OF FEMINIST POSITIONS ON PORNOGRAPHY
positions on pornography currently break down into three rough
categories. The most common one -- at least, in academia --
is that pornography is an expression of male culture through
which women are commodified and exploited. The liberal position
combines a respect for free speech with the principle 'a woman's
body, a woman's right' to produce a defense of pornography along
the lines of, 'I don't approve of it, but everyone has the right
to consume or produce words and images'. A true defense of pornography
arises from feminists who have been labeled 'pro-sex', and who
argue that porn has benefits for women.
dialogue occurs between the three positions. Anti-pornography
feminists treat women who disagree as either brain- washed dupes
of patriarchy or as apologists for pornographers. In the anthology
Sexual Liberals and the Attack on Feminism (1990),
editor Dorchen Leidholdt claims that feminists who believe women
make their own choices about pornography are spreading 'a felicitous
lie' (p.131). In the same work, Sheila Jeffreys argues that
'pro-sex' feminists are 'eroticizing dominance and subordination'.
Wendy Stock accuses free speech feminists of identifying with
their oppressors 'much like . . . concentration camp prisoners
with their jailors' (p.150). Andrea Dworkin accuses them of
running a 'sex protection racket' (p.136) and maintains that
no one who defends pornography can be a feminist.
liberal feminists who are personally uncomfortable with pornography
tend to be intimidated into silence. Those who continue to speak
out, like ACLU President Nadine Strossen [Defending Pornography]
are ignored: for example, Catharine MacKinnon has repeatedly
refused to share a stage with Strossen or any woman who defends
porn. 'Pro-sex' feminists -- many of whom are current or ex
sex workers -- often respond with anger, rather than arguments.
back the emotions, what are the substantive questions raised
by each feminist perspective?
Mellish of Feminists Fighting Pornography has declared, "There's
no feminist issue that isn't rooted in the porn problem."
In her book Only Words, MacKinnon denies that pornography
consists of words and images, both which would be protected
by the First Amendment. She considers pornography -- in and
of itself -- to be an act of sexual violence. Why is pornography
viewed as both the core issue of modern feminism and an inherent
act of violence? The answer lies in radical feminist ideology,
which Christina Hoff Sommers calls 'gender feminism'.
feminism looks at history and sees an uninterrupted oppression
of women by men that spans cultural barriers. To them, the only
feasible explanation is that men and women are separate and
antagonistic classes, whose interests necessarily conflict.
Male interests are expressed through and maintained by a capitalistic
structure known as 'patriarchy'.
root of the antagonism is so deep that it lies in male biology
itself. For example, in the watershed book Against Our Will,
Susan Brownmiller traces the inevitability of rape back to Neanderthal
times when men began to use their penises as weapons. Brownmiller
writes: "From prehistoric times to the present, I believe,
rape has played a critical function. It is nothing more or less
than a conscious process of intimidation by which all men keep
all women in a state of fear." How she acquired this knowledge
of prehistoric sex is not known.
tenet of gender oppression is that sex is a social construct.
Radical feminists reject what they call 'sexual essentialism'
-- the notion that sex is a natural force based on biology which
inclines women toward natural tendencies, such as motherhood.
Even deeply felt sexual preferences, such as heterosexuality,
are not biological. They spring from ideology.
construct women's sexuality through the words and images of
society, which the French philosopher Foucault called the 'texts'
of society. After such construction, men commercialize women's
sexuality and market it back to her in the form of pornography.
In other words, through porn man defines woman sexually -- a
definition which determines every aspect of her role in society.
