Antiporn activists target the medium rather than the economic structures that makes its profitable
“Are you ready to take on the porn industry?” Gail Dines asks to a rousing cheer. “Angry, organized women are very dangerous for the porn industry.”
There are close to 250 of us here, women and men, packed onto the second floor of a 1960s-style Brutalist office building in South London for the U.K. launch of Stop Porn Culture (SPC), an international feminist antiporn organization of which Dines, a British-born, Boston-based academic, is the executive director. The walls have a childlike innocence, decorated with brightly painted trees and birdlife, but the energy within them is decisive and full of fervor.
“The SPC conference is not a place for debate,” an email to conference attendees warned a few days previously. “Our starting point is that pornography is harmful and has detrimental effects.” I am not here to take on the porn industry, however. I am here because I want to have my mind changed about antiporn activism and better understand the beliefs of people I instinctively disagree with. Like most of the other people in the room, I identify as a feminist, but my feminism is mostly of the “sex positive” variety. Antiporn arguments make me uncomfortable, but not because, as some of the antiporn activists I’ve encountered have suggested about their opponents, I’m an avid consumer of the medium. It is because the antiporn arguments I’ve encountered seem to be fixated on the worst-case scenarios, reducing infinite subgenres of erotic material to their most horrific, unsympathetic incarnations. In antiporn land, pornography is responsible for every social ill you can imagine, from sexual assault to pedophilia to the breakdown of relationships and bad sex. There is no hope for a nonviolent, nonsexist pornography, because the violence and sexism are inherent in the medium itself.
Waiting for the day to start, I feel slightly on edge, trying to catch snippets of the conversations happening around me (“terrible,” “no pubic hair”) and jotting them down in my notebook. I make small talk with the woman seated next to me, a social worker who has traveled down to London for the day from Birmingham. She expresses surprise when I casually mention my husband. Is he okay with me attending a conference like this? (“Yes, he knew I was capable of thinking for myself when he married me,” I respond brightly.)
I relax almost immediately when Lisa-Marie Taylor, the head of SPC UK, takes the stage. Introduced by Dines and dressed in jeans and a light-blue button-down shirt, her bright red hair pulled back into a ponytail, Taylor is equal parts strident and eminently reasonable, arguing that pornography cannot be discussed in isolation but needs to be examined in social and political context. “This so-called sexual revolution is happening against a backdrop of unprecedented inequality and within a capitalist and patriarchal system,” she says. “Clubs where men strip for women are not the norm — it is women as a group performing for men as a group. We need to question this.” Pornography, she argues, exists against a “backdrop of inequality,” in which women earn less than men and have less access to positions of power. “I, for one, refuse the label of ‘antisex,’ ” she declares. “We must not let people come along and tell us that the sexual exploitation of women is pro-sex.”
Taylor wasn’t always antipornography; she used to describe herself as “pro-porn.” Back then, she believed pornography was a tool for sexual liberation — an unleashing of pleasures that had previously been denied to women — and that it should be left up to the performers to decide what they wanted to do with their bodies. But she found herself growing increasingly uncomfortable with what she was watching and started attending a local feminist group, where she met women who had participated in and later left the porn industry. “Their story was not one of empowerment and liberation but of limited choice, abusive pasts and of drug addiction, rape, and distress,” she tells me later in an email.
Dines too is warm and engaging in person, in contrast with her adversarial, battle-axe public image. I find myself nodding along when, after the morning tea break, she talks about the slut shaming of pop-cultural whipping girls Anna Nicole Smith and Paris Hilton, or about how teenage boys are taught that “being a man” requires disengaging from emotion.
Taylor, Dines, and I might use different labels to describe our beliefs — what they call sexualization, I have called objectification, and what they call pornification, I call “the contemporary sexual ideal,” a much larger construct of which porn is just one piece. But we share some common concerns: a rejection of a society in which a person’s value is determined by their “fuckability,” as Dines puts it, and of the way that money and power shape who gets to be the subject and who is relegated to the position of object. Our differences lie in how we see the cause-effect relationship: While I believe that sexism in pornography reflect sexist beliefs already present in society, antiporn activists like Dine tend to believe that porn is a primary source of those inequalities. “How does a person engage with the truth or falsity of the image?” Dines asks. “It seeps into your life. You can’t help it.”
Still, there are aspects of the SPC conference that make me uncomfortable, chief among them the lack of compassion in their treatment of their political opponents or anyone who doesn’t share their vision of what “good sex” looks like. I wince when, after noting the rise of BDSM-inspired imagery in Rihanna’s videos after Chris Brown assaulted her en route to the 2009 Grammy Awards, Dines pulls up an image of the pop star’s bruised and defeated face and declares, “This is the true face of BDSM.” I struggle to hide my annoyance throughout radical feminist Julie Bindel’s presentation on “the politics of the sex industry” — a succession of tabloid-style personal attacks on pro-sex industry activists, academics, escorts, and performers, complete with photos seemingly lifted without permission from their social-media profiles. In the afternoon, a representative from the Norwegian feminist group Ottar reveals how some of their members posed as sex workers on the side of the road, and when men drove by to negotiate a price, other members would jump out and douse them with spray paint. The audience is delighted, laughing and clapping. I am appalled.
Over lunch, the room is abuzz with talk of a protest that will take place outside that afternoon. Organized by sex worker and porn performer Renee Richards, the demonstration has SPC nervous. Our bags were checked when we arrived at the venue that morning, and while Dines signs copies of her book, a female security guard hovers to her left.
