Finding space in the sex wars

The divisions and disagreements between and amongst feminist about pornography, the "feminist sex wars", have a fraught and lengthy history. These debates are not new, and the positions are most commonly broken into a pleasure/danger binary – where focusing on one means refusing the possibilities of the other. Today, we see these positions articulated in an even clearer way: divided into sex positive and it’s often unnamed but obligatory counterpart, sex negative – though what it means to be wholly and always positive about sex in all and every manifestation, or wholly and always negative about it irrespective of context or consequence, is not something that is ever fully described.

As this project develops, and I continue reading through the 2000+ survey responses and talking with the women who have wanted to have a more in-depth conversation about their views and experiences of porn, I’m seeing more and more that these positions are not only unhelpfully reductive, but they just aren’t grounded in lived experience - they exist as theoretical abstractions. On the ground, women’s positions are much more conflicted and contested than the binary allows. Critical voices exist within both framings, meaning the experience of pornography for women is not typically one of oppression or empowerment. Though there are those who do indeed hold uncompromising pro or anti positions, there are a range of positions between these that go unarticulated in debates where the complexities of women’s situated experience are collapsed into for or against.

Pro-pornography often focuses on the possibilities of pornography, most commonly alternative pornographies, for reclaiming women’s sexual agency from the position as ‘done to’. But some clear voices are coming out from the research so far suggesting that the division into mainstream and alternative pornographies again doesn’t accurately describe the ways in which these different forms are commonly sought out together – their relationship one of both/and not either/or. Anti-pornography largely denies these possibilities, claiming instead that pornography, and sometimes sexuality itself, is fundamentally a tool of oppression. But in a world where women have so little space within which to explore and develop their sexual pleasures and desires, many of the women in this project have successfully navigated pornography to find some space for action; to find some space to have a sexual pleasure that is just for them, that is wholly theirs.

Within these two broadly sketched positions, there are a range of competing and complimentary views – though again you wouldn’t be aware of this from the outside as the debate is largely painted as between clearly defined and internally consistent opponents. But there is actually great consistency between these two perspectives. Both sex positive and sex negative positions acknowledge women’s sexual freedom as a necessary part of women’s freedom, and recognise that women’s sexual freedom is restricted in specific ways even though the solutions to increasing women’s space for action diverge radically. And it’s in these solutions that we uncover the reasons that complex perspectives have been reduced to uncompromising positions – one leading as it does to pornography regulation, and the other to increased production. But what if they didn’t lead there? What if we weren’t looking for solutions? What if we are somehow able to sit in the space between, and talk to each other, openly, honestly, about what pornography means for women’s sexual freedom, the bits that expand it, the parts that narrow. That places that make us slightly uncomfortable. Refuse to deny our complexity.

Responses to sexualisation are split into either sexual protection (reduce/limit what is available) or sexual celebration (increase/open what is available), allowing no room for the ambiguity and ambivalence that structures material action. What is reproduced here is the legacy of thinking in terms of subject/object; victim/agent; free/constrained; sex-positive/sex-negative. Such perspectives lock us into an unhelpful binary in which the complex, multiple, and uneasy ways in which as women we individually and collectively live our agency and oppressions in the current gender order are lost. An account of women’s sexual agency is reproduced as either unconstrained (thus) equally available to all, or constrained and thus not really free. We are either empowered or victims.

There is no space for lived difference. It is not enough to approach ‘woman’ as a unitary category with a universal experience. As Debra Bergoffen makes clear in her discussion of erotic generosity in Beauvoir, “The bodies in the lived world of everyday experience cannot easily exchange places…our experience is vertically and hierarchally positioned as well as horizontally and spatially situated”. Hierarchies of worth drawn from social markers such as race, class, and sexuality, situate women in relation to each other. And this situation has implications for our embodied space for action – that is, our lived experience of freedom. Taking the range of women’s situated lived experience seriously means that the story isn’t a simple one about positivity or negativity, freedom or restraint. Beginning from this point, our attention is immediately turned from an attempt to articulate one clear theory of ‘agency’ or ‘freedom’ to an exploration of the ways in which these hierarchical structures interact and intersect with gender inequality, meaning it manifests and is experienced in multiple ways, some of are shared and some of which are not.

It may be then that, as Rae Langton suggests, pornography can both affirm women’s sexual autonomy at the same time as denying it. The location of the feminist debate about pornography as mainly taking place within a legal or medical paradigm has operated to the detriment of a philosophical exploration of the experience of pornography - pornography as a lived relation. These experiences may be contradictory, overlapping, and struggle for expression within a legal frame - a frame that needs necessity, universality. Something is or it isn't, either, or. Finding space in the sex wars means sitting in sticky uncertainty. Our questions not just those of legislation and policy response, but of the very conditions of agency and the possibilities of freedom itself.