Feminism and Pornography

In recent years, the widespread consumption of pornography has led to its mainstream popularization and acceptance.  For those who study the role of commercial sexuality and its relationship to feminism, it seems as though the “sex-wars” of the 1970s and 1980s remain unresolved.  Popular culture has conflated what Ariel Levy terms “raunch culture” with terminology of the women’s movement such as “liberation” and “empowerment.”  Much of mainstream pornography and the culture it promotes is unabashedly sexist, often depicting imagery degrading to women and eroticized violence.  Pornography reinforces cultural expectations around gender and sexual performance, the vast majority of its content being geared towards men.

But when feminist arguments are employed against pornography, debate tends to become quickly polarized. “Scientific” arguments suggest that the desire to consume pornography is natural, particularly for men. Anti-pornography feminists are accused of promoting censorship or suppression of sex. Dialogue within the feminist movement accuses women who object to pornography of being classist, prudish, or old-fashioned.  The unfortunate collaboration between religious fundamentalism and feminism that occurred with the proposed Dworkin-MacKinnon Anti-Pornography Civil Rights Ordinance legislation in the early 1980s seems to have caused lasting damage to the anti-pornography movement, by connecting a conservative, anti-feminist agenda with women’s liberation activists in the public eye.  Feminist arguments must be disentangled from religious objections in order to correctly assess the cultural implications of the vast consumption of pornography, which becomes progressively more explicit to satisfy consumers, and changes the way sexuality is represented and experienced.

In her 2005 book Female Chauvinist Pigs, Ariel Levy argues that pornography has seeped into mainstream culture, leading to a conflation of “raunch culture” and female empowerment.  Levy cites the recent startling increase in breast augmentation procedures and “vaginal rejuvenation” surgeries as indicators that pornography has begun to dictate standards of female beauty (23).  What she terms “raunch culture” is evident in the popularity of pole dancing “fitness” classes, bestselling porn star memoirs and the infiltration of the porn esthetic into fashion and popular television programs.  Troubling is the insistence that porn culture is “liberating” and “empowering” to young women.  Levy writes, “raunch culture is not essentially progressive, it is essentially commercial” (29).  Plastic surgeries designed to enhance a woman’s appearance certainly do not enhance her sexual experience, instead they enhance her marketability.  Levy argues that porn culture is not new, but that it has newly invaded the mainstream, with both men and women buying into the notion that the sexiness of pornography is representative of sexuality in general.

Levy traces the confusion between sexual liberation and raunch culture to the second-wave feminist era.  Where sometimes the women’s liberation movement was compatible with the sexual revolution, there were important areas of diversion.  Part of the radical feminist agenda included the pursuit of female sexual pleasure.  Susan Brownmiller’s essay “The Myth of Vaginal Orgasm” challenged the “standard” missionary position and suggested that sexual satisfaction for women was as important as sexual satisfaction for men (Levy 54).  At the same time Hugh Hefner was pursuing his own cause, “fighting ‘our ferocious antisexuality, our dark antieroticism” (55).  Playboy and the NOW formed an alliance over Roe v Wade and the birth control pill, and Hefner lent his financial support to the ERA.  But Playboy, of course, was about sexual “liberation” for men.  Hefner and the Playboy brand had a strong influence on the cultural conception of women as consumable, decorative objects.  At the same time that Hefner was building his empire, Susan Brownmiller and other women’s liberation activists were forming an anti-pornography movement which challenged the cultural conception of women as “fluffy bunnies” (58).   As the “pornography wars” raged among feminists, “sex-positive” and “anti-sex” feminist camps developed and the famously failed Dworkin-MacKinnon legislation pitted feminism against free speech and established an unfortunate alliance between feminists who were concerned with sadistic sexual representations of women and religious fundamentalists who were interested in repressing sexual expression.

