Feminism, Porn, and SlutWalk: part one of a conversation with Hugo Schwyzer

Originally posted at Hugo Schwyzer’s blog.

Hugo Schwyzer is a gender studies professor at a college in Southern California, a writer, and was an organizer of Slutwalk LA. Though our opinions and positions diverge significantly in some areas, in an effort to engage in civil debate and have an honest conversation, Hugo and I have asked one another 5 questions, posting our respective responses here and at hugoschwyzer.net

My responses to Hugo’s questions will be posted on Wednesday. I look forward to hearing readers thoughts and comments on these conversations. Hugo and I will respond to one another the following week and I would like to be able to include some of your comments in this response.

Thanks to Hugo for his interest in and willingness to engage in these conversations and thank you to commenters for engaging.

The following is a series of questions, asked by myself, and Hugo’s responses:

Meghan: 1) The role of men in feminism:

Stephen Heath wrote, in Male Feminism: “Men’s relation to feminism is an impossible one,” going on to say that “Men have a necessary relation to feminism” but “that this is a matter for women, that it is their voices and actions that must determine the change and redefinition. Their voices and actions, not ours: no matter how “sincere,” “sympathetic” or whatever, we are always also in a male position which brings with it all the implications of domination and appropriation, everything precisely that is being challenged, that has to be altered. Women are the subjects of feminism, its initiators, its makers, its force; the move and the join from being a woman to being a feminist is the grasp of that subjecthood. Men are the objects, part of the analysis, agents of the structure to be transformed, representatives in, carriers of the patriarchal mode; and my desire to be a subject there too in feminism—to be a feminist—is then only also the last feint in the long history of their colonization.”

So while men can and should, of course, be actors in the feminist movement, and need not be passive or voiceless, I feel that feminism is grounded in the experience, insights and perspectives of women. Do you agree? What role can men play in feminism? How can you speak about and to feminists without dominating the conversation? Where do you see yourself in this movement?

Hugo: Respectfully, I think Heath is wrong. Look, men have been part of the feminist movement since its inception (look at the many male signers of the Declaration of Sentiments in 1848.) When NOW was founded in the Sixties, it was designed to be the National Organization for Women, not the National Organization of Women. Gender identity happens on a spectrum; it’s not a binary which can be neatly divided into “subject” and “object.”

That said, men do have to be very careful to avoid taking dominant roles in feminism. I wrote a post last year called “Step Up and Step Back” in which I said the following:

“Step up” means that men who choose to identify as feminists (or, if you prefer, as “feminist allies” or “pro-feminists”) are called to take an active role in the anti-sexist movement. Building a genuinely egalitarian and non-violent society requires everyone’s involvement. Empowering women to defend themselves from rapists and harassers is important; raising a generation of young men to whom the idea of rape or harassment is anathema is also vital. We need men of all ages in the feminist movement to “step up” and commit themselves to embodying egalitarian principles in their private and public lives.

Stepping up means being willing to listen to women’s righteous anger. That doesn’t mean groveling on the ground in abject apology merely for having a penis — contrary to stereotype, that’s not what feminists (at least not any I’ve ever met) want. That means really hearing women, without giving into the temptation to become petulant, defensive, or hurt. It means realizing that each and every one of us is tangled in the Gordian knot of sexism, but that men and women are entangled in different ways that almost invariably cause greater suffering to the latter. Stepping up doesn’t mean denying that, as the old saying goes, The Patriarchy Hurts Men Too (TPHMT). It means understanding that in feminist spaces, to focus on male suffering both suggests a false equivalence and derails the most vital anti-sexist work.

Stepping up means, of course, being willing to confront other men. I’ve said over and over again that the acid test of a man’s commitment to feminism often comes not only in terms of how he treats women, but also how he speaks about women when he’s in all-male spaces. Many young men are earnest about living out feminist principles when around women. But get them around their “bros” and their words change. Or, as is more often the case, they may not join in on sexist banter — but they fail to raise vocal objection to it. Stepping up means challenging the jokes and complaints and objectifying remarks that are so much a part of the conversation in all-male spaces. This is, as far as I’m concerned, a sine qua non of being a feminist ally.

