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Feminists and Pornography

The Anti-Pornography Argument

The main contention of the feminist anti-pornography argument is that, "as a systemic practice of sexual discrimination that violates women's right to equality," pornography constitutes a breach of women's civil-rights (West). In the introduction to her book Pornography: Men Possessing Women, Andrea Dworkin writes: "Pornography incarnates male supremacy. It is the DNA of male dominance. Every rule of sexual abuse, every nuance of sexual sadism, every highway and byway of sexual exploitation, is encoded in it." According to the late radical feminist John Stoltenberg: "Pornography institutionalizes male supremacy the way segregation institutionalizes white supremacy. It is a practice embodying an ideology of biological superiority; it is an institution that both expresses that ideology and enacts that ideology--makes it the reality that people believe is true, keeps it that way, keeps people from knowing any other possibility, keeps certain people powerful by keeping certain people down." In other words, anti-pornography feminists believe that pornography contributes to the systemic oppression of women, in part by inculcating male dominance and female submission. While many supporters of pornography argue that pornographic media constitutes free speech and sexual freedom, anti-porn feminists counter that "people's rights to consume such materials are no longer rights when they violate the rights of others" (Shaw & Lee). According to anti-porn feminists, the "free speech" of pornography exacts a heavy price from women, including:

(1) those "used in the production of pornography;"
(2) those "who have pornography forced upon them;"

(3) those "who are sexually assaulted by men who use pornography;" and
(4) those "who live in a culture in which pornography reinforces and sexualizes women's subordinate status" (Jensen).

To anti-pornography feminists, pornography not only depicts violence--it is an act of violence. In respect to those women who claim that they freely choose to participate in the production of pornographic media, anti-porn feminists argue that such a choice is inherently compromised by women's status as second-class citizens. Radical feminist blogger Twisty Faster of I Blame the Patriarchy explains: "In a patriarchy, the cornerstone of which is a paradigm of male dominance and female submission, women do not enjoy the same degree of personal sovereignty that men do. This oppressed condition obtains a priori to all other conditions, and nullifies any presumption of fully human status on the part of women. A woman, therefore, cannot freely “consent,” because her will is obviated by her status as a subhuman." Anti-porn feminists also posit that the money offered in exchange for participation in pornographic media constitutes a form of coercion, thus negating women's ability to freely choose pornography (or other types of sex work) as a profession.

Anti-pornography feminists argue that not only is pornography of itself an act of violence, but it also causes violence against women--including rape. Anti-porn activist and feminist Catherine MacKinnon alleges that pornography fetishizes violence by depicting women "as dehumanized sexual objects, things, or commodities" and shows them "enjoying humiliation, pain, or sexual assault" (Shaw & Lee). The anti-porn argument that follows asserts that such depictions encourage men to believe that women enjoy being brutalized and secretly desire to be raped; in turn, this idea that women welcome sexual assault supposedly serves as an impetus for men to rape. In this way, anti-pornography feminists argue that both pornography producers and consumers are complicit in sexual crimes against women.

Anti-pornography feminists also oppose pornography on the grounds that it furthers racism. As feminist authors Susan Shaw and Janet Lee note, "racism intersects with sexism in pornography, and African American women in particular are often portrayed in especially demeaning and animalistic ways." Furthermore, anti-porn feminists contend that pornography influences cultural homophobia. According to John Stoltenberg, "Pornography is rife with gay-baiting and effemiphobia. Portrayals of lesbian 'scenes' are a staple of heterosexual pornography: The women with each other are there for the male viewer . . . . And throughout pornography, the male who is perceived to be the passive orifice in sex is tainted with the disdain that 'normally' belongs to women." For this reason, anti-porn feminists argue that homosexual and transgender pornography is no less oppressive than heterosexual porn.

It is important to note that anti-pornography feminists are not anti-sex. Unlike religious conservatives, anti-porn feminists object not to the sexual content of pornography, but rather oppose what they see as pornography's fetishizing of violence and the dominant/submissive dichotomy that oppresses women (West). Some anti-porn feminists make a distinction between pornography and erotica--while the former is thought to encourage violence against women, the latter, with its emphasis on mutuality, is viewed as a healthy expression of sexuality.

The "Sex-Positive" or Pro-Pornography Argument

While there have always been feminists who support pornography, many of those feminists who identify as sex-positive belong to the "third wave" generation. In her essay "Prostitution, Humanism, and a Woman's Choice," feminist author Kimberly Klinger explains that "In the third wave, pornography, sex, and prostitution aren't presented as black and white issues. For instance, pornography isn't simply seen as degrading sexual imagery made by men, for men." Klinger notes that increasing numbers of women, many of whom identify as feminists, are becoming involved in the production of pornography. And roughly 50% of pornographic films in the United States are purchased or rented by women alone or women in couples (Britton, Maguire, & Nathanson). While many grant that pornography remains marketed primarily toward men, pro-pornography feminists argue that the changing demographic of porn producers and consumers proves that pornography is not strictly made by men, for men.

