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Is pornography ever acceptable?

Warning: Many of the links in this article go to adult only sites. Only click them if you are 1) Not at work and 2) An adult.

Well of course porn can be acceptable. It is a bit of a silly question if you ask me.

Still, it was a question that I tried to answer last night on the BBC World Service debate. Of course, there was not the time to answer the question in full, so here is part of my argument to why pornography can be acceptable.

Last night I made a brief point that countered one of the traditional criticisms of porn, that it ‘peddles a misogynistic societal norm’. I said:

A simple point, how does consensual homosexual porn reflect ‘traditional misogynistic values’? It normally doesn’t.

I hoped this point would illustrate a wider argument. Pornography, in its current manifestation is a deeply worrying phenomenon, but there is nothing inherent about pornography that suggests it has to be.

So why do some feel that pornography is never acceptable?

The reasons given would broadly fall into two categories:

1)      The feminist argument – simplified, this line of thought argues that pornography is inherently demeaning to women and peddles societal norms that perpetuate negative associations with gender identities – think Andrea Dworkin.

2)      The ‘Won’t somebody think of the children’ argument – again simplified, this line of thought says that pornography is giving young children unrealistic and damaging understandings of sex and gender – think of any socially conservative mother.

There is, of course, an element of truth in both. There is however, nothing fatalistic about either argument – pornography doesn’t have to be demeaning to women or bad for children.

Just like gay porn doesn’t peddle misogynistic norms, so pornography as a positive, empowered expression of sexual identity can exist without stumbling across these two ‘traditional’ problems.

To start with the feminist argument:

Firstly, there is of course a lot of empowering pornography written for women by women.

For example, Heather Corinna is a prime example of someone at the forefront of making progressive porn. She is the founder of the websites femmerotic.com, allgirlarmy.org & scarleteen.com that actively look to offer positive images of sex and sexual identity.

She is one of many women who put forward the feminist argument for pornography. Broadly this says:

Don’t women, and all people, have the right to control their bodies, access their sexual desires, and to enjoy safe and consensual sexual pleasure?

For me, it is a compelling argument. Who are we to say that women should not be allowed to reclaim an industry that has been so used and abused by men?

Indeed, this ‘post black lace’ feminist porn has led the way in using pornography to reclaim many of the issues that affect women but are traditionally off limits.

For example Eroticred.com looks to break the myth that women lose all sense of sexuality once a month during their period. ‘Erotic Red’ is self styled as “porn made by passionate models who aren’t shy to say, “Kiss me, I’m menstruating!”.

To give another example, there is Berg’s Queer Foot Porn which is a:

not-for-profit grassroots porno-political activism designed to promotes women’s pleasure through humor and sexuality. We are driven by a longing for women to feel at home in our own bodies, to cherish the sound of our own laughter, and to welcome our sensations of desire. We believe that as women gain a better self-knowledge of what turns us on and what makes us laugh, we will become increasingly adapt at critiquing sexist humour that is not so funny and questioning depictions of sexuality that are not so fun, and, thereby, become more capable of seeing and shaping our own lives. We declare that women’s equality in the bedroom (or in the kitchen or on the living room floor) is as vital as women’s equality on the job – and that these twin goals are not in conflict

Is this not something that we, as feminists, should be welcoming? True female emancipation.

As I have to keep stating, this is not an argument for throat fucking, suicide girls or any of the other nasty plethora of things the porn industry thinks up. It is an argument for the empowering potential of pornography and a warning against the lazily labelling of all porn as the same.

But what about the kids, won’t somebody think about the kids” – I hear every socially conservative mother shout.

The vast majority of those in the industry and those who use pornography agree that children should not be viewing pornography (although why in the UK we think that kids can have sex at 16 but not view pornography until 18 I don’t know).

I would personally go one step further. I think that sought out pornography can be part of a rounded sex education.  The problem comes when the unrealistic and stylized images of sexuality act as a child’s only sign post in their sexual development.

Is there any reason that Berg’s Queer Foot Porn should not be part of a kids rounded sex education?

Therefore, to protect our children I would argue a positive two-fold approach.

1)      Greater access to sex education that doesn’t just focus on the worries and dangers but looks to celebrate human sexuality in all its diversity. This would be combined with:

2)      Open frank criticism of any publication, pornographic or not, that consistently show one gender in a demeaning light.

This latter point includes ‘lads mags’ (a dying phenomena) and yes, even the nation’s favourite fiction book, 50 Shades of Grey (phrases like “Truly I am marionette and he is the master puppeteer” – hardly female liberation speak). Of course people should be free to read such publications but we need a public consciousness and discussion about their societal impact.

What we cannot afford to do, is make the porn industry a punch bag. We need to welcome the progressives within it and openly criticise the bigots, rapists, traffickers, heroin dealers and misogynists.

Just like the rest of society, we have to articulate that these values and actions have no place in a civilised society. At the same time we need to be saying that all people regardless of their gender or sexuality are empowered to articulate their desires in a non-judgmental environment.

Not only can pornography be acceptable, but it might also act as a positive tool for changing society for the good, if only we are open minded enough to accept it.

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