Think the Porn Industry Discriminates Against Women? Lean In.

What Women Really Think
March 8 2013 10:41 AM

Think the Porn Industry Discriminates Against Women? Lean In.

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Feminist pornographer Nina Hartley

Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images

Next week, members of the European Parliament will weigh a proposal aimed at “eliminating gender stereotypes in the EU.” The effort to fight "discrimination against women in advertising” would urge member states to crack down on TV shows, video games, music videos, and advertisements that “show provocatively dressed women, in sexual poses,” promote “violence against women and girls,” or “portray women as sex objects in order to promote sales.” But when it comes to pornography, the proposal favors a more comprehensive approach: A ban on porn “in all forms.”

The belief that pornography, as a genre, discriminates specifically against women is one still favored by leading anti-pornography activists like Gail Dines, Shelley Lubben, and Catharine MacKinnon. In an interview for the MAKERS series, MacKinnon reiterated her view that “exposure to [porn] makes life more dangerous to women” and “promotes a range of atrocities and violence” against them. When we find gender disparities in other sectors—from literary journalism to tech—we urge industry leaders to assess the problem and encourage women to lean in. But when it comes to porn, the impulse is to just shut the whole thing down.

That’s unfortunate, because it reinforces the expectation that women can only ever be innocent bystanders to sexual material, never producers or consumers in their own right (banning all porn would mean negating the contributions of proudly feminist pornographers like Tristan Taormino, Nina Hartley, and Cindy Gallop). It glides over the experiences of female porn viewers (who have leveraged the Internet to find and distribute porn that appeals to them, even when it’s not marketed that way). It totally ignores the men who are "sexualized" in porn (if pornography discriminates against women, can we all keep watching gay porn?). And it curtails discussion about the challenges faced by some men in the industry (like Derrick Burts, who contracted HIV in 2010, and Erik Rhodes, who died from a heart attack at 30 after heavy steroid use).

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Enforcing a government ban on pornography won’t actually rid the world of smut (and the proposal, which has been raised before, is unlikely to lead to a legitimately enforceable ban). But the effort does make it a lot harder to talk about porn honestly, and to advocate for better representation of women in the industry. In a misguided effort to advocate for women, these activists are negating the sexuality of women, gay men, and all the straight guys who’d like to see more diversity in the porn they’re watching, too.

Amanda Hess is a Slate staff writer. 

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