Pornography made for strange bed fellows -- conservative bible-thumpers, and radical feminists. Porn has thoroughly seeped into the mainstream, and some of its users even think of themselves as "edgy" or "transgressive." But is it all the same porn? And is there a simple yes or no answer to it?
Pornography is the portrayal of explicit sexual subject matter for the purposes of sexual arousal, one very basic definition states. So in the simplest case, we have people making out. We'll use that as a starting point, hopefully finding slightly more neutral ground along the way. Somewhere off in the distance, let's say to the left of our starting point, we cross over into the more artsy (and sometimes less explicit) "erotica" and generally all "mystical unicorn porn" presumed to elevate humanity, presumably by being artsy, realizing its characters as full human beings, and so on.
If that's the angelic "good porn", then to our right must be demonic "bad porn" -- where exactly this border runs is unclear once more. It is often argued that many performers are coerced. We won't explore at this junction whether it is ethical to buy or rent pornography which you simply can't be sure wasn't created under coercive conditions. Instead, let's say that child pornography is definitely in the Badlands here. (Which is exactly why it's such a popular trope in internet censorship -- a huge majority of the population at least pretend to agree that child pornography is bad.) Jane Doe might also place the more openly misogynistic pornography of the Max Hardcore ilk nearby. Your gut feeling agrees? So does mine. Only once we say that there's a level of humiliation and abuse that makes us uncomfortable, it gives rise to that question of where that level is, exactly. Where does BDSM fit in? Somewhere between vanilla sex and Max Hardcore, because it often features ritualized humiliation and abuse? Because it re-iterates our society's domination fetish, the enjoyment of inequality? Or is it better than your grandparents' vanilla because it adds communication to their power dynamics; hard limits, safewords, people acknowledging the width and breadth of human sexuality? Is the fact that kink comes in enough shapes to require discussion a force of good? Is it an opportunity to see the partner and their special kink as more of an individual, a subject, or does the danger prevail that it's less about the person, and more about the kink? Fetish after all is defined as a sexual fixation on an object, or an act, or a part of a person, rather than a person per se.
This, of course, is a historical site we are talking about -- this is where the feminist sex wars were fought. BDSM, pornography, prostitution -- to "sex positive feminists", curtailing any of these meant having their sexual expression limited again, only this time in the name of feminism rather than patriarchy. Radical feminists meanwhile pointed out that surely not all sex, like that with infants or the dead, was acceptable, and that the line had to be drawn somewhere. And as far as they were concerned, the point where it supported patriarchy by ritualising it and then rewarding the consumer with orgasm was exactly where the line should be drawn.
This turns out to be an inexact science. Since women are still an oppressed group, it is hard to create heterosexual pornography that does not re-iterate the oppressive system. Seeing as none of us live outside of kyriarchy, even lesbian pornography might reiterate the same mores. Which ultimately makes the question, "Is there such a thing as 'close enough for all practical purposes'?"
And then of course, there's another continuum. On the extremes of this axis, there's sex you enthusiastically consent to ("Yes! YES! OMIGOD, YESSSS!!") on one end, and "sex" that was coerced on the other. The latter is usually called assault or, more commonly, rape. And then, there is an infinite number of points on this axis -- "Do it, or you'll never work in this industry again" is a lopsided power dynamic; so is parent/child, in a different way. (I'm a big believer in comparing apples and oranges as long as you end up learning to tell them apart.) But what happens once we acknowledge structural violence? If I don't hold a gun to your head to make your participate in pornography (which would then clearly be a document of rape), but it's your only option to put food on the table, am I acting ethically? Is sex different from all other jobs that we do just for the money? Maybe that's an overly romantic notion, and sex is no different. Maybe, there is a difference, and it's a social convention. Or maybe, human beings are hardwired to feel that sex is different. It certainly has special status in a lot of other contexts.
That, of course, opens up a rocky path. Sex that is paid for by definition isn't freely given. Sex that isn't volunteered, by another definition, is rape. This puts prostitution (and a lot of other "sex work") in an ethical mine-field. And of course if prostitution is rape, then pornography, which is documented prostitution in name and spirit, is a document of rape.
So where does that leave us? Is there anywhere safe? Free home-made erotica made by and consumed by feminist lesbians? Maybe. But with the kyriarchy having shaped our sensibilities for all our lives, would non-oppressive sex even arouse a lot of people?
One such attempt, the state-funded Swedish "Dirty Diaries", was reviewed as anything from "amusing, provoking and exciting", to "dull, ugly and rather artistic", but generally "more art than porn." Which certainly seems to put it in the left field of our Good vs Evil axis, in with the artsy fartsy unicorn porn. Which of course leaves us with the question of, "If it's not oppressive, how can it be called pornography in the first place? It's just people having sex."
And maybe, in the post-patriarchy, we'll have just that -- films of people having sex. And maybe, we'll wonder why we would watch others have fun, rather than have fun ourselves, with so much sex out there for the taking, with being able to easily dream up sex fantasies that suit our taste, with liking sex, and having transcended the industrialization thereof.
2011/01/30 Various formatting and links added Note This was originally intended for publication in a different context, in conjunction with a review of aforementioned movies, and is therefore more basic than most of my other texts on the subject.