To end the oppression, patriarchy and its texts must be destroyed.
feminism is a continuation of 60s feminism which called for
equality with men, who were not inherent oppressors so much
as recalcitrant partners to be enlightened. Equality did not
mean destroying the current system, but reforming it through
such measures as affirmative action. The liberal principle 'a
woman's body, a woman's right' underlay arguments ranging from
abortion rights to lifestyle freedoms like lesbianism. The stress
was upon the act of choosing, rather than upon the content of
feminists share the general liberal bias toward free speech,
but they are in flux on pornography. Some liberal organizations
like Feminists for Free Expression [FFE] have consistently opposed
censorship in any form. Some liberal feminists like Sallie Tisdale
[Talk Dirty to Me] have staunchly defended sexual freedom.
But many liberal feminists commonly reason as follows: 'as a
woman I am appalled by Playboy . . . but as a writer I understand
the need for free expression.'
arguments are not pro-pornography. They are anti-censorship
ones based on several grounds, including: great works of art
and literature would be banned; the First Amendment would be
breached; political expression would be suppressed; and, a creative
culture requires freedom of speech.
liberal feminists, who have accepted many of the ideological
assumptions of the anti-porn position, seem willing to sacrifice
free speech for the greater good of protecting women. For example,
they also condemn the free market for commercializing women
as 'body parts', which demeans women. In "A Capital Idea",
an essay defending pornography, which sometimes seems to be
an attack, Lisa Steel comments:
representation of women . . . is all part of the same system
that, in the service of profits, reduces society to 'consumer
groups'. And marketing is every bit as conservative as the military
. . . we pay dearly for the 'rights' of a few to make profits
from the rest of us."
muddled and ambivalent 'defenses' often offend the sex workers
they are intended to protect.
the past decade, a growing number of feminists -- labeled 'pro-sex'
-- have defended a woman's choice to participate in and to consume
pornography. Some of these women, such as Nina Hartley, are
current or ex sex workers who know first-hand that posing for
pornography is an uncoerced choice which can be enriching. Pro-sex
feminists retain a consistent interpretation of the principle
'a woman's body, a woman's right' and insist that every peaceful
choice a woman makes with her own body must be accorded full
legal protection, if not respect.
arguments sometimes seem to overlap with liberal feminist ones.
For example, both express concern over who will act as censor
because subjective words, such as 'degrading', will be interpreted
to mean whatever the censor wishes.
state that banned Margaret Sanger because she used the words
'syphilis' and 'gonorrhea' is no different, in principle, than
the one that interprets obscenity today. There will be no protection
even for the classics of feminism, such as Our Bodies, Ourselves,
which provided a generation women with the first explicit view
of their own biology. Inevitably, censorship will be used against
the least popular views, against the weakest members of society
. . . including feminists and lesbians. When the Canadian Supreme
Court decided (1992) to protect women by restricting the importation
of pornography, one of the first victims was a lesbian/gay bookstore
named Glad Day Bookstore -- which had been on a police 'hit
list'. Among the books seized by Canadian customs were two books
by Andrea Dworkin, Pornography: Men Possessing Women
and Women Hating. Such an event should not have surprised
Dworkin who declared in Take Back the Night, "There is
not a feminist alive who could possibly look to the male legal
system for real protection from the systematized sadism of men."
the dangers of censoring pornography, pro-sex and liberal feminists
often agree. On the possible benefits of pornography to women,
they part company. (Such benefits are explored at the conclusion
of this article.)
OF ANTI-PORN FEMINISM
specific accusations hurled at pornography include:
Pornography degrades women;
2. Pornography leads directly to violence against women.
3. Pornography is violence against women, in that:
a. women are physically coerced into pornography;
b. women involved in the production of pornography are so psychologically
damaged by patriarchy that they are incapable of giving informed
or 'real' consent;
these accusations stand up under examination?
1. Pornography is Degrading to Women.
is a subjective term. I find commercials in which women become
orgasmic over soapsuds to be tremendously degrading. The bottom
line is that every woman has the right to define what is degrading
and liberating for herself.
assumed degradation is often linked to the 'objectification'
of women: that is, porn converts them into sexual objects. What
does this mean? If taken literally, it means nothing because
objects don't have sexuality; only beings do. But to say that
porn portrays women as 'sexual beings' makes for poor rhetoric.
