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Pornography: Whos sleeping with whom?

By Helen Pringle - posted Thursday, 8 September 2011


Do you read discussions about pornography in the Australian media? Perhaps you followed the recent visit here of Gail Dines, the author of Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked Our Sexuality and an anti-pornography activist? Dines was introduced at a Sydney Writers’ Festival panel by the chair’s making a snide dig to her as ‘the furthest to my right’. The panel chair asked Dines, ‘And where do you sit? So often in this debate there are odd bedfellows…you will often find radical feminists like yourself aligned in their views about pornography with Christians on the far right.’

Fair question? Well it is, if you only read of anti-pornography perspectives in mainstream media. The way the media reports on it, opposition to pornography comes only from the religious right. You know, those strange characters that have some problem with women’s bodies, and probably with men’s bodies as well. Who think that sex is sinful and who are obsessed with purity. Or, as the tired old joke goes, those who are opposed to sex because it might lead to dancing. What is even more frightening in this treatment of opposition to pornography is the women’s auxiliary wing of the religious right, in which everyone is having fits of the vapors at the very thought of a penis.

That is not my position on pornography. I am a woman on the left, and I am opposed to pornography. For the record, I also support the right of women to abortion, and I am against capital punishment. I was against the Iraq wars from their outset, and I support the rights of refugees without reservation. In the interest of complete disclosure however, I should say that I am no longer a member of a Marxist-Leninist-Maoist student group (but the ASIO record is available on request).

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It is true that many people on the religious right both here and in the U.S. are opposed to pornography. Some of them don’t fit the caricature of the religious right set out above, but instead are well-meaning and decent people, for example the Pink Cross Foundation. It is also true that many people on the religious right in the U.S. support and make money from hardcore pornography, like the Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry, whose money trail runs back to DVD’s with names like ‘Teens with Tits’.

So which part of the religious right am I, as a woman on the left opposed to pornography, alleged to be sleeping with? The Rick Perry barbarians, or the delicate women with the vapors? Here’s the answer: neither.

I oppose pornography on the basis of my commitment to the inherent dignity of all persons, a value that is the foundation of justice as acknowledged in international human rights conventions as well as informing our municipal law. Within that commitment and that context, my primary concern is with sexual equality.

My view is that we are all affected adversely by porn culture, but that women bear the brunt of it. My opposition to pornography focuses in particular on the physical and emotional harm it does to women. By this I don’t mean to address the question of whether pornography causes sexual assault or harassment, which is commonly phrased in terms of how watching the ‘fake women’ of pornography affects men’s attitudes and behavior to ‘real women’.

Here’s where I part company with the right (and parts of the left), because I and the movement for which I work, do not make a distinction between the ‘fake’ women of pornography and ‘real’ women. I guess it’s easy (although not excusable) to see the women in pornography as fake, because they mostly don’t even have real names. They are simply called (dirty) whore, (filthy) slut, (stupid) bitch, or worse – and these names sum up how they are treated in pornography.

Pornography also affects even women who are not involved in its production. In fact, those of us who are not directly involved in its production are made responsible for it, because our reality as ‘respectable’ and respected women is built on their ‘fake’ bodies. So the central issue about pornography for a woman on the left like me is sexual subordination, and how to end it.

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And here’s where I part company again with the right, because I am not in favor of censorship in dealing with pornography or its harms. My argument against pornography is not made on the basis that it is obscene, even less that it is offensive (although it often is), but on the basis of its harm and exploitation. Its harm is recognisable withina civil rights approach to pornography, rather than a censorship approach. As my friend Melinda Vadas once sketched out:  

On the civil-rights view, it is the sexual subordination of women that is pornography which grounds and explains the faulty aspect of producing or disseminating it, and this faulty aspect creates an additional and further risk, the risk that members of this subordinated class will become the victims of sex crimes. Why the initial act of production or dissemination is faulty (because of its contribution to the creation of a subordinated class of persons) and how the additional harm (produced by sex crimes) comes about are linked by the faulty aspect of the original act. Actually to contribute to the creation of a class of subordinated people is concomitantly to create the foreseeable risk that they will be victimized by those who are acting in response and relation to this actual subordination.

Vadas was not arguing for censorship. Rather, she was arguing that women harmed by pornography, whether in its production, distribution or use, should be able to claim damages for that harm.

I haven’t said enough here about what opposition to pornography on the grounds of equality involves or about the details of this civil rights approach, and you probably won’t get any more information on that score from mainstream media accounts of pornography. The arguments I am only briefly noting here are made in a lot more detail by the various writers in Big Porn Inc: Exposing the Harms of the Global Pornography Industry. The book presents arguments against pornography from different perspectives and by diverse Australian and international voices.

But be warned! You won’t find any writers in the book who think that sex is dirty or sinful. No vapors. All you will find are women who respect the dignity of others, who support sexual equality and mutuality, and who are opposed to sexual degradation and humiliation. There are also some men writing for the book, who appear to think that women do not deserve to be treated as sexual doormats. Now there’s a radical idea.

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About the Author

Helen Pringle is in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the University of New South Wales. Her research has been widely recognised by awards from Princeton University, the Fulbright Foundation, the Australian Federation of University Women, and the Universities of Adelaide, Wollongong and NSW. Her main fields of expertise are human rights, ethics in public life, and political theory.

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