Across the porn divide

It's time to end the battle of words, argues Debi Crow

Debi Crow, 10 September 2008

A stand-off between feminists who are against pornography, and those who are not, has become a well worn narrative for the feminist movement. There seems to be some imaginary chasm, across which navigation is nigh-on impossible, and also ill-advised. The two camps stand on the edge of the precipice, looking across at the others, occasionally taking a pot-shot, or setting off a flare, but with no real communication. I am talking specifically here about feminist bloggers, but I should think this article would apply just as easily to feminists, past and present, who do not blog, or perhaps even write their beliefs down in any form.

The current situation, where the two sides mostly sit and glower at each other but make no effort to find any common ground, is getting us nowhere, on the issue of pornography, or any other issues, even ones that we may be surprised to find we agree on. While we are so fixated on this one issue - porn - and playing tit-for-tat back and forth on every nuance of the subject, we are ignoring other issues that we possibly could agree on more easily, and work together in a concrete way in the real world to actually achieve something.

Porn is a very important issue, and this article in no way attempts to say we should ignore it, or give up fighting for what we believe is right. But, I think that all kinds of feminists need to realise just how unproductive, unhelpful and ultimately meaningless the current stand-off is. We repeat the same arguments, we all stay in our own 'camp' and do not venture out, not even for the shortest time, to converse with the 'other side'. We each go round in our own orbits, and never meet at any point. So much more could be achieved, and we could actually start to move forward with the issue of porn and other issues, if we could take some time to visit the other side, and actually engage with them. Talk to them. Begin some kind of dialogue.

I think instead of seeing and talking about our differences all the time, it is vital for women in the feminist movement to focus on our similarities

You may do this with the intention of changing people's minds, which would be fine, and you may even succeed, or you may do this in the spirit of attempting some open dialogue to escape the suffocation of always talking to the same people, who always agree with you. But in order for movement to occur, people have to talk to people who don't agree with them. People have to accept challenge from others. And people have to discuss issues, airing the different points of view. Discussion is not one person saying something, and then lots of other people coming along and saying, "oh well done", or "well said", although that is all very nice and a good ego boost.

Also, as a friend of mine said to me recently, this very narrow focus on the one issue of porn, and our individual opinions about it, distracts us from all the many other issues which feminists need to focus on in order to gain equality and liberation from male dominance. If, during these discussions we should be having about the porn industry, encompassing all sides of the argument, we reach an impasse, why not then say, Okay, we'll leave the issue of porn for a little while and let's instead concentrate on another issue we can all find some common ground on, in order to move forward?

I think instead of seeing and talking about our differences all the time, it is vital for women in the feminist movement (and yes, for the purposes of the feminist movement I think the definition of the word "feminist" has to include all people who believe themselves to be feminists, regardless of whether we agree with them or not) to focus on our similarities. We are all women, and as such will all have shared experiences of one sort or another, and shared opinions even on things that haven't effected us personally. Take the issue of abortion, for example. I have yet to meet a woman who has no opinion at all on the subject of abortion, even though I am not aware that any of the women I know personally has ever had one. There is the common ground, there is the basis for our discussion, and our thrashing out the subject, and our deciding what we are going to do about it.

Many feminists use the word "feminisms" instead of "feminism", in recognition of the fact that there are many different ways for women (and men) to attempt to achieve the same ultimate goals. There are probably as many different feminisms as there are people to believe in them, and to expect everyone to agree on one definition is unrealistic. Even feminists who identify using the same language, for instance 'sex positive' or 'radical', will not always agree on their definitions of the term, or on how feminism should be lived.

What Happened

I am a radical feminist blogger, and there is a story behind my reaching the conclusions which have led me to write this article for The F-Word. I was blogging away, minding my own business, when someone who happened to be a misogynist with some sort of medical qualification, stumbled upon a post I wrote about a really bad experience I had had at a gynaecological appointment once. In the post I asked whether the experience, or experiences like it, could be called rape. The man did not like my post and blogged about it, basically calling me a silly hysterical woman who should not be listened to. Words were exchanged, things escalated, The F-Word blogged about it, then Caroline from Uncool wrote about it, and some other bloggers joined in. A lot of people were talking about what happened, the majority bloggers I previously would not have given the time of day to. Myself and Caroline, especially, had had some particularly nasty fallings out. But these women spoke out for me at a time when the support was sorely needed, and I really appreciated that, so I commented on a couple of their blogs to join in the discussions about this blogger and to say thanks. That naturally opened up lines of communication which were previously closed, and I have chosen to keep them open, as I would far rather have it that way.

A person who is alienated and othered by another person is very unlikely to want that other person around, much less want to talk to them. How will we make any progress towards the goals of feminism, if we cannot even speak to feminists who have differing views to our own?

So I am reading people's blogs, which previously I would just glance at briefly, roll my eyes, and go straight back to the cosy radical feminist blogger's club. Now, I actually read them properly, and try to listen to what they are saying, even if I disagree with most if not all of it (although I am finding I agree with more than I thought I would!), and if I have anything to contribute via the comments, then I comment. This has meant that I have broadened my horizons, and learnt a lot, both about the issues, and the people behind the blogs, who I previously disregarded as not worth any of my time. It has meant that I am a more rounded and, yes, happy, feminist than I was before. And, most importantly, it has allowed me, at last, to see a way of possibly creating some movement towards the goals of all feminists.

