Feminist views of pornography
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Feminist views of pornography range from condemnation of pornography as a form of violence against women, to an embracing of some forms of pornography as a medium of feminist expression. Feminist debate on this issue reflects larger concerns surrounding feminist views on sexuality, and is closely related to feminist debates on prostitution, BDSM, and other issues. Pornography has been one of the most divisive issues in feminism, particularly among feminists in anglophone countries. This deep division between feminists was exemplified in the Feminist Sex Wars of the 1980s, which pitted anti-pornography feminism against sex-positive feminism.
- 1 Anti-pornography feminism
- 1.1 Harm to women during production
- 1.2 Social harm from consumption
- 1.3 Anti-pornography feminist organizations and campaigns
- 1.4 Legislative and judicial efforts
- 2 Sex-positive and anti-censorship feminist views
- 3 Specific issues
- 4 Feminist pornographers
- 5 See also
- 6 References
- 7 External links
Feminist opponents of pornography—such as Andrea Dworkin, Catharine MacKinnon, Robin Morgan, Diana Russell, Alice Schwarzer, Gail Dines, and Robert Jensen—argue that pornography is harmful to women, and constitutes strong causality or facilitation of violence against women.
Catharine McKinnon and Andrea Dworkin had separately staked out a position that pornography was inherently exploitative toward women, and they called for its censorship. When Dworkin testified before the Meese Commission in 1986, she said that 65 to 70 percent of all women involved in the sex industries—such as prostitutes, film stars and models and presumably writers of certain kinds—had been victims of incest or child abuse, though she supplied no evidence to support this assertion.
Andrea Dworkin's crusade against pornography during the 1980s brought her to national attention.
Harm to women during production
Anti-pornography feminists, notably Catherine MacKinnon, charge that the production of pornography entails physical, psychological, and/or economic coercion of the women who perform and model in it. This is said to be true even when the women are being presented as enjoying themselves. It is also argued that much of what is shown in pornography is abusive by its very nature. Gail Dines holds that pornography, exemplified by gonzo pornography, is becoming increasingly violent and that women who perform in pornography are brutalized in the process of its production.
Anti-pornography feminists point to the testimony of well known participants in pornography, such as Traci Lords and Linda Boreman, and argue that most female performers are coerced into pornography, either by somebody else, or by an unfortunate set of circumstances. The feminist anti-pornography movement was galvanized by the publication of Ordeal, in which Linda Boreman (who under the name of "Linda Lovelace" had starred in Deep Throat) stated that she had been beaten, raped, and pimped by her husband Chuck Traynor, and that Traynor had forced her at gunpoint to make scenes in Deep Throat, as well as forcing her, by use of both physical violence against Boreman as well as emotional abuse and outright threats of violence, to make other pornographic films. Dworkin, MacKinnon, and Women Against Pornography issued public statements of support for Boreman, and worked with her in public appearances and speeches.
Social harm from consumption
Women reduced to sex objects
Anti-pornography feminists hold the view that pornography contributes to sexism, arguing that in pornographic performances the actresses are reduced to mere receptacles—objects—for sexual use and abuse by men. They argue that the narrative is usually formed around men's pleasure as the only goal of sexual activity, and that the women are shown in a subordinate role. Some opponents believe pornographic films tend to show women as being extremely passive, or that the acts which are performed on the women are typically abusive and solely for the pleasure of their sex partner. On-face ejaculation and anal sex are increasingly popular among men, following trends in porn. MacKinnon and Dworkin defined pornography as "the graphic sexually explicit subordination of women through pictures or words".
The effects produced by those who view pornography are mixed and still widely debated. Generally, research has been focused around the effects of voluntary viewing of pornography. There have also been studies analyzing the inadvertent exposure to explicit sexual content. This includes: viewing naked photographs of people, people engaging in sexual acts, accidental web searches, or opening online links to pornographic material are some examples. Actually, most exposure to pornography online is unsolicited and by accident. 42% of those who view online pornography are ages ranging between 10 and 17; 66% have experienced inadvertent exposure.
Jae Woong Shim of Sookmyung Women’s University along with Bryant M. Paul of Indiana University published a controlled study looking at such inadvertent exposure to pornography in regards to the feeling of anonymity titled “The Role of Anonymity in the Effects of Inadvertent Exposure to Online Pornography Among Young Adult Males.” The study consisted of 84 male students, ages 18 and older, volunteering from a large American university in the Midwest. After completing an arbitrary survey, they were shown a 10 second pop-up clip consisting either of sexual or nonsexual content. Half of the subjects exposed to either clip believed they were viewing the content nonanonymously. The other half believed they were anonymous, and they were not being monitored. Then they were asked if they would rather view hardcore pornography, softcore pornography, or nonsexual material. The hardcore pornography depicted women as sexual objects and male-superiority. The softcore pornography was less graphic. The nonsexual material was a video of a professor’s lecture unrelated to sexual content.
