Sex

Porn and Empowerment

The Duke freshman who works in porn empowers feminism.

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Feminism is often framed in terms of empowerment. This is not unique among social justice movements, but for feminism it's particularly insistent. Last week a Duke university freshman, Lauren A., who works as a porn star responded at xojane to the abuse and shaming she has received by defiantly using the e-word.

"I couldn't afford $60,000 in tuition, my family has undergone significant financial burden, and I saw a way to graduate from my dream school free of debt, doing something I absolutely love. Because to be clear: My experience in porn has been nothing but supportive, exciting, thrilling and empowering."

Lauren's piece makes good on that claim of empowerment. It's clear-eyed, lucid, and generally awesome. I wish I'd been as good a writer, or had as clear of sense of self and purpose, as a first-year college student. She explains that the porn site she works for respects her and has never coerced her; she sees her work in part as a way to explore and express her bisexuality and queerness; she is determined to attend college without sinking in debt, and this is a way for her to do that. Her piece includes a thoughtful feminist analysis of the virgin/whore bind and of sex worker stigma. Finally, she links the abuse she's faced to that of rape victims, arguing, convincingly, that both are a product of misogynist fear and hatred of female sexuality.

As strong as the piece is, I still find myself getting stuck on that word "empowerment." Doing porn as enjoyable, as worthwhile, as her choice—I can see all of that. But empowering or liberating in itself?  Porn as a way to smash the patriarchy—it's hard for me not to be skeptical of that.

Part of that skepticism is a function of my own internalized misogyny. There's a visceral, knee-jerk link in our culture between the idea of disempowerment and the idea of femininity. People (of any gender) who wear dresses or make-up or work in feminized professions (like, say, teachers) or who enjoy feminized culture (like romance novels) are seen as weak and deceived. And yet, as Julia Serano points out in both Whipping Girl and Excluded, this denigration of femininity is not natural or objectively true. Rather, it's a function of prejudice and misogyny. For Serano, a trans woman, wearing a dress is not kowtowing to patriarchal norms; rather, it’s defiance of a culture that has told her, from the time she was a child, that her femininity is wrong, worthless, dangerous and evil. Along the same lines, porn empowerment seems like an oxymoron because sex work is culturally defined by female sexuality, and female sexuality, like everything female, is seen as debased. If I can't see porn as empowering, that's partly because of the stigma that attaches to femininity and (congruently) to sex work. It's my problem, not hers.

Even acknowledging that, I still find this part of Lauren's argument unconvincing. She says, "A woman who transgresses the norm and takes ownership of her body—because that's exactly what porn is, no matter how rough the sex is—ostensibly poses a threat to the deeply ingrained gender norms that polarize our society." But most people watching a rough sex porn video aren't thinking about whether the woman is transgressing anything in particular. They're consuming a product. Lauren's affect, in this analysis, seems to be getting substituted, or blurred, into the affect of those watching her. If she was in a beer commercial and felt empowered, would that make the beer commercial empowering? And empowering to whom?

Maybe the problem with the idea of porn as empowerment isn't the porn, but rather the concept of empowerment itself. As Lauren's use of it suggests, empowerment is a term that’s used to describe both a personal feeling of strength and a broader ability to push for social change. It presents political freedom in the language of personal choice, and personal choice in the language of political freedom. There are good reasons for that: women have long been oppressed by being confined to the private sphere, which is why "the personal is political" is a necessary feminist slogan. But at the same time, "empowerment" often ends up being used as a way to police a woman's career or life choices, in a kind feminist concern trolling. Or, on the other hand, a woman's personal career choices or even fashion preferences are presented as in themselves a challenge to the status quo, turning politics into a matter of style.

I'm not saying that Lauren is the victim of false consciousness, or that she's disempowered when she thinks she's empowered. Rather, I'm saying that a binary of empowerment/disempowerment glosses over a lot. Take my own career, for example. Like Lauren, I like my job a lot; writing is fun, thrilling and a form of self-expression for me, just as porn is for her. But it's also something I'm constrained to do in order to make a living—and occasionally I have to write things I don't really enjoy, or get up and work when I'd rather not. Does that mean I'm disempowered? Maybe sometimes, in certain ways. But nobody thinks that means my job is necessarily evil or that I'm a failure as a person who needs to be stigmatized and abused.

I feel it's important to recognize that sex workers, and women in general, aren't failing, or ethically compromised, if they aren't empowered every minute. Lauren seems like a remarkable person, and it's great that she loves her job. But even if she didn't, or if (like most of us) she occasionally doesn't, that wouldn't make her broken or deluded. Equality, freedom, and respect are the right of people who are not perfectly empowered. Especially since people who are not perfectly empowered are the only people there are.

—Follow Noah Berlatsky on Twitter: @hoodedu

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