Feminist views on pornography
The examples and perspective in this article deal primarily with the United States and do not represent a worldwide view of the subject. (January 2016) (Learn how and when to remove this template message)
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Feminist views on pornography range from condemnation of all of it as a form of violence against women, to an embracing of some forms as a medium of feminist expression. This debate reflects larger concerns surrounding feminist views on sexuality, and is closely related to those on prostitution, on BDSM, and other issues. Pornography has been one of the most divisive issues in feminism, particularly in anglophone (English-speaking) countries. This deep division was exemplified in the feminist sex wars of the 1980s, which pitted anti-pornography activists against sex-positive ones.
|Growing Up in a Pornified Culture, Gail Dines, TEDx|
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 a civil law to make pornographers accountable for harms that could be shown to result from the use, production, and circulation of their publications. When Dworkin testified before the Meese Commission in 1986, she said that 65 to 75 percent of women in prostitution and hard-core pornography had been victims of incest or child sexual abuse.
Andrea Dworkin's activism against pornography during the 1980s brought her to national attention in the United States.
Harm to women during production
Anti-pornography feminists, notably Catharine 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.
This section relies largely or entirely on a single source. (September 2020)
MacKinnon and Dworkin defined pornography as "the graphic sexually explicit subordination of women through pictures or words". According to Dworkin, the original definition of the word pornography was “the graphic depiction of whores.” “Whore” is a term that has historically been used to describe sex-workers. While there is some debate around the connotations of the word today, Dworkin’s use of this word alludes to the fact that sex-workers are frequently treated not as human but merely as objects for sexual gratification. As Johanna Schorn points out, “the very meaning of the word pornography, then and now, seems to point towards the misogynistic and exploitative practices of the industry."
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, including: viewing photographs of naked people, people engaging in sexual acts, accidental web searches, or opening online links to pornographic material. It has been found that 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. They were then 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 individuals 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 pointed 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’, then 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
Gail Dines claims that interviews she conducted with men incarcerated for the rape of a prepubescent child showed that all of the interviewed were at first "horrified at the idea" of raping a child, but started "habitual" consumption of images depicting sexual abuse of minors after becoming bored with regular porn. The sexual abuse then happened within six months.
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.
Harry Brod offered a Marxist feminist view, "I [Brod] would argue that sex seems overrated [to men] because men look to sex for fulfillment of nonsexual emotional needs, a quest doomed to failure. Part of the reason for this failure is the priority of quantity over quality of sex which comes with sexuality's commodification."
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.
Legislative and judicial efforts
Anti-pornography 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.
Dworkin and MacKinnon responded to the alleged violation of free speech principles by pointing out that the Ordinance was designed with an explicit goal of preventing its misinterpretation and abuse for the purpose of censorship or discrimination against sexual minorities. Their publication Pornography and Civil Rights serves as a manifesto backing the law, providing an extensive self-analysis and explanation of its intended meaning, and declaring the exact circumstances under which the law would apply.
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.
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 the anti-pornography 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.
Proposed Internet porn ban in Iceland
In 2013, though the production or sale of pornography was then already prohibited in Iceland, Minister of the Interior Ögmundur Jónasson proposed extending the ban to online pornography. Though the proposal was ultimately struck down by Icelandic Member of Parliament and free speech activist Birgitta Jónsdóttir, the ban was supported by many feminist groups including the Feminist Party of Germany, the London Feminist Network, the Coalition for a Feminist Agenda, and others. These groups claimed that legally limiting Internet pornography would promote violence prevention, proper sex education, and general public health.