Stepping back means acknowledging that in almost every instance, feminist organizations ought to be led by women. It means that men in feminist spaces need to check themselves before they pursue leadership roles. While that might seem unfair, arguing that biological sex should have no bearing on who wields authority in a feminist organization fails to take into account the myriad ways in which the wider world discriminates against women. Even now, we still socialize young men to be assertive and young women to be deferential. (Yes, there are plenty of exceptions, but not enough to disprove that rule.) Part of undoing that socialization for women means pushing themselves to take on leadership positions even if they feel awkward about doing so; part of undoing that socialization for young men means holding themselves back from those same offices.

Stepping back doesn’t mean men should never speak up in feminist spaces. Stepping back is not about silently serving in the background. Stepping back is about the willingness to engage in self-reflection, to defer, and remembering that the most important job feminist men have within the movement is not to lead women but to serve as role models to other men. Stepping back is a way of renouncing the “knight in shining armor” tendency that afflicts many young men who first come to anti-sexist work. Women need colleagues and partners on this journey, not rescuers or substitute father figures.

2) One of the primary places of debate within feminist discourse lies in sex work; prostitution, pornography stripping, etc. How can a man retain credibility as a feminist and speak about these issues? Within a context of patriarchy and within a context wherein men are the primary buyers of sex and the primary audience for mainstream pornography (and the subjects of this pornography are, primarily, women and the sex that is being bought is, primarily, from women), is it even possible for a man, as an ally to feminists, to take a position that does not actively reject these industries? Do you actively reject these industries as part of your feminism?

Well, I think it might well be possible to do so, though I don’t. I don’t use pornography as part of my sexual life, and I don’t employ sex workers. Sex work is deeply problematic. At the same time, I’m confronted with the reality that a growing number of young women use pornography, and that there has been a concerted effort to create a genuinely feminist pornography – though the degree to which that’s a viable project remains a subject of contention. I reject porn use personally because it is incompatible with how I want to live my sexual life. I want my sexuality to be radically relational, where my arousal is inextricably linked to intimacy and partnership. I also want my sexuality to be congruent with my feminism, and for me personally, that means rejecting porn.

But I work with allies, overwhelmingly female, who are sex workers or advocates for sex workers. Some are the stereotypically privileged few who are outside the norm, but some who claim enthusiasm about sex work are from working-class backgrounds where financial necessity was the driving reason behind why they entered the industry. Nothing could be less feminist than for me to tell them “No, you don’t like what you’re doing. Actually,you hate it and you’re being exploited.” The sine qua non of male feminism is the capacity to hear women’s lived experiences. And when it comes to porn (both in terms of production and consumption) and other forms of sex works, women don’t speak with one voice.

I am committed to being an advocate for sex worker rights, committed to avoiding participating in sex work as a consumer, and committed to listening.

3) If I say to you: “Pornography hurts me, it hurts me deeply, and it hurts women”, how do you respond?

I hear you. I acknowledge it’s hurtful to you personally, and I acknowledge that porn has done tremendous harm to women. But not all porn is the same, and not everyone who works in porn experiences the same set of circumstances. We need to do more than say “porn bad”. We need to say, what is the long-term feminist response? Is it saying that women’s bodies on a screen or in a magazine can never be gazed at with desire because that action is inherently hurtful? I’m not ready to go that far.

I’ve had literally dozens of current and former sex workers as my students over the years. (The ones who have come out to me.) I teach at a community college a few miles from the heart of the commercial porn industry here in L.A. And I’ve heard stories of rape and abuse and exploitation, and also heard stories of empowerment (a term that for all its fluffiness we do well not to dismiss lightly) and pleasure. There just isn’t one narrative. That’s the mistake Bob Jensen made in his brilliant but ultimately one-sided “Getting Off”. Just as there’s more to the movie industry than what comes out of Disney or Warner Brothers, there’s more to porn than what comes out of Vivid Video or Max Hardcore.

