The Melissa Harris-Perry show talks circles around the porn industry

A few weeks ago, on July 7, 2012, Melissa Harris-Perry hosted a discussion of pornography. The guests she brought on to talk about the American porn industry included: feminist pornographer Tristan Taormino,  Zephyr Teachout, who is an associate professor of law at Fordham University, Jaclyn Friedman, and Georgetown University professor Michael Eric Dyson.

Apparently, Gail Dines was initially asked to join the discussion but received an email a few days before the show letting her know that the “segment is changing” and that they would no longer need her.

She was pulled from the show.

Dines wrote an article for Counterpunch detailing how this all went down, adding:

Gone was a critical feminist analysis of the porn industry, and in its place was a “fun” discussion of women’s sexual agency, their fantasies, and their empowered choices to make porn. Any discussion of economic exploitation, predatory capitalism, violence, STDs, or rectal prolapses was clearly off the table.

You can watch the segment in two parts on Melissa Harris-Perry’s site.

The segment is introduced as one that would look at the porn industry, and yet what struck me most was the distinct lack of any (critical) reference to the role capitalism plays in this multi-billion dollar industry. The other thing that struck me was a refusal to address the harm.

When the issue of ‘who is profiting’ was addressed, I was shocked at the apparent effort to avoid the fact that it is men who are, by and large, running and profiting off of the porn industry.

In an attempt to address ‘who profits’, Harris-Perry actually goes so far as to point out that not only do hotel chains that show pornography profit but, she says, academics who write about porn are profiting as well. Because we know all the millionaires are making cash money in the oh so lucrative book business.

To be clear, academics, especially feminist academics, don’t get rich writing and selling books. They especially don’t get rich writing books that criticize America’s favorite pass time. The idea that somehow, women like Dines are ‘complicit’ in the harm that happens to women in porn because she writes books that criticize the industry is ludicrous.

And yet there they all are, nodding along and agreeing on camera.

Incapable or unwilling to dig deeper, the conversation continues, skating along the surface, keeping things light and fluffy, toeing the party line — that is progressivism within the limits of capitalism and the American dream: we are whatever we imagine ourselves to be. If we fail, our imaginations have failed us. Negativity is the enemy of neoliberalism.

Harris-Perry notes that ‘do-it-yourself online entertainment start-ups’ are taking profits away from from the industry, enabling her to lead into the question of ‘what the business end of porn’ looks like today.

But here’s my question: What is the point of this conversation? All this talk about who’s watching porn and who’s profiting and there’s no mention of the fact that the porn industry exists as it does today because men use and profit from porn? That both male power depends, in large part, on the ‘freedom’ to profit off of, exploit, and access women? I mean, what difference does it make if the men who consume pornography voted for Bush or for Obama? We know that all kinds of men use porn. WHAT are we talking about here?

Oh that’s right. Nothing.

It’s the quintessential American faux-progressive conversation. The pretending to be critical, all the while being sure not to push too hard — as though all we really need is equal access to male power. If we can just be a little more like men, if we’re all ‘free’ to make porn, to buy sex, if we’re all exploiting one another — well, that’s the American dream.

Catherine MacKinnon wrote about this idea of defining equality based on a male standard over twenty years ago in an article entitled: Liberalism and the Death of Feminism. She wrote that there was once a feminism that was critical of the notion of equality as some kind of ‘meaningless symmetry, an empty equivalence’.  She said the movement was once critical of ‘the ruling concept of freedom, especially sexual freedom, [and] unpacked and unmasked it as a cover for the freedom to abuse.’ MacKinnon and others said all of this already. But it needs to be said again and again:

This was [once] a movement that was critical of the freedom to oppress, not one that thought women would be free when we had more of it.

How can we write and speak about objectification, knowing it is a problem, knowing it is simply not good for women, and then ignore the connections between the objectification that happens in pornography and rape? It’s safe to criticize objectification when it happens in advertising but when it happens in pornography it’s acceptable because it’s ‘sex’? MacKinnon made the connection as such:

Miss America is the foreplay, turning a woman into a plaything, Snuff is the consummation, turning a woman into a corpse.

Today objectification continues to be framed as some kind of freedom. The freedom to objectify and the freedom to be objectified. The only problem is that not enough people are profiting off of the objectification, right? Not enough people have the opportunity to be equally objectified.

The discussion on the Harris-Perry show touches on female sexual agency but barely mentions the fact that the vast majority of porn is made for men and objectifies women. Friedman notes that most porn is about male pleasure near the end of the conversation, but so much of the discussion was focused on the very small percentage of pornography that represents female pleasure (they call it ‘feminist/indie/ethical pornography’), that it seemed like a side-note. That focus erases the harm.

