Why don't feminists think porn empowers women?

Ask a stupid question, get an impatient answer


Kate Harding
November 6, 2009 10:07PM (UTC)

"There are several great reasons why female celebs line up to shoot Playboy," says that magazine's December cover girl, Joanna Krupa, over at Fox News' Poptarts blog. "Finally a woman gets paid more than a man for comparable work, she gets to set the rules, gets to be in a real team work with other women, as many key positions at Playboy are in fact held by women!" In light of all this female empowerment, Krupa asks, "What is feminist about discriminating a [sic] photo shoot just because it involves female (partial) nudity that happens to give men pleasure?" So glad you asked, Joanna!

Turns out lots of things are feminist about "discriminating a photo shoot," although not all feminists will agree on all of the reasons, or even think of the same ones off the top of their heads! Actual Feminist Amanda Marcotte, for instance, makes this point:

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The idea behind the "porn is empowering!" argument is that women who work in porn gain power in a pragmatic way, playing by men's rules, and feminists should support this for pragmatic reasons, because at the end of the day, women have more real power. And that would be a legitimate argument if the women involved had more power at the end of the day. But what power do they have, exactly? Joanna Krupa cites the big paychecks you get for nude modeling in Playboy, but since those paychecks stop coming when you're a hag of 23 or so (or possibly younger), then it's a false form of power.

See, the underlying principle of feminism is equality. As things stand here in the country that produces Playboy, women and men are not equal. Men, for instance, are favored for all sorts of powerful, high-paying jobs, and often respected more as they get older and better at those jobs. Women, on the other hand, can sometimes make a bunch of money by taking off all their clothes when they're young and most attractive to a large number of heterosexual men, but then they are less respected in that profession as they get older, no matter how much valuable information they've learned about posing naked by that point. Do you see the difference?

Also, as Actual Feminist Samhita Mukhopadhyay notes, many women are excluded from that limited-time-only opportunity in the first place, on grounds that their bodies are insufficiently pleasing even when young!

Feminists have opposing view points on pornography and other forms of erotic art, that is not a new story, but suggesting that feminists don't get how "empowering" it is to fit into society's standards of able-bodied, white, cis-gendered, thinness, well let's just say we totally get that. I am not saying the act isn't empowering for her, like she said, I wasn't there, but the process that empowers her is embedded in a really specific idea of what a woman should look like and the kind of woman that "turns men on." It is not the function of turning men on that is the sexist part to me, but the unrealistic expectation put on women through the production and proliferation of images like Krupa's and the corresponding value put on women's bodies through this very same process.

So, to recap: The vast majority of women are never considered sufficiently wankworthy to earn money for taking their clothes off, and those who are can only hold that distinction until they begin to age visibly, at which point they join the unsexy masses. Making matters worse, as Marcotte mentions, women who have at some point bared it all for money are taken less seriously when, inevitably, their no longer marketable bodies force them to seek a new means of making a living. Thus, many Actual Feminists conclude that being photographed naked is not, in fact, a job that moves women as a group closer to equality with men in terms of employment and earning opportunities. Instead, it is one that reinforces the distinctly unfeminist and demonstrably false idea that the commodification of certain young women's sexuality is a form of real power. See?

And I haven't even touched on the radical feminist arguments against porn -- you don't even need them to understand why a feminist would discriminate a photo shoot! I hope this helps you understand, Joanna Krupa, why we "self-important, so-called 'feminists'" don't see your paycheck and creative input into your own nudie photos as a win for women. If you need any other questions about feminism answered, you know where to find me. 


Kate Harding

Kate Harding is the author of Asking For It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture--and What We Can Do About It, available from Da Capo Press in August 2015. Previously, she collaborated with Anna Holmes, Amanda Hess, and a cast of thousands on The Book of Jezebel, and with Marianne Kirby on Lessons from the Fat-o-Sphere. You might also remember her as the founding editor of Shapely Prose (2007-2010). Kate's essays have appeared in the anthologies Madonna & Me, Yes Means Yes, Feed Me, and Airmail: Women of Letters. She holds an M.F.A. in fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts and a B.A. in English from University of Toronto, and is currently at work on a Ph.D. in creative writing from Bath Spa University

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