Pornography and Representation

In the last couple days, I’ve come across two interesting critiques of pornography. The first is Pornography Is A Left Issue (via Lauren at Feministe) by Gail Dines and Robert Jensen, which addresses pornography as corporate media (which it surely is — the top distributors of pornography are your friendly neighborhood cable and satellite companies, including Rupert Murdoch’s DirecTV, and your homes away from home, the major hotel/motel chains); the second is blac(k)ademic’s Why Pornography Harms Women of Color (via reappropriate’s Carnival of Feminists 6), an attack on the explicit racism that fuels much of today’s pornography. Both are deeply thought and deeply felt critiques that raise a number of important points, but are ultimately unsuccessful as arguments against pornography in general.

blac(k)ademic’s post is inspired by the high number of websurfers that find her site via searches for racial/racist porn. The meat of blac(k)ademic’s argument is that:

pornography hurts women of color, because it reproduces the racist imagery assigned to brown bodies. when people type in “black lesbian bitches,” or “lesbian niggers” [on search engines] they are perpetuating the dehumanizing stigma attached to all women of color. the only thing that is different, is that pornography suppossedly makes these racist ideals sexy or desireable. it absolves racism as it is turned into a seemingly harmless sexual gratification.

I’m not entirely convinced that this is an argument against pornography so much as it an argument against the type of people or the type of desires serviced by pornography. The strength (or weakness) of the argument relies on how much of a role you believe pornography plays in shaping those desires; I tend to think “not very much”, noting for example that dehumanizing sexual relationships between white men and women of color predate the modern pornography industry by several hundred years. Neither do I think racism is “absolved” by the gloss of desire — the rationale here being, I think, that “if I were racist, I wouldn’t wanna fuck black chicks, now would I?” The reality is aptly described by blac(k)ademic a few paragraphs later: “the sickening part of it is, is that, when people…i assume men, young men or boys, look for “lesbian niggers,” they are relating their sexual arousal with racial hate.” Racism is not glossed over by racial porn, it is the object of it.

But raising the issue of racism in porn begs the question of whether blac(k)ademic would not be against porn if there were no racial porn. Is it just a particular type of porn that’s “bad”, or is it the nature of pornography itself? This question haunts Dines and Jensen’s piece, which advocates a strong anti-pornography stand as part of the mainstream liberal position.

As leftists, we reject the sexism and racism that saturates contemporary mass-marketed pornography. As leftists, we reject the capitalist commodification of one of the most basic aspects of our humanity. As leftists, we reject corporate domination of media and culture. Anti-pornography feminists are not asking the left to accept a new way of looking at the world but instead are arguing for consistency in analysis and application of principles.

Leftists regularly challenge representations of women, homosexuals, Blacks, Asians, Hispanics, Jews, Arabs, workers, and so on in the mainstream press, while “giving a pass” to troubling representations in pornography. This is troubling not only because the nature of pornographic representation is so often racist and misogynist, but becuase for all intents and purposes, pornography is mainstream media. Pornography is no longer an underground, even criminal, business but is produced and distributed by some of the world’s largest corporations — and produces revenues outweighing the entirety of American professional sports.

The strength of this approach, however, is also its weakness. The corporate media produces sexist, racist, and classist representations, it’s true — and pornography is no exception:

Despite naïve (or disingenuous) claims about pornography as a vehicle for women’s sexual liberation, the bulk of mass-marketed pornography is incredibly sexist. From the ugly language used to describe women, to the positions of subordination, to the actual sexual practices themselves — pornography is relentlessly misogynistic. As the industry “matures” the most popular genre of films, called “gonzo,” continues to push the limits of degradation of, and cruelty toward, women.

No argument there — but then we’re objecting to a specific kind of imagery, not to pornography in general. When leftists critique the news, or movies, or sitcoms, they’re arguing for better news coverage, better representations of women and minorities in movies and TV programming; somehow, though, I do not get the impression that this is what Dines and Jensen are asking of pornographers. Rather, they are not “pro-better pornopgraphy” but explicitly “anti-pornography”, ostensibly supporting some kind of anti-porn legislation like the Dworkin-MacKinnon ordinances. But if we are to legislate against certain kinds of representations — of women, of minorities, of whomever — and if pornography is just another form of mainstream media, then the focus on pornography seems a little misplaced. After all, however popular, porn is consumed by only a small fraction of the number of people who regularly consume similarly degrading, sexist, racist, and otherwise offensive representations that make up prime-time television, or women’s magazines, or Hollywood blockbusters.

Now, we can and should be critical of degrading representations wherever they occur, and maybe we should even outlaw all forms of such imagery (bye bye Man Show) — but this doesn’t explain or justify the persistent singling out of pornography, nor is it likely to affect corporate control of the media, which will simply shift its focus to different ways of commodifying and alienating our bodies. What I’m wondering is if there’s anything particular about pornography, anything essential to the medium/genre itself that merits drawing a sharp distinction between it and other forms of corporate media? Sharp enough, anyway, that the idea of an “anti-pornography” stance seems rational, while an “anti-media” stance… not so much. Is it possible to portray sexual relations in a way that is not degrading to women or minorities?

