Double standards for men and women when it comes to sexuality have been around for a long time. We all know the typical picture of a man whose masculinity is enhanced by having a high number of sexual partners, whilst a woman’s virtue is negatively affected when her number of sexual partners rises. The modern movement against what we like to call ‘slut shaming’ aims to eliminate these biases and double standards and to let women employ their sexuality on an equal level to men. In other words, whatever opinion you have of the number of sexual partners of men, the same should apply for women. Whether you think positively or negatively about (casual) sexual encounters, what’s important is that it applies equally regardless of sex or gender.
However, this double standard is still embedded in our culture and generally speaking it does still exist. This is what I thought about today when we discussed the topic of pornography and its supposed degrading force on women. There has been a large movement of women, feminists and other ‘allies’ that write porn off as intrinsically biased towards gender norms and as enhancing those stereotypes.
However, I don’t feel we can say this about pornography in general. Maybe around the time and Langton wrote ‘Speech Acts and Unspeakable Acts’ (1993), the overwhelming majority of pornography did depict women in a less than favorable light. It may have given women a submissive role that could have been picked up by men as ‘the way women should behave’.
Or maybe it was the other way around. Maybe because of the stereotypes surrounding women and because of the double standard between men and women, women felt degraded by these images. Because what is really degrading about a woman engaging in a sexual act with a man? We do not see it as degrading to the male participant. Men are completely free to engage in casual sexual activity without anyone batting an eye.
In addition, pornography has become much more diverse. Different people fantasize about different things and for every category of fantasy there is probably an innumerable amount of visual images available that portray that particular sexual fantasy.
Of course there are types of sexualizations that are troubling. Depicting (and ‘romanticizing’) rape as something sexually arousing (to both the perpetrator and the victim) is not a positive way of putting sexuality into imagery. First and foremost there should be consent between the parties engaging in any type of physicality. Equally, putting minors at the center of sexualization is unacceptable. Sex is something to be had between consenting adults.
But if all parties are, in fact, consenting adults, who is anyone to say their depiction is wrong? We can see promiscuity as degrading, or we can see it as empowering. Or as neither of those things. But nothing is offensive unless someone is offended. Can we not choose to not be offended? If we assume that men and women are on equal footing and different people simply like different things, can we not just choose which ‘type’ of (if any) pornography we want to watch?
It’s difficult to enhance a stereotype that does not exist, or no longer applies. So if we stop seeing sex as something to be ashamed of, the visual depiction of it might stop being shameful.