As we wait in line for food, a bearded 20-something asks one of the SPC volunteers who they expect to show up at the demonstration. “Will it be a bunch of men angry about having their porn taken away?” he asks, genuinely baffled. The volunteer responds that she expects there will be women there as well. The man’s confusion only increases. “Are they being paid by their pimps to come?” he says.
When the demonstrators do turn up an hour or so later, everyone crowds by the conference windows to see who is outside. As we do, one young woman turns to me, her brow furrowed in bewilderment. She doesn’t understand. “Why would anyone protest in favor of porn?” she asks. I suggest she refer to the placards they are holding. “Outlaw poverty, not prostitution,” one reads. An older woman in her sixties turns away from the window in disgust. “Talk about false consciousness!” she scoffs, walking back to her seat.
Dines and Bindel go downstairs, a plate of cookies in hand. When one demonstrator accuses them of trying to curb free speech, Dines demures, insisting that all they are doing is trying to develop “a public-health approach” to pornography — bringing together psychologists, sexual health workers, and other experts to determine what should be done about the problem.
But this doesn’t reflect the whole story. Dines is clear that in the current climate, a ban on pornography isn’t viable. “You’re not going to ban anything on the Internet in the Internet age,” she says when we speak on the phone a few weeks later. “It doesn’t map onto the world that we live in now.” But upstairs in the conference room, the desire isn’t to teach young people better media literacy or to draw more public attention to the conditions of porn performers. It is to make pornography illegal and eliminate it altogether. (Then again, some in the pro-porn movement can be just as disingenuous, glossing over porn’s sexist, racist, and violent aspects in an attempt to prove that porn is not the “big bad wolf” Dines and her ilk would have you believe.)
After the conference, I read Dines’s book, Pornland, and am surprised by how much I like it. Dines details how pornography has evolved and entered the mainstream over the past 60 years; how brands such as Playboy, Girls Gone Wild, and Jenna Jameson have positioned it as harmless popular culture, while others, like Hustler or Max Hardcore, have pushed the boundaries of what the public will accept. She writes, “The more [Hustler founder Larry] Flynt and [Penthouse founder Bob] Guccione pushed the envelope, the more acceptable Playboy looked, and the more Playboy penetrated the mainstream, the more latitude Hustler and Penthouse were given to move hard-core.”
Dines urges the reader to look at pornography not just as a medium but as a business, one whose chief concern is getting viewers to choose their website or video over the millions of others available and keeping them on site for as long as possible. And like many media businesses, it achieves these ends through novelty, sensationalism, and shock value. I am less convinced by her blanket depictions of porn as violent, sexist, and racist, but Dines’s arguments about the intersection of sex and commerce get me thinking about how I can be more nuanced in my own beliefs. I begin to wonder if, in privileging individual agency and sexual expression, younger feminists like me have failed to apply the same critical eye to pornography that we turn to other media like advertisements, glossy magazines, and Hollywood rom-coms. We accept that other media play a role in shaping our assumptions and even our behavior — is it such a leap to imagine that pornography might do the same? It is surely possible to acknowledge porn’s influence in shaping views on gender and sexuality without exaggerating its power and removing it from the pop cultural ecosystem of which it is a part.
Back at the conference, an Italian journalist asked Dines if she believed that porn could be reformed. Dines responded that asking whether porn could be reformed was “like asking can you go into McDonald’s and order French onion soup.” Having read Pornland now, I understand better where Dines is coming from: that modern porn is not just a type of media but an industry that is geared toward maximizing returns and that one of the ways that is achieved is by pursuing an “edge” that is often violent, sexist, or degrading. Dines’s point is that profit drives the sort of product porn is. Its content can’t be reformed to remove that “edge.”
When we speak on the phone after the conference, Dines tells me that she is “sex positive” too. “That’s why I’m antiporn,” she says. “There is nothing pro-sex about porn. When you look at the stories in pornography, they are very conservative,” she continues. “Porn says that sex is dirty and that women are dirty for having it. It’s a very right-wing, conservative approach to gender and sexuality.”
I ask her if she thinks it would be okay to make and sell a video of people have fun, consensual sex — whatever “fun sex” happened to look like to those people. Dines concedes that it might be. “But there are many, many questions you would have to ask first. The first is how that woman got there. I want to know her history and the choices available to her. If she gets HIV, are they going to pay the half a million dollars in health care to keep her alive? There’s this idea that somehow you can put a camera there and watch people having sex and that’s all there is to it. But you can’t erase the context around those choices.”
Throughout the SPC conference, there is a phrase that shows up again and again: “selling women.” It is a phrase that doesn’t sit well with me. After all, you could argue that all labor entails buying the worker on some level: the manual laborer selling their body and physical strength, the nanny or social worker selling their capacity to care, or indeed, me as a writer selling you parts of my brain in writing this essay. To argue that sex work is different to these other labors is to argue that sex cuts to our souls in a more meaningful and profound way than anything else that we do. And that is just as conservative an idea as some of the portrayals of sex in pornography.
After the conference is over, I still don’t have any desire to eliminate the porn industry, and I still don’t believe that pornography is harmful by definition. But I do believe there is room to examine the industry more critically, for a politics of porn that engages incisively with the content it produces while acknowledging the diversity of ways that people consume and respond to it — one that listens to people who work in porn without trying to crate them all into one neat “empowered” or “victim” box. And one that treats porn as the profit-motivated business that it is without disingenuously depicting it as a pop cultural Darth Vader.