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Feminist views on pornography range from condemnation of it as a form of violence against women to embrace of at least some forms as a medium of feminist expression, to a range of views between. Feminist debate on this issue reflects larger divisions around feminist views on sexuality, and are closely related to feminist debates on prostitution, BDSM, and other issues. Pornography and related issues have been some of the most divisive issues in feminism, particularly among feminists in anglophone countries. This deep division between feminists was exemplified in the Feminist Sex Wars of the 1980s, which pitted anti-pornography feminism against sex-positive feminism.


Anti-pornography feminism

Radical feminist opponents of pornography—such as Andrea Dworkin, Catharine MacKinnon, Robin Morgan, Diana Russell, Alice Schwarzer, and Robert Jensen—argue that pornography is harmful to women, and constitutes strong causality or facilitation of violence against women.

Harm to women during production

Anti-pornography feminists, notably Catherine MacKinnon, charge that the production of pornography entails physical, psychological, and/or economic coercion of the women who perform and model in it. This is said to be true even when the women are being presented as enjoying themselves.[1][2][3] 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.[4][5]

Anti-pornography feminists point to the testimony of well known participants in pornography, such as Traci Lords and Linda Boreman, and argue that most female performers are coerced into pornography, either by somebody else, or by an unfortunate set of circumstances. The feminist anti-pornography movement was galvanized by the publication of Ordeal, in which Linda Boreman (who under the name of "Linda Lovelace" had starred in Deep Throat) stated that she had been beaten, raped, and pimped by her husband Chuck Traynor, and that Traynor had forced her at gunpoint to make scenes in Deep Throat, as well as forcing her, by use of both physical violence against Boreman as well as emotional abuse and outright threats of violence, to make other pornographic films. Dworkin, MacKinnon, and Women Against Pornography issued public statements of support for Boreman, and worked with her in public appearances and speeches.

Social harm from consumption

Women reduced to sex objects

Anti-pornography feminists hold the view that pornography contributes to sexism, arguing that in pornographic performances, the actresses are reduced to mere receptacles—objects—for sexual use and abuse by men. They argue that the narrative is usually formed around men's pleasure as the only goal of sexual activity, and that the women are shown in a subordinate role. Some opponents believe pornographic films tend to show women as being extremely passive, or that the acts which are performed on the women are typically abusive and solely for the pleasure of their sex partner. MacKinnon and Dworkin defined pornography as "the graphic sexually explicit subordination of women through pictures or words".[6]

Enticement to sexual violence against women

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."[7]

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.[8]

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.

Anti-pornography feminist organizations and campaigns

Beginning in the late 1970s, anti-pornography radical feminists formed organizations such as Women Against Pornography, Women Against Violence and Pornography in Media, Women Against Violence Against Women, and like groups that provided educational events, including slide-shows, speeches, and guided tours of the sex shops in areas like New York's Times Square and San Francisco's Tenderloin District, 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 Revolutionary Feminism such as Women Against Violence Against Women and its direct action offshoot Angry Women.[9]

Some anti-pornography feminists, such as Nikki Craft, Ann Simonton, and Melissa Farley, have advocated and carried out civil disobedience and direct action against pornography and been arrested for public nudity. They campaign against corporations through destruction of single copies of magazines that contained violent pornography that they argue condones and legitimises rape as sexual entertainment. They advocate rejecting the representations of sexual objectification as exemplified in publications like Hustler and Penthouse.

Legislative efforts

Antipornography Civil Rights Ordinance

Many anti-pornography feminists—Dworkin and MacKinnon in particular—advocated laws which defined pornography as 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.[10]

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.[11]

Sex-positive and anti-censorship feminist views

Sex-positive feminism

Sex-positive feminism (also known as "pro-sex feminism") emphasizes the need for sexual liberation and sexual freedom as a key component of women's liberation. Pornography is seen as being at least potentially a medium for women's sexual expression in this view. Sex-positive feminists view many radical feminist views on sexuality, including views on pornography, as being as oppressive as those of patriarchal religions and ideologies, and argue that anti-pornography feminist discourse ignores and trivializes women's sexual agency. Ellen Willis (who coined the term "pro-sex feminism") states "As we saw it, the claim that 'pornography is violence against women' was code for the neo-Victorian idea that men want sex and women endure it."[12]

