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What We Talk About When We Talk About Revenge Porn: My Two Cents on #UCD200

Writings From Wymark

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Sometimes, it is really difficult to believe in Ireland. A country where the woman’s special place in the home is enshrined in our constitution, alongside the eighth amendment, which disallows those capable of birth bodily autonomy. It is even harder to love Ireland when case after case of sexual abuse gets acquitted or a reduced sentence is sought out and achieved by perpetrators. It becomes impossible to endure when a crime is committed against you and there is absolutely nothing you can do about it; and no one to listen to you either.

When the reports of #UCD200 came out, my heart sank but simultaneously, I felt like we had a chance at change. I hoped for justice – finally we could have a serious discussion about revenge porn and momentum to introduce legislation to combat online sexual abuse. But in fact, once again, women were shut down and no…

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On law and “Lose the Lads’ Mags”

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So last week UK Feminista and Object issued a joint press statement, announcing they’d received legal advice that women working in shops that sell “lads’ mags” may be able to sue their employers for sexual harassment or sex discrimination. A number of bloggers have already given incisive critical responses, and I’ll particularly point you in the direction of Stavvers from Another Angry Woman, Gemma Ahearne from plasticdollheads and Jem and Carter from It’s Just A Hobby.

I’m coming to it a bit late myself, but that’s because I was hoping to be able to base my response on the legal advice the two groups received. I should have been able to base it on that legal advice – or at least a summary of it – according to this snippet from the press statement:

UKFemail

So, last Monday evening I sent them this email:

UKFemail2

By Friday morning, I hadn’t heard anything so I followed up with this tweet:

to which I unfortunately have had no reply, though they’ve been active on Twitter since then and have responded to other people’s tweets. So either they aren’t really making the summary available, or they’re being very selective about who they make it available to – which raises its own questions.  The press release (and the corresponding Guardian letter, signed by a number of British lawyers) are fairly clear about what they believe to be the legal basis for action – the Equality Act 2010 – and how they think the shops may fall afoul of it by selling lads’ mags, so I have to wonder what exactly is in the summary that UK Feminista are holding back.

The Guardian letter makes reference to “examples of staff successfully suing employers in respect of exposure to pornographic material at work”, so perhaps the advice contains actual details of those examples, and maybe unsuccessful attempts as well – which would be useful in assessing what criteria are needed to make out an actual case of sexual harassment or sex discrimination. You’ll notice that the letter is carefully couched in equivocal terms – sale and display of the magazines “may” breach the Equality Act; “is capable of giving rise to breaches”; “in some cases”. I’m not sure those caveats come across as clearly in the press release, in which Kat Banyard announces:

The good news is that customers and employees don’t have to put up with it any more. Legally as well as ethically, lads’ mags are well past their sell by date.

As Carter and Stavvers pointed out, the effect of such an unqualified assertion could very well be to mislead some shop workers into thinking they have a case when they don’t – and that could have disastrous consequences for their job security if they were to act without benefit of proper legal advice. As an occasional campaigning-group-press-release-writer myself, I understand that bold statements make better copy, but I wish they’d given some consideration to the fact that there are actual jobs at stake here which most of these workers can probably ill afford to jeopardise. A certain amount of responsibility has to go along with imparting legal advice, whether it’s your own or somebody else’s. And I don’t think that’s a very responsible statement for Kat Banyard to make.

As to the legal advice from the lawyers – or at least, what I’m able to see of it – all I as a non-British-lawyer can do is look at the statute and the case law. The Equality Act 2010 prohibits direct and indirect discrimination, the latter applying where

A applies to B a provision, criterion or practice which is discriminatory in relation to a relevant protected characteristic of B’s

… “sex” being one such protected characteristic.

There’s another section about Sex Equality (Section 64) but it deals with pretty much what it says it deals with, i.e., equal terms and conditions of work. Which would certainly be breached if female employees were singled out for sexual harassment, and may be the reason the letter and press statement refer to discrimination and not just harassment alone. On the other hand, they may be applying the Catharine MacKinnon notion of pornography itself as a discriminatory act – what she described in Only Words as “subordinating women through sex”. The problem with this is that it rests on a series of assumptions which would all need to be accepted for this approach to succeed: that lads’ mags are pornography; that pornography does subordinate women; that the impact of this is sufficient to overcome the rights of the publishers to produce, the stores to sell and the buyers to purchase these materials. It’s not a terribly solid foundation to build a case on, which I imagine is why the letter mostly just highlights the harassment angle.

