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Porn: Not Just a Black and White Issue

Tracy Clark-Flory

Editor’s Note: The February 2005 issue of Hustler magazine raised questions about feminism, sexuality, and pornography and in response, The Weekly is publishing a series of articles that explore these issues. The magazine published an article about the student body’s response to the Fetish Ball exposé written by Sam Ospovat, a Mills alumnus, in the September 2004 issue. The February 2005 issue also featured a firsthand account from Ospovat about the discrimination he faced as a male student at Mills.

Long regarded as the shameful underbelly of American society, pornography has broken into the mainstream, cementing itself into the collective pop culture conscience.

From porn stars hosting television shows on major cable networks, to the much talked about video-taped exploits of Paris Hilton, to primetime coverage, it seems there’s no shortage of public fascination with the industry and the scores of moral and political issues that it raises, especially for women.

Some women view porn as antithetical to feminism, others see it as a tool of empowerment and celebrating one’s sexuality and yet still others fall somewhere in between — neither lauding pornography nor condemning it.

Susannah Breslin, a photographer and freelance writer, has written about the San Fernando Valley porn industry hub known as “Porn Valley” and said that women’s current exposure to pornography is unparalleled.

“The relationship between women and pornography is in a constant state of flux. That said, at this point in history, there are more women being exposed to pornography than ever before,” Breslin said.

“Initially, women didn’t have as much access to porn,” Breslin said. “Then, the feminist movement posited that pornography objectified women. These days, by and large, I think, women are more tolerant of it, although they still find many aspects of it, particularly its representations of women, problematic.”

Dr. Diana Russell, Mills professor emeritus, disapproves of the Mills Fetish Ball, an annual event held by the queer club Mouthing Off. In response to past Weekly coverage which described event-goers as wearing “seductive corsets, latex, vinyl, fishnet, ductape and saran wrap,” she said, “These descriptions of the Fetish Balls appear to be both a reflection and a celebration of our contemporary ‘pornographied’ culture.”

Mylls Women Collective President Kasey P. Lindsay doesn’t associate the popularity of events like the Fetish Ball at women’s colleges across the country with changing views about pornography.

“I wouldn’t say that an increase in campus events like the Mills Fetish Ball really says anything about women’s opinions of pornography,” Lindsay said. “Rather, I think events like Fetish Ball simply demonstrate the reality of the sexual nature of human beings. Mainstream society, whatever that is, would have us believe that sex is a very clean and quiet thing, that anything that isn’t ‘normal’ is bizarre and out of the ordinary. When the truth of the matter is that deviance isn’t really all that deviant.”

Russell, who’s dedicated her career to researching the harmful effects of pornography, said she’s observed a noticeable change in attitudes towards pornography at Mills.

“I used to teach my students at Mills about the degrading and misogynist character of pornography, and its deleterious effects on women, children, and men,” Russell said. “I frequently organized a campus-wide event in which a dynamic speaker gave a slide presentation on woman-hating images in the media and pornography to a large, attentive student audience. At that time it would have been unthinkable for annual dances like the Fetish Balls to be organized at Mills.”

Many students do not applaud pornography but rather have an attitude of tolerance towards it.

“I’m not a fan of it — but, as long as I don’t have to see it, it’s none of my business what other people want to read in the privacy of their own homes,” said Rachel Wagstaff, a junior.

With feminists taking both pro- and anti-pornography positions, as well as the many nuanced views in between, it isn’t easy to pigeonhole feminist views of pornography.

Candida Royalle, a former porn star, started Femme Productions in 1984 in hopes of producing films that appeal to women.

“The women’s movement had empowered [women] to seek out sexual material that appealed to them,” Royalle said in an interview with The Weekly last year.

“I think that feminism is about empowerment,” Royalle said. “Seizing the reigns of production and creating our own voice and imagery is a very empowering step for women in reclaiming our sexuality and our overall power in the world.”

Breslin feels that it’s possible for women to be empowered in the industry, but sees it as a rarity.

“I think for most women in the adult movie industry, pornography is not empowering,” Breslin said. “There are exceptions to this, of course. Nina Hartley, Chloe, Jane Hamilton, and Candida Royalle are all women who use pornography in ways that empower them, professionally and personally. Still, the vast majority of women working in the adult movie industry, I believe, are not empowered by it.”

In Russell’s view, feminism requires an active and unyielding stance against pornography.

“Currently, those of us who continue to be adamant about the harmfulness of pornography consider anyone who fails to recognize the validity of this viewpoint to be non- or anti-feminist,” Russell said.

Margo Okazawa-Rey, a professor in the Women’s Studies program, acknowledged the diversity of feminist views of pornography and criticized larger cultural attitudes about sex.

“I think there is a fundamental problem in this U.S. culture about sexuality, full stop. Its reaction to puritan [and] protestant sexual codes and mores that shaped sexuality and concomitant gender roles,” said Okazawa-Rey. “There’s something wrong with a society that eroticizes relations of domination.”

Merritt Linden, a junior, said she feels that class and choice define a woman’s role and power in the porn industry.

“If you have the opportunities to work in other fields that pay as well and you choose sex work, that’s a choice and it could be very empowering, but to say all sex work empowers women is just wishful thinking, and invalidates the experiences many women have had,” Linden said.

Likewise, Tessa Robinette, a senior, said that the power dynamics in the industry are complex and relate directly to larger cultural realities.

“It is a mixed bag because of the power and hierarchy that we have with the current racist, sexist, homophobic culture and conditions,” Robinette said. “Stripping and porn and prostitution are still among the highest paying jobs for women. I can’t see how we’re really at the place where we are completely free to choose. I don’t condemn women who work in porn or the sex industry. And I don’t automatically assume that they are victims.”

While the Fetish Ball isn’t a reflection of the entire student body, it seems to signal an attitude among many students that freedom in exploring one’s sexuality is an important element of feminism.

“I think events like the Fetish Ball are forums where we can explore the fringes of our sexuality,” Lindsay said. “When we can start to defy the laws of normalcy and feel comfortable with our desires. I personally believe that it’s a very beautiful thing that women are able to create spaces for themselves in which they feel safe being a little risqué.”