Pornography & the Performative

Hi, I’m Sarah! I’m a third-year Economics major, minoring in Statistics and Computer Science.

In considering Adrienne Rich’s and Catharine MacKinnon’s criticisms of pornography, it’s natural to wonder whether their views of the pornography industry in the 1980s might be a bit outdated now in the age of Internet porn and ubiquity of genres catering to all sexual preferences, though it’s hard to argue heterosexual porn doesn’t still constitute a large market share. In the ’80s, I would assume much of the porn popularly consumed would have been fledgling camcorder recordings or relics from the ’70s, the “sadistic, women-degrading visual images…[that] depict women as objects of sexual appetite devoid of emotional context, without individual meaning or personality” that Rich mentions (641).

However, what makes Rich’s and MacKinnon’s criticisms most obviously dated is perhaps their conflation of porn and reality, sex and love. In their discussion of pornography and its effect on how it creates an atmosphere of acceptance of violence against women, they seem to suggest that porn should include love, or at least a “healthy” form of sex and sexuality from all parties, in order to foster healthy sexual practices. Rich states:

Pornography does not simply create a climate in which sex and violence are interchangeable; it widens the range of behavior considered acceptable from men in heterosexual intercourse—behavior which reiteratively strips women of their…potential of loving and being loved by women in mutuality and integrity. (641)

She claims that pornography strengthens the normality of heterosexual intercourse and precludes a woman’s potential to love, specifically other women. However, in this claim, Rich appears to believe that those who watch porn will necessarily confuse “sex” portrayed in porn with sex in reality.

Applying Judith Butler’s concept of the performative in gender roles, it might be interesting to see whether the performative applies analogously to roles in pornography (audience included). In porn, actors assume different sexual roles, probably differing from their own sexual proclivities, yet they’re supposed to act out sex convincingly. As an audience, seeing the same actor act out different roles in different scenes can be considered analogous to being an audience of a drag show. Both subjects of their respective performances thus produce a form of “trouble.” For Butler, drag results in gender trouble; likewise, porn results in “sex trouble.” If sex can be acted out, who’s to say what sex really is? MacKinnon brings this up, saying:

Why…is intercourse “sex” at all? In pornography, conventional intercourse is one act among many…Thematically, intercourse is incidental in pornography, especially compared with force, which is primary. From pornography one learns that forcible violation of women is the essence of sex…Perhaps the reproductive act is considered sexual because it is considered an act of forcible violation and defilement of the female distinctively as such, not because it “is” sex a priori. (329)

MacKinnon’s analysis, though, assumes that pornography is necessarily forceful. In recent years, however, the rise of “female-friendly erotica” has shown that even sex that suggests love and respect can be mimicked. What, then, is truly sexual and truly sex? Like gender, is sex ever real? MacKinnon goes on to state, “To list and analyze what seem to be the essential elements for male sexual arousal…seems faintly blasphemous, like a pornographer doing market research. Sex is supposed both too individual and too universally transcendent for that” (317-18), seeming to discard a notion of what is “sexual.” However, just a few pages later, she contradicts herself in her criticism of porn, claiming, “Inequality is what is sexualized through pornography; it is what is sexual about it” (332), necessitating a concept of “sexual” that must be “sexualized.” How is inequality supposed to be sexualized seemingly universally for all audiences when we can’t concretely define what sexual is? Is sexual arousal necessarily social, then, because of cues derived from pornography as MacKinnon claims (339)? She references research that shows “sexual fetishism can be experimentally induced readily in ‘normal’ subjects” (339) yet just a line earlier claims sexual arousal through social cues, i.e., pornography, is not sexual truth. What, then, does it mean that fetishism is induced? Even more broadly, what are “normal” subjects?Those who are not aware that they have fetishes?

During their time, MacKinnon and Rich analyzed what they could with the resources in pornography available to them. Neither could have predicted the changes in the porn industry over the coming three decades, complicating their arguments and what can be conceived as sex.