The ‘shaming’ of Sunny Leone, Pornography ‘Star’

Posted by ap507 at Feb 01, 2016 11:00 AM |
Dr Heather Brunskell-Evans discusses the recent interview between Bhupendra Chaubey and Sunny Leone, which was widely criticised on social media
The ‘shaming’ of Sunny Leone, Pornography ‘Star’

Sunny Leone; Source: Bollywood Hungama

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The shaming of female pornography performers and their resistance to being shamed is a current element in the politics of heterosexual pornography. Sunny Leone, a former pornography ‘star’, was interviewed on India’s CNN-IBN's talk show, The Hot Seat and the interview is a perfect example of this phenomenon.

Bhupendra Chaubey, a respected interviewer, questions Leone about her transition from pornography performer to Bollywood actor. He repeatedly invites her to repudiate her previous choice of career as either a youthful mistake or a moral failing. Leone fielded Chaubey’s questions with intelligence, refusing to be bullied into a self-abnegating corner. In so doing the person to whom shame clung, according to liberal social media, was Chaubey not Leone.

A twitter and Facebook storm erupted which characterised Chaubey as misogynistic and bigoted, Leone as composed and dignified. What is unusual about this particular ‘shaming’, is the reversal of the usual target for vilification (In my view any protest at the sexual shaming of a woman is a small victory for women). But has the support of Leone been as progressive as it seems at first blush?

As interviewer and interviewee Chaubey and Leone articulated two generic but competing discourses. The first is an ancient moralistic discourse which has traditionally attributed guilt to women for possessing bodies that men desire, thus allegedly rendering men incapable of responsibility for their actions. Chaubey voices the modern-day version of this narrative by inviting Leone to respond to a number of public perceptions: in her person she is antithetical to the ideal of the modest Indian Woman; she is single-handedly responsible for transforming India into the country, according to data recently released by Pornhub, which consumed the most pornography in 2015; she threatens marital relationships because husbands spend more erotic time with her than their wives; she is the most googled person in the whole of India, more so than the Prime Minister, thus diverting people from more important concerns; she is the brand ambassador for a newly emerging Westernised sexually corrupt India.

The second generic discourse is that of neo-liberalism and it is becoming the ‘common-sense’ of advanced liberal capitalist democracies. The neo-liberal lens views society as little more than a collection of individuals exercising agency and free choice. The capitalist market place is the model for conceptualising social interactions: emphasis is placed on contracts between equal consenting parties. Leone expertly circumscribed her replies within the strict boundaries of the personal and free choice. She tells us she is first and foremost an entertainer, and that pornography is nothing more than fantasy. Working in the industry was financially rewarding and it has given her a platform from which to pursue a mainstream Bollywood career. She is happy in her private life, wishes the same level of happiness for others, but insists it is none of her business

Leone’s response exemplifies a neo-liberal mode of approach to sex-work honed for a number of years now by pornography performers and prostitutes to defend themselves from being ‘shamed’. The approach tends to be formulaic: if pornography as problematic this is because of the other person’s sexual ‘hang-ups’; women’s bodies are their own to do with as they please; sex-work is no different to any other work in the capitalist market place; disavowal that sexual exploitation of women occurs within the industry; and finally disengagement with any suggestion that harm to women as a social group arises from sex-work.

Some feminists deploy the same framework of understanding, evacuating sex-work from any social and political context in which consent is undertaken. Moreover they assert that performers can be sexually empowered by ‘exploring’ their sexuality on camera (as if pornography is a spontaneous expression of the self not an orchestrated performance for the pornography market!). Indeed in this view performers who resist shaming deliver a blow to patriarchy by refusing the virgin (or wife)/ whore dichotomy. Such views are currently gathering orthodoxy as witnessed by the social media response to the interview.

I suggest we look beyond the interviewer and interviewee, and focus on the circulation of competing but intersecting ideas that inform not only their views but our own. In early 2013 feminists and others brought the politics of gender and sexual violence in India to global attention. The brutal Delhi gang rape and murder of 23-year-old Jyoti Singh highlighted India’s sexual hypocrisy. Singh’s killers defended themselves on the basis she was ‘asking for it’ (hanging out in public with a boy after dark like those shameless Western girls!). The judiciary and other official bodies also volunteered views commensurable with those of the culprits, namely it was Singh not the men who was responsible for her own demise. India has subsequently reflected upon its entrenched views of women’s and men’s sexuality and it is still undergoing this process. Should Leone be lauded as an ambassador to further purge India of its sexual double standard?

Sexual double standards and the violence concomitant with it also thrive in our own culture. We consume evermore violent pornography, seemingly indifferent to the material and symbolic violence done to women, and even defend images of women’s alleged pleasure in degradation as ‘free-speech’ and the badge of their sexual liberation from tradition (!). No amount of refusal to be ‘slut-shamed’ by performers like Leone will slough off the double-standard, not only because ‘slut’ is the most popular epithet by which performers are characterised within pornography itself, but because the overwhelming message of pornography is the shaming of  some women as usable, expendable sexual objects.

By venting ire on the interviewer, liberal social commentators have perhaps further highlighted India’s continued sexual hypocrisy. However by gazing on pornography’s allegedly clean face shining through that of Leone, they have simultaneously averted eyes from the industry’s dark underbelly.    Pornography is not an escape from the historical patriarchal sexual ‘right’ to women’s bodies but the assertion of this ‘right’ in an updated neo-liberal and digital format. That some feminists and others flock to insist pornography is sexual empowerment for women is not politically progressive: firstly it is a fabulous public relations coup for the industry whose passion is to whitewash itself, its practices, and its attitude to women; and secondly it is a ‘culpability get-out clause’ for consumers who would like to masturbate conscience free to sexually objectified women.

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