Sexting, steamy novels, edited scenes of intimacy on primetime, unedited scenes of intimacy on Showtime, porn sites, advertisements with half-naked women clutching arbitrary merchandise: like it or not, we’re exposed to naughty bits on a daily basis.
The questions of pornography and nudity no longer lie in “Should we show it?” but instead turn to “How should we show it?”
“How are we apprehending others? As tools of our own pleasure?” asked Michelle Harrington, an EC adjunct professor on the purpose of pornography. “We are shaped by what we see, and pornography tends to be misogynistic.”
Indeed, this is a view held even among our student body: a recent Leader-distributed survey, questions were posed to students about feminism and pornography, and out of the 319 people who answered, 79 percent felt pornography demeaned women.
Harrington, who taught the class “Religious Ethics and Human Sexuality,” wishes for studios to “give women some agency to give them more [dimension] than eager breasts and sexual participants.” Although some feminists support full censorship, she does not see benefit in eliminating erotic material entirely.
Professor of Philosophy and Assistant Director of the Honors Program Russell Ford said although he is against the marginalization of pornography, he trusts in the benefit of a free exchange of ideas. “Anything that does not create an imminent threat of serious harm should be allowed into the marketplace of ideas.”
Driven by the problem of negating exploitation while promoting healthy sexual representations, Ford created a class in 2007 to assess pornography with feminist theory, media theory, and psychoanalysis, which he entitled “Critical Theories of Pornography,” taken by EC alum Alexander Garcia in 2010.
Garcia, who currently acts as defensive graduate assistant for the football team, said following the course, he felt a drastic change in his beliefs concerning pornography.
“With all the categories of pornography, going to a porn website is, in some sense, like going to the butcher shop,” said Garcia, who admitted to originally taking the class for “immature” reasons, in an email.
Garcia continued, “If you take something like pornography – which shows this system of dehumanizing women to their body parts – and apply that to what you see in popular culture, you can see in a more subtle way of how women are broken down from human beings to just body parts that people find pleasurable.”
Ford educates his students on the benefits of representing human sexuality, something he believes to be healthy and entirely necessary.
“I think that, as a society, we have a number of tools other than government-sponsored censorship by which we can take action to express concerns about media content,” said Ford.
Despite the Miller Test, which attempts to define pornography in three, easy steps, the famous quote “I know it when I see it” seems to be the way in which American’s draw the line between what is “okay” and “not okay”; yet, in this haze of what is deemed appropriate for viewers, American’s understanding of sexuality – especially concerning women – has greatly suffered.
“When we divide pornography from non-pornography and leave it at that, when we’re not more subtle in our distinctions of pornographic imagery, and we forbid any sexually-explicit material from being sold at outlets like 711 … material will be sold elsewhere,” said Ford, who explained going elsewhere means going to places that will allow access to more violent imagery.
Ford continued, “And, there’s a way in which, by allowing material to be sold – to some extent, openly – in as many outlets as possible, people can maintain the ability to economically pressure those stores … Censorship, I think, is a recourse of last resort.”
Countering the idea that pornography demeans women and negates varying sexuality is the emergence of diversified porn, such as new studios identifying themselves as “feminist.”
Tristan Taormino, creator of a feminist studio named “Smart Ass Productions,” runs a site called “PuckerUp,” in which she addresses her mission as an equal-rights advocator who makes pornography. Taormino never scripts or follows formulas for the sex captured on film; instead, she likes the performers to be comfortable with themselves and their partners, something she explains in an entry entitled, “What Is Feminist Porn?”
“My feminist porn is made under fair, ethical working conditions,” she wrote. “All activities are consensual, no performers are coerced; performers set their monetary rates, which are not questioned or haggled over … [and] performers must present proof of negative STI results.”
Ford’s main concern did not lie with the failure of the porn industry to protect their employees – in fact, he commented conditions have only been improving with the start of actresses’ and actors’ self-made contracts – but instead fears pornographic material of amateurs.
“Gonzo pornography – pornography that is done on the spot – endangers those who participate because they have no control over the distribution and are often times not consenting,” said Ford.
In this, Harrington agreed. “You have to consider who you are looking at and for what purpose. Pornography tends to go toward the extreme, promoting acts intended to humiliate and borders on sadistic, which becomes problematic.”
Garcia admits he struggled with seeing pornography as anything other than pleasurable.
“I think the thing that I was missing in the beginning of the class is that harm is not necessarily people watching pornography and walking out of their house and attempting to rape a woman,” said Garcia. “Harm is [also] a situation where an employer tries to make sexual advances on his employee, because we think she will say yes and be willing to, because porn tells us that she will accept that sexual advance.”
He continued, “Harm is that instead of caring about a woman’s intellect or her character, women are based on breast size, body type, what their butt looks like, and if they would be a lay.”
The reductive and poor representation of sexual relationships is what Ford believes causes the strain between feminism and pornography.
“Feminism is committed to civil and gender equality – not toleration. Feminism celebrates sexuality.”