After being exposed to the inadvertent pop-up clip, researchers noted which of the three above content choices the subjects selected. Researchers then measured the participants’ sexist attitudes towards women using a questionnaire asking the agreeability of statements to women gaining more control over men. The higher the score, the higher the subjects are thought to hold sexist views. Those who believed they were anonymous were less likely to be conscious of their monitoring compared to the nonanonymous group. It turns out, those who were exposed to sexual content and believed they were anonymous were the most likely to choose the hardcore pornography that depicts the most objectification of women. The next highest choice for the hardcore pornography was the group exposed to nonsexual material yet believed to be anonymous. These two groups were the most likely to hold hostile sexist attitudes towards women after the 10 second inadvertent exposure to sexual content compared to before the study.
This indicates negative opinions towards women. It is concluded that being exposed to sexual content, even when it is unwanted, leads men to develop harsher sexist attitudes towards women. The greater intrigue for men to view hardcore and unusual pornography was greater when they believed to be doing so anonymously. This is most likely tied to the theory of deindividuation. The theory states that a person detaches his or her self from personal responsibility and awareness as an individual, and is more likely to act differently than when their behaviors are socially attached to his or her character. “When individual’s perceive that no one knows what they are viewing, they are likely to experience reduced self-awareness, which, in turn, leads to being less considerate toward others”. This implies that these men would be less likely to view the pornography which harshly objectifies women if they know others would be aware if they do so due to the perceived social consequences.
Since the feeling of anonymity disregard social norms, there is a higher chance of pursuing more extreme stimuli. This study does not prove that the men willing to watch the hardcore pornography and hold more sexist views are more likely to act out these desires and beliefs toward women. Valerie Webber in her article “Shades of Gay: Performance of Girl-on-Girl Pornography and mobile authenticities” differentiates the sex depicted in porn and personal, private sexual encounters. At first, she argues that performing sex produces normative ideas about what makes sex authentic. These normative beliefs then transfer into personal experiences where people feel an obligation to perform sex as they have viewed it in pornography.
Webber discovered that there is no true authenticity surrounding sex. Sex through the lens of pornography is still legitimate, yet most performers exaggerate the act to make it more rousing and intimate to the audience. She explains that “performance…does not preclude authenticity. Performance is the means by which ‘authenticity’ is established as a category”. Yet the women interviewed had wide beliefs about what made sex authentic, most of which included a sense of intimacy. One interviewee point out that pornography is stigmatized for not being genuine, which is not true for all performers. Some are completely satisfied with the sex performed for porn while others report low satisfaction. Those who perform in pornography have different intentions for doing so, much like any other job. Some performers do it because they like pleasing their audience, some do it for personal pleasure, and some feel they are creating something of artistic value. As Webber puts it, “if fake equals ‘bad’, than good must equal ‘real’. The motives can be ‘pure’, but what those motives are can differ dramatically”. Performers are usually aware of what their audience expects from them and what viewers enjoy. Webber could theorize that women use this knowledge and personal intentions to produce pornography in which men anonymously consume, which then authenticates the normality of such depictions of sex as being appropriate and desirable.
Enticement to sexual violence against females
Anti-pornography feminists say that consumption of pornography is a cause of rape and other forms of violence against women. Robin Morgan summarizes this idea with her often-quoted statement, "Pornography is the theory, and rape is the practice."
Anti-pornography feminists charge that pornography eroticizes the domination, humiliation, and coercion of women, and reinforces sexual and cultural attitudes that are complicit in rape and sexual harassment. MacKinnon argued that pornography leads to an increase in sexual violence against women through fostering rape myths. Such rape myths include the belief that women really want to be raped and that they mean yes when they say no. Additionally, according to MacKinnon, pornography desensitizes viewers to violence against women, and this leads to a progressive need to see more violence in order to become sexually aroused, an effect she claims is well documented.
Rape of children
Rape of a prepubescent child followed "habitual" consumption of child porn "within six months" although the men were previously "horrified at the idea", according to men in prison interviewed by Gail Dines.
Distorted view of the human body and sexuality
German radical feminist Alice Schwarzer is one proponent of this point of view, in particular in the feminist magazine Emma. Many opponents of pornography believe that pornography gives a distorted view of men and women's bodies, as well as the actual sexual act, often showing the performers with synthetic implants or exaggerated expressions of pleasure, as well as fetishes that are not the norm, such as watersports, being presented as popular and normal.
