Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Choice Feminism’s Honey Trap

Michaele L. Ferguson
University of Colorado

The other day, a colleague drew my attention to a blog post at, “I’m the Duke University Porn Star and for the First Time I’m Telling the Story in My Words.”  The author, writing under the name Belle Knox, is paying her way through college by performing in pornographic films.  Yet recently, she was outed on campus by a Duke fraternity member, and ever since has been subject to online slut-shaming.  She reports, “I was called a ‘slut who needs to learn the consequences of her actions,’ a ‘huge fucking whore,’ and, perhaps the most offensive, ‘a little girl who does not understand her actions.’”  Reading this, it is hard not to feel outrage on her behalf.  

Yet what I find intriguing about her blog post is how clearly it manifests a certain kind of pro-sex argument that strongarms the reader into endorsing – and even celebrating – Knox’s decision to be a porn actress.  This is what I call the choice feminism honey trap.  The honey trap makes it seem as if validating – and even celebrating – the author’s choices is the only possible feminist position one could take.  This is a manipulative argument – but one whose ability to coerce the reader relies upon our accepting certain premises about feminism, sex, and liberation that we quite simply do not have to accept.

The choice feminism honey trap has two stages.  First, it presents some outrageously misogynistic and/or paternalistic view that feminists are likely to agree is deeply problematic.  In Knox’s case, she invokes the slut-shaming from her male peers.  The vicious and personal attacks on Knox are – I think most of us would agree – reprehensible, to say the least.  This generates sympathy with the author:  she has done nothing to deserve this misogynistic abuse.  Indeed, this abuse is why she is speaking out in response:  to draw attention to “the abuses we inflict on sex workers.”

Cue the second stage of the honey trap, in which the feminist explains that she does not deserve misogyny and paternalism because she is a liberated woman who makes her own free choices.  In this spirit, Knox offers a defense of her work in pornography in terms of her first-person experience of porn as liberating.  “For me, shooting pornography brings me unimaginable joy. … I can say definitively that I have never felt more empowered or happy doing anything else.  In a world where women are so often robbed of their choice, I am completely in control of my sexuality.”  Knox is choosing freely to do this kind of work, and she gets to work in an environment characterized by acceptance and celebration of her sexuality – completely at odds with the culture of slut-shaming.

Suddenly, we’re trapped like flies on honey.  We’ve agreed that the frat boy harassment is reprehensible:  shaming women for being sexual is bad.  But now suddenly we find that we also have to endorse Knox’s participation in porn, because to do anything less would be to join forces with the frat boys, to condescendingly tell her that she isn’t empowered, in control, and free to make her own choices.  Knox deftly cuts off several classic avenues of critique.  She tells us she is aware that other women are abused in the porn industry, but she isn’t – so we can’t assume that she is the victim of coercive producers.  She tells us this is her free choice, so now we are just being paternalistic if we start to question whether she is in denial about some childhood trauma that led her into porn.  She may star in rough sex films, but she’s engaging in these sex acts consensually, so it is “a horrifying accusation” to suggest that her work perpetuates rape fantasies.  And don’t forget:  she’s the victim here – so we have to stand with her, just as she is standing with other sex workers against abuse, or else we are standing with her abusers.

By accepting Knox’s frame, we are rendered incapable of offering any critique of pornography.  The porn industry can’t be all bad, if it is possible for a high-achieving, ambitious, and sexually liberated woman like Belle Knox to freely choose to participate in it.  We’ve come a long way since Catharine MacKinnon!

What has happened here is that pornography has been reframed entirely in terms of individual choice.  This is choice feminism applied to sex work:  if a woman chooses to engage in porn, then we should all validate that choice.  Her choice is even to be celebrated:  look how liberated she is from sexual shame!  Suddenly, any critique of porn is rendered ineffectual because to criticize porn is to criticize Belle Knox and her choices.  That would place us on the side of the frat boys, and we certainly don’t want to be in their company!

But what if we were to reject the choice feminist framing altogether?  What if we were to shift the question of pornography to be a question not about individual choice, but about the manufacture and commodification of sexual desire?

If we could do this, we could start to ask a variety of questions, questions that are not reducible to the chosenness or shamefulness of one woman’s participation in making pornography:

How does viewing porn affect desire?  Does it shape desire, or does it merely reflect desire?  Does the act of viewing pornography cultivate exploration of desire on one’s own terms?  Is there a monolithic “porn industry” that manufactures norms of desire?  Or are there porn industries that through their competition create a free marketplace of desire for the consumer to explore?  (These are the kinds of questions provoked by both Ariel Levy’s Female Chauvinist Pigs:  Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture and Nina Power’s One Dimensional Woman.)  

Does porn liberate us from shame and other constraints on our desire?  Or does it give us an ideological sense of liberation, while surreptitiously directing and shaping our desire in particular ways?  Are there kinds of porn that are more or less liberating?  Or have we confused arousal with desire, and desire with liberation?

What are we to make of the alleged phenomenon of porn addiction?  Is it possible to become addicted to pornography?  Does porn alter the structure of the brains of those who view it?  How might porn addiction be impacting the lives of the partners and children of those who suffer from it?  Does the ubiquity of porn contribute to a culture of instant gratification, and undermine our capacity for sexual intimacy with others?

By moving towards a choice feminist orientation born of fear of sexual shaming, feminists have largely abdicated the critique of porn to the conservative right.  Those feminists who critique porn are often condemned by other feminists as anti-sex.

But there’s another kind of critique possible that is pro-sex.  By asking “how does porn – its material production, its normativity, its wide availability, and its ubiquity in pop culture – affect our desires and our capacity for intimacy?” feminists can offer a critique of porn without falling into the honey trap.

The issue isn’t whether Belle Knox is participating in porn of her own free will.  Trying to figure out whether she is accurately reporting a subjective experience of empowerment, or whether she is victim of false consciousness, is an absurd – and indeed, intrusive and offensive – task.  The issue isn’t whether porn is liberating for her.  The issue is:  is porn liberating for us?

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