Revolution #257, January 29, 2012

"Sex-Positive" Feminism and Sasha Grey; No Defense for Porn

Editors' Note: This article was originally published at on September 27, 2011. Following it are some reader comments and responses by Sunsara Taylor. These are edited for length. The entire exchange can be read in full at

Recently, two college students (young women) insisted to me that it was wrong to oppose pornography because we should be "sex-positive." They also insisted that many women choose to go into pornography out of their own ambitions and that ought to be respected as a means of "empowerment."

This is bullshit on so many levels. First, the vast majority of women and girls in pornography and prostitution (and the lines do blur) would get out of it if they could. Second, even where women choose for themselves to be in porn despite the availability of other options, this does not mean that choice is a good one. For them, or even more significantly, for society and women as a whole. The view of women that is concentrated and perpetuated in porn hurts all women way beyond those who "choose" to take part in it. Every woman at every hour of every day—whether on the street, in her home, at her job, in school, or on a battlefield—is affected by, diminished by, and endangered by living in a world where millions upon millions of men get off on watching women reduced to objects to be tortured, humiliated and brutalized for their sexual arousal.

These young college students then mentioned Sasha Grey as their perfect example of a woman who entered into porn on "her terms" and to "her own benefit and empowerment."

I described, among other things, some of what Sasha describes about herself in the video below—how she invited a man to punch her in the stomach during oral sex as one of the ways that she won such favor in the porn industry, for instance. The young women hesitated for a moment, but then one of them insisted that if this was her choice we should respect it. "But, what of the content? What of the view of women and sex that is being promoted through this?" I asked them. At this point, they insisted they were out of time and had to go (interesting, as they had stopped on the street and talked at great length and with no seeming hurry for quite some time).

The fact is, most women do not like the acts they are forced to take part in as part of the porn industry. Many women comply with those acts out of fear, out of financial desperation, out of addiction, and other forms of extreme coercion. Often, women don't even consent to what is done to them in film but have no resources or rights to keep the film from being distributed anyway.

But for that fraction of women in the industry like Sasha Grey who choose to be demeaned, degraded, abused, and much more (including films that portray them as small girls, ass-to-mouth scenes, gang-bangs with up to fifteen guys on her at once, scenes where she licks a toilet bowl and worse), the critical question is NOT whether she chose to do those things or not. The key question is the social effect of those actions—and of broadcasting those actions to millions of viewers.

When someone kills someone else, we don't ask the question, "Did they really feel it in their hearts? Was their choice 'authentic' to them?" We ask first, "What was the social effect?" And, if there is not a very good reason for them to have killed (i.e., some situations of self-defense or in certain situations within the context of a just war) their behavior is condemned for its effect on society. Further, such behavior—wherever possible—is stopped.

This is an analogy. Killing someone is not the same as choosing to be in a porn film. But, the method involved must be the same. The effect of porn must be evaluated based on its societal effect—not based on the individual intentions of the people who made it. Judged from its societal impact, porn is extremely harmful to women—to the women involved in making it as well as to every woman walking the earth where there is an international demand for it. It trains men (and women themselves) to not regard women as human beings worthy of respect and equality; it sexualizes degradation and domination; it strips sex of the full range of human interaction, intimacy, vulnerability and caring it can potentially enable human beings to share; it concentrates some of the most unreconstructed racist bigotry and hatred; and it spreads this coarseness of being able to view other people as "things" into other dimensions of this heartless world (it is no coincidence that soldiers fighting in unjust wars often get "pumped up" watching porn before going out killing).

Having walked through all that, take a look at this clip from Tyra Banks when she had Sasha Grey on as a guest. Someone has put some extremely important information throughout the clip which I hope you will also take the time to consider: or go to YouTube and search "Pt1 Porn Star Sasha Grey on Tyra. comments (Nonprofit"

Commenter 1 said...

Sasha Grey is obviously the wrong candidate for defending or representing the wide variety of pornography that exists. Generalizing the totality of porn through Sasha Grey is tantamount to a straw-man argument. It is difficult to take seriously.

Any serious person must first acknowledge that there is a sexual aesthetic and that women have just as much a right as do men to be liberated sexual beings and to express their sexuality in healthy ways. They must also acknowledge that not all porn involves women being "reduced to objects to be tortured, humiliated and brutalized..."

