The following is an essay I wrote, and have recently submitted, for my Sexualities class. A bit long perhaps but the blog’s been kind of short of stuff recently and I thought it might interest some people. Have included the bibliography in case anyone wants to do some further reading.
In this essay I will discuss the issue of pornography which has divided feminists for decades and was, above all else, the defining issue of the so-called ‘feminist sex wars’ of the 1980s. For radical feminists, pornography is widely seen as a form of male violence against women and is believed to contribute to a patriarchal and heteronormative ideology in which women are reduced to objects existing purely for men’s sexual gratification. Many of those liberal or socialist feminists who support pornography on the other hand emphasise its supposed potential to bring about sexual liberation and openness and to allow women to more freely express their sexual needs and desires in a world where traditionally only men have been seen as enjoying a sexually active role. Such feminists claim also that any form of censorship would be inherently detrimental to the rights of women and other historically oppressed or marginalised groups. Although the definition of pornography among feminists and academics is widely disputed I will, for the purposes of this essay, accept the dictionary definition of pornography as being “printed or visual material containing the explicit description or display of sexual organs or activity, intended to stimulate sexual excitement” (Oxford Dictionary, 2011).
While the above definition is largely neutral and would encompass a diverse range of erotic material I feel it is important to place most of my focus on those forms of pornography most prevalent within society and which, it can reasonably be assumed, have the greatest impact and influence within the sexual sphere. In this essay I will attempt to explore in more detail some of the feminist debates around pornography, making particular reference to recent developments and research which has been carried out on the issue. Fundamentally important to any understanding, from a feminist perspective, of pornography and how it operates is the issue of power relations and inequalities between the sexes. I will discuss, in detail, the capacity of pornography to either assist or hinder in the building of a more egalitarian and sexually liberated society. For an understanding of what such a society may look like I will, in particular, draw upon prominent radical feminist writers such as Millett and Dworkin who have been instrumental in having sexuality recognised as a sphere through which gender relations built upon male dominance and female submission can be recreated and reinforced.
The emergence of the so-called ‘second wave’ of feminism in the 1960s coincided which what is widely referred to as the sexual revolution. At this time many people began to rebel against the traditional religious and family-based notions of sexual morality which had regained support and prominence in the 1950s. Growing tolerance towards, for example, sex outside marriage, homosexual relationships and public expressions of sexuality went alongside the development of new methods of birth control, heralding a major shift away from the view of sex as existing ideally for procreation within marriage and in favour of an embracing of sex for recreation. During this period in many countries homosexuality was legalised and restrictions on abortion also began to be lifted. Pornography too was legalised in a number of countries, the first being Denmark in 1969.
Many feminists, according to Jeffreys (1990: 227), initially looked upon the changes surrounding the sexual revolution as a positive development and embraced the work of sexologists such as Masters and Johnson. As she writes “it is important to understand the great feeling of liberation that women experienced when they were suddenly able to talk about sex with other women and see themselves as sexual actors” (Jeffreys, 1990: 227). At this time, according to Jeffreys (1990: 232-233), feminists generally adopted a “male model of what constituted sexual liberation” with women expected to “initiate male sexuality and become efficient, aggressive sexual performers”. There was Jeffreys (1990: 239) claims “no understanding that men and women existed in a power relationship and that male and female sexuality were constructed through material relations of power and powerlessness such that they could not be changed easily by an act of will”. Increasingly however, attention to issues such as rape and male violence were to lead, from the early 1970s onwards, to a more critical analysis of the role of sexuality and its social construction under patriarchy. One of the most prominent and influential of the early radical feminist writers was Kate Millett who in 1970 published the book Sexual Politics.
Millett in her book focusses largely on society’s views and norms around sexuality as expressed through a number of prominent male writers such as D.H. Lawrence and Henry Miller, highlighting the extent to which it mirrors patriarchal roles and norms about male dominance and female submission. Millett (1970: 23) writes that “coitus can scarcely be said to take place in a vacuum; although of itself it appears a biological and physical activity, it is so deeply set within the larger context of human affairs that it serves as a charged microcosm of the variety of attitudes and values to which culture subscribes. Among other things, it may serve as a model of sexual politics on an individual or personal plane”. By ‘politics’ here Millett means what she describes as “power-structured relationships, arrangements whereby one group of persons in controlled by another”.