So let’s turn to that. Under Section 26 of the 2010 Act, harassment occurs where:

(1)(a)    A engages in unwanted conduct related to a relevant protected characteristic, and
(b)  the conduct has the purpose or effect of
(i)violating B’s dignity, or
(ii)creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for B.

(2)A also harasses B if—
(a)A engages in unwanted conduct of a sexual nature, and
(b)the conduct has the purpose or effect referred to in subsection (1)(b)

I don’t think you have to agree with UK Feminista and Object to understand, in theory, where they see the lads’ mags fitting in here. But it’s important to read the section in full, because it goes on to say:

(4)In deciding whether conduct has the effect referred to in subsection (1)(b), each of the following must be taken into account—
(a)the perception of B;
(b)the other circumstances of the case;
(c)whether it is reasonable for the conduct to have that effect.

What this basically tells us is that displaying and/or selling the lads’ mags cannot constitute harassment in and of itself – even if a shop assistant feels her dignity has been violated, even if, and I think it is rather a big if, the sale of the magazines is what has given rise to the hostile or offensive environment she experiences. All the circumstances have to be looked at in the round, and each case will be judged on its own merits.

Which is why I really wish I had precise details of the cases the legal advice is based on. Most of the case law I’ve found predates the Act, though I don’t see any pertinent change from the previous law. There certainly are examples of successful actions against employers for exposure to porn in the workplace, but not in a context where the porn was a product being sold by the employer. So I’m not sure how much use those cases would be in the type of case we’re discussing here. For one thing, there is more scope for a conflict of rights here, since compelling an end to these sales would impinge on the publishers’ freedom of expression (as well as free movement of goods and services, if there’s any cross-border element involved). Given the huge deference that the ECHR and the EU give to member states to regulate sexually explicit material, I don’t think this would necessarily be the biggest legal hurdle, but it would be an additional one that wasn’t present in the earlier cases.

There’s also a strong possibility that the Employment Tribunals would distinguish between the circulation of images that are in no way related to a person’s actual work, and the sale of magazines by a shop whose business it is to sell magazines. I realise this has the whiff of “what did you expect when you took that job” and that can be problematic for a lot of reasons, not least that the people who work in these shops often don’t have a lot of alternatives. It is, nonetheless, a point on which the tribunals could distinguish this case from the precedents, and I think they’d be likely to seize on it. Unless women on staff are somehow being targetted for abuse with these magazines – in which case the issue really is the abuse and not the magazines themselves – I would expect the Tribunal to fall back on the “other circumstances of the case” provision. If it didn’t – if it held that a worker was sexually harassed by the mere sale and/or display of these magazines – then it would cease to be just an employment tribunal, and overnight would become a national press censor. This is just the type of scenario in which judicial bodies tend to put their hands up and say it’s up to Parliament, not them, to make that call.

I don’t entirely accept the slippery slope argument made by some other critics of the campaign. And again, this is because of the judiciary’s ability to distinguish between what might seem like analogous cases before it. It’s entirely possible, and indeed it happens all the time, that a court or tribunal will refuse to apply its own previous reasoning – not because it doesn’t follow logically, but because it would have undesirable consequences. If an Employment Tribunal did rule that a woman was discriminated against by having to sell Nuts, it doesn’t mean they’d then have to find a religious fundamentalist was discriminated against by having to sell Gay Times. Where the slippery slope might apply, though, is in the decisions made by individual shop owners or chains: if a UK Feminista/Object victory had the effect of emboldening other groups, as it surely would, pulling anything that causes controversy may well be the more desirable option from a commercial/convenience standpoint.