Hatred of women
Gail Dines said, "'[p]ornography is the perfect propaganda piece for patriarchy. In nothing else is their hatred of us quite as clear.'"
Anti-pornography feminist organizations and campaigns
From the mid 1970s into the early 1980s, public rallies and marches protesting pornography and prostitution drew widespread support among women and men from across the political spectrum. Beginning in the late 1970s, anti-pornography radical feminists formed organizations such as Women Against Pornography, Women Against Violence in Pornography and Media, Women Against Violence Against Women, Feminists Fighting Pornography, and like groups that provided educational events, including slide-shows, speeches, guided tours of the sex shops in areas like New York's Times Square and San Francisco's Tenderloin District, petitioning, and publishing newsletters, in order to raise awareness of the content of pornography and the sexual subculture in pornography shops and live sex shows.
Similar groups also emerged in the United Kingdom, including legislatively focused groups such as Campaign Against Pornography and Campaign Against Pornography and Censorship, as well as groups associated with radical feminism such as Women Against Violence Against Women and its direct action offshoot Angry Women.
Some anti-pornography feminists, such as Nikki Craft, Ann Simonton, and Melissa Farley, have advocated and carried out civil disobedience and direct action against pornography and been arrested for public nudity. They campaign against corporations through destruction of single copies of magazines that contained violent pornography that they argue condones and legitimises rape as sexual entertainment. They advocate rejecting the representations of sexual objectification as exemplified in publications like Hustler and Penthouse.
Legislative and judicial efforts
Antipornography Civil Rights Ordinance
Many anti-pornography feminists—Dworkin and MacKinnon in particular—advocated laws which defined pornography as a civil rights harm and allowed women to sue pornographers in civil court. The Antipornography Civil Rights Ordinance that they drafted was passed twice by the Minneapolis city council in 1983, but vetoed by Mayor Donald Fraser, on the grounds that the city could not afford the litigation over the law's constitutionality.
The ordinance was successfully passed in 1984 by the Indianapolis city council and signed by Mayor William Hudnut, and passed by a ballot initiative in Bellingham, Washington in 1988, but struck down both times as unconstitutional by the state and federal courts. In 1986, the Supreme Court affirmed the lower courts' rulings in the Indianapolis case without comment.
Many anti-pornography feminists supported the legislative efforts, but others objected that legislative campaigns would be rendered ineffectual by the courts, would violate principles of free speech, or would harm the anti-pornography movement by taking organizing energy away from education and direct action and entangling it in political squabbles.
Pornography Victims' Compensation Act
Another feminist approach was designed to permit survivors of crime when the crime was the result of pornographic influence to sue the pornographers. The Pornography Victims' Compensation Act of 1991 (previously known as the Pornography Victims Protection Act) was supported by groups including Feminists Fighting Pornography. Catharine MacKinnon declined to support the legislation, though aspects of it were based on her legal approach to pornography. The bill was introduced in Congress, thus, had it passed, it would have applied nationwide.
The objections to the bill were largely the same as those against the Antipornography Civil Rights Ordinance plus two: One, at least as introduced in 1991, it did not recognize the full width of the feminist definition of pornography but was limited to child pornography and obscenity, some of which would not be objectionable on feminist grounds, but the difference in definition was intended to ease passage by not confronting Constitutional objections. It did not pass, but it possibly made more progress, leaving open a political question of which drafting strategy better aided the antipornography educational effort. The other additional objection was that it would authorize a suit against one party for what another party did, a legal strategy not unknown in the law of drunken driving and bars serving alcoholic drinks.
R. v. Butler
The Supreme Court of Canada's 1992 ruling in R. v. Butler (the Butler decision) fueled further controversy, when the court decided to incorporate some elements of Dworkin and MacKinnon's legal work on pornography into the existing Canadian obscenity law. In Butler the Court held that Canadian obscenity law violated Canadian citizens' rights to free speech under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms if enforced on grounds of morality or community standards of decency; but that obscenity law could be enforced constitutionally against some pornography on the basis of the Charter's guarantees of sex equality.
The Court's decision cited extensively from briefs prepared by the Women's Legal Education and Action Fund (LEAF), with MacKinnon's support and participation. Dworkin opposed LEAF's position, arguing that feminists should not support or attempt to reform criminal obscenity law.
