The panelists opened by posing an important question, the one that I had been mulling over myself since my discussion of pornography with other women for the very first time in Rape Relief’s training group: what would my sexuality be like without the influence of pornography?
The sad reality, as discussed in the panel, is that children and teenagers today are exposed to (hardcore) pornography long before they are sexually active. This impacts boys who grow up to be men who legitimize, get off on and even invent more novel ways of humiliating and abusing women. This also impacts girls whose sexualities are formed in the poisonous yet normalized climate in which women’s degradation and subordination are force-fed to be accepted as desirable. Nothing illustrates the normalization of the fetishization of violence against the female body better than Cardi B’s song being part of every “Top Songs of 2020” list: she raps about being a “certified freak, seven days a week” which involves wanting to be gagged and choked, among other “freaky” things that confident and sexually liberated women supposedly can rap, dance and admit to.
What makes pornography’s fetishization of sexual violence against women particularly pernicious is that girls and women start to define their sexual agency within these narrow misogynistic confines instead of eradicating them altogether.
Robert Jensen says that we live “in a society in which no matter who you are – as an individual, as a person with hopes and dreams, with strengths and weaknesses – you are something to be fucked and laughed at and left on the side of the road by men. Because you are a woman.” (Getting Off)
I think I have always been subconsciously aware of my position in the sexualized hierarchy, from my constant exposure to pornography with its consistent running theme of degradation of women as sexually stimulating; I had become well accustomed to and even grown to enjoy it. Now that I had adopted this grim misogynistic definition of sex as reality, I had two choices: take a passive role in being used, abused and eventually left on the side of the road by men, or take control of what is done to my body by inviting and actively participating in what is going to be done to my body anyway – ‘at least I enjoyed it, and you can’t laugh at me or “use” me if I gave my voluntary participation.’
My desire to be “sexually liberated” was further intensified by the fantasy that if I kept my partners sexually satisfied (in other words, let men push and define my boundaries in the process of their exploiting my sexuality and body), then I could rest assured that they would not go seeking what they normally cannot do to their wives/girlfriends. By my adopting the role of the “whore” in the virgin/whore dichotomy, I was convinced that I had successfully eliminated the risk of my male partner’s sexual desire being displaced onto another woman who was more sexually accommodating than I was. In short, they found my having no sexual boundaries enticing, and I was willing to trade in my being fully human in return for their validation. What reinforced and completed this delusion was my trained carnal reaction to sexualized domination – sadly, this was all I knew from all the pornography that was rampant around me from a very young age.
My guess is that the emotional and “non-sexual” physical abuse that ensued in each of those relationships had an undeniable connection with the power dynamics that transferred outside of the “fantasy” world into the “real” world. Maybe it wasn’t a matter of mere transferring, but rather the relationship itself being fundamentally built on this “bedroom power imbalance” from the get-go.
Lierre Kieth, in her talk for Vancouver Rape Relief’s 2016 Montreal Massacre Memorial, explains the distinction between accommodation and liberation: instead of changing the material conditions under which the oppressed are forced to live (liberation), they accept the limited options created and allowed by the oppressor as the only choices available to them (accommodation).
In today’s world, in the pornographer’s empire, women as an oppressed class are left to choose from: being a prude, which is equated with refusing pornography OR being a “sexually liberated” woman who owns her sexuality by accepting the imagined, misogynistic portrayal of the female sexuality (if you could even call it that). Our journey to liberation and equality will be difficult if not impossible if we continue to accept the force-fed fantasy that our very own subjugation is our empowerment and liberation. The radical feminist interpretation of pornography, which the pornographers have been unrealistically successful in ostracizing, needs to be read and normalized before we are completely propagandized by the deep pockets of the pornographers.
* The video of the feminist conversation The Impact of Pornography on Women will be availble to view on our website soon
** Da Hye, the author of this blog post is a trainee with Vancouver Rape Relief