Pornography follows us everywhere. What was once confined to stashed magazines and adult stores now streams freely on our laptops and phones. Motivated by what the freedom of pornography means for women’s liberation, I provide a commentary to Drucilla Cornell’s chapter, “Pornography’s Temptation” from her book, The Imaginary Domain: Abortion, Pornography & Sexual Harassment, in which she fleshes out the problem that pornography poses for feminism. Catherine McKinnon and Andrea Dworkin, whom Cornell engages with, view pornography and the porn industry as purely oppressive and misogynistic. Cornell, while troubled by the violence enacted on women in mainstream heterosexual pornography and how it might hinder the flourishing of women’s self-understanding and personhood, still has hope for the radical potential of pornography as a form of feminine image-making.
In response to Cornell’s timely work, I provide a criticism to her proposal of what she terms “zoning,” which is meant to limit the potentially detrimental effects of mainstream heterosexual pornography upon a women’s evolving personhood, while also extending her argument for the importance of preserving women’s ability to create pornography that “unleash[es] the feminine imaginary into new representational forms that challenge the stereotypes of femininity governing the presentation of the female ‘sex’ in the mainstream heterosexual porn industry.”  My argument is therefore two-fold. In the first part, I challenge Cornell’s argument that zoning, meaning that “certain images cannot be displayed so that they are unavoidable if one happens to be on a particular street or in a particular part of town” is the appropriate response to regulating the distribution of violent mainstream heterosexual pornography in order to protect women’s ability to continually strive for personhood.  In the second part, I move onto advocating for a medium of pornography that is literally looked over — audio pornography — as an area rich with the possibility of creating new ways of expressing and exploring feminine sexuality.
Cornell’s program of zoning does not provide much force on the Internet where most people today consume porn. Consequently, I am mainly critical of her claim that there is “a clear distinction between being confronted with a woman having her nipples ripped off and other kinds of sexist representation.” Cornell uses the example of the annual Sports Illustrated Swimsuits Issue as “a classic example of the woman’s body being reduced to stereotypically imagined, safe, and yet sexual presentation.”  I would claim that, in fact, the supposedly innocuous nature of the annual Sports Illustrated Swimsuits Issue is exactly what makes such imagery even more insidious than violent mainstream heterosexual pornography. With violent images, the sense of shock that comes with seeing them provides a certain level of distance between the image and the viewer. Because these images are not easily palatable, they are not as easily appropriated and affirmed by the viewer. This distance thus permits the viewer to critically examine and question the image presented. However, with these so called “safe” images, their supposed mildness makes them easily consumable and thus a greater threat to a feminine imaginary by reinforcing gendered norms of womanhood. The toxic influence of these stereotypical yet “safe” images is demonstrated by the prevalence of eating disorders particularly amongst young women who are constantly bombarded by such images. The commercial success of the “health and beauty” industry (i.e. weight-loss and cosmetics industry) offers another illustration of women’s perpetual dissatisfaction with their appearance, which is cultivated by the impossible standards that magazines such as Sports Illustrated perpetuate. Furthermore, while in mainstream heterosexual pornography the one who is enacting violence to the women’s body is the phallic man, an apt representation of the patriarchal society women are situated in, safe images lack the figure of this perpetrator. As a result, women are more likely to internalize the uniformity of womanhood as depicted in mainstream media and police their own bodies. This is much more difficult to combat when such gender norms become part and parcel of a women’s identity as such. Therefore, I see zoning as an ineffective measure to address continued simplifications and objectifications of women through mainstream heterosexual pornography. This is because it does not recognize the danger of other forms of sexist representations and thus the feasibility of zoning (e.g. what do we need to keep away from high traffic areas vs. what do we deem permissible or “safe” to keep in the public) comes into question.
