The other day I watched a TV show that contained irritating gender stereotypes. I tutted, turned to the friend I was watching it with and said:
“Bloody hell, mate, this is some godawful sexist shite.”
“Oh my CHRIST GOTN, why are you trying to CENSOR ALL OF TELLY?!”
This didn’t happen, of course, that would be ridiculous. But this happened instead:
Porn and censorship
I started following PornPanic on Twitter because they were having interesting discussions around the censorship of adult material, and campaigning against the UK’s utterly ridiculous attempts to take a red pen to half of the internet. I am pro-porn: I do some freelance work for a spanking porn site, I write a hell of a lot of dirty stuff and I have a vested interest in the UK government not implementing sweeping porn filters. I’m sure some of you disagree with me on this stuff – it wouldn’t be a decent world if we all agreed on everything – I just say this so you know that I am very much in the general Down With Porn Censorship camp. Which is why I was a teeny bit surprised to see an organisation that I thought was an ally in the fight against porn censorship saying something that seemed so wholly against their interests. The other day, PornPanic tweeted this:
A bit of discussion opened the can of worms, and we established that this was a reference to feminist critiques of gaming. The account owner is offering a ‘thin end of the wedge’ type argument, and claims that calling out sexism and misogyny is a fine way to sneak in censorship by the back door.
What’s more, @PornPanic seems to believe that – as a direct result of feminism – anti-porn arguments have increased since 1980.
*cracks knuckles* *gets stuck in*
Critical analysis is not censorship
This is a really obvious point, isn’t it? Saying ‘this is misogynist’ is not a euphemism for ‘this should be banned.’ I call shit misogynist all the time, and yet I very rarely support banning anything. As a general rule, where something is a massive and ingrained cultural problem, I think the best solution involves massive and long-term cultural change, which is best achieved by discussion, critique, and generally Making Things Better. I know, right? Pour me a cup of organic tea and knit me a lentil jumper, but that’s just what I believe.
Because of that, it’s screamingly obvious to me that critical analysis is not censorship, or a ‘thin end of the wedge’ towards censorship. As I can turn to my friend and tell him that the programme we’re watching is a load of old shite without demanding that we rip it from the schedule, I can point out that there are massive and systemic issues withing the gaming community, or the porn industry, without at the same time demanding that everyone in it is locked in a soundproofed room forever.
Sure, my ultimate goal is that there will be no more misogyny (hooray!) but that’s literally never going to happen in my lifetime, and it’s certainly not going to be achieved by censoring everything, and giving angry misogynists something genuinely unjust to weep publicly about. By criticising a thing I’m not saying ‘get rid of it’ I’m saying ‘hey, you could do this better. Please can you make more of this, but better?’
It’s not only a cry for improvement, it’s actually a compliment to the form itself…
Critical analysis legitimises certain media
If Banksy had just been a guy with a paintbrush, and no one ever went ‘hey that’s some pretty political artwork I reckon it’s making a comment on the nature of our surveillance culture’ then the dude wouldn’t have had even half the publicity he’s received, and his work would currently languish beneath six layers of other people’s graffiti tags.
Criticism is not only important – it’s vital in order for an art form to survive. I’d argue that video games are (or can be) art in the same way that films and books can. If no one ever discusses the themes and the flaws, video games will only ever be seen as an idle way to pass time until you die, instead of the rich and varied mix of the groundbreaking and the godawful that they actually are.
Humans live off discourse, and word spreads about a particular video, game or blog post because people discuss it. It’s one of the reasons I write a bunch of stuff here – not just erotica. People will share and discuss this far more than a post about a spreader bar, and although this will probably see fewer actual visits (a lot of my traffic comes from searches for dirty stuff), the people who do see it will remember it – whether they agree or not. What’s more, I wouldn’t be human if I didn’t occasionally get riled by stuff.
Porn deserves criticism
So there we go. Porn deserves criticism just as any other media does. But my curiosity piqued and my hackles raised by the ‘misogynist’ comments, I took a punt through the rest of PornPanic’s twitter feed to see whether they were engaging in the kind of interesting critiques and thoughtful analysis that will help porn thrive. The answer is: not really. They’ll retweet anything that’s pro-porn, and very little that involves a deeper and more interesting discussion of the porn industry.
It would be remiss of me to write such a long diatribe about porn and not add some criticisms of my own, because I genuinely care about the people who make excellent porn, and those who are challenging the industry and coming up with some excellent stuff. So here are a few issues:
- Performer conditions. When people say ‘the porn industry’ they are often referring to what I’d call the ‘mainstream porn industry’, and I have a lot of problems with that industry. Exploitation of workers, lack of respect for performers, poor pay and conditions – the list goes on. Pandora Blake has written some great stuff on this, so do check out her posts on fairtrade porn.
- Lack of diversity. Just as I get hacked off with erotica covers that only ever use gym-toned muscle men, so I get annoyed with mainstream porn that depicts a world populated by slim, white, cis, beautiful people. Where anyone who differs from this norm is specifically fetishized for their body type, and often demeaned by it as if they’re no longer a person, they’re a ‘BBW’ or similar.
