One of the more brilliant parts of the MeToo moment has been its emphasis on the fact that not all “consent” is freely given. A person can “consent” to a sexual advance on the basis of a disparity in power between themselves and the advancer — the man who molests a woman at the office Christmas party is often the man who decides whether or not she will remain employed in the New Year. We have begun to take seriously what any human being with a scrap of conscience could have told you, that there are situations in which a victim “feels as if she cannot say ‘no’”.

I would like to argue, from this obvious point of view, that one should never watch pornography. Not simply because some pornography is actually rape, some pornography involves actual slaves, and that some pornography was never made to be publicized. These situations are real, but all of them have a sordid extremity to them that allows a pornography-consuming public to say, “Well, it’s not my porn. Because, you know, you can just tell that everyone’s having a great time.”

The MeToo moment has pointed out and publicly condemned the situation of sexual abuse in which victims “feel as if they can’t say no.” It is extremely likely that many pornography actors face this situation. This has been reported by victims who have been forced into pornographic acts and into performing certain kinds of acts. It’s also evidenced by a good deal of common sense. The contracts signed by pornography actors may indicate their willing consent, but they may also indicate nothing more than the consent of an ex-con to work for three dollars and hour — the limited leveraging power of the pornography actor with the men who pay them. As Pope Leo XIII put it, “If through necessity or fear of a worse evil the workman accept harder conditions because an employer or contractor will afford him no better, he is made the victim of force and injustice.” Contracts may not indicate consent, only a quasi-consent that a person would not make if they had power, if they weren’t in need of money, if they didn’t fear the loss of a job, and so on.   

Perhaps the great majority of pornography is innocent of this infraction. We could argue, say, that 95% of pornographic images are images of men and women who consent, who sign the forms, who feel that they are free to say no, but decide to say yes, and who are not driven by poverty, addiction or necessity to consent to acts to which they would not otherwise consent. The trouble with pornography is that the viewer does not know, and indeed, cannot know whether his particular video belongs to the 95%. He cannot know whether or not the depicted acts are violations the broad definition of consent that the #MeToo movement has so justly brought into public consciousness. If it is true that the possibility of violated-consent is present in every pornographic image, and that in one cannot discern this from the image itself, than the decision to watch pornography is always the decision to watch a person whose consent might be being violated — who might be being raped. It is always wrong to watch something that might be rape, and so, by the logic of MeToo’s extensive definition of consent, it is always wrong to watch pornography.

Our age is faced with a fundamental contradiction between two “gains” of feminism. On the one hand, we have the idea that pornography is a positive experience of liberation by which women are free to do what they want with their bodies. On other hand we have the idea that consent is not a merely a matter of contract, but should be free of all fear and coercion, whether individual or structural. The trouble is that the promotion of the former builds up a culture and an industry that violates the latter. Pro-porn feminism understands this, and so it works to artificially insure that people can seek out the 5% — producing and promoting pornography that essentially guarantees consent from their actors. This attempt at maintaining both gains without contradiction doesn’t work — though it does highlight the problem. No matter what guarantees are given that a piece of pornography is “cruelty-free,” the MeToo logic of consent places them under suspicion. If true consent only exists when a person “feels as if they can say no,” then true consent can only be known by knowing the feeling of the person — an act of insight impossible to the detached viewer of pornography. This fundamental inability to know applies to any and every display, affidavit, contract, or testimony of consent that “feminist pornography” promotes as their morally cleansing difference. One never knows whether the consenting person feels as if they could say no to making each testimony, affidavit, or public confession of consent. 

Furthermore, one does not know whether pornography actors currently consent to the publication of their sexual acts, or whether they have come to regret them. A contractual vision of consent would have no problem with this. “You consented then,” it would say, “who cares if you consent now?” This is the logic of “revenge pornography” — it takes a frozen moment of consent from a past relationship and apply it over and against a lack of consent in the here and now. The same MeToo logic that demands a person have the capacity to say “no” to a single sexual act should demand that a person has the continuous capacity to say “no” to the continuous viewing of a sexual act  — even if it was consented to at the time it was filmed. To argue otherwise would be to argue that it is perfectly moral to watch a sexual act performed by a person who now wishes it was never publicized and that no one would ever watch it, consenting to cause them feelings of shame.

Finally, the idea that a consent-guaranteed pornography is possible tends to argue as if pornography were a product like shampoo that one can peruse to choose the “cruelty-free” option. But everything we know about pornography indicates that it is a product that creates an increasing need for novelty in the consumer; a product that addicts its users, who gradually seek “heavier doses” to achieve sexual pleasure and satisfaction. If this is the case, then the production of pornography, no matter how “cruelty-free,” would tempt its users to seek more pornography, novel pornography, harder pornography — driving them towards the 95%. Pornography is a volatile product that does not naturally create brand loyalty, but tends to send people on binges and searches for novelty. The creation of “moral” pornography is the creation of a temptation to watch “immoral” pornography.

The ban on a purely contractual notion of consent, devoid of any question of the feeling of the consenter, is, ultimately, a ban on watching pornography, which can only be assured of contractual consent and can never know the feeling of the consenter. The rise of MeToo feminism is either the fall of pro-porn feminism, or its principles are not consistently applied. The rise of pro-porn feminism is either the fall of MeToo’s notion of consent, or its principles are not consistently applied.  

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