Last week, Feministing linked to a news story about a 21 year old prisoner in Michigan who filed a lawsuit against the State of Michigan because, get this, he had been denied access to pornography. Yep. The nerve! I mean, isn’t objectifying women the God given right of every man in America? AND, don’t civil and human rights really only apply to men, seeing as men are the only real humans? The answers to these sarcastic questions can be answered with a less sarcastic and more somber ‘yes’.
Men (particularly white men) have long been viewed as the only true human beings who are deserving of rights and freedoms. White men have been the standard to which all other living things must measure up. And, unfortunately for all other living beings, they just can’t cut it. Failing over and over again to be white men made it difficult to justify their existences and, therefore, their rights to respect, freedom and, of course, equality.
Seeing as pornography is largely produced for, made by, sold to, and used by men; it is unsurprising that it would be viewed as a civil right, as is being argued by the prisoner. After all, men’s sexuality is represented as both uncontrollable and as, in fact, a ‘need’, like food and water. Because this dominant version of male sexuality is also very much tied to a version of masculinity that tells men (and women) that what is ‘sexy’ is to treat women as though they are not equals, assumes that masculinity equals dominance and femininity equal passivity, and also, of course, that sex must equal the penetration of women in an orifice that belongs to her, this supposed ‘need’ men have to find a sexual release seems, based on these assumptions, almost always to include the objectification and degradation of women, for example through the use of pornography and prostituted women.
This argument for pornography as a civil right may sound preposterous to most. Perhaps you view pornography as a privilege, not a right and, seeing as the idea of imprisoning someone is that they lose privileges, one might argue that a prisoner loses the ‘privilege’ of access to pornography. You may even believe that pornography is a right, but that prisoners should lose some rights, as punishment, and that one of those ‘rights’ might indeed be pornography. But I’m not particularly interested in those arguments. This isn’t an issue of ‘prisoner rights’. This is an issue that demonstrates the way in which we, as a society, have decided that women’s rights are not human rights and rather, that, when it comes to rights, ‘human’ is still congruous with ‘man’.
‘Only in America’, I thought immediately. Only in America would a person be so selfish, so deluded, to think that their individual rights should exist at the expense of the human rights of others. And this is exactly what pornography does. It removes the rights of women to be human. Women in pornography are not represented as whole human beings, they are represented as things to ejaculate onto or into. Women, in pornography, are not represented as women, they are represented as body parts. So when we’re talking rights, human rights, civil rights, whatever, why a) are we not talking about the way in which pornography infringes on the rights of women and b) why do we assume that men’s individual rights should come at the expense of women’s rights? Is it possible we still believe that ‘human’ really equals ‘man’? And that, therefore, of course, we would consider it the ‘right’ of men to use women as they see fit, regardless of the ways in which that use might impact women’s lives?
So there is problem number one. Just that wee tiny issue of women still not being viewed as actual, valuable human beings and respected members of our society. Problem number two is, perhaps, even more baffling. That is, of course, that feminists would agree with the concept of pornography as a ‘right’, as communicated within the Feministing post. Not only does the author of the post agree with the idea that pornography should indeed be the right of a prisoner, as to argue otherwise would be ‘indefensible in court’, but the justifications for said agreement are that a) a sexually satisfied prisoner would probably be more well-behaved in prison than a sexually frustrated one, and b) the author ‘feels passionately about sex positivity and fighting anti-sex and anti-porn moral crusades’.
I’m feeling more than a little icky about what that first point implies, which is that, if men are not sexually satisfied, they may be more aggressive. And of course this is nothing new. This kind of assumption about the nature of men is often used to justify the ‘need’ for prostitution and pornography. Vancouver Madame, Scarlett Lake, has even said (as part of a presentation to a Women’s Studies class I took during my undergrad) that men would be less likely to rape if they were sexually serviced by ‘sex workers’. So what are we to learn here if not that it is natural for men to be violent and even to rape if they are sexually frustrated and that, therefore, they must have access to women, in whatever form they see fit, if other women (you know, because we seem to believe that women working in the sex industry deserve to be abused and raped in order to spare more privileged women…) are going to be kept safe from the uncontrollable men. We need to stop justifying male aggression as though it is simply part of their nature. We need to stop perpetuating this idea that male sexuality is uncontrollable or violent. It isn’t true and it is dangerous. In many ways.
And then we come to the concluding paragraph. I am trying very hard not to just scream and pull out all my hair every time I see someone equate feminist criticisms of pornography with being ‘anti-sex’ or a ‘moral crusade’…But it ain’t easy. Particularly when these kinds of myths are being perpetuated by other feminists. It is not ‘anti-sex’ to view pornography as an infringement on the human rights of women. It is not ‘anti-sex’ to talk about pornography as something that hurts women. It is not ‘anti-sex’ to argue that pornography perpetuates misogyny and sexism. In fact, it is ‘pro-sex’, if you want to call it that. Which I don’t. Because terms such as ‘anti-sex’ and ‘pro-sex’ are meaningless and fraught with all kinds of fallacious implications.
Pornography limits our vision of sexuality. It prevents us from achieving true equality. It sexualizes, as Andrea Dwokin said, inequality. It limits how we see women and how we see men. It perpetuates an objectifying male gaze. Pornography has very much structured the way in which we see female and male sexuality. These aren’t images that simply disappear from our minds once they are no longer in front of us. They stick. We are a culture that has been shaped by pornography. It isn’t just a fantasy, it is the lived realities of women (and of men). So I don’t think it is ‘anti-sex’ to desire something different, something that can be understood as real freedom. I would like freedom from these images, personally, but I would also like all women to be free from, not only these images, but from the reality of their lives inside a pornified culture. We know full well that images in advertising and on television impact our perceptions of reality and yet, for some reason, we continue to believe that watching sexist pornography won’t impact real people’s lives.
I don’t think that pointing this out is ‘anti-sex’ and I think that this term is anti-feminist. Particularly because it is used against feminists and feminist arguments constantly. It goes right along with calling feminists angry man haters. It is a way to dismiss feminist arguments and I really wish that feminists wouldn’t play into that. Criticizing pornography is not a ‘moral crusade’. It is not ‘anti-sex’. It is what we all must do, as progressive people, in order to even think about, even imagine, true equality.
The backlash has broadened and is coming from, not only those who wish to preserve dominant ideology and systems of power, but from within the feminist movement. We are using ‘sex-positivity’ as a way to defend the rights of men to infringe upon the human rights of women. So here is what I ask: please stop with the anti-feminist language. Please stop perpetuating untruths about feminist critiques of pornography. Please stop equating sex-positivity with being pro-porn and being ‘anti-sex’ with being anti-porn. Actually, please just stop using those terms altogether. They mean absolutely nothing. There is no such thing as being ‘anti-sex’. Will this be the last time I make this request? Of course not. Will this even be the last time I make this request of other feminists? Sadly, no. Feminism is in danger, and you need not look any further than ‘sex-positivity’ in order to see that.