Friday, June 3, 2011

Is porn a feminist issue?

I save my online TV-viewing for when I have a big pile of washing to fold. Which is great for killing two birds with one stone -- but not so great for being up to date with what's going on in screen-land (although monster piles of washing do seem to form with ridiculous frequency!).

So I'm always making comments on things when the debate's all a bit last week (this one included) -- apologies for that. But I'm curious to know who among you watched the Sydney Writers' Festival panel on ABC's Q&A a couple of weeks ago? And, if you saw it, what did you think of the porn debate?!

I have always had a lot of time for Leslie Cannold and her writings, but I found her attack on fellow feminist Gail Dines a bit confounding.

From all I've heard from Dines, a professor of sociology touring Australia to promote her book Pornland, she is basing her views on extensive research. Whatever you think about porn, she is presenting valid evidence that it is distorting some people's expectations of sex.

Her particular concern is the availability of porn to young people, who may not have the maturity to discrimate between the kinds of sites and images they come across.

Certainly I know that I have already been shocked by some of the sexualised and sexist advertising that has popped up alongside otherwise very innocent kids' games on the web.

To align Dines with wowsers and Christians seemed particularly unfair.

I agree with Cannold that the issues of women's exploitation and inequality are bigger than "Brazilian waxes" and there are more obvious issues to campaign over. But to me this ignores the fact that the pervasiveness of porn (and Brazilian waxes) are symptomatic of the broader issues for young women -- all part of the way the porn and beauty industries exploit women's sense of physical inadequacy, and warp some men's perception of what's normal.

I'm not sure the impact of porn is such a "fringe" thing, as Cannold suggests -- separate to the more concrete aspects of women's lives. Are they not all part of a general problem for women of having to constantly battle unrealistic expectations of themselves and their bodies?

Cannold says she's worried about activists getting caught up in protesting against Brazilian waxes over more important issues. Personally, I'd be more concerned about young women not becoming self-empowered activists in the first place because they're too busy having Brazilian waxes (much less campaigning against them)!

Without wanting to sound like a conspiracy theorist, the beauty industry exerts a very real control over women. How much of women's time and money gets invested into fashion and beauty that might otherwise be invested into self-education and personal development? Let alone feminist action.

Anyway, as Dines says, she is one person focusing on a single issue. That doesn't mean she holds it up as the only or even the most important issue for feminism. But there does seem to be a very fine and confused line between women's sexual empowerment and exploitation, and I think it's not a trivial matter for debate.

Apparently, after her appearance on the show, Dines said, "I felt like I had walked into an adolescent boys' club with everyone sniggering about pornography."

(There was also a very interesting debate about the reponsibility of art and artists... Though I think Michael Cunningham got a tad over-excited about being allowed to use the word "fuck" on Australian television.)

Love to hear your thoughts!

And while you're at it, check this out!?! Something for my next post...

9 comments:

Cath @ chunkychooky said...

I agree with your points completely. I look at young women in their early twenties and so many of them are so made up. So much makeup and push up bras and "raunchiness" , their sexuality is so in your face, they confuse this confidence with being empowered. What is empowering about dressing up like a male fantasy???

The Beetle Shack said...

Re. art and the artists- I just watched a very interesting doco on ABC's iview about MONA, the new privately owned gallery in Tassie focused on the themes of sex and dearth. Some very sexually graphic 'art' on public display. I'd love to hear your thoughts on that.

em

Damon Young said...

Rachel, some pornography is certainly encouraging problems for some men, women, couples. The important words here are 'encouraging' and 'some'.

As far as I can tell, there is no simple causation at work. And it is not universal. I don't see the case for her 'world without porn', and neither do the authors of the only empirical study of Australian porn consumers: McKee, Albury and Lumby.

If new studies on Australians show otherwise, I'm happy to reconsider.

Damon Young said...

By the way, here is Alan McKee on Dines, and 'good' v. 'bad' porn.

Rachel Power said...

I totally agree with you, Damon. In writing this post I was not meaning to suggest that I agree with all of what Dines has to say. I am not opposed to porn per se -- and of course women are consumers of porn too.

I just felt that her ideas were publically belittled on this occasion, when clearly she is coming from a place of genuine concern about the impact of (as you say) some forms of porn on some people's expectations of themselves and their partners.

I have no doubt that the kind of extreme porn Dines refers to exists and can be deeply disturbing -- and is preferably not the kind of imagery you want your 14-yr-old readily coming across.

Surely we should be able to have a serious debate on the issue without automatically treating critics like Dines as wowsers is all I'm really saying.

Like Cath, I'm more concerned about the whole shift, as I see it, back to a model of supposed empowerment that is more about pandering to the male gaze (and perhaps getting off on that) than a more internal sense of sexual/bodily knowledge and power.

Of course these things are difficult to define, and porn is only one of many contributing factors.

I'm all for celebrating sex and sexuality in art, and I'm certainly not disturbed by graphic imagery (I will watch that doco on MONA -- thanks Em). But I think Dines is talking more about violence than sex, isn't she?

Damon Young said...

If Dines isn't a 'wowser', who is? I mean this as a serious question.

And I didn't see her belittled. I saw her criticised, and I saw her replying in kind.

And questions for you, Rachel: Can women dress in lingerie and not be objects of a 'male gaze'? And when they dress in slacks, blouse and jacket, and grow their pubic hair, do they necessarily avoid this 'gaze'?

I'm not sure about Mulvey's theory, but let's run with it for now.

Carly said...

As a mother of two (little) boys, I'd certainly love to see a world without degrading images of women. The messages around them, even just in advertising, tell them there are two kinds of women: the kind you consume, and the kind you respect. I do see mothering/parenting as a feminist role, and I'm aiming to bring up healthy, happy boys who respect themselves and their partners (and everyone else, for that matter)... so yeah, I do think the kind of porn which portrays women as powerless and devalued is a feminist issue. Thanks for discussing this.

Frances said...

Dines seemed to me to be coming more from the pov of Cindy Gallop in this 4 minute TED talk.


http://blog.ted.com/2009/12/02/qa_with_cindy_g/

Cindy Gallop's concern is not with people of the panel's age, but with the fact that porn is how the young are learning to "do sex".

Motherhugger said...

Yes, porn is a feminist issue. I'm glad for the work of both Daines and Cannold. Cannold had a piece in SMH/The Age yesterday continuing her argument with Daines. I think Daines is saying that people are learning how to do sex from porn. And learning about body image and relationships. It is also filtering into our language. Hard core. I see teenage girls from Catholic schools call each other 'cunt' and 'slut' with surprising regularity on FB - it is just how they call each other buddy. Instead of saying to her friend on FB 'nice picture of you' my niece said 'hot cunt'. I'm worried. We live in a porn culture. Music. Music video. Advertisments. TV. Even theatre.

On Q&A Howard Jabobson said 'I am happy as a man, not a feminist, to acknowledge the fact that a man's mind is a jungle of horror.' Then when Daines said that she'd heard men saying that women deserved to be raped if they dressed like sluts he said 'I don't believe - I don't believe you that men said women deserved to be raped.'

I think women are fundalmetally disrespected. Everywhere. Have a look at the comments on youtube for the video of Penny Wong reacting to being meowed at in parliament.

Porn is not helping women to be respected. All the speakers at the Growing Up Fast and Furious conference I attended last year would agree.