Levy theorizes that the “pornography wars,” which damaged the feminist movement and led to many layers of misunderstanding within and outside it, remain unsettled.  She writes, “What we are seeing today is the residue of that confusion.  …[P]eople are ignoring the contradictions of the past, pretending they never existed, and putting various, conflicting ideologies together to form one incoherent brand of raunch feminism”(Levy 74).  Cartoonish depictions of women’s sexuality abound in pornography, and these types of images pervade popular culture.  According to Levy, attempts to produce “feminist pornography” tend to produce strikingly similar types of images to mainstream pornography, but with the co-opted terminology of the women’s liberation movement. The meaning of words like “liberating”, “empowering”, and “feminist” are lost when used to describe a feature in Maxim or a Girls Gone Wild video.  Levy asks, “Why is this the ‘new feminism’ and not what it looks like: the old objectification?” (81).  The cultural climate Levy describes is a disturbing one, where women along with men have come to delight in the practice of a caricature of femininity in pornography that is becoming clearly visible in our daily lives.  What is truly liberating or empowering for women is set aside, and meaningful work of the feminist movement is effectively degraded and trivialized.  Women who opt out of raunch culture are stifled from speaking out, and they often lack support from the organized feminist movement, which has shied away from the issue of pornography in recent years.

Pamela Paul argues in Pornified that the ubiquity of pornography has a detrimental effect on men and women, changing the way sexual relationships are conducted, and that this has happened quietly with little public attention paid to the problems being created.  Not only do the arguments of the 1970s and 1980s around pornography remain unsettled, Paul suggests that they do not adequately address the content or level of consumption which is common today.  Readily available pornography on the internet, combined with the increasing presence of what would once have been considered soft core pornography in mainstream advertising and culture, has led to consumers seeking progressively more extreme materials.  She suggests that those who feel that the issue of pornography has been settled might do well to familiarize themselves with the content of popular, readily accessible hardcore pornography which includes common themes such as torture, rape and degradation.  Paul reveals in her research that users are spending far more time and energy engaged with pornographic materials than ever before.  At the same time, there is a dismissive attitude towards the various critical stances on pornography, including feminist arguments.  Old arguments about freedom of speech or sexual liberation need to be revisited in light of changes brought about by the internet.  There is almost no social support in speaking against pornography, either from a legal standpoint or in merely encouraging that a critical eye be directed toward it.

In her article, The Porn Myth, Naomi Wolf reflects upon arguments made by Andrea Dworkin and others during the second-wave, which suggested that pornography promoted rape.  She writes of Dworkin, “she was right about the warning, wrong about the outcome.”  Dworkin accurately predicted the infiltration of pornography into the mainstream and our inability to escape its social effects.  Wolf argues that rather than producing a generation of libidinous, violent and rape-prone men, the proliferation of pornography has created a deep sexual divide between men and women.  Women feel pressured to live up to the expectations of pornography, the unattainable physical ideal and a style of sexual performance designed to support the male ego.  Her time on college campuses talking to women about the effects of porn revealed to her that, “for the first time in human history, the images’ power and allure have supplanted that of real naked women.  Today, real women are just bad porn.”  For the young people Wolf interviewed, men are exhausting their sexual energy in cyberspace and neither satisfying nor being satisfied by their partners.  Wolf suggests restraint from pornography not only for the sake of feminism or moral concerns, but to preserve the joy and “sacredness” of sexuality.  Her sad commentary on the state of sexuality is unsurprising.  Sexuality has become commoditized to the extent that the reality of human experience may seem prohibitively complex, messy and threatening.  As virtual women are ever more available for easy consumption online, the challenges of real human relationships become less attractive.

Debbie Nathan argues in Pornography that “scientists have found no convincing evidence that porn is harmful to adults or children” (11).  She suggests that it has positive effects including a reduction in sexual shame, can serve as an adequate “sex substitute,” and that people claim to enjoy it.  The negative effects noted include depictions of cruelty toward women, potential confusion between fantasy and reality, unrealistic beauty standards, lack of safer sex practices depicted, and it tends to be a poor source for sexual education.  Nathan attempts to examine the subject of pornography without the “screaming and excess emotion” which she claims have characterized past debates on the subject (14).  Her tone is objective, but fails to properly analyze feminist arguments related to pornography, or to sufficiently address the problems of science in addressing pornography.

In her history of pornography, Nathan reports that by the 1700s, it was common to depict royalty in sexual situations in order to “criticize and ridicule” them (20).  In the 1920s and 1930s, cartoon Tijuana Bibles were publications designed to “make fun of” movie stars, depicting them in sexual scenes.  The history of public sexuality suggests that it was a tool to demean, but by the 1950s, Playboy had succeeded in making pornography acceptable and “middle-class,” and objections to the humiliating depictions of women were dismissed as prudery.

