Feminism, Porn, and SlutWalk: part one of a conversation with Hugo Schwyzer

Originally posted at Hugo Schwyzer’s blog.

Hugo Schwyzer is a gender studies professor at a college in Southern California, a writer, and was an organizer of Slutwalk LA. Though our opinions and positions diverge significantly in some areas, in an effort to engage in civil debate and have an honest conversation, Hugo and I have asked one another 5 questions, posting our respective responses here and at hugoschwyzer.net

My responses to Hugo’s questions will be posted on Wednesday. I look forward to hearing readers thoughts and comments on these conversations. Hugo and I will respond to one another the following week and I would like to be able to include some of your comments in this response.

Thanks to Hugo for his interest in and willingness to engage in these conversations and thank you to commenters for engaging.

The following is a series of questions, asked by myself, and Hugo’s responses:

Meghan: 1) The role of men in feminism:

Stephen Heath wrote, in Male Feminism: “Men’s relation to feminism is an impossible one,” going on to say that “Men have a necessary relation to feminism” but “that this is a matter for women, that it is their voices and actions that must determine the change and redefinition. Their voices and actions, not ours: no matter how “sincere,” “sympathetic” or whatever, we are always also in a male position which brings with it all the implications of domination and appropriation, everything precisely that is being challenged, that has to be altered. Women are the subjects of feminism, its initiators, its makers, its force; the move and the join from being a woman to being a feminist is the grasp of that subjecthood. Men are the objects, part of the analysis, agents of the structure to be transformed, representatives in, carriers of the patriarchal mode; and my desire to be a subject there too in feminism—to be a feminist—is then only also the last feint in the long history of their colonization.”

So while men can and should, of course, be actors in the feminist movement, and need not be passive or voiceless, I feel that feminism is grounded in the experience, insights and perspectives of women. Do you agree? What role can men play in feminism? How can you speak about and to feminists without dominating the conversation? Where do you see yourself in this movement?

Hugo: Respectfully, I think Heath is wrong. Look, men have been part of the feminist movement since its inception (look at the many male signers of the Declaration of Sentiments in 1848.) When NOW was founded in the Sixties, it was designed to be the National Organization for Women, not the National Organization of Women. Gender identity happens on a spectrum; it’s not a binary which can be neatly divided into “subject” and “object.”

That said, men do have to be very careful to avoid taking dominant roles in feminism. I wrote a post last year called “Step Up and Step Back” in which I said the following:

“Step up” means that men who choose to identify as feminists (or, if you prefer, as “feminist allies” or “pro-feminists”) are called to take an active role in the anti-sexist movement. Building a genuinely egalitarian and non-violent society requires everyone’s involvement. Empowering women to defend themselves from rapists and harassers is important; raising a generation of young men to whom the idea of rape or harassment is anathema is also vital. We need men of all ages in the feminist movement to “step up” and commit themselves to embodying egalitarian principles in their private and public lives.

Stepping up means being willing to listen to women’s righteous anger. That doesn’t mean groveling on the ground in abject apology merely for having a penis — contrary to stereotype, that’s not what feminists (at least not any I’ve ever met) want. That means really hearing women, without giving into the temptation to become petulant, defensive, or hurt. It means realizing that each and every one of us is tangled in the Gordian knot of sexism, but that men and women are entangled in different ways that almost invariably cause greater suffering to the latter. Stepping up doesn’t mean denying that, as the old saying goes, The Patriarchy Hurts Men Too (TPHMT). It means understanding that in feminist spaces, to focus on male suffering both suggests a false equivalence and derails the most vital anti-sexist work.

Stepping up means, of course, being willing to confront other men. I’ve said over and over again that the acid test of a man’s commitment to feminism often comes not only in terms of how he treats women, but also how he speaks about women when he’s in all-male spaces. Many young men are earnest about living out feminist principles when around women. But get them around their “bros” and their words change. Or, as is more often the case, they may not join in on sexist banter — but they fail to raise vocal objection to it. Stepping up means challenging the jokes and complaints and objectifying remarks that are so much a part of the conversation in all-male spaces. This is, as far as I’m concerned, a sine qua non of being a feminist ally.