Part of the problem is NO ONE seems to acknowledge nuance here. One side says “porn is harmless fun and really causes no problems at all”, while the other seems to say “all porn is bad, feminist porn is and always will be an oxymoron, and visual depictions of sexuality are inherently exploitative and can’t be redeemed.” That’s a hell of a false dichotomy.

4) You have said “Women are not commodities whose value is based on their own fluctuating sense of self-worth.” From my perspective, escort agencies, and really, the prostitution of women in any form, legitimizes the idea the women’s bodies and lives are for sale. Do you agree or disagree? Why or why not? As an ally to feminists, and to women, what action do you / have you taken in order to end this commodification of women, women’s bodies, and female sexuality? Do you see the commodification and objectification of women as tied to violence against women?

I too am deeply troubled by escorts. I cannot imagine paying for sex the same way I pay for, say, a back massage. My own instinct is to be drawn to the Nordic model, in which selling sex is not a crime (as long as it’s your own body you sell and not another’s) but buying it is. But I hear from many responsible sex worker advocacy groups I respect (SWOP, for example) who are critical of the Swedish model and who claim it has made things worse.

All rape and sexual violence is linked to a profound sense of male entitlement. Men rape and hit and abuse women because they’ve been led to believe that women’s bodies are male property. But the sense that men have that their desire gives them rights over women’s bodies is older than the porn industry. Indeed, as porn and other forms of sex work have become more ubiquitous, there has been no concomitant increase in rape. Countries that make porn illegal do not have demonstrably better conditions for women than those that permit it. Sex work can be a manifestation of the problem, but it isn’t the root.

5) You have been one of the primary organizers and spokespeople for Slutwalk LA and you have been very supportive of Slutwalks as a whole. While, generally, Slutwalks have claimed not to take a position on sex work, other than to stand as allies with sex workers, recently, Slutwalk Las Vegas presented this statement on their Facebook page: “Slut isn’t a look, it’s an attitude. And whether you enjoy sex for pleasure or work, it’s never an invitation to violence” Can you comment on this statement?

I feel that this statement narrows the conversation in a dangerous way. Framing prostitution as work, as a job just like any other job and as something that women enjoy, benefits men. Even framing prostitution as ‘sex work’ seems, to me, to take a position – would you say that Slutwalk LA does, in fact, take a position on ‘sex work’?

Well, as you probably know, the Toronto organizers “released” all the satellite SlutWalks to follow their own paths based on the local “facts on the ground.” So there is no official SlutWalk position on sex work. (Parenthetically, I’ll say I do what my friends in the sex worker community have asked, and that is use the term sex work to refer to the whole spectrum of sexual commerce from stripping to massage parlors to porn to prostitution.)

Are there women who enjoy doing sex work? I’ve known women, students and friends, who insist that they do. I’ve known other women, often former sex workers, who insist that it’s impossible for a sex worker genuinely to enjoy sex with a john. Again, I think we have to stay away from sweeping statements. But I’m perfectly prepared to say that the number of sex workers who do it for pleasure is dwarfed by the number who do it for survival.

SlutWalk LA, in its very explicit inclusion of the sex worker community, wasn’t only standing up for those women who “like what they do.” Sex work is with us, and will continue to be with us – it’s called the world’s oldest profession for a reason. So while we figure out what the best strategy is (legalization, decriminalization, Swedish model, New Zealand model, intensified criminalization) we need to meet the needs of real sex workers. Even a sex worker who doesn’t enjoy sex with johns distinguishes between a forcible rape by a client (or, as is frequently the case, a cop) and sex that has been negotiated and compensated. The difference is not insignificant. We can’t let a future best-case scenario (a world in which sex isn’t commodified at all) stop us from meeting the real needs of real women right now.

If SlutWalk LA has a position on sex work, it is that sex workers deserve the same legal and cultural protections against rape as everyone else. And getting them those protections requires bringing their work out of the shadows without stigma.

Meghan Murphy
Meghan Murphy

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, I-D, Truthdig, and more. Meghan completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and lives in Vancouver, B.C. with her dog.

Like this article? Tip Feminist Current!

$
Personal Info

Donation Total: $1