Thinking Inequality: Pornography Revisited


Being a woman of color

I was twenty years old when I first acquired an understanding of myself as a woman of color. Having grown up in a racially homogeneous society, I had theretofore never encountered inequality and dehumanization on the basis of race. I did have personal knowledge of what it meant to experience inequality and dehumanization on the basis of sex, and this personal knowledge had fostered my feminist consciousness. Looking back, I realize that I had been quite lucky during the first twenty years of my life: blissfully unaware of just how much more jarring it is to walk this earth bearing multiple markers of inequality and dehumanization instead of one.

My education as a woman of color, specifically as an Asian woman, happened on a bright summer day in a southwestern part of France. It came to me in the form of the following question directed at me by a middle-aged white man.

Combien ça va (how much)?”

At first I thought, or rather I wished, that he was asking me “comment ça va (how are you).” I had heard him correctly. He had felt entitled to ask a random stranger how much it would cost for him to buy her consent to sex, on a bustling urban street in broad daylight. It was apparent to me then that this had happened on the basis of sex. Growing up female, I had had my share of being treated as a sexual object, although I had never heard of a man asking how much a woman cost outside of brothels and streets known to be used for prostitution. What was not so apparent at first glance was that this had also happened on the basis of race.

To my horror, similar events continued happening to me on many streets. I began to be constantly on guard whenever I went outside and to scrutinize what was going on wherever I went. After months of aggressive observation of my surroundings, I finally understood that these men were mostly targeting women of color, and in particular Asian women. It was as if to them, an Asian woman had no other purpose in existence other than to be bought as a sexual commodity. On a certain level, their actions are grounded on a concrete reality, albeit an unjust, cruel, and infuriating one. I reflect upon this reality.

In the world that we live in, it is a reality that many women’s bodies are on sale to be used for men’s pleasure. It is a reality that the majority of the many women who are for sale are women of color. It is a reality that many Asian women do find themselves in prostitution. It is a reality that many Asian women who cross national boundaries into white-dominated societies are put in the market for sex. In the southwestern French city where I lived for almost a year, many if not most Asian women were in prostitution. Some were in Asian massage parlors, some were in brothels, and some were on call. Others were on the streets, and not just the streets known to be used for prostitution. For many women, and especially Asian women who cross national boundaries, this is life as it is.

In other words, many Asian women do exist as sexual objects. They sustain themselves by engaging in unequal sex and providing sexual pleasure for male consumers. They exist as entertainment, but not exactly the kind of entertainment in which the entertainer is the subject and the master of the entertainment. This entertainment is the kind of entertainment in which the body of the entertainer is itself the object of the entertainment. It is the kind of entertainment in which the inequality inherent in one party paying money to dictate the other party’s sexuality is the entertainment. With this reality in the background, is it any wonder that many men are unable and unwilling to imagine another kind of reality, in which an Asian woman on the street is not looking to negotiate prices for her body? In a world where many Asian women are sexual objects that exist for others’ sexual pleasure, is any Asian woman truly a subject, sexual or otherwise?

I had taken a year off from my university studies in South Korea to spend some time in France. During my freshman and sophomore years, French existentialism had gripped my enthusiasm. I wanted to learn how to read the works of Camus, Sartre, and de Beauvoir in their original language, and I went to France on an intellectual quest to explore existentialism.

Indeed in France I explored existentialism, but not exactly by reading Camus, Sartre, or de Beauvoir. I explored existentialism by reflecting upon the meaning of my existence as a woman of color, an existence that had been thrust upon me. Being a woman of color means that one experiences inequality and dehumanization on the bases of sex and race. It happens in different ways to different women of color. Variations exist between what happens to an Arab woman in a headscarf and what happens to an Asian woman in Western garb, but just because they happen in different ways does not mean that they are not the same thing.

Being a student of law and feminism

I am a student of law, particularly of civil rights law. The way I understand it, civil rights law thinks about equality and inequality, power and powerlessness, who is thought of as more than and who is thought of as less than, and who does what to whom why and how. This kind of thinking is different from thinking about good and bad, moral and immoral, beautiful and ugly, or free and not free. As a consequence, I begin my inquiries with inequality and dehumanization, especially sexualized inequality and dehumanization on the bases of sex and race. This is where my mind and body were when I first became serious about adopting feminism in my personal, professional, and intellectual life. It is where my mind and body still are, and I have a feeling that they will stay there for good.

Before I officially committed myself to the women’s studies department, I had read quite a few theories and had exposed myself to a diverse range of topics. However, I had not been completely educated on the intellectual history and genealogy of feminist thoughts. When I finally had my first chronological overview of feminist “waves” in the West, I felt quite alarmed because I wondered whether I should put more focus on the newest theory and the newest “wave.” I also wondered if I was beating around old and dead bushes by thinking about “second wave” topics such as sexual harassment, rape, domestic violence, pornography, prostitution, and femicide. Furthermore, against my postcolonial theory background, I even questioned whether it was because I was born and raised in a non-Western, “less developed,” and “backwards” country that America’s past appealed to me. I had blamed myself for not being able to tune in with the most recent developments in feminist theory.

“Rather than being members of the first, second, or third wave, we can be the National Public Radio of feminism, the Corporate Broadcasting System, or the community radio station; and we can switch stations periodically as well.”

Nancy A. Hewitt, “Introduction” in No Permanent Waves: Recasting Histories of U.S. Feminism (2014).

I read Nancy A. Hewitt’s proposal with a sense of relief and excitement, because it completely liberated me from much worry and self-blame. I no longer consider myself “retro,” “anachronistic,” or “less sophisticated.” I am simply a radio player that happens to tune into a certain station that plays a certain kind of music that manifested itself at a certain point in time, in a certain place, and in a certain way. Which is not to say that I wish to voice the same tunes in exactly the same way as the station that I tune into, just that this station will be the background of whatever music that comes out of me.