Robinson v. Jacksonville Shipyards
Robinson v. Jacksonville Shipyards was a sexual harassment Federal district court case. It recognized as law that pornography could illegally contribute to sexual harassment through a workplace environment hostile to women. The court's order included a ban on "displaying pictures, posters, calendars, graffiti, objects, promotional materials, reading materials, or other materials that are sexually suggestive, sexually demeaning, or pornographic, or bringing into the JSI [the employer's] work environment or possessing any such material to read, display or view at work." "A picture will be presumed to be sexually suggestive if it depicts a person of either sex who is not fully clothed or in clothes that are not suited to or ordinarily accepted for the accomplishment of routine work in and around the shipyard and who is posed for the obvious purpose of displaying or drawing attention to private portions of his or her body." It is not clear whether the decision was directly attributable to antipornography feminist analysis, if the influence was indirect, or if the outcome was coincidental, but counsel Legal Momentum was historically associated with the National Organization for Women (NOW), a leading feminist organization, suggesting that counsel was likely to have had knowledge of the feminist theory.
Sex-positive and anti-censorship feminist views
Sex-positive feminism (also known as sexually liberal feminism or pro-sex feminism) describes the belief that sexual liberation and sexual freedom are key components of women's liberation. The terms sex-positive feminism and pro-sex feminism are disputed within feminism.
Pornography is seen as being a medium for women's sexual expression in this view. Sex-positive feminists view many radical feminist views on sexuality, including views on pornography, as being as oppressive as those of patriarchal religions and ideologies, and argue that anti-pornography feminist discourse ignores and trivializes women's sexual agency. Ellen Willis (who coined the term "pro-sex feminism") states "As we saw it, the claim that 'pornography is violence against women' was code for the neo-Victorian idea that men want sex and women endure it."
Sex-positive feminists take a variety of views towards existing pornography. Many sex-positive feminists see pornography as subverting many traditional ideas about women that they oppose, such as ideas that women do not like sex generally, only enjoy sex in a relational context, or that women only enjoy vanilla sex. They also argue that pornography sometimes shows women in sexually dominant roles and presents women with a greater variety of body types than are typical of mainstream entertainment and fashion.
Feminist critique of censorship
Many feminists regardless of their views on pornography are opposed on principle to censorship. Even many feminists who see pornography as a sexist institution, also see censorship (including MacKinnon's civil law approach) as an evil. In its mission statement, Feminists for Free Expression argues that censorship has never reduced violence, but historically been used to silence women and stifle efforts for social change. They point to the birth control literature of Margaret Sanger, the feminist plays of Holly Hughes, and works like Our Bodies, Ourselves and The Well of Loneliness as examples of feminist sexual speech which has been the target of censorship. FFE further argues that the attempt to fix social problems through censorship, "divert[s] attention from the substantive causes of social ills and offer a cosmetic, dangerous 'quick fix.'" They argue that instead a free and vigorous marketplace of ideas is the best assurance for achieving feminist goals in a democratic society.
Critics of anti-pornography feminism accuse their counterparts of selective handling of social scientific evidence. Anti-pornography feminists are also critiqued as intolerant of sexual difference and is characterized as often indiscriminately supporting state censorship policy and are accused of complicity with conservative sexual politics and Christian Right groups.
Several feminist anti-censorship groups have actively opposed anti-pornography legislation and other forms of censorship. These groups have included the Feminist Anti-Censorship Taskforce (FACT) and Feminists for Free Expression in the US and Feminists Against Censorship in the UK.
Feminists opposed to anti-pornography legislation argue that even when such legislation is feminist-inspired, it can potentially be used to target the speech of women and sexual minorities. They argue that this was exemplified by the first two anti-obscenity actions by the Canadian government following R. v. Butler. The first of these was the raid and prosecution of Glad Day Bookshop, an LGBT bookstore in Ontario, for selling copies of the lesbian BDSM magazine Bad Attitude. The second was the seizure at the Canadian border of books destined for the Vancouver, BC lesbian bookstore, Little Sisters (see Little Sisters Book and Art Emporium v. Canada (Minister of Justice)). Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon responded with a statement claiming that the idea that these raids reflected the application of pre-Butler standards and that it was actually illegal under Butler to selectively target LGBT materials. However, opponents of Butler have countered that the decision simply reinforced an existing politics of censorship that pre-dated the decision.
Anti-censorship feminists question why only some forms of sexist communication (namely sexually arousing/explicit ones) should be banned, while not advocating bans against equally misogynist public discourse. Susie Bright notes, "It's a far different criticism to note that porn is sexist. So are all commercial media. That's like tasting several glasses of salt water and insisting only one of them is salty. The difference with porn is that it is people fucking, and we live in a world that cannot tolerate that image in public."
Pornography produced by and with feminist women is a small but growing segment of the porn industry.
