Feminists can’t agree whether porn is harmful or liberating - and in this vacuum, image-based abuse continues

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With an increasingly AI-generated porn industry, feminists are finding it harder to draw a moral line.

This year, Australian news outlets have covered several highly concerning incidents of AI-generated deepfake porn being used to target women and girls.

In May, a Discord list created by Year 11 boys at Yarra Valley Grammar  made headlines  for its ranking of female students using terms such as "object", "mid" and "unrapeable".

That same month, a male student at Salesian College  was expelled  for spreading deepfake porn images of a female teacher. More recently, deepfake  nudes depicting  about 50 female students from Bacchus Marsh Grammar were circulated online.

These events have sparked outrage among parents, teachers, students and the broader public as we realise any girl or woman  can now be targeted.

This kind of gender-based abuse doesn’t occur in a vacuum. So, is porn itself partly to blame for men’s exploitation of women via porn? It’s something feminists have debated for decades.

Despite the sexual revolution that  spread across   the Western world  in the 1960s, Western feminists have been unable to reach a consensus on whether porn is a largely liberating force, or an oppressive one.

How harmful is porn? The jury is out

Contemporary feminists have a complicated relationship with porn. Some say it can be  ethical, educational and empowering , while others say its many  mental ,  physical  and  social  harms far outweigh any benefits.

The research, too, is far from conclusive. While  some studies  shows an association between porn consumption and harmful  real-world attitudes , there is little evidence as to   or   the viewing of porn itself could impact these attitudes.

In Australia, the  average age of first porn exposure  is 13.2 years for males and 14.1 years for females. But despite a more  recent focus  on young people, there remains a large blind spot in the research when it comes to the kinds of porn young people are viewing.

We know from research that people learn sexual norms while viewing  explicit content. We also know exposure to porn  impacts  young people’s expectations of sexual encounters. As such, we should be open to the possibility of a link between young people’s porn consumption and sexual violence.

And while porn comes in many forms, ranging from romantic to very exploitative categories, these genres are generally hosted on the same domain, which can make it hard to avoid certain types. In Pornhub’s  2023 Year in Review , many of the most popular categories reflected the objectification, domination and degradation of women.

The start of the sex wars

In the 1980s,  the "sex wars"  were fought between two factions of women: "anti-porn" and "pro-sex" feminists. The former focused on the harms of porn while the latter’s emphasis was on sexually liberating women from social and gender norms.

The anti-porn feminists, most notably US activists  Andrea Dworkin  and  Catherine Mackinnon , argued the sexual culture that emerged after the sexual revolution actually undermined women’s sexual autonomy and power. They warned that porn was exacerbating this by romanticising sexual violence and the domination and dehumanisation of women.

They proposed addressing the issue by introducing  civil rights ordinances  based on the premise that pornography "constitutes discrimination on the basis of sex" since it naturalised female subordination to men. These laws would allow women who had been sexually discriminated against or harmed as a result of porn to sue pornographers civilly.

The counter group of pro-sex (or "sex-postive") feminists came to the fore at a 1982 conference on sexuality at Barnard College, New York. When the ordinances were proposed, they baulked at the assertion that feminists could  rely on the patriarchal political system  to fix the problem - but offered no alternative.

While the pro-sex group agreed porn could be misogynistic, they opposed the anti-porn stance as it diverted attention away from their focus: women’s " own sexual desires ".

Eventually, the pro-sex position congealed around the idea  of women’s sexual liberation and choice , while the anti-porn position increasingly became associated with prudishness and even  alleged   misandry  ("man-hating").

As the pro-sex feminists emerged victorious, legitimate concerns about the oppressive relationship between sex, violence and power were stifled - and sexual domination in porn was recast as being liberating.  "Sex-positive" feminism  continues to flourish today.

The ongoing division between feminists ultimately allowed for the porn industry to expand. Collectively, feminists were unable to reckon with the normalisation of female submission in sex and society.

Is there a solution?

The sex wars teach us two things. The first is that political solutions to cultural problems don’t work if they don’t address root issues. The second is that socio-sexual problems require a whole-of-community remedy.

We need to have a candid conversation about how to approach sexism more broadly, to ultimately find responses that support women in dealing with the social and interpersonal effects of porn. We might start, for instance, by taking the burden off individuals and holding the porn and social media industries accountable for helping to spread exploitative content.

As many experts have pointed out, the government’s proposed age verification legislation - which looks to restrict kids’ access to porn - is unlikely to address  existing societal issues  of abuse and misogyny. The solution, instead, will require integrating the pro-sex and anti-porn positions and concerns. Together, both groups must settle on a shared vision of liberal female sexuality in the digital age.

In 2024, the sexual liberation of women hasn’t prevented them from being abused, exploited and objectified via harmful forms of porn. Until we can all’agree on the parameters of the root issues - misogyny, patriarchy and power - it’s unlikely this exploitation will stop.

Failing that, new generations will have to grapple with even more technologically extreme versions of these issues.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.