So what if your porn is feminist?

At a suburban office in Canberra, Susan* looks solemnly toward the carpet and blinks back the tears. Her marriage counselor watches on from a few feet away. Susan first explains, and then pleads to be heard. Her husband’s porn use is upsetting her. And it’s not just his use, it’s that he expects the same as he sees in porn. Lately, his sexual expectations are more like demands.

It’s no longer just emotionally painful to deal with his porn use. It’s now bordering on physical harm.

Sexual violence, like domestic violence, is on the rise in Australia. This year alone, 48 women have been murdered (so far). The link between porn and domestic violence has been briefly touched on, but that is just the tip of the iceberg. Girls are reporting to GP’s with sexual injuries, largely because boyfriends expect the ‘porn star experience’. Young people increasingly report that they believe sex is something women owe to men. In fact, this attitude — that men are entitled to sexual access to women — is more prevalent than ever before in a number of countries. Sadly, all of this cultural grooming has translated into sexual crimes committed by children against children.s

These issues have lead to a range of discussions about what is fueling this climate of sexual coercion and violence. While lack of government concern has come under fire, so has the role of education, media, parenting and problematic social norms.

The role of pornography is also under scrutiny since porn has become a part of day-to-day culture. Brand names like Brazzers and RedTube (two popular porn-streaming services) are commonly used by children as young as 11 through to adults, from the bedroom to the classroom, the office and even recommended by some therapists. The effects are not only felt by young people, but a growing number of adults are reporting partners increasingly using and demanding replay of pornography in the bedroom.

Back in the therapist’s office in Canberra, Susan longs for the man she first married, for the love they once shared, which has been lost due to the endless, instant sexual gratification porn offers. Susan’s pleas to be validated have been undermined, not only by her husband who is in the throes of porn addiction, but now also by her marriage counselor. Her therapist’s response echoes her husband, “Why don’t you let go of those inhibitions, Susan? There are good types of porn too. Maybe you would also enjoy it too if you just watch the right type.”

With the complexity of problems around sexual coercion and violence, naturally, many are looking toward quick-win solutions. What if we provide kids with better sex education? What if we empower women to have more sexual pleasure? What if we just make pornography feminist?

Despite the evidence of pornography’s harm, denial continues, even in feminist circles. Statistical evidence indicates up to 90 per cent of the most popular films include violence against women. Moreover, meta-analysis shows exposure is linked to increased violence and rape accepting attitudes. While the research on porn’s harm is fervently denied, paradoxically, there is much fanfare about the positive influence of “good porn” or “feminist porn.” Assumedly, this is the type of porn that Susan’s counselor expects she should enjoy.

Feminist porn, the refrain goes, is about equality, real pleasure, and empowers marginalized people. Other definitions frame feminist pornography through the lens of conscious capitalism, the kind of, “Oh I only buy organic, drink craft beer, and watch feminist porn” rhetoric. Indeed, according to feminist pornographer Tristan Taormino, “feminist porn is organic, fair-trade porn.”

Taormino touches on an important point. Organic fair-trade products are not available to the vast majority who require significant purchasing power, education, and inclination to access such products. Taormino also points out that porn is a trade, an industry with significant lobby power and political weight.

Pornographers and their supporters are certainly not the first to believe that a multi-billion dollar industry that is overwhelmingly harmful can be made ethical with a few tweaks from the inside. There has long been a move toward making unethical commerce more ethical. The beauty industry need only fund “body positive” initiatives that inspire women to feel good and buy product. Coal Seam Gas mining drills are turned pink in an ironic bid to support breast cancer charity. And so, the porn industry simply needs more “diverse” genres to counter the harm it does to users, their partners, and society at large, not to mention the exploitation, inequality and abuse that underlie the mainstream industry’s success.

The problem with “change from the inside” initiatives like the “feminist porn” model, is that minor tweaks do nothing to adjust the overall net impact of the industry. In the words of former Yale professor, William Deresiewicz,

“What starts at the edges stays at the edges… Against the immense power of coordinated wealth, the Walmarts, the Goldman Sachses, the Koch brothers — the small business model does not amount to very much… We’re not going to fix the world by selling.”

Today’s “Generation Sell” poses that every problem holds a commercial solution. The feminist porn argument assumes that sexual fulfillment hinges upon a consumer product and reflects how little sexual progress has been made in recent decades. The sexual revolution, it seems, opened up industry and little else. Despite pornography making up over a quarter of all Internet searches, and sex being the meta-narrative behind much media, sexual behaviours have hardly progressed.

To the ire of many feminists, discussion of male violence is often derailed with cries of “what about good men,” yet many of these same feminists employ the same tactic to derail analyses of pornography. “What about the good porn,” like “What about the good men,” does nothing but undermine the issues that women and girls are reporting.

Of course there is a diversity of porn — with millions of films produced, diversity is unavoidable (even if diverse titles reflect sexist, racist, and transphobic tropes). And as many will argue, defensively, some women do enjoy porn, diverse or otherwise. Of course, many people take pleasure in habits that are ultimately harmful – junk food, alcohol, tobacco, and drugs, for example. Women are not obligated to only support industries that serve a purpose for feminism.

If the aim of progressives is to make sexuality more positive, a precondition is to first and foremost end sexual coercion and violence. But that very same sexual coercion and violence is what makes pornography so thrilling to many of its users.

As neuroscientist Ogi Olgas said when researching the limited consumption of feminist pornography:

“What is fascinating is that women commonly promote the idea of feminist porn and socially want to believe in it. Activists argue that there needs to be more of it, women support it in public and I see women start erotic websites all the time. But when it comes down to it, that is just not what they are interested in looking at.”

Indeed, women, men, and children alike are drawn toward the more extreme, violent, sexist, and racist forms of porn. According to Pornhub in 2014, teen, MILF, anal, and rough were all top categories for female users, similar to male users.

The commercialized sex industry cannot feasibly work to end the harmful practices it requires for profit. Instead of changing it for the better, tokenistic concessions like “feminist porn” are used to legitimize the lack of ethics in the wider industry. Moreover, these minor concessions are used to silence discussion on the more fundamental impacts. In effect, it is a form of whitewashing that masks and sustains the increasing harms.

Just like the tobacco industry doesn’t intend on ending tobacco addiction, the petroleum industry has a vested interest in continuing reliance on fossil fuels, the beauty industry feeds off women’s bodily insecurity, the porn industry requires sexual dissatisfaction, disconnection, and exploitation to grow its market. At the end of the day, the entire industry operates under a commercial doctrine, not a social or moral one.

Susan contacted me after reading an article about the harms of porn online. When reflecting on her experiences with her marriage counselor, Susan had this to say:

“I am in my forties and was made to feel, through the advice given by a health professional, that there is no point hanging on to my values. In order to salvage my marriage, I should accept that our society is now saturated with new expectations of women. I should comply, or risk losing my husband.”

In decades to come health professionals will surely look back on advice to accept and embrace porn use in the same way doctors look back at how tobacco was once prescribed. Like a second-hand smoker being encouraged to smoke, it is nonsensical that a client suffering from second-hand exposure to porn should be encouraged to consume it themselves.

The tobacco industry once thrived under denial, just as the porn industry does today. If society could buy its way out of sexual violence with clicks on Pornhub, we would be living free from sexual crime. Not only are we getting further away from such a goal, but the evidence continues to be eschewed by many professionals and activists alike. Countless people like Susan continue to be ignored and undermined. We haven’t even begun the conversation.

Laura McNally is a psychologist, consultant, author and PhD candidate. Her current research examines the political and social implications of global corporate social responsibility. Find more of her work at lauramcnally.com.

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