The Turn of the Screw: How a Full Revolution of Feminist Perspectives on Pornography Provides the New Frontier for Feminism

(Note: Dylan is a lady! Oh, Americans and their male first names for women. Also, I’m absolutely unapologetic about the turn/revolution puns in the title of this piece.)

Dylan Ryan’s How I Became a Feminist Porn Star is one of the most interesting articles touching on the subject of feminism that I’ve read in a very long time. And not simply interesting because it deals with the relationship between feminism and pornography – something that I feel the second wave of feminism dealt with appallingly – but because it touches on public perceptions of feminism and what it means or might have meant and what it actually doesn’t mean at all.

Some background: hello, my name is Joy, and I’m a feminist. But don’t worry! I’m really educated about it, and I really like people of all genders! And I get really, really frustrated with many of the ways that feminism is presented and discussed in the media and by people I have met – and some of whom I’m very close to – and the very negative perceptions that close down people’s preparedness to discuss issues of feminism but aren’t actually anything to do with feminism at all.

In case you haven’t read the article above, I’ll summarise it for you here: Dylan Ryan is a woman who began performing in porn films that were different, and had been filmed to celebrate more authentic sexuality than the mainstream, ten-a-penny, heterosexual-male-viewership kind, which heavily objectifies female performers (not just in the ‘cosmetic surgery and make-up’ sense, but in the ‘sex is done to them rather than by them’ sense) and many women find unappealing to watch (I’m sure men do, too, but Ryan speaks generally of her conversations with other women). One of the people she discussed things with was Shine Louise Houston, who shortly began making feminist porn films and invited Ryan to star in them, and gradually they built up a name for themselves of having new ways of producing porn, focused on the pleasure and choices of the performers and seeking to provide an alternative that they felt was more authentic in its depiction of the way people enjoy sex together. Ryan herself didn’t identify this as a feminist position for several years – her understanding of feminism was heavily coloured by second-wave feminism and in particular Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon, radical feminists who were extremely anti-porn, and who have often been interpreted as anti-heterosexual sex. MacKinnon and Dworkin wrote extremely emotive pieces suggesting that all male sexuality was based on violence. Ryan’s realisation that her pornography is feminist  forms the ending of the article:

After years of believing that all or most feminists disapproved of what I was doing with my life, it took a moment on a stage beneath a bright spotlight to realize that many feminists not only approved of, but appreciated, what I was doing.

This is, for me, the most crucial part of Ryan’s article: it is not until she wins a category at the Feminist Porn Awards that she realises that what she’s been doing is truly feminism, despite the fact that – throughout her article – the focus on intelligent discussion, authenticity, agency and choice are at the heart of her motivations to be part of a new kind of porn.

To me, it is clear that she is making feminist choices from the start – perhaps that’s because I’ve studied feminism to advanced degree level. And yet Ryan’s degree-level ‘women’s studies’ (a phrase I absolutely hate, because feminism isn’t just for women and it’s not just women who should be studying it) seemed to focus largely on Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon, representatives of a radical feminism that typefies the stereotype of ‘bra-burning’ and ‘man-hating’ extremism – a type that still sees anybody who declares themselves a feminist inviting the hateful label ‘femenazi’. It is, for me, quite firmly a thing of the past – a history that we should learn from but never, ever re-visit. I don’t believe that their radical views are the whole of feminism – but they are evidence that feminism isn’t safe from extremism or fundamentalism, and it’s something that many feminists stand firmly against. 

