The feminist pornography debates, known as the “porn wars” or the “sex wars,” began in the US, the UK, and many other countries around the world in the early 1980s. These struggles have raised questions about the nature and effects of not only pornography but also prostitution and stripping, highlighting crucial debates about women’s agency and the role of structural forms of inequality in shaping women’s lives in patriarchy.
History Of Debates
There have been three major philosophical/political positions within feminism during these debates: (1) anti-pornography feminists, typically identified as “radical feminists”; (2) anticensorship feminists who are critical of misogynistic pornography but reject the legal approach radical feminists proposed; and (3) a pro-pornography group valorizing pornography as a discourse that subverts traditional gender norms and has liberatory potential for women’s sexuality. The growing strength of the postmodernism underlying this third position is representative of a larger trend away from the activist-oriented second wave of feminism toward a more academic-based theorizing. Since the 1980s, these debates have caused major divisions in the global feminist movement and continue to split feminists into anti- and pro-pornography camps.
The second wave of western feminism, beginning in the 1960s, gave rise to a radical feminist movement that argued male violence against women was one of the central patriarchal methods of control over women. The other major strand of second wave thinking, liberal feminism, focused on women’s subordinate social and legal status in the home and workplace, and tended not to highlight physical violence and sexual exploitation. For radical feminists, violence against women was theorized as a method of sexual terrorism, central to men’s economic and cultural control of women. Radical feminists argued that until women were free from violence and the fear of violence – in private and in public – legal or economic gains would not liberate women.
A grassroots anti-violence movement argued that sexual assault was an expression of, rather than an exception to, patriarchy’s sexual norms, and in response women created rape crisis centers, battered women’s shelters, and support groups for survivors of child sexual assault. Radical feminists exploring reasons for this violence looked at popular culture and pornography, given that in a mass-mediated society images help shape attitudes and behavior (i.e., in advertising, news, and entertainment media). Radical feminists criticized misogynistic images in all these media, as well as the underlying ideology that legitimized or celebrated violence against women.
This led to activist groups in the US, most prominently Women against Pornography (WAP) in New York, educating and protesting the harms of the pornography industry. Anti-pornography slide shows were distributed to local feminist groups and presented in private homes, local community groups, and colleges to help build a grassroots movement of women to organize against the pornography industry. WAP also gave guided tours of the shops in New York’s infamous Times Square pornography district to raise public awareness about the sexist nature of pornography. In March 1979, WAP organized a Times Square march that drew several thousand and generated national coverage that publicized the movement.
The first major radical feminist publication was Take back the night: Women on pornography (Lederer 1980), in which key researchers of violence such as Diana Russell and prominent feminists such as Alice Walker and Robin Morgan set out a framework for understanding pornography as a form of violence against women in both its production and use by men. This was followed a year later by Pornography: Men possessing women, which established Andrea Dworkin as the best-known anti-pornography feminist in the US and then increasingly around the world. Dworkin argued that pornography was one of the major ways patriarchy disseminated woman-hating propaganda.
Divisions Over The Ordinance
Although there was a flurry of this kind of anti-pornography critique and activism in the US in the late 1970s and early 1980s, radical feminists did not face organized opposition from other feminists until an anti-pornography legal strategy was developed by Dworkin and lawyer/law professor Catharine MacKinnon. Rejecting traditional criminal obscenity law, in 1983 they drafted for Minneapolis a civil rights ordinance that would allow women to pursue damages against producers and consumers. Passed by the City Council but vetoed twice by the mayor in Minneapolis, it was then passed and signed into law in Indianapolis in 1984. That ordinance, and the theory behind it, were rejected on constitutional grounds in the federal courts in 1986, though organizing efforts to pass the law in other jurisdictions continued through the early 1990s.
The ordinance proposed a shift in existing law, away from a moral framework about what kind of sex is consistent with the dominant sexual mores and toward a political one, focused on patriarchal power. Rooting the move in the radical feminist argument that women are oppressed in part through sexual subordination, Dworkin and MacKinnon identified pornography as a means of sexualizing inequality and a practice of sex discrimination. The ordinance created five causes of action women could pursue: coercion into making pornography; the forcing of pornography on unwilling people; assault resulting from pornography; defamation through pornography; and trafficking in pornography. The trafficking clause, allowing any woman to bring a case against any pornographer, was the broadest and hardest to square with contemporary interpretations of the First Amendment. The assault cause of action raised complex questions about pornography’s effects on not just attitudes but behavior.
Anti-censorship feminists were skeptical about state intervention in sexual matters, even under the umbrella of civil law that empowered women, and rejected the ordinance as a threat to women’s freedom and autonomy. The Feminist Anti-Censorship Task Force produced an argument – known as the FACT brief – that became a focus of debate between the two camps. Some of the women in FACT also articulated a pro-pornography position that became more prominent in the 1990s and 2000s, as the liberal rejection of the radical critique increasingly leaned toward the postmodern.