Throughout the 1970s there was a surge in the number of feminist writings focussed around sexuality. One of the examples of this is Against Our Will by Brownmiller which drew attention to rape as a practice central to men’s dominance and power over women. Pornography too became an increasingly important focus of feminist anger with Andrea Dworkin among its most prominent opponents. In 1977 Dworkin (1977: 200-201) gave her first speech on the subject of pornography describing it as “the propaganda of sexual fascism”, claiming that it represented a “new campaign of terror and vilification” being waged against women (Dworkin, 1977: 200-201). Pornography, according to Dworkin (1977: 201-202), is based on the “debilitating lie that the sexual humiliation of women for fun, pleasure and profit is the inalienable right of every man” and “actively promotes violent contempt for the integrity and rightful freedom of women”.
Pornography and feminism have many things in common. They both focus on women as sexual beings. Pornography dwells on the physical act of sex itself; feminism examines the impact of sex upon women-historically, economically, politically, and culturally… Pornography is one of the windows through which women glimpse the sexual possibilities that are open to them. It is nothing more or less than freedom of speech applied to the sexual realm. Feminism is freedom of speech applied to women’s sexual rights… Both pornography and feminism rock the conventional view of sex. They snap the traditional ties between sex and marriage, sex and motherhood… In other words, pornography and feminism are fellow travellers. And natural allies. (McElroy, 1995).
The anti-pornography movement which had, by the early 1980s, gained considerable support and strength within the feminist movement and come to be represented, perhaps most prominently by Dworkin, MacKinnon and Russell in the US and by Jeffreys and Itzin in the UK, prompted a backlash by many feminists. One of the milestones in the development of a more sympathetic position to pornography was the 1982 Barnard Conference on sexuality which was held in New York and attended by a group of socialist and liberal feminists. One of those in attendance was Gayle Rubin who later published the paper Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of Sexuality, offering a substantially different analysis of sexuality to that prevalent within radical feminism. The basis of her argument is that different forms of sexual behaviour have, as a result of a legacy of religious-inspired moralism, been placed on a hierarchy with some seen as ‘good’ and healthy and others as ‘bad’ and immoral (Rubin, 1984: 281). Among those seen as ‘good’ are sex which is heterosexual, takes place in private and within the context of marriage and is non-commercial. ‘Bad’ sex on the other includes sex which is homosexual, casual or promiscuous or which involves sadomasochism, pornography or the exchange of money. It can also involve paedophilia which Rubin (1984: 281) refers to euphemistically as ‘cross-generational’ sex. Rubin (1984: 275-284) believes that a progressive approach to sexuality would involve eradicating social stigma relating to sexuality, championing sexual variation and defending the rights of sexual ‘minorities’.
Particularly in the US an issue which galvanised opposition to the radical feminist analysis of pornography is its perceived support for censorship. Those feminists supportive of pornography often claim that their opponents want to give the state the power to ban or censor any form of erotic material, moves which they believe would directly damage the struggle for women’s liberation and for equality between the sexes. Nadine Strossen (1995: 30-32), for example, writes that:
freedom of speech consistently has been the strongest weapon for countering misogynistic discrimination and violence, and censorship consistently has been a potent tool for curbing women’s rights and interests. Freedom of sexually oriented expression is integrally connected with women’s freedom, since women traditionally have been straightjacketed precisely in the sexual domain, notably in our ability to control our sexual and reproductive options… All censorship measures throughout history have been used disproportionally to silence those who are relatively disempowered and who seek to challenge the status quo. Since women and feminists are in that category, it is predictable that any censorship scheme – even one purportedly designed to further their interests – would in fact be used to suppress expression that is especially important to their interests.
