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Engaging in a debate

Abby's picture

Abigail Sayre

Intro to Critical Feminist Studies

Project Proposal



                My critical feminist project will focus on an issue that is very important to me, one that has not been discussed in our class thus far and one that is quite controversial within the feminist community.  This issue is also, in my opinion, crucial to the feminist enterprise.  I believe it has real implications for the lives of both women and men.  I am also planning on making my final project a performance piece informed by critical research.

                I am interested in researching how the issue of prostitution and pornography has been discussed within feminism and how it continues to be debated.  I have already done a fair amount of reading on the topic and plan to do much more.  Because they are the big names within the anti-porn feminist movement I want to familiarize myself with the work of Andrea Dworkin and Catherine Mackinnon.  Particular works of interest include Mackinnon’s Only Words and Dworkin’s Pornography: Men Possessing Women.  In addition I am reading some collections of essays on the prostitution/pornography debate such as Debating Sexual Correctness: Pornography, Sexual Harrassment, Date Rape and the Politics of Sexual Equality and Not For Sale: Feminists Resisting Prostitution and Pornography.  In addition to that I have been reading from Pornography Embodied: From Speech to Sexual Practice.  All of these volumes offer a wide range of perspectives.  I am interested in taking into account all sides of the debate, not just those which I may already agree with.

My motivation in pursuing this research and engaging in this discussion/debate is, as many other feminists have been trying to do, to shift the focus of the discussion from “speech” to “practice.”  Although I can comprehend the defense of prostitution and pornography I am baffled by the way in which many acts of horrifying injustice are swept under the rug of “liberation” and “progress.”  My interest is in examining how prostitution and pornography actually affects us.  I don’t believe that the debate can be as simple as “pro-sex or anti-sex,” “pro-porn or anti-porn,” “sexually liberated or repressed” and I want to expose the ways in which “freedom” can actually in some cases be a disguise for oppression. 

One way of approaching this research would be to look at the way in which women and children are trafficked in the third world.  Much of the feminist conversation about prostitution and pornography is often distilled down to the “sex industry” in the U.S. and “sexual slavery” in other countries.  While I believe this issue is also important I am more concerned with examining the practices of prostitution and pornography here in the United States.  It is in this country that I believe the debate is truly crucial.  We as a very powerful nation export a lot of our media and culture to the rest of the world, for better or for worse.  

In thinking about this project I am particularly inspired to take this discussion/debate outside the realm of strictly written analysis.  As an artist, as someone who uses things like theater, music and dance to express her voice and thought I want to make my project an artistic endeavor.  Pornography is based primarily in images. It is an inherently theatrical enterprise, one in which there are performers and spectators engaging in the creative process.  I believe a dynamic way to engage in the prostitution/pornography discussion will be for me to create a theatrical experience.

   I am committed to the idea that representation matters, that the worlds of fiction and illusion we create have real implications in the world of reality and every day experience.  I am not so concerned with answering the question of whether or not pornography should or should not exist.  I am concerned with examining the ways in which pornography is actually used and how its use affects both women and men. 

My project is still highly undeveloped.  I haven’t decided whether I want to create a one-woman performance based in monologue, if I want to use music or if I even want to use my own body.  I want to use the next 2 weeks or so to explore different performance possibilities while still continuing my reading and research of these issues.  My hope is to simply offer one young woman’s response to this debate, not necessarily to claim any position of authority on the matter.  The issue of prostitution and pornography revolves around greater issues of sexuality.  Our sexuality encompasses the most intimate, vulnerable parts of our bodies and minds.  What happens within the realm of sexual discourse has profound implications for our most intimate selves and also for society as a whole.  



Mary Clurman '63's picture


What a great project. I hope Anne/Ann/Nydia will find a way to videotape all the performance projects. I would love to know how you present this.

NB: I once recommended a book to my adolescent son, which book a friend of his then described as pornographic. (Perhaps he had read it himself?) I objected, feeling that there might be a time and a place for such adolescent reading.

I now have a Mexican figurine of two lovers in an unusual sexual position. A male friend's reaction was that it was pornographic. I asked him why, he referred to the fact that they were "not smiling." I said that was because they were too involved in what they were doing and that it was not pornographic but erotic.

You suggest that pornography may have its place; I submit that it has. To understand the difference between prurience and eroticism seems critical to a mature understanding of sexuality.

Mary CLurman '63

Anne Dalke's picture

inherently theatrical

I'm recommending your proposal to YJ (who is also writing about “what pornography is to feminists”) to it; and you should be sure to check out her blog and bibliography. As I said to her, an interesting start for your conversation might be her quote-- that the victim's "life is reduced to that figuration of her" –in juxtaposition with your thoughts on the ways in which "representation matters," what "real implications" it has in the "world of reality and every day experience." For more on the “real implications” of the representation of sex, see also Robert Darnton’s 2002 "Sex for Thought” in Sexualities in History: A Reader; he argues for porn as the archetypal reading experience—because it moves (but really moves) us!

These questions are reaching towards the heart of what you are doing: you begin to say that you want to research “how the issue of prostitution and pornography has been discussed within feminism,” but you soon “shift the focus of the discussion from ‘speech’ to ‘practice.’” So what you’re up to here is much more than researching “how it has been discussed”; you are thinking about real interventions. I see a similar dance @ the very end of your proposal, when you say that you hope “to simply offer one young woman’s response,” not “to claim any position of authority.” Let’s interrogate that turn aside from responsibility; remember what Susan Stryker said about “witnessing”? You’re not giving the final word, of course, but your intervention does count, does carry weight, does matter, in exactly the terms you say that pornography does. A related question is about the relation between “examining use” and judging “whether or not pornography should or should not exist.” Won’t the judgment follow from the examination?

Other questions that arise for me: I’d like you to develop more fully your rationale for why it’s more “important”—or why you are more “concerned’ with U.S. policy than with what’s going on in third world countries. Because we are more powerful? Mightn’t a view from the borderlands be particularly instructive? (Think Anzaldua here…)

That porn is “inherently theatrical” seems a great place to start, though/and well worth complification might be the binary between performance and spectatorship; if you are involved with theater, you probably know far more than I do about performance studies; I’m thinking in particular of a piece by Elin Diamond on "The Shudder of Catharsis in Twentieth-Century Performance.” Diamond suggests that the discomfort produced by contemporary performance art is unending. She focuses on forms of postmodern performance that, she says, leave "no space for representation," and calls them "acts of total expenditure that refuse the separation of performance and the 'true-real': though at some point the performance will end, what is suggested in shuddering without end: permanent catharsis."

Last thought. You say “pornography is based primarily in images.” But/and see MacKinnon’s Only Words….