No doubt within the current capitalist system many women get into porn not because they want to but because, financially, they are left with few alternatives. Many of these women also find that they must do porn that they would otherwise rather not do. With pornography as a major expression and extension of market capitalism—driven only by profits and not by consideration of taste or art or free and healthy sexuality—the result is the "porn industry." I doubt that there is much to defend regarding the general industry, but it must be acknowledged that it is diverse. The Naked News is not equivalent to a simulated gang-bang rape, for instance.

There are various strands of feminist thought on these positions and Sunsara Taylor has taken the "hard-line" anti-porn position. The problem is that this position internalizes the Puritanical and sexist cultural attitudes that stifle women's sexuality ...

... In this sense Taylor is not taking the moral position of the Left, but rather the conservative moral position that finds its deepest roots in the Puritans.

The problem here is not that porn exists. The problem is that the capitalist system makes some women believe that they must participate in forms of pornography they otherwise wouldn't in order to be successful. The problem isn't that pornography objectifies women. The problem is that capitalism objectifies human beings as commodities. Without capitalism prostitution could not exist and neither could the porn industry. Without capitalism there would instead be the fully liberated male and female sexuality in truly freely chosen expression.

9/28/11 4:41 PM

Commenter 2 said...

Sunsara, the issue you bring up in your latest blog installment is an important issue not often addressed as it should be. As a ex-photographer who once did erotic art work (with two museum exhibitions and many collective and individual gallery shows) as well as fashion work (which uses mostly underage models), I can say that I have thought deep and carefully about sexual and sexist representation in the commodified consumer society that we live in.

Sex by and of itself is a pure concept (it has no meaning of its own). Therefore the significance and values we place on it are contingent upon a number of things, first and foremost are the signs and values ascribed to it by any human society.

As a pure concept the signs and values that we give to human sex will be purely a reflection of the society that produces them. To briefly illustrate this: the representation of two humans engaged in coitus carved in a temple complex from some ancient society will have had very different meanings to that ancient society than the same representation does today in western civilization. Therein lies the rub.

Porn as produced, distributed and consumed in western civilization is an extension of the brutal and often sexual rapaciousness of our modes of domination. These modes of domination are mainly military, economic and political violence. The destruction of historic communities and their cultures, languages and social forms of reproduction by the western civilizatory project is accomplished by, among other things, sexual violence.

When the Europeans invaded this continent (América—is a single continent), it was part of their policy to rape as many indigenous women as possible, this accomplished many strategic things which I won't get into here. But the point is that sex in western civilization has been and continues to be used as a barbaric weapon of exploitation, expoliation and domination.

Porn cannot be separated from this history in western society, even more, if we think that, as several contemporary philosophers have proposed, the human mind is the landscape being colonized right now and that human consciousness lies at the horizon and in the crosshairs of the post-modern, neo-liberal project of colonization of the human mind, then we must also see that porn is one of the most effective weapons through which such colonization is achieved. But it can only do so if the sexual representation available to people is degrading, brutal and inhuman.

As a sex-positive (the understanding that there is nothing wrong with sex between two consenting adults) person, and as a ex-cultural producer of eroticized imagery, I can affirm that porn as produced and reproduced in today's society cannot be about freedom of expression, or the empowerment of women, that as you point out is utter bullshit.

What can truthfully be said about porn, you say it well. And I would simply add to it that porn is a devastating weapon being deployed, under the guise of freedom, towards the colonization of the human mind with peculiarly powerful effects.

9/28/11 6:03 PM

Sunsara Taylor said...

Commenter 1, you write, in part:

"Any serious person must first acknowledge that there is a sexual aesthetic and that women have just as much a right as do men to be liberated sexual beings and to express their sexuality in healthy ways."

Women have a right to be fully human—this includes being sexual, enjoying sex, initiating sex, or refusing sex at any time and in any circumstance. But being fully human is different than being reduced to a thing which is used for sex. Porn reduces women to things—it does not express women's sexuality as part of their full humanity. (I challenge you to find me a porn film where the woman discusses questions of philosophy or literature or politics, is taken seriously, and says something like, "Tonight I'd just rather cuddle.")

