women in the sex industry do not enjoy sex” (Levy, 2004) and that “behaving like men was the only model women had… the sex wasn’t in their nature.” (Jackson, 2000). Can the very real problems of violence ands sexual objectification really be solved by censorship of sexually explicit materials and an insistence that all porn (and sex, apparently) comes from a heteronormative binaric approach to “men” and “women”?

In the rise of “pro-sex feminism” Ellen Willis (1993) challenged these reductionist notions. The movement of “pro-sex feminism” focused on female sexual agency and accused claims that men enjoy and crave sex while women endure it as “neo-Victorian” (Willis, 1994), asking if there is any other status of sexual relations other than heteronormativity, and do female sexualities exist outside of them? “Most research has not considered the possibility that women may enjoy pornography…there has been little empirical work which has elicited women’s own accounts about their experiences of pornography” (Ciclitira, 2004). Following Karina Ciclitiria’s (2004) work, there has been very little research done on women’s enjoyment of pornography and it’s intersections on race and class or the experience of pornography for a woman who does not find herself falling within a strict gender binary.

What do we do, then, with the assumption that “men are the only porn users, and that women suffer the effects of negative attitudes and aggressive behavior resulting from men’s exposure to porn” (Ciclitira, 2004). While this is sometimes true, in 2014 Rothman et al. conducted comprehensive research on the viewing habits of pornography by urban, low-income youths of color in the US finding that they often viewed porn “for entertainment, for sexual stimulation, instructional purposes and to alleviate boredom” (Rothman et al., 2014). While revealing that youths were learning to have sex through pornography, the study provided crucial representation in pornographic research that can lead to better understandings of how to use porn to help, not to hurt (Rothman et al., 2014). Is the problem, then, that these youths watch and learn from porn, or that porn is produced in a context, which teaches oppressive norms? Is this a problem that can be eliminated, or subverted? Many pro-sex feminists argue that pornography is the only space that allows for the subversion of traditionally oppressive sexual norms. Porn stars and theorists such as Nina Hartley, Ovidie, Madison Young and Sasha Grey advocate for their personal autonomy and the power of pornography as a place for new body types to become visible and for women to take positions of power (Brownfield, 2010). Mireille Miller-Young (2007) writes on the powerful self-authorship of black women in net-porn. While she notes that these women often still remain on the outskirts of the booming online market, porn-stars like Sinnamon Love bill themselves as “…always breaking the stereotype that a woman can’t be sexually explosive and intellectual.” (Miller-Young, 2007). This is powerful language that cannot be overlooked. Similarily, Katrien Jacobs (2014) writes on porn’s political power in China and the need to incorporate an international lens into porn studies. Her discussion of online media trolling against censorship in China is an example of national and political frameworks effect how porn is working. In china especially, it can change the nature of porn into a radical anti-oppressive anti-censorship movement that empowers young queer women writing erotic fan-fiction (Jacobs, 2014). These so called “inherent” power structures may not hold up to all forms of pornography in all national contexts.

While this re-orientation of perspective on porn is important, violence against women is still prevalent, pervasive and extremely sexualized. What are we to make of violence in porn? Perhaps this problem can be recontextualized considering not all porn contains women, not all porn contains men, and not all porn is violent. When we focus on male violence against women and it’s correlations with porn, we erase the experience of everyone else involved in the production of porn. Women watch porn too, and not just the white, western and “sexually liberated” feminist stereotype, but all kinds of women. So we are faced with a problem in critical porn studies. Every stance, pro or anti seems to priotitize at the expense of other factors. Prioritizing is not bad, especially in unequal society when some issues ARE more important than others, but when it comes to the stakes of the porn debate, the two sides are pitted as supporting violence against women or oppressing individual agency, representation vs. authorship. But can we not find a way to reconcile both? Looking domestically at the UK the social stratifications make for a heap of differences in any one individual woman. We cannot choose which “women” matter most at the expense of others, and blindly base policy off of this choice. By arguing either sides of this debate we are perpetuating this idea that sexuality/sex is a problem to be solved. On both sides, if we overestimate the harmful effects of porn, we censor and remove people’s agencies. If we underestimate the effects of porn, we virtually erase any negative stereotypes that porn perpetuates and it’s negative effects (as we know there are plenty). What does this leave us with then?

This is where a Foucauldian approach to power and production can be powerful in understanding this duality. In “A History of Sexuality” Foucault (1998) argues that sexuality is not a natural feature or fact of human life and does not concern himself with the “inherence” of sex. Instead, he argues that it is a constructed category of experience which has “historical, social and cultural, rather than biological, origins” (Foucault, 1988). His theory of “confessions” in which the speaker produces narratives about sexuality as if they are “truth” and are “not found but produced” (Foucault, 1988) can be useful to see porn as a formalized, visual confession. The question then is not what is inherent to pornography (like sexuality- nothing is), the question is, “how did power circulate through the production of knowledge (visibility) about sex?” (Spargo, 1999: 8). If porn is one of the main modes in which visibility about sex is produced, then we cannot condemn porn itself but it’s production.

In Power/Knowledge, Foucault makes a strong case for resistance within a mode of power, “There are no relations of power without resistances… resistance to power does not have to come from elsewhere to be real, nor is it inexorably frustrated through being the compatriot of power” (Foucault, 1982:795). Resistance can be inside of power, not separate or external like legislation. This is why condemnations of porn as the product of power relations or revering porn as a subversive success are both, in a Foucauldian concept, misunderstandings of power. Foucault’s idea of power and discourse can help us understand pornography’s contradictory factors: it’s oppressive subversion, reclamation of power structures within power structures. As with other aspects of human behavior, the concrete institutional forms of sexuality at any given time and place are products of human activity (Spargo, 1999). They are inundated with conflicts of interest and political situating, both purposeful and incidental. In this sense, sex is always political. Can we then, in good faith, understand porn as a re-negotiation?


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Ciclitira, K., 2004. Pornography, women and feminism: Between pleasure and politics. Sexualities, 7(3), pp.281-301.

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Willis, E., 1994. Villains and victims:” Sexual correctness” and the repression of feminism. Salmagundi, (101/102), pp.68-78.

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