The conversation is derailed further when race is brought up — instead of discussing the ways in which women of colour are debased in pornography and the ways that porn contributes to the concept of non-white women as ‘exotic’, animalistic, or submissive to the extreme (essentially sexualizing racism and racist stereotypes) and, as Dines herself points out in Pornland, are mostly relegated to the gonzo porn genre, the panelists discuss the overrepresentation of white women’s sexuality in pop culture and the importance of including women of colour in ‘feminist/indie pornography’.

Taormino pipes up to say ‘I personally always include people of colour in my porn’, as though the route towards equality is equal objectification. Dyson questions why some women will do scenes with white men but not black men as though, again, somehow the harm of porn will level off if it is more inclusive. Though Taormino does mention that people of colour are fetishized and hypersexualized in pornography, a discussion of harm is left out and we are left thinking that the problem is simply underrepresentation. No connections are made between sexualizing racism, slavery, and colonialism and actual harm in people’s real lives.

The derail into a conversation about TV shows like Girls and the fact that white women are more often allowed sexual agency in pop culture, as opposed to women of colour, seems to be beside the point in a conversation about pornography. So it’s not that the racism in porn is harmful to women of colour, but it’s that we need more representations of women of colour in pop culture with sexual agency? How that will work to undo the harm of pornography is not clear.

While it’s true that the only representations of non-objectified female bodies on TV today seem to be white women and it’s true that this is a problem, what struck me was the lengths to which the MHP show went to ensure that a conversation about the porn industry (i.e. not a funzo conversation about representations of female sexual agency in pop culture) was a positive one rather than a negative one. I mean, when will the harm be addressed? How does the porn industry impact the status of women and women’s real lives? It seems like an awfully big factor to leave out…Is porn suddenly going to become egalitarian because there are more black men onscreen?

Essentially, the show was about making porn ‘OK’. Taormino believes that ‘making porn is a feminist act’, and goes on to say that ‘we need to embrace this cultural medium’. The conversation rendered invisible the fact that the porn industry is a capitalist, exploitative industry,  as was the issue of objectification, the fact that we live in a patriarchy and that women simply don’t have equal power in this society, whether we like it or not. The issue of violence against women and the way that so much pornography sexualizes rape and violence against women, as well as the actual harm inflicted upon and endured by women in the industry was also, inexplicably, left out of the conversation.

The conversation was consistently shifted away from an actual feminist critique of pornography to a focus on the sidelines — the male gaze is mentioned but then quickly moves into a conversation about which women are allowed to have sexual agency onscreen (in popular culture, mind you, not even in pornography). The taboo of whether or not women ‘like’ sex is brought up and yet this really isn’t the issue when it comes to pornography. Pornography isn’t about women liking or not liking sex. Pornography doesn’t care either way. Pornography is about women being represented as holes/body parts that exist to fulfill male desire/fantasies.

But this conversation just pretended all that away. It made invisible the real harms of patriarchy and of misogyny. Because that’s not fun TV!

Fun TV is trivia questions about porn. Did you know that Utah is the state that consumes the most online pornography?! Cute!

To me, this is what ‘sex-positive feminism’ is all about. The problem with what is framed as ‘sex positive feminism’ is that its primary goal seems to be to try to make ‘positive’ that which is not and, in doing so, ignore the harm and ignore truthful critique. ‘Sex-positive feminism’ won’t say porn is misogynist, it won’t say that prostitution harms women — ‘sex-positive feminism’ avoids the truth and avoids real critique in order to search for agency everywhere. But agency doesn’t erase oppression. Simply because some agency or choice exists doesn’t mean that the harm goes away.

Friedman says, on the show, that ‘ultimately the question of whether porn is good or bad for women is the wrong question; it’s like asking whether the novel is good or bad…it’s a medium.’ She goes on to say that ‘if the porn industry’s hurting [financially]…who’s hurting first are the marginal, indie producers like Tristan.’ Taormino uses this as an opportunity to complain about how illegal uploading and pirating is hurting her business. I mean, seriously? Is this the key issue? That people are ‘stealing’ porn? Who cares.

So now ‘anyone can be a pornographer’ thanks to the internet, as Taormino points out. She implies that the fact that ‘anyone can profit’ off of pornography in this day and age is some kind of feminist or progressive achievement. Real freedom is close. Even you, anonymous internet user, can be a pornographer.

Anyone else out there losing their minds? We’re being told that capitalism is progressive so long as everyone can profit off of the backs of women. The world’s gone crazy.

Needless to say, Dines was sorely missed in this conversation. If a conversation of this nature ever happens again, I do hope the producers will consider touching on the truth, no matter how painful.

 

 

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 The Spectator, UnHerd, 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 lives in Vancouver, B.C. with her dog.

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