Feminism and Pornography
Since the 1980s feminism has grown conflicted about the importance of pornography as an issue, about strategies and tactics to deal with the issue and even about the meaning of pornographies — or pornographies, for there are many different forms.
My belief is that this conflict is important. I am also concerned that ill-informed political alliances have been formed based on simplistic and gut reactions to what are complex issues. While I believe that anti-pornography feminists have made important contributions to the cause, they have also had the unintended consequence of allying themselves on the side of censorship and a neo-Puritanism that is, in my estimation, in opposition to core feminist principles as I have understood and embraced them.
In the late 1970s various grassroots feminist groups resisting violence against women emerged, and began building on the growth of earlier antirape work. These groups included Women Against Pornography (WAP), Women Against Violence Against Women, Feminists Fighting Against Pornography, and the Women’s Alliance Against Pornography. They led large, “Take Back the Night” marches, which were (and I still think still are) held annually across the country to protest rape and promote women’s safety. They also provided an opportunity for consciousness-raising, arousing condemnation, and enlisting feminists who were willing to leaflet, picket, show slide shows, and commit acts of civil disobedience.
Beginning in the 1980s, however, the focus of the marches shifted from being against sexual violence (rape, sexual abuse of children, and incest) to first including protests against pornography and prostitution, and then to being almost exclusively against pornography. Spurred in large part by the rhetoric of author Andrea Dworkin, a longtime feminist activist, the antiviolence campaign made an unfortunate turn into an antipornography campaign. Dworkin asserted in her first book, Woman Hating, that was needed was a global “movement [committed] to ending male dominance as the fundamental, psychological, political, and cultural reality of earth-lived life.” The book contained a section on pornography that suggested, as in advertising and fairy tales, pornography teaches women to be submissive and defined by others. As an aside, it’s illustrative that Dworkin didn’t find anything wrong with the European porn mag, Suck. She pointed out that “the emphasis on sucking cunt serves to demystify cunt in a spectacular way — cunt is not dirty, not terrifying, not smelly and foul. It is a source of pleasure, a beautiful part of the female physiology to be seen, touched tasted.”
In her later writings even this distinction was abandoned. Dworkin eventually saw porn in stark terms: “Male power is the raison d’être of porn; the degradation of the female is the means of achieving this power.” By the early 1980s she was saying that “One cannot be a feminist and support pornography… [Any defense of it is] anti-feminist contempt for women.”
In combination with another other leading figure in this phase, Catherine MacKinnon, the feminist movement’s central issue was defined by sexuality. Not the sexuality discussed during the 1960s and 1970s, where the positive focus on getting equal pleasure in bed and equal rights in society was a central issue for feminism, but a new, critical focus locating women’s oppression in the reality and ideology of sexuality. Mackinnon turned the 1970s formulation, Rape is violence, not sex,” to “Rape is sex, not violence.”
It’s was only a logical consequence that both authors would get together and begin a different tact: that of legal activism and they began drafting anti-pornography legislation in novel ways. They combined already existing human rights ordinances with anti-pornography legislation. Essentially, Dworkin and Mackinnon started what would become a censorship campaign adopted (and repealed) by many cities across the nation. Their legal efforts were eventually defeated at the Supreme Court level, where it was struck down as unconstitutional without hearing any arguments.
In my estimation, there is an essential contradiction at the core of antipornography feminism, one that’s extremely hard to justify. In fact there are many contradictions, the first one being that anti-sex crusades have for centuries been at the heart of violence and oppression against women. In my estimation, the fear of women’s sexuality is the basis for much of the sexism in society.
Secondly, not all pornography is violent and degrading, and it is difficult to even agree on what measures up to those terms. Most pornography, as any review will show, consists of sexual activities between consenting adults, emphasizing intercourse, oral sex, and lots of genital close-ups. Sadomasochistic (S&M) materials, which appear violent to those shocked or disgusted by the images, are actually a form of elaborate ritual to the participants rather than being literally violent or the cause of actual harm. In addition, S&M materials are not as common as some puritanical feminists would have us believe.
If the target of the feminist campaign is violence against women, the question that most comes to my mind is whether pornography is really the best place to start to make headway against such violence. Mainstream movies and TV are notorious for their violent imagery, and the claim that sexuality is the central location for violence against women ignores these genres entirely.
As a feminists (yes, I consider myself a feminist, and yes I am aware that I say this as a male living in a sexist society) we might ask why sexuality and pornography need to be included at all. If what we are interested in is in eliminating the subordination of women, why does it have to be sexually explicit material that we target? Servility, injury, enjoying pain — why do they get banned only if they involve sex?
The honest political answer is that no one is about to ban violent images in this country — they are too mainstream. Only explicitly sexual images are sufficiently offensive to large diverse groups, and targeting seemingly violent sexual images would be the only way for feminists to get widespread public support. But the consequence of the persecution of sexual images is that sexuality itself becomes the target. The unintended consequence is a major setback for those within the feminist movement whose goal is to de-repress or liberate women’s sexuality.
Dworkin’s and Mackinnon’s claim that sexuality is the prime and fundamental location for male power and female oppression is unproven. There are stronger associations, as other feminists have uncovered, with female oppression situated mostly around family structure and kinship systems, government and the rule of law, the division of labor, private property, and organized religion. The assertion that pornography is the cause rather than the symptom is a dangerous intellectual dishonesty that takes away attention from other possibly more important causes.
It is at best simple-minded to assume that one can know the meaning conveyed by an image merely from looking at it. How can we say that such images are degrading or humiliating? There can be (and are) many woman-made and pro-woman images like this. Do all such images serve to boost men’s self image by subjugating women? It seems to me to be dangerously culturally biased to ascribe universal meanings of empowerment or subjugation from images. The relationship between personal, subjective fantasy and imagery is subtle and idiosyncratic. In addition, one has to take into consideration the relationship between photographer, the person photographed, and the voyeur. As we know from our own lives, from art, and from psychology, there relationships are fluid and based on personal experiences and social contexts. What each of us makes of those images is hardly generalizable.
Finally, women who are photographed or filmed in the making of pornography do not report that their work is ultimately or inevitably harmful. Sex workers and their advocates have repeatedly called for the decriminalization of sex work in order so that working conditions and safety can be increased. They categorically reject any approach that stigmatizes them further.
And herein lies the irony: that the work of some prominent radical feminists has resulted in anti-sex campaigns that resemble Salem witch hunts and that have conservatives, with their tendency toward sexual repression and authoritarian (read patriarchal) salivating at the mouth. What I have seen is that anti-sex and anti-pornography campaigns are in actuality campaigns targeting sexual freedom and empowerment cannot exist without freedom.
My name is Eddie and I’m in recovery from civilization…