Sexual liberation and the politics of pornography

Money Shot: A Journey into Porn and Censorship
By Jeff Sparrow
$29.95, Scribe

The left is tangled up in knots over the politics of pornography. Left-wing academics like Clive Hamilton are trying to fight sexist objectification by forming anti-porn alliances with pro-lifers like Melinda Tankard-Reist. In search of sexual empowerment, feminists are creating guides to encourage women to produce and consume pornography.

These murky alliances—between free marketeers and advocates of free love, between women’s rights activists and the Christian right—have thrown off course the fight for a real freedom from sexism and authentic sexual liberation.

Overland editor Jeff Sparrow’s new book Money Shot: A Journey into Porn and Censorship helps disentangle the idea of sexual liberation and shows why neither porn nor censorship have anything to do with the struggle for women’s liberation.

Free market sex

“If people are consenting, if they’re not doing it against their will, I don’t see what’s wrong. There’s a market for everything,” says Anne, the Sex Party’s Queensland co-ordinator.

In the 1970s sexual liberation was part of a wider struggle for women’s liberation and stood for a freedom to explore the possibilities of human sexuality beyond the oppressive prescriptions of family, gender roles and the commodification of women’s bodies.

Sadly, some of those who claim to be today’s advocates of women’s liberation have turned that struggle on its head and argue for women to embrace the very sexual market that epitomises the sexist values of capitalism.

Free market feminists like Sydney University’s Catherine Lumby downplay the misogyny of porn on the basis that women involved were consenting—as though becoming a porn star is an uncomplicated process that takes place outside of women’s oppression.

Similarly, Lexi Belle, American porn star, blames the women themselves for the sexism. “If the girl’s gonna let someone degrade her then she’s weak and she probably shouldn’t be in the industry”, she says, with typical neo-liberal, blame-the-victim logic.

Not only has the market narrowed and distorted the ideals of sexual liberation, it has rendered invisible the fact that most porn is incontrovertibly “marinated” in sexism. Porn reflects the society that creates it and so depicts all the prevailing stereotypical views of women, their subordinate role, their abuse, as well as the racism and bigotry that is warped into expressions of desire.

Censorship

Money Shot debunks any idea that the market can be a road to sexual liberation But Sparrow is also clear that porn should not be censored.

Anti-porn activists Clive Hamilton and Melinda Tankard-Reist argue that porn is the root cause of sexist behaviour in society, and should therefore be censored. Tankard-Reist presents Sparrow with anecdotes of teenage girls who submit to sexual harassment and argues that their disempowerment is the result of pornography—and a “porn culture”.

But to blame porn for the sexist abuse endured by women and girls mistakes the tip of the iceberg for the entire social structure of oppression. As Sparrow explains, “It seemed far more likely that the 13-year-old consenting meekly to sexual harassment learned her passivity not from adult videos, but from a wider culture in which sexism was a given…the assumption that the problems began with sexualisation first and foremost seemed uncomfortably close to an old fashioned suspicion of sexuality.”

Sparrow’s chapter on the criminalisation of porn under the NT Intervention demonstrates not only the farce of blaming pornography for social problems, but also the damage that the state can do when it is empowered to censor.

Sparrow sees the poverty of the Aboriginal communities as a far more overwhelming issue than pornography. “We could debate censorship in Melbourne, but the problem facing Aboriginal society was much more confronting than any number of (necrophilic) LA zombies,” Sparrow notes dryly.

He pours over The Little Children are Sacred report into child sex abuse, the excuse for the introduction of the Intervention and finds that for the report writers, “pornography stood as a catch-all, a stand-in for all the sexed-up cultural products of modernity… the effect of the dominant culture more generally.”

Far from allowing Aboriginal communities to defend themselves against an onslaught of white Australian values, the criminalisation of porn is part of an array of measures to disempower and collectively humiliate them.

The chapter makes it clear that the state is no ally of the oppressed—women or Aboriginal people. And it settles, once and for all, any sympathies the reader might have for porn censorship as a way to win women’s rights.

Another sexuality is possible

Sparrow spends the book trying to find where sexual liberation fits between the false choices of the market and the restrictions of censorship.

Finally, after discussion with Wendy Bacon about the sexual liberation movement in Sydney in the 1970s, it becomes clearer what this could look like.

Jeff Sparrow's new book, Money Shot, is a very important contribution to the debate about sexual liberation, pornography and women's liberation

When Wendy Bacon was breaking the limits of the censorship laws with the publication of bawdy poems and pictures in UNSW student newspaper Tharunka, she was part of a movement that wanted open discussions about sexual pleasure for everyone.

The ideal of sexual freedom was inextricable from the ideals of gay and women’s liberation, from the fight for freedom for the Vietnamese and Aboriginal people—not just in the forms the movements took, but in the sense that sexuality could not be uncoupled from other aspects of humanity.

There was a “broader liberatory project”, and sexual liberation was seen as part of that greater project.

The spirit of a collective and class rebelliousness about sexuality and freedom has nothing to do with porn where individuals pursue personal, purchased gratification.

Sparrow concludes with a call to join and support the modern day versions of the broader liberatory projects, like the Arab Spring, anti-austerity and Occupy movements. These movements, not porn and censorship, have the kind of collective power that really could challenge oppression and unbind sexuality.

Lucy Honan

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