The Pornstitution* Debates: Some thoughts on civil debate with Hugo Schwyzer et al.

I wanted to call this post ‘Well, that was a big waste of time’, but am working on presenting a semblance of professionalism and making an effort against cynicism. I’ll keep working at it…

While the purpose of these conversations was to, somehow, engage a civil debate between liberal and radical feminist strains of thought, I am having trouble feeling like this was anything other than a pretty big, fat, fail.

Regardless of what was argued by myself, or by commenters, the responses from those who advocate for ‘sex work’ sounded eerily similar. These were some of the more common points made in response to my and/or some of the commenters’ arguments around prostitutution / pornography and misogyny:

1)    All men aren’t the same and therefore arguments around what men see in pornography are essentializing

2)    There are women who work in the sex industry who enjoy their work.

3)    Radical feminists want to throw women who work in the sex industry in jail

4)    Women buy sex too.

5)    You are rich. Stop making money off of us / who paid your tuition

The individual as audience

One of the primary problems that continues to come up within these debates is the obsessive re-focusing of the conversation onto individual experiences. I argue that the purpose of pornography is male pleasure, at the expense of women and someone responds and says ‘but I don’t objectify women when I watch pornography’ / ‘I don’t watch porn that degrades women’. This seems to miss the point that a) pornography is so normalized that when we see images of objectified women we think this is ‘normal’ and don’t view the images as particularly misogynistic, and b) whatever you’ve decided is progressive in your head doesn’t change the reality of what pornography does to women and how pornography represents women, women’s bodies, women’s sexualities. You don’t get to change the context with your personal experience watching pornography at home. The film has already decided the context for you.

Arguing that men don’t see full human beings in pornography is not the same as saying ‘you, Individual Man, do not think women as a whole are human beings’.  Again, you don’t get to decide the context of the film or the images you are being shown. Pornography does not show women who are human, it shows women as bodies and orifices and things that men are entitled to access for the purposes of their own pleasure. You, Man-on-the-Computer, don’t get to decide what it is that is being conveyed to you when you are watching pornography for the purposes of masturbation. This argument doesn’t essentialize men, it describes the images and messages presented in most pornography.

Individual choice, personal empowerment and criticism of the sex industry

Same goes for the argument around radical feminists ignoring the women who ‘freely choose’ to work in porn and/or prostitution and enjoy their work. No one is ignoring you. We know that you exist. One articulate commenter, Joanne Costello, responded to this argument as such:

“…someone liking their work does not make their industry immune to criticism. From a socialist feminist perspective, we ALL live in contradiction…simply by participating in the world food system, I am screwing over other women every day who have lost their land and subsistence to corporations marketing goods to the developed world. I think when we OWN our contradictory and complex positions in global capitalism and are seen working to emancipate ourselves and not just working to “save” other people, we gain trust. I don’t think anyone can empower someone else – we have to work on our lives, challenge social structures and act as allies to facilitate change.”

And Kathy wrote:

“Re: the teeny minority of self defined “sex workers” who enjoy it. Since when is enjoyment or pleasure or *feelings* of empowerment–*feelings* in and of themselves- the same as truth or reality? What sort of argument is being made here? Feelings are also socially constructed in a capitalist/patriarchal society: think of mania for commodities; see the mobs going crazy after sports events (like in Vancouver now?). Lots of feeling there: does it mean consumerism and mob-violence is ok? Men feel empowered by raping: so, do we validate rape? Abolitionists of slavery didn’t care what made a few slaves content–slavery is wrong. Selling people is wrong, no matter how content someone is to sell themselves. These ideas about individual empowerment and pleasure are all part of the way we are bamboozled in neoliberalism. Since when has being content with one’s lot stood as an argument that one’s lot is therefore just and right? We don’t have to tell an individual woman “porn star” about what her “experience” is in order to critique the prostitution of women as a societal institution–to critique the demand by men that women’s bodies are for sale.”