Stepping back means acknowledging that in almost every instance, feminist organizations ought to be led by women. It means that men in feminist spaces need to check themselves before they pursue leadership roles. While that might seem unfair, arguing that biological sex should have no bearing on who wields authority in a feminist organization fails to take into account the myriad ways in which the wider world discriminates against women. Even now, we still socialize young men to be assertive and young women to be deferential. (Yes, there are plenty of exceptions, but not enough to disprove that rule.) Part of undoing that socialization for women means pushing themselves to take on leadership positions even if they feel awkward about doing so; part of undoing that socialization for young men means holding themselves back from those same offices.

Stepping back doesn’t mean men should never speak up in feminist spaces. Stepping back is not about silently serving in the background. Stepping back is about the willingness to engage in self-reflection, to defer, and remembering that the most important job feminist men have within the movement is not to lead women but to serve as role models to other men. Stepping back is a way of renouncing the “knight in shining armor” tendency that afflicts many young men who first come to anti-sexist work. Women need colleagues and partners on this journey, not rescuers or substitute father figures.

2) One of the primary places of debate within feminist discourse lies in sex work; prostitution, pornography stripping, etc. How can a man retain credibility as a feminist and speak about these issues? Within a context of patriarchy and within a context wherein men are the primary buyers of sex and the primary audience for mainstream pornography (and the subjects of this pornography are, primarily, women and the sex that is being bought is, primarily, from women), is it even possible for a man, as an ally to feminists, to take a position that does not actively reject these industries? Do you actively reject these industries as part of your feminism?

Well, I think it might well be possible to do so, though I don’t. I don’t use pornography as part of my sexual life, and I don’t employ sex workers. Sex work is deeply problematic. At the same time, I’m confronted with the reality that a growing number of young women use pornography, and that there has been a concerted effort to create a genuinely feminist pornography – though the degree to which that’s a viable project remains a subject of contention. I reject porn use personally because it is incompatible with how I want to live my sexual life. I want my sexuality to be radically relational, where my arousal is inextricably linked to intimacy and partnership. I also want my sexuality to be congruent with my feminism, and for me personally, that means rejecting porn.

But I work with allies, overwhelmingly female, who are sex workers or advocates for sex workers. Some are the stereotypically privileged few who are outside the norm, but some who claim enthusiasm about sex work are from working-class backgrounds where financial necessity was the driving reason behind why they entered the industry. Nothing could be less feminist than for me to tell them “No, you don’t like what you’re doing. Actually,you hate it and you’re being exploited.” The sine qua non of male feminism is the capacity to hear women’s lived experiences. And when it comes to porn (both in terms of production and consumption) and other forms of sex works, women don’t speak with one voice.

I am committed to being an advocate for sex worker rights, committed to avoiding participating in sex work as a consumer, and committed to listening.

3) If I say to you: “Pornography hurts me, it hurts me deeply, and it hurts women”, how do you respond?

I hear you. I acknowledge it’s hurtful to you personally, and I acknowledge that porn has done tremendous harm to women. But not all porn is the same, and not everyone who works in porn experiences the same set of circumstances. We need to do more than say “porn bad”. We need to say, what is the long-term feminist response? Is it saying that women’s bodies on a screen or in a magazine can never be gazed at with desire because that action is inherently hurtful? I’m not ready to go that far.

I’ve had literally dozens of current and former sex workers as my students over the years. (The ones who have come out to me.) I teach at a community college a few miles from the heart of the commercial porn industry here in L.A. And I’ve heard stories of rape and abuse and exploitation, and also heard stories of empowerment (a term that for all its fluffiness we do well not to dismiss lightly) and pleasure. There just isn’t one narrative. That’s the mistake Bob Jensen made in his brilliant but ultimately one-sided “Getting Off”. Just as there’s more to the movie industry than what comes out of Disney or Warner Brothers, there’s more to porn than what comes out of Vivid Video or Max Hardcore.

Part of the problem is NO ONE seems to acknowledge nuance here. One side says “porn is harmless fun and really causes no problems at all”, while the other seems to say “all porn is bad, feminist porn is and always will be an oxymoron, and visual depictions of sexuality are inherently exploitative and can’t be redeemed.” That’s a hell of a false dichotomy.

