The feminist anti-pornography movement, as articulated by Gail Dines, reinforces normative gender identities. Discuss with reference to the censorship of the film, ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’.
Gail Dines is a radical anti-pornography feminist whose writings and lectures focus on the ‘hypersexualization’ of our culture and the ways in which porn has filtered down into mainstream pop culture. In her acclaimed book, ‘Pornland’ (2011) Dines argues strongly that through the consumption of pornography, society is allowing, ‘a gender system that undermines equality and encourages violence against women’. She has been successful in bringing this issue into the public consciousness, pleading for governments, business, the medical profession and especially parents, as ethical members of society, to recognise and address the pornography as ‘the public health crisis of the digital age’ (2012).
The release of the film, ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’, in 2015, perfectly illustrates her point demonstrating what Dines terms ‘the pornification’ of our society in thetwenty-first century (2012). As a society we have allowed ourselves to buy into the romance and perceived eroticism of the film. It’s incredible popularity has been called a ‘marketing triumph’ with a boost in the sales of sex toys, a surge in women using ‘hook up’ sites and ‘ HYPERLINK “http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2012/04/15/working-women-s-fantasies.html” \t “_blank” fuelling a craze over sexual domination’ with many women admitting they have learned about what sex could be for them through reading the book and viewing the film (Grinberg, 2012). With this film, Dines now hasevidence that pornography had crossed over into mainstream pop-culture with a film that is ‘glorifying and basically legitimizing violence against women’ (2015). It has sickened her, and many others, to see how easily it has been accepted and how it has normalised sexual manipulation and violence.
The release of the film in Australia, just before Valentine’s Day allowed marketers to capitalize on the sentiment of the day with many couples attending on the premise of a romantic date (see Appendix 2). On the weekend of 13 – 15 February the film shattered box office records, accounting for 51.3% of overall box office for that period (boxofficemojo.com).
In an article for Salon.com, John Nolte, Editor of Breitbart argues that the movie ‘dresses up male control as romance and agreeing to be abused and dominated as feminist empowerment.’ The movie’s incredible popularity is, in his opinion, evidence that feminism has actually made women less powerful. ‘The chicks are eating it up and the terrible men who love to treat them like disposable sex toys could not be more delighted … or empowered’. Rather than men having to work to entice or lure women to the bedroom, Fifty Shades of Grey, has made it acceptable to be submissive. While Nolte sees this as empowerment, radical feminists, such as Gail Dines (2008) believe there is no doubt that the production of pornographic films exploits women, giving men permission to take chargeand inflict brutal acts on women in the name of love. As Dines said, ‘It is not a fairy story; it’s a horror story for the lives of most women,’ (2015).
Fifty Shades of Grey clearly articulates to women the specific gender identities, both female and male, required to achieve this type of erotic relationship, both domestic and sexual. While Van Reenan (2014) acknowledges that ‘Fifty Shades mostly reproduces familiar patterns of gender-stereotyping with models that explicitly sanction male dominance and sexual aggression,’ she asks the question, ‘Is this really what women want?’ One wonders how many couples attending the so-called ‘sultry’ film on Valentine’s Day got more than they bargained for.
Dines will not recognise the work as romantic or even erotic; rather it is about ‘getting women to see cruelty as hot sex’ (2015). According to Dines, not only is the film ‘as cruel and sadistic as mainstream porn’ but the real concern is that it is ‘expertly packaged for women who want a ‘fairy tale’ ending’. She claims that the wide acceptance of Fifty Shades of Grey is leading to a distortion of teenager’s sexuality. She argues that when girls ‘date’ men whose own sexual identities have been shaped by pornography they are in danger of becoming like Anastasia who is cajoled into agreeing to sadistic sex that leaves her sometimes bleeding and too bruised to move. They do this in the name of romance. ‘Fifty Shades has…eroticised violence against women and rebranded it as romance’ (2015).
John Stuart Mill (1806 –1873), one of the most eloquent and influential defenders of civil liberties states that when a person’s conduct affects the interests ofno persons besides himself… there should be perfect freedom. But when we see ‘the love of domineering over others…the pride which derives gratification from the abasement of others; the egotism which thinks self and its concerns more important than everything else, and decides all doubtful questions in its own favour;—these are moral vices, and constitute a bad and odious moral character’ (1859). Mill’s comments are very pertinent to this discussion as Fifty Shades of Grey sends a very clear messages that women actually want to be hurt; ‘taken by men, forcibly or violently… ‘hurt, forced, abused…raped, battered, kidnapped, maimed…humiliated, shamed, defamed…’ (Dworkin 1988) in order to submit themselves to Christian Grey’s moral vices.