One does not need to work in the sex industry in order to critique it. That’s insane. That would be like arguing that one couldn’t possibly have opposed slavery without having actually experienced being a slave themselves. Or that one could not oppose homophobia without being gay. Or that vegans have no right to actively oppose the consumption of animal products since they, themselves, are not the animals who are being consumed. I would also like to remind everyone that it is WOMEN who are hurt by pornography. It is WOMEN who, under patriarchy are raped and abused en masse. It is WOMEN who are prostituted and it is WOMEN who are objectified and degraded in pornography. And therefore, as a WOMAN, I oppose this degradation and exploitation and oppression of yes, me, but more importantly, millions of other WOMEN in this world.

Simply because a woman claims to have chosen to work in the sex industry does not change the fact that this industry is misogynistic and oppressive to women (not just oppressive to you, Individual, but to women as a whole). Your personal experience does not alter the images of women being ejaculated on. It does not alter the way in which pornography dehumanizes women. The images presented in pornography do not disappear because you, as an individual enjoyed your experience.

This argument/conversation was never about your personal experience. This does not mean that your individual experience is being denied, it means that your individual experience does not change the argument radical feminists are making about the ties between male domination and the sex industry.


For, what I’m sure will not be the last time, I would like to point out that I have not, nor has any other radical feminist or abolitionist involved in this conversation, argued for the criminalization of women in the sex industry. What we have argued for is the DE-criminalization of women and the criminalization of male buyers and sellers of sex. I cannot, for the life of me, understand why this misconception continues to be reiterated over and over again without any foundation but I suppose as long as it is, radical feminists will continue to refute it. It simply isn’t true. It will never be true. Ending prostitution will not come from incriminating prostituted women.

Making the exception the rule

There is something else I’ve found common to the pro-sex work argument and that is pointing to the exception rather than the rule. For example: ‘what about feminist pornography’/’what about women who buy sex’?

In terms of addressing arguments around ‘feminist pornography’ I’d like to point out a couple of things that frame my argument. As pointed out by Andrea Dworkin, the root of the word pornography means ‘the graphic depiction of whores’. The vast majority of pornography is made for heterosexual men and is sexist. Therefore, the term ‘feminist pornography’ in my opinion, is an oxymoron. Pornography isn’t feminist. There is such a thing as feminist erotica, feminist depictions of female bodies and lives and sexualities, but ‘feminist pornography’? It not only doesn’t make sense but, if we have decided that there is indeed such a thing, it exists as such a tiny minority within the vast sea of misogynist pornography that it couldn’t possibly counter the impact of ‘Pornography: The Industry’. The exception is not the rule. And the rule is that pornography is made for men and prostitution exists because of male buyers. The few odd women who have paid for sexual services exist (yes, they do exist, I acknowledge this), but do not come anywhere near floating the industry. Never have, never will. Prostitution has never been about female pleasure or female empowerment. The vast majority of buyers (of men, women, and children) are men.

I did find this comment from ‘MaggieK’ interesting and think that she brings up some valid questions:

She writes:

“ Why do so many radical feminists persist in using “pornography” as shorthand for “the mainstream porn industry”? It’s not that many  extra words. I can see by Meghan’s reference to feminist erotica that she is not in fact using the standard definition of “pornography” as encompassing pretty much any kind of erotic imagery and thus value neutral, and frankly this is only going to keep confusing people.

Of COURSE the porn industry as it stands is abusive, misogynist and generally terrible. I have NEVER seen a feminist argue that it isn’t. But, newsflash: people (not just men, natch) are not going to stop being visually aroused. It is unrealistic to expect to rewire human beings so that they no longer want to look at sexy things. All we can do is try to change the definition of “sexy” – and I’m pretty sure Meghan actually agrees with me, or she wouldn’t have mentioned feminist erotica.

Deciding that “pornography” can only be used to refer to “bad pornography” is a) tautological and therefore unproductive in debates like this and b) completely useless at actually changing pornographic trends, which will only happen if people support the shit out of independant companies producing ethical porn, thus REPLACING mainstream (abusive) porn. You can call it feminist erotica if you like, but it’s still porn. It’s just not horrible. Deal with it.”

