18 Jun 2013

When 'protection' becomes condescension

Debates have been raging between feminists on Twitter and beyond about the ethics of 'rape porn' and how best to address the alleged harm that it causes. One of the most important distinctions to make before going any further is to state that I am not talking about the filming of actual sexual assaults, which as the excellent Stavvers points out, is never defensible. It's porn which depicts simulated sexual violence which is the topic of controversy, and as this headline today implies, condemning it entails a curious view of women who act in or enjoy 'violent' porn.
Headline - "Online porn: animals have more rights than women, say campaigners."
Subheading - "Animals and corpses have more rights than girls to protection from being used for internet pornography, a coalition of women’s groups warns. "
Arrrgh. Sensationalist much? It's catchy, I'll give them that. But there's actually nothing in this article that's in any way shocking. All it states is that female porn actors over 18 are free to participate in pornography that simulates rape or violence. Nowhere does it state that they are coerced. So far, so legal. Then it states that, somewhat bleeding obviously, it's not legal to use animals or dead people in porn, because they can't consent.
Have I missed something here? Porn is wrong because it only employs people who can consent?
The usual arguments are deployed here. It's stated that violent porn causes 'harm', that old nebulous concept. No evidence is cited, nor is the phrase 'harm' quantified any further, although all research I have encountered, even studies which most strongly draws a link between porn and harm, still states that findings are 'limited in their interpretive value' and says "Potential associations between pornography and pathological behaviour are not clear." Then there's the emotive 'porn creates paedophiles' line, where it's implied that the sexual abuse and murder of April Jones and Tia Sharp could somehow have been prevented by a harsher crackdown in internet porn. This is an utterly fallacious argument, and is entirely irrelevant to the subject of the article since the murderers of these two girls viewed porn involving children, which is already illegal. The abuse of children being filmed for sexual gratification is simply not comparable to the filming of consensual sexual behaviour between adults. They are as different as filming a savage beating and filming a stage fight for a Hollywood movie. One is a criminal offence, the other is theatre.

Which brings me on to the demand that the government "close a loophole in the pornography legislation which allows the lawful possession in England and Wales of pornographic images that depict rape, so long as the actors are over 18.” OK. Say we tried that. Do we then censor all films that show rape scenes? Because I can see my DVD collection suddenly getting sliced in half. Thelma and Louise, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, This is England and even A Streetcar Named Desire would immediately have to be jettisoned. Because they show rape, and rape is bad, and watching rape makes you, if not more accepting of rape, then more likely to rape, right? Since crime drama also loves to fetishise violence against women, with the regular rapes, beatings and murders of attractive young women, they would all have to be taken off our screens, especially 'Hey look, another scantily clad dead prostitute on a slab!' CSI.

Hmmm. Then I suppose we'd better move on to literature. 50 Shades of Grey? Gone. Millions of books pulped - we could construct a papier mache Buckingham Palace out of all the destroyed copies. The Story of O? God, that would have to be BURNED, it's so incendiary, with its scenes of bondage, branding, piercing and orifice stretching. American Psycho? Banished to outer space. A M Homes (who incidentally was just awarded the Women's Prize for Fiction) would see her early novel, The End of Alice, which contains scenes of explicit paedophilia, destroyed with nuclear devices, so potentially 'harmful' such a book must be.
And I can't imagine there'd be much left on the GCSE and A Level English Literature syllabus after we start removing everything that depicts or eroticises sexual violence. Angela Carter's collection The Bloody Chamber is so full of bestiality, necrophilia and violence that I'm amazed I'm not a total sexual deviant after teaching it to 18 year olds every year. And as for good old Shakespeare? Jeez, where to start. With The Two Gentlemen of Verona reminding women it's fine to accept a man's hand after he's attempted to rape you, or Titus Andronicus teaching our kids that raping a woman then cutting off her hands and tongue is acceptable, even sexy, behaviour, it's clear that The Bard's works would have to be chopped and censored until we only had A Midsummer Night's Dream left (but wait, is it bestiality when Bottom falls in love with Titania while he has a donkey's head? Arrrghh...)
And as for music videos? Well, only yesterday I was watching Robin Thicke tug a barely-clothed woman around the room by her hair, while singing 'You're an animal...' in the video for his latest song, Blurred Lines. So if 'rape porn' has got to go, consistency dictates we've got to get rid of that shite too, right?
Flippancy aside, while I don't deny that the smorgasbord of sexually violent images that are easily accessible is not unproblematic, I will say that the muddled thinking demonstrated by this article and the campaign it refers to is not going to produce any solutions. Assuming that adult porn is in any way equivalent to child porn, that porn per se is inherently negative and harmful to women (ignoring the women who participate in and/or watch and enjoy it) and that simulated rape must be the same as real rape, or lead to real rape, will only result in 'Think of the CHILDREN!!' hysterical calls for censorship. And thanks to Prohibition, we all know how well outright banning things works.
Today's article also screams to me how even those who claim to be 'on the side of women' while condemning porn/violent porn, are only capable of viewing women as victims or sluts. Saying "animals and dead people are better protected than women and girls" implies that the women in porn need the same kind of protection as female children, and are somehow indistinguishable from other groups that can't consent to sex. While women in porn certainly need and deserve the same kind of protection that anyone in a workplace deserves, I doubt this is what campaigners are referring to. What I feel they really mean is protection from 'sexual acts I personally find distasteful, and can't imagine anyone else enjoying or choosing'. And that's just patronising, small-minded BS. I find it as patronising as when radical feminists state there's no way a woman could 'truly' enjoy being tied up, gagged, spanked, slapped or called names as part of sexual role play, when I know full well I enjoy all those things and more.

I remember reading an extract by anti-porn feminist Gail Dines where she wrote how she thought a porn scene of double penetration looked painful, and she couldn't imagine any woman finding it pleasurable. My immediate thought was 'Maybe you need to get out more lady, the female body is amazingly adaptable and many, many women [including the writer Colette, who wrote about that very sexual act in her erotica decades ago] would disagree strongly that this act isn't enjoyable."' While Dines is entitled to her view, I don't believe it deserves more weight than that of someone who believes the opposite, nor do I believe that such views should be used to effect legislation.
Yes, it troubles me when a friend tells me of other girls her age being shocked that their sexual partners think it's normal to throttle them or spit on them during sex. Yes, it upsets me to think of my 6 year old cousin stumbling across extreme porn on his mum's iPad. But pushing the aspects of our media culture that we dislike into dark corners is no solution. Neither is pushing adult women into the same bracket as vulnerable children - didn't we spend most of the 1800s fighting for our right to be distinguished from under-18s? We might think we are 'protecting' women by standing up and saying that rape porn causes harm, but actually we're not that far away from absolving rapists of responsibility. What's really the difference between saying a short skirt causes rape and saying an internet video causes rape, when both shift blame away from the attacker, and on to outside influences? If I go out in to the streets and force someone to fellate a piece of KFC, can I get Matthew McConaughey's recent film Killer Joe banned too, because it gave me the idea? Or should I perhaps take responsibility for my own actions?
Just a radical idea there.
Strongly recommended reading: The Fantasy of Acceptable Non-Consent by Stacey May Fowles
Related rants by me:

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