Now that I have shared my reservations concerning Cornell’s program of zoning, I want to provide a way in which I align myself with Cornell’s overarching argument that the self-organization of porn workers in order to control their working conditions and representations of themselves is crucial to a feminine imaginary.  In addition to supporting the unionization efforts of those in the mainstream porn industry and supporting feminist pornography such as Ona Zee’s film, Learning the Ropes, which “dramatize[s] the production of the pornographic scene and thus create[s] a challenge to its so-called reality”, I advocate for further supporting the work of audio pornography artists. I understand audio pornography to be audio recordings in which performers act out sexually explicit scenes with the intention to arouse the listener.
I believe that that non-visual nature of audio pornography makes it a powerful tool for transforming porn workers’ working conditions and to enrich the feminine imaginary as a whole. Namely, audio pornography provides a greater freedom for the performers involved. Without the intrusive eye of the camera, performers can choose to actually perform the explicit sex acts as described or choose to come up with new ways of simulating auditory signifiers of various sex acts. This in turn enables audio performers to explore new ways of communicating eroticism and sexual excitement. Audio pornography is also generally less expensive and less complicated to produce — in the sense that a single person can independently write, perform and publish a piece — in comparison to pornographic films, which require entire crews of workers. This empowers members from underrepresented and marginalized groups to have a better opportunity to participate in the representational politics of creating a feminine imaginary. This is evidenced by how audio pornography — examples include Aural Honey’s Erotic Audio and Gonewild Audio on Reddit — is almost exclusively produced by amateur performers and women.
In addition to greater freedom and access for porn industry workers, audio pornography enriches the feminine imaginary domain in a way that traditional pornographic media such as film cannot. Without the camera, listeners are empowered to be more active participants in their sexual fantasies. Instead of the camera presenting a scene to absorb or to be absorbed into, the audience is asked to imagine their preferred setting, their preferred partners, etc. and thus come up with new ways of constructing their fantasies and experiencing their sexual selves. This is achieved by the way audio pornography is structured. Most audio pornography pieces are presented as mp3 tracks on a website and are accompanied by a brief blurb that describes the scene that is being enacted. They are mainly performed in the second person, in which the performer addresses the listener as a partner in the sexual scenario as described. The lack of the camera means that performers cannot rely on the usual visual signifiers of desire and excitement to communicate the eroticism of the scene. Instead the performer must be explicit about what they want, what they are doing and how they are feeling throughout the performance by verbalizing their desires. Through verbalizing these desires, performers create new vocabularies for describing sexual pleasure and cultivate a norm in which communication and re-articulation of fantasies are encouraged rather than shamed. Moreover, the lack of the camera circumvents the binary gender dynamics that mainstream pornography obsessed with vision (e.g. the cumshot) cannot seem to overcome. Without the exposing eye of the camera, which reveals the biological signifiers of a person’s sex, performers do not have to be forced into a binary framework of gender. The voice of the performer can also evade gender identification. For instance, a woman can have a lower voice typically associated with that of a man, and the voice itself has a wide range of tonal quality that allows us to speak at a higher or lower register. Without such a binary understanding of gender, the rigid power dynamic of the ‘fucker’ and the ‘fucked’, the dominant and submissive players, thus falls apart.
In order to critically engage with the ubiquity of Internet pornography and its implications for how women continually re-imagine and experience themselves as sexual beings, I have responded to Cornell’s chapter, “Pornography’s Temptation” with a critique and an extension to her argument. I believe that she has failed to consider the wide spectrum of harmful sexist imagery embedded into our culture with her strategy of zoning. However, I, alongside Cornell, recognize pornography as a tool that can create new representations of womanhood made by women themselves. I did so by illustrating the immanent power of the non-visual medium of audio pornography to provide new ways of articulating feminine sexuality, which challenge the category of “women” itself. It does so by enabling us to act out sexual encounters beyond a dualistic framework of gender and of either giving or receiving sex acts. Most importantly, audio pornography brings the performer’s unique and singular voice to the fore, the voice which exemplifies the personhood of each of us that can resound through a feminine and feminist imaginary domain without the eye.
Kiyomi Ren Mino is an undergraduate student majoring in philosophy at Eugene Lang College at The New School. Her areas of interest include feminist epistemology, aesthetics and artificial intelligence.