Does porn empower women? Should we be asking that question at all?

“Empowerment” is a word I hear a lot, as a feminist. It makes sense – as a feminist, I am aware equality does not get fairly distributed between men and women, and it is important for me to challenge those oppressive structures. A subject that disappoints me amongst various feminist groups is the question – “Do women find porn empowering?”.

 

To me, this question just totally misses the mark. Why does it matter whether porn performers are empowered or not by their work – they still have rights?

 

Porn is one of the least marginalized jobs within the sex industry, but it still suffers from the same fallacy as every other discussion about sex work – the idea that it is only a legitimate choice if it is ‘empowering’. We don’t hold other industries to this standard. Women directed fewer than 8 per cent of the top-grossing films in 2014 and Hollywood movies perpetuate just as many toxic narratives about sex and relationships as porn, and yet we are not asking “can film empower women?”

 

We don’t ask this question of other industries because it assumes – falsely – that they are monolithic. Porn is a creative medium, as varied as any other. Like most of our entertainment media, a lot of porn is sexist, and men have historically made too much of it for men, but claiming that all porn is sexist because you’ve only seen the worst of it is like saying that all TV is sexist because you’ve only watched Baywatch.

 

Why do we only expect “empowerment” of sex work, and not of other jobs? In this patriarchal society, a lot of labor is gendered, most of it in service industries of one sort of another, from nursing to child care. We don’t demand that waitresses feel “empowered” in their jobs for us to recognize their agency in choosing the work, and we don’t tell other workers who serve male customers that they can’t be feminist. The empowerment fallacy only seems to apply to the sex industry – and it’s deeply unsettling.

 

Our society has massive structural inequality, decreasing social mobility, an increasing wealth gap, and limits and expectations imposed on us by our gender, race, class, and plenty of other factors we can’t control. Most of us have felt degraded or exploited in the workplace at some point – and the fewer options we have, the more likely that is. Demanding that porn “empower” performers is deeply classist.

 

Empowered workers are usually free workers, but all workers deserve core labor rights. Only giving airtime to “empowered” sex workers perpetuates the oppressive structures that feminism should be fighting.

Even if a performer hates doing porn, if they grit their teeth through a long day of hard physical labor which bears no relation to their sexuality, they still had their reasons to choose the work, and they deserve to have that choice respected. We all deserve decent working conditions, to keep our job and get paid without being criminalized, and to find our way through capitalist patriarchy without being told that we are “brainwashed” and “harming women” just because we need to pay the rent.

 

If you care about empowering porn performers, start by reducing poverty. Fight to improve our welfare state, for a citizen’s basic income, for more flexible working options for parents and people with disabilities. It is possible to work full time in this country without earning a living wage, while others who want to work full time may not be able to. If you want to make someone more empowered, you need to give them better options, not fewer choices.

 

The beauty of the feminist porn movement; is when performers are empowered, viewers are empowered. Ethically-produced porn not only affirms and celebrates the performers who make it, it makes for a happier viewing experience – porn that enriches not just women, but humanity as a whole.

 

If you dismiss all porn as inherently degrading, you are dismissing the work done by the amazing feminist porn activists and revolutionaries who are trying to make porn that empowers participants and viewers alike – porn that challenges gender expectations and subverts stereotypes. Feminist pornographers know that misogynistic male-gaze porn does not serve us as a society. Rather than complaining about it, put energy into encouraging something better.

 

Feminist porn is a global movement, and thanks to the internet it has gained tremendous momentum. Feminist porn now has its category, Feminist Porn Release of the Year, at the XBiz awards. The Feminist Porn Awards is already in its ninth year, and in 2014 the University of Toronto hosted the second Feminist Porn Conference alongside the launch of the Journal of Porn Studies. These projects focus on radical, political porn that critiques the industry and offers an alternative vision. Nearly half of the films screened at the Berlin Porn Film Festival last year were directed by women, this is an oceanic shift.

 

If you don’t think the porn industry empowers women, help change it by challenging what you think should empower women and whether it is your right to decide that. Feminist porn is the future of porn. In a few more decades, it will be mainstream. Are you with it, or against it?

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