I realized these posts are going to be quite long, so I’m going to post my reviews in installments, cutting them off when they seem to be getting too long. That seems like the easiest way to do this.
The day started with Rebecca Whisnant’s paper on the challenges pro-pornography 3rd wave feminism poses for a feminist anti-pornography movement. But rather than just lament the problems with 3rd wave feminism, Whisnant uses this opportunity to articulate a clear distinction between 2nd and 3rd wave feminism. She argues that viewing the difference as solely generational is a mistake. There is a fundamental difference between the 2 waves that isn’t reflected in current literature. In 3rd wave feminism, she argues, there is a reluctance to speak for other women, and thus, most of the arguments about what counts as feminist revolve around the choice of the women directly involved. Therefore, if a woman chooses to appear in pornographic material, that choice is necessarily feminist. Members of the 2nd wave believed that women shared a common condition, and as they began to uncover the political implications of their private lives, they felt very strongly that their personal decisions had much broader implications for women everywhere. Because of these divergent views about what constitutes feminist action, 2nd and 3rd wave feminists developed very different reactions to pornography. In fact, it seems like the 3rd wave arguments are less about pornography and more about personal freedom and autonomy. But those concepts are not uncomplicated. To say that something was autonomously chosen is so complex and contingent that it becomes a meaningless statement. These accounts rarely take into account the full weight of coercion, adaptive preferences, economic and social inequality, and a whole host of other factors that constrain one’s autonomy. We’ve been talking a lot in one of my classes about feminism being similar to membership in a union. In certain situations, you may be asked to give up something that is personally beneficial because your rejection of it works to the advantage of the entire group. This example was offered in our discussion of marriage, but I think fits somewhat into the pornography debate. However, this argument assumes that participation in the porn industry is beneficial to some women, and that’s a dicey claim I don’t really agree with. It can be economically beneficial, but to the extent that much participation in pornography is fueled by one’s own experiences with child sexual abuse I’m inclined to say that it isn’t beneficial. Regardless, the fact remains that the existence of pornography and the porn industry impact the lives of all women, and taking that into consideration is something that distinguishes 2nd wave feminism from 3rd wave feminism. She points to the distinction between liberal and radical feminism as another way to understand the difference, arguing that 3rd wave feminists favor liberal feminism while the second wave is radical. This is a problem, though, because a lot of the members of the 3rd wave identify as radical feminist while promoting and advocating a liberal feminist agenda (is anyone else uncomfortable about the cover of Feministing blogger Jessica Valenti’s new book, Full Frontal Feminism?).
One of Whisnant’s suggestions for trying to raise awareness about pornography in a culture that is absolutely saturated in pornographic material is to challenge the belief that commodification is linked to freedom. Feminists must promote a view of human freedom that is contrary to the commodification of everyday life. This works specifically against claims that participation in the pornography industry is liberating. Whisnant rightly challenges the idea that because something is recorded and bought and sold it is liberating. I think this also has to do with the work Gail Dines has done on the importance of imagery – that there is a pervasive belief that to be represented or recorded as an image is liberating or positive in some way.
This is an argument that had never occurred to me, and was one of the most important things I took away from Whisnant’s paper. I’ve always felt like there was something not right with the claim that pornography and sexual exhibitionism is liberating, but I couldn’t really articulate it. This makes a lot of sense to me. Why does the fact that it’s public and can be bought and sold necessarily make it liberating? In fact, that’s part of my frustration – it seems like things done for money are usually less free than things I choose to do without an eye to compensation – and furthermore, I make the rules in those situations.
There was so much more in Whisnant’s paper worth discussing, but I feel like I should probably end this now. More on the rest of the conference later.