Sex-positive feminists take a variety of views towards existing pornography. Most view existing pornography as sexist and almost exclusive focused on the desires of heterosexual men. Nevertheless, many sex-positive feminists see even existing pornography as subverting many traditional ideas about women that they oppose, such as ideas that women do not like sex generally, only enjoy sex in a relational context, or that women only enjoy vanilla sex. Pornography often shows women in sexually dominant roles and presents women with a greater variety of body types than are typical of mainstream entertainment and fashion. Others view existing heterosexual male-oriented pornography as misogynist and rife with exploitation, but hold that feminist-produced and women-centered pornography is possible, and proposes to reform or radically alter the pornography industry.

Feminist critique of censorship

Many feminists regardless of their views on pornography are opposed on principal to censorship. Even many feminists who see pornography as a sexist institution, also see censorship (including MacKinnon's civil law approach) as a far greater evil than pornography. In its mission statement, Feminists for Free Expression argues that censorship has never reduced violence, but historically been used to silence women and stifle efforts for social change. They point to the birth control literature of Margaret Sanger, the feminist plays of Holly Hughes, and works like Our Bodies, Ourselves and The Well of Loneliness as examples of feminist sexual speech which has been the target of censorship. FFE further argues that the attempt to fix social problems through censorship, "divert[s] attention from the substantive causes of social ills and offer a cosmetic, dangerous 'quick fix.'" They argue that instead a free and vigorous marketplace of ideas is the best assurance for achieving feminist goals in a democratic society.[13]

Critics of anti-pornography feminism accuse their counterparts of selective handling of social scientific evidence. Anti-pornography feminists are also critiqued as intolerant of sexual difference and is characterized as often indiscriminately supporting state censorship policy and are accused of complicity with conservative sexual politics and Christian Right groups.

Several feminist anti-censorship groups have actively opposed anti-pornography legislation and other forms of censorship. These groups have included the Feminist Anti-Censorship Taskforce (FACT) and Feminists for Free Expression in the US and Feminists Against Censorship in the UK.

Feminists opposed to anti-pornography legislation argue that even when such legislation is feminist-inspired, it can potentially be used to target the speech of women and sexual minorities. They argue that this was exemplified by the first two anti-obscenity actions by the Canadian government following R. v. Butler. The first of these was the raid and prosecution of Glad Day Bookshop, an LGBT bookstore in Ontario, for selling copies of the lesbian BDSM magazine Bad Attitude. The second was the seizure at the Canadian border of books destined for the Vancouver, BC lesbian bookstore, Little Sisters (see Little Sisters Book and Art Emporium v. Canada (Minister of Justice)). Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon responded with a statement claiming that the idea that these raids reflected the application of pre-Butler standards and that it was actually illegal under Butler to selectively target LGBT materials.[14] However, opponents of Butler have countered that the decision simply reinforced an existing politics of censorship that pre-dated the decision.[15][16]

Anti-censorship feminists question why only some forms of sexist communication (namely sexually arousing/explicit ones) should be banned, while not advocating bans against equally misogynist public discourse. Susie Bright notes, "It's a far different criticism to note that porn is sexist. So are all commercial media. That's like tasting several glasses of salt water and insisting only one of them is salty. The difference with porn is that it is people fucking, and we live in a world that cannot tolerate that image in public."[17]

Views of pornographic actresses

Some pornographic actresses such as Nina Hartley,[18] Ovidie,[19], 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.[20] Some porn performers such as Nina Hartley are active in the sex workers' rights movement.