Usually, the term 'sex objects' means showing women as 'body
parts', reducing them to physical objects. What is wrong with
this? Women are as much their bodies as they are their minds
or souls. No one gets upset if you present women as 'brains'
or as 'spiritual beings'. If I concentrated on a woman's sense
of humor to the exclusion of her other characteristics, is this
degrading? Why is it degrading to focus on her sexuality?
Pornography Leads to Violence against Women.
relationship is drawn between men viewing pornography and men
attacking women, especially in the form of rape. But studies
and experts disagree as to whether any relationship exists between
pornography and violence, between images and behavior. Even
the pro-censorship Meese Commission Report admitted that the
data connecting pornography to violence was unreliable.
studies, such as the one prepared by feminist Thelma McCormick
(1983) for the Metropolitan Toronto Task Force on Violence Against
Women, find no pattern to connect porn and sex crimes. Incredibly,
the Task Force suppressed the study and reassigned the project
to a pro-censorship male, who returned the 'correct' results.
His study was published.
of real world feedback? In Japan, where pornography depicting
graphic and brutal violence is widely available, rape is much
lower per capita than in the United States, where violence in
porn is severely restricted.
Pornography is Violence
a. Women are coerced into pornography.
one woman of the dozens of woman in porn with whom I spoke reported
being coerced. Not one knew of a woman who had been. Nevertheless,
I do not dismiss reports of violence: every industry has its
abuses. And anyone who uses force or threats to make a woman
perform should be charged with kidnapping, assault, and/or rape.
Any pictures or film should be confiscated and burned, because
no one has the right to benefit from the proceeds of a crime.
Women who Pose for Porn are so Traumatized by Patriarchy They
Cannot Give Real Consent.
women in pornography appear to be willing, anti-porn feminists
know that no psychologically healthy woman would agree to the
degradation of pornography. Therefore, if agreement seems to
be present, it is because the women have 'fallen in love with
their own oppression' and must be rescued from themselves.
emotional theme in the porn actresses I have interviewed is
a love of exhibitionism. Yet if such a woman declares her enjoyment
in flaunting her body, anti-porn feminists claim she is not
merely a unique human being who reacts from a different background
or personality. She is psychologically damaged and no longer
responsible for her actions. In essence, this is a denial of
a woman's right to choose anything outside the narrow corridor
of choices offered by political/sexual correctness. The right
to choose hinges on the right to make a 'wrong' choice, just
as freedom of religion entails the right to be an atheist. After
all, no one will prevent a woman from doing what they think
she should do.
DEFENSE OF PORNOGRAPHY
a 'pro-sex' feminist, I contend: Pornography benefits women,
both personally and politically. It benefits them personally
in several ways:
It provides sexual information on at least three levels:
it gives a panoramic view of the world's sexual possibilities.
This is true even of basic sexual information such as masturbation,
which seems to come less naturally to women than to men. It
is not uncommon for women to reach adulthood without knowing
how to give themselves pleasure.
it allows women to 'safely' experience sexual alternatives and
satisfy a healthy sexual curiosity. The world is a dangerous
place. By contrast, pornography can be a source of solitary
enlightenment. Pornography allows women to experiment in the
privacy of their own bedrooms, on a television set that can
be turned off whenever she has had enough.
it provides a different form of information than textbooks or
discussion. It offers the emotional information that comes only
from experiencing something either directly or vicariously.
It provides us with a sense how it would 'feel' to do something.
Pornography strips away the emotional confusion that so often
surrounds real world sex. Pornography allows women to enjoy
scenes and situations that would be anathema to them in real
life. Take, for example, one of the most common fantasies reported
by women -- the fantasy of 'being taken', of being raped.The
first thing to understand is that a rape fantasy does not represent
a desire for the real thing. It is a fantasy. The woman is in
control of the smallest detail of every act.
would a healthy woman daydream about being raped?
are dozens of reasons. Perhaps by losing control, she also sheds
all sense of responsibility for and guilt over sex. Perhaps
it is the exact opposite of the polite, gentle sex she has now.