What can perhaps be seen to unite some of the approaches and arguments used by some of the above writers sympathetic to pornography is their lack of focus on the continued existence of power structures and hierarchies and on the failure of modern society to achieve anything approaching real and meaningful equality between women and men. Pornography is assumed to offer both men and women equal opportunities through which to express their sexual desires and needs while the influence of patriarchal norms and power differences in shaping how men and women differentially experience sex are glossed over or ignored. Equally scant attention is paid to the increasingly influential role played by the commercial and largely male-controlled porn industry in creating narrow and restrictive norms around gender and sexuality.
Gayle Rubin’s analysis of sexuality, while perhaps providing some insight into society’s attitudes towards certain forms of sex, does not take into account the power differences existing between women and men under patriarchy. It also risks simply replacing one form of social pressure with another. Stark (2004: 278-279) writes, for example, that it “merely reproduces the conservative patriarchal dichotomy between madonna and whore. Sex radicals simply reverse the valuation attached to the two sides: here bad girls are to be celebrated for their rebellion and audacity, while good girls are scorned and mocked as boring, repressed and obedient.” A genuine sex radicalism would, Stark (2004: 280) writes, mean “recognizing structures of inequality and oppression, working towards egalitarian relationships, and aligning with those (whether minorities or majorities) who do not have social or political power – such as women and children hurt in pornography and prostitution.”
The centring of the debate around censorship is also arguably misleading. Few radical feminists have ever called for state censorship on a mass scale, advocating instead either laws against misogynistic hate speech similar to those that exist in many European countries against incitement to racial hatred or, alternatively, the establishment of a system whereby women are able to sue porn-producers for any harm experienced either through the production or distribution of their material (ie. the Dworkin-MacKinnon Ordinance). The straightforward belief that any form of state intervention is inherently detrimental to the cause of women’s rights can, in addition, be criticised as simplistic at a time when various forms of gender equality legislation have made a positive difference in other areas of life. Moreover, to equate freedom for the porn industry with freedom for women to express and enjoy their own sexualities is rightfully seen as absurd by many of the feminist opponents of commercial pornography.
The very meaning of sexual freedom itself within a patriarchal society has also been questioned and critiqued within radical feminism. In a highly stratified and unequal society in which patriarchal gender norms are widely seen as both natural and inevitable it is unrealistic to assume that unrestricted sexual freedom would benefit both men and women equally. As Stoltenberg (1990: 67) explains, freedom and justice cannot be separated from each other with freedom being the “result of justice” for those groups which have been historically oppressed and not the other way round. According to Stoltenberg (1990: 67-68):
The popular concept of sexual freedom in this country has never meant sexual justice. Sexual-freedom advocates have cast the issue only in terms of having sex that is free from… institutional interference, sex that is free from being constrained by legal, religious and medical ideologies; sex that is free from any outside intervention… Sexual freedom has never really meant that individuals should have sexual self- determination, that individuals should be free to act out of that integrity in a way that is totally within their own right to choose. Sexual freedom has never really meant that people should have absolute sovereignty over their erotic being. And the reason for this is simple: Sexual freedom has never really been about sexual justice between men and women. It has been about maintaining men’s superior status, men’s power over women; and it has been about sexualizing women’s inferior status, men’s subordination of women. Essentially, sexual freedom has been about preserving a sexuality that preserves male supremacy.
In the decades since the height of the so-called ‘feminist sex wars’ in the 1980s there has been a massive increase in the size and scale of the porn industry and pornography has become an increasingly accepted and mainstream part of cultural life. In the US alone around 13,000 new pornographic film titles are released every year and worldwide annual profits for the industry were estimated in 2006 at $96 billion (Dines, 2010: 47). Increasingly porn use has become almost universal for young males and the vast majority of young women, although generally far less frequent consumers of pornography, have viewed pornographic content at least one. A recent study carried out across the Nordic countries, for example, which interviewed 14-18 year olds, found that 99% of young males and 86% of females had come into contact with pornography (Sørensen and Knudsen, 2006: 49). At the same time as pornography has flourished, other aspects of the sex industry have also expanded massively such as prostitution, strip clubs and sex tourism. Expressing the frustrations of many feminists at such developments, D.A. Clarke (2004: 153-154) writes:
In the twenty-some years of my adult life as a feminist – despite passionate and well-informed efforts and despite limited victories in many other areas of political struggle – we seem to have made zero or negative progress in challenging or restraining the men who buy and sell, rent or lease, women and girls. Nor have we reduced the appetite of men … for grotesque imagery of female humiliation, pain, and fear. The twin industries of pornography and prostitution have boomed worldwide and the degree of misogyny deemed acceptable in everyday cultural life has ratcheted upwards to levels I would not have believed possible.
