Saturday, January 24, 2009

A Response to Ryan Thoreson at The

What follows is a piece of commentary posted at the on Thursday, 22 January 2009, 14.30 GMT. What follows that is my reply to him.

Why ban porn at all?

China's crackdown on internet 'vulgarity' was immediately attacked, but there are draconian rules in our own universities

by Ryan Thoreson

The sex wars have begun anew – and this time, they've gone global. As if restrictions on free-flowing information weren't already unsexy enough, the Chinese government has upped the ante by cracking down on pornography and "vulgarity" across the country.

Almost instantly, the move was roundly condemned by free-speech advocates. Depending who you asked, it was a blow to free expression, a setback for grassroots media or a gross invasion of privacy. And virtually everyone agreed that the punishment seemed wildly inappropriate for the offence of poor taste and the occasional bit of self-abuse.

While plenty of people oppose pornography (most famously, savvy feminist academics like Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon) very few people leap to the defence of the strict policing or draconian punishments of this particular episode. It wasn't the manufacturers of pornography who got caught in the dragnet, or the models, actors, filmmakers or photographers, or even the viewers themselves, but the search engines that knowingly or unknowingly host the offending pages. As a result, 19 companies – including major players like Baidu and Google – are subject to being raided and having their equipment seized. As of this morning, more than 1,250 websites had been shuttered, and the ministry of public security announced plans to expand the crackdown to police individuals' mobile phones.

But really, who are we to talk? While pornography isn't illegal in the UK, restrictions aren't that different at Oxford – or really, any of the UK's other bastions of learning. According to Oxford's information technology policy, like other universities on the government-funded JANET programme, "the creation, transmission, storage, downloading, or display of any offensive, obscene, indecent, or menacing images, data, or other material, or any data capable of being resolved into such images or material" is a punishable offence for users on university networks. Cambridge's policy is similar, as is Manchester's. King's College lumps porn into a range of reactionary offences; by banning content "which is sexist, racist, homophobic, xenophobic, pornographic or similarly discriminatory or offensive" they skilfully blur the lines between self-love and hate speech. As quick as commentators have been to condemn the crackdown in China, our intelligentsia don't seem to be any less squeamish about porn themselves.

It's not just this instance, either. Just prior to China's sweeps, pundits were up in arms over Facebook's ban of breastfeeding photos. But while Oxford or Cambridge might let the photos slide, they're not necessarily permissible. As the policies stand, universities in the UK not only prohibit displaying racy photos on their networks, they often prohibit uploading and sending them privately in the sanctity of a university room.

Obviously, there's a non-trivial difference in scale between China's crackdown and a fed-up IT technician who reports a student to a university. It's said that Oxford rarely enforces its policy, and certainly, nobody has their belongings confiscated or gets detained indefinitely for breaking that particular rule. Moreover, Oxford – like many institutions – does explicitly allow students to access racy materials for "properly supervised research purposes", although the policy neglects to say what constitutes a properly supervised use of porn, or what unlucky group of bureaucrats is asked to evaluate such claims.

If it's trivial or impractical to regulate, why ban porn at all? Many universities argue that surfing for porn is banned because it's not for academic purposes. But this hardly explains why students are only lectured on porn as they are introduced to the network. Nobody worries that they'll be sent down for shopping for jeans, emailing their grandmother or checking a bus schedule. And frankly, they probably get more out of the porn. It's hard to single out pornography as uniquely anti-intellectual – and it certainly doesn't make sense to ban it at universities where students regularly skip to bops in schoolgirl miniskirts or fetish gear.

But what such vague and imprecise prohibitions do promote is a kind of self-consciousness, fearfulness, and shame about accessing content that might be damning. Worse, they allow the university to crack down on whoever it chooses, whenever it chooses, with whatever punishments it chooses. It lends itself to targeting people who watch porn often, or who are into kinky stuff that catches the university's eye. That's especially arbitrary to those of us who think porn is pretty innocuous compared to the rampant misogyny or violence that you can watch unrestricted on TV, but the sheer inconsistency of it should give even critics of pornography pause. Pornography can be sexist and it can be offensive, but it isn't inherently so – and if porn offends, so does a lot of the material on the internet. And for institutions that prize curiosity and free thought, a blanket prohibition on net-based erotica alone seems awfully difficult to justify.