Libertine, the Marquis de Sade advocated ‘extreme HYPERLINK “https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Freedom_(philosophy)” \o “Freedom (philosophy)” freedom, unrestrained by HYPERLINK “https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Morality” \o “Morality” morality, religion, or law’ (Wikipedia) and that human happiness is contingent on having freedom to pursue every desire and passion with no concern for the welfare or pain of others (ACA712 2016). Even today his works are deemed powerfully erotic. He was imprisoned after writing libertine novels, Justine and Juliette as both these works were seen to challenge perceptions of ‘sexuality, religion, law, age and gender… [as well as]…sexual violence, sadomasochism and paedophilia. Through his writing he showed us the dark side of human nature and in Justine, he referred to the intense pleasure that could be derived from inflicting pain on others, stating that ‘the only important thing in sensual pleasures is reaching the fullest measure of enjoyment’ (pp. 97-8). One can’t help drawing parallels between de Sade and the character of Christian Grey.
The Australian Classification Board has rated the film Fifty Shades of Grey MA15+ (see Appendix 1), citing ‘strong sex scenes, sexual themes and nudity’ (Wikipedia), therefore persons 15 years and over may attend the film. The Board believes that through the imposition of this classification, they are protecting children from harm but is this classification enough? Are 15, 16 and 17 year old teenagers ‘mature adults’? And does the censorship of a film actually constitute protection? These questions require their own interrogation, but it is worth considering how ready we are to defer to a government board when it comes to the protection of our children.
Child Family Community Australia (CFCA) in a recent information exchange with the Australian Institute of Family Studies poses the question: ‘When is a child in need of protection?’ They have produced a list of all types of treatment and behaviours that require the protection of the state; maltreatment, physical abusive behaviour, sexual abusive behaviour, neglectful or psychologically abusive behaviour, exposure to family violence, (2016). This list, however, does not identify or even formally recognise the harm caused by exposure to explicit images and sexual violence online or in films. In the twenty-first century, it is quite shocking todiscover how out of touch the CFCA has become with regards to this issue.
Mill’s ‘harm principle’ (1859) states that ‘the only purpose for which power may be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others’. However, Habibi (1983) reminds us that Mill’s theories presuppose maturity. ‘Mill describes children as persons who are not in the ‘maturity of their faculties’ and who lack the capacity to exercise liberty in the responsible way (p. 61), so would Mill agree with the MA15+ classification?
Likewise, the World Health Organisation (2008) states that it is the responsibility of today’s adults to identify hazards and conditions that impair children’s ability to grow and mature safely and in good health. In line with Mill’s philosophy, the WHO identify that adults need to make the decisions for children. Dines stance on pornography is based on the premise that those to make, sell and distribute pornography are affecting prejudicially the interests of others, namely adolescents and women in general (2008). While the classification imposed on Fifty Shades of Grey appears to restrict access to children by rating it MA15+, that wording itself, ‘Mature’ and ‘15+’ is a contradiction in terms. Can 15 year old children be considered physically, emotionally and sexually mature? Even with the MA15+ rating, children younger than 15 could attend the film with a parent or guardian, as long as they are over the age of 18 and although Mill recommends that adults need to make decisions, it is the unfortunate reality that many adults are putting all their trust, and the well being of their children, in the hands of the classifications board. How, then, do we balance the wellbeing of our children against the freedoms we enjoy in society?
Porn director, Erika Lust although ‘pro-porn’ is very critical of the word romantic in relation to this film, ‘This is the depiction of a messed up relationship. It is not love,’ she says, ‘what happens when young women get this story in their minds? They fall in love with the damaged Mr Grey, they dream of him; they want to be his Anastasia’ (2015).
This is really the first time that an erotic or pornographic book has become part of current popular culture. ‘People won’t stop talking about it, so it perpetuates the sales, perpetuates the mythos, of this work as some sort of watershed for erotic fiction,’ (Bhattacharjee 2012). Lust’s view on the film is quite moderate.While she encourages women to be involved in porn, both in front of and behind the camera ‘so we can explore the beauty of sex from a female perspective’, sheadvocates change saying, ‘the sex can stay dirty, but the values have to be clean’. She adds that when a film, such as Fifty Shades of Grey becomes ‘mainstream’it also becomes very influential. ‘I don’t want my children to learn about sex from bad porn, and I don’t want them to think they can learn about love from Fifty Shades of Grey’ (Lust 2015).
Speaking in Trends and Issues in Crime and Criminal Justice, Bryant (2009) acknowledges that ‘concern exists, among both parents and policymakers, that widespread, premature exposure to pornography is changing the nature of sexual attitudes, behaviours, and intimate relationships and potentially contributing to sexual violence in society’ however this statement highlights that we are missing a valuable link in this discussion. Who is talking to our children and adolescents about their attitudes, behaviours and relationships in regards to this film?