“Lose the lads mags” campaigners can’t pretend this is unlikely, either, because this sort of self-censorship is exactly what they’re aiming for. I’m not sure if they believe they could actually win a case, but they might have an impact just by threatening to bring one. How much of an impact remains to be seen (though I’m inclined to predict “not much”). One thing’s for sure anyway: just as a successful No More Page 3 campaign would still leave us with a vile rag called “The Sun”, losing the lads mags would still leave the women who work in these shops with a myriad of other problems – and dare I say it, more pressing problems, or at least they were more pressing when I worked in a shop – such as low wages, long hours, little or no job security and, yes, sexual harassment, the kind you can’t get rid of just by pulling a magazine from the shelves. I’d like to think that if they win this campaign, UK Feminista and Object will stick around to help these women fight to overcome those problems too. But I suspect they’ll just move on to the next sexy press release.

Seriously, read this post. It’s spot-on in every single way.

Hunter Not The Hunted

So: recently, a young woman, Lucy-Anne Holmes, started a petition on Change.org aimed at getting The Sun to stop featuring topless Page 3 girls*. The Internet seems to have done its work well, because it’s been all over Twitter for days, with endorsement from such stalwarts as Caitlin Moran** & Graham Linehan, and is now claiming over 27,000 signatures. Many of the proponents of #nomorepage3 have made reference to feminism and the general well-being of women as justifications for the quasi-campaign. Even more baffling was when I saw sex educators, sex radicals and other generally sex-positive (by which I include sex-critical) folks endorsing it.

Therefore, I think there is an even greater need for countervailing opinions from the perspectives of feminists. Which, in this case, is me. Nobody ever said life was fair. But there are 2 things I’m not going to touch on: whether or not P3…

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Just Don’t Call It Slut-Shaming: A Feminist Guide to Silencing Sex Workers

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The feminist movement really is in a pickle these days. It used to be a given that things like prostitution, pornography and stripping were bad, but nowadays there’s some resistance to these time-honoured notions. Women are increasingly coming out as sex workers and demanding rights. As feminists seek to shut down strip bars and criminalise clients, those women are complaining not just that they’ll lose their livelihood, but that they’ll be at increased risk of abuse and violence if their industries go underground! You can’t let such trivial concerns get in the way of your crusade, so below are some handy tips for discrediting these pesky meddlers. Remember: being an actual sex worker doesn’t entitle her to speak about sex work!

I don’t believe you; you don’t realise the harm you’re doing to yourself

This is generally your starting point. There you are, explaining that no woman really wants to work in the sex industry, and then some bint pops up claiming that her existence proves otherwise! Aim for the ‘false consciousness’ tactic here: citing statistics from research that the audience doesn’t need to know has been widely criticised by academics, you can imply that you know better than she does what’s good for her. Bonus points for using a strategy also employed by opponents of abortion rights!

a) You think the sex industry is the best thing ever!
b) What you said just proved that sex work is bad!

Keep her on her toes: if the sex worker claims any degree of autonomy or job satisfaction, paint her as a naïve fool who believes that the entire sex industry is a magical fairytale land of flowers, rainbows and sparkly dildos. Your own points about abuses in the industry should outweigh anything she has to say, rather than combining the two to give the audience a greater understanding of the diversity of human experience.

On the other hand, if the sex worker at any point mentions having a bad day at work, outlines the safety precautions she takes, or even jokes about clients with smelly feet, be sure to pounce on this straight away as evidence of the inherent harm of the sex industry. Don’t budge an inch if she tries to point out that none of these things are unique to sex work. It’s different, because it’s sex. Got that? Soon enough, she’ll stop publicly discussing any problems related to sex work, for fear that you’ll use them to call for complete eradication. And once she’s shut up about them, you can safely return to point a). Genius!

You’re only concerned about losing business

Goddammit, what is with these people? You’re only trying to send a message about equality between men and women, and they’re raising hell about disrupted support networks and a rise in violence! But that’s okay. As long as you make them out to be purely motivated by greed, you needn’t actually address the issues they’re highlighting, let alone the reasons why they might need money in the first place. Bonus points if you’re able to employ this one against, say, an escort who’s concerned about the increased vulnerability of street-based sex workers. Don’t for a moment entertain the idea that there might be solidarity across the sex industry.

