Following former home secretary Jacqui Smith’s BBC Radio 5 documentary about pornography, Gail Dines, sociologist and author debates the issue with Anna Arrowsmith, a pornographic film-maker and former LibDem candidate.
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Written by Emine Saner
Can sex films empower women?
Former home secretary Jacqui Smith this week reopened the debate about the impact of the sex industry on society with her BBC Radio 5 documentary about pornography. Here, Gail Dines, professor of sociology and women’s studies at Wheelock College in Boston, and author of Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked Our Sexuality, and Anna Arrowsmith, a former Liberal Democrat candidate who makes pornographic films under the name Anna Span, discuss the issues. Emine Saner listens in.
Gail Dines: I’m concerned about what it means to live in a society that is overwhelmed by images created by predatory capitalists whose job is to maximise profits. Pornography is the commodification of sexuality and the product is plasticised and lacks any individuality. My feeling is that you’re talking from a more personal perspective, and there are certainly ways in which some women can make pornography work for them. My issue is beyond you and me, and into a more political analysis of what it means to live in a society where women are systematically discriminated against, and then have a juggernaut called pornography shaping the way men think about us – the same men who go on to make laws and policy that impact on the lives of women.
Anna Arrowsmith: I used to be anti-pornography until I realised my anger was jealousy – I was envious of men having their sexuality catered for. I realised the best thing I could do was to work towards women learning their own sexual identity. I’m not just coming from a personal experience – I’ve been chair of the adult industry trade association in the UK. We don’t get well represented in the media, we’re a soft target, using moral panics to say we’re the devil, and that if you just get rid of pornography, amazingly women will get full equality.
GD: I understand being envious of men’s sexual freedom, but the bigger point is that men have too much economic and cultural power, and women making pornography is not going to change that. If we want equality, we will have to do it on the political and economic level, and making porn is a trivial response.
AA: The anti-porn stance encourages women to think of themselves as victims.
AA: You don’t allow women the individual choice to opt in.
GD: Of course individual women can be empowered – I’m extremely empowered in my life, but just because I, as a white, middle-class educated woman, am empowered does not mean we have women’s liberation. It means I have a duty to use my privilege to fight for women who are discriminated against.
AA: So do I, and that’s why I fight against people who argue against women in the sex industry. We get a lot of aggression from people like you and it’s important that empowered women like myself stand up for porn stars and say, please listen to them. If they say they are happy, please respect their autonomy.
GD: Women who work in the sex industry and promote this in the name of feminism are the scabs of the feminist movement. I think you are an apologist, and selling women out.
AA: I’m not an apologist. I’m here because women want sexuality to be represented. If you hand over all sexual imagery to men, you hand over that power. I’m not saying all pornography is positive to women, but the only way you are going to change that is from working with the images themselves.
GD: We know that most women leave the porn industry with barely the clothes on their backs, they do not leave with millions of dollars. This industry is based on poor women who have few economic choices. Pornography is promoted as a way to economic empowerment, and that’s a lie.
AA: I wouldn’t disagree that women have bad experiences after [leaving the porn industry], but that is because society has such a bad attitude towards people who work in the sex industry. That’s the attitude of the mainstream media and the culture we live in who don’t respect sex workers as equals.
GD: I would put the stigma on the users and the men who buy sex. I am for women thinking about images of sexuality, but it’s a joke if you think you are going to do it within this predatory capitalist industry. I went on your website and it looks like any other porno website – what are you doing that is different from what every other pornographer is doing?
AA: You haven’t seen my films. An important part of them is the development of character and plot, and the role women play in the film. Women have an opportunity now to express their sexuality. Anyone can get a webcam and go on the internet, it has turned into a massive cottage industry, and that is an incredibly democratic move.
GD: Anyone can get an allotment and grow their own food – but the reality is that the food industry is run by agrobusiness, and the porn industry is run by the mega porn businesses. With all due respect, you are not shaping male sexuality on a macro level.[…]
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This article was originally posted on The Guardian on March 4, 2011