No, I don't have to "acknowledge that there is a sexual aesthetic." There are very many different sexual aesthetics and meanings that can be given to sex in different circumstances, different times, different cultures and different individuals. Porn presents one kind of sex—many different positions, but one view of women: things to be fucked.

Capitalism is certainly a huge part of the problem, but that is only part of the problem with porn. The other part is PATRIARCHY and the oppression of women. Porn is patriarchy filtered through capitalist commodification of everything. But, what is being commodified in porn is not sex in general, or even women as part of people in general, but PATRIARCHY.

Porn reflects and deeply reinforces the overall patriarchal and male-supremacist relations that saturate society. It does incredible harm. To women, as well as to humanity as a whole.

As for your insistence that because I am against porn I must be driven by puritanism—that is not only bullshit, it reflects a poverty of imagination and an impoverished view of sex and sexuality.

If you can't imagine sex without porn, that is fucked.

Commenter 2—what you say is very deep and much appreciated.

9/28/11 10:35 PM

Commenter 3 said...

I believe that women are punished for being sexual and this is wrong and I have the right to have sex with a stranger, right now, on the telephone, via webcam, in the flesh, Herpes be damned. I once moonlighted as a dominatrix, went to underground sex clubs, freed my fetishes. But I can't deny the fact that Porn and prostitution are the most exploitative industries known. It is anti-sexual freedom. A sex laborer in porn does not choose or express her sexuality. You who look at chains and see freedom are fooling yourselves. It's not Capitalism binding a woman to her sexual service; this has been going on since there have been wars. I disagree that the damage is mostly to society; the damage is to the prostitute; don't believe me, look at the life expectancy of a prostituted woman. I do disagree with Sunsara on some aspects; I think a woman who freely does non-invasive types of soft porn, or chats on Second Life, don't necessarily have to answer to society. Some sex workers can be free, but that doesn't justify paying a cent for porn or respecting bigots like Larry Flynt.

9/28/11 11:30 PM

Commenter 1 said...

One of the obvious difficulties in discussing pornography is the problem of definition. It is near impossible to define pornography, and SCOTUS (Supreme Court of the United States) is a prime example of this. The Supreme Court has found it near impossible to define pornography, from stating that it is that which is "utterly without social redeeming value" to Justice Potter Stewart's "I know it when I see it" statement. Who is the arbiter of what is of social redeeming value and how do they decide? If we follow Stewart then we are forced to agree that it is a merely subjective judgment and that there can be found no objective criteria...

The notion that there must be deep philosophical or political or social discussions in art, or in anything else for that matter, to be of aesthetic and artistic value is quite objectionable. The WSWS (World Socialist Web Site) covers world political developments well and in a general sense is correct—I obviously have personal, political differences with them, as I do [with] you—but their film reviews are constantly obtuse and strict [in] the most absurd sectarian ways. The WSWS is of the opinion that unless a near completely socialist ideology is infused into the storyline of every film then the film necessarily lacks artistic merit. Nothing could be more absurd. There is the position of art for art's sake. Film doesn't have to be sociopolitical. It can be driven by the purely emotional or even the pure aesthetic of cinema or both. In this sense pornography (whatever it is) does not have to dwell upon philosophy or politics or sociology. It's an absurd claim to argue otherwise. Although one could argue, as many have, that Bertolucci's The Dreamers or Cuarón's Y Tu Mamá También are both exactly that: pornography with cinematic, sociopolitical discussions in the background. Who is to decide?

There is pornography where women are the only participants and there is a niche for "self-made" and "webcam" porn. When women decide to make sexual videos of themselves under their own direct control, no other considerations than their own is of any relevance. You cannot account for such nuance within your extreme generalization. That is the main point. A great deal of the "porn industry" is without question utterly nefarious and sexist, but one should be mindful to discriminate here. Instead of criticizing pornography in general (because no one even knows what that is) perhaps you could criticize the porn industry instead and the various specific ways in which women are exploited and abused therein.

9/29/11 2:00 AM

Commenter 4 said...

