Child Pornography and Feminism

This article appeared in CGS Newsletter, Issue 11, Center for Gender Studies, International Christian University. PDF

At the World Congress III Against Sexual Exploitation of Children and Adolescents on November 24, 2008, an international agreement was reached that all participating countries would undertake to criminalize the possession of child pornography including cartoons (animation, comics, 3DCG, etc.). Many countries prohibit the production and sale of child pornography to protect children from the exploitation and violence considered inherent in non-consensual acts in which, given the adult-child power relation, children inevitably engage as soon as any adult is involved in their sexual activities. This agreement extends the watch on child pornography and makes illegal even the possession of child pornography in cartoon form. They argue that, regardless of whether real children are involved or not, child pornography affects the ways people view children and its prevalence can lead to overtly and excessively sexualized images of children. That is, not only do the children involved suffer physical and psychological harm through non-consensual acts, but also the representation of children in pornography, though indirectly, increases the harm inflicted on real children.

C. McKinnon and A. Dworkin argued that pornography targeted at the heterosexual male population, which most pornography is, not only reflects societal gender power relations but also perpetuates and reinforces them by depicting women in degrading ways and, ultimately, creating what I would like to call “irrigation canals of desire.” As a queer feminist, I am tempted to say any kind of desire should be respected however deviant or condemned. But as a queer feminist, I am more concerned about the irrigation of desire that precedes and provides for the formation of desire into homosexuality, pedophilia, etc., and most likely, heterosexuality. Within the system of the irrigation of desire exist complex forms of representation of differences based on the existing power structures (e.g. gender, race, ethnicity, age, class, physical features and dis/abilities). This is not to say that a form of desire that (necessarily) depends on social injustice must be “wrong,” nor do I intend to attack those who have such desires—-in fact, marginalized desires such as homosexual and pedophilic desires are not any freer than heterosexual desire from the norms. My intention here is to suggest that desire is not independent of the social and cultural.

When these two feminists brought to the public the issue of male-targeted heterosexual pornography, most people, however, just laughed at them, saying pornographic representation of women was not harmful at all. Now, why shouldn’t they have been joined by as many supporters so quick and willing to use their resources to protect women as anti-child pornography advocates recently did to protect children? The only difference between them is that the two feminists cared about women, young and old, black and white, Asian and Jewish, disabled and able-bodied-why did the public think that women should be allowed for public display of any kind? And ultimately, is representation problematic or not?

“What exactly do you mean by pornography?” asked anti-feminist libertarians and some feminists in response to McKinnon and Dworkin, but the intention of the latter group was to shed light on the possibility of subversion from within the existing power relations. Pornographic or not, representation has no control over the ways an audience interprets the material. Isn’t a painting of naked angels child pornography when somebody masturbates to it? Judith Butler argues in Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative that although, or precisely because, desire is not independent of the social and cultural, quite the contrary, it is exactly within the normative codes of the representation of desire that subversion can take place. The demand for regulations such as censorship and lawsuit, which McKinnon and Dworkin held as their primary objective, is an appeal to state power that is to be granted monopoly over representation of the subject matter, now ready to redraw the acceptable/unacceptable line of sexualities (which has historically oppressed so-called ‘deviant’ sexualitites). That way, we will foreclose the possibility of seemingly (hetero)sexist pornography being received by the audience in unexpected, sometimes queer, ways that might rescue the residual complexities that have been filtered out during the process of representation which can never grasp that something in full. After Butler, many feminists now view anti-pornography arguments as somewhat still powerful yet highly questionable.

Now we must turn back to child-pornography and ask, is the anti-child pornography sentiment, shared by many today even globally, also as problematic as anti-pornography feminism? Why are we ignoring the long history of feminist debate on pornography and jumping on the bandwagon to search for a legal solution to child pornography? Why was the public so reluctant to acknowledge the issue of the degrading representation of women, resulting in abundant debate and the development of feminist discourses, while they are so quick to acknowledge the issue of the sexual representation of children without questioning even a tiny bit of it?

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