You’re being paid off by pimps and traffickers

This is a great one. It’s a bit preposterous, but if your audience has already lapped up everything you have to say, you can possibly get away with the notion that the only reason people might disagree with you is that they’re the sockpuppets of shady criminal masterminds.

You’re letting all women down

If, despite your best efforts, the audience seems in danger of accepting that your opponent genuinely chose sex work, experiences it as a relatively worthwhile pastime and, furthermore, has some points that might be worth listening to, quickly play your trump card: it’s not about her, it’s about all women.

Although, once upon a time, feminism was concerned with questions such as “Does lesbianism discredit the movement?” or “If I like painting my nails, buying shoes and sucking cock (for free, of course) am I letting the side down?”, these issues have largely been cleared up in the name of freedom of choice. Luckily for you, though, feminism on the whole does not (yet) look so kindly upon women whose choices include sex work. Keep it black and white and don’t let any nuance get in there. Base your argument here on claiming that the sex industry promotes negative attitudes to women – for bonus points, use objectifying language to describe sex workers while explaining that objectification is bad. You’ve already established that consensual paid-for sex is wrong, so a woman who willingly provides it is clearly a traitor to your gender. Under the guise of ‘love the sinner, hate the sin’, you can proceed to being as nasty as you like to those uppity sex workers: they didn’t listen to you when you warned they were making the wrong choice, so they’ve already forfeited their right to sisterhood.

You’re not representative

Feminism has fought long and hard to dispel stereotypes and push for more rights for all women. Cast that legacy aside for now and focus on the task at hand! You may be advocating a course of action that will affect everybody in the sex industry, but you can still get away with claiming that anyone who doesn’t like it simply doesn’t count. Plus, if you play your cards right, manage to keep the dissenters in their place, and get the law-makers to agree that your ideology is more important than women’s safety, eventually the sex industry really will become a wholly unpleasant place to be. Those who have the means to find other work will at long last understand that it’s time for them to do so, and the only people left will be the ones who were already having a hard time of it and have no alternatives. Then all sex workers really will meet your standards of ‘representative’! It’s a bit of a circuitous route, grinding down a diverse industry until it encompasses nothing more than a homogeneous group of abused victims of pimping and trafficking, with no agency of their own and uniformly miserable experiences. But by then, at least, everybody will be exploited and unhappy, just like you were saying they were all along. You’ll have proved your point. Congratulations, and thanks for your contribution!

The porn/rape/consent debate, again

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Last week, an Irish Examiner journalist attended the launch of the Rape Crisis Network Ireland’s Factsheet on sexual violence and older women in Ireland – and came away with the impression that the most newsworthy aspect of the launch was what the RCNI’s Director had to say about porn. In his report, titled Overexposure of young people to porn is “like a car crash”, the journalist wrote:

Teenagers are being damaged by overexposure to pornography, with Ireland in the grip of a “catastrophe” of sexual violence, the Rape Crisis Network of Ireland has warned.

Executive director of the RCNI Fiona Neary said such was the prevalence of pornography in society that it could affect young people’s views of sexual consent which, matched with growing levels of alcohol use, was “like watching a car crash”.

She said young people were being exposed “to much more pornography than we realise”.

“I think if the Department of Education doesn’t clearly start looking at programmes which address the messages of pornography, we are really running into trouble,” she said.

I wasn’t at the launch, so I don’t know if that really was a significant theme on the day, or if the journalist just thought it made for better copy than a report on older people who survived sexual abuse. But I thought it was a strange issue to be raising at that launch anyway, given what the statistics in the Factsheet show. Of the 77 women who attended a Rape Crisis Centre in 2010 to discuss their own sexual abuse, 57.1% had only been abused in childhood, and an additional 16.9% had been abused in both childhood and adulthood. The Factsheet doesn’t break down the “adulthood” category any further, but it’s probably safe to assume that a significant proportion of this abuse happened in early adulthood; in this study 72% of Irish rape victims were found to be between the ages of 18-30 at the time of the event.

So what we can conclude from this is:

  • Most of the abuse discussed in the Factsheet took place prior to 1973 (when a person aged 55 in 2010 reached adulthood); and
  • A pretty big chunk of the rest of it took place prior to 1985.