Considering the sheer scale of the pornographic industry today and the extent to which it has entered the cultural mainstream it is reasonable to assume that it shapes our sexual behaviour, attitudes and gender norms in a number of complex ways. As Gail Dines (2010: 47-48) notes “the scale of the pornography industry has important implications. In a profound sense, the entertainment industries do not just influence us; they are our culture, constituting our identities, our conceptions of the world, and our norms of acceptable behaviour”. The simplistic assertion by many that pornography is ‘fantasy’ and as a result has little effect on how people live their lives must therefore naturally be discarded by those serious about understanding pornography’s role in contemporary society. I will now look in more detail at the images coming out of the commercial porn industry, the messages they portray and how individual men and women relate to, and are affected by, such images.
One of the most fundamental arguments presented in opposition to pornography by radical feminists has been that it is a form of male violence against women and consists of images displaying hatred and contempt. This allegedly violent nature of pornography has however been disputed by a number of liberal and socialist feminists. Dworkin has, for example, been heavily criticised for focussing on the very worst and most extreme examples while largely ignoring the types of pornography most commonly viewed or purchased. Avedon Carol (1994: 42-43), a founding member of Feminists Against Censorship, writes that during the late 1970s and early 1980s she watched and analysed a significant amount of pornography and “found few portrayals that could honestly be described as ‘violence’”. Carol goes so far as to claim that “pictures of dominant males were rare” and concludes that “violence against women is not a very popular sexual fantasy for males”. Regardless of which of these opposing views were closer to the truth at the time there is little doubt that the content of pornography has changed in recent decades and has, in many people’s minds, become more violent and extreme.
According to Dines (2010: xvii) pornography’s images today have “become so extreme that what used to be considered hard-core is now mainstream pornography. Acts that are now commonplace in much of online porn were almost non-existent a couple of decades ago”. Similarly a content analysis study by Bridges et al. (2010) which analysed the content of dozens of best selling pornographic films found that acts coded as ‘aggressive’ took place in almost 90% of scenes. As they write:
On the whole, the pornographic scenes analyzed in this study were aggressive; only 10.2% of scenes did not contain an aggressive act. Across all scenes, a total of 3,375 verbally and physically aggressive acts were observed. Of these, 632 were coded as instances of verbal aggression and 2,743 were coded as instances of physical aggression. On average, scenes had 11.52 acts of either verbal or physical aggression and ranged from none to 128. Physical aggression was much more common than verbal aggression, occurring in 88.2% of the scenes, whereas expressions of verbal aggression occurred in 48.7% of the scenes. By far, the most common verbally aggressive act was name calling (e.g., “bitch,” “slut”). Spanking (35.7% of physically aggressive acts), gagging (27.7%), and open-hand slapping (14.9%) were the most frequently observed physically aggressive acts. Other physically aggressive acts recorded included hair-pulling (10.1%), choking (6.7%), and bondage or confinement (1.1%) (Bridges et al., 2010: 1075).
The definitions of ‘violence’ and ‘aggression’ used in this study are naturally open to debate and other studies into the content of pornography have used differing or more limited definitions of these terms. What is harder to dispute however is the information which Bridges et al. (2010: 1076) have gathered on the distribution of aggressive acts by gender. Women, they write:
were overwhelmingly the targets of aggressive acts. Across all acts of aggression, both physical and verbal, 94.4% were directed toward women. Men were the perpetrators of aggression more than twice as often as women, committing 70.3% of the aggressive acts recorded. In contrast, women were perpetrators of 29.4% of all aggressive acts. Even when women were perpetrators, their targets were frequently other women (17.7%). Men were targets of only 4.2% of aggressive acts perpetrated by women.
