[The following is a term paper written for my last Women’s Studies class for my split minor for the History degree at University of Arizona.]
Feminism and Pornography – A Study of the Divisions Within Feminism
May 8, 2001
Eric V. Gonnason
Gender, Culture and Capitalism
Dr. Miranda Joseph
May 8, 2001
Feminists’ approach to pornography is a multi–facetted object of study. Not satisfied with the response of a member of the Tucson Women’s Commission in 1989 to my inquiry regarding the virtual silence by area feminists on the subject of pornography, whose answer was that insufficient monetary resources were available, discovered after more than a decade that there is much more to the picture than the simple lack of resources. Simply stated, feminists are not at all unified on the subject nor on how, or even whether to deal with it. The following essay will examine the major fulcrums upon which factions of the Feminist Movemnet are leveraged against one another: heterosexual vs. lesbian, equity vs. gender, even generational – older vs. younger, and some of the issues upon which they they disagree.
Prior to the invention of still photography, and later motion pictures, both of which relied upon actual persons to fulfill roles or serve as models or subjects, pornography had relied upon hand–drawn, painted, sculpted or written and printed media. With the technological breakthrough of chemical–based, light–reactive photography during the nineteenth century, it became necessary to use real–live humans in real or simulated poses, from simple displays of nudity up to and including actual sex acts. The means by which persons, specifically women, were to be persuaded, coerced, forced or drugged into setting aside personal inhibitions to pose or perform for the camera would become the catalyst for much of the debate surrounding pornography.
One of the only times feminists truly organized and conducted mass action to protest pornography came in the late 1970s during a series of “Take Back the Night” rallies and protest marches. One of the largest of these was a march of 5,000 persons in New York City in 1979. (Diane Minor, NOW Newsletter, April Rally to Go Down in History, March, 1995.) After this brief flurry of indignation, little would ever be heard again from the ranks of organized feminism against the production and/or dissemination of pornography.
This new and strange silence would remain a source of puzzlement until now.
Probably the most prominent case arising from the pornography industry would be that of Linda Lovelace, “star” of Deep Throat, the first hard core pornographic film to be screened in big screen, otherwise mainstream movie theaters. Though compelled not only to perfom oral sex with both men and animals, she claimed to have been forced to declare publicly that she had enjoyed what she was doing and persons who didn’t were sexually repressed. Later revelations of having been forced into such behavior have been exhaustively documented in two books by Lovelace (now living under her married name of Linda Marchiano): Ordeal (1980), Out of Bondage, and in Gloria Steinem’s essay “The Real Linda Lovelace,” contained in Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions (1983). Lovelace has consistently maintained that women who are used in the manner she was are normally killed if they attempt to escape. She also claims that the prominence of her name has contributed greatly to her longevity.
[Linda Boreman Lovelace Marchiano died on April 22, 2002 as a result of massive injuries suffered in a one–car rollover accident in which she had been thrown from the vehicle, having failed to fasten her seatbelt. However, owing to the control over pornography and prostitution maintained by organized crime, and over any persons who have ever been associated with it, this can only have been a most suspicious “accident.” E.V.G.]
Her harrowing accounts of daily beatings, death threats and intimidation are the norm for women of her experience. Dany La Combe, referring to “anti–pornography feminists” concurs that Lovelace’s “…experience was not exceptional. Most women in the sex trade are victims and abused women.”
In Steinem’s words, “Surely, a victim of anti–Semitism would know the Jewish community was there to help, or … of racism would look to the civil rights movement. But feminist groups are not yet strong enough to be a presence in the world of pornography, prostitution and gynocide…”
Nor, as we shall see, would they ever be. As we may also conclude, they may have been a factor in socially legitimizing the vast expansion of the capitalistic, commercialized sex exploitation industry simply by their inaction. Steinem goes on to proclaim that “…to condemn pornography is not to condemn sex, nor even to condone censorship. The question…” she continues, “…is freewill: Are the subjects…there by choice,or by coercion, economic or physical?” Steinem goes further to challenge her reader “…to walk through the center for prostitution that exists in your city or town – figure out how you can protest it.”
Catherine McKinnon attacks even more frontally. Quoted in a text–over in Live nude Girls: Unite!, “Porn turns a woman into a thing to be acquired and used.” With pornography, men masturbate to women being exposed, to humiliated, violated, degraded, mutilated, dismembered, bound, gagged, tortured and killed.” Men actually become active participants in the acts portrayed in graphic media; images communicated to them in two dimensions are converted to three–dimensional, material or physical reality, and within the further dimensions of their minds.