All of which makes for a pretty tenuous link between pornography and the acts of sexual violence discussed at this launch. Sure, porn existed before 1973, and was accessible even in what was still a strongly Church-dominated Ireland in 1985, but it’s hardly likely that the rapists behind this Factsheet had the kind of “overexposure” to it that the Examiner piece describes. So I’m not really sure why this launch was used as an opportunity to blame sexual violence on the ready availability of porn.

The article goes on to say:

On the consistent levels of sexual violence across generations [the RCNI Director] said: “It is a catastrophe in Irish history that has not been officially recognised.”

And that just emphasises the point. I don’t know if the levels of sexual violence have truly been consistent across generations – that’s one of those things you’ll never get accurate measure of, anyway – but there’s an obvious logical difficulty with claiming that something in modern society is making a social problem worse while simultaneously accepting that that problem has actually always been as bad as it is now.

It’s certainly arguable, of course, that the increased availability of porn is preventing a reduction in sexual violence that would otherwise occur. That’s the only way I can think to reconcile those two contradictory premises. But that premise itself is so wildly speculative, unprovable and intuitively unlikely, it’s not surprising that nobody seems to be making that argument – at least openly.

This isn’t the only time recently I’ve seen porn blamed for something that clearly predates it. In a recent AlterNet article called The Absurd Myths Porn Teaches Us About Sex, authors Noah Brand and Ozy Frantz quote “college student Lynette” as saying:

I actually had a guy tell me I was wrong…If I was rubbing my clit, it wasn’t real masturbation. He didn’t even know about the G spot…

Um, I’m pretty sure men were largely ignorant about women’s bodies and how we reach orgasm long before there was porn, AlterNet. Anyway, back to the RCNI launch. Neary went on to helpfully spell out exactly why she thinks porn leads to sexual violence:

One of the problems with pornography is consent is never discussed. People in pornography, regardless of what they are doing, are always presented as being up for it, or else rape is presented as being enjoyable.

So, either there’s not enough consent shown in porn, or there’s consent shown where it wouldn’t actually be given. There’s an element here of trying to have it both ways, but consent isn’t always a black-and-white issue in real life and I think it’s a fair criticism that those nuances are typically ignored in porn. But is that really as problematic as Neary claims? It might be, if porn was the only exposure that men and boys had to (hetero)sexual negotiations – perhaps then they really would start to believe that women never do say “no”. But very few men and boys see nothing but porn, and female rejection of male advances is a common enough theme in mainstream media – particularly that which is aimed at adolescent males. What basis is there to assume that young men only internalise what they see in porn?

But I have another, more serious, concern about this line of thought: it has the potential to create a “porn defence” to rape. In Irish law (which was modelled on a similar British statute), rape is defined as having sexual intercourse with someone in the knowledge that they are not consenting or with recklessness as to whether they are consenting. Thus, if the accused genuinely believes that consent has been given, legally there is no rape. The jury doesn’t have to simply take his word that he believed that, of course, and when they’re deciding whether he really did think consent was present, one of the things they must take into consideration is whether there were reasonable grounds for him to think so. But – and this is really important – ultimately what matters is whether the jury thinks that he did believe it, not whether they think it was reasonable for him to believe it. In legal terms, it is subjectively rather than objectively assessed. So if the jury finds that it was a ludicrous belief but one genuinely held, they are obliged to acquit. They are only obliged to convict if they consider the belief so ludicrous that the accused couldn’t possibly have really held it.

And the problem is, it’s precisely the Rape Crisis Network here who are telling us that it isn’t a ludicrous belief; that in fact this is what porn does to its viewers. (As the similarly-minded Catharine MacKinnon put it in Only Words, “pornography makes rapists unaware that their victims are not consenting”.) Do the RCNI really want to be pushing this line? Do they want to see their own words free an accused rapist who claimed that he watched so much porn, he genuinely believed that his victim meant “yes” when she said “no”? What response will they give when defence counsel tells the jury that “even the Rape Crisis Network acknowledges that pornography can have this effect on men”?