Much of the debate about pornography has concerned the question of effects. Does pornography, particularly material that eroticizes violence and/or domination, lead to increased sexual violence against women, children, and other vulnerable people? Pro-pornography feminists and some researchers argue there is no conclusive evidence. Others find evidence for effects with some groups of men. No one argues that pornography is the sole causal factor in rape; the question is whether use of pornography can be considered a sufficient condition for triggering a sexual assault in some men, and whether repeated exposure to pornography can contribute to the normalization of sex that is coercive, violent, and degrading.
Radical feminists argue that attention to the experiences of men and women – those who use pornography and against whom pornography is used – makes the connection clear. Such accounts, in light of laboratory work from social psychology, have led radical feminists to argue that, at a minimum, pornography (1) is one important factor in shaping a male-dominant view of sexuality; (2) can contribute to a user’s difficulty in separating sexual fantasy and reality; (3) is sometimes used to initiate victims and break down resistance to sexual activity; and (4) sometimes provides a training manual for men who sexually abuse women and children.
These camps are also divided on the nature of the pornography industry. For radical feminists, the production of pornography in patriarchy exploits women. While not denying the ability of women in the industry to make choices, the feminist anti-pornography movement focuses on the economic, social, and cultural factors that influence women’s choices to perform in pornography, such as histories of sexual abuse in childhood, the violence of pimps, and control by boyfriends and other men. Pro-pornography feminists counter this argument by insisting that women are making rational choices given the reality of employment opportunities and that some women prosper in the industry.
This is part of a much larger debate regarding the nature of work in the sex industry. Propornography feminists describe prostitutes, strippers, and women in pornography as sex workers who sell their labor, much like other workers, and argue that any problems should be addressed through union organizing and/or health regulations. Radical feminists reject the term “sex worker,” arguing that women in the sex industry do not perform work as it is typically understood. Most radical feminists are anti-capitalist and supportive of labor organizing, but see pornography as a practice central to the subordination of women and as a form of violence. Radical feminists point to the rates of post-traumatic stress disorder in women who are prostituted, as well as high levels of physical abuse and sexually transmitted diseases, evidence of the exploitative conditions of these women’s lives. Pro-pornography feminists argue that women in the sex industry freely enter into contractual agreements to sell their labor.
While most of the early arguments against the radical position focused on issues of free speech and the dangers of censorship in the 1980s and 1990s, such writing increasingly argues that pornography can be a subversive and libratory text, or indeed, that it has been controlled and domesticated for women’s pleasure (Juffer 1998). Many of these concepts have their origins in postmodernist theory, especially as developed by literary, art, and film scholars such as Linda Williams (2004) and Laura Kipnis (1996), focusing on the text and the power of readers to interpret meaning. The postmodern turn in the academy – a focus on the fluidity of meaning of texts with multiple meanings, depending on the subject position of the reader – has influenced feminist analysis that constructs the pornographic image as a complex text open to interpretation. This conflicts with the radical feminist argument that examines the meaning of the pornographic text in the context of the lives of the women who are used in the making and the women who will interact with the men who are the primary consumers. While pro-pornography feminists do not minimize the harm of men’s violence against women, they reject the idea that pornography is a central practice in patriarchal control of women.
One area of agreement concerns the making of child pornography, which is understood by virtually all as exploitation and an inherent violation of children. Yet while propornography feminists make a sharp distinction between sexually explicit material made with children and with adults, radical feminists make connections. While not arguing that adults in pornography have the status of children, radical feminists point to how pornography using adults also eroticizes subordination. Radical feminists point to common genres of pornography such as Hustler’s “Barely Legal” films, in which the adult women performing are dressed and posed in ways that suggest a younger age.
Although the pro-porn and radical feminists continue to disagree on key issues, there was little direct political engagement between the two camps in the late 1990s and early 2000s. That is in part because there have been no legal issues to focus the debate, and also because pro-porn feminists tend to concentrate more on writing for an academic audience and radical feminists focus on activism outside the academy.
- American Booksellers Association v. William H. Hudnut. Ordinance judged invalid, 598 F.Supp. 1316 (S.D. Indiana, 1984). Judgment affirmed, 771 F.2d 323 (7th Cir. 1985). Judgment affirmed, 106 S.Ct. 1172 (1986), and petition for rehearing denied, 106 S.Ct. 1664 (1986).
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- Dworkin, A. (1981). Pornography: Men possessing women. New York: Perigee.
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- Juffer, J. (1998). At home with pornography: Women, sexuality and everyday life. New York: New York University Press.
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- Lederer, L. (ed.) (1980). Take back the night: Women on pornography. New York: William Morrow.
- MacKinnon, C. (1993). Only words. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
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- Williams, L. (ed.) (2004). Porn studies. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.