4) You have said “Women are not commodities whose value is based on their own fluctuating sense of self-worth.” From my perspective, escort agencies, and really, the prostitution of women in any form, legitimizes the idea the women’s bodies and lives are for sale. Do you agree or disagree? Why or why not? As an ally to feminists, and to women, what action do you / have you taken in order to end this commodification of women, women’s bodies, and female sexuality? Do you see the commodification and objectification of women as tied to violence against women?

I too am deeply troubled by escorts. I cannot imagine paying for sex the same way I pay for, say, a back massage. My own instinct is to be drawn to the Nordic model, in which selling sex is not a crime (as long as it’s your own body you sell and not another’s) but buying it is. But I hear from many responsible sex worker advocacy groups I respect (SWOP, for example) who are critical of the Swedish model and who claim it has made things worse.

All rape and sexual violence is linked to a profound sense of male entitlement. Men rape and hit and abuse women because they’ve been led to believe that women’s bodies are male property. But the sense that men have that their desire gives them rights over women’s bodies is older than the porn industry. Indeed, as porn and other forms of sex work have become more ubiquitous, there has been no concomitant increase in rape. Countries that make porn illegal do not have demonstrably better conditions for women than those that permit it. Sex work can be a manifestation of the problem, but it isn’t the root.

5) You have been one of the primary organizers and spokespeople for Slutwalk LA and you have been very supportive of Slutwalks as a whole. While, generally, Slutwalks have claimed not to take a position on sex work, other than to stand as allies with sex workers, recently, Slutwalk Las Vegas presented this statement on their Facebook page: “Slut isn’t a look, it’s an attitude. And whether you enjoy sex for pleasure or work, it’s never an invitation to violence” Can you comment on this statement?

I feel that this statement narrows the conversation in a dangerous way. Framing prostitution as work, as a job just like any other job and as something that women enjoy, benefits men. Even framing prostitution as ‘sex work’ seems, to me, to take a position – would you say that Slutwalk LA does, in fact, take a position on ‘sex work’?

Well, as you probably know, the Toronto organizers “released” all the satellite SlutWalks to follow their own paths based on the local “facts on the ground.” So there is no official SlutWalk position on sex work. (Parenthetically, I’ll say I do what my friends in the sex worker community have asked, and that is use the term sex work to refer to the whole spectrum of sexual commerce from stripping to massage parlors to porn to prostitution.)

Are there women who enjoy doing sex work? I’ve known women, students and friends, who insist that they do. I’ve known other women, often former sex workers, who insist that it’s impossible for a sex worker genuinely to enjoy sex with a john. Again, I think we have to stay away from sweeping statements. But I’m perfectly prepared to say that the number of sex workers who do it for pleasure is dwarfed by the number who do it for survival.

SlutWalk LA, in its very explicit inclusion of the sex worker community, wasn’t only standing up for those women who “like what they do.” Sex work is with us, and will continue to be with us – it’s called the world’s oldest profession for a reason. So while we figure out what the best strategy is (legalization, decriminalization, Swedish model, New Zealand model, intensified criminalization) we need to meet the needs of real sex workers. Even a sex worker who doesn’t enjoy sex with johns distinguishes between a forcible rape by a client (or, as is frequently the case, a cop) and sex that has been negotiated and compensated. The difference is not insignificant. We can’t let a future best-case scenario (a world in which sex isn’t commodified at all) stop us from meeting the real needs of real women right now.

If SlutWalk LA has a position on sex work, it is that sex workers deserve the same legal and cultural protections against rape as everyone else. And getting them those protections requires bringing their work out of the shadows without stigma.

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23 Comments on “Feminism, Porn, and SlutWalk: part one of a conversation with Hugo Schwyzer”

  • I find hard to cope with the double-speak of a sex worker lobbyists – but I have a few gut reactions to these answers.

    I find it interesting the emphasis on how some of his students were happy inside the sex trade. Does he rally think that someone who had experience the violence inside inside the sex trade would open up a person who publically promotes sex work as being chosen and relatively safe. Does he not see he is in a position of power over his students so that is another for a woman damaged by the sex trade not to be open with him. Also, if you have raped and tortured by many men, it is damned hard to trust a man just coz he claimed he one of the good guys – to be honest good guys would call the prostituted sex workers, and view being inside the sex trade as an abuse of the prostituted as a class – a destruction of the human rights of the prostituted class.