Andrea Dworkin argued that pornography was necessarily linked to violence against women, in particular the act of rape:

Contemporary pornography strictly and literally conforms to the word’s root meaning: the graphic depiction of vile whores, or, in our language, sluts, cows (as in: sexual cattle, sexual chattel), cunts. The word has not changed its meaning […] The word pornography does not have any other meaning than the one cited here, the graphic depiction of the lowest whores. Whores exist to serve men sexually. Whores exist only within a framework of male sexual domination. Indeed, outside that framework the notion of whores would be absurd and the usage of women as whores would be impossible. […] The fact that pornography is widely believed to be ‘sexual representations’ or ‘depictions of sex’ emphasizes only that that the valuation of women as low whores is widespread and that the sexuality of women is perceived as low and whorish in and of itself. The fact that pornography is widely believed to be ‘depictions of the erotic’ means only that the debasing of women is held to be the real pleasure of sex. (Andrea Dworkin, ‘Pornography’ [1981], in Feminisms, ed. Sandra Kemp and Judith Squires (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), pp. 325-327).

I disagree with almost everything that Dworkin wrote in this quotation. You may have noted her insistence on repetition, and her refusal to cite exterior references but simply build her argument upon itself by constantly reinforcing her own position. She even refuses to acknowledge that the meaning of words changes over time, or that people could possibly use the word ‘pornography’ in all of the contexts that she rejects. Pornography, she argues, does and must only be used in the way that she believes it is used, which is necessarily linked to her thesis of all people in a male-dominated system viewing women as low and whorish. While it is clear that in contemporary society there are problems in the depictions of women in pornography (and in pornographic depictions in other media), and there are well-document problems to do with victim-blaming in rape cases and the cultural double standard of calling women with many sexual partners ‘sluts’ where men are celebrated for being ‘studs’, Dworkin’s extremely narrow focus provides no way of dealing with any of these issues, because it rejects the opinions of people who are not herself. And it’s ludicrous to think that if women ruled the world, there would be no sex workers. Outside a male-dominated framework it would be impossible to use women as whores? I don’t believe it. I believe that women would be able to use women as whores, just they are able to use men as whores, as men are able to use men as whores. I’d like to return to one of her points for a moment. Read this again:

The fact that pornography is widely believed to be ‘sexual representations’ or ‘depictions of sex’ emphasizes only that that the valuation of women as low whores is widespread and that the sexuality of women is perceived as low and whorish in and of itself. The fact that pornography is widely believed to be ‘depictions of the erotic’ means only that the debasing of women is held to be the real pleasure of sex.

Translation: the fact that people don’t agree that pornography is necessarily linked to the sexual debasement of women is proof, for Dworkin, that pornography is linked to the sexual debasement of women. Her form of feminism is a closed loop that allows no space for discussion or disagreement, despite the fact that I sincerely doubt that most people who watch porn want to watch anything vile; rather, they want to watch something ‘hot’, something pleasurable, something that they don’t have to think too hard about so that it will get them off. Mainstream porn is actually pretty vanilla – but Dworkin won’t have any of it. Treating all feminists like they’re this kind of feminist is like treating all of the Irish as terrorists because of what happened in the ’70s: a grossly inaccurate universalistion. And yet, because Dworkin and MacKinnon were the loudest voices, because they were emotive and not logical (which would have forced them to compromise their polemical style, which would therefore have made it less effective), this is what people think feminism is about – and it drives me up the wall. 

Dworkin also wrote that heterosexual sex was an insult to the female body despite, you know, the millions of years of evolution that have nothing to do with conscious sexuality, or the culturally-determined oppression of human women. Now, I don’t deny that Dworkin had some truly horrible experiences at the hands of men in her life. She did – she experienced the stuff of nightmares, and it is not to be taken lightly. But I still don’t believe that the fact that she suffered appalling domestic abuse allows her to indict all men as potential rapists, and to argue that all male sexuality is violent. Sex crime is violent, yes. But sex is not. Dworkin’s view is a narrow focus, which is perhaps why it’s so easy to publicise. But I don’t believe that she is right to say what she does. To campaign against domestic abuse, yes, to support lesbian right, yes! To argue that half of the human species automatically and altogether links sexuality with violence against the other half of the human species and that ways of depicting that sexuality are always and will be violent – no. No, no, no.

