Is pornography represented as empowering for women?

The mainstream media can play an important role in shaping “how people think about particular topics and how they behave in certain situations”; this can sometimes be an issue as reporting is often “sensationalized for improved distribution” (Montgomery-Graham, Kohut, Fisher, & Campbell, 2015, p. 244). The issue of pornography is one that seems to continually attract media coverage, and is therefore frequently in the public consciousness. Perhaps this is because pornography is now easier than ever to access, “there seems to be an endless supply to choose from” (Corsiano, 2007, p. 865), and arguably it has seeped into popular culture and mainstream society. This is evident in the recent recognition, by celebrities and normal women, as nudity and displaying your sexuality as a path to female empowerment. This belief has contributed to the post-feminist view that pornography can be liberating. And yet, “a degree of moral panic” still surrounds “public discussions of sexually explicit material” (Montgomery-Graham, Kohut, Fisher, & Campbell, 2015, p. 243), especially in regards to how it affects public perceptions of women.

This concern is reflected in a recent article from Mirror Online, in which there is anger about a “lewd” porn workshop being “funded by the public purse” (Hind, 2016). A Labour politician reproaches the pornography industry, saying: “we need to create an equal society where people learn about maintaining normal relationships respectfully” (Hind, 2016). Many academics, like Dworkin and MacKinnon, have proposed that pornography does not reflect real sexual experiences. As the main consumers of pornography are males, it tends to depict mainly male pleasure or the “straight male’s fantasy” (Corsiano, 2007, p. 866). Corsiano points out that mainstream pornography “dotes on male ejaculation” and denies “sex in an opposite-sex pairing as a mutual exchange” (2007, p. 869). An obvious gender hierarchy is depicted, “where men are in control and women must submit’’ (Wright & Bae, 2015, p. 294). Feminist theorists have historically considered pornography as “a medium in which women are constantly debased, made out to be sex objects, and seen as inferior to male power” (Hernandez, 2011, p. 118). While many women may enjoy this degradation, most regular sex is not like this, so even though these acts can feel empowering for some women, they are definitely not empowering for all women. Thus, empowerment is a subjective term and is personal to an individual.

The same article from Mirror Online also notes “the Scottish Coalition Against Sexual Exploitation said they have concerns about the normalisation of pornography” (Hind, 2016), this issue is a prevalent one, parents, religious groups, and feminist groups all “argue that pornographic images have infiltrated our mass media” (Hernandez, 2011, p. 116). Some believe that pornography and its connotations are so established within our society that no law regulating it “could begin to eliminate the sexual representations of patriarchy that surround us in society” (Corsiano, 2007, p. 877). Popular music videos provide a good example of the porno chic culture we live in, for example, Fergie’s recent M.I.L.F. $ (Tilley, 2016) music video (named after a type pornography), was praises in popular media sources, like Glamour, for being empowering for women. The stars of the video, including Kim Kardashian (who shot to fame after her sex tape leaked), are described as “powerful”, and some of the “most successful … mamas on the A-list” (Adlman, 2016). Perhaps it is the mainstreaming of pornography, that allows celebrities (one of which, has a sex tape and therefore possibly could be considered a porn star) to pose while getting a substance resembling semen (milk) poured on them and still be viewed as respectable, profitable, “go-getting mamas” (Adlman, 2016). These women are shown as, and probably perceive themselves to be, liberated and commanding, but Corsiano suggests that they are simply failing “to see the manipulation of power” and so “accept the patriarchal and heterosexist social order as genuine”. This is because social changes, like it being acceptable for women to have multiple sexual partners or act sexual, “create the illusion that all “women” have achieved independent sexual subjectivity” (2007, p. 879). So perhaps, though they feel empowered, they are still being repressed by the patriarchal system.

On the other hand, it could be viewed as a good thing that women are no longer discriminated against for being publicly sexual beings. An article from Elite Daily argues, that as pornography becomes more accepted within society, female porn stars can be viewed as “oppressed leaders of the to-be shift” and this is a “form of empowerment” (Box, 2017). Perhaps pornography can disprove the assumption that female sexuality is dirty by normalizing and destigmatizing it, hence help to create greater equality between the sexes. Writing for Elite Daily, Box contends, “men are celebrated for having sex and women are condemned for it. Is this fair? Fuck no” (2017). Some pro-pornography feminists, like Annie Sprinkle, believe that women are now “free to construct our own sexual identities” (Corsiano, 2007, p. 869) because, in our Western society, feminism has achieved its main goals; this is how females can feel empowered by pornography.