Women’s being treated as “objects” is a classic theme in the feminist lexicon. F. M. Christenson is uncertain what .”..like objects” is supposed to mean, if “anything at all.” The Playboy Advisor once replied to a woman’s inquiry into why her husband would be interested in the pictures in Playboy when he should be content with his own wife: pictures don’t challenge the viewer like a real woman [person] would. They give their stimulation and gratification without expecting anything – such as human interaction – in return. Andrea Dworkin refers to woman emerging fropm the production of the film The Story of O as “cunt…defined by the hole between her legs.” Susan Faludi’s 1991 volume documenting what she sees as a rising Backlash against the advances in women’s rights since the beginning of Second-Wave feminism identifies as an example of its “wrath…the rise in pornography that depicts extreme violence against women.”
Pornography is seen as the antithesis of sexual freedom. To whatever extent pornography represents or perpetuates this absence of women’s freedom, “In the United States,” it “…is protected by the state…parading under constitutional protection, where powerful [italics mine] people…” violate “powerless” [italics mine] people…and hiding behind state power to do it.”
Pornography’s defining moment as a legal vehicle for the oppression of women appears at this point: reducing their acts and poses to printable, publishable, reproducible media that is guaranteed protection under the U.S. Constitution and “elides or strikes them through” as human beings – “dehumanizes…overlooks” their natural–born status as members of the human race.
Efforts by organized feminists to suppress pornography are felt to be undermined or betrayed by “liberal, so–called” feminists. The Feminist Anti–Censorship Taskforce (FACT) is compared to the Abolitionist movement’s “Uncle Toms” and the black civil rights movement’s “Oreo Cookies.” Dworkin refers to feminists who “…maintain that the constitutional guarantee extends to sexual speech as ‘politically self–righteous fellow travelers of the pornographers’” and as “…house niggers who sided with the masters.” One might even see a favorable comparison between FACT and The Tobacco Institute’s many years of public relations work to negate the impact of medical evidence of the dangers of tobacco before the more recent avalanche of lawsuits revealed both the Institute’s fraudulence as well as that of the tobacco companies in suppressing data that proved their products’ hazards. [It should be noted here that the redoubtable professoress was a cigarette smoker.]
Faludi suggests that even mainstream “guardians of Hollywood”collude with pro–pornography feminists.
A film by Gwen Fields – Patti Rocks – was given an “X” rating because of its “language – the same offense that brought down Mae West a half century earlier.” Fields asserted that the film board issued its punitive, distribution – and market–limiting “X” rating for being “…against what pornography depicts – the degradation of women.” This rating was later upgraded to “R” after three appeals, though the film’s distribution was deliberately kept to a minimum.
The rift between distinctly identifiable sides of the feminist movement broke into the light as early as 1979 at the Women Against Pornography conference, when a lesbian separatist denounced Susan Brownmiller as a “cocksucker” because of her being a “heterosexual feminist” and an “object of suspicion” from the non–heterosexual, lesbian faction, which apparently is in the stronger, policy–setting position within the feminist movement. Lesbians are the “high priestesses of feminism, conjuring up the wimmin’s revolution.” Heterosexual feminists are regarded as “…the movement’s backsliders” because of their “…proximity to contaminating maleness.” Brownmiller’s response that her attacker “even dresses like a man” illustrates the sharpness of the division between what Alice Echols calls lesbian separatism’s “reincarnation as cultural feminism” opposite the merely radical branch of heterosexual feminists.
Echols quotes Kathy Berry’s portrayal of feminist opposition to anti–pornography activism as a “cabal of leftist lesbian and heterosexual women” seeking to destroy the overall feminist movement “so that male leftists can continue their sexual abuse of women without fear of censure.”
Men, leftist or otherwise, have not needed the help of any “cabals of lesbian and heterosexual women to continue their exploitationof women without censure. Two videos brought home by the present writer’s fourteen– and twenty year–old sons, produced by young men not much older than themselves to promote skateboarding, CKY2K and Destroying America, both copyright year 2000, sixty minutes and forty–five minutes, both contain only a few seconds of meaningful appearances by women. Their roles in CKY2K are to quickly pull up their tops and expose their breats to traffic on busy thoroughfares, and in Destroying America to have their breasts roughly fondled, with tops on, but with breasts extruding between the boys’ fingers. The remainder of the films depict as many assorted forms of petty mayhem as can be wrought within the cultural context of skateboarding, whose monotony is punctuated only by young women, again used as mere “objects,” sexually exploited.