I can’t help but feel that Dworkin’s position isn’t logical, and is evidence of the way that radical feminism picks and chooses its methodologies – which is easy to do when, as in this case, you refer no to external facts or factors – which is why I always cite my sources and try to lay out my analysis so that you can see where I’ve got my conclusions from, so that you can work from the same material as me and see whether you agree or not. What’s even worse is that it enables other kinds of narrow focuses, which frankly help nobody at all. Radical feminists following in Dworkin’s footsteps have done despicable things like banning transgender women from their conferences because ‘they aren’t really female’. They did this in 2012, ladies and gentlemen, using exactly the same rhetoric as the religious right that is the very image of the mythical patriarchy that feminism, particularly radical feminism, is supposed to hate so much. The only people permitted to attend RadFem 2012 were “women born as women living as women”. (There’s an excellent and very sensitive piece here, written by Ruth Pearce in response to all of the fallout when feminism exploded on the internet in response to the fact that a known preacher of transphobia was one of the speakers at the radical feminist conference. Ruth manages to be thoughtful, respectful and logical while discussing her issues as a transgender woman with the way radical feminism treats her. Guess how appalling some of the comments on that post are? Yeah, you’re on the internet, I’m sure you get the picture.)

Because I feel a need for completeness and because I do like to cite my sources, I’m also going to quote Catharine MacKinnon. Catharine MacKinnon writes extremely emotively on the subject of male sexuality as sexual violence, with women necessarily as victims. I have never been so angry in my life as I have when reading her ‘Toward a Feminist Theory of the State’, because of the manner in which she appropriates the act of rape to make her points, claiming that she’s somehow revealing or defending the trauma of abused women when actually she’s buying into a system that denies rape victims the chance to speak for themselves because she says that her kind of feminism has already spoken for them. She believes that ‘the male sexual role […] centers on aggressive intrusion on those with less power’ (Catharine MacKinnon, ‘Toward a Feminist Theory of the State’, in Feminisms, ed. Sandra Kemp and Judith Squires (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), pp. 351-358). Or, worse: ‘What is understood as violation, conventionally penetration and intercourse, defines the paradigmatic sexual encounter’ (‘Toward a Feminist Theory of the State’, p. 354). She writes of all men as potential rapists and all women not simply as potential rape victims, but as actual rape victims. Worse, she continually uses the rhetoric of the anger, horror and fear surrounding rape to reinforce her points:

If a woman has ever been raped, ever, does a penis ever enter her without some body memory, if not a flashback then the effort of keeping it back; or does she hurry up or keep trying, feeling something gaining on her, trying to make it come out right? If a woman has ever been raped, does she ever fully regain the feeling of physical integrity, of self-respect, of having what she wants count somewhere, of being able to make herself clear to those who have not gone through what she has gone through, of living in a fair society, of equality? (‘Toward a Feminist Theory of the State’, p. 357)

These long and complicated questions are extremely emotive, but they are also empty, because she does not answer them or even invite answers to them, and they don’t even make grammatical sense – they are hard to understand and impossible to answer. MacKinnon is using the image of the raped woman just as she tries to argue that a man has used a woman in order to bring her to the state ‘raped’, and the hypocrisy of it is appalling. Not least because yes, people are raped, men and women and genderqueer and trans people are raped, and it is appalling and traumatic, but it does not always have to mark them forever. They can recover. We can recover. We will not always flinch every time something sexual happens, we do regain a sense of integrity and self-respect and the enjoyment of sex with whomever we choose to have sex with, but MacKinnon conveniently glosses over this for the sole reason that it does not agree with her thesis, and that is despicable. She is using the image of rape in the same way that she argues women are used in rape.