Nathan states that pornography “has almost no direct relationship with the real world,” using “fantasy” to explain away the troubling imagery found in popular pornography (33).  She identifies no discernible relationship between sexual fantasy and real-world behavior, suggesting that an unwillingness to explore fantasy is merely another form of sexual repression.  Pornography is not merely fantasy, but real depictions of sometimes brutal and degrading acts involving real people.  The author does concede that some studies have demonstrated increased aggression in males upon viewing pornographic rape scenes, and that media depictions of women enjoying rape could be damaging (Nathan 45-6).

Paul objects to “neutralist” arguments such as Nathan’s insistence that pornography has no effect on the viewer.  Her extensive interviews with just over one hundred men and women seem to indicate otherwise.  She is careful with her methodology, assessing the pros and cons of her research, while making her observations.  Many of her interviewees seem to parrot popular arguments which circulate in the media about men, biology and pornography, such as the questionable claim that “men [not women] are inherently visual” (Paul 79).  One subject, Zach, reports that his porn use is “no big deal,” that “men need variety,” and that “it’s better than cheating” (Paul 26).  Pornography itself reinforces stereotypes about gender, but as disturbing is the rhetoric that suggests that it is an integral part of men’s lives that should not be questioned.  Ethan, another interviewee, feels comfortable with and entitled to lying to his partner about his twice daily use of pornography.  Gabe, who reports having spent “twenty hours a week with it for the past five years,” chooses not to share his hobby with his girlfriend who “doesn’t like him looking” (Paul 47).  Pornography usage is not confined to personal relationships, as it also invades the workplace.  Paul found that in mostly-male work environments, pornography is often tolerated, noting that “forty percent have seen coworkers surfing porn on the job” (29).  Women who wish to network after-hours with colleagues are sometimes expected to do so at strip clubs (Paul 36).

Additionally, Paul found that the content of the pornography the men she interviewed were drawn to tended to “create the man’s world as he would ideally have it” (32).  Pornography was described by her subjects as a “male utopia…a safe haven where men can still dominate, undisturbed” (Paul 35).  Most troubling is that some reported assuming that the women in pornography are treated poorly either on set or in their personal lives, which added to the sense of control the men derived from viewing it (Paul 36).  Paul focuses her research on interviews with men, but women, in addition to claiming “empowerment” by emulating or becoming sex workers have made significant contributions to the porn industry.

Kaelyn argues in her 2008 blog post from Feministe that “feminism has a love/hate relationship with sex.”  She discusses the difficult relationship between feminism and pornography, which she attributes to anti-pornography activism, and in particular the work of Andrea Dworkin.  While acknowledging her work on challenging the gender binary and the promotion of rape culture which she argued was a primary function of pornography, Kaelyn blames the anti-porn movement for the current tension which still exists around commercialized sex within feminist spaces.  Kaelyn identifies herself as “pro-sex” and characterizes Dworkin’s work in a way that is popular among young feminists.  Dworkin’s arguments are credited with “the division of lesbian and heterosexual feminists, persecution and demoralization of sex work and sex workers, exclusion of transfolk from feminist spaces, and a whole lot of personal feminist guilt.”  The anti-pornography movement is associated with censorship and sexual repression, whereas “pro-sex” leaders such as Camille Paglia are associated with sexual freedom and the individual right to sexually explicit materials.  Kaelyn claims, “enjoying BDSM, strap-on sex and sex toys, genderplay, rape and incest taboo, mainstream pornography, and other ‘deviant’ sexual taboos with a consensual partner does not make a person a ‘bad feminist’ or a hypocrite.”

Kaelyn goes on to identify some popular “feminist pornography” resources which are operated by women or men who identify as feminist, presumably attempting to create erotic materials which are free from the common problems associated with mainstream pornography.  She writes, “I believe that legalizing sex work will help regulate and prosecute human trafficking and sexual slavery and will create human rights for sex workers.” Unfortunately, it has not been demonstrated that the legalization and regulation of prostitution will, in fact, improve rights for sex workers, or that it will eliminate the underground market.  Additionally, the concept of “rape culture,” which Dworkin argued was illustrated and promoted by the porn industry is a real and current feminist concern, given the recent proliferation of pornography and its integration into popular culture.  The notion of consent involving sex work is one that deserves serious examination if one is interested in feminist action, or exploring whether or not the consumption pornography, mainstream or otherwise, might fairly be labeled as “feminist.”