Those acts of violence listed in the above study can perhaps be seen as just one of many ways in which porn exemplifies, recreates and reinforces the gender roles and norms prevalent within wider society. Sex under patriarchy is conceptualised, radical feminists would argue, as an act of male dominance over women and the role of women during sex is believed primarily to be that of pleasuring men. Pornography may help, as some of its supporters argue, to break down the traditional notion that women don’t or shouldn’t enjoy sex, but it does not in any way shatter basic patriarchal norms of male dominance and female submission. On the contrary it eroticises them and places new demands on women to, not just accept, but to openly embrace and appear to enjoy their expected roles under patriarchy. As Dines (2010: xxiii) points out:
The messages that porn disseminates about women can be boiled down to a few essential characteristics: they are always ready for sex and are enthusiastic to do whatever men want, irrespective of how painful, humiliating, or harmful the act is. The word ‘no’ is glaringly absent from porn women’s vocabulary. These women seem eager to have their orifices stretched to full capacity and sometimes beyond, and indeed, the more bizarre and degrading the act, the greater the supposed sexual arousal for her… Even though these women love to be fucked, they seem to have no sexual imagination of their own: what they want always mirrors what the man wants.
Pornography and its users
An issue that took prominence at the time of the ‘feminist sex wars’ was pornography’s relationship to rape and other forms of sexual violence and its impact on the attitudes and behaviour of its users. Supporters of pornography often demanded proof of it as a direct cause of rape, using the apparent absence of any clear evidence as a pretext for denying that pornography had any effect at all. As Jensen (2007: 102-103) points out the issue is far more complicated than a straightforward assertion that pornography either does or does not cause rape and to prove either one way or the other through the use of laboratory studies is extremely difficult, if not impossible. The methods used in such studies, and the pervasiveness of pornography within society as a whole, make them unreliable for such a purpose. Despite this it would nevertheless be a mistake to completely discount the usefulness of research studies in the field of pornography. A meta-analysis of over thirty studies into the effects of pornography found, for example, that watching it led to an increase in aggressive behaviour amongst the viewer while another of forty six separate studies found that pornography increased the likelihood of its viewers committing sex offences, accepting rape myths as true and having problems in their personal relationships (Banyard, 2010: 161-162).
For a more sophisticated analysis we need to consider pornography’s role in upholding what some have referred to as a ‘rape culture’. By this it is meant a society in which rape myths are prevalent, male violence endemic, and where men commonly believe they have a natural right to pressure women into sex or make demands of them to that effect. All the evidence, it could be argued, points in the direction of us living in such a society. A recent study in Toronto found, for example, that 54% of the women interviewed had been sexually abused by the age of 16 (Jensen, 2007: 49). In another study exploring women’s experiences of sexual abuse only 27% of those who had been subjected to behaviour legally defined as rape chose to define themselves as rape victims, suggesting that such behaviour is normalised to the extent of it becoming invisible (Jensen, 2007: 48). Pornography, it can be argued, feeds into and reinforces the very attitudes that lead to male violence in the first place and is an increasingly important factor in the socialisation of young males under patriarchy. According to Dines (2010: 86):
As boys grow up as men, they are inundated with messages from the media, messages that both objectify women’s bodies and depict women as sex objects who exist for male pleasure. These images are part and parcel of the visual landscape and hence are unavoidable. They come at boys and men from video games, movies, television ads, and men’s magazines, and they supply them with a narrative about women, men and sexuality. What porn does is take these cultural messages about women and present them in a succinct way that leaves little room for multiple interpretations.