Feminist pornography

Pornography produced by sex-positive feminist women is a small but growing segment of the porn industry. 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."[21]

Since 2006, there has been a Feminist Porn Awards held annually in Toronto, sponsored by a local feminist sex toy business, Good for Her. The awards are given in a number of categories and have three guiding criteria: "1) A woman had a hand in the production, writing, direction, etc. of the work. 2) It depicts genuine female pleasure. 3) It expands the boundaries of sexual representation on film and challenges stereotypes that are often found in mainstream porn."[22][23][24]

Swedish filmmake Mia Engberg along with twelve different directors produced a collection of feminist pornographic short films titled Dirty Diaries which was released in September 2009. The financing for the the most part came from the Swedish Film Institute.

Specific issues

Pornography and erotica

Some anti-pornography feminists, such as Gloria Steinem, distinguish between "pornography" and "erotica", as different classes of sexual media, the former emphasizing dominance and the latter emphasizing mutuality. Steinem holds that, "These two sorts of images are as different as love is from rape, as dignity is from humiliation, as partnership is from slavery, as pleasure is from pain." Feminists who subscribe to this view hold that erotica promotes positive and pro-woman sexual values and does not carry the harmful effects of pornography.[25] Such feminists hold that erotica should not be subject to the same legislative opposition as 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.[26] Andrea Dworkin wrote, "erotica is simply high-class pornography: better produced, better conceived, better executed, better packaged, designed for a better class of consumer."[27]

Sex-positive feminists tend not to make a distinction between pornography and erotica, and those that have addressed the distinction made by Steinem and others find it problematic. Ellen Willis holds that the term 'erotica' is needlessly vague and euphemistic, and appeals to an idealized version of what kind of sex people should want rather than what arouses the sexual feelings people actually have. She also emphasizes the subjectivity of the distinction, stating, "In practice, attempts to sort out good erotica from bad porn inevitably comes down to 'What turns me on is erotica; what turns you on is pornographic.'"[28]

Some feminists make an analogous distinction between mainstream pornography and feminist pornography, viewing mainstream pornography as problematic or even wholly misogynistic while praising feminist pornography.[29][30]


