Call things by their proper names

A reply to the Anti Porn Men Project

12 January 2012


It’s bad enough when Andrea Dworkin and assorted anti-porn feminist followers seek to write out the personhood of female sex workers. They position themselves as The Woman who speaks for all others, occluding the voices, agency and personalities of the workers whose labour they reduce to a spectacle of spread-eagled body parts, revelling in the grotesque descriptions of acts they profess to oppose.

But when men start doing this, start using this language that posits women as objects in order to talk about objectification, it’s not just a gross elision of female agency. It’s a shameless appropriation and a mirror of the way less ‘feminist’ men talk about women in every sexist medium and arena going. None of anti-porn feminism treads softly, or indeed with nuance, which is perhaps why it appeals to men who want to maintain their social right to shout louder, talk over and stomp across women’s lives, voices and demands while claiming feminist credentials.

I used to be an anti-porn feminist. But even then, as a teenaged would-be radical with a sympathy for the topic, anti-porn writers like Robert Jensen set my teeth on edge. Phrases like ‘in these films, women are not people’, and worse, women as just ‘three holes and two hands’ with ‘no hopes and no dreams and no value’ beyond them – you don’t have to have an anti-censorship, pro-sex worker, pro-better-porn position to object to using dehumanising language to shock, as if women aren’t talked about like this all the time, everywhere, by men. As if it’s not a mirror of the sexist language we hear all the time simply because its posed as being against that sexism, as if it’s acceptable to dehumanise sex workers to inject a note of drama, because the rhythm and pitch of your polemic requires it.

At least Jensen had the grace to acknowledge ‘it may not be fair for a man to write this’, to gesture towards a recognition of his language as problematic, even while he carries on regardless.

The nice guy feminists at the Anti Porn Men Project have no apparent need of such feints towards self-awareness.

For Kit Withnail, porn is the theory, rape is the practice. Not in the tired old way, suggesting men who watch porn are more likely to become rapists, to commit violent acts against women – maybe that’s all a bit too tied up in surveys and studies and a wee bit hard to separate from ongoing attempts from academics (from all political positions) to decide whether it has a basis in fact. No, in Kit’s mind, men1 who watch porn just *are* rapists, all sex they proceed to take part in inherently rape after their consumption of pornography. The porn actors (male, naturally) are rapists too. Because women – in porn or out of it – cannot consent while pornography exists.

If you think I’m overstating this, go and read it. And if you think what follows is harsh, it’s because I’m fucking angry that this simplistic, reactionary and potentially dangerous shit about women – all of us – passes for ‘feminism’.

Leon Trotsky exhorted communists to ‘call things by their proper names’, a lesson feminist writers would do well to take on board. Utilising the language of non-consent, of violent crime and violation, to describe sex work diminishes the feminist politics of rape and sex work equally. If a sex worker cannot consent, even within more-or-less constrained circumstances, why does it matter when she is raped? The sexual assault of a sex worker becomes one with her work: if you cannot consent, under any circumstance, if your work is rape, then there is no concept of being raped, for you. Consent and non-consent alike become meaningless. And if this sounds like the attitude the police, the judiciary and the state have taken towards sex workers since time immemorial, that’s because it is; a pseudo-radical, pseudo-feminist bent on a patriarchal attitude, but a patriarchal attitude nonetheless.

A patriarchal, pseudo-Marxist attitude too. The ‘commodity’ here is ‘apparent willingness’. The labour is done by male porn actors/rapists. The women are… what, exactly? Raw materials? How ironic, horribly ironic, that an article ostensibly opposed to the ‘objectification’ of women in pornography itself reduces women in pornography to objects. Base materials from which something is extracted, utterly passive. Not-people. This isn’t just pseudo-Marxist because it doesn’t make any sense, but because it works against the politics and ethics of any Marxism I know; rendering the labour of female sex workers as not-labour, as not just the perpetual, voiceless, silenced victimhood of so many radical feminisms but as a whole new layer of projected passivity, as objects.

Of course, in Kit’s theory, this only applies to female sex workers. Oh yeah, and women who have sex with men who consume/have consumed pornography. These women, we are told, ‘will be raped without even knowing what’s wrong’. Sex/rape is something that’s done to them, by boys turned rapists through pornography. They have no agency in the porn-determined universe of the male feminist imagination (weirdly, a bit like the misogynist imagination…).

I’m not shocked by Kit’s daring use of the dramatic language of violence. I’m shocked at the staggering chutzpah that lies behind his imagined right to erase the agency of young women and their sexual choices, wrapped up in a language of sympathy for their victimhood. Aren’t we lucky that the legions of teenage girls suffering from a porn-induced false consciousness have feminist men to point out how terribly damaging their sex lives are? Again, this harnessing of the language of sexual violence to describe complex, consensual sexual relations undermines the understanding of both. If consensual sex can ‘implicitly’ be rape, what is rape? If porn-consuming teenage boys in consensual relationships are rapists, what is a rapist? If all sexual relations where the man has consumed porn are dangerously problematic, rape even, who cares about relations between teens that actually are dangerous and damaging? This style of polemic doesn’t just invoke anger, it damages: it tramples over nuance, choice (from however limited a set of options), complexity, experience, our actual lives, denying our agency, our sexualities and our humanity.

Especially in a climate where multiple pressures conspire to repress the legitimate sexual agency of young women – from Labour and Tory ‘sexualisation’ reviews, to abstinence-only education debated in Parliament and the continued lack of comprehensive sex and relationship education in schools – to paint teenaged sexual relationships where the male half has watched porn as rape (‘explicit or implicit’, as if that makes no difference whatsoever) is irresponsible, unhelpful, wrong. It’s yet another chime in the chorus of ‘you know not what you do’ that serves to mystify sex for women, so that the nebulous danger and imbalances of power that our society hints that sex conceals cannot be challenged, targeted or refuted by us.

There are many pitfalls to dodge in navigating early sexual experiences – touching, upsetting, confusing, sometimes damaging and frequently comic – and the effects of pornography and other sexist media on these and other relationships should be studied, thought through and understood. Erasing consent, making boys rapists and girls victims (‘implicitly’ perhaps, understood in a symbolic order only the privileged feminist with his ‘theory’ can access – oh the poor blind fools!), does not contribute to anyone’s understanding; it hugely overeggs the power of a medium, any medium, to influence our lives, while relying for its dramatic power on whitewashing the complex realities of the women it professes to speak for.

We don’t need feminists, male or female, who cannot conceive of us as people. Take a look in the mirror, boys, and be careful you don’t see the archetype of The Patriarch staring back at you

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