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Feminists for Porn

It was with a growing sense of outrage that I read Prof.Chyng Sun’s report of her visit this past January to the Adult Entertainment Expo in Las Vegas. I couldn’t help wondering it the author had done any prior research whatsoever into the active, twenty-year debate among women over the impact of pornography on their individual lives and their status as a gender. There’s nothing new in her indignation, nothing fresh in her insights and nothing unfamiliar in her arguments. As a sex-worker and sex-worker advocate for over two decades, I’ve heard and read it all before.

The professor appears wholly unfamiliar with the work of accomplished, feminist women who reject her fundamental contentions about porn and sex-work. If she bothered to consider the writings of Nadine Strossen, Carol Queen, Pat Califia, Susie Bright, Wendy McElroy, Sallie Tisdale, Linda Williams, Annie Sprinkle, myself and others, her homework wasn’t reflected in what she showed me. Clearly, testimony that failed to corroborate her pre-conceived notions of what porn is “really” about, or what it “really” means didn’t register on her radar screen.

I am an R.N., a third-generation feminist and a First-Amendment activist as well as a porn performer with the longest continuous career in the history of the industry. I’m easy to find. In fact, I was in one place for four hours each day on the floor at AEE. She certainly found my husband, writer-director I.S. Levine, (whose videos and magazines appear under the name Ernest Greene). At her request, he granted her a two-hour, on-camera interview in good faith, hoping but not expecting to receive an open-minded hearing. Why did Professor Sun not speak to me? Could it be because she knew that my very existence argues against her core assertions? Where was the honest, fearless intellectual curiousity that is hallmark of the pioneering academic researcher?

Perhaps, like a number of anti-porn feminists these days, she chooses not to solicit the opinions of women engaged in or supportive of sex- work, rather than risk encountering a contrary-to-theory example.

Professor Sun’s criticisms of pornography , though jazzed up with some contemporary media theory, are little different form those posed by the first round of anti-sex feminists I came across at the NOW conventions I attended the mid-1980’s. The gender bias, anti-male hostility, neo-Victorian erotophobia and unacknowledged class prejudice are all too familiar. Having been told to my face, in the company of twelve other, like-minded women, that I was either a shill for or a victim of patriarchal domination, I know how powerful the angry denial of feminist porn-bashers can be.

And it is that very power that makes Professor Sun’s generalizations and oversimplifications so dangerous. Though she begins her jeremiad with the obligatory disclaimer about opposing censorship, she and others of her persuasion cannot believe for a moment that their opinions are offered in a political vacuum.

For many years, right -wing ideologues have co-opted the language of feminism in their on-going, nefarious attempts to erase all forms of sexual choice. Prof. Sun plays into the hands of these enemies of women. Does she not know that making common cause with those whose most treasured ambition is the reversal of Roe v. Wade will always be suicidal? How is Prof. Sun different from Phyllis Schlafly? From Anita Bryant? From Beverly LaHaye? From Judith Reisman? From Lou Sheldon or Jerry Falwell? They all want to eliminate my choice in the disposition my body. If I have the right to choose abortion, then I have the right to choose to have sex for the camera. Sexual freedom is the flip side of the coin of reproductive choice. Make no mistake, Professor. When they’ve got rid of me, they’re coming for you next.

Professor Sun’s reportage dwells at length on the most distasteful aspects of what she saw and heard, but makes no mention of any attempt to establish direct communication with any of the women who work in the adult video industry. No wonder she finds it so effortless to ignore our opinions and dismiss our perceptions of our own lives. It’s that much easier to characterize all female sex workers as degraded, humiliated and unhappy if you’ve never talked to any of us. That we might be involved in constructive, effective efforts to improve our own working conditions, and that our employers might take our concerns seriously, clearly doesn’t fit Professor Sun’s pre-cut template for who we are.

Likewise, none of the diversity of our vibrant, raucous and contentious creative culture seems to have attracted Professor Sun’s notice. By focusing on one or two examples she finds particularly heinous, she obscures the broader truth, which is that the marketplace of sexual entertainment contains products for almost every taste and orientation, including material made by and for heterosexual women and couples, lesbians and gay men. It’s not all Bang Bus, and by no means does all of it, or even most of it, conform to the author’s notions of porn-as-_expression-of-misogyny. For her to project her own, obviously conflicted, feelings regarding men and sex onto all of the incredibly broad medium we call pornography is intellectually indefensible.

Professor Sun defames male consumers of pornography with the same broad strokes used to stereotype the experiences of female performers. Does she really believe that the average man cannot tell the difference between a movie and real life? Does she really think that young people’s difficult times with sex are more attributable to porn than to the enforced ignorance resulting from twenty years of abstinence-only “sex education” and anti-choice propaganda? Does anyone seriously harbor the idea that individual conceptions of intimacy and sexual pleasure are shaped more by exposure to pornography than by the examples parents set for their children?

A young person?s self-image, ability to set boundaries, and attitude toward sex is formed long before his or her teen years, before he or she has encountered to the supposed “evils” of pornography. I have personally met, and looked into the eyes of, hundreds of thousands of fans over the past two decades, and precious few of them would fit Professor Sun’s construction of the “typical” consumer.

And to confabulate the images on a screen, which are created performances, with the actual experience of the performers themselves, would be laughably literal-minded, were it not so profoundly insulting. Sex performers, like the products they make, vary greatly in taste and temperment. We are much more than the characters we play. LIke it or not, many female performers enjoy what they do, including things Professor Sun finds repellent. If we are not to choose what forms of sexual _expression we find appropriate for ourselves, who is to do the choosing for us, Professor Sun and her like-minded friends of the Christian Right?

Even those performers to whom work in porn is just a way to pay the bills don’t need to be lectured by a tenured university professor regarding what work they may properly do, based on her interpretation of the gender politics of porn. Her essay pulsates with the unconscious classism that has contaminated feminist thought since I first encountered it. If I learned one thing when I started my career in 1983, myself the product of an ivory-tower upbringing in Berkeley, California, it was to rein in my received ideas about my fellow sex workers and to see them as individuals struggling with all kinds of situations. What does Professor Sun propose sex workers do instead of addressing their economic challenges with what resources they possess, go to Harvard? The real choices that present themselves in modern America to a young woman with a high school education and no class advantage are often far less appealing than sex work. Perhaps she thinks we should choose the dignity of minimum wage jobs, early pregnancies and abusive marriages over the relative autonomy we enjoy as independent tradespeople.

With what I’ve learned of Dr. Sun’s views thus far, I can only await her film “documentary” with the usual weary apprehension. Knowing already what her conclusions will be, I’m only left to wonder who subsidizes her obviously well-funded labors and to what purpose. All I know at this point is that neither I nor anyone like me will be represented in her depiction of my world, or of any world anyone I know might recognize. To me, she’s just one more exploiter, seeking to make her living from the attempt to deprive me of mine.

NINA HARTLEY is a Founding Member, Feminist Anti-Censorship Task Force Member Emeritus, Board of Directors, Free Speech Coalition Member at Large, Board of Directors, Adult Industry Medical Foundation. Visit her blog at: http://www.nina.com/

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