This is another closed loop: you must be swept along by MacKinnon’s thesis because, hell, if she doesn’t stop to answer her own questions, nor should you. By using rape in the way that she does, MacKinnon has deployed a deeply difficult and emotional situation, something that will get people feeling upset and righteous, to reinforce the rhetoric of her piece. If she asked ‘If a woman has ever crashed a car, ever, does she ever sit in a car without some body memory, if not a flashback then the effort of keeping it back; or does she hurry up and keep trying to drive’, etc, etc, we see what a pointless question it is. She offers no answer, does not allow rape victims to speak for themselves, and appropriates the deep and difficult emotions surrounding sexual trauma for her own political ends. It is not appropriate. I do not understand why this argument is lauded.

This is why I reject radical feminism: I find it exclusive, dogmatic, rhetorically emotive, self-referential, gender-essentialist and fundamentally illogical in its refusal to refer to exterior sources or to allow spaces for discussion and non-essential views of gender. Because I don’t believe that feminism should wholly be based on gender, particularly not on a normative binary of gender, and I don’t even think that it has to be very extreme. And yet this is what people seem to think of when I say I’m a feminist; this is why I have to put up with a male friend of mine saying ‘I fucking hate feminism, it just means women can cry in the office and get what they want when men just man up and get on with things but then don’t get what they want because they don’t whine’, and when I point out that, actually, most feminists would probably prefer a meritocracy rather than a reliance on outmoded gender stereotypes he says ‘oh God I just hate feminism, okay’ because he doesn’t know what it means but if I try to tell him his warped view of, yes, a very warped time of feminism is actually kinda stupid, well, I’ll be insulting him, and that won’t help anything, and his view of feminism will get even worse.

Sometimes feminism is about learning when to listen and not to speak – particularly when it helps you to realise the major flaws within feminism itself, which, actually, that instance, was pretty enlightening. It made me realise that feminism needs much better marketing – and it needs feminists not to get angry, defensive or insulting when they try to talk to others about it. Feminism is not about proving that feminists are correct. (If there’s one thing I’ve learned through being a teacher, it’s that nothing puts peoples’ backs up like someone trying to prove them wrong, and people who don’t listen aren’t much use to any ideological movement.)

Feminism is not about trying to form a society that signs up to one particular view of gender and of women, at all (particularly not a ‘totalitarian’ state, so really the label ‘femenazi’ makes absolutely no sense at all). It is about trying to promote democratic, meritocratic social change that dismantles stereotypes of, and defies discrimination based on, gender, class and race (Ryan’s challenges in coming to view herself as part of a privileged white majority is another crucial part of the article above, but this one is already long enough, so it will have to wait for another time. I don’t want you to think that I don’t know about the problems of white privilege and middle-class privilege in feminism or even pornography, though, so I thought I’d bring it up nonetheless). Feminism has space to intersect with postcolonial and socialist and ecological and technologist movements; it is very flexible and it is very interesting.

For me, feminism is about discussion – with particular emphasis, sometimes, on Socratic irony – and about finding out what people really think, and what they really think of feminism, because I’ve found that a lot of people actually have a lot of views that sign up to feminism’s targets without necessarily signing up to their mailing list. It’s about having a lot of patience, and respecting other peoples’ point of view and their right to express it even when you disagree, so that you know exactly how to disagree, politely and with reference to excellent source materials, in the future. It’s not about lecturing them on how feminism is the right way even though I believe it is able to help us all. It’s not about being able to shout the loudest, it’s about being able to initiate discussions about things being unequal, where people are unfairly disadvantaged or discriminated against based purely on institutionalised views of gender and where gender politics meets race politics and class politics. Feminism is about social change, it is democratic, it supports meritocracy; it supports efforts to promote more women, and people of non-cis-straight-male identity, in life and in literature (yes, pornography is literature) who aren’t defined by being emotional, maternal or treated differently from men in life or in literature. And, yes, that’s all there is to it.

