Liberation Through Porn?

Daly Trimble | Rising Editor in Chief

Sex can liberate. But, if #metoo hasn’t made it obvious enough, sex can also be one of the most oppressive facets of a woman’s life. From the bitter prevalence of survival sex among the American homeless population to the false consent given when life’s aspirations are threatened by a man with power, women are regularly exhausted by the commodification of their own sexualities. And yet, a decades-long debate rages on: Can pornography set women free? Done “right,” can it be an empowering art form, even a woman-to-woman enterprise despite its inherent objectification?

The short answer is “no.” As an editorialist writing about sexuality though, I feel compelled to reveal my biases. I am a practicing Roman Catholic, and pornography is completely incompatible with my faith. The Church maintains that sex should be a fruitful and unitive act of giving yourself completely to another within a marriage.  Like any stance we have regarding sex and sexuality, that’s a personal one. However, the answer remains negative even as I write under a feminist hat. Pornography cannot, in any manifestation, bring liberation to womankind because the economic and social consequences are too compelling to argue otherwise.

To say that consuming or producing pornography could free women is to be fooled by a raunchier version of the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty. Soap and porn don’t become empowering just because they’re marketed to make you feel included. The reality of the American porn industry is that it has many female players but very few female winners. Aside from some of the top-grossing stars, pornography actresses are paid unpredictably, experience regular occupational hazards and job instability, and face inadequate legal recourse.

Rashida Jones’s documentary Hot Girls Wanted depicts the hardness of a corporation so saturated with resources that the women who can’t lower inhibitions or raise stakes fast enough are pushed to increasingly dangerous, fringe jobs. At that dead end, they’re virtually consumed by predatory filmmakers or leave the market of their own volition. And while making an average of $800 to $1000 per scene seems lucrative, actresses lose a large chunk of that sum for expenses necessary to stay in business, such as costumes, supplies and regular STD testing. Male publishers, booking agents and CEOs have the largest wallets in the multibillion dollar industry. They make a good deal of that directly off the bodies of the women they hire or collect fees from. Outside of mainstream porn, could there be another solution?

“Ethical pornography” is a recent attempt to appease customers who want to enjoy porn without feeling guilt for the above issues.  Some producers and directors are building labels that prioritize occupational safety, decent pay, and clearly defined performer’s rights.  However, its mere existence doesn’t debase my argument. Corporations that prioritize women-lead production and fair compensation are an expensive drop in an ocean of free online content. An equitably produced product will never outnumber or outcompete cheaper, labor-exploitative goods. This is an economic reality — if the world is only willing to pay WalMart prices for an item, sweatshops must exist somewhere in production. Even if the ethics of pornography are reduced to who is giving consent and who is getting paid, ethical pornography is not a satisfying solution. It will always be overshadowed to the point of insignificance by what is abusive, unregulated, and free.    

Finances aside, the fundamental nature of pornography restricts feminine and queer sexuality far more than it liberates. To claim empowerment through reclamation in this case has the ring of “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.” The two-dimensional, context-free depiction of sex in modern pornography itself abides by the tastes of those with the most social privilege. Not only that, but it originated and persisted through eras where women were regularly objectified and denied autonomy. As the tropes continue on repeat, porn’s depiction of sex grows increasingly antiquated and detached from this generation’s understanding of personhood, nuance and sexuality.

Can pornography liberate women? No, and the suggestion that it could erases the complexity of women and other minorities who are in need of so much more than a skin flick.  Economically, it’s a beast too profitable as is to change its abusive practices. Socially, it’s about as empowering as buying a new handbag in the name of a “new you.” No matter how intersectional the content or the team of content-providers, pornography can’t transform into an ethical or empowering product. We need a decrease in violence, an increase in educational and occupational opportunity, and validation of genuine sexuality for American women. Accepting anything else is allowing the world to continue under a cheap excuse for freedom.