Friday, August 18, 2006

Liberté, Égalité, Pornographie

Once again, we are invoking the Law of Sod. My brother-in-law is playing organ for a wedding this afternoon, my sister's midwife has a dinner party booked for this evening and my sister has had some pains, like period pains but sharper that last a minute - although so far only at twelve hour intervals. Could this be early labour? Could it? When is this little imp going to show itself?!

These facts combined with the fact I am writing about a rather adult matter today, Tinker is bound to be born today such that in twelve or thirteen years time (s)he will be reading his or her favourite aunty’s blog, thinking I wonder what Auntie Goldfish was writing about the day I was born

As I said on Wednesday, the trouble is that most of the battle for equality between men and women, non-disabled and disabled people, straight and queer etc., etc., is to do with positive freedom. Women, for example, are no longer literally enslaved – we have an equal amount of negative freedom under the law. We are slaves to no man but societal attitudes, within ourselves and all around us, prevent us from always being our own masters, so to speak.

Pornography is a very good example of where a real conflict arises between liberal Rabid Feminists* like myself and those folks who have the same egalitarian aims, but believe this struggle should be conducted with some degree of coercion.

I am going to be very specific (thought not explicit) about the subject matter here, because there is absolutely no controversy around the fact that many women and others are terribly exploited, subject to all manner of violence and intimidation within the currently illegal sex industry. We may disagree about how to help them out of those situations, but no feminist is unconcerned about any situation where crimes are being committed against women.

There is, however, a controversy over whether prostitution, including pornography, is wrong in all cases and in order to address a fraction of this enormous topic, I want to simplify the area we are discussing. The British Board of Film Classification gives us these guidelines for films released in the UK under certificate R-18. These prohibit all sorts of activities where consent is ambiguous and greatly restrict the distribution of this material. We shall also presume that this law is rigorously upheld; that nobody participates in the making of this material (or views this material) having made any verbal objection.

Okay, so… as I understand it, there are three main objections that feminists might have to pornography in this context.

The first is that the involvement of any financial transaction presents an obligation which means that consent can not be as easily withdrawn. If participants feel unable to withdraw consent then they are effectively being raped. Thus paying someone to perform sexual acts amounts to rape.

Sage has written a couple of excellent posts (and promises more) which have begun to explore this massive issue.

However, there is no circumstance under law whereby payment is considered such a heavy obligation. If you are in someone's employ and they ask you to commit even a minor offence, then a criminal court will not consider your mere need to be paid extenuating circumstances which detract from your own responsibilities. Threats and a fear of violence are another matter; money is never enough.

Choosing to have sex when you don't want to have sex is a pretty grim prospect but is not the same as being forced (by whatever means) to have sex when you don't want to - one involves a choice, the other doesn't. That's not to say that prostitutes can't be raped; consent can be withdrawn at any time whoever you are and in whatever circumstances. However, it is up to adults to indicate the withdrawal of consent - just as the law obliges adults to refuse if they're employer asks them to do anything about which they have moral reservations.

The second objection is that pornography is such an inherently degrading experience for the participants that the consent cannot be taken seriously in any case. Participants perhaps fail to effectively resist their own degradation because they are fulfilling the role assigned to them by others who consider them as purely sexual objects, and their self-worth is entirely tied up in this role. In other words;

If participants had a genuine choice, they would not choose to do this.

The circularity of this argument is reminiscent of the reasonable man who disapproves of male homosexuality; the reason we know that participants do not have a genuine choice is because they choose to do something that, given a genuine choice, they would not choose to do. Ouch!

There are lots of reasons I can think of why people would have cause to regret participation in pornography. It could also be that participating in pornography is motivated by insecurity and low self-worth, and does turn out to be a big mistake for every single one of the people who do it.

However, such is the nature of all our relationships and behaviours. We simply cannot be protected by the law from making mistakes when we think something is a good idea at the time. Many marriages are entered into for totally the wrong reasons and end horribly, but once again, as adults, we are entitled to the choice. Anything else would be another form of oppression and we would never learn anything about ourselves. We would be kept as children.

A far more powerful (to me at least) argument is to do with the positive freedom of men and women in general. It asserts that If pornography didn’t exist, society would treat men and women in a more equal fashion.

This argument goes like this:
The way that groups are represented in the media has a profound effect on the way they are treated in every day life.

Pornography represents men and women in such a way which is detrimental to sexual equality.

Authorities should attempt to censor the media in order to protect people who may suffer the knock-on effects of unequal treatment.