  1. ^ Shrage, Laurie. (2007-07-13). "Feminist Perspectives on Sex Markets: Pornography". In: Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
  2. ^ Mackinnon, Catherine A. (1984) "Not a moral issue." Yale Law and Policy Review 2:321-345. Reprinted in: Mackinnon (1989). Toward a Feminist Theory of the State Harvard University Press. ISBN 0674896459 (1st ed), ISBN 0674896467 (2nd ed). "Sex forced on real women so that it can be sold at a profit to be forced on other real women; women's bodies trussed and maimed and raped and made into things to be hurt and obtained and accessed, and this presented as the nature of women; the coercion that is visible and the coercion that has become invisible—this and more grounds the feminist concern with pornography"
  3. ^ "A Conversation With Catherine MacKinnon (transcript)". Think Tank. PBS. Retrieved on 2009-09-01.
  4. ^ Dines, Gail. (2007-03-24). "Pornography & Pop Culture: Putting the Text in Context" Presentation at: Pornography & Pop Culture - Rethinking Theory, Reframing Activism. Wheelock College, Boston, March 24, 2007. Archived at Google Video.
  5. ^ Dines, Gail. (2008-06-23). "Penn, Porn and Me". CounterPunch. Retrieved 2009-09-06.   "The porn that makes most of the money for the industry is actually the gonzo, body-punishing variety that shows women’s bodies being physically stretched to the limit, humiliated and degraded. Even porn industry people commented in a recent article in Adult Video News, that gonzo porn is taking its toll on the women, and the turnover is high because they can’t stand the brutal acts on the body for very long."
  6. ^ MacKinnon, Catharine A. (1984). "Francis Biddle's sister: pornography, civil rights, and speech". Feminism Unmodified: Discourses on on Life and Law. Harvard University Press. (1987). pp. 163–197. ISBN 0-674-29874-8.   p 176.
  7. ^ Morgan, Robin. (1974). "Theory and Practice: Pornography and Rape". In: Going Too Far: The Personal Chronicle of a Feminist. (1977). Random House. 333 p. ISBN 0394482271. (1978 ed, ISBN 039472612X.)
  8. ^ Jeffries, Stuart. (2006-04-12). "Are women human? (interview with Catharine MacKinnon)". The Guardian. Retrieved 2009-09-01.  
  9. ^ "Angry Wimmin". Lefties. BBC Four. Retrieved on 2009-09-01. (Abstract.)
  10. ^ Brownmiller, Susan (1999). In Our Time: Memoir of a Revolution. New York: The Dial Press. p 298-299. ISBN 0-385-31486-8. p 318–321.
  11. ^ Joan Mason-Grant (2004). Pornography Embodied: From Speech to Sexual Practice. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield. p. 176, n. 30. ISBN 0-7425-1223-1.  
  12. ^ Willis, Ellen. (2005-10-18). "Lust Horizons: The 'Voice' and the women's movement". Village Voice. Retrieved 2009-09-02.  
  13. ^ "Feminists For Free Expression: Mission". Retrieved 2009-09-02.  
  14. ^ MacKinnon, Catharine A.; Andrea Dworkin. (1994-08-26). "Statement Regarding Canadian Customs and Legal Approaches to Pornography". Retrieved 2009-09-01.   (Archived at Andrea Dworkin Web Site.)
  15. ^ Strossen, Nadine (1995). Defending pornography: free speech, sex, and the fight for women's rights. Scribner. pp. 242–244. ISBN 0814781497.  
  16. ^ Gotell, Lise (1997). "Shaping Butler: the new politics of anti-pornography". in Brenda Cossman. Bad Attitude/s on Trial: Pornography, Feminism, and the Butler Decision. University of Toronto Press. pp. 48–106 (p 100). ISBN 0802076432.  
  17. ^ Bright, Susie. (1993-10). "The Prime of Miss Kitty MacKinnon". East Bay Express. Retrieved 2009-09-02.   (Republished, 1995 in: Sexwise, p 121–127, ISBN 1-57344-002-7. Archived at
  18. ^ Hartley, Nina. (1987). "Confessions of a feminist porno star". in Frédérique Delacoste & Priscilla Alexander. Sex Work: Writings by Women in the Sex Industry. Cleis Press. pp. 142–144. ISBN 1-57344-042-6.  
  19. ^ Ovidie. (2004). Porno Manifesto. La Musardine. ISBN 2842712374.   (In French).
  20. ^ Faludi, Susan. (2000). Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man. Perennial. ISBN 0-380-72045-0.
  21. ^ Taormino, Tristan. (2006-06-06). "Political Smut Makers". Village Voice. Retrieved 2009-09-01.  
  22. ^ "Feminist Porn Awards". Good for Her (website). Retrieved 2009-09-07.  
  23. ^ Walker, Susan. (2009-04-04). "Women behind the camera for new breed of adult film". Toronto Star. Retrieved 2009-09-07.  
  24. ^ Vogels, Josey. (2009-04-21). "Female-friendly porn". Metro. Retrieved 2009-09-07.  
  25. ^ Steinem, Gloria. 1983. "Erotica vs Pornography". In: Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions. New American Library. ISBN 0451155009 (1983 ed). ISBN 0805042024 (2nd ed).
  26. ^ LeMoncheck, Linda. (1997). Loose women, lecherous men: a feminist philosophy of sex. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0195105567. p 112.
  27. ^ Dworkin, Andrea. (1979). Pornography, Men Possessing Women. Perigee Books. ISBN 0-399-50532-6. p 10.
  28. ^ Willis, Ellen. (1979). "Feminism, Moralism, and Pornography". In Beginning to See the Light: Pieces of a Decade. New York: Knopf : distributed by Random House. ISBN 0-394-51137-9, (1st ed); ISBN 0819562556, (2nd ed).
  29. ^ McIntosh, Mary. (1996). "Liberalism and the contradictions of oppression". in Stevi Jackson and Sue Scott. Feminism and Sexuality: A Reader. Columbia University Press. pp. 333–341. ISBN 0231-10708-0.  
  30. ^ Valenti, Jessica. (2009). The Purity Myth: How America's Obsession with Virginity Is Hurting Young Women. Seal Press. ISBN 1-58005-253-3.   Chapter 4: "The Porn Connection", p 81–100.

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