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Just a few days after I returned from the Adult Video News Adult Entertainment Expo (AEE) in Las Vegas, I was interviewed for a Canadian television show about feminism and pornography. The producer asked me to respond to some of the most prevalent anti-porn arguments.
"Adult videos portray and promote one single beauty standard: the young, blonde, tanned, thin woman with big fake boobs. Isn't that oppressive?" Have anti-porn feminists watched any porn recently? If you are going to critique a body of work, you should be relatively well versed in it. That the industry presents only one type of sexually desirable woman doesn't reflect what I saw in Vegas. Sure, that particular Barbie archetype represents about half the female performers, but there are plenty of others: sporty girls, girls next door, tattooed and punk girls, not to mention the different aesthetics of women who populate amateur porn. And what about women of color in the industry? They certainly aren't all just Barbie with different skin colors. I agree that the majority of performers are thin, but porn is no more guilty of showcasing only pretty, skinny women than the rest of the media. When was the last time you saw an ordinary-looking overweight woman in a fashion ad, on the cover of Cosmopolitan, or cast as the romantic lead in a movie or television show?
"Men learn to overly sexualize women from porn." Porn has become a convenient scapegoat for the sexism that pervades our society. During coverage of this year's Golden Globes red-carpet arrivals on E! Entertainment Television, designer-correspondent Isaac Mizrahi asked Eva Longoria about how she groomed her pubic hair, he squeezed Scarlett Johansson's breasts, and he discussed underwear choice with several other actresses. Some people found his behavior amusing, and co-host Debbie Matenopoulos speculated that he could get away with it because he's gay. Based on the shock of each of the actresses, the obvious lack of consent, and the fact that he did not exhibit the same behavior with men, I found it inappropriate and offensive. All that said, something tells me that Mizrahi doesn't watch a lot of heterosexual porn.
"Porn is created by and for men and depicts only male fantasies of dominating women." First, this argument assumes that all men have the same fantasies. Second, it presumes that all female performers are acting out stuff that has nothing to do with their own sexuality; it leaves no room whatsoever for the representation of women's desires. What if some of what is captured on videoeven something that looks like a "typical male fantasy"is an expression of a female performer's sexuality? It's easy to point to women-centered porn and say, "Look, the woman is calling the shots! Her needs are being met! She's empowered!" I think the trickier terrain for feminists in this debate is watching videos where women are sexually servicing men or submitting to them. There is still a stigma associated with a woman's desire to have rough sex, to be submissive, or to surrender sexually.
When anti-porn feminists see depictions of sexual submissiveness, they see disempowerment and degradation. They do not allow for any other interpretation, which dismisses the notion that the power dynamic between partners and a woman's expression of her submissiveness could ever be consensual or pleasurable. People who do BDSM have proven that being able to express dominant and submissive desires in a safe, controlled environment can be empowering. In porn, some performers may be playing a role, while others may behave the way they think they are supposed to or how they think a director wants them to. I concede that there are women who are coerced or feel they don't have the power to assert themselves on a set. But there are others who are very much in control of who they work with and what they do. There is a difference between women playing the part of a submissive fuck doll and those who are expressing their own fantasy. I spoke to performer Kimberly Kane (klubkimberlykane.com), known for her rough, visceral sex scenes, fresh off her double win at the 2006 AVN Awards. She says, "I've lived out a few fantasies in movies because I know that I can. I have the opportunity to do anything I want. I choose not to do some things, and I stick to my guns. If I do want to do something, there is always someone with a model release and a camera to make my dreams come true." She's proudly submissive ("mostly") and feels empowered when she expresses her sexual submission in front of the camera. "Everything you see on-screen is me. I am not faking it all for the check. I give everything. It's no different for me than having sex in my personal life. What you see is what you get."
Kane is not the only one: I have been on sets where women indulge and revel in being an erotic object. However politically incorrect that may be, we are all entitled to our fantasies. If a performer says how much a scene turned her on, to ignore her is to strip her of her agency and invalidate her desires. Anti-porn feminists disregard women's positive experiences in porn, since they much prefer to trot out "victims of pornography." Who am I to tell a performer who reports a good time, "You've been brainwashed by sexism! You're a tool of the patriarchy!"