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On pornography and the persistence of patriarchy

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Michael Laxer is a Canadian bookstore owner, a political activist and one of two spokespersons for the Socialist Party of Ontario. This post was originally published on Michael Laxer's blog and was reprinted with permission from the author.

There is a debate that exists among leftists and feminists as to pornography. This, as a result of the imagery and social implications of the Internet, is an increasingly important debate

As a man, I cannot speak to the differences that exist within the feminist movement regarding pornography. It is not, by definition, my place.

But I can speak to the perceptions or misperceptions of pornography that seemingly exist within the broader left and among men.

I can also speak to the fact that, as uncomfortable as it may make us, the commercialization of depictions of sexuality, of whatever type, have become frequently an enemy of the same sexual "liberation" that they allegedly flowed out of.

There is little doubt that a double standard of sorts exists in the left with regards to the sexual, and more importantly, in some respects, the commercial exploitation of people who "willingly" participate in pornography. While one would be hard pressed to find someone in left circles who would seek to justify the exploitation of minimum-wage workers on the grounds that they "freely chose" to take these terrible dead-end jobs, there remains a legion of them who will, to one degree or another, do so for the desperate women (and men) who end up selling themselves for the sexual gratification of others.

Let us be clear. Like all capitalist transactions involving the primarily poor or desperate this is a profoundly unequal transaction. This is not art, and it is not erotica. The idea that one should view the transaction differently as a result of the fact that the commodity is sex is at best wishful thinking. In reality, in almost all cases the physical, emotional and personal exploitation of people in this "industry" is far worse than that of workers in standard industries. This is not a reflection on the individual morality of the people in question; it is a reflection of the morality of the producers and consumers of this material.

What has obfuscated the issue in the minds of many, understandably, is to not want to support a religious or moralistic form of anti-sex backwardness. This is often tied into a civil libertarian fear that the government should not involve itself in the policing of depictions of sex.

And it should not.

That is not the issue at all. Censorship is not a sensible solution to pornography for many reasons, not the least of which is that, as has happened in the past, the censors will largely concentrate on LGBT erotica and pornography. To that small minority of people on the left who advocate banning pornography (as if such a thing is possible), I would suggest that they think again. It will not turn out as you might suppose.

The "Sexual Revolution," with its embrace of modernity, homosexuality and lesbianism, so-called "deviant" behaviour, and other forms of human sexual impulse, made important strides forward in the cause of personal liberation. But it left people in a seeming conundrum where, if they believed in "liberation" and "liberalism," somehow they felt that they had to be uncritical of sexual depictions, whatever their broader social and political context might be.

And yet we must not abandon a critical viewpoint of the increasingly prevalent culture of pornography and the dangers it represents due to the essentially misogynist nature of much of these representations of human sexuality and due to their widespread embrace by men. This has been massively abetted and amplified by the ease of access presented by the Internet.

Even a cursory examination of pornographic websites on line, and we all know this, exposes profoundly misogynist language and depictions of women. Insulting terms like slut, bitch, whore, and much, much worse are commonplace. Revolting depictions of male dominance through acts like "facials," etc., are also the norm. There is no possible way to frame the use of the now popularized term "money shot" other than through the lens of patriarchy unless one is wilfully blind. This "sexual" act is an explicit and clear act of physical domination and cannot be explained otherwise.

To excuse its vile symbolism on the grounds that the participants willingly degraded themselves is as absurd as saying that workers willingly buy into their own exploitation by working. It may heal the consciences of those who find sexual self-gratification in these depictions, but it does not change the reality of the social transaction.

Pornography is not the explicit depiction of people having sex, it is the transformation of this sex act into a commercial commodity for popular consumption. These are not morally the same the same at all. Further, in the continued context of a hierarchical and patriarchal society, pornography reflects back the fears and desires of the oppressors upon the oppressed.

In the online pornographic world, any man can quickly find the reaffirmation of his own self-perception of being dominant over women. It is hard to understand its generally appalling terminology and imagery other than as a rear guard psychological defence against the idea of women's personal and sexual equality.

No sexual transaction that is paid for and that involves submission in a context of having been paid for, is anything other than an exploitative transaction by definition. This applies also to men who get caught up in the web of pornography and its particularly dehumanizing form of using people. But that does not change the fact that the entire framework in which this occurs is a direct result of social patriarchy in a capitalist context. The men, ironically, are also victims of patriarchy.

We do not act, most often, in the full understanding of our actions. If you want to understand the social function of patriarchy, in the same way that one understands the social function of hierarchy, one has to realize that it is pervasive and that we are all, to some degree or another, participants in it. That we may not want to be changes little. Even the most progressive men cannot completely escape it any more than the most progressive leftist can escape capitalism. It is systemic, and therefore it is a part of our daily discourse and thinking.

Pornography, however, has undergone a revolution. It is now available, easily, 24 hours a day for everyone. It has become an industry that is vastly more profitable than Hollywood. The sites are usually free "fronts" for a network of corporate and sometimes illegal interests, who use young women in heinous and ugly ways to make money.

This is what online pornography is. It is a forum that takes women who need quick "solutions" to personal problems and are, very often, 18-25 (or made to look like they are), and it uses them as chattel. If for no other reason this alone makes it something that must be fought. It is a meat grinder and its form of oppression makes Wal-Mart look good.

Remarkable money is made off of these "actors"… and they see very little of it. They are paid FAR less than a minor actor in a mainstream film, despite the fact that the movies they are in will possibly make more profit than many, if not all "small-budget" mainstream movies, most of which lose money.

Enormous numbers of phony "amateur" sites exist to complete the fraud that this is all "good girls" gone "bad" or some other sexist narrative. But they are not amateur sites at all, of course, they are run by criminal or corporate interests as a front to draw in willing "dupes" who pretend they think they are participating in some kind of "authentic" experience.

The reason that this is significant is simple. Misogynist depictions and commentaries about women are now commonplace on the Internet. They have even, to a degree, become hard to avoid. They are exposing large numbers of young men to very hardcore and degrading depictions of sexual acts in ways that are profoundly demeaning to women. The views of these men towards women are inevitably affected.

They cannot not be.

As leftists and as leftist men, we must stand up and acknowledge that this commercial sexual use of fellow human beings in this way is not an expression of sexual freedom, but is a capitalist perversion of it.

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