Alhough others, like Dworkin propose that mainstream pornography does not “refute the idea that female sexuality is dirty”, instead it not only “embodies and exploits this idea” but also “sells and promotes it” (1981, p. 201). Which is why some have suggested that the solution to this institutionalised sexism could be female produced, ethical pornography. The focus for the article from Mirror Online is a “self-described “ethical” porn star”, who was running a workshop about pornography from a “new and empowering perspective” (Hind, 2016). However, the article shows unease about any kind of pornography, pointing out that it is “dangerous to try to “blur lines” when it comes to pornography” (Hind, 2016). Wright and Bae concur that female directed pornography may not be the answer as male dominant behaviour is “common regardless of the director’s gender” (2015, pp. 448). This could be because even women have internalized ideologies regarding female submissiveness created by the patriarchy. They are “blinded by hegemonic social forces” and so fail to see the consequences this reality has “on the lives of all “women”” (Corsiano, 2007, p. 878). Consequently, few members of society attempt to critically challenge many of their assumptions about their sexual desires and performances” (Corsiano, 2007, p. 868). EMPOWERING??

However, even if women do recognize this patriarchal inequality, there is little they can do to amend it as they lack the authority men have thanks to the way gender roles in our society have historically developed. MacKinnon argues, that because women do not have social equality, they do not have “social access to the means of expression”, suggesting that women do not have the same freedom of speech that men have (1987, p. 129). It is thanks to the historical submissiveness of women and institutionalised bias, that pornography represents female enjoyment in being degraded. Though some women may find enjoyment and empowerment in this kind of sexual act, many suggest that often female porn actresses just provide a “specific socially constructed” performance (Corsiano, 2007, p. 864), and this “apparent enjoyment deflects from the violent nature of the act” (Gray, 1982, p. 390). And yet, it is this very ‘enjoyment’ that is often used an argument for porn embodying equality and empowerment, because “women’s desires are realized just as men’s are” (McGlynn, 2016, pp. 337). But according to MacKinnon and McGlynn, the female is just faking enjoyment; she is acting. This performativity can become an issue if the audience believes that pornography reflects “the reality of most sexual relationships” (Hernandez, 2011, p. 120). Viewers could be lead to believe that real women “desperately want to be bound, battered, tortured, humiliated” (MacKinnon, 1987, p. 172) and, in turn, “hold their sexual partners to pornographic expectations” (Hernandez, 2011, p. 120). In this way, pornography sexualizes sexual violence and gender inequality, and “it thereby celebrates, promotes, authorizes, and legitimizes” it (MacKinnon, 1987, p. 171). This result is less than empowering for women in general, as it could sustain sexism in society.

This sentiment is reiterated in the Mirror Online article, in which a spokeswoman from the Scottish Coalition Against Sexual Exploitation is quoted saying that porn is “a form of violence against women and contributes to it” (Hind, 2016). This is a prominent worry among the British public, although, “social scientists remain deeply divided when it comes to pornography’s contribution to sexual violence” (Montgomery-Graham, Kohut, Fisher, & Campbell, 2015, p. 244) as research has failed to show a significant link. Gray identifies that a large amount of research suggests “that aggression levels in previously angered males are raised by exposure to hard-core pornography, but that aggression is not raised in non-angered males” (1982, p. 390). So it perhaps it is not pornography that is the issue, but anger, because “anger not validated by pornography will be validated elsewhere” (1982, p. 393) thanks to the highly violent and sexualised culture we live in. As Gray puts it, “A disturbed mind will find exciting stimuli wherever it looks” (1982, p. 395). However, this research is unlikely to be covered in the mainstream media, who are often insistent on the link between pornography and sexual violence, despite the lack of evidence. EMPOWERING??

Overall, what is personally ‘empowering’ for one woman might not be empowering for another, so arguably, women should be allowed to find their empowerment in any way they see fit without being judged by society. However, in the majority of pornography females are degraded and dominated by men, and even if one woman finds this empowering the repeated representation of her enjoyment of that degradation contributes to an ideological belief that all women enjoy this. Because pornography is presented to viewers as real, rather than fiction (written by writers, directed by directors, and performed by actors) it “hides and distorts truth while at the same time enforcing itself, imprinting itself on the world, making itself real” (MacKinnon, 1987, p. 130). The mainstream media, particularly the tabloid press, has a tendency to condemn pornography; the Mirror Online suggests to its readers that pornography is a form of violence against women, and therefore implies that it is not empowering. And yet, a large portion of media publications, particularly those aimed towards women, commend females for declaring their empowerment through expressing their sensuality and exposing their bodies, despite this being a result of our pornified culture. Furthermore, some forms of media, predominantly online publications whose principal audience is people younger than 35 years old (like Elite Daily), have praised women in the porn industry.



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