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;.

Sex Wars and Second Wave Feminism

A defining aspect of the second-wave feminist movement was the “feminist sex wars” or “pornography wars,” which emerged from competing thought on issues related to pornography and other forms of prostitution, sexuality and gender. As pornography became more readily available, an anti-pornography movement emerged in response to the violent sexual imagery of women that was common in adult materials, spilling over into mainstream culture. They argued that pornography reinforced dangerous gender stereotypes and encouraged real-world violence, working towards legal restrictions on violent sexual imagery. In response, an alternative “pro-sex” feminism developed, which viewed the anti-pornography movement as dangerously tied to right-wing political thought which sought to repress and control sexuality. Pro-sex feminists argued that legislation on pornography would work to the detriment of sexual liberation and interfere with free speech rights. The debates on sexuality and pornography were considerably more complex than merely a “pro-sex” camp and an “anti-sex” or “anti-pornography” camp, and it is useful to understand the various strains which influenced the conversation. Some women disassociated themselves with the feminist movement over issues related to the sex trade, and the sex wars are viewed as an important factor in the deterioration of the second wave. The sex wars have had a continuing impact as women have begun to advocate for personal empowerment through sex work and the proliferation of pornography via the internet has made it a fixture of popular culture. The anti-pornography movement of the second wave has been oversimplified and mischaracterized to support anti-feminist rhetoric. Women who engage in critique of sex work and pornography may be unfairly labeled as “Dworkinite,” or “anti-sex.” Introducing a sophisticated analysis of the effects of pornography and other forms of commercialized sex into feminist spaces is crucial to understanding its cultural implications. It is evident that the arguments women engaged in over the sex wars are unresolved, and may need more attention now than ever before.

In her memoir of the second-wave movement, In Our Time, Susan Brownmiller discusses “the pornography wars.” She writes that the women’s liberation movement was at a high point at the same time that the availability of pornography was on the increase. In 1973 Miller v California effectively relaxed laws on obscenity which led to a “staggering rise in the production and consumption of over-the-counter pornography” (Brownmiller 296). Pornography, she argued, served to undermine the goals of the feminist movement in two ways. Just as women made gains toward equality in the workplace and developed legal and social remedies for empowering women, a flood of materials objectifying their bodies and reinforcing traditional notions of gender were widely circulated and normalized. In addition, strong feelings about sexually explicit materials on both sides drove the feminist movement into heated debates about the meaning and consequences of the new mainstreaming of pornography. Brownmiller, who became a vocal anti-pornography activist at this time, argued strongly that these materials worked to the detriment of sexual freedom and promoted violence against women. In her 1975 book, Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape, Brownmiller argues against pornography. She sees a clear connection between pornographic imagery and a social environment that objectifies and degrades women. Her examination of the Commission on Obscenity and Pornography’s report from 1970 demonstrated that the vast majority of pornographic materials were geared toward a white, middle-class, married, male audience. Unsurprisingly, the report showed that men were far more likely to find the images arousing, where women were more likely to report “disgust” and “offense” (Lederer 31). Brownmiller adds that, “there can be no ‘equality’ in porn, no female equivalent…pornography, like rape, is a male invention, designed to dehumanize women, to reduce the female to an object of sexual access, not to free sensuality from moralistic or parental inhibition” (32). Rather than working to free men and women from the traditional repression of sexuality, Brownmiller argued that popular pornographic images actually worked to reinforce them. Pornography was a form of propaganda which taught men to objectify and demean women, and it contributed to “a cultural climate in which men felt free to rape” (Brownmiller 297).

Popular magazines such as Hustler and Penthouse contained regular images of violence against women, set in a sexual context. Take Back the Night: Women on Pornography by Laura Lederer describes a sampling of some typical “tabletop pornography” from the late 1970s (Lederer 17). Images of bondage and mutilation, child molestation and torture, and rape and violent imagery were common. As Brownmiller became a prominent spokesperson for the anti-pornography movement, Hustler and Screw both made use of her image in their magazines, publishing personal information, including her place of residence in response to her public criticism (Brownmiller 297). Many prominent feminists, including Gloria Steinem, were attacked in this way by publishers. Their caricatures were placed in degrading sexual scenes. This response by pornographers demonstrated a willingness to use sexual imagery as a form of harassment and intimidation that may have led to real violence against Brownmiller and other feminists actively engaged with the subject of pornography.