    I am very angry about his expression that prostitutes would be “employ” by him if he made the choice to buy them. That make the power tip of owning another human just for sexual wants or to reproduce porn on a living body disappear – into some kind of business contract or labour exchange. Not the punter has full power and control over the prostituted who made into goods to be consume and the disposed.

    The whole tone of his answer is utterly dismissive of the power structure of the sex trade that exists by turning the prostituted class into sub-humans. He is dismissive that for the vast majority of women and girls inside the sex trade are living with violence and degradation as their norm.

    But then sex work advocates are keeping up the status quo of the sex trade – and by focusing on only the non-violence aspects – they are are recruiters for the sex trade,

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  • Great idea to hold this discussion. I look forward to Wednesday.
    One thought would be to continue the discussion with a rebut to each other’s answers.

    On sex work, until there are viable ways for all people to earn a living wage, sex work and drug “work” will continue to attract and exploit those who do not have the same ladders available as the privileged do.
    I don’t think you can have a discussion of true agency until that day arrives, except with the very small minority of women who have choices and still choose sex work.

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    • Meghan Murphy

      Hi Andrew,

      Thanks for your comments! We will be responding to one another next week so as to not leave the answers ‘hanging’ out there without rebuttal. I should have specified that in the post and will edit accordingly. And, yes, I agree with you that we need to provide support and feasible / accessible income for all people so that no one needs to resort to prostitution and that no one is so vulnerable that they have no choice. The Nordic model provides woman with strong social safety nets and exiting services, does not criminalize the women/prostituted, instead criminalizing the pimps and johns. I think it is the best option out there in terms of eventually (and safely) ending prostitution.

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  • BK

    I am confused as to why, as a feminist blogger, would you want to interview someone (clearly anti-feminist from his previous “mishaps” with female students) like Schwyzer? Of all people – of all men who get to steal women studies teaching positions, abuse their power as a professor (numerous times over) then compare, on his twitter, women (or as he calls them so eloquently, “sluts”) to adoptable pets. He also stated via twitter, to “herding” sluts about. Nothing is more feminist than a privileged academic white dude “steering” “sluts” around and claiming to give a crap about women.

    For some lovely screen-caps of Hugo’s ridiculous tweet-action and even more ridiculous abuses of academic power http://radicalhub.wordpress.com/2011/06/05/steering-the-sluts-update/

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    • Meghan Murphy

      Hi BK,
      This conversation was intended to be an extension of an incomplete debate that Hugo and I were constantly engaged in on Twitter. Honestly, Twitter is a terrible place and format in which to engage in conversation or debate so we agreed to take said debate / conversation to a more long-form format more conducive to these conversations. I don’t agree with everything that Hugo says here, at all, and will be responding. I would prefer to be able to respond and debate rather than be forced to try to keep my thoughts to 140 characters. As a feminist journalist, I do interview all sorts of people I don’t necessarily agree with and do think that we need to engage in these debates. I think these debates can be productive (though not always) and have had many guests on the radio show whose opinions I vehemently oppose. It makes for good radio and provokes important conversations, in my opinion. I completely respect that you don’t wish to engage in conversation or debate with Hugo for the reasons you note above, but I’d appreciate it if you would respect my desire to have these conversations. Even if I find them to be difficult and frustrating at times.

      Thanks so much.
      Meghan

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    • BK,

      I’ve read the same information you have, but I wonder how many of Hugo’s actual posts you’ve read?
      Even a cursory reading will leave one the clear impression that he is a feminist. Perhaps not the “version” you like, but solidly within the framework outlined by dozens of well-respected feminist authors and leaders, all women.
      He seems to have been singled out by certain radfems as the “leader” of the SlutWalk movement versus the one person in a sea of thousands that he actually is, coming to it weeks after it began. Other men have helped put together and support other SlutWalks, yet I haven’t seen anyone garner the heat that Prof. Schwyzer has. Perhaps the feminist focus more clearly needs to be on the WOMEN who began and continue the SlutWalk phenomenon instead of, once again, rewriting history to position a man at the forefront.

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  • kathy

    looking forward to how you debate his responses.

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  • Great interview and thanks for posting it. Encouraging to read your comments in response to BK; having skimmed over a few of the blogs linked to by you and other posters on this site, I’m often dismayed by how many of them include references to the kinds of people and/or opinions that will not be tolerated or published.

