The problem with pornography has little to do with ‘consent’

The image above, while enormously misogynistic, is not particularly out of the ordinary — not for female politicians, not for female females. Pornographic imagery is rampant in our culture today, impacting the way young women engage with the boys they like in high school, the expectations men have of their girlfriends, the images girls post of themselves on Instagram, advertising, the performances of pop stars, movies, and, of course, the way men and women alike understand “sexuality.”

Like teen girls targeted with revenge porn and women who are catcalled or groped on the street, female politicians are pornified — shamed through the derogatory, sexualized imagery (whether real or doctored) that men create to ensure women know their place. It exists to remind us that no matter what we do, no matter how successful or powerful we become, we are still to-be-fucked. We are still just things that exist for male pleasure (pleasure that is connected to mockery, because men have learned to get off by humiliating and hurting women) — still rapeable, never really capable of being treated as equal to men because we, alas, were born with vaginas.

Women who achieve positions of power in the political arena are particularly targeted because they’ve stepped out of line — men feel it’s important to remind them they are in male territory. But it’s critical that we remember that this specific kind of attack serves as a reminder to all women — not just Hillary Clinton, not just Australia’s first female prime minister, Julia Gillard — of our position in society.

In a recent article at The Establishment*, Soraya Chemaly points out the various ways “non-consensual porn” is used to punish and dehumanize women in politics, saying that “sexually objectified womenbut not men, are evaluated by viewers as less moral, less warm (read: less human), less intelligent, and less competent.” She goes on to note that, “after watching mainstream porn, people are more likely to express adversarial beliefs about sex and gender, hold more negative beliefs about sexual harassment, have higher rates of acceptance for interpersonal violence, and are measurably less likely to support policies and programs designed to meet women’s needs.” In other words, pornography encourages misogynist beliefs and behaviours.

So if that’s true, what does any of this have to do with “consent?” The term, “non-consensual pornography” is inserted throughout the piece and Shira Tarrant, author of The Pornography Industry: What Everyone Needs to Know, is quoted as saying, “We need to understand that posting sexual images of women online without their agreement is a form of attack intended to degrade and silence women… Especially women with authority, opinions, and a strong public voice.”

While I agree that consent is imperative when it comes to sex (otherwise the word you’re looking for is “rape”), the pornification and sexualization of women isn’t about “sex,” it’s about reminding men and women alike that women are fuckable things — objects that exist for male use. It’s about maintaining the very system of dominance that allows and encourages men to turn powerful women into degrading memes in order to knock them down a peg.

It’s important, too, that we remember that marginalized women are subjected to the very same forms of degradation powerful women are, as women of colour are sexualized and brutalized in a particularly racist way and as poor women are forced into the sex industry as a way to pay the rent or feed their children. Where does “consent” come into play in those situations? Are we prepared to defend those forms of objectification if a woman “agrees” to them and/or is financially compensated?

Women are degraded through pornography regardless of whether or not they “agree” to that degradation. In fact, men use “consent” (by which I mean “payment”) as an excuse to further debase the women they pay for sex, subjecting them to the humiliating, violent acts they won’t or feel they cannot subject their wives or girlfriends to.

It’s unsurprising that a pro-objectification, liberal site like The Establishment, would demand “non-consensual” as a precursor to words like “sexualization” and “pornography,” but the result is to poke holes in an otherwise solid and important argument. We simply cannot divide women into categories in this way and we cannot excuse the sexualization that happens to less powerful women than Hillary Clinton on account of a decontextualized notion of “consent.” We know that objectification hurts all women — even when we “choose” it for ourselves, so let’s just say that, and move forward on that basis. The fashionable aversion to criticizing objectification and pornography outright only allows men to continue using these tools as a means to hurt women and provides women with the false message that they should accept it.

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.