Parents often feel ill-equipped for this conversation, with their own access to and experience of pornography being limited to magazines or hired ‘R’ rated movies. They look to schools and their health and personal development programs to begin conversations but as Collett Smart writes, ‘we don’t know how much of this ‘pornified’ culture has infiltrated our children’s world, thus normalising some behaviours among their peers already. It is true we don’t know the extent of influence, but it’s important that we begin to ask, to begin conversations, instead of making assumptions about the situation. Lust (2015) agrees, saying that ‘we need to start changing the current narrative … and create interest in modern gender roles’ that doesn’t damage society. For the adolescents who are watching Fifty Shades of Grey today will be the parents of the future.
Mill argued (1859) that HYPERLINK “https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Truth” \o “Truth” truth drives out falsity, therefore the free expression of ideas, true or false, should not be feared. Is better to speak about the issue and risk embarrassment rather than censor or silence the conversation? Mill states that the only instance in which speech can be justifiably suppressed is in order to prevent harm from a clear and direct threat. As Dines claims ‘bringing up boys on violent images’ must concern us as a society as it is becoming commonplace for pornography to be the main form of sex education’ (2012). Does that not, as Mill warns, present‘a clear and direct threat’ to our children?
Socrates (470) believed in the supremacy of the conscience. His writings question what it means to be a contributing and ethical member of a society. He believed that all knowledge was good, ‘There is only one good, knowledge, and one evil, ignorance’ and therefore, would encourage society to address the issue of pornography and censorship as it affects our society. He was clearly not afraid of the conversation.
John Locke, father of liberalism, believed that government is morally obliged to serve and people ‘cannot legitimately do anything they want, because there are moral laws applying to everyone’ (Powell 1996). This was a radical view, but Locke insisted that people needed to think for themselves, urging them to apply reason to their decisions. He went so far as to encourage revolution if government were seen to be unfit (Powell 1996). Dines has, in her own way, been one of the strong and fearless leaders of this revolution against the ‘pornification’ of our society.
The right to exercise intellectual freedom can be problematic as it pertains to citizenship. While being free to express one’s own opinion is fundamental to our self determination and identity, governments are mandated to censor particular ideas that they deem may be damaging (ALA.com). Therefore, how much freedom can we expect to have if we choose to be part of a civilised community? If we enjoy the benefits of living in a society, we then need to acknowledge that we owe a return for that benefit (Mill, 1859). It could be said that Dines is paying her debt to society by bringing the issue of censorship for Fifty Shades of Grey to the fore.
In Book II of the Republic, Socrates and Glaucon discuss seeking justice in a city, rather than in a man. Socrates first describes a ‘healthy state’ and then ‘a city of pigs’ and yet his companion, Glaucon could find little difference between the two (Wikipedia). Is this still the case in society today? Mill (1859) states that‘human beings owe to each other help to distinguish the better from the worse, and encouragement to choose the former and avoid the latter’. This appears to be the case for imposing censorship in Socrates’ ‘healthy state’.
By speaking out, Dines is exercising her own freedoms by pleading for action on this issue, however, many of us are not, choosing to be silent on this matter, perhaps hoping that the state will intervene to stop us from descending into ‘a city of pigs’. It seems that we are happy to react to Dine’s posts on social media but not invested enough to ask our politicians to address the issue to safe-guard the future morality of our society.
Damasio (2010) remarks that, ‘we think we are in control, but we often are not…our biological makeup inclines us to consume what we should not, but so do the cultural traditions that have drawn on that biological makeup and been shaped by it (p. 281). In other words, we can’t help ourselves when it comes to base desires such as sex. Fifty Shades of Grey sends the message that not only should we give into our deepest sexual desires but we should be aspiring to be good at it. Dines believes this to be true, ‘The men think they should be performing like the men in pornography…they begin to really see women in terms of objects. Not as somebody to have relationships with, but as somebody to do something to’ (2012).
‘In a liberal democracy all speech is legal until it is made illegal’ (Wilson 2014). Imposing censorship actually disrespects the rights of the speaker, not to mention the rights of people who may want to listen to inform their own views. But how can we have one without the other; freedom of expression, intellect, liberty and protection for the most vulnerable, our children. ‘Our sexuality is going to be a product of the society that exists around us and in the short term there’s very little one can do about that’ (Sparrow, 2012). Therefore it has to be acknowledged that the benefits of citizenship come with the responsibility of care, and that can impact on how much freedom we can expect to have.
In 1983 when Iceland introduced an Anti-Pornography Initiative, a group of 105 prominent scholars, writers, medical and health professionals, actors, women’s advocates from all over the world wrote to the government expressing their support; ‘Society must act on its compelling interest in providing a safe and nourishing environment for children’. When we consider issues of censorship, freedom and citizenship, we must reflect on what sort of society we want in the future. That is the question we should be asking ourselves and, I believe, is he bigger question posed by Gail Dines.