    Far better to at least attempt a dialectic with an opposing viewpoint/personality than to deny its very existence. Otherwise you get the good ‘ol FoxNews effect where people’s realities are self-selected in order to reduce any chance they might experience cognitive dissonance.

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  • “Sex work is with us, and will continue to be with us – it’s called the world’s oldest profession for a reason.”

    That pretty much settles it, doesn’t it? We can all go home now, sex work will continue to be with us forever and ever. Because it has been with us forever and ever.

    This is essentialist bu**sh*t, if you pardon my French. Claiming that things are “this way” is the prerogative of the powerful and needless to say it’s not conducive of change. There is no way for us to know for certain either way. One thing is for sure, however: carry on believing that things will always be this way and they will most certainly always be this way.

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    • Meghan Murphy

      I agree, Mary. Murder has also always been ‘with us’ – should we just accept it as a natural part of life? Would we also argue that patriarchy has always been ‘with us’ so there’s nothing we can do about it? Better get used to it?

         0 likes

    • While at a feminist gathering last month, an Indigenous feminist pointed out to me that farming is, in fact, the oldest profession in the world.

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      • Meghan Murphy

        Thanks Beth. You’re awesome.

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      • Virginia

        Quite so, the anthropological evidence of that is overwhelming. It was following the move to agriculture that women gradually became less powerful (their roles becoming less important following the development in agriculture), and gradually became the property of men (in marriage and then later via being hired out for sex too).

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        • Virginia

          * “their roles becoming less important” should have read “their roles giving them less power”. Obviously, women’s oppressed role was important for early class society and continues to be important for capitalism, or we wouldn’t be oppressed.

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  • kathy

    “world’s oldest profession” –in addition to agreeing with Mary and Meghan’s response– always be wary when the oldest platitudes get circulated in replace of critical thinking.
    World’s oldest profession anyway is PIMPING — and if we’re not about stopping pimping what is feminism about?

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  • pisaquari

    The personal is ***merely personal***, as Hugo describes it:

    “I reject porn use personally because it is incompatible with how I want to live my sexual life. I want my sexuality to be radically relational, where my arousal is inextricably linked to intimacy and partnership. I also want my sexuality to be congruent with my feminism, and for me personally, that means rejecting porn.”

    It’s really bewildering when liberal feminists maintain a personal objection to porn and then throw their hands up in escapist-surrender at a political position.
    It’s the “personal” that this debate has become so mired in–to the point of non-movement (and that does WHAT for women?). How much nuance do we need? Every last bit? Maybe everyone can have their own law…

    Women have never had the same story surrounding their right to vote, birth control, genital mutilation, abortion, footbinding, etc. But we take stands, we make signs, we picket and we influence laws anyway. We acknowledge that variability of experience DOES NOT TRUMP a woman’s right to freedom from having to experience something in the first place.
    Yet, how interesting, we come to the place where men’s access to women’s bodies is most intimately *embodied* and we can’t.fucking.move.

    Well, okay then. If the personal reigns, then I expect these Purveyors of Teh Personal, to get PERSONAL.

    WHY then, Hugo, is pornography use incompatible with your sex life? What are the specific lines of impasse between your sex life and using pornography?

    WHY then, Hugo, is pornography use incongruous with your feminism? What tenets of your feminism are not in line with pornography use? Be specific.

    WHY is pornography not inextricably linked to your version of intimacy? What version of intimacy do you ascribe to that is undermined by viewing what, could ultimately, turn out to be an empowered, feminist woman?

    Would you also reject porn made by one of your students who claimed she was empowered by the experience and wanted your opinion? You wouldn’t want to diminish the importance of her personal experience by denying her the right to be viewed…right?

    Do tell us more.

       0 likes

    • Pisaquari, you already know how much I admire your writing, don’t you?

      “It’s really bewildering when liberal feminists maintain a personal objection to porn and then throw their hands up in escapist-surrender at a political position.”

      PRICELESS!!!

      The personal is political… except when it becomes inconvenient to the status quo.

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    • Well, okay then. If the personal reigns, then I expect these Purveyors of Teh Personal, to get PERSONAL.

      WHY then, Hugo, is pornography use incompatible with your sex life? What are the specific lines of impasse between your sex life and using pornography?

      WHY then, Hugo, is pornography use incongruous with your feminism? What tenets of your feminism are not in line with pornography use? Be specific.