Sex-positive and anti-censorship feminist views
The onset of third-wave feminism in the mid-1990s saw a rise in sex positivism and sex-positive feminists, who sought to combat and subvert socially mandated ideals surrounding sexuality. Sex-positive feminism considers some of the broader implications that normative, hegemonic pornography has on women. According to sex blogger Clarisse Thorn, “[Women are] encouraged to be into sex in a very performative way […]. On the one hand, if we don’t seem to enjoy sex in this very performative way, then we’re seen as ‘prudes’; at the same time, if we seem to enjoy sex too much then we’re seen as ‘sluts.’” According to some sex-positive feminists, 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." One potential consequence of normative discourses on women’s sexuality can be seen in the orgasm gap, a term used to describe the discrepancy between men’s and women’s orgasms in heterosexual, partnered sex. Some research has found that up to 70% of women do not orgasm during heterosexual intercourse and that as many as 30% of unmarried women who are sexually active have never experienced an orgasm. Research has also found that the most significant predictor of women’s orgasm is what women do during sex. In other words, women are not practicing the behaviours that bring them to orgasm during heterosexual intercourse, perhaps due to norms that are supported and reinforced by hegemonic pornography.
Although sex-positive feminists take a variety of views towards existing pornography, at the core of sex-positive feminism is the resistance of stigmas associated with female sexuality and advocacy for clear and enthusiastic consent. Many sex-positive feminists view pornography as subverting many traditional ideas about women's sexuality, such as ideas that women do not like sex generally, only enjoy sex in a relational context, or that women only enjoy vanilla sex. According to Johanna Schorn, sex-positive feminism aims to create a society in which sexuality “can be performed within a ‘safe’, ‘healthy’ and non-exploitative context.” In order to achieve this, the heteronormative, phallocentric structure that the pornography industry relies upon must be broken apart and restructured to allow for the acceptance and inclusion of narratives that have traditionally been ignored in porn. Sex-positive pornography sometimes shows women in sexually dominant roles and features women with a greater variety of body types than are typical of mainstream entertainment and fashion. Participation from a variety of women in these roles allows for a fulfillment of a multitude of sexual identities and free expression.
In some parts of the world, sex-positive feminism and the promotion of pornography as a form of free expression have become more mainstream. In France, Paris had its first three-day SNAP! (Sex Workers Narrative Art & Politics) festival in November, 2018. The festival worked to gain recognition of pornography and other sex work as art but also sought to acknowledge the political and controversial aspects.
Feminist critique of censorship
Many feminists regardless of their views on pornography are opposed on principle to censorship. Even the 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, founded in 1992 by Marcia Pally, 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.
Critique of censorship has become especially prevalent in China, where pornography is strictly prohibited, and the ownership or sale of pornographic materials can mean life in prison. Feminists like Li Yinhe openly oppose the censorship of pornography and advocate for its decriminalization. Looking to many western countries as an example, Yinhe emphasizes the importance of freedom of expression and cites the 35th article of the Constitution of the People's Republic of China in declaring the right to pornography as a form of free speech.
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[who?] 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.
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.
According to Tristan Taormino, "Feminist porn both responds to dominant images with alternative ones and creates its own iconography." Erika Lust argues that everyone in the porn industry has their own ethical standards, and that the worldviews and values of the directors, screenwriters and producers are the key to how well performers are treated, and how desire, gender roles and agency are presented to consumers. According to Lust, 'ethics can also exist in the porn industry, and should be enforced'.
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. Her 1978 essay "Erotica and Pornography: A Clear and Present Difference" was one of the first attempts to make this distinction on etymological grounds, and in her 1983 book Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions, Steinem argues 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."
However, some feminists tend not to make a distinction between pornography and erotica, and those who 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.'" Pip Christmass (1996) commented: 'Gloria Steinem's well-known essay, "A Clear and Present Difference" (1978), articulates what many of us might like to think are the fundamental differences between the two; but as it has often been pointed out, erotica is sometimes indistinguishable from pornography in that it is no less predictable, formulaic, or repetitive than its less culturally acceptable counterpart. As many critics are beginning to suggest, the traditional cultural division between erotica (supposedly aimed at a primarily female market) and pornography (as a masturbatory aid for men) is somewhat simplified.'
Some feminists[who?] 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[who?] argue against pornography because it can be viewed as demeaning and degrading to women and men. Some[who?] argue that pornography is used by men as a guide to hate, abuse, and control women.
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.
Tristan Taormino 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.
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