Sexual Myths: Porn and Ethical Representation

One way or another, porn is a touchy subject. Its ideological battleground runs the gambit from people who equate porn with rape, seeing it the two as theoretical and practical sides of the same coin; to self-identified feminist pornstars, who insist that their career is empowering.

It’s just as problematic to insist that porn is rape as it is to say that women who engage in it are downtrodden victims who need to be rescued. Like any profession, people working in porn will have good days and bad days. And thanks to rape culture, someone working as a corporate personal assistant isn’t necessarily any safer from harm than a pornstar at work. Porn is the greyest of grey areas, where no one is entirely sure where the line between harmless and harmful should be drawn.

But the fact that women starring in videos like these feel empowered, doesn’t negate the fact that porn has some fairly epic systemic issues, not the least of which is its deeply embedded misogyny. There’s a reason that porn made specifically for couples or women is described as ‘female friendly’: as a rule, mainstream porn is pretty degrading to women. And I’m not just talking about the smug misogyny of videos with titles like “Rapers of the Lost Arse” (sex without consent = rape. Rape = not funny, fun or nice in any way whatsoever), “Your Quim is My Gym” (reduces women to things to be played with by some guy) or “Horny Slut Gets a Gang Bang and a Cum Filled Arse”. It’s the casual normalisation of sex that objectifies, humiliates or degrades women that has far reaching consequences. The more subtle messaging that sex is something done TO women BY men, that it’s normal to not ask for consent, and the lack of emphasis on the woman’s pleasure, the myriad of sexual acts that when performed how you see them in porn, just don’t feel that nice  – and can even be painful  – that’s the kind of insidious messaging that breeds rape culture.

For example, men are often reduced to disembodied cocks in porn so that the average guy watching can project themselves into a scene. While I’m definitely not okay with the reduction of humans to disembodied genitalia (please stop sending us dick pics, they aren’t sexy), this sort of ‘point-of-view’ porn looks where the man looks, and as a result, women are presented as objects without desires or feelings of their own. I’m even less okay with that than I am with disembodied cocks. The women in porn are there to cater to the whim of the man. They are presented as available to any man watching. It’s icky. And the message it perpetuates is actually fucking dangerous.

(And I’m not even going to try and cover all of the ways that porn is heteronormatively flawed because it would be a multipage feature in itself. Let’s just say that while the misogyny is less rampant in queer porn, there are still plenty of issues, not least of which is that most lesbian porn is made for men.)

So the question is  – within our cultural context, is it even possible to have sexually explicit content that represents women more ethically, as autonomous human beings, engaging in an act that two people (or more) are doing together, with equal consideration to each person’s desires and needs?

Or is porn just a misogynist dystopia, an industry full of men taking advantage of women, that makes its money perpetuating rape culture? To be honest, I think it can be both.

My partner is a feminist, and he is also an avid consumer of porn. He is able to compartmentalise his pleasure, to detach the acts that he is consuming from their cultural context and enjoy it. For me it’s a bit more complicated. Most of the men I came into contact with didn’t give a shit if I had a good time or not, because they thought sex was a thing done to a woman, not with a woman, that ended with his orgasm. They’d learned through watching porn, and if no one has told you this yet  – the stuff you see in porn isn’t necessarily going to feel good for the real women in your life. Suffice to say most of my early sexual experiences were on the whole, pretty shit. There was more than one occasion where I was pressured into things I did not consent to. I am also one of the ‘one in four women’ who have been sexually assaulted and/or raped.

So content that objectifies us, presents us as available to any man that’s watching, that degrades, demeans and humiliates, that centres a man’s pleasure over anything else? It doesn’t just turn me off, it triggers traumatic memories that make me feel physically ill and unsafe. I can’t compartmentalise my pleasure like my partner can: I am a sex-positive feminist, and a sexual assault survivor, and a woman living in the patriarchal system of rape culture and I am all of those things simultaneously. And that means that for the most part, porn isn’t for me, because if I’m not feeling safe, it’s pretty hard to enjoy myself.

So, can we separate them from the society that we’re living in? I’m not sure. The male gaze is a powerful thing. Porn presents women that are up for anything  – but actually we’re only up for things we consent to. So with that in mind, remembering that pornstars are actors  – they do this for a living. They are paid to smile and scream and ‘enjoy’ things, even if they don’t. And if you can overlook the shitty patriarchal undertones, we can maybe get close. Then again, we could just watch feminist porn instead.

Aunty Slut

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