The politics of pornography are complicated everywhere, in the UK just as much as in China. But a key difference between the two is that porn isn't illegal in Britain, and that's what makes this puritanical streak in academia especially incomprehensible. It's frankly bizarre for universities to distribute contraception and test for chlamydia while banning porn – to effectively tell students that they can touch, but not look. While pornography might be distasteful to some, that kind of sex schizophrenia that persists in its place is a much bigger turn-off.

Cheers Ryan.

Andrea Dworkin was not an academic, she was a writer and activist. So your theories about the Academy or the State banning pornography don't hold together if you're going to include her work as an example of such a connection. Dworkin dropped out of Bennington College and never worked as a professor. Yes, she taught a class or two at one point, but teaching a class or two, along with being a college drop-out does not an academic make.

Dworkin and MacKinnon (first name, Catharine; do you have a problem with spelling?) never promoted State censorship as a means of confronting the problem pornography poses for women and their economic, political, and social subordination to men. Regurgitating ad nauseam that such feminists were pro-censorship is a handy myth for those who are sexually or economically invested in not knowing the truth of what they worked together to do; they created a CIVIL RIGHTS law. Sorry to interrupt your argument with inconvenient truths.

If you are capable of reading and comprehending feminist writing, make a concerted effort to comprehend this speech, by Andrea Dworkin: Pornography Happens To Women. In my experience, "academically educated men" are quite stupid when it comes to interpreting the meaning of feminist theory and the function and purpose of civil rights/sex discrimination-based feminist anti-pornography activism. Visit this website, and pay close attention to "Section 5: ENFORCEMENT" and note how such a law may, and may not, be applied.

In the U.S. we have a category of speech, appropriately termed "hate speech" which is not protected by our First Amendment. Pornography, the term, literally means the graphic depiction of women as whores. It is, at least, hate speech. Women are not whores, they are human beings, despite what pimps, punters, procurers, traffickers, and political libertarians delusionally believe. Women of all ethnicities have the right to study in intellectual environments (and beyond them) where the message "you are a whore [or: slut, skank, tramp, harlot, hoe, c*nt, hoochie mama, slag, hooker, tart, etc.] is not visually displayed before them, or hurled at them in order to intimidate, harass, humiliate, silence, or threaten them.

Men do, at least on occasion, treat women as whores-by-nature, when women do not wish to be approached or contacted by men at all. Every women I know is routinely approached on the street, or called out to, by men who assume "women exist to be sexually available to me, whenever I want such access". Men, not all, treat women, not all, as if they are whores, including on university campuses, which is one dynamic in the problem of college date rape. Too many males feel entitled to get what they want from women regardless of what the woman wants. Wanking off to images of women who appear to want to be roughly f*cked 24/7 does nothing to reinforce and support the liberating idea that women are not whores-by-nature, including prostituted women. Let's hope that millionaire pimps, their bevy of very well-paid attorneys, and you, aren't the only ones who gets to define what pornography is, self-servingly decreeing its social-political effects.

That you do not see the connections between a multi-billion dollar industry producing hate speech, and the mistreatment of women inside and outside of that industry is a function of your privilege. Just because you don't understand these connections, however, doesn't mean pornography-on-campus isn't a legitimate human rights problem for many female students.

King's College recognizes pornography as race and sex discrimination. It being "offensive" is not the issue. Holding such a view doesn't make one "squeamish", Ryan; it makes one an opponent of the individual rights of the wealthy, race and sex-privileged elite, when they impede on the civil rights of the oppressed.

Ryan's and my comments may also be found here.


Ryan said...

Hi Julian,

As youve commented, pimps, attorneys, and myself shouldnt be the ones to decide whats acceptable, and I'm sympathetic to that and find myself fairly horrified by a lot of pornography. But personally, Im no more comfortable handing the responsibility over to elite professors or a conservative politician, who are no more likely to be pro-feminist than myself and apply these rules as they see fit. I would rather have porn discussed openly than punished quietly and arbitrarily.

