Even for those of us repeatedly reaching for the delete button, the visibility and accessibility of pornography in our everyday lives has increased exponentially. And yet, strangely, any substantial critique of it remains invisible. What is this silence? Is it discomfort? Is it approval? At best our reaction to pornography and prostitution is a snigger. And what can anyone really say in a world where Larry Flynt is a people's hero and a 'Porn star' t-shirt is a liberating statement (Clarke p 157). In our contemporary world, as Elizabeth Wurtzel has said, innocence itself is subversive. Clarke (p 190) puts it like this:
Pornography and prostitution are either sacralised by a knee jerk association with freedom of speech and sexual liberation or discussed with a kind of sniggering, prurient 'humour' and smug self-satisfaction (at being so very liberated and worldly as to find the subject amusing rather than shocking or depressing).
Such lightheartedness, as in the jovial telling of a racist joke, belies any of the darkness in the actual situation. The current cultural take on pornography and prostitution obviates the need to take the lives and deaths of prostituted women seriously. 'It's either a symbol of liberation or a dirty joke. It is either above criticism or beneath notice'. (Clarke p 190)
And there we might have the first sign of an unhealthy situation: that no one is allowed to discuss the problem. (Anderberg p 277)
That's why Not for Sale, a book of essays about pornography and prostitution, not only provides new, vigorous perspectives, but, in the name of health, is an important and balancing contribution.
The most refreshing thing about Not for Sale is its radical departure from those tired debates about 'dirty pictures' and the 'objectification of women'. What we are seeing in contemporary pornography gives lie to the suggestion we are simply talking about any old images of 'sex'. (Whisnant p 17) Contemporary researchers on pornography inevitably incorporate in their work a focus on international human rights violations. What we are increasingly seeing is the eroticization of all sex crimes: rape, gang rape, harassment, molestation, confinement of women, the sexualisation of childhood, the infantalising of adult women, 'documentary' pornography and the direction of the industry towards the more and more 'extreme'. (Whisnant p 17) There is an increasing 'cruelty of touch'. (Whisnant p 14)
The pornographic content, it's aggressive marketing to an ever-wider pool of consumers, and the shear expansion of the industry means that the sex business, the industry behind the trafficking of women and children, is now thought to be 'the largest slave trade the planet has seen'. (Dworkin p 144)
Not for Sale reworks the insistence that pornography and prostitution equate to sexual liberation and progress. Frankly, those who define the sex business as a force of liberation overlook the fact that women and children are prostituted most commonly through violence and poverty. They overlook the life expectancy of sex workers, the average age of induction, the average income of sex workers and, most urgently, their inability to leave their situations. To coerce women and children into this work, to permanently affect their lives in this way, and then to force them on a daily basis to fake enthusiasm, suppress fear and disgust, and to tolerate violence and humiliation to their bodies is no banner for sexual liberation. What freedom means in this case is 'no more than the freedom of men to access the bodies of women and children. It's predation redefined as progress'. (Clarke p 169)
Despite this, it remains easy for contemporary consumers of pornography to distance themselves from the harm and the sweatshop that lies just on the other side of the screen. After all, 'women are there because they choose to be'. Perhaps, as some of the sex workers make painfully clear to us in this book, 'voluntary slavery' is a better concept to describe the situation. Female sex workers live in that unsympathetic space between the appearance of choice and the overwhelming, relentless coercion behind that choice. (Farley and Lynne p 113)
Meanwhile pop cultural ideas about sexuality turn all our desires into harmless fun, while capitalism makes all desires good, legitimate. It is unpopular, even dangerous to question the demand side of any market. However researchers in Not for Sale do ask these questions: What do these images mean for us? Why do people purchase sexual service? What drives the consumption of pornography? For discussion, researchers draw on some surprising theories about sexuality.
Will we remain indefinitely comfortable with the wide consumption of pornography and prostitution? The sexual revolution has left us a legacy of openness about anything sexual (allowing the sex business to be mainstreamed and to become extremely lucrative and successful). Along with it is the conviction that everyone in the images is having a great time, and the similar conviction that prostitutes enjoy sex. Meanwhile technology combines anonymity with ease in internet environments designed to lead someone clicking down the electronic pathways of eroticism into websites containing more violent images, without the consumer necessarily deciding to go there.
And all the time there is the reassurance for the consumer of being visitor number 21,466 to any particular website. Lurking behind the technological trick is perhaps that ugly old masculinist belief that once a women is raped, it 'no longer matters what happens to her'. (Clarke p 178) Not for Sale puts the woman in the picture at the centre of the issue. For these researchers, her life matters. And because she matters, the sex business cannot be redeemed by talk of sexual liberation nor by the ideology of freedom of speech.
Not for Sale asks us to live with our complicity. Because all the sniggering and entertainment we might gain from pornography is all very well if you find yourself on this side of the image. But things don't look the same on the other side.
Not for Sale is significant as a challenge to our current cultural myths about the 'harmless and liberal fun' that pornography and prostitution are for consumers and sex workers. Aside from the book's importance as a counter balance, I generally find writing that goes against the grain enjoyable. It is often unusually fresh, it must anticipate its critics, it must fight to replace knee-jerk assumptions with better ones. It can't afford laziness in argument or evidence. To oppose the general opinion of popular culture, the research must be excellent. Not for Sale is exactly this.
- Lisette Kaleveld. 'Review: Not For Sale: Feminists Resisting Prostitution and Pornography by Christine Stark and Rebecca Whisnant eds' [online]. Network Review of Books (Perth, Australian Public Intellectual Network), July 2005. Availability: <please cite the web address here> ISSN 1833-0932. [accessed 14 November 2011].
Back Cover Blurb
- As prostitution and pornography increasingly saturate our lives and our communities, they are also becoming normalised and accepted as harmless entertainment for men and as legitimate, even liberating, forms of work for women.Not for Sale brings the feminist movement against prostitution and pornography into the 21st century, showing how these industries cause grievous harm to those within them while undermining the possibilities for gender justice, human equality, and truly diverse and joyful sexual experiences.The essays collected here connect feminist perspectives on the sex industry with radical critiques of racism, poverty, militarism, and unbridled corporate capitalism, and show how the harms of prostitution and pornography are amplified by contemporary technologies of mass communication. Bringing together research, testimony, and theory by more than thirty writers and activists from difference countries and generations, including a number of courageous industry survivors, Not for Sale is both a vital contribution to ongoing debates and a call to action and resistance.
Not For Sale: Feminists Resisting Prostitution and Pornography