The anti-feminist politics behind the pornography that ‘empowers’ women

By Robert Jensen

with Gail Dines

Published in ZNet · February, 2008

Pornography’s supporters often claim that critics don’t pay enough attention to the wide range of sexually explicit images available today, especially the material that is said to be empowering for women.

But after a few minutes on the floor of the sex-saturated Adult Entertainment Expo, the pornographers’ annual trade show in Las Vegas, such pro-pornography claims start to seem pretty silly.

The 2008 AEE drove home the reality that while there are indeed differences in the level of overt woman-hating in the pornography for sale in the United States, that industry is at its core about (1) the control of women (2) to facilitate the presentation of women (3) for male consumption (4) in the pursuit of profit. Our interaction with the makers of the latest popular example of “female-centered” pornography provided a first-hand reminder that the industry’s hallowed commitment to free speech and feminist empowerment is more public-relations posturing than principled positions.

The company making one of the biggest splashes on the convention floor this year was, an Australian website that bills itself as offering “real, passionate, unscripted” sexual activity by “happy, healthy, regular girls in their normal environments.” The company markets its female masturbation and girl/girl videos as “an endless bounty of gasping sex, stunning beauty and friendly faces” featuring women with “no makeup, no fake boobs, no airbrushing.”

Call it the down-under girl-next-door market niche.

Of course not all pornography consumers are interested in the softer-edged material that sells, but it’s popular enough that the company signed a distribution deal with Wicked Pictures, one of the top production companies in the United States, according to an industry insider working for And based on the size of the crowds that the booth was drawing, this market niche appears to be holding its own.

At the booth, “girls” (in porno-speak, there are no women; females of any age are called girls) were chatting amiably with the fans (even playing chess with some of them, to show that the girls are smart as well as sexy) and being openly affectionate with each other. Instead of the caricatured porn star look (impossibly high heels, over-the-top makeup, and surgically enhanced bodies), these women really did look like ordinary people.

In interviews with several of them, a familiar story of empowerment emerged — we are comfortable with our bodies, confident in our sexuality, proud to be taking control of how we are represented, etc. We responded with questions that reflected our feminist critique of pornography, which sparked interesting responses regarding their feelings about their work and our assessment of the industry. We asked the women to explain how the interests of women (or men, for that matter) were advanced by selling images mostly used by men as a masturbation facilitator. How did that improve the lot of women in the world? Each of the conversations ended with an agree-to-disagree parting, and we went off to other parts of the convention.

The next day, when Jensen was back on the convention floor and had just interviewed another female performer at the booth, he was taken aside by the website’s photographer (who wouldn’t give her name) and told that because the conversations of the previous day had upset the women by bringing up a feminist critique, they preferred that we stop talking to the women. “These are smart women who’ve made a decision to perform, and we’d like you to respect that,” she said. Jensen responded that it was precisely because we respected these women and viewed them as intelligent adults capable of making choices that we had engaged them in a serious, respectful way during our interviews. What could be wrong with that?

The photographer responded that it was just this kind of “intellectual sparring” that they wanted to avoid. Why are questions that reflect a critical viewpoint a threat, Jensen asked? Was it because this convention was about making money, not talking about bigger issues about power, especially with a feminist analysis behind the questions? The photographer did not argue, acknowledging that the main market for the website and films was men who used the images for “wanking.” But she was firm in her position, and we agreed to not approach any of the women/girls for additional interviews.

Free speech, it appears, is all well and good when it protects the profits of pornographers, but not when it includes a challenge to the claims pornographers make.

Of course on private property, such as the convention center, legal guarantees of free speech don’t apply; we understood that we had to follow the rules of the people running the show. But the rules those people imposed reveals much about the real agenda, as did the behavior of the men watching. And, in the end, it is really about what the men watching want.

A few hours after we were banned from interviewing the girls it was show time at the booth, with four female couples kissing and caressing for the overwhelmingly male audience. In that moment the connection between these Australian women and the rest of the AEE convention was clear. Just as at the other companies on the floor, men with all varieties of cameras and cell phones ringed the booth, vying for the best angles to record images of women being sexual. The women looked different from the porn-star caricature, but their girl/girl action (the industry’s term for lesbian sex presented for a male audience) didn’t look much different from the industry norm, and the men who were watching behaved the same as other fans on the convention floor.

That moment provides an important reminder: Pornography, at its core, is a market transaction in which women’s bodies and sexuality are offered to male consumers in the interests of maximizing profit. Market niches vary, but the bottom line does not. In the end, it’s about attracting the most “wankers” possible. Some of those men who wank to these images like porn-star caricatures. Some like the girl next door.

A man watching the sex display said that he loved the site for a simple reason: “No fake tits and more pubic hair.” A man who had just gotten a signed photo from a performer at the Hustler booth said he loved porn women for a simple reason: “They are like a fucking sculpture.” The slightly different preferences were trivial; more important was the fact that both men had bags full of pictures and DVDs that would mostly likely be wanking material that evening.

The booth, with its more female-friendly sexual activity, existed alongside the booths of other pornographers selling an overtly woman-hating sex, and it’s easy to tell the difference. Films that present ordinary women kissing are different from films that offer exaggerated porn stars being penetrated by three men at once. Films of women holding each other gently after sex are different from films of men ejaculating on a woman’s face. We have no doubt that the women performing for videos work under better conditions than much of the rest of the industry. But in the end, pornography is in the business of presenting women’s bodies to men for masturbation.

The many different women who engage in sex in front of a camera make that choice to be used in pornography under a wide range of psychological, social and economic conditions. The choices women make to reduce themselves to sexual objects for men’s masturbation are complex, and we should be cautious about generalizations and judgments.

The men who make up the vast majority of the industry’s customers also make choices, about which kind of objectified women are most sexually stimulating to them. Such choices that men make are considerably simpler, and generalizations are easier to make. Political judgments also are not only possible but necessary — if we are to resist male supremacy, reject the subordination of women in all its forms, and replace that corrosive conception of gender and sex with a vision of human integrity and community that can be the basis for a just and sustainable society.