Perhaps it is flattering to imagine a particular man being so
overwhelmed by her that he must have her. Perhaps she is curious.
Perhaps she has some masochistic feelings that are vented through
the fantasy. Is it better to bottle them up?
Pornography breaks cultural and political stereotypes, so that
each woman can interpret sex for herself. Anti-feminists tell
women to be ashamed of their appetites and urges. Pornography
tells them to accept and enjoy them. Pornography provides reassurance
and eliminates shame. It says to women 'you are not alone in
your fantasies and deepest darkest desires. Right there, on
the screen are others who feel the same urges and are so confident
that they flaunt them.'
Pornography can be good therapy. Pornography provides a sexual
outlet for those who -- for whatever reason -- have no sexual
partner. Perhaps they are away from home, recently widowed,
isolated because of infirmity. Perhaps they simply choose to
be alone. Sometimes, masturbation and vicarious sex are the
only alternatives to celibacy. Couples also use pornography
to enhance their relationship. Sometimes they do so on their
own, watching videos and exploring their reactions together.
Sometimes, the couples go to a sex therapist who advises them
to use pornography as a way of opening up communication on sex.
By sharing pornography, the couples are able to experience variety
in their sex lives without having to commit adultery.
benefits women politically in many ways, including the following:
Historically, pornography and feminism have been fellow travelers
and natural allies. Both have risen and flourished during the
same periods of sexual freedom; both have been attacked by the
same political forces, usually conservatives. Laws directed
against pornography or obscenity, such as the Comstock Law in
the late 1880's, have always been used to hinder women's rights,
such as birth control. Although it is not possible to draw a
cause-and-effect relationship between the rise of pornography
and that of feminism, they both demand the same social conditions
-- namely, sexual freedom.
Pornography is free speech applied to the sexual realm. Freedom
of speech is the ally of those who seek change: it is the enemy
of those who seek to maintain control. Pornography, along with
all other forms of sexual heresy, such as homosexuality, should
have the same legal protection as political heresy. This protection
is especially important to women, whose sexuality has been controlled
by censorship through the centuries.
Viewing pornography may well have a cathartic effect on men
who have violent urges toward women. If this is true, restricting
pornography removes a protective barrier between women and abuse.
Legitimizing pornography would protect women sex workers, who
are stigmatized by our society. Anti-pornography feminists are
actually undermining the safety of sex workers when they treat
them as 'indoctrinated women'. Dr. Leonore Tiefer, a professor
of psychology observed in her essay "On Censorship and
women have appealed to feminists for support, not rejection
. . . Sex industry workers, like all women, are striving for
economic survival and a decent life, and if feminism means anything
it means sisterhood and solidarity with these women."
law cannot eliminate pornography, any more than it has been
able to stamp out prostitution. But making pornography illegal
will further alienate and endanger women sex workers.
PURPOSE OF LAW
porn debate is underscored by two fundamentally antagonistic
views of the purpose of law in society.
first view, to which pro-sex feminists subscribe, is that law
should protect choice. 'A woman's body, a woman's right' applies
to every peaceful activity a woman chooses to engage in. The
law should come into play only when a woman initiates force
or has force initiated against her. The second view, to which
both conservatives and anti-porn feminists subscribe, is that
law should protect virtue. Law should enforce proper behavior.
It should come into play whenever there has been a breach of
public morality, or a breach of 'women's class interests.'
is old whine in new battles. The issue at stake in pornography
debate is nothing less than the age-old conflict between individual
freedom and social control.
Gender-based Income Redistribution with Honour and Dignity
Abored the Porn Express
Traders in the Material World
Divas, Pantydom and 3-Chord Ditties
Triumph of the Pornographic Imagination