The Problem with “Feminist Porn”

Feminism has had an interesting relationship with pornography. Second-wave feminists were unequivocally hostile towards it, with activists such as Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon attacking the industry for its impact on women. Calling it “the graphic sexually explicit subordination of women through pictures or words,” they claimed that pornography desensitized men to the humiliation and degradation of women, leading to an increase in cases of rape and violence against them.

For all their verve, the porn industry has only got bigger and bigger; pornography becoming more and more mainstream and accepted. Women who speak out against porn are labelled as frigid prudes, while women who talk about enjoying porn with their boyfriends are given the thumbs-up from society. Many feminists seem to have given up that fight, accepting that porn is here to stay, and have settled for working within that framework rather than calling for its abolition. One of the ways that they have done this is by coming up with porn that is more feminist-friendly, where women are more natural, come in all shapes and sizes, and the videos are woman-produced and woman-owned.

Are these sites more feminist-friendly than what we think of as ‘normal’ porn? Sure. In mainstream porn, we see a host of interchangeable girls with large breasts and small waists, with men tit-fucking them, slapping their breasts, shoving their cocks in their mouths, or shooting cum in their faces. In fact, the only scenes that seem to be about mutual satisfaction are the ones where women pleasure each other in the absence of men, although of course in these instances the male gaze is assumed. By contrast, sites such as Furry Girl, VegPorn, Femmerotic and Erotic Red unashamedly celebrate the natural and oft-uncelebrated, whether its female body hair, different female body types, or menstruation. All of which are good things.

Yet, clicking through the sites, I see pictures of women, pictures of women, and more pictures of women. I’m glad that we’re being more inclusive, but I, as a straight woman, would also like to be aroused by porn. Thank god for gay porn (which, in the male-dominated porn industry, obviously means gay male porn.)

This is a massive imbalance in the porn industry, and one which we seem to have normalized and accepted, so much so that it doesn’t even occur to us. The industry continues to spew out videos and images of women – women’s faces, women’s breasts, women’s vaginas, women’s moans – the only close-ups you get of the men are of their erect penises, and most of them hardly make any noise aside from some stoic grunting. And then, when only a fraction of women are aroused by such videos, compared to hoards of men, society has the audacity to conclude that women are not aroused by visual imagery, that women have lower libidos, that women prefer romance, and so on and so forth. And the fact that women are subtly encouraged to enjoy porn that has been created exclusively for men is ludicrous, and smells like the dreaded assumption that “men are people; women are women.” A woman who likes what your stereotypical man likes is cool, be it football, guns, beer-guzzling, even sexual encounters with other women, apparently. But god forbid a man be into anything a stereotypical woman likes. God forbid he be interested in dolls, ballet, or sexual encounters with men. That above all.

The examples we have of feminist porn sadden me. Have we become so used to seeing women as sex objects to be viewed by men, that a role reversal is inconceivable? Is making the porn industry more feminist just about creating a greater diversity of women? Are men only to be objectified when the consumers are other men? (as in gay porn?) Are women only allowed to be consumers when the objects of arousal are other women?

In theory, I see nothing wrong with sexual objectification. But, and this is a huge but, where the problem starts is when it goes on to be part of that person’s identity, an assumption that that is all they are. And this is what is happening to women, not just individual women (though certainly some experience it more than others) but women as a group. Thus I have no real problem with pornography in theory, but as it stands today, rife with misogyny, coercion, humiliation, shame and degradation, it sickens me.

Certainly, the porn industry needs to be revolutionised, and I suppose the sites I’ve listed above, and others like them, are a small step in the right direction. But we need to challenge the view that only men can be consumers, to show that women can enjoy men too, rather than merely expanding the net of women who qualify to be featured as sex objects. We need to remove the shame and stigma associated with pornography, to improve the lives of the actors within it. We need to harness a genuine and equal level of respect to all – all genders, all races, all orientations, all actors, and all viewers. Only then can I get behind it, and proclaim just how feminist pornography can be.

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Annabel Chong – Can a Porn Star be a Feminist Icon?

As I’m currently in Singapore on vacation, I thought I’d take a moment to talk about someone who is possibly the most controversial woman in Singapore’s history. Or perhaps controversial is the wrong word; after all, to qualify as being controversial, one has to have generated some difference of opinion. ‘Infamous’ might be a better word, but I’d like to make her a little more controversial today.

Though I live and work in London, I spent a good part of my youth in Singapore, and growing up we all knew who Annabel Chong was. High-achieving school girl-turned-record breaking porn star, her name was bandied about as a joke, a disappointment, a warning to young girls everywhere. To agree with her actions or attempt to discuss them was to invite shock, outrage, and ridicule (especially when talking to one’s parents, as I found out).

For those who do not know Annabel, it’s the stage name of the porn actress who set a world record by engaging in 251 sex acts with more than 70 men, within 10 hours. You can imagine the kind of things that are said about her in her conservative hometown.

But what I find fascinating about Annabel is how she entered the porn industry with a sense of – one could call it – youthful idealism. She holds a degree in Gender Studies, and in the film ‘Sex – The Annabel Chong Story’, she speaks of her motives:

“[I wanted to challenge] the notion of women as passive sex objects…We’re not wilting violets, we’re not victims, for Christ’s sake. Female sexuality is as aggressive as male sexuality. I wanted to take on the role of the stud. The more [partners], the better.”

Unfortunately, the porn industry, and her audience, did not agree. Rather than portraying it the way Annabel wanted, with her as the ‘stud’, having her way with lots of men, the film is called ‘The World’s Biggest Gang Bang’, which is defined as ‘the successive rape of one person by a group of other people.” And it did seem like a gang bang too. Protection was not ensured, and Annabel was passed around from man to man, without power or agency of her own. Far from being a woman on the prowl, she was cast as a victim, a slut, doomed to be the butt of endless jokes and ridicule. She wasn’t even paid.

Something else that complicates the idea of Annabel as a strong feminist figure is her own disturbed emotional state, which renders her actions rather more complex. A victim of an actual gang bang in her youth, she has suffered from bouts of depression, has self-harmed, and has said in an interview that she wished to feel like a piece of meat. In 2003, she turned away from the porn industry entirely, leaving a final message on her website – “Annabel is dead.” She now leads a quiet life as a web developer, and it seems that all the negative publicity, prejudice and societal condemnation has broken her already fragile fighting spirit, and she’s washed her hands of the whole business.

Annabel’s motives were admirable. Her actions led to failure and disaster because the world was not ready for them. No one seemed to understand, or if they did, they refused to acknowledge it. Certainly not the producers, directors, or the 70 men in the film. Certainly not her audience, and certainly not her countrymen. I look upon her as a brave martyr, and while she may be no Germaine Greer or Simone de Beauvoir, if she’s woken some people up to the horrific inequalities and double standards that exist in society, as well as the routine exploitation of women, then that sure as hell counts for something, doesn’t it?