Tuesday, March 16, 2010

xkcd and pornography (and feminism?)

I heart xkcd and today’s comic made me literally laugh out loud.

Click through for NSFW awesomeness.

How’s that for a message? “In my porn, people fuck.” Indeed.

But is it consistent with the message most of us women have been getting hit with since we first knew what porn was? Well…not exactly.

It’s far more likely that we were told something else about porn: it was dirty, it was degrading to women, it was a man thing, it was immoral, and any number of other things. And the messages come from all sides. I don’t think it will come as a suprirse to many that several conservative religious sects ban pornography entirely for both men and women. The Chruch of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, for example, considers both porn and even—gasp—masturbation to be “against the Law of Chastity," and several Catholic bishops (and the Pope) have written on the subject and consider pornography to be “destroying relationships, marriages, and families.”

Even when we move away from religion and into popular (and arguably secular) culture, we hear views opposing pornography. How many times have one of us heard another female acquaintance say she’d never “approve” or “allow” her partner to watch porn? How many times in the media have we seen porn portrayed as an almost exclusively male domain? From The Forty Year Old Virgin (where Andy Stitzer is horrified when his buddy tries to drop by with a box of porn DVDs—though he ends up giving one a try anyway) to How I Met Your Mother (where Barney Stinson’s collection is under a professional lighting system), porn is often portrayed as an overwhelmingly male domain, regardless of the response portrayed.

And is that necessarily true? Well, not really. In the first three months of 2007 one in three visitors to porn sites were women, according to Nielsen/NetRatings (as reported by CNN.com). And Hustler Video vice-president of marketing (and woman!) Theresa Flynt says that women account for more than half of the business at her company’s stores, and claims the market share of women in porn in increasing. A simple Google search of “porn and women” will turn up pages of websites, books, and DVDs marketed directly to women, some of which are even directed by women.

But, wait. What about porn degrading women? We’ve all heard that one before too, and I’m not going to lie and say it’s not true in certain cases. But really? Porn is porn. It often degrades someone, a female, a gay man, a straight man being ordered around by a dominatrix, or any other number of combinations. Do certain porn scenes degrade women? Oh, you bet they do. But is that a reason to condemn all porn as anti-feminist or a reason we should turn away from all porn, rather than just the one that offended us?

No, I don’t think so. And neither does Violet Blue, a female porn reviewer whose article referenced at CNN.com first appeared in O, Oprah’s magazine. According to her, the women are actually often the ones making it better. “I've seen a change in quality in the past few years that I think is a direct reflection of the growing female audience. As more discriminating viewers, we've demanded better porn -- and lo, it is being made….Director Maria Beatty's gorgeously shot movies (all of which feature strictly lesbian action) look like 1920s noir films with sex, but not explicit sex -- just a lot of tease and dreamy outfits and music. And Comstock Films, maker of high-quality, documentary-style, real-couples videos, aggressively markets to women with the simple tagline ‘Women love real sex.’”
Of course the “porn vs. feminism” debate isn’t going to be one that’s resolved today—or anytime soon—despite the production of porn marketed to women. It’s been around since the late 1970s (and probably even before that!) when the Feminist Sex Wars began to develop, leading to a deep schism between those who viewed pornography as extremely anti-feminist (e.g. Andrea Dworkin and Catherine McKinnon), and those who claimed to be on the “pro-sex” side of feminism (e.g. Gayle Rubin and Ellen Willis).
So what does that mean? Well, I guess it means we still don’t have an easy answer about the question of feminism and porn. I know which side I fall on—porn is often horribly tacky and cringe-worthy, but it’s occasionally really good, and if one clip offends me, I just move on and search for another more to my taste—but that’s by no means the only way to feel.
So tell me, femonomics readers: In your porn, do people fuck? Is it a non-issue for you? Do you see porn as anti-feminist and too degrading? Or are your views somewhere in between?
We all hear about porn all the time but in my experience it’s somewhat of the elephant in the room during women’s or feminist discussions—let’s change that.


  1. I definitely think women can enjoy porn, and there's nothing about it that I see as inherently anti-feminist. However, as a feminist I think there are some *problems* with mainstream porn, like there are with most media. Principally, I think porn has led to unrealistic expectations regarding what the female form "should" look like naked. I think that there are a lot of young men coming of age who think that breasts naturally stay up by themselves and vajayjays come hairless. It might also be giving young men and women strange ideas about sex (e.g., penetration is the way to make women come), especially in a society where we have little functional sex education, and so teens turn to porn to get basic info. The "porn ideal" is troubling and deserves notice, even if we embrace porn as something not naturally in conflict with feminist values.

  2. That's a great comment @Anon. Porn--like much of the mainstream media--really can give both men and women unrealistic ideas about women's bodies. To say nothing about what actually gets most women off and how many different ways there are to have "sex."

    While I totally agree that all of this is extremely problematic there definitely are a few exceptions--Tony Comstock's films are an example. Hopefully more will follow their lead.

  3. Unfortunately women are getting in the industry just as the business model has come under tremendous pressure. Much like traditional news media, pornography has lost significant revenue streams to free internet content. This report gives a summary of some of the top pressures:

    Furthermore, even the talent has suffered hugely recently. Previously a very lucrative and legal form of sex work for women in the US, wages have gone way, way down in recent years. See this LATimes piece:

  4. Duchess, hilariously, my favorite sitcom, 30 Rock covered this topic Thursday night! In this week’s episode, NBC is bought by “kabletown”, a company that doesn’t believe in innovation or value new ideas as much as former parent company, GE. P.S. I love how this show takes on current events with such humor and irreverence! Anyhow, kabletown’s business model rests primarily on 100 channels of pay-per-view porn, including such gems as “Assatar”, “The Lovely Boners”, and “Fresh-Ass” based on the novel “Tush” by Assphire. LOL. So, to save his job and his vision of America, Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin), noting that women are not a significant market share of kabletown porn consumers, decides to tap into the uncharted waters of “porn for women”. In a hilarious executive meeting (see first link to clip below), Jack presents his idea to incredulous kabletown execs who assert, “Women hate porn almost as much as men hate going to outlet malls.” But Jack wins them over by appealing to their sense of empathy (or lack thereof towards) their woman’s “jabbering”. Apparently, all women want and need to get aroused sexually is someone who will at least pretend to listen and empathetically interject things like, “uh-huh”, “how annoying!”, “she’s clearly jealous of you”, and “well, it’s his loss” at the right moment. “Handsome men patiently listening to women”=porn for women. See the second clip below of single power-girl Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) swooning over the notion. I think this is just as bad as the housekeeping porn. I’m not sure what the heck is going on with these ideas. Don’t they use focus groups? Who are these women who want to whine during foreplay? Because I can’t think of anything less sexy than that! In my porn, if I’m watching at all, I’m not looking for empathy and I’m not thinking about whose turn it is to unload the dishwasher. Indeed, in my porn, people screw.

    "Porn for Women" http://www.hulu.com/watch/135129/30-rock-don-geiss-america-and-hope#s-p1-so-i0

    "Liz Lemon loving 'porn for women'"

  5. Asking if porn is anti-feminist is like asking if books are anti-feminist, or films, or music. Is sex anti-feminist? Depends, doesn't it? Most women need sex. We just don't want to be raped. Why is this complicated? I just don't understand.


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