- Horrible language. I’m a words person: as a general rule I get more turned on by reading than watching (or sometimes ‘listening to sexy guys read stories about fucking – there needs to be more audio porn, imho). Porn talk is often deeply unsexy, and I hate the way that a lot of porn marketing a) is aimed only guys and b) assumes that guys are slobbering twats. I know straight guys who love creampie videos, and will happily watch something that’s labelled ‘cumsluts’, but would never actually use either of those words: it’s porn shorthand and it can kill arousal, as well as prevent us from using words in beautiful ways. When I write for Dreams of Spanking I sometimes agonise over the perfect word to use for something. Is this a smack, a slap, a whack or a stroke? Words are important. That’s just my personal bugbear, though.
Raising these issues doesn’t make me anti-porn, though, any more than saying ‘I can’t stand Clara’s boyfriend’ makes me anti-Doctor Who. None of this means we should ban porn: it means we can and should make it better. Fight for better pay and conditions for performers. Boycott studios that don’t treat performers fairly. Avoid pirating material that people have put their heart, soul, and sex juices into. Make porn more diverse – more interesting. At the end of this blog post there are some links to performers who I think are doing just that.
The point I’m making is – if what you want is to avoid porn censorship, it’s much more damaging in the long run not to acknowledge problems with the industry, or ways in which great producers are improving performer pay and conditions, diversity and other things. The only industries that will collapse because they get called out on misogyny are industries which are inherently misogynist. By knee-jerking to defend porn against all these criticisms, you weaken your arguments by implying that it cannot possibly stand up to this scrutiny.
Are anti-porn arguments on the rise?
So, what of the claim that anti-porn arguments are on the rise? That since the 1980s there’s been a growing wave of angry feminists being outraged about porn and calling for a ban? Are feminists getting more sneaky, or is there something else going on here? If you thought the answer was a), you’re going to kick yourself. Take a look at this strange device.
That’s right – it’s a VCR. For those unfamiliar with them, they’re basically a primitive version of Netflix, only they had porn on. Lots and lots of porn. In fact, VCRs were the driver for a massive and significant spike in the porn industry. Before VCRs people either had to go to a porn theatre (and risk getting seen by their mum/coworkers/friends), buy magazines with naked photos in them (they’re a bit like gifs, only they don’t move and the pages get sticky). Desperate times.
So when VCRs came in, and people could rent, buy and swap hardcore movies, suddenly porn was easily accessible and far more common. Of course we saw more anti-porn arguments: we were watching fuckloads more porn! Technology brought material into people’s homes that was previously hard to get hold of without an ID card and a huge dollop of courage. Saying that anti-porn arguments have increased since the 1980s is as meaningless as pointing out that no one called for video-game bans before the NES: there were barely any sodding video games to ban.
So yeah, anti-porn arguments will increase when porn becomes more easily available. We saw a spike in the porn debate when the internet became available in people’s homes, again when torrenting became common, and we’re in the middle of one now because new forms of porn distribution (Tube sites, etc that crucially require no credit card verification) are bringing more porn to the masses. Some of these arguments are based on criticisms of misogyny in the porn industry and material which exploits women. Others (and I’d argue a much more significant proportion) focus on the fact that, with better tech and easier accessibility, children are more likely to find content which is inappropriate.
If you want to say anti-porn arguments are on the increase, that’s fine. But if you want to use that as a means to claim that nasty feminists are getting more insidious in their attempts to ban porn, then you’re on your own, sunshine.
“Shutting down debate”
The final point I’ll make before I fuck utterly off is this: there are a number of different ways to shut down a debate. Censorship is one of them: I can stop you every time you try to make a point. If I’m a government I can put you in a prison. If I’m a politician I can potentially make a law to ban you from spreading whatever your message is.
But if I tell you that I disagree, or that I don’t like your art, or that the way you make videos goes against certain other of my principles, am I really shutting you down? Are your principles so pathetically weak that they’ll crumble if I examine them? Or am I, in fact, giving you the respect that you deserve by treating your work as if it’s worth critiquing?
If you want porn to be accepted and acknowledged as an entertainment or art form, you have to accept that it’ll get critique. The only reason we’d stop talking about porn is if there were no more porn. And you wouldn’t want that now, would you?
As promised, here are some independent porn producers/performers who are doing some interesting and excellent things. This is very far from an exhaustive list: Courtney Trouble, Pandora Blake, Kitty Stryker, James Darling, (Kitty and James are currently promoting Fisting Day as a protest against obscenity laws), Cindy Gallop, Ms Naughty, Jiz Lee, Nimue Allen (Nimue’s just relaunched her website, Nimue’s World, which is well hot). There are many more, and this isn’t a long enough list. It’d be great if @PornPanic could contribute similar recommendations, because just saying ‘all porn is great and if you disagree it’s censorship’ doesn’t quite cut it.