25th Oct 2016 6:30pm-8:00pm
Edward Street Campus Lecture Theatre
Heather Brunskell-Evans (King's College, London)
Pornography: The Performance of Sexual Freedom
The narrative of radical sexual politics is that pornography has the potential to liberate individuals from traditional mores and values which repress sexuality. In this view pornographic sex is ‘sex-in-the-raw’ stripped of the taboos which regulate sexual fantasy and conduct. Of course proponents are fully aware the sex is staged and that performers are acting. However, since the performers are both acting and having actual not simulated sex, and since the consumer, in masturbating to the sex-acts, or indeed interacting with performers in the virtual space of web-cams, is undergoing a fully embodied experience that feel external to politics, then pornography is deemed to facilitate the free expression of the visceral and of fantasy. To be critical of pornography is to be critical of sex itself, and to be critical of sex itself is to be ‘sex-negative’ – to be morally censorious, to align oneself with outmoded tradition or religious fundamentalism, and to be out of step with Western democratic sexual freedoms. Moreover, in contrast to the radical feminist view, which understands pornography as the eroticisation of male dominance and female submission, sex-radicals insist pornography is not ‘one thing’ since it has many genres and sub-genres that subvert hetero-normativity. Pornography is a rich resource for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, whose non-normative sexualities are marginalised and disciplined.
In this presentation I will argue against this sex-radical narrative by calling upon the work of Michel Foucault and the radical feminist Andrea Dworkin. Whilst it is true that there is a diversity of pornographies – heterosexual, gay, lesbian, transsexual and so on – I do not bracket minority pornographies as completely distinct from mainstream heterosexual pornography. Firstly, the myriad of pornographies all fall into the category of what Foucault calls a liberal ‘incitement to speak sex’: Pornography is a discursive practice by which we self-subjectify as if our very democratic freedoms and individual psychological health depend upon freeing an internal sexuality. Secondly, Dworkin argues pornography helps construct rather than reflect human sexuality and as such reproduces historical and political monological notions of female sexuality and ‘what a woman’s body is for’: Femininity is the degraded physical Other through which men’s metaphysical assertion of self is fashioned and symbolic representations of femininity and masculinity cross-cut most, if not all, genres of pornography. Foucault and Dworkin invite us to examine radical sexual politics for the normative status of its politics, for its (neo) liberal individualism, and for its complicity with the pornography industry which incites gendered sexual imaginaries for profit. How then might we re-imagine freedom, sexual pleasure and sexual ethics?
Heather Brunskell-Evans is a political philosopher. She is a Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Medical Humanities, the University of Leicester. Her research focuses on the gendering of the body by contemporary discourses of sexuality and medicine. In particular, she analyses the bio-politics of pornography, prostitution, the sex-trade, and transgenderism as material practices that occur within the context of structural gender inequality, neoliberalism, global capitalism and the proliferation of digital-technologies. She has published widely on sexual and gender politics, including Performing Sexual Liberation: The Sexualized Body and the Medical Authority of Pornography (Cambridge Scholars 2016, forthcoming) and Internet Pornography: Disciplining Women Through Sexual ‘Freedom’ (Palgrave MacMillan 2017). She is also politically active in campaigning for and advising on the Nordic model of prostitution and she is a trustee of the newly formed charity FiLia, where she is the Director of its Stop Violence against Women and Girls section.