So it is very interesting to me that Dylan Ryan makes feminist choices without thinking that she’s a feminist, because it proves to me that feminism has done really poorly out of some bad publicity in the ’70s and ’80s and it’s never really got over that. It also suggests to me that the problems of feminism – its arguments amongst its own different arms, as it were – haven’t been very well publicised outside feminism itself. Because what’s also caught my eye about all this is that in 1979 Angela Carter published a book about pornography in the service of women and feminism, The Sadeian Woman, ‘a late-twentieth-century interpretation of some of the problems [the Marquis de Sade] raises about the culturally determined nature of women and the relations between men and women that result from it’ (The Sadeian Woman (London: Virago, 2009), p. 1). It is sometimes published as The Sadeian Woman and the Ideology of Pornography, or with the subtitle ‘An Exercise in Cultural History’, and radical feminists mauled it and hated her for what she said. I’ve just spend a long time trying to find a few pithy quotations, but I’m afraid they’re all too good. I can’t find just one that will summarise her many complex points, so I’m trying to find a small selection that will illustrate them without making this article the length of War and Peace. A good one is the opening sentence:

Pornographers are the enemies of women only because our contemporary ideology of pornography does not encompass the possibility of change, as if we were the slaves of history and not its makers, as if sexual relations were not necessarily an expression of social relations, as if sex itself were an external fact, one as immutable as the weather, creating human practice but never a part of it. (The Sadeian Woman, p. 3)

I’ve found a few more, carefully culled to try to illustrate one of Carter’s primary points without adding too many words to this article:

If women allow themselves to be consoled for their culturally determined lack of access to the modes of intellectual debate by the invocation of hypothetical great goddesses, they are simply flattering themselves into submission […] All the mythic versions of women, from the myth of the redeeming purity of the virgin to that of the healing, reconciling mother, are consolatory nonsenses; and consolatory nonsense seems to me a fair definition of myth, anyway. Mother goddesses are just as silly a notion as father gods. If a revival of [these myths] gives women emotional satisfaction, it does so at the price of obscuring the real conditions of life. (The Sadeian Woman, pp. 5-6)

The emotional illogicality of buying into mother / fruitful / gender essential myths is a continuing theme in Carter’s work.

The notion of the universality of human experience is a confidence trick and the notion of the universality of female experience is a clever confidence trick. (The Sadeian Woman, p. 13)

Carter goes on to point that pornography, by employing mainstream gender stereotypes, often buys into this false universalisation. This is part of what many feminists oppose in pornography, whether by condemning it, as Dworkin did, or trying to find a way to produce feminism pornography, as Ryan did.

It is fair to say that, when pornography serves – as with very rare exception it always does – to reinforce the prevailing system of values and ideas in a given society, it is tolerated; and when it does not, it is banned. (The Sadeian Woman, p. 20)

So, whatever the surface falsity of pornography, it is impossible for it to fail to reveal sexual reality at an unconscious level, and this reality may be very unpleasant indeed. (The Sadeian Woman, p. 23)

…the more the literary arts of plotting and characterisation are used to shape the material of pornography, the more the pornographer himself is faced with the moral contradictions inherent in real sexual encounters. Out of this dilemma, a moral pornographer might be born. The moral pornographer would be an artist who uses pornographic material as part of the acceptance of the logic of a world of absolute sexual licence for all the genders, and projects a model of the way that such a world might work. (The Sadeian Woman pp. 21-22)

Now, Carter isn’t trying to argue that the Marquis de Sade is a moral pornographer: she largely points out that in all of his sadistic porn, he gives his female characters the same agency as his male characters to perform sexual and/or appalling acts on other people of any gender. Carter reads de Sade’s work as a black satire on the human condition, and she explores this curious equal footing to derive pleasure from sex and to engage in sadistic practices in terms of second-wave feminism’s major concerns. One interesting point is that de Sade treats female sexuality and female reproductive potential as two very different things, which is something that we think of as a C20th invention, and part of the sexual revolution. The Sadeian Woman is one of my favourite books, and I’m not sure if it makes me happy or sad that thirty-four years later the circle’s come around and once again we’re having the discussion about feminism and pornography, objectification and choice, authenticity and change.