A tentative answer might explore some of those representations that are de facto not degrading to women or minorities — those in which either women and minorities do not appear, or those in which women or minorities are represented in empowered ways. The first would include, of course, gay male porn (I’m sure there’s racial gay porn — but as with all racial porn, I think we have to ask whether the portrayal of racialized subjects is different, either quantitatively or qualitatively, from representations of non-racialized subjects — and how it differs). Feminist anti-porn writings rarely consider gay porn, which is a shame because most of the tropes that feminists discuss (the woman held up to the male gaze, the violent or pseudo-violent rape or gang-rape of a woman, the ominpresent female sexual receptivity, etc.) are necessarily absent from gay porn. The second kind of porn might be harder to find and identify — I would guess that the “new wave” of female-produced “woman friendly” porn might qualify, or lesbian-produced porn. Another possibility might be, ironically enough, S&M-related porn, in which the same qualities that anti-porn critics find offensive in depictions of women bound, gagged, tortured, and otherwise dominated are very often present in depictions of men, often stereotypically represented as strong and powerful, likewise bound, humilaiated, and dominated. Does the semiology (maybe I mean semiography) of the image change when the subject is a man instead of a woman? How, and why?

I cannot answer these questions, but I think they are crucial to our understanding not only of misogyny, racism, male/white privilege, and so on, but of the commodification and alientation that have become central characteristics our our societies and of our selves in our societies. The reason many leftists are hesitant to challenge pornographic representations, why many lionize pornographers like Larry Flynt (but, interestingly, not Hugh Hefner), is that while many are uncomfortable with the imagery of pornography, they are also uncomfortable with the explicit anti-sex message that pornography’s other critics, conservatives an religious fundamentalists, have embedded in their characterization of pornography. Depictions of sexual activity challenge the kinds of bodily control that is the goal of those who are not only anti-porn, but anti-birth control, anti-abortion, anti-sex education, anti-gay marriage, and so on — and often provide rallying points in the opposition of sex-unfriendly forces in our society.

And yet, many anti-anti-porn leftists are not actually regular consumers of porn (including myself), for exactly the reasons Dines, Jensen, and blac(k)ademic describe. My own feeling is that a) pornography has a function (or functions) in our society that has nothing to do with the objectification of women, and b) that it is possible to depict and even celebrate sex, even “weird” sex, in ways that are not demeaning to the represented participants (as distinct, I must note, from the actual participants, the models and actors involved, which is a different subject and deserves more consideration later — but, quickly, who tend to have a range of responses to their work ranging from disgust to feelings of empowerment). Thus, while not embracing the strong anti-pornography stand of Dines and Jensen, and in fact opposing it, I feel that their critiques, and those of blac(k)ademic and of so many others, are necessary for creating a better understanding of both how power works in our society and how those whom power works against might become better empowered.

4 comments to Pornography and Representation

  • Anonymous

    what do you mean when you use the term, “racial”?

  • Anonymous

    Very nice post. I tend to reject the criticisms of porn, not because I care about porn as something I personally need in my life, but that claims about it are too often based on foundationalist epistemologies — claims about our “true sexuality.”

    As a friend of mine once pointed out in one of the interminable debates we have at a lefty discussion list (LBO-talk), a lot of people make claims about the content of porn without being willing to admit they’ve watched it. Indeed, many will deny watching it. If that’s so, then how can they possibly know it’s content? The Dines piece was guilty of handwaving at studies about the content of porn. I would have liked to have seen the details of the analyses they point to. Becaus, the ones I’ve read? They do not suggest that most porn is full of violence and racist stereotypes. And, the effects on viewers of porn is far more complicated than they made it out to be. Nonetheless, they waved their hands around, a blitheringly silly rhetorical sleight of hand that made me pretty suspicious. It’s not like they didn’t have the space or time to provide links to some charts.

    Anyway, I’ll put this blog on my reading list for sure! Found you via Blac(k)ademic, which I too found find I’m eternally grateful to Jen for hosting that carnival. It was, by far, the best one yet. The sites she pointed us to made some of the more mainstream blogs look positively anemic in terms of community, passion, and the depth of political discussion. It was very refreshing.

  • Anonymous

    nubian asked

    what do you mean when you use the term,

  • Anonymous

    Related, but not in a direct way.

    One of the most helpful writers on this topic is Angela over at She taught me how to think of it in terms of racialization. I already had to tools to do that, I just hadn’t thought in those directions.

    In the information security business, an academic writer in the business is famous for saying that security — protecting your information or your home or whatever — is a process, not a product.

    Race (racialization) is a process, and a historical one, not a product. :)

    I like that because, one of the things that animated my work was trying to stop focusing on the racial/class/gender/sex “other” so much that we can see the construction of whiteness, maleness, heterosexuality, middle classnes (in the u.s.)

    Racialization, with its emphasis on the _processes_ seemed a better framework for thinking through the issues.

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