A 1976 film entitled Snuff which contained scenes of “eroticized torture” and purported murder brought the anti-pornography movement national attention, as women worked to oppose snuff films and sadomasochistic imagery (Brownmiller 298). Women Against Pornography (WAP), and Women Against Violence in Pornography and Media (WAVPM) were two of the prominent anti-pornography groups which hosted demonstrations and worked to raise consciousness about violent sexual imagery. Andrea Dworkin, a leading organizer participated in hosting tours of Times Square in the belief that by raising consciousness about pornography, women would band together to oppose it. The famous Hustler cover of 1978 featured a woman apparently being stuffed into a meat grinder, drawing attention to the anti-pornography movement. In addition to tours of sex shops in Times Square, women were presented with slide shows in order to raise awareness about violent imagery in adult materials. WAP staged a protest against a proposed Penthouse club which would be named the “Meat Rack” (Brownmiller 303). Other anti-pornography groups surfaced around the country promoting feminist criticism of violent materials, which was quite different from the conservative opposition to obscenity. Feminist arguments against pornography addressed concerns over the conflation of sexuality and violence that would have a pervasive effect on society. WAP and other groups argued that pornography itself promoted the sexual repression of women by narrowly defining sexuality and casting women as objects for consumption by men.

In 1972, Deep Throat, starring Linda Lovelace first brought pornography to the mainstream. The popular film was important in that it was the first feature-length pornographic film to attract a wide audience. Later, Lovelace wrote an account of her experiences in the making of Deep Throat entitled Ordeal, in which she claimed that she had been viciously abused by her partner and coerced into her performance. Catherine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin of WAP were inspired by the experiences of Lovelace to draft legislation that might protect women from abuse by pornographers. They argued that pornography was a violation of civil rights for those women coerced into performance or suffering violence as a result of pornography, or being forced in the workplace or elsewhere to view pornographic materials (Brownmiller 316).

The legislation had some limited success but was ultimately rejected as unconstitutional in district court, with pornographic materials defended on the grounds of the First Amendment. MacKinnon continued to argue from a radical feminist stance that within the context of patriarchy, the First Amendment did not apply to women, as the Constitution presumes social equality (MacKinnon 128). She argues in Feminism Unmodified that “Pornography causes attitudes and behaviors of violence and discrimination that define the treatment and status of half the population” (MacKinnon 147). WAP ultimately dissolved over the issue of legislation, with many concerned that legal limits to pornography were not the right solution to the problems surrounding it. Through the pursuit of legislation, MacKinnon and Dworkin earned the attention and support of right wing political leaders, unfortunately linking the ideas of repression of sexuality on religious grounds with the freedom for women victimized by viewing or participating in pornography to pursue legal remedies.

From the beginning, debates over pornography were heated among feminist groups. Brownmiller reports that some women identified with or enjoyed erotic and sadomasochistic imagery, and resented the characterization of all explicit imagery as problematic. Some women felt a sense of liberation through the newfound availability of erotic materials, or worried that the anti-pornography movement was a threat to free speech. Others became concerned with the implied alliance with the religious right (Brownmiller 308). A “feminist anti-anti-pornography” undercurrent began to develop, which included the “promotion of lesbian sadomasochism as a new oppressed minority” (314). It was clear that sexual imagery which could seem degrading and misogynistic to some, was arousing or liberating for others. Underlying arguments about pornography were deeper differences of philosophy on gender and sexuality that would prove to be divisive.

In her book, Live Sex Acts: Women Performing Erotic Labor, Wendy Chapkis examines the various arguments framing the “feminist sex wars,” and supplies a collection of interviews with women in the sex trade. Writing from a pro-prostitution feminist perspective, Chapkis provides a careful examination of competing ideologies around sex work, while demonstrating an awareness of her own bias. She provides a useful analysis of the divisions which characterized the sex wars of the 1970s and 1980s with a careful consideration of its legacy and impact on feminism. Part of her project is to “help heal the schism within feminism…around the subject of commercial sex,” arguing against the typical division of arguments around the sex wars into two distinct groups (Chapkis 1).

