So I had this great post, all ready to go, about mentoring Christian students here at PCC -- and I pressed the wrong button and watched it vanish into the ether. I'll recreate it another day, it would be too frustrating to do so now.
On a completely different note, Lauren has a post this morning about a rebellion of sorts among the Suicide Girls. The Suicide Girls site (I won't link to it, but you can figure it out yourself -it is not "work safe") is the pioneer "alt-porn" center on the web. Begun in 2001, the idea of Suicide Girls was to provide women-friendly erotica with a counter-cultural sensibility. Many "Suicide Girls" were tattooed and pierced, relatively few had bodies that matched the surgically-enhanced proportions of women in mainstream porn. The "girls" had their own photos on the sites, and kept journals as well -- often including cultural and political commentary that went far beyond what might be found in, say, Playboy. The attitude was one of a certain kind of youthful, feminist edginess.
Lauren's post summarizes the controversy. Rather than rehash it here, it turns out that Suicide Girls is controlled by a man, Sean Suhl. Apparently, he's accused of underpaying some of his models (the site now has over 800 young women on it); here's an insider's account (quite work safe and non-pornographic). He's also tied Suicide Girls to Playboy (paying members of the latter's site have access to the SG women); it would be nearly impossible to make the case that Playboy is advancing a feminist agenda!
I've made it clear that I am deeply troubled by pornography. The fact that I insist on making the unfashionable claim that visual erotica has a corrosive and destructive influence on society does not mean, however, that I can't make distinctions! Different kinds of porn trouble me for different reasons. Obviously, pornography/erotica that emphasizes the humanity and the agency of the people depicted in it is preferable to porn that treats women or men as disposable objects. By the same token, porn that has a broader and more inclusive range of body types is, in some sense, less objectionable than porn that provides examples of only one unattainable ideal. But "less objectionable" is thin praise indeed, at least as far as I'm concerned.
On the other hand, one of the things that I find even more objectionable about sites like the Suicide Girls is that they've dressed up porn in the language of rebellion and female empowerment. In a sense, this is where I find the likes of Larry Flynt (publisher of Hustler) to be less offensive than men like Sean Suhl of Suicide Girls. Flynt doesn't pretend he's empowering his models; he embraces raunch with a bracingly candid enthusiasm that even his detractors often find to be -- almost -- winsome. Fellas like Suhl are out to make money off women's bodies in much the same way Flynt is, but in Suhl's case, greed seems hidden behind the rhetoric of edginess, alternative culture, and a rather shallow feminism. It's hard to respect that. And if many of the women of Suicide Girls have caught on to what's going on, then I can't say I'm not pleased.
I've had two students in the past three years tell me, through journals in my women's studies classes, that they were among the hundreds of Suicide Girls. (No, I didn't verify their claims by visiting the site.) As I've written before, I've had a number of both current and former sex workers of one kind or another in my classes. Some have described their experiences as horrific; others as exciting and empowering; others as "just a job." Of course, I've probably had far more than I know of, as it's not the sort of thing everyone feels comfortable disclosing. I'm respectful of those whose experiences in the "industry" have been positive. There are few things more absurd than a pro-feminist man trying to convince an adult woman that she's being exploited when she's quite convinced she's not! I won't try and play that game.
But to be a feminist is about more than individual empowerment. Young women who defend certain niches of the porn industry as woman-friendly must be willing to ask hard questions about who really controls sites like the Suicide Girls. They also have to be willing to consider not just the impact on the individual models/performers, but on the broader culture. The fact that doing a shoot for Suicide Girls makes you feel empowered doesn't mean that the audience masturbating to your pictures is going to recognize you as any more of a human being than if you had done a shoot for Hustler! Authentic feminism asks us to consider how others might interpret our actions. Our good intentions are not enough. We have to be mindful of the broader context, of the repercussions, of everything we do. Last year, I posted twice on the importance of men's accountability on this subject: here and here. And though I recognize that many women turn to sex work out of financial necessity, others (like many of the Suicide Girls) seem to have a wider range of motives. I'm hopeful that the fallout from this latest controversy will cause at least some of them to think more deeply about porn and feminism.