Possible solutions

I have come to realise that one of the easiest and quickest ways feminists of differing viewpoints, especially on porn and prostitution, could attempt to be more accepting of one another and just, well, annoy each other a bit less, is in our choice of words.

For example, many radical feminists, as I used to do, use the term "prostituted woman" to describe any woman who works in the sex industry. But reading the blogs of some of the women who do, in fact, work in the sex industry, I have discovered that use of this term is often seen as highly offensive, and automatically cuts off any possible communication with the user. Many feminists find the use of the term is alienating and othering, and that is a good reason to stop, even if we might have specific reasons for our own choice of words. A person who is alienated and othered by another person is very unlikely to want that other person around, much less want to talk to them. How will we make any progress towards the goals of feminism, if we cannot even speak to feminists who have differing views to our own?

Just from reading their blogs, I gather that many women who work in the sex industry by choice call themselves "sex workers" and prefer other people to refer to them as such. To refuse to do that, and to put on such a woman your own label (eg "prostituted woman") is to silence that woman and deny her the autonomy of naming herself that is her right. It is not so difficult, and does not take much time, to just check in with the group of people or individual to whom you are referring to see what term they prefer, and use it, out of respect for them.

Another example applies to the terms "sex-positive" and "pro-porn" - often used to mean the same thing. Women identified as "sex-positive" have a perfect right to name themselves that, if they so choose. Many of these women find the term "pro-porn" to be derogatory and dismissive, and thus its use is alienating to those women. Therefore, if our aim is to engage and create a dialogue with these women, which I believe is the only way we can move forward as feminists, we should use the term preferred by the women themselves, no matter whether we agree with its use or not.

By the same token, though, feminists who use the term might do well to consider there's another side to the story - for example, many feminists object to the label 'sex positive' because it seems to imply that if you don't agree with specific views on porn and prostitution, you are anti-sex, or prudish, and has been seen as conflating moralising, conservative objections to sex work, on the basis that all sex is just bad or wrong, with objections rooted in very different feminist ideas.

I believe the issues we find hardest to talk about and agree on must be the most important ones, as they will be the ones people feel most strongly about

Language can be the most instrumental tool in bringing people together, and getting them talking, and discussing the issues we, as feminists, have to address. It can also be the most detrimental to any form of open communication. If we are operating in the 2D world of the internet, we have to be especially careful about the language we are using, as the people we are talking to/about cannot see our gestures or our facial expressions; it is harder to tell when we are joking and when we are deadly serious, and many of the subtleties of language are lost in online communication. To persist in using language about and to another feminist that you know they find demeaning or offensive, will naturally, in all likelihood, cause them to throw the barriers up again. Nobody wants to speak to someone who does not respect them; why should they?

My change of heart has come about almost by accident, and it has been nothing but positive, for me, and I hope for those previously-dismissed bloggers who I am now attempting to engage with. But you don't have to wait until some random misogynist disses you and the sex-positive cavalry arrive to defend you for that to happen. You can do it now.

I believe the issues we find hardest to talk about and agree on must be the most important ones, as they will be the ones people feel most strongly about. But, refusing to hear any other point of view means that we are operating in a vacuum where any real discussion is so limited as to be almost meaningless because everyone agrees. The conversation goes round in circles and nothing changes.

In conclusion, the stalemate we are currently in will only continue as long as we persist in talking about rather than to women we disagree with, and continue to make generalisations, or untrue statements about those women. Something needs to happen to break the deadlock, or this movement we call feminism will cease to move at all, and will die from stagnation before achieving all, or even any, of its goals. Women on both 'sides', and from all 'feminisms' need to start listening to other women, women who do not agree with them, women who's life experience is vastly different to theirs, women who have made choices they feel are wrong, or that they would never make themselves. If we are all talking at once, we cannot hear what anyone is saying, and listening is the key to communication and learning.

I recommend taking time to read women's sites that you would never normally visit (and when I say women, I mean trans women, too). Listen to the words of women you find hard to understand, or who you think are wrong - listen hard, really pay attention. Just listen, without any judgement, or preconceptions of what you are going to hear. Every one of our voices is valid, and we all deserve to be heard. I'm not saying 'let's all have a hippie love-in and become best friends', but maybe, just maybe, if we start hearing each other, a level of understanding and tolerance can be reached that would allow room for real discussion and real movement. Maybe then we could get out of this stalemate and the feminist movement could remember its focus, and come alive again.

About the author

Debi Crow

Debi Crow is 36, and married with a son, who she is home-educating. She is a radical feminist who blogs at The Corvid Diaires. She is also founder of the Medical and Obstetric Rape Awareness Group (MORAG) dedicated to raising awareness of the violation sometimes experienced by women in childbirth or when undergoing a gynaecological procedure, at the hands of medical staff

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