Chapkis examines two major ideologies which she identifies as Radical Feminism and Sex Radical Feminism, and details the underlying theoretical make-up of each of these major groups. “Pro-‘positive’ sex feminism” and “anti-sex feminism” are contained within the arguments associated with Radical Feminism (Chapkis 13). Sex Radical Feminism or Sex Radicalism includes “sexual libertarianism” and “sexual subversion” (26). These categories are useful in that they assist the reader in understanding that alliances can be declared by sources external to the conflict, over-simplifying complex arguments and obscuring areas of consensus.

Radical Feminism is associated with the anti-pornography movement of the late 70s and early 80s. Chapkis identifies “pro-‘positive’ sex” feminism as the arguments associated with “sexual romanticism,” articulated by feminist leaders like Gloria Steinem. The erotic is defined as “rooted in Eros or passionate love” (Chapkis 13). Pornography or other forms of commercialized sex are detrimental to this concept of sexuality, being devoid of love or intimacy. In this conceptual understanding of sexuality, certain practices are necessarily bad. A “male sexual style” is identified which is characterized by “objectification, promiscuity and emotional non-involvement.” Female sexuality is characterized by “affection, tenderness and commitment” (14). Pro-positive sex feminists aimed to abolish prostitution, and argued that women’s sexuality was threatened by the proliferation of pornography. Sexual romanticism can serve to define sexuality along gender lines, negating sexual expression which exists outside of romantic love. Further, criticism of pornography and prostitution goes well beyond the loss of Eros including concerns over sexualized violence, worker safety, promotion of rape culture and many other issues.

“Anti-sex feminism,” another component of Radical Feminism includes arguments which condemned prostitution, pornography and other forms of sex. Catherine MacKinnon articulates this argument, as she identifies “the very meaning of sex [as] male domination” (Chapkis 17). “Women Against Sex” argued that sex itself was suspect as a form of female degradation and domination by men. If sex is always an inherent act of male supremacy, there can be no real notion of consent in pornography or other forms of sex. Some proponents of these arguments imagined a “feminist future” in which sex would be “informed by an entirely different practice.” Important to this type of argument is the notion that “sex cannot be a tool for dismantling male supremacy” (18). This form of feminism objected to sexual romanticism as it reinforced notions of inherent gender difference. Anti-sex feminism is commonly confused with religious sexual repression, an unfortunate relationship which detracts from the feminist critique.  In an effort to eliminate gender hierarchy, women strategized by withholding sex as a way to reclaim sexual power. Under this theoretical framework, romanticist feminism is classified as liberal, in the sense that it aims to work with prevailing gender norms, and anti-sex feminism is classified as radical, in the sense that gender itself is challenged in an attempt to upend the patriarchy.

Sex Radical Feminism or Sex Radicalism is another important theoretical framework detailed by Chapkis, containing arguments around sexual libertarianism and sexual subversion. Both are concerned with “active engagement within the social order,” rather than with “purification” or “resistance” to various forms of sexual expression, whether commercial or private (Chapkis 21). Sexual libertarianism argues that the legitimacy of sexual acts are determined by the individual, rather than by society or community standards. Social hierarchies, including sexual inequality should not impose meaning to personal acts of sexual fulfillment. Feminist writer Camille Paglia opposes the anti-pornography movement, arguing that opposition to pornography makes one a “censor” and a “prude.” She argues that women hold sexual power over men, and rather than being cast as “slaves” or “victims” in sex work, they should rightly be viewed as “goddesses” (22). She reasons that women subjected to violence are personally responsible rather than that violence is caused by political or social factors. Sexual libertarian ideas are often expressed by producers of pornography, as individual consent is frequently emphasized over the larger social impact of its production and consumption. Objection to the commoditization of sexuality is not necessarily related to prudishness, as objection to commoditization and objection to sexuality itself are quite separate.

Other Sex Radical views are more concerned with the political and social context of sexuality as commodity. Marcy Sheiner of the magazine On Our Backs questions whether “arousal potential [should be] the sole criteria for what goes into a sex magazine” (Chapkis 23). Sexual subversion differs from sexual libertarianism in its interest in promoting an “erotic ethic,” which is concerned with the social implications of erotic materials and expression (24). Chapkis writes, “sex radical feminists…share with romanticist and anti-sex feminists a sense of outrage at the existing social order” (26). Sex Radicalism generally aims to engage and transform sexual expression from within, with a potential for “sex to be a cultural tactic which can be used both to destabilize male power as well as to reinforce it” (29). Sex work as “cultural tactic” is an idea that is difficult to quantify. Work concerned with the “erotic ethic” is a worthwhile endeavor, but it is important to consider not just the production but the consumption of commercial sex and consideration must be made to the market which may be intentionally drawn to unethical forms of sex work such as child pornography or forced prostitution.