Of course, societal factors influence our behaviour, and the line is sometimes fine between acknowledging this and absolving people of responsibility for their own actions. But in a culture already predisposed to rape apology, surely the last thing we should be doing is inventing more reasons for why the men just can’t help themselves.

One thing I do agree with Neary on, and it’s a point made even more strongly in that AlterNet piece, is the urgent need for proper sex education. In that regard, it’s worth pointing out that only around a quarter of Irish secondary students are getting any sex ed at all in the schools – and it’s likely that the quality ranges from mediocre to abysmal for most of that quarter. But this too is a longstanding failure in Irish society (AlterNet is US-based, but the situation is hardly much better there) and shouldn’t be framed in terms of its relevance to a porn-saturated world. Give the patriarchal state a choice between cracking down on sexual expression and actually teaching young people the things that they need (and have a right) to know about sex, and you can bet it will opt for the former.

Finally, even though I don’t agree that porn’s portrayal of consent is the catastrophe the RCNI makes it out to be, that doesn’t mean I think it’s not worth discussing. There are a lot of people these days making what they call “feminist” (or otherwise “transgressive”) porn; what those labels actually mean is debatable, but at the very least they imply a willingness to depart from the usual conventions of the genre and there’s no reason the conventions of consent can’t be one of them. Perhaps there is porn out there that does depict the issue in a realistic fashion – I’d be happy to hear about it if there is. And if there isn’t, it’s certainly a valid question why not.

Thoughts on “Muff March”

Hot on the heels of the Slutwalk phenomenon comes this really interesting protest yesterday by UK Feminista against the “designer vagina” trend. According to their press release, they were marching

against a ‘pornified’ culture driving increasing numbers of women to seek vaginal cosmetic surgery, and to protest against the cosmetic surgeons profiting from it.

UK Feminista were accompanied by feminist performance artists the Muffia, pictured below on a previous outing, and by the Solent Feminist Network who stated that they would be marching between cosmetic surgery clinics

wearing our ‘hairy muffs’ proudly and celebrating female genitalia with its natural variety

Now first of all, I have to say that I love the basic idea of this protest. It’s bold and clever and addresses a very real issue affecting women’s bodily image. While I absolutely believe in a woman’s right to do what she wants with every part of her body, I also think that those who don’t want to do anything to the appearance of their genitalia are being increasingly made to feel awkward or ashamed for that choice. I know that some women feel that removing all their pubic hair has benefits beyond the cosmetic, and that’s fine for them, but as a trend I think it has been mostly negative for women because it just gives us another part of our bodies to be insecure about. And we didn’t need that, thanks.

I think it would be great to get to the point where a decision on whether or not to remove your body hair (any of it) was no different from a decision on whether or not to get your ears pierced, which, in western culture anyway, truly is a simple matter of personal taste and not in any way something that women are pressured about. So I’m totally in favour, in principle, of anything that promotes the legitimacy of leaving your body hair intact. (The link to surgery, if it isn’t obvious, is that labiaplasty was nearly unheard of before the hair-removal craze. Nobody, well at least almost nobody, cared what their labia looked like back in the days when you couldn’t really see them anyway.)

But where UK Feminista lose me is where they turn this demonstration from what it should be, a celebration of women’s natural bodies, into a protest against porn. Porn is to blame for the rise in designer vaginas, they insist, stating that

Researchers at Kings College London carrying out a study into demand for labiaplasty have suggested this increase stems from the increasing ‘pornification’ of culture.

A citation is helpfully provided, and so I looked it up and while it is true that this is “suggested” by the Kings College researchers, what the researchers actually say is that

We haven’t completed the research, but there is suspicion that this is related to much greater access to porn, so it is easier for women to compare themselves to actresses who may have had it done.

Now that’s a pretty ambiguous statement, I think. Does “there is suspicion” mean “the evidence so far suggests”? Or does it mean “Our research hypothesis is”, and they haven’t actually yet found the evidence to prove it?

The “access to porn” part is problematic, too. Just because somebody has access to porn doesn’t mean they actually do access it. I’m sure UK Feminista would make the same point in regard to studies showing lower rape rates in places where there is more access to internet porn. And it might be “easier for women to compare themselves” to women in porn, but that doesn’t mean that they are comparing themselves to women in porn. Maybe they are, and this study actually is about finding a direct link between porn-watching, vagina-comparing and labiaplasty – but that’s not made clear in the article that UK Feminista cite as a source for their claims.