Individualist sex-positive feminist Wendy McElroy asserts that "Pornography benefits women, both personally and politically." As anti-porn feminists assert that pornography degrades women, McElroy asserts that “Degrading is a subjective term.” According to McElroy, “The bottom line is that every woman has the right to define what is liberating and degrading for herself.” McElroy also promotes the benefits of pornography for women by arguing that

(1) “It gives a panoramic view of the world's sexual possibilities.”
(2) “It allows women to "safely" experience sexual alternatives and satisfy a healthy sexual curiosity;” and that
(3) “It offers the emotional information that comes only from experiencing something either directly or vicariously.”

As a result of the taboo nature of sex in our society as well as our cultural expectations for women’s sexual behavior, many women reach adulthood with little knowledge of their sexuality and how to derive pleasure from it. Sex-positive feminists like McElroy assert that for women, pornography can be a valuable tool for exploring sexuality and removing the stigma that surrounds sex.

In her essay “False Promises—Anti-Pornography Feminism,” feminist Lynne Segal posits that “There are certainly formidable obstacles which continue to block women’s moves toward empowering political perspectives, sexual, social, and economic, but anti-pornography feminism is, in my view, increasingly one of them.” Segal, like other sex-positive feminists I have come across, draws parallels between anti-pornography feminism and religious fundamentalism’s strictures against female sexuality. She warns that “Any type of blanket condemnation of pornography will discourage us all from facing up to women’s sexual fears and fantasies . . . .” To Segal and other sex-positive feminists, the anti-porn position is more of the same patriarchal notions about what women should and shouldn’t do with their bodies.

In respect to the notion that pornography incites violence against women, Segal observes that “Men’s cultural contempt for and sexualization of women long pre-[dates] the growth of commercial pornography . . . .” My own research indicates that any person who makes an honest scrutiny of the empirical data on pornography and violence will quickly discover how maddeningly ambiguous it is. As Segal relates, “To say that exposure to pornography in and of itself causes an individual to commit a sexual crime is simplistic . . . and overlooks many of the other variables that may be contributing causes.” While most pro-sex feminists agree that a fair amount of pornography is problematic, they assert that blaming pornography for violence and rape decreases the culpability of the men who commit such acts.

In the words of Ruth Wallsgrove, sex-positive feminists believe that “we should not agitate for more laws against pornography, but should rather stand up together and say what we feel about it, and what we feel about our sexuality, and force men to re-examine their own attitudes to sex and women implicit in their consumption of porn” (qtd in Segal). As many pro-sex feminists point out, banning pornography might very well result in some negative consequences for women. According to the Feminists for Free Expression, “Historically, censorship has hurt women. Information about sex and reproduction has been banned under the guise of "protecting" women -- from the jailing of birth control advocate Margaret Sanger to the "gag rule" against abortion counseling in federally funded clinics to the attacks against National Endowment for the Arts grant recipient Holly Hughes.” In her essay “The Harm of Porn: Just Another Excuse to Censor,” feminist Avedon Carol points out that pornography is forbidden by law in Pakistani, Turkish, and Chinese societies. As Carol astutely observes: “Women's rights and freedoms do not flourish in those nations, nor in any of the others in which pornography is banned.” So what to do about negative aspects of pornography that sex-positive feminists do not deny exist? According to the Feminists for Free Expression, “The answer to bad pornography is good pornography, not no pornography.”


Britton, Patti, Jennifer Maguire and Beth Nathanson. "Feminism and Free Speech: Pornography."

Carol, Avedon. "The Harm of Porn: Just Another Excuse to Censor."

Dworkin, Andrea. Pornography: Men Possessing Women.

Faster, Twisty. "Spinster Aunt Quotes Self." I Blame the Patriarchy.

Jensen, Robert. "Pornography and Sexual Violence."

Klinger, Kimberly. "Prostitution, Humanism, and a Woman's Choice." Women's Voices, Feminist Visions.

McElroy, Wendy. "A Feminst Defense of Pornography."

Segal, Lynne. "False Promises--Anti-Pornography Feminism."

Shaw, Susan M. and Janet Lee. Women's Voices, Feminist Visions. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2007.

Stoltenberg, John. "Pornography and Freedom." Women's Voices, Feminist Visions.

West, Caroline. "Pornography and Censorship."

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