      WHY is pornography not inextricably linked to your version of intimacy? What version of intimacy do you ascribe to that is undermined by viewing what, could ultimately, turn out to be an empowered, feminist woman?

      Would you also reject porn made by one of your students who claimed she was empowered by the experience and wanted your opinion? You wouldn’t want to diminish the importance of her personal experience by denying her the right to be viewed…right?

      Do tell us more.

      YES! excellent. just excellent. hugos words are weasel-words, and too many people let him get away with this shit. thank you pisaquari for compiling a list of the perfect questions that all third-wave weasels need to answer. when we stop giving men like hugo the benefit of the doubt (because they dont deserve it) it becomes so clear that they are talking out of their asses and only wish to placate and obfuscate, and not be held accountable for their actual opinions, and the actual demonstrable harm perpetrated on others, by them, through their misogynist (male-supremecist) entitlements and actions. in hugos case, of privileged white men who stick their dicks into women, and who make money on “feminism.” they have some serious explaining to do, but anyone who even comes close to asking the right questions is conveniently branded THE ENEMY. aka radical feminists, to whom hugo pays extremely inadequate lip service but very transparently loathes, because we have seen him before, and have been calling shit on men like him for over 100 years. he thinks hes a special snowflake, and we have some kind of inexplicable fixation on him, but hes not special at all. HE is the enemy of women and of feminists, one of many, as an individual and as class:male. this is the same battle thats been raging since before world war I between radfems, and sexually entitled men who pathologize women who DARE to resist the sexual entitlements of men.

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  • I think FCM and I agree on something. (Insert remark about global cooling in hell.) Pisaquari’s questions are good ones that do deserve an answer… and that’s what I hope to have up this week.

    Thanks, Meghan, for doing this.

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  • it bothers me very much that hugo has taken this an an opportunity for further engagement with women and feminists, rather than an opportunity for self-reflection, or an opportunity to educate himself or other men.

    im not sure this is what pisquari had in mind or what she intended when she asked the questions, but hugos response to engage MORE (or to respond to ME personally) certainly is NOT what i had in mind when i agreed that these were questions that needed to be asked (and answered). how gross.

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  • rain

    Nothing could be less feminist than for me to tell them “No, you don’t like what you’re doing. Actually,you hate it and you’re being exploited.”

    Having men in feminism, is like having the company bosses lead unions. I’m sure they would only listen to the ones that support the company line too. What about other multinational capitalist industries? Leftists have no qualms about talking about exploitation there, but when it comes to women-specific capitalist exploitation industries – its what? an eco-friendly “renewable resource”?

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  • Ninfeo

    Hugo answered the proposed questions with babble that answers nothing and avoids saying much of anything. I’m used to men thinking the whole world revolves around them, but questions asked because of concerns pornography raises for WOMEN’S health, safety, and humanity should produce more than narcissistic ramblings about how Hugo used to be, how Hugo changed, how Hugo conducts his sex life now.

    Porn doesn’t fit in his life because Hugo is monogamous. That’s it. Heaven forbid a “feminist” man speak to the multitudes of FEMINIST reasons men should not watch porn.

    What’s wrong with porn is it left Hugo feeling less like fucking later. Such a grotesque, phallocentric, selfish assessment of what’s wrong with men’s pornography use seems like a parody of what a “feminist” man would write.

    What would it take for Hugo to stop avoiding talk about prostituted women except to selfishly drop “I got sex worker friends” lines left and right?

    That he thinks the worst genre of porn is where women are faux-tricked into sex with men informs me that he is utterly ignorant of the content of modern pornography. No wonder he can spout about theoretically content-neutral porn and theoretically content-neutral prostitution, because he doesn’t have the slightest clue as to what he’s talking about butt lacks the good sense to shut up.

    I don’t care how Hugo fucked then and Hugo fucks now or how much he wants to talk about his fucking fuck habits, I care about a multibillion dollar industry churning out images of unspeakable woman-hatred that goes leagues beyond “consensual sex by trickery.” Porn stores have entire BDSM genre aisles, racism genre aisles, and teen & faux-child aisles. To say most porn is “boring or unpleasant” is a dismissive euphemism from a man too cowardly to look at actual pornographic content before spouting off about how the main problem with porn is how tired it made his dick.

       1 likes

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