Thinking about pornography: act and documentation of unequal sex

“[P]ornography is a direct denial of the power of the erotic, for it represents the suppression of true feeling. Pornography emphasizes sensation without feeling.”

Audre Lorde, “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power” in Sister Outsider (1978).

“Pornography rests on the accurate assumption that sexual “pleasure” is equal to power and dominance for the man. It expresses a masculine ideology of male power over females, and it cuts across class lines.”

Roxanne Dunbar, “‘Sexual Liberation’: More of the Same Thing,” in More Fun and Games: A Journal of Female Liberation (1989) (to this I would add that it cuts across race lines, and that it often cuts more deeply for women of color than women not of color).

Both Audre Lorde and Roxanne Dunbar understood pornography in terms of power. Their understanding is historically accurate, since the etymology of the word “pornography” can be traced to the ancient practice of making a spectacle of the people (many women and girls and some men and boys) who were specifically enslaved for sex. For Lorde, pornography “denies the power,” and for Dunbar, it is an “ideology of male power over females.” In their theory and analysis, these feminist thinkers were trying to grapple with human inequality.

Bringing the theory and analysis of pornography as inequality to practice, some feminists attempted to use civil rights law to dismantle some of the power held by people who profit from making other people (usually and disproportionately women and girls) act out unequal sex (often involving violence), and from documenting it and disseminating it.

The anti-pornography ordinance authored by Andrea Dworkin and Catharine A. MacKinnon was an amendment to a municipal human rights ordinance. It problematized pornography as a practice of inequality and a violation of civil rights based on sex. It aimed to enable those who were harmed in its production and dissemination to sue the pornographers.

This approach was not the same as anti-obscenity laws that problematized pornography as lewd or improper, framing the discussion in terms of morality or aesthetics instead of equality and civil rights. A common criticism against the anti-pornography ordinance was that it criminalizes pornography, thereby “siccing” the state on individuals who are exercising their freedom of speech. However, it was anti-obscenity laws that criminalized pornography and empowered the state to punish purveyors of obscene materials. The anti-pornography ordinance was a civil, not a criminal, instrument that empowered individual women to seek remedies from pornographers who had harmed them.

“A fantasy is something that happens in your head. It doesn’t go past your head. Once you have somebody acting out whatever that scenario might be in you head, it is an act in the world, it is real. It is real behavior with real consequences to real people. . . . [W]hen you have that Asian woman hanging from the tree, you have a real Asian woman and she is really hanging from a real tree.”

Andrea Dworkin, Against Pornography: The Feminism of Andrea Dworkin (BBC documentary, 1992).

When the Supreme Court of the United States held the anti-pornography ordinance to be unconstitutional, it reiterated that pornography is an expression of fantasy and that it is protected under the 1st Amendment as freedom of speech. To a woman of color from a colonized nation looking back at this American history in 2016, it sounds a lot like American society decided to prioritize a white man’s right to “speak” (if using inequality, deprivation, and sometimes violence to make women, and especially women of color, consent to being depicted as subordinate sexual objects could be called “speech”) over a woman’s, and especially a woman of color’s, right to equality, dignity, and a sexuality that is not co-opted by others.

That is, I suspect that a man’s right to the pornographic (etymologically, depiction of sexual slavery) triumphed over a woman’s right to the erotic. I suspect that this triumph had something to do with Clarence Thomas’s appointment as a Supreme Court Justice, Bill Clinton’s impunity amidst accusations of sexual abuse, and Donald Trump’s triumph in 2016. I suspect that second wave feminists were on to something when they tried to develop a theory and practice against pornography. I have many suspicions, but no concrete answer.

Why is this so important to me, someone who is not even American? It is important to me because the world does not exist in separate pieces. Everything is connected. In particular, a colony is connected to the colonizer exerting power over it. In the 21st century as in the 20th, the United States of America exerts power across the globe, including over South Korea. What happens in the U.S. echoes elsewhere. What triumphs in the U.S. lends support to similar triumphs elsewhere. I am sick with worry.

How I wish I were being paranoid by “thinking danger.” But I have met women who were harmed in the production and dissemination of pornography. I spoke with a woman who is still in prostitution, who told me about a fellow woman in prostitution being murdered by their pimp-in-common. Sexual objectification is not an innocuous performance. A real Asian woman really hung from a real tree. A real black woman really was hog-tied with real ropes and was really beaten with a real whip. Real women are dehumanized, turned into objects, and put down as inferior. When this happens, their humanities really are being diminished, they really are turned into objects, and they really are put down as inferior. Throughout human history, what has happened to those who were dehumanized, turned into objects, and put down as inferior? What has happened to blacks in America, Jews in Europe, Tutsis in Rwanda, and Armenians in Turkey? What has happened to women, especially women of color, everywhere on this planet, past, present, and future?

The clashes among feminists regarding pornography, prostitution, and BDSM were called the feminist sex wars. I think they were called “wars” for a good reason. Wars destroy. Some people say that the feminist sex wars destroyed second wave feminism in the United States. In time, younger generations of feminists emerged and made their own marks in the universe of feminist thought. However, they did not solve the problem of sex inequality. It is now 2016. The same problem remains unsolved. Must sexual liberation and sex equality be mutually exclusive? Can sexual liberation be mutual, equal, and non-violent? Does sex have to be male-controlled and male-defined? Can humanity divert itself from a sexual liberation in which certain people are superior subjects and certain other people are inferior objects?

* This essay was originally titled Thinking Danger: Pornography Revisited. I changed the title to on June 1, 2017, because the new title better summarizes my thoughts expressed in the essay.

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