Saturday, 19 April 2014

Censorship isn't the whole story.

The debate on the issue of pornography has long been framed in terms of censorship, a simple dichotomy, one person for it, another against it, and no other possibilities in sight. It long has been this way since the video nasties scare which swept the UK in the 80s and the American culture wars of the 90s. Prohibitionism has its conveniences in a narrow spectrum of discourse. It is simple: aye or nay. It is the common ground set for liberals and conservatives to strike blows against one another. After all if there were no such ground how could they wage such battles. Feminists have been split over this question going back decades. It was always a last ditch argument given that the ban on pornography would fail just as the bans on drugs (not forgetting alcohol) and gambling have failed. This was true decades ago and it is even more true today.
The issue still rears its head from time to time. Last year there were Conservative proposals to set limits on internet porn, albeit with through the means of consent. David Cameron wants an opt-in system instead of the opt-out status quo (a perfectly fine system) we currently have. So, of course, at The GuardianLaurie Penny comes out against the opt-out system and reiterated her position on censorship. Likewise, back in August 2013 Richard Seymour produced a polemic attacking Cameron's proposal at the New Left Project. It is very easy to find such articles and the arguments are wearily predictable. This is the case because it is hardly a matter of serious contention. Whether or not we have an opt-in or opt-out system really doesn't matter. In any case there are bigger and tougher questions to ask ourselves. For those of us who love ideas, the real game in the hunt is still out there.

Back in March Autostraddle reported the beginning of Porn Studies, the first peer-reviewed academic journal on porn, which I found to be a welcome development. About a dozen days earlier the Huffington Post ran an article on the campaign to legislate against pornography. Predictably, feminist critics of porn like Gail Dines and Julie Bindel were on the chop block. It wasn't long ago that Caroline Lucas, a politician of tremendous fortitude, appeared on the BBC to bemoan the low-shelved soft porn of lad mags. As much as I respect Lucas I found the debate to be at the level of futile gesture. It doesn't amount to a radical commitment to argue that the magazines be shelved slightly higher to be out of the way of children. We are in dire need of a serious discussion on pornography outside of these comfortable and incestuous oscillations.

Even that famously feminist journal Cosmopolitan waded in last year with an interview with feminist pornographer Tristan Taormino. The commitments of feminist pornographers, such as Taormino, extend to gender equality and social justice. The pitch is certainly appealing: "Feminist porn is ethically produced porn, which means that performers are paid a fair wage and they are treated with care and respect; their consent, safety, and well-being are critical, and what they bring to the production is valued." Yet there is room for criticism here if we prod deeper. She says feminist porn "seeks to empower the performers who make it and the people who watch it." Note how progressives have ceased to speak of 'taking power' and now prefer to talk about 'empowerment'. This relates to a key issue (one of many) overlooked all too often.

When asked about sites such as RedTube and YouPorn Taormino said "What most people don't realise is that most so-called 'free' porn on the internet is not really free, its blatant copyright infringement illegally uploaded on tube and bit torrent sites." This is where we realise that this particular approach really only confirms property relations and doesn't challenge them. For all the niceties of Taormino's progressive comments, it would seem she has no time for the potentials of decommodification online. She even demonstrates nostalgia, at one point, "I don't really consider [YouPorn and RedTube] amateur sites because most of the content isn't actually amateur. They are basically destroying the old economic model of the adult industry." Yet the next moment she heaps praise on the internet for its roll in allowing a space "for people to control the means of porn production" and refers the reader to,, and

These sites practice profit-sharing in a cooperative model which stands in contrast to the bog-standard method of cranking out dollar bills. The extraction of surplus value in pornography comes down to the production of footage, which used to be potentially without limit, until the advent of the internet, and as long as willing performers can be found. The pay grade for successful pornstars may dwarf the wages of waitresses, but it is still exploitation. The creation of spaces within the market for alternative forms of production is not to be dismissed as an aim. Much like fair trade goods and organic food, feminist pornographers pledge to contest the forces of the market on their own terms. Unlike other goods, pornography has the capacity to reproduce a certain form of sexual relations endlessly. In other words, there is no guarantee of feminist pornography prevailing over its competitors. It boils down to free-choice and this is a problem for the Left.

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