There has undoubtedly been a paradigm shift in academic studies of pornography in the last decade. Dominant understandings of pornography within the academy now frequently ‘incorporate many of the theoretical perspectives and preoccupations which have become central within Cultural Studies’, in particular, a recognition of the polysemic nature of texts and the potential fluidity of readings. One of the problems with this approach is that it tends to focus only on the individual, and possible readings of texts by viewers, thereby obscuring dominant cultural understandings and questions about social power. It is therefore not surprising that current work on pornography, originating in cultural and film studies, increasingly avoids engaging with traditional feminist debates about pornography and the status of women. Indeed, some works have begun to characterise questions about ‘sexual politics’ as outdated or largely irrelevant to pursuing an understanding of pornography in the twenty-first century.
As a result, discussions about pornography within academia have often become inward-looking, mirroring debates commonly found within the pornography industry and among porn consumers. Instead of investigating how the increasing ubiquity of pornographic imagery may increase surveillance and promote objectification, we end up with questions about whether amateur porn is better than commercial porn and if user-generated pornographic content may represent, if not a full-blown porn-revolution then, at the very least, a democratisation of sexually explicit photography. This paper, in response to Feona Attwood’s essay ‘The politics of amateurism in online pornography’, aims to reposition feminist concerns about pornography, particularly regarding objectification, as critical to understanding emerging pornographic forms.
The ‘challenge’ of user-generated porn
One way in which existing feminist critiques of pornography are commonly sidelined is through a focus on amateur and non-commercial forms of pornography. Firstly, it must be noted that the separation between amateur and commercial pornography relies on a false distinction. So-called ‘amateur’ pornography, where the individual or individuals performing are not directly paid, has been co-opted by commercial pornography companies for decades, as both Attwood and Paasonen concede. The blurring between amateur and professional is also evident online. Sites such as ‘Make Love, Not Porn’, for example, explicitly market themselves as amateur, separate from mainstream, commercial pornography. But ‘Make Love, Not Porn’ also charges people a nominal fee to upload their content and charges consumers to view each upload for a set time period. Despite the site’s promotion as amateur it is a thoroughly commercial enterprise where both the hosting site and those featured in the videos stand to make a profit.
At best, many forms of amateur and user-generated content could be said to be less commercial than mainstream pornography rather than non-commercial. Even in instances where neither the user nor the up-loader pays for their interaction, as with many of the tube sites, for instance, a third party often profits. The rise of new porn corporations like Manwin, which owns both free-view tube and pay-per-view sites, is an excellent example of how profits can still be made even when users do not pay to watch content themselves.
The rise of ‘free porn’ and user-generated content, while never fully escaping the bounds of the commercial, has led to an increased blurring of production and consumption. This change, recognised in the use of terms such as ‘prosumer’, is sometimes represented as challenging traditional understandings of the commodification of sexuality in commercial pornography. But the rise of user-generated content can actually be seen as furthering exploitation under capitalism rather than a retreat from commercialisation. Consumers now perform, for free, labour which would have previously been paid. Far from representing a form of gift-economy, the use of interactive media can be understood as ‘increasing economic exploitation of comprehensive forms of consumer monitoring’. The more human interactions can move online and be tracked, the greater the opportunities for surveillance.
The concern here is not only the commonly understood ‘Big Brother’ issues surrounding state surveillance of individuals but rather the increasing nature of normalised and internalised surveillance and the way in which this changes behaviour and experience. Just as Taylorism emphasised the way in which surveillance could be used to create more efficient and productive workers, Andrejevic argues that surveillance through the use of social and other interactive media makes us more productive in producing content to be watched by others for free. We come to think of our lived and embodied experiences through the lens of what they would look like if we were being watched. This is no different in the context of changing a status update on Facebook or uploading content that is sexually explicit to X-Tube. The content is produced by users for free, at least in part, to be seen by others.
The current concerns of increasingly internalised surveillance through the normalisation of interactive media are remarkably similar to earlier feminist concerns about objectification. Attwood states that, ‘there is actually very little evidence for believing that concepts such as objectification… convincingly explain older, established forms of porn viewing relations’. However, it is not clear why two decades of feminist research on objectification would not be as applicable to pornography as to other forms of media. Certainly, it is unlikely that most porn viewers will report that in watching pornography they are engaged in a process of objectification but this does not mean that objectification is not taking place.
Objectification theory ‘takes as a given that women exist in a culture in which their bodies are – for whatever reasons – looked at, evaluated and always potentially objectified’. Objectification theory also accepts that this takes place within a broader context of sexual inequality between men and women. As such, there has been a notable emphasis on understanding the gendered nature of objectification, and especially sexual objectification, that is, the reduction of a girl or woman to her sexual body parts or functions. Research on sexual objectification often includes instances of women’s everyday experiences, such as, ‘appearance evaluations, cat calls, or inappropriate sexual comments’. From this perspective it is impossible to understand pornography as somehow existing outside of the cultural norm of sexual inequality and objectification, particularly as pornography is often especially focused on bodies and sexual functions.
A feminist understanding of objectification also offers a useful corrective to the idea that alternative pornographies, in showing particular subcultural or non-normative body types and sexual practices, offer a way forward. Attwood mentions, for example, the difference between porn sites, like Suicide Girls, which ‘relies on the signs of youth subcultures such as tattoos and piercings’ and Abby Winters, which ‘prefers an unadorned look as suggested by its tagline “all natural flavours”’. Within a culture of normalised surveillance and objectification, however, this does not seem to be a radical difference but rather the extension of a sexually objectifying gaze to a wider variety of women.
Furthermore, the normalisation of objectification creates a culture in which women (and men, to a lesser degree) become more likely to self-objectify. Coupled with technological advances, it should not be surprising that there is a growing pool of user-generated porn. As pornography becomes increasingly ubiquitous it has ever more cultural power to determine norms of sexual objectification, creating a climate of internalised pornographic surveillance. So while it is often suggested that user-generated content is the realisation of an individual’s choice, and an expression of their own sexual pleasure, these choices do not occur in a political or social vacuum. Indeed, theories of socialisation posit that, ‘with repeated exposure to an array of subtle, external pressures’, individuals will come to experience their acquiescence to these pressures as normal, freely chosen, or even ‘natural’.
To be clear, recognising the normalisation and internalisation of surveillance and objectification does not mean that there are no opportunities to resist cultures of surveillance and objectification. This is precisely why an analysis of sexual politics is still so important: no social norm is so all encompassing that it exists without the possibility of being challenged. Recognising the normalisation and internalisation of surveillance and objectification, as well as the centrality of these concepts to new (and old) forms of pornography production, however, does mean that simply making more porn, or ‘better porn’, is unlikely to be a successful strategy for change.