Therefore, pornography should be censored.
The first premise, I have absolutely no doubt about. We can of course argue over degrees. For example, there used to be a theory that the use of pornography encouraged the viewers to commit rape, but empirical studies suggest otherwise. It is also theory which angers me very greatly because it is only one step away from blaming the victims; if images of naked women can be to blame, then why not scantily-clad women on the street or indeed any woman who isn't covered from head to toe and accompanied by a male relation at all times? However, that’s another subject - even in the absence of such a dramatic effect, there is no doubt that that all media has the potential to influence attitudes and ideas.

On the second premise, I am not expert enough to judge! Obviously, there are going to be examples of pornography which represent the relationships between men and women very badly indeed. However, the thing which categorises the pornography I happen to have seen is that both men and women are presented as creatures entirely preoccupied with sex and for whom sex is a highly enjoyable experience.

Now, men and women have a lot else going on in their lives apart from sex. But most of us do have and enjoy sex. I am not sure how this portrayal could be more harmful than commercials on prime-time television, where for example, women are obsessed with wrinkles, hair colour, their weight and the whiteness of their sheets.

Personally, I would suggest that such representation may be far more dangerous, for four reasons. Firstly, it meets a far wider audience than pornography, an audience including children. Secondly, it portrays women in everyday settings and situations; in the home, in the office, making it far easier to associate these made-up women with the real women of one’s acquaintance. Thirdly, the activity of viewing is far more passive (one is not attempting to manoeuvre a chieftain tank at the same time) and therefore, I speculate, the audience is more vulnerable to subconscious influence.

And of course, pornography is designed as a means to an end. Commercials are designed to influence. Their primary goal is to influence one into spending money, but they play on whatever aspirations, fears and insecurities they think may help them. These inevitably include all the baggage we carry about sex, sexual attractiveness and gender roles.

I’m not suggesting the law should interfere with commercial advertising, I am just suggesting that there may be more dangerous influences than pornography which we simply do not have the power to control outside some totalitarian state.

The third premise… I have written before about free speech more than once; and basically, I cannot find it in myself to argue that footage of one of the most natural acts in the world (and perhaps a few not so natural acts) should be banned. Not when you are talking about highly regulated production and distribution; nobody is subject to this stuff who didn’t choose to be.

I hope that may have made things a little clearer for folks who take the opposing view; I feel this is a rather clumsy and simplified explanation of some very highly complicated - and very important - arguments.

Next time, I shall talk about... well hopefully Rosemary's baby will be born before then and you and I can take a break from the heavy stuff. But at some point soon I shall write about how we put all this back together.

* Rabid Feminism is a new faction of feminism, inadvertantly invented by Lady Bracknell's Editor. So far this movement includes only myself and in the tradition of the factionalism that exists in most equality movements, I intend to keep it that way...


James Medhurst said...

What I find interesting about politically conservative arguments against prostitution is that they often claim to be protecting women while at the time criminalising prostitutes rather than male pimps or clients.

Pornography is one area in which I find myself in agreement with the libertarian view, although I feel that I should probably declare an interest here. (wink)

spotted elephant said...

I've yet to read your previous piece, and am having trouble processing this one-very bad week here. I'll be back when I'm clearer.

Anonymous said...

Yes it could be early labour. or what they call false labour: the uterus flexing its muscles during a try-out just to wind everybody up.

Anonymous said...

I notice you are restricting your definition of pornography to sexual representation. How about the pornography of violence, not just restricted to sex?

The Goldfish said...

I was restrictive with my definition yes, because obviously the wider you throw the net, the more complicated the argument get - but I do think those arguments are the basic ones against which you can test everything else. I don't know exactly what you mean about the pornography of violence, but to me the most important thing is that films are produced within the law as far as issues to do with consent and safety are concerned - and then distributed in such a way that vulnerable parties are protected from seeing it - and indeed that nobody need see it unless they have consciously sought it out.

Renegade Evolution said...

Excellent post.

Sage said...

Well done! I'm in the middle of a similar argument right now. Hopefully I'll be done later tonight.

Dial-Up Princess said...

Excellent post and nobody is subject to this stuff who didn’t choose to be. For the most part that IS true. Pornography has its intended audience.

belledame222 said...

Will read this one more slowly and thoroughly later. For now, just thinking, once again, of that quote from "Handmaid's Tale," you know, Aunt Lydia is lecturing the hapless Handmaids, explaining how much better things are now really, (oh, and "some of the ideas the feminists had were good-=-only SOME, mind you"), something like,

"Before, you had freedom to. Now, you have freedom from. Don't underrate it."