Though it may have been the case that “Feminists have been forced to condemn pornography, almost against their better judgment,” the simple passage of time has permitted an if not overtly pro–pornography, then an at least a pornography–tolerant side to establish itself. One of the strongest attractions that this side has is the general distaste among feminists for anything that even remotely suggests an alliance or association with the religious or conservative right wing, whose opposition to pornography is virtually an article of faith. And where much of the impetus behind feminism derives from the struggle for equality, the apparent hypocrisy demonstrated by the Right when they affirm that “…porn leads to womens’ inequality – an inequality that doesn’t bother [them] in any other way,” obviously referring to the classic, thunderous silence of the Right with respect to equality in any of the other social dichotomies (racial, ethnic, labor, etc.) The “frighteningly effective alliances” that have formed can only have been so frightening in the context of the revulsion experienced by the reality that ‘politics makes for strange bedfellows.’
Yet another point of departure seems to have materialized over pornography, and that is between the older generation of women who, already mature or reaching college age in the late 1960s, helped initiate or joined the movement for Women’s Liberation, and saw pornography as only one of a number of mechanisms by which men exploited and oppressed women. Pornography was considered coequal with educational, employment and salary discrimination, access to birth control and abortion, all equally as critical issues to be addressed in the societal revolution to bring about women’s equality. No end of disappointment was evident in the eyes and in the voices of Julia Query’s mother and Suzanne Batey as they confront the attitudes of their younger, feminist successors. Batey, though she has allowed herself to be used as legal counsel for the move to organize a union of ”sex workers” in San Francisco’s strip club district, she observes that what she and her contemporaries in their late forties had struggled for as feminists was to not promote the sexual exploitation of women as strippers. In Live, Nude Girls Unite! she is confronted by a young, blonde woman who works as a stripper and who is active in the organizing campaign, who questions what right the older generation of women has to dictate what she does with her body, her reproductive organs, that the whole feminist movement had been for the purpose of guaranteeing women the right to do whatever they wished with their bodies. Batey’s dismay seemed to be from the idea that the heritage she and her generation had left for the younger was being thrown away or misused for purposes other than originally intended. Julia Query, who produced and directed Live, Nude Girls Unite! succeeded in having her mother, who has built a worldwide reputation in the medical field for her work with street prostitutes, caught on film as she reacts to her daughter’s announcement that she, (Julia) works as a stripper. The mother is so shocked that she must later wear dark glasses to hide the swelling of her eyes that results from nightlong weeping over her daughter’s revelation, during the speech she gives at a women’s conference in San Francisco. Her comment to Julia is “You have a heck of a mind, I wish you would use it instead of your body.” After returning to her home in the East, she doesn’t return her daughter’s phone calls for three months. It is as if her lifelong work on behalf of sexually exploited women has gone completely to waste as her own daughter becomes a willing participant in the same system.
The generational division reappears in a larger statistical sample taken from a poll of both fellow class members in Womens Studies 400–001, Gender, Cuilture and Capitalism,” generally of college age, and a group of senior University of Arizona Department of Women’s Studies faculty members. As may be observed from the accompanying charts, women who believed that pornography is degrading to women in both its production and in its consumption tended to be older (30–49) than the normal age for college (and Julia Query’s). The only other strong response to the obove questions was “Maybe,” again in the 30–49 age range. The only decisive “No” answers came from the 18–29 age segment. The question of whether there was believed to be a division amongst feminists over the subject of pornography was almost unanimously affirmative from all respondents.
