Porn, Rape and Consent

A really interesting twitterspat broke out yesterday over this article on the anti-porn men blog, with several feminists becoming rather enraged at the perceived denial of agency and objectification of women in the sex industry as base materials for the extraction of a commodity as well as the concept of “implicit rape”.

Sophie Buckland wrote a detailed response to some of the controversial statements in the article, to which Kit Withnail, author of the original article has written a further reply.  Buckland is correct when she points out that the argument advanced in the initial article is lacking in nuance, however it does raise good issues – about effective rather then idealistic agency; the labour status of women in the sex industry and what constitutes consent.  I have very little truck with the traditional porn industry, an exploitative and misogynistic creature, but at the same time, there are dangers in overblown condemnations which see women as eternal victims of male sexuality and the purpose of feminism to protect them from it.

Kit Withnail writes

 the producers purchase labour  from the male actors; their labour is to force the commodity, apparent willingness, from the women. The actors’ sexual and hegemonic pleasure at the rape is merely a bonus for them.

The whole concept of men in the sex industry pleasurably labouring to extract the commodity of  ”apparent willingness” from women in the industry, ignoring incidentally same-sex porn, puts these women in the same category of industrial relations as a reluctant cow being milked by an enthusiastic farmhand.  Furthermore as Buckland points out, calling this rape is to deny that women in the sex industry can consent, a postion that Withnail reiterates in his later blogpost.  This is very dodgy territory.  If all commercial sexual exploitation is rape, then can be no rape in that context.  With entry to the industry and payment of the money, women become un-rapable, which is ironically the narrative that the porn industry presents.

In porn, women are always eager and willing to be fucked in whatever manner.  The negotiations and haggling over price are never shown on-screen, yet are a critical part what acts take place.  Similarly discussions of boundaries and limits, discussions which usually form an integral part of any encounter are similarly unseen, pre-agreed with the director and other actors.   Women in the sex industry do have agency, but they are presented on screen as if they have none.  To deny the agency of women in the sex industry is to collude with the pornographic presentation of them.

Withnail moves on to discuss how porn consumption affect real life encounters, particularly among young people who have been exposed to porn.

The tremendous gender imbalance of porn consumption leads to the next problem, which is boys having their first sexual experience with girls, the boys being now very well versed in porn.

Not limited to first sexual experiences, porn does have an unhealthy effect on male sexuality.  Accustomed to observing and identifying with men partnered with women who yield to their every desires, who never say “no”, “slow down” or “stop”, who lead the encounter and for whom the willingness of the woman is a given for what ever acts are shown on screen, this becomes the standard for their perception of what intercourse is and how a sexually desired man behaves.

A man who is desired by women has no need to ask consent; no need to discuss acts, boundaries and limitations, no need to focus on their partner’s desire.  To open such discussions implies that they may not be the studs that they are presented with on-screen; that they may find themselves, rejected, unfulfilled or unable to satisfy their partner, unlike their role models – easier then to follow the porn blueprint.

But then there is a massive jump…

The result is either explicitly or implicitly rape…

As Buckland points out – if consensual sex can “implicitly” be rape, then what is rape?  This is a massive pitfall of second wave anti-PIV feminism, which reframes sexual intercourse in terms of a necessarily violent act done by men to women, undermining rape as a transgressive act, but merely as the norm of sexual relations, which some women object to in some circumstances more than others.  Undermining the validity of women’s consent as many second wavers do, suggesting that a combination of false consciousness and PIV-centric sexuality lies behind any suggestion of women as consenting agents is a dangerous, dangerous route to go down.  It is the flip side of the porn narrative – rather than women as unrapable because they are eternally willing, it is women as unrapable because they are eternally being forced.

Kit goes on to suggest that

Women and girls who watch porn..will understand their place in this economy: they must be willing givers of this commodity. They will return to the boys, and they will be raped without even knowing what’s wrong.

The whole idea of consent or “apparent willingness” as a commodity to be extracted, either by persuasion or force has its resonances in radical feminism, but denies nuance and subtly, implying that consent is one-way; that in sexual encounters men are the consumers and women the producers (or as implied earlier, the raw materials) of an object of value only to men – unknowingly enslaved by the false consciousness engendered by porn viewing.

Rape is fairly horrible, and women go to great lengths to avoid it and one of the measures women take is to consent to sex, where they fear the alternative is to be raped.  For never forget that a woman’s permanent legal state is that of consent to sexual intercourse.  Legally, any lack of consent must be proven.

Holly Pervocracy here describes her first sexual encounter.  She acknowledges that it was both consensual and desired, yet also points out her vulnerability in that situation, and although it is not made explicit, the potential for ending up in a bad situation should she withdraw consent.  She also points out her perception of his failing to obtain explicit consent, that if asked, she may feel obligated to say “no” and he would be obligated to stop.  While this encounter was desired, she points out that had she not desired such acts the events would look no different to her partner.

This is a grey zone where the hard boundaries of rape/not-rape break down, where women’s agency is compromised by vunerability and expectations.  In this grey zone, you have the continuum of rape.  To actively withdraw consent invites the potential for explicit rape, while to stay silent is to stay in the legal state of permanent consent.  This truely horrific case in Wales, where a 15 year old was prosecuted for making a false rape allegation after it was judged that she did not actively communicate her lack of consent sufficiently is a testimony to the dangers of this zone.

The assumption of woman as an autonomous actor, fully in control of their own agency, sexuality and bodily autonomy is to ignore the structural forces at work; conversely to present women as objects for commodity extraction denies their ability to change them.

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