Young women too have come to view porn in large numbers but their relationship towards it differs in a number of ways. A survey of Swedish teenagers, for example, when inquiring about their attitudes to pornography, found that 71.6% of young women answered ‘quite’ or ‘very’ negative as opposed to 22.6% of young men. In addition 68.6% of females said that the position “pornography is degrading” was something they agreed with either entirely or to a large extent. The comparable figure for those males surveyed meanwhile was 37% (Medierådet, 2006: 38). Finally when asked whether or not they felt ‘turned on’ as a result of watching pornographic films 32.6% of young women answered either ‘quite’ or ‘very’ as opposed to 74.4% of young males (Medierådet, 2006: 40). It would be reasonable to conclude from the study that young people of both sexes hold often mixed views towards pornography with some considering it both to be arousing and degrading at the same time. There is however a huge gap between the attitudes held by men and women and a clear majority of women, unlike men, would appear to see pornography in a negative light.
In a society where sexual violence and abuse is endemic and where women increasingly feel pressured to completely remove their pubic hair (Walter, 2010: 108) or to perform acts such as anal sex for their partners despite finding it painful (Flood, 2010: 171), it is increasingly important that a critical perspective towards pornography is heard. Young women, according to the study above, largely see pornography as ‘negative’ and ‘degrading’ while young men are socialised, partly through pornography, into a belief in their own sexual superiority and right to demand certain acts from women. Despite this there has been, according to Walter (2010: 106), a “muffling of dissent around pornography” and many are unwilling to criticise porn for fear of being derided as ‘prudish’, ‘puritanical’ or ‘anti-sex’. Pro-porn feminists, it can be argued, regularly contribute to the silencing of any critical debate around the role of pornography by falsely dismissing their opponents as ‘conservative’ or ‘right-wing’ or attributing their hostility towards commercial pornography to a fear of sex per-se (Jeffreys, 1990: 268-269).
Pornography is an issue which has, both historically and in the present day, been the scene of bitter disputes within feminism. As has been argued, some of these disputes have emerged out of a different understanding, between the two sides, of the role of power inequalities and of those capitalist and patriarchal structures which shape, and serve to restrict, our choices in life. To argue, as many supporters or defenders of pornography do, that only absolute freedom to the individual will allow women to express themselves sexually, or to challenge male-dominant assumptions about sex, is clearly misleading in a world where power, wealth and access to the media are distributed to such an uneven degree. Only once genuine sexual justice and self-determination have been achieved by women shall both sexes have an equal opportunity to, through pornography and other forms of media, express themselves sexually and to influence, define or abolish those gendered roles, norms and assumptions which exist within the sexual sphere. The mere entry of more women into positions of power within the porn industry under patriarchy would not necessarily lead to any positive change since, in the words of Corsianos (2007: 875), “identification within… (hetero)sexist ideologies is so pervasive, so internalized, that many ‘women’… believe they are the authors of their life’s scripts and that they are free to choose how they will define themselves sexually, which includes their sexual performances”.
The massive expansion of the sex and porn industries in recent decades and the ongoing pornification of popular culture makes a critique of pornography more relevant and important than ever before for those feminists concerned with bringing about fundamental change in the prevailing roles and norms around gender and sexuality. Pornography, as argued above, has become increasingly violent and, in its most common forms, serves to reinforce and recreate ideas of male dominance and female submission and of women’s supposed role of existing to serve men sexually while making little or no demands of their own. While strong reservations about pornography and its role in society continue to be felt by many these are often silenced, ignored or ridiculed by a patriarchal discourse which denounces any criticism of male-dominant sexuality as ‘puritanical’ or ‘anti-sex’.
I have focussed, in this essay, almost exclusively on mainstream, commercial, heterosexual pornography and it would be wrong to see this as representative of all porn in existence either now or in the future. Some feminists advocate, for example, the production of alternative forms of pornography to challenge those hegemonic images of gender and sexuality endlessly promoted within patriarchal, capitalist society. While automatically dismissing or rejecting such an approach would be a mistake, it is important that feminists who advocate it do so, not as an alternative but rather as a complement to, existing efforts to continually highlight, expose and challenge those images, stories and messages about women, men and sexuality presented by the commercial, capitalist and patriarchal porn industry.
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