If we are able to accept that pornography is evil and/or harmful to women, the first question that arises is whether censorship is the best way to deal with it. Nadine Strossen raises the same question in her 1995 book Defending Pornography. Censorship ends up becoming the easy way out, or “quick fix” that finds “…broad support among politicians who can tell their constituents that they are ‘doing something’” that doesn’t cause the collateral damage of tax increases. Though censorship may generally be known as an exercise in futility, it has a great soothing appeal” with the general population. Whereas liberals who would otherwise normally oppose censorship, we see them supporting it when the putative objective is to further “…women’s rights and interests and…be aligned with the feminist movement.” Strossen quotes Ann Rice’s analogy of two Baptist ministers publicly calling for censorship of pornography being laughed at, whereas two feminsits like Dworkin and McKinnon are granted license to promote censorship because of their feminist credentials. Strossen believes that women’s rights “…are far more endangered by censoring sexual images than they are by the images themselves…” and that “government’s protection is something women should seek to protect themselves from. (Italics mine.) Strossen quotes Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis’ statement that “The greatest dangers (Italics mine)to liberty lurk in insidious encroachment by men [or women (italics Strossen’s)] of zeal, well–meaning but without understanding.” She also believes that the suppression of women’s sexuality in any way also tends to go hand–in–glove with suppression of women’s equality. Syracuse University (and certainly other schools in the intervening seven years) adopted a code against sexual harassment that not only addresses men’s physical and verbal acts, such as pinching, fondling and suggestive comments or jokes, but even proscribes “leering and ogling…conveying sexual meaning.” One’s eyes and, presumably, eyebrows, become objects of censorship.
Alan Soble presents assertions that pornography has “good things” to commend it: “couples can use it to increase their sexual pleasure or to awaken sexual interest; it provides pleasure for the old, the infirm, the ugly and the social misfit.” From the Marxist perspective, persons favoring the destruction of “our liberal capitalist democracy” because of pornography’s reputed “functional and revolutionary” application where “it might reinforce those changes in family arrangements and sexual relationships that threaten the stability of the current order.” This is the result of [pornography’s] “…status as a superstuctural element” in a system whose relations of production generate contradictions. But the use of any Marxist defense of pornography presumes the understanding that its production does not require the exploitation of women and that it is not sexist or degrading to women in order to be used as a functional device in social revolution. It must also be assured that under the ultimate Marxist utopia that all pornographic depictions must be non–sexist – pornography in the [Marxist] future will be free of any sexist division of labor and will serve to “defuse” sexuality that might be “antagonistic to stability.” Nor would anyone be confined to working exclusively in the production of pornography. People would be involved only as an adjunct to their other forms of employment. Pornography may also serve the Marxist (fetishist?) purpose of keeping “…citizens of democracies law–abiding and obedient.” One is reminded of Orwell’s depiction of the totalitarian world of 1984 where the state produces an endless stream of the “most vile” pornography for distribution to the children of proles who think it is illegal, but who are rendered harmless by it and thus more useful to the state.
Pornography, according to Allison Assiter “…is a symptom of wider power relations based on gender, class and race. Only by eradicating these power relations can we hope to eliminate the ills of pornography.” The final report of the Attorney General’s Commission on Pornography – 1986 brooks no shame in saying that the pornography industry is the “last vestige of true laissez–faire capitalism.”
Divisions within the feminist movement are not confined to the rupture over pornography. Christina Hoff Summers documents women’s conferences at which groups have become polarized along lines of ”…Jewish women, Jewish lesbians, Asian–American, …African–American…old, …disabled, fat …women whose sexuality was in transition…some accusing other women of oppressing them. Even these groups proved unstable – the fat group split into gay and straight factions…Jewish women…were deeply divided: some accepted being Jewish; others were seeking to recover from it.
