I have admired Peter Tatchell for many years. He is an heroic political figure who has persistently spoken out against human rights abuses. In so doing he has opened himself to social vilification and even to physical violence. However in ‘Pornography is Good for You?’ I suggest he has badly reneged on his struggle for human rights.
In developing a moral justification for pornography, Tatchell deploys the rhetorical strategy against feminists that he reins on his homophobic and racist opponents: we are illiberal, anti-democratic, sexually repressive and anti-freedom. Most pro-pornography proponents assert that their reasoning, in contrast to that of allegedly ‘anti-sex’ bigots, is not ideologically driven. Tatchell’s claim is no exception: his own stance contributes ‘a more balanced, nuanced approach’ to current controversies over pornography. Those who critique pornography are ‘the new puritans’, ‘uptight religious fundamentalists, conservative politicians and right-wing feminists’. These ‘self-appointed moral guardians’, in mounting an ‘anti-porn crusade’, demonstrate they disapprove of the ‘naked human body’ and ‘sexual pleasure’.
By eliding all objections to pornography as emanating from a unitary anti-sex repressive source, Tatchell’s strategy silences. Who wants to belong to a tight-lipped censorious brigade rather than a fun-loving, sexually-free party crowd? He tars feminists with the same brush as right-wingers. In doing so, he ironically uses the arguments of traditionalists he opposes: acceptance of the demand and supply economy of the patriarchal capitalist market place; a morality based on norms of (heterosexual) masculinity, and male entitlement. Surely Tatchell is not guilty of these charges? I am disappointed to say that he is.
Tatchell alleges feminists view pornography as ‘immoral, dehumanizing, and exploitative’ and performers as ‘victims’. He argues some have freely chosen to work in the sex industry; to them it is a job ‘like any other … much better paid’. Performers are no more exploited than anyone else in ‘mind-numbing, routine, dead-end, low-paid employment’. But feminists do not categorise individual performers as victims without choice or agency. In fact we take an alternative view: In a society where equal pay has not been achieved, where women’s value is invested in her sexuality and where some of the lowest paid labour is carried out by women, it can be an economically rational decision for a woman to sell sexual labour. Women’s equality requires changes at the structural, societal level that causes inequality. The pornography industry is one of its causes; the fact that women work within the industry doesn’t mitigate that.
Tatchell characterises feminists as lumping ‘snuff movies, kiddie porn, rape videos, trafficked or coerced actors, and degrading, humiliating images of women’ into the same category as ‘all sexually explicit imagery’. Instead we should evaluate ‘how it is made, who makes it, what it depicts, and why it is being used’. He separates gay, lesbian and ‘feminist’ pornography from mainstream pornography as if these genres are somehow exempt from gendered power politics, and devoid of hetero-normativity.
He argues ‘there is nothing wrong with the naked human body ‘engaged in consensual sexual acts’. ‘Jerking off’ is ‘natural and healthy’. His argument falls into hyperbole: ‘porno magazines and films that aid frequent masturbation are indirectly saving thousands of lives’. Moreover pornography can provide a sort of social service and democratic function giving ‘everyone equal access to carnal pleasure and happiness, regardless of our age, looks, ability and background’.
To my knowledge no feminist is baying for the prohibition of masturbation (!) or claiming the naked body is ‘wrong’ (!). Feminists are not anti-sexual pleasure; on the contrary, we are pro-sex, and want to rescue sexuality and gender from the pornographic imagination. Pornography is not about ‘natural’ sex, nor is it about free sex, it is about orchestrated sex. The industry goes out of its way to incite desires, longings and fantasies, as products for profit. The issue of moral concern is the construction of the sexuality of women (and men), the body-punishing acts which performers are subjected to and the demand and supply it incites.
Tatchell has no idea whether performers he masturbates to have ‘freely chosen’ to work in the industry, whether they are exposed to sexually transmitted diseases, whether they are trafficked, or indeed whether they are experiencing pleasure. Nor does he reflect on social, economic, and cultural conditions in which choices to perform in the industry are made. But what he can be sure of is that the industry exploits, and whether the producer is gay, lesbian or a woman is no protection from this.
Tatchell conflates right wing rejection of pornography (founded on obscenity) with radical feminist critique. It suits him to do so. His thinking is at root patriarchal, conservative, individualistic and simplistic. Contrast his defence of gay human rights with his defence of human rights and pornography. His defence of gay rights is based on opposition to the constitution of homosexuals as particular kinds of deviant person. So long as homophobia exists, the agency of any particular gay man does not reduce the oppression of gay men as a social group. Well, the feminist critique of pornography follows the same theoretical and political ‘logic’.
When Tatchell focuses on human rights of consumers, he deflects uncomfortable questions about performers, the industry, sexual arousal, cultural conditioning, gender, oppression and exploitation. The real social taboo is not repression of the body and its pleasures; it is the consumers’ as well as the industry’s abuse of women’s human rights. The medium which allegedly brings about ‘sexual democracy’ for ‘the old’, ‘the ugly’, ‘the disabled’, and the ‘under-desired’, classifies women as sluts and whores, eroticizes dominance and violence, and suggests women’s sexual availability is men’s right. Pornography takes over where traditional right wing or religious discourses leave off: it is anti-equality, anti-sex and anti-women. If acknowledging this puts men off their orgasms, then I’m delighted, they still have their hands and their own imaginations.
If Tatchell is concerned with social justice, he should campaign against pornography’s eroticisation of inequality, including gay pornography where gender aggression by hyper-masculine ‘top boys’ towards feminised ‘bottom boys’ is also routine.