Oneangrygirl.net is an excellent resource for young women interested in anti-porn feminism.  The Anti-Porn Resource Center works to educate visitors about pornography and other types of sex work, with numerous links to a variety of online resources, as well as books, statistical resources, reports from industry insiders, and links targeted specifically to men and young people.  One Angry Girl states that her goal is to educate the curious feminist on the issue of pornography, suggesting that a fully informed feminist is likely to become an anti-porn feminist.  She provides printable educational pamphlets for easy distribution, an excellent printable page of “Handy Comebacks for Short Arguments,” and even a “Pocket-sized Anti-Porn Cheat Sheet.”  Implicit is the struggle that young women and men might experience in trying to counter the powerful societal messages that reinforce the popular embrace of pornography, and even the insistence that it is “feminist” to do so.  One Angry Girl comments on the issue of feminism and pornography:

“…the definition of feminist is not ‘whatever the hell a woman feels like doing.’  To be precise, feminism is ‘the doctrine advocating social, political, and all other rights of women equal to those of men,’ and a feminist is someone who actively works towards those goals.  For all women.  On the planet.  Nobody will ever be able to convince one angry girl that pornography is a route to social and political equality for all women on the planet, and in fact, the majority of the evidence currently available points to the exact opposite. If you are a true feminist, you do not say to the untold numbers of women hurt by pornography, ‘I don’t really care about your experiences, because porn is such a lucrative job/my boyfriend and I really like it/it makes me feel sexxeee’. So keep your porn if you must, but don’t call yourself a feminist.”

Recent years have seen a decline in a once strong anti-pornography stance within the feminist movement.  Critical views on porn culture and sex work such as those posed by Levy, Paul, and One Angry Girl seem like rarities in the post-wave feminist era.  The concept of “feminist pornography” becomes meaningless as it is used to represent both genuine attempts to produce “woman friendly” erotica and “alt-porn” subsidiaries of mainstream porn producers.  The development of “feminist pornography” itself contains the underlying concession that mainstream pornography is not feminist, is perhaps anti-feminist.  The reality of popular alternative porn companies such as Suicide Girls or Burning Angel is the usual objectification of very young women who suit a narrow ideal, promoting sex for sale; Playboy with a hipper vibe.  Anti-pornography activists today are concerned with many of the same issues which troubled Dworkin and her peers a generation ago.  Their focus is not on censorship, but on examination and critique of pornography, defense of human rights, and analysis of its effects on participants and consumers.  Pornography deserves the type of critical attention which is frequently devoted to other forms of media.  Maggie Hays, writing for againstpornography.org, suggests that there exists a resigned “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” feminist mentality in regard to pornography.  This creates a troublesome dynamic in which women become complicit in the suppression of meaningful feminist critique and ultimate support of the institutions which benefit from their participation or silence, who are engaging in systemic sexual exploitation.

Works Cited

Against Pornography – Anti-Porn Website – against Porn – Harms of Porn – AntiPorn Feminism. Web. 22 May 2011. <https://www.againstpornography.org/&gt;.

“Anti-Porn Resource Center Disclaimer.” One Angry Girl® | Taking over the World One Shirt at a Time. Web. 16 May 2011. <http://www.oneangrygirl.net/antiporndisclaimer.html&gt;.

“Feminist Porn: Sex, Consent, and Getting Off — Feministe.” Feministe. Web. 16 May 2011. <http://www.feministe.us/blog/archives/2008/07/23/feminist-porn-sex-consent-and-getting-off/&gt;.

Levy, Ariel. Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture. New York: Free, 2005. Print.

Nathan, Debbie. Pornography. Toronto: Groundwood, 2007. Print.

Paul, Pamela. Pornified: How Pornography Is Transforming Our Lives, Our Relationships, and Our Families. New York: Times, 2005. Print.

Wolf, Naomi. “Naomi Wolf on Why Porn Turns Men Off the Real Thing — New York Magazine.” New York Magazine — NYC Guide to Restaurants, Fashion, Nightlife, Shopping, Politics, Movies. Web. 01 May 2011. <http://nymag.com/nymetro/news/trends/n_9437/&gt;.