Perhaps the most disturbing division is the vast difference in the perspective of American feminists with that of feminists from Russia. At a literary conference in 1991 (which places it in the timeframe of being late in the period known as the “fall of communism”) “Glasnost in Two Cultures: Soviet Russian/North American Women’s Writing” held at New York University it became apparent to the American delegates that their Russian Counterparts wanted to do away with the official Communist party [literary canon and “return (italics in original) to the canon of masterworks that American feminists consider ‘masculinist.’” The Russians further explained how under socialism they had been “…denied…their femininity, and how it broke the Christian tradition without which Russian literature after Pushkin was unthinkable…” and exhorting their Americn audience “…to pay more attention to their traditional role as ‘keepers of the hearth.’” Sommers identifies a split between “equity” as being the mainstream and “gender” or “New” feminism as being socially divisive, and which “…generally lacks a constituency in the population at large.” Slavenka Drakulic, who has spent most of her life growing up and living in communist Yugoslavia, and in the state now known as Croatia writes in her 1992 book How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed of an American feminist’s request for her thoughts on “…the kinds of interventions women have made in the public discourse…” and what influence women may be having. Drakulic admits to twice laughing out loud (this is the only laughter referred to in the entire text) at correspondence from a person she envisions wearing “…worn out jeans and fashionable T–shirt…trimmed black hair, looking younger than she is (aerobics, macrobiotics);” she really has no answer to give. Earlier Drakulic relates the manner in which she began a presentation at CUNY on Women in Eastern Europe by first holding up one sanitary napkin and one tampon, telling the audience that women in Bulgaria, Poland, Czechoslovakia, “much less in the Soviet Union or Romania” had no access to any such products, just as their mothers, grandmothers, etc. did for centuries before – “communism changed nothing…” Drakulic does not fault her Western counterparts for not knowing about communism, “it’s the experience of living under such conditions…” that is lacking. Ultimately, her response to “B” will describe the new conditions where she lives “…surrounded by newly opened porno shops, peep shows, strip teases, unemployment, and galloping poverty…Romanian women are prostituting themselves for a single dollar…our [new[ anti–choice governments (italics mine) are threatening our right to abortion and telling us to multiply…”
The project upon which I set out to evaluate the breach within feminism over pornography grew to a much wider scope than originally envisioned as I perused more material and, quite serendipitously, discovered more points of disagreement between groups of feminists. The women’s movement faces serious challenges in the years ahead, especially in light of the new, conservative–leaning presidential administration in the United States. In the most recent issue of Playboy (recommended to me by a female classmate) a Playboy Forum article entitled “They’re Back – Republicans and the religious right gear up for a war on porn,” featuring a Puritan–clad, teeth–gritting and axe–wielding male, President Bush is quoted as saying during his campaign that “Pornography has no place in a decent society.” Since his inauguration he has directed that all sex scenes and nudity be excised from films to be played on Air Force One and in the White House. Playboy’s article ends with a series of questions relating to how the new administration will administer its new policies on pornography and by whom, suggesting the state of Utah’s first “porn czar,” forty–year–old, “avowed virgin” Paula Houston.
There is enormous value in a group’s diversity that derives from the symbiotic strength of persons from varying backgrounds and ethnicities closing ranks and working toward a set of common objectives; divisiveness, in direct contrast, can only serve to weaken the group’s impact and seriously jeopardize the hope of reaching its objectives. Ghengis Khan is famous for his strategy of “divide and conquer,” which was used long before and after his time to weaken and ultimately defeat enemies. In the light of challenges to the feminist movement and all of its hard–won gains in the thirty–plus years of Second-Wave Feminism now looming on the Republican–dominated horizon, there should be a serious reappraisal of the critical need to form a united front against what may well put the feminist movement in a defensive position as the new millennium progresses.
[Ms. Joseph’s lengthy comments follow: ]
Eric – This paper seems like a good start. You’ve certainly identified a number of key “fulcrums” of controversy and contestation (although the Russia stuff seems rather out of the blue (sic) and off–topic.). However, your portrayal of the history of feminism and feminist debates over pornography seems largely gleaned from anti–feminist sources (Soble, Summers) & reproduces a number of images of feminism that are false and have been elaborated in order to make it seem evil to a non–feminist public.
The debate over pornography is a subtle one – it turns precisely on questions of censorship, of who controls the tools of social and cultural control, as Strossen points out. It may be the case (though I’m not at all sure it is) that lesbians have been more opposed to such sensorship as the hets – but then one might want to look at why? Maybe censorship has been more often used against them. I think you are really mis–led by Sommers. What she calls the equity vs. gender division is a gross simplification of a very complex array of feminist analyses. She seems to favor a very limited sort of liberal feminism and vilifies all other kinds as too radical.
She makes it clear for instance that she does not care about the way that race and economics interact with gender.
But in fact, it is only from a much more radical account – one that includes a critique of patriarchy, of capitalism etc. – that one could actually generate a serious critique of pornography. (Note that Strossen is herself a liberal believer in “free speech” – she does not fully account for the fact that who gets to speak has a lot to do with power dynamics based on wealth, gender, race & not just laws/rights etc.
In fact the “silence” of mainstream feminist organizations sucn as NOW may have everything to do with the fact that they are liberal. On the other hand, they may have realized that porn is not the most pressing issue for most women’s sense of priority.
Anyway… finally I think what is missing here is an analysis of what is at stake for the different women who take different positions. And also you are missing an analysis of how all the different positions participate in & and can be co–opted by larger discourses of gender, class, race, sexuality, etc. Miranda