I do see quite a big difference between feminist erotica and pornography and, in many ways I feel like pornography is a lost cause. What is called ‘feminist pornography’ is often not particularly feminist (meaning that simply having a female director or producer does not necessarily make a film feminist) and what I see as being ‘feminist erotica’ usually is much more complex and completely disrupts the objectifying male gaze, which doesn’t seem to happen much even in what is labelled as ‘feminist’ or ‘ethical’ pornography.

I wonder what others think? Is it more productive to stick with a definition of pornography that best represents most of the pornography out there and use separate definitions for that which actually presents a challenge to the mainstream? Or do we work to create pornography that isn’t ‘pornography’ as we know it, altering what people watch in that way?

Big sighs

My initial reactions to this ‘exchange’ have not been positive (though I have learned a lot from many of the feminists who posted some very challenging and thoughtful comments both on my blog and on Hugo’s). I can’t help but feel as though many of the ‘pro-pornstitution’ arguments are disingenuous. So many don’t seem to respond to the arguments actually made by radical feminists and, within this particular conversation, they have had little to do with anything I argued in my responses to Hugo.

The existence of women who buy sex or women who enjoy sex work does not make a dent of difference in terms of what is happening to women, en masse, all over the world. It doesn’t change what pornography looks like, it doesn’t change how men see women, it doesn’t change the way in which so many women are actually hurt and abused and murdered because of these industries. What do these arguments do? Brush the truth under the carpet. Brush context under the carpet. They work to normalize the objectification and abuse of women. These arguments, in this context, are not ‘pro-woman’, they are pro-patriarchy, they work to perpetuate industries that hurt women.

Not interested in the conversation? Let’s make it personal.

One derail that did surprise me, though it shouldn’t have, as it is an all too common way to steer the conversation immediately off-topic, is of course the: I-demand-to-know-personal-details-about-your-life-which-have-no-relevance-to-this-conversation. For example: ‘how did you pay for your education’, ‘have you ever been abused’, ‘what personal issues do you/have you had with men that turned you into such a crazy bitch’ (I paraphrased a little there on that last one). My personal life and/or finances and/or past experiences with abuse and/or personal relationships with men are absolutely none of your business. I have experienced abuse, I have an embarrassingly huge student debt which I doubt I will ever be able to pay off, all of the feminist work I do, I do for free, I come from a working class family, there are men in my life who are great, and there have been men in my life who were assholes and misogynists. I do not need to qualify my writing by telling angry strangers on the internet very personal details about my life. The massive assumptions that have been made about my life are laughable, but they are also frightening. To me they represent an absolute lack of interest in engaging with the real issues. So claims to care very deeply about the lives of women, unfortunately, are very quickly suffocated by these kinds of personal interrogations. Particularly when the personal questions are unrelated to the arguments I am making.

These questions do have a purpose, they are intended to discredit. Unfortunately for those who are working very hard to discredit and invalidate rather than engage, feminists get to speak about feminism not because they were abused or because they are poor or because they were prostituted, but because they are feminists. Women who have been abused or who are poor or who have been prostituted also get to speak, but not simply because of these experiences, but because they are women and their experiences are important. I refuse to engage in contests over who is and who is not qualified to speak.   These kinds of demands speak to one thing: a lack of willingness, interest or ability to engage in real dialogue and in the conversation at hand.

Women’s experiences are key to their understanding of patriarchy, oppression, and of feminism, but this does not obligate them to divulge very personal experiences to strangers in order to be ‘justified’ in speaking to issues which impact women and pertain to feminism.

Final thoughts?

So my thoughts on this dialogue with Hugo are this: I’ve heard this all before. It still doesn’t make sense, it still feels as though we are having two separate conversations. It doesn’t feel productive, it feels like a stalemate. Regardless of what is said the same arguments are made over and over again until someone starts shouting obscenities or making personal attacks. It feels like we’ve all worked really hard to have a conversation that goes nowhere.

On a note of positivity, I have to say that after all the frustration and cynicism, I have been so impressed and have learned so much from some of the wonderful radical feminists who commented on my blog and on Hugo’s blog and am grateful to continue learning from these powerful and articulate women.

