Women fight back against anti-abortion bigots in the Australia (Picture: Matt Hrkac on flickr)

Pornography is now increasingly common,  increasingly available and increasingly normalised. Once, porn was denounced as a product of degraded liberalism. Now some celebrate it as an ­example of freedom and sexual openness. Neither of those reflect pornography’s roots in the commodification and sexualisation of women’s bodies.

It is this process that means porn portrays the worst of society’s stereotypes. Women’s bodies are there for the taking—to be commented on, bought, used or abused—while they have little agency over their own sex lives.

But the problem goes much deeper than porn itself. Even if we—or some state ban— removed porn from society, sexism wouldn’t melt away. If only it were that easy. Everything under capitalism becomes distorted as something to be sold and bought, including our bodies and our sex lives. 

And this is done in a process shaped by oppression—­particularly women’s oppression. Porn reflects and reinforces dominant views that exist and amplifies them to an extreme level. It paints an unnatural picture of our most intimate experiences, body image, behaviour, and how we interact with sexual partners.

Women are generally ­submissive, passive and always willing to please in porn. Black women and men are racialised, and gay men are reduced to stereotypes. These caricatures represent the roles set out for us in our everyday lives, and that our rulers benefit from. Porn isn’t produced to teach about sex or even give us real pleasure.

In a class system where profit reigns, the ruling ideas are the dominant ones. Women’s oppression is a central column to that society—reinforcing a family unit that provides for the reproduction of the next generation of workers.

Capitalism has always constrained, limited and outlawed sexuality at different times. Being gay was only partly decriminalised in Britain in  1967, the same year the pill was made legal. Marital rape was legal until 2003.

While activists, including socialists, have fought hard for sexual liberation, capitalism has managed to sell our liberation back to us. This is what commodification does—uses oppression to hold us down and then seek to profit by peddling a false version of emancipation.

Porn is one of the ­biggest examples of this. So are dating apps that make you pay to find what is supposed to be your “perfect match” and whittle your personality down to a few words and pictures. Under capitalism, workers are alienated from their labour. But what does this have to do with porn? 

Porn is the exemplification of that alienation. Karl Marx wrote that under capitalism, we are disconnected from this very thing that makes us human. Humans—unlike other animals—have a capacity for consciousness or a “species being”. We are social creatures, so enter relationships in order to live and keep connected. 

But under class society, and in particular capitalism, we have very little control over how our labour is used and what it produces. We are forced to work to live.  And the thing that makes us unique—our labour power—is sold for a wage. As a result we are also alienated from each other and ourselves and forced to connect through buying and selling commodities.

We’re told our needs can only be met through purchasing things. These needs—food, drink, sex—are subordinated to the market and reshaped, then turned into consumer dreams. Women, especially, are pushed to buy endless ­products to make them more beautiful, thinner, and more desirable.

The bosses try to make profits out of every sexual need. We’re told we’re liberated if we have “stuff”.  The best cookers, hoovers, furniture, clothes, make-up and shoes are, we’re told, essential to happiness. 

We do need to eat and clothe ourselves and to find joy in art and plenty. But the pushing of goods by corporations is solely about profit. And often the picture of an ideal life reinforces the ­subordinate role women are supposed to play in society.

We see each other as commodities to be captured or won rather than as individuals. That’s why buying or watching porn as a commodity alienates and distorts our relationships. There’s no room for intimacy or connection. Sex is just limited to an act. 

The online porn industry is worth £20 billion worldwide. Some estimates put if far higher.  It’s bigger than Netflix or the whole of Hollywood streaming. By the age of 13, 50 percent of children have seen porn, with one in ten having viewed it by age nine. 

It creates a particular view of sex. Some 47 percent of girls aged 16-21 “expect violence” in sex. It’s marketed as escapism or “fantasy” where anything is possible, and boundaries are pushed. Unfortunately, this so-called fantasy can quickly seep into reality. 

Porn becomes real for the girl whose boyfriend strangles her or the woman cat-called in the street. It’s no wonder our vision of what sex is and how it should happen is warped when all that’s on offer is porn. And despite sex being everywhere around us, the overt use of women’s bodies doesn’t equate to freer and better sex for everyone. 

Instead, women are seen as an object. The pressure on women’s bodies starts at a young age. For instance, toddlers’ shorts are tighter and shorter for girls. The old phrase “sex sells” is used to market cars, perfume and even M&M chocolates.

Women are encouraged to find a partner and please them without taking into consideration their own desires. At the same time they’re condemned for having “too much” sex as well as “not enough”. We see reflections of how our rulers want us to live through things like porn.  But it’s not that leaders like Rishi Sunak spend their spare time directing porn scenes to control us.

Instead porn transmits ideas about the position of women under capitalism—a specific economic and ideological role as caregivers, mothers and child rearers.

This has shifted over time—not many women get married nowadays expecting to stay at home. Women make up just under half of the workforce globally and face the double burden of bringing in a wage as well as keeping the family running.

That’s why women earn less than men, work fewer hours and have shorter careers. The family is where the next generation of workers comes from. They’re raised to adulthood, ready to enter the workplace for free within the family unit. To ensure this, from day one, we’re fed the myth that women are nurturing and caring—woe betide she’s bossy and aggressive.

We’re socialised for free in the family too. Girls play with dolls and kitchens, while boys play with tools and trains. So the expectations are set out for us way before we reach porn—even if children watch it from a younger age. Our relationships become completely distorted as we relate to each other as commodities.

And the need to please and stay passive is directly rooted in the home, the family unit, and women’s place within it. Porn creates a vicious cycle where what’s on the screen plays out in real life, and what’s on the screen comes from society’s expectations for us in the first place.

We’re buying and selling our connections with each other—and basing our expectations and desires on warped versions of reality. There have been attempts to reinvent porn to make it “ethical” or more realistic of what sex is like. And those creating independent content say this gives them more autonomy over what they do and how they do it.  

But the solution shouldn’t be a nicer version of something bad. There’s still an exchange of money—whether between those making the content or those watching it. And even in so-called ethical porn our sexual desires which are part of what makes us human are still commodified. 

It can’t tackle the alienation we feel from each other and what we’re watching, and the sexism ingrained in society isn’t tackled at its core. In terms of real liberation, we can do better. But to achieve true sexual liberation, it will take looking deeper at the cause, not the symptom, of the sexualisation and objectification of women.

We need a wider vision of the type of society we could live in.  That’s a socialist one, where we truly own our bodies and sexuality—without them being reduced to on-screen acts that disconnect and distort us.

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