Pornography appears to be the nemesis of feminism. It is an industry that is unabashed in its upholding of patriarchy and misogyny, blatantly banishing the figure of the woman to a commodity to be looked at, to be exploited for sexual pleasure, and yet the woman is the first one to be excluded as a masturbatory viewer/ participant. Her pussy is not something to be pleasured, but rather an instrument to pleasure, an object to be penetrated by the hard-on cock(s), and for other hard-on cocks to ejaculate over the image of this penetration. The woman assumes a submissive position, a servant with her ultimate goal is to squeeze the sperm out of the global phallus, but never fully quenching men’s sexual thirst in order to keep them trapped in the excitation-frustration cycle.
Writing on the effects of pornography on the subordination of women in the society, Catharine MacKinnon pushes this argument further than anyone:
” It is the pornography industry, not the ideas in the materials, that forces, threatens, blackmails, pressures, tricks, and cajoles women into sex for pictures. In pornography, women are gang raped in order to be filmed. They are not gang raped by the idea of a gang rape. It is for pornography, and not the ideas in it, the women are hurt and penetrated, tied and gagged, undressed and genitally spread and sprayed with lacquer and water so sex pictures can be made. Only for pornography are women killed to make a sex movie, and it is not the idea of a sex killing that kills them. It is unnecessary to do any of these things to express, as ideas, the ideas pornography expresses. It is essential to do them to make pornography.”
-Catharine MacKinnon, in Only Words (1993).
In essence, MacKinnon is arguing that pornography is real, that it is not only pictures and representation, but women are literally raped on film in order for it to be distributed as simply “ideas” or “words” in the society. For her, the sole existence of pornography serves as the root of gender inequality, sexual abuse, women exploitation and thus it should be banned altogether. In turn, feminism cannot condone the porn industry, and must completely obliterate it in order to advance women’s social position: we need to combat pornography as if we are combating rape.
This rhetorical exaggeration on MacKinnon’s part does bring attention to the exploitation of women in the sexual industry, but I do wonder whether this exploitative reality is a cause or a product of an already sexist society that has hitherto exclusively centered around the pleasure of men. As Paul Preciado writes in Testo Junkie: “The porn producer David Friedman remarked that contemporary pornographic exploitation […] is an extension of the popular circus, the freak shows at fairs, and the amusement parks of the pre-cinematic era”. If we take dance for instance, the misogynistic treatment of female dancers is not so different from the exploitation of porn actresses: in both cases, the female body is directly at stake, having to conform to certain standards set out by the male directors or choreographers in order to address and to pleasure the male spectators.
In very similar ways, the patriarchal violence is directly hurled upon her body – there is not any ontological difference between having her pussy penetrated and having her body contorted, starved, broken to fit the feminine ideals of a woman (and a lot of times, still get her pussy violated because of the prevalence of sexual abuse in dance). If anything, the only difference is the subtlety: whereas the porn industry is very upfront about its exploitation of women and is subjected to legal scrutinization because of its sensitive nature, the violence against women in dance and other cultural industries often goes unnoticed, as no one seems to acknowledge how serious the effects of these discriminations are. By singling out pornography as the evil force against feminism, Catharine MacKinnon and other anti-porn feminists are overlooking gender and sexual violence in a lot of other fields where this problem has not received as much attention and visibility. In the end, pornography tells the performative truth about gender and sexuality just like any other fields, serving as another performative repetition that reinforces the rigidity and inequality of female/male, feminine/masculine, submission/domination along with trillions of other micro-behaviours in our daily life. Thus, while pornography should be held accountable for its misogyny, porn does not produce the sexist reality any more than the sexist reality produces porn, tangling porn up in the web of cause and effect of performativity just like anything else.
The real irony in MacKinnon’s argument is by trying to empower women through her call for the illegalization of pornography, she is disempowering women as subjects which are not able to make appropriate decisions about their bodies: it’s all rape, abuse and exploitation!!! Also, if porn really holds that much power, which I believe it does, why not use it as a weapon to expose, undermine and transgress both patriarchy and the kind of feminism that colludes with the conservative agenda to censor sex? By taking a closer look at how Kim Kadarshian is able to wield that power, or with this post, how the porn-star-turned-artist Annie Sprinkle uses her explicit body through her Post Porn Modernist Show in the 1990s, I am proposing a kind of feminism that can work with porn, that can use the pornographic sensibility as a source of power to finish with the erect phallus.
In this scene pictured above, which Sprinkle calls a “Public Cervix Announcement”, she invites the audience to shine flashlights through the speculum she had inserted into her vagina. The literality of her cervix reveals the performative nature of sexuality, arbitrarily associating the pussy with its nature of being a sexual organ, an object to be penetrated. Here, the awkward nature of this situation only emphasizes this arbitrariness: Sprinkle’s vagina becomes a sort of a spectacle, an educational public event that is completely removed from the realm of sexual pleasure, but if anything closer to the scientific anatomical interest in the body.
What is feminist about letting people scrutinize your vagina? Well, everything. First, she appears as a Goddess with the capacity to command the room to line up, one by one waiting to see her cervix; in that space at that particular moment, she holds power. Second, her vagina is no longer just an object to be penetrated, to be used to pleasure other men, but rather it is parodying a scientific-like examination and scrutinization, publicly experimenting with the idea of a non-sexual sex organ; her vagina becomes a site of power. Third, she is in complete control of not only her body, but also of what her body, and especially what her genital signifies, recycling its pornographic representation in order to remove the showing of the vagina from a stereotypical porno-sexual signification; she exerts power over her images. Thoroughly empowered, a porn actress can also be a feminist.