I have always felt that porn is too easy a target for a lot of the societal ills that it’s blamed for. And I’m particularly dubious about the idea that it can be blamed for women’s insecurity about our bodies. In part, this is based on my own experiences. I was a teenage girl and young woman in the pre-internet days and while it was possible to access porn if you went looking for it, most of us didn’t, plenty of us hardly if ever saw it, it was nowhere near as readily accessible as it is now and yet we were still beset by bodily insecurities. So clearly something else was at work there.

The “pornification of culture” idea is, I guess, based on the notion that porn infiltrates mainstream media, which then does the damage that porn itself couldn’t do directly. But even here I think this is far from clear, because the images projected in porn aren’t necessarily the ones promoted in the mainstream media. Look at the issue of super-skinny fashion models. This is totally a mainstream media (in particular, magazines aimed at women) thing – you almost never see stick-figured women in mainstream porn, because that’s not the body shape that is thought to appeal to the major consumers of porn, i.e., men. So why do so many women buy into the preference for a rail-thin body over curves? They’re not getting this from porn – not even indirectly. Why isn’t the fashion industry, which promotes this ideal (along with the beauty industry, which has a multitude of things to answer for) subject to the same feminist opprobrium as the porn industry? Is it because many feminists like fashion and beauty?

To be fair, I’m not claiming that those industries have escaped feminist criticism. But I have been at far too many feminist events where participants spent significant amount of time railing against the evils of porn while saying little or nothing about the evils of the fashion and beauty industries, which I am pretty sure you would find have a much greater impact on women’s self-image.

In a similar vein, I’m not convinced by the argument that porn itself is to blame for the trend toward female pubic hairlessness. Again, I return to the fact that the women in mainstream porn tend to look the way that the porn industry thinks will appeal to men. This is pretty logical; the main purpose of mainstream porn is to get men off, and it best achieves that purpose by featuring women that men are attracted to. But a lot of men old enough to remember when pubic hair was the norm say they were more freaked out than attracted the first time they encountered a woman without it. So it seems unlikely to me that this trend would have appeared in mainstream porn until there was already a market for it, and thus porn was probably reflecting rather than starting the trend. I’ve tried without success to find actual studies on this; if anyone knows of any, please let me know.

I do accept that porn could reinforce this trend, and that it may have shaped the expectations of a younger generation who had never encountered women’s natural bodies. But if boys are learning what they know about women’s bodies from porn, is that really the fault of the porn industry? Is it not the fault of a society that tries to hide even the most basic sexuality information from children for as long as possible, virtually ensuring that porn is the first place they do get it?

And finally, if porn really does have the influence that some feminists attribute to it, why not turn that to our advantage? Why not support those porn artists who do promote women’s bodies in their natural beauty? I’m thinking of people like Sasha Grey, who apparently confused the hell out of emotional 12-year-olds all over the internet when she appeared on HBO sporting a full bush, and Furry Girl who, for all her self-proclaimed anti-feminism (and occasionally dodgy politics) has done plenty to promote the idea that a sexually attractive woman doesn’t have to be a hairless one. There are also plenty of women out there making amateur porn who simply aren’t bothered to conform to current trends. Why not celebrate these efforts, instead of lumping them all into this great untouchable category of awfulness that is how many feminists indiscriminately see “porn”?

I know the answer to these questions already, of course. I’ve been involved in feminist activism for too long to think that my resolutely anti-porn comrades can be persuaded to drop that crusade and instead frame the battle as one for better, more inclusive porn. But as long as porn isn’t going away, and we all know it isn’t, I still think it’s an argument worth making.

In any case, to the extent that it did promote the idea that women shouldn’t feel compelled to conform to this trend, I hope the Muff March went well. Future marches might go even better if they drop the unnecessarily alienating anti-porn rhetoric and welcome all women who want to demonstrate in support of women’s natural bodies – including those who make a living by showing off theirs.