It makes me happy because it seems that things have improved in many ways; the position occupied by Angela Carter and Dylan Ryan is the prevailing view this time, and the mainstream of feminism is not the angry, illogical mess that it was. It makes me happy that there is a feminist establishment and that it sets up liberal and liberating things like the Feminist Porn Awards. But it makes me sad because we’ve had thirty, forty years and that stereotype is still the way feminism is perceived: even in making feminist choices Ryan did not identify as a feminist until she was wholly welcomed into the feminist establishment by winning an award.

Feminism has become an establishment, and yet it hasn’t managed to re-establish itself in popular culture in a way that represents what it actually is. Perhaps this is because there are many different schools and sub-groups – perhaps this is because people don’t talk about it enough in life or outside the establishment itself. But it needs to establish itself properly, in media and in society, and not in a way that puts people’s backs up. Anita Sarkeesian, of Feminist Frequency, is an interesting example of this: I admire her very much, and find her work extremely interesting, but she does get snarky – and sometimes, a little superior – about her views, about the views of general people, and all of the solid academic arguments in the world aren’t going to get the message through if people object to someone’s tone. I’m absolutely not trying to say that the fact that she’s kinda sarcastic is what led to the torrent of abuse she received during the FemFreq Kickstarter – what I’m trying to say is that I know that it’s turned people away from her messages, because they felt like they were being talked down to or treated like one of some undereducated and woman-oppressing majority simply because they didn’t already subscribe to feminism. I’m also not trying to say that she’s not allowed to be sarcastic! Goodness knows I’m a dreadfully sarcastic person most of the time. But I try not to be sarcastic or emotional when I discuss such things, because I don’t want people to respond to my tone and get angry, I’d rather they listened to my words and got thoughtful.

I’m not saying that people aren’t allowed to be angry when they discuss things, either. But I do find that when people are angry and they challenge people and display their anger, well, a lot of people end up arguing and nothing constructive happens. I’ve come to believe that I have to rise above it and be logical in order to make a difference, rather than getting upset and turning it back to personal issues and emotional responses. I know people who disagree with me about this – I know people who believe I’m trying to tell them that I’m denying them their right to be angry about things that they have every right to be angry about. I promise you: I’m not trying to do this. If things make you angry – be angry, but you don’t have to be angry at other people when you’re actually there, in the moment, discussing things with them. Human beings have evolved to respond in particular ways to anger, and they are not ways that promote sensible discussion or that are likely to promote whatever cause you’re discussing. Be angry, but be angry in private, with people who already sympathise. If you’re out there in a public space trying to have a political or ideological discussion, anger is very likely to make you do more PR damage to your cause than it is to help convince anybody that you’re right.

So having touched on feminism, perceptions of feminism, ideas of a feminist establishment, women and pornography, I’d like to know what you think. What does feminism do? What should it do? What has it achieved, and why is it such a negative word in some circles? Can you believe in feminist principles and not be ‘a feminist’? Do you think ‘advocating feminism’ is a better thing than ‘being a feminist’? What do you think of pornography, radical feminist perceptions of gender relations, the fact that there are awards for feminist pornography? Why aren’t there more men writing about feminism? Would you like to borrow copies of any of my Angela Carter books? Let’s have a chat.

Sources Cited

Dylan Ryan, How I Became a Feminist Porn Star

Ruth Pearce, My message to those who would attend RadFem 2012

Anita Sarkeesian, Harassment, Misogyny and Silencing on YouTube, one example of the abuse Anita received during her Kickstarter campaign last year

Angela Carter, The Sadeian Woman [1979] (London: Virago, 2009)

Andrea Dworkin, ‘Pornography’ [1981], in Feminisms, ed. Sandra Kemp and Judith Squires (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), pp. 325-327.

Catharine MacKinnon, ‘Toward a Feminist Theory of the State’, in Feminisms, ed. Sandra Kemp and Judith Squires (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), pp. 351-358.