Chapkis demonstrates that feminist thought on commercialized sex is more complicated than is generally discussed. Not all who comprised the anti-pornography movement were “anti-sex,” and not all who argued against it were insensitive to concerns about its quality or content. Her book, written in the late 1990s also demonstrates that the heated debates of the late 70s and 80s which defined the feminist sex wars did not end with the failed Dworkin and MacKinnon legislation and the loss of organization of what is now characterized as the second-wave feminist movement. Sexual romanticism and sexual libertarianism had in common that both theories accepted prevailing gender ideology, while anti-sex and sexual subversion arguments around commercial sex promoted the challenging of gender barriers, and sexual expression.

In considering arguments around pornography and other forms of commercialized sexuality, the notion of consent is crucial. Dworkin and others who promoted “anti-sex” ideology argued that within a male-dominated gender system, women were by nature of their gender subject to abuse through a sexual expression which had been defined and commoditized by men. Similarly, in the sex trade where women are at times prostituted and under the control and management of men, consent becomes questionable. Sexual subversion, where women reclaim agency within sex work, requires an amount of self-actualization which is not always demonstrated to be the case when women engage in these practices. From a social perspective, it is also important to consider not only the agency of performers of commercialized sex, but the effects on consumers in dealing with violent or oppressive sexual imagery and practices.

In Daring to Be Bad, Alice Echols argues that the radical feminism which played such an important part of the second-wave feminist movement was transformed into what she refers to as cultural feminism. Radicals who were interested in redefining gender and challenging the basic social order became less prominent as feminists interested in working within the dominant structure to create change came to shape and define the movement for the third-wave and now post-wave generations. The sex radicalism of which Chapkis identifies is more closely aligned with the idea of cultural feminism, wherein sex workers attempt to defy the mainstream conception of such work as demeaning, and participants as merely victims or objects. It is an attempt to commit radical acts of feminism within a traditionally male dominated structure.

The sex wars are important in understanding current conversations among feminists regarding pornography and other forms of commercial sex. Recent works including Female Chauvinist Pigs by Ariel Levy and Pamela Paul’s Pornified tackle the mainstreaming of pornography and the popularity of videos such as Girls Gone Wild, in which young women participate in mass produced “amateur” pornography. Some still try to maintain a distinction between “erotica” and “pornography,” or pursue alternative or “feminist pornography.” Some actors in the industry such as Nina Hartley self-identify as feminist and speak out in support of the mainstream industry. Dworkin and MacKinnon had an important impact on the sex wars, with their arguments often characterized as anti-male. Levy and Paul suggest that in order to be viewed as pro-sex, a woman must also be pro-pornography. It is important from a feminist perspective to be free to actively critique pornography in much the same way as other elements of media and culture, challenging overt and subtle forms of misogyny. It works to the benefit of a highly profitable industry for women to participate in their own objectification, and for those who question it to be cast as “man-haters.” Still relevant to the conversation about pornography are issues of violence against women, sex worker safety, and discussion around its effects on body image and sexuality, as well as theoretical analysis on how pornography reflects and reinforces gender roles.

Works Cited
Brownmiller, Susan. In Our Time: Memoir of a Revolution. New York: Dial, 1999. Print.
Chapkis, W. Live Sex Acts: Women Performing Erotic Labor. New York: Routledge, 1997. Print.
Echols, Alice. Daring to Be Bad: Radical Feminism in America, 1967-1975. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1989. Print.
“Feminist Views on Pornography.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Web. 20 Feb. 2011.
Lederer, Laura. Take Back the Night: Women on Pornography. New York: Morrow, 1980. Print.
Levy, Ariel. Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture. New York: Free, 2005. Print.
“Libertarians and Pro-sex vs. Dworkinite Radical Feminisms.” History News Network. Web. 24 Feb. 2011.
MacKinnon, Catharine A. Feminism Unmodified: Discourses on Life and Law. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1987. Print.
Paul, Pamela. Pornified: How Pornography Is Transforming Our Lives, Our Relationships, and Our Families. New York: Times, 2005. Print.