Some pornographic actresses such as Nina Hartley, Ovidie, Madison Young, and Sasha Grey are also self-described sex-positive feminists, and state that they do not see themselves as victims of sexism. They defend their decision to perform in pornography as freely chosen, and argue that much of what they do on camera is an expression of their sexuality. It has also been pointed out that in pornography, women generally earn more than their male counterparts. Some porn performers such as Nina Hartley are active in the sex workers' rights movement.
Feminist porn directors include Candida Royalle, Tristan Taormino, Madison Young, Shine Louise Houston, and Erika Lust. Some of these directors make pornography specifically for a female or genderqueer audience, while others try for a broad appeal across genders and sexual orientations.
Pornography vs. erotica
Some anti-pornography feminists, such as Gloria Steinem and Page Mellish, distinguish between "pornography" and "erotica", as different classes of sexual media, the former emphasizing dominance and the latter emphasizing mutuality. Steinem holds that, "These two sorts of images are as different as love is from rape, as dignity is from humiliation, as partnership is from slavery, as pleasure is from pain." Feminists who subscribe to this view hold that erotica promotes positive and pro-woman sexual values and does not carry the harmful effects of pornography.
Other anti-pornography feminists are more skeptical about this distinction, holding that all sexual materials produced in a patriarchal system are expressions of male dominance. Andrea Dworkin wrote, "erotica is simply high-class pornography: better produced, better conceived, better executed, better packaged, designed for a better class of consumer."
Other feminists tend not to make a distinction between pornography and erotica, and those that have addressed the distinction made by Steinem and others find it problematic. Ellen Willis holds that the term 'erotica' is needlessly vague and euphemistic, and appeals to an idealized version of what kind of sex people should want rather than what arouses the sexual feelings people actually have. She also emphasizes the subjectivity of the distinction, stating, "In practice, attempts to sort out good erotica from bad porn inevitably comes down to 'What turns me on is erotica; what turns you on is pornographic.'"
Some feminists make an analogous distinction between mainstream pornography and feminist pornography, viewing mainstream pornography as problematic or even wholly misogynistic while praising feminist pornography.
The work of feminist pornography includes studying women, children and men in the industry. Some feminists argue against pornography, because it can be viewed as demeaning and degrading to women and men. Some argue that pornography is used by men as a guide to hate, abuse and control women.
- In the porn industry women of all types of body stature and race are hired to perform. These women are subjected to demeaning and inhumane acts of sexual, physical and emotional violence, forced to plaster a face of pleasure on as they get sodomized, grabbed and pounded heavily by the male performer. This is viewed negatively by many feminists.
- Men in the porn industry, often the women's partners, are there to get the job done. The job may entail slapping the woman around a bit with a whip or other toy on her behind or body. The job may also entail thrusting heavily into her behind or vaginal area. He may grasp her firmly and "pleasure" her until he cums all over her face, hair and body. According to James D. Griffith et al., male pornographers reportedly do the job for the money, sex and social interaction. From feminist points of view this is seen as dehumanizing to many women and some men.
- Children in the porn industry, both girls and boys, are exploited heavily in many other countries. Feminists view child pornography very negatively, and this is one of the many reasons why feminists fight against the porn production.
In 2002, Becky Goldberg produced the documentary “Hot and Bothered: Feminist Pornography,” a look at women who direct, produce, and sell feminist porn. Feminist pornography is whenever the women is in control of the sexual situation, she is in control of what is being done to her and she enjoys it. Goldberg's views on feminism and pornography is, "if you don't like what you see make your own".
Courtney Trouble is a feminist performer and producer of queer porn. Her films feature "sexual and gender minorities." Trouble began in the business when she decided she did not see enough diversity in the business, and wanted to make a positive change.
Another feminist pornographer to be noted is Tristan Taormino, she is both a sex educator and feminist pornographer who has helped produce films, written books, owns her own website and has published many articles on topics related to sexuality, gender and articles on sex positive relationships. Taormino views porn as a positive part of life.
Along with these women come many more who have helped shape and change the industry everyday by making daily contributions. Views on Femnist Pornography are changing and it is becoming a positive thing to be part of versus when we look at our past, when it was viewed negatively in everyway toward women.
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- McRobbie, Angela. (2008). "Pornographic Permutations". Journal: The communication Review. 225-236: 11.
- "Pornography and Censorship: Feminist approaches" by Caroline West, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, May 5, 2004.
- "Feminist Perspectives on Sex Markets: Pornography" by Laurie Shrage, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, July 13, 2007.
- Pornography Studies: This guide will help you find relevant materials for research relating to the study of pornography.
- Feminism and Pornography: A Dialogical Perspective by Robert Cavalier