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As Iceland Draws the Line, Porn Fight Faces Erotica

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

As Iceland moves to ban hardcore online porn in the interest of reducing sexual violence, the debate about doing something similar divides U.S. feminists. One point of agreement is that material that shows equality between partners isn't destructive.

As Iceland moves to ban hardcore online porn in the interest of reducing sexual violence, the debate about doing something similar divides U.S. feminists. One point of agreement is that material that shows equality between partners isn't destructive.


Sign says, 'Porn is the Propaganda of Patriarchy'


Credit: Steve Rhodes on Flickr, under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

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(WOMENSENEWS)--The European Union may have turned back a proposed ban on pornography, but Iceland is moving ahead.

Unlike the E.U.'s measure that failed in March and was criticized as too vague, too broad and likely to censor artistic portrayals of explicit sexuality, the Icelandic government is in the process of pinpointing and criminalizing violent, hardcore online pornography. Ogmundur Jonasson, the Icelandic interior minister, drafted the measure in February.

By narrowly defining what will be affected by the ban as violent and injurious sexual material--and by emphasizing the protection of children's sexual health--the government hopes to create what they believe is a more egalitarian society with less sexual violence.

Among U.S. feminists the issue of porn can be divisive for those who otherwise agree on issues such as reproductive choice, workplace fairness and the need for better, more affordable child care.

Anti-porn feminist Diana Russell, who taught one of the first women's studies courses at Mills College in Oakland, Calif., wrote on her website that pornography is "material that combines sex and/or the exposure of genitals with abuse or degradation in a manner that appears to endorse, condone or encourage such behavior."

She distinguishes it from erotica, which she defines as "sexually suggestive or arousing material that is free of sexism, racism and homophobia, and respectful of all human beings and animals portrayed." She says erotica can include material with no actual human portrayals, such as the art of Georgia O'Keeffe.

Gail Dines, professor of sociology and women's studies at Wheelock College in Boston and a feminist activist, said stamping out gonzo porn, which tries to place the viewer directly into the scene by putting the camera right into the action, is a public health cause. Her fight started 30 years ago at the age of 22.

"I watched a feminist anti-porn slideshow," said Dines in a recent phone interview. "I was horrified by the violence I witnessed. Thirty years later, porn has become mainstream. Now it's way more violent against women."

An Object, Not Human

Shelley Lubben is a former sex worker and founder of the faith-based porn survivors' organization the Pink Cross Foundation, which is located in Bakersfield, Calif. She once interviewed the former porn performer Jersey Jaxin, who specialized in "barely legal" gonzo films and related in graphic terms the abuse she suffered.

"Guys punching you in the face," Jaxin said in an interview on Lubben's website: "You have semen . . . 20 or 30 guys all over your face, in your eyes. You get ripped. Your insides can come out of you. It's never-ending. You're viewed as an object, not as a human being with a spirit. People don't care. People do drugs because they can't deal with the way they're being treated."

After World War II, Hugh Hefner's soft-core Playboy magazine began pushing sexually explicit materials into mainstream acceptance. By 2006, a study in Cyberpsychology and Behavior reported that of more than 500 college students surveyed, 93 percent of males reported seeing pornography online by age 18.

The E.U. porn ban that failed in March called for "concrete action on its resolution of 16 September 1997 on discrimination against women in advertising, which called for a ban on all forms of pornography in the media and on the advertising of sex tourism."

As part of a hail of criticism, Swedish politician Rick Falkvinge spoke for many when he described the proposal as "a hair-raising attack on freedom of speech and freedom of expression."

Anti-porn activist Dines also considered the proposal too broad. Her target is violent porn, which she says leads to gender inequality and child sexual abuse.

Feminist Porn

Maxine Holloway, a San Francisco-based porn performer and student of public health, strongly supports so-called feminist porn, which she defines as sexual material made by and enjoyed by both women and men, with respect for the performers onscreen.

Even within feminist porn she said there are gonzo or sadomasochistic genres. As far as she's concerned, that's fine.

"Feminist porn is not always soft and sensual," said Holloway. "People like Belladonna and Madison Young . . .  show a darker and harder version of female sexuality and pleasure that many women can feel ashamed about."

Belladonna is a performer and producer in gonzo pornography; Young is a porn performer and filmmaker popular in the queer and kink communities.

Dines scoffs at people who say that anti-porn activists disapprove of all sexual material. However, she believes that, for the most part, feminist porn is traditional misogyny with female figureheads.

"I do not believe that sexually explicit material is the problem," Dines said. "The problem is pornography that eroticizes the sexual subordination of women . . .  Much of what is called 'feminist erotica' uses the same sexual grammar and template as hardcore mainstream porn . . .  I would love to see sexual images that are really feminist, but these are not going to be produced within an industrial setting for profit."

Safe Work Conditions

One faction of the porn debate is focused on keeping sex work as safe as possible for the women involved.

Mireille Miller-Young is an associate professor of feminist studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara. Her book, "A Taste for Brown Sugar: Black Women, Sex Work and Pornography," will be published by Duke University Press in 2014.

She said pornography bans such as the one proposed in the E.U. would drive the industry underground and that would be particularly harsh on women of color in the sex industry.

"Criminalizing pornography only makes conditions less safe for sex workers," Miller-Young said in an email interview. "Sex workers of color in the adult film industry in Europe and the U.S. are already the most vulnerable, and would be made even more so under a ban on production or distribution of adult material. Bans on pornography . . .  may actually be more dangerous to society by foreclosing an area of speech and expression."

Dines said that pro-porn feminists who want to preserve sex workers' livelihoods are lining the pockets of those who produce porn. "Pornography thrives on poverty, sexism, racism," she said. "You don't see female lawyers and doctors performing in porn. It's total exploitation; capitalism at its worst."

Dines added that any attempt to pass anti-porn laws in America -- especially something as similarly vague as the E.U. measure --will fail. First, she said, Americans must be educated about the dangers of violent porn.

"It's like tobacco or underage drinking," she said. "You need to make it a public health issue. Free Internet porn, in my opinion, is like giving out free cigarettes to schoolchildren. The pornographers want them young."



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