"Empowerment." Wow that's just crazy, and that is such bull shit. I was a prostitute for 18 years. And there is no such thing as getting "empowerment" from that. Even for males, there is no empowerment. It's straight exploitation pure and simple. And in that business women have it much worse. Everyone's getting exploited, but the women are at the bottom. It's sickening really. I've been there, in the same room where the filming is taking place. And it's nothing glamorous what so ever....

9/30/11 1:37 AM

Commenter 1 said...

The problem with your position is that it is an inaccurate representation of the entire picture. There exists exactly the inverse in porn of what you say is true about women for men (it's called "femdom," i.e., female domination). There is a domination niche and it goes both ways. I personally find either aspect distasteful and would have nothing to do with either, but I am not so naïve as to paint the entirety of pornography (whatever it really is) as either patriarchic because of strange niches or matriarchic because of femdom and I don't see why I should campaign against people who enjoy those niches or consensually take part in them. How do you account for femdom? ...

I dislike turning such discussions into personal commentaries but because of your ad hominem I suppose I should point out that I am more than capable of imagining sex without porn. For me, sexual relations are all about the conjoining of equal partners in sexual acts mutually desired. Although I strongly believe in personal freedom and liberty, even the freedom to engage in weird sexual fetishes (some people legitimately enjoy such things, perhaps Sasha Grey is an example, although, again, I don't know enough about her situation to know), I myself am fairly conventional. I am of the personal belief that sexual relations should be the tangible manifestations of love. I am more of a romantic really. That simply has nothing to do with the real arguments here...

9/30/11 2:26 PM

Sunsara Taylor said...

Commenter 3, you write, in part:

"I disagree that the damage is mostly to society; the damage is to the prostitute; don't believe me, look at the life expectancy of a prostituted woman. I do disagree with Sunsara on some aspects; I think a woman who freely does non-invasive types of soft porn, or chats on Second Life, don't necessarily have to answer to society."

First, I agree that the damage is also done to the prostituted woman. I was not arguing over where the harm is greater. I was making the point that for the vast majority of women in prostitution and in porn, they are in terrible and damaging circumstances they would get out of in a second if they had a viable option to do so. However, even for those who uphold what they are doing and choose to do so, that alone doesn't settle the question as to whether that is a good thing to choose to do. That is why I bring up the societal damage. The two, in fact, are linked.

As for your point on whether women who choose to be in porn "have to answer to society"—I don't think that the women in porn are the main ones who have to do the "answering." Most of these women—as you also point out—need support and resources to get out of what they are caught up in. I think the makers of porn, the buyers of porn, the whole perpetuation of the mainstreaming of porn—these folks and these institutions need to be challenged and stopped. I would say, however, that for those women who have decided to claim that they are being empowered and empowering other women by being in porn—that is total bullshit and should be challenged. The same way that women who protest abortion clinics (often, in the name of "saving women") should be challenged.

9/30/11 6:04 PM

Sunsara Taylor said...

Commenter 1—You ask about definitions. The word pornography has its roots in women who were enslaved for sex. Erotic, on the other hand, is rooted in eros, which means love.

Nowhere have I insisted that every film have a political message or political discussion. Your description of the narrowness towards art on the WSWS is rank economism, extremely harmful, and is totally different than the point I was making. Contrary to the insistence that EVERY film include politics, I was pointing to a problem with a genre that on principle NEVER includes women as full human beings, including their ideas and thinking on matters of philosophy, art, politics or whatever else.

Later, you write, "I am more than capable of imagining sex without porn. For me, sexual relations are all about the conjoining of equal partners in sexual acts mutually desired."

The fact that, in describing non-pornified sex, you describe equal partners and sexual acts that are mutually desired, says a lot about what porn is and why it's so harmful.

9/30/11 6:17 PM

Commenter 5 said...

Commenter 1 raises the question of femdom to assert that it defeats the criticism of porn as male supremacist. Femdom doesn't challenge male dominance. It merely reflects the obverse of the customary dominance of males over females. It doesn't refute but rather re-enacts the treating one person as an object to be dominated by the other.

To use an analogy: does the fact that a woman such as Margaret Thatcher was in charge of Britain prove that patriarchy no longer exists? Just because you change the gender or the race of the person now in charge doesn't change the underlying form of oppression.

11/11/11 1:03 PM


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