As Ive said before, I think my discomfort about the ambiguity, opacity, and arbitrariness of this policy stem from my particular perspective, which is queer rather than deliberately anti-feminist. I dont watch heterosexual porn and I think that colors my conception of the inherent oppressiveness of the genre, but I also think queer people (and feminists) have good reason to be skeptical of the ways that terms like obscenity are defined by elites. To allow an undemocratic, untransparent body to label and punish obscenity as they see fit lends itself quite well to anti-feminist practice (for example, censoring breastfeeding as obscene) or anti-queer or anti-sex practice (for example, giving offensive but heterosexual porn a pass, but fining or expelling students accessing information about respectful, consensual fetishes or gay porn because that's "perverse").

The reason I didnt take issue with MacKinnon and Dworkin and merely nodded to them in a parenthetical is that I think there are good points to be made about pornography and speech, but its awfully far-fetched to say that the dons of Oxbridge are ardent opponent[s] of the individual rights of the wealthy, race and sex-privileged elite. I think its far more plausible that they wanted to reserve the right to define what is and isnt obscene, as evidenced by the fact that they decline to provide any criteria that would clarify this for potential users. A shockingly vague standard in the hands of precisely those wealthy, race and sex-privileged bureaucrats could just as easily be used to police, punish, and shame those whose erotic inclinations arent conventionally heterosexist and sexist, who cant be lightly dismissed as boys being boys. Regardless of how one feels about porn, the point I was trying to make is that its worse to have standards that are vague, undemocratic, and selectively applied, and I remain convinced of that.

Finally, you clearly know more about the porn wars than I do, but I dont think its far-fetched to say that Dworkin and MacKinnon oppose pornography – which is all I was trying to say in pointing out that there are authors whose opposition to porn is nuanced and not simply knee-jerk Puritanism. If I had known that that brief parenthetical would invite belittling comments about my spelling, my capacity to read feminist writing, my knowledge of Andrea Dworkins formal education, or the relative stupidity of academically educated men, I would have focused solely on the arbitrariness and hypocrisy of the policy as it stands. I do think its odd for someone with such a nuanced understanding of power to be so militant about proper spelling or who counts as a proper academic, and I find those kind of excuses for intellectual bullying to be completely unconducive to conversations among feminists.

Julian Real said...

I appreciate your feedback about my comment, Ryan.

And I apologise to you for the verbal bullying. There really was no excuse for it in response to your piece, which your response here helps me understand better. I'm quite not sure if that means I believe your piece was unclear.

We are in agreement about some significant aspects of this matter. You and I are in complete agreement "that terms like obscenity are defined by elites. To allow an undemocratic, untransparent body to label and punish obscenity as they see fit lends itself quite well to anti-feminist practice (for example, censoring breastfeeding as obscene)".

I'm completely opposed to obscenity laws and the whole concept of "obscenity" in law. Pro-white heteromale supremacist laws are obscene (and unjust, and oppressive), but will never be defined as such by those elites, as you suggest.

I do think immersion in gay pornography only can allow a person to not really get what is happening to many women in the production of, and use of heterosexual pornography made for men by men against women.

But nor do I think gay pornography has anything liberatory going on in it, and for much more on that I recommend reading the work of Christopher Kendall; his books are available through the library systems and

See, for example, "Gendered Outcasts and Sexual Outlaws: Sexual Oppression and Gender Hierarchies in Queer Men's Lives" by Christopher N. Kendall and Wayne Martino (Paperback - Dec 2005)


"Gay Male Pornography: An Issue of Sex Discrimination" (Law & Society) by Christopher N. Kendall (Hardcover - 30 Sep 2004)

And please stay engaged in discussion here, if you wish, on these and related topics.

Thank you so much for putting up with my rudeness and for responding so generously.

Again, cheers.

sarahcl said...


Just found your blog, and so nice to see another pro-feminist man out there.

I comment occasionally at CiF, but it really is a soul-destroying cesspit most of the time, doubly so on anything feminist/woman related

Julian Real said...

Hi sarahcl.

You are welcome here any time. I try to keep this a solidly profeminist/antimisogynist-antiracist space.