Some questions for Hugo

So those are my thoughts. And now I’d like to pose some questions to Hugo, both from some commenters and from me.

First, there were some questions which I thought were interesting from a commenter named ‘pisaquari’ for Hugo. I’ve edited these questions a little bit, but not much. I’m hoping he might like to address them. These questions were posed in response to Hugo’s responses to my questions:

1) Why is pornography use incompatible with your sex life? What are the specific lines of impasse between your sex life and using pornography?

2) Is pornography use incongruous with your feminism? What tenets of your feminism are not in line with pornography use?

3) Why is pornography not inextricably linked to your version of intimacy? What version of intimacy do you ascribe to that is undermined by viewing what, could ultimately, turn out to be an empowered, feminist woman?

4) Would you also reject porn made by one of your students who claimed she was empowered by the experience and wanted your opinion? Taking into account that you wouldn’t want to diminish the importance of her personal experience by denying her the right to be viewed…

And some questions from me to Hugo:

– Why choose to question me about things that I have never written or spoken about? For example, PIV? It would seem that such a question would be more appropriately put to someone who had expressed an opinion.

Sidenote: The conversation about PIV was quickly derailed into a conversation about  “tops and bottoms’ in gay relationships between men and S & M. As well as condescending comments about how little I know about sex and pleasure. Which is interesting because I have never claimed to be an expert on such things, nor do I desire to be.

The point I was trying to make had nothing to do with what should or should not give any one person pleasure, but rather, simply, that PIV is about male pleasure and is a male-centric way of defining sex.

I responded to this question, which felt a little out of the blue, seeing as I tried to pose questions to Hugo that were related to conversations we had already been having, as best I could. Luckily some folks like Kathy and Andrew Pari came up with a more solid response than I.

From Andrew Pari:

“Regarding penetration in all its forms: PIV is problematic, not because it is inherently about man’s power over woman’s, but because it is ONLY women who will suffer the various consequences of this specific type of penetration, by men. I.e. pregnancy and its myriad complications including physical and emotional collateral damage, medical problems such as fistulas, etc.

Penetration in other contexts (gay, lesbian) may be about power or may not, but male-to-female penetration (or enveloping, if you prefer) create unique concerns for women.

It’s not about sexual positions.”

And from Kathy:

“Many of the comments here spoke in ways that failed to engage with what Meghan actually said but just reiterated a defense of slutwalk or “sex work” in their own terms. Some hit on kernels of truth–the person who focused on the PIV point– I’m a radical feminist who also thinks that’s a red herring. Penetration isn’t the point, and it did trap you a bit, Meghan, into focusing on interpersonal behavior (of which sure perhaps in subcultures at least there is a great variety of positions taken in the bedroom-or maybe not..) when the real issue is what you call “power” and I call sexualization in general-the organization of society around male dominance which includes the sexualization (starting in infancy) of girls and women to be “for men”–i.e. feminine-ized at the root. Liberalism is genius in its intersection with (hetero)sexualization–since today women’s subordination/sexualization expresses itself as choice, autonomy etc: My choice to express myself as a “slut” which for some strange reason doesn’t deviate a jot from mainstream banalized and pornographic versions of the same. Very rebellious -NOT. Individual changes in the bedroom have no impact on the social structure as a whole.”

Thanks to you both for your thoughtful comments.

My final question to Hugo is this:

– If sex work is the/a manifestation of the problem that is rape and sexual violence, which is, as you say, linked to a profound sense of male entitlement, BUT is not the root of the problem, what is the root and how do we address this? Clearly sex work and pornography have not helped liberate women and clearly these industries have a negative impact on most women. How do we address this? Not how do you address it on a personal level, but how do we address this as feminists who are part of a movement?

There is much more to say but for now I do hope this conversation continues with sincerity and without personal attacks and efforts to derail the conversation.

*term borrowed from Samantha Berg.

Meghan Murphy

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist from Vancouver, BC. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including The Spectator, UnHerd, Quillette, the CBC, New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, and more. Meghan completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and is now exiled in Mexico with her very photogenic dog.