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The Docile Dame vs. the Dominatrix: A Case Study of Pornography within the Anti-sex and Sex-positive Movements

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Sex and Gender
2005 Final Web Papers
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The Docile Dame vs. the Dominatrix: A Case Study of Pornography within the Anti-sex and Sex-positive Movements

Kathryn Corbin

Pornography has been at the forefront of the modern feminist movement since it's conception in the 1960s. As the sexual revolution was beginning, accessibility to pornography was becoming easier and easier. While some thought of porn as a fantasy outlet, others viewed it as the tool for continuing female oppression. Feminists Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin created the anti-pornography movement in the 1970s using the argument that pornography was dangerous to women because it promoted sexual violence. Robin Morgan, a prominent anti-sex feminist argued that if "pornography is the theory, [then] rape is the practice". These feminists crusaded to outlaw all forms of pornography in hopes of liberating women from their sexual oppression. Sex-positive feminism was created in the early 1980s as a response to the anti-sex movement. Sex-positive feminists maintain that the regulation of pornographic material would also mean the regulation of other types of free speech that feminists have relied on for decades. Gayle Rubin notes that "this tradition of feminist sexual thought has called for a sexual liberation that would work for women as well as for men". The sex-positive movement maintains that women should not have to restrain themselves from sex because men will be gaining pleasure from it. Instead, there should be an effort toward mutual pleasure between the partners, something that is overlooked in the anti-sex movement. MacKinnon argued that attempting to reclaim sex was a waste of time, since the very meaning of sex was male domination. In the most literal terms, when a man and a woman (because these movements are centered primarily around heterosexuals) engage in any sex act that involves penetration, the woman's space is intruded upon, taken away, invaded. The activist group "Women Against Sex" advocated a strategy of sex resistance: "All sex acts subordinate women...all actions that are part of the practice of sexuality partake of the practice's political function or goal". This statement indicates that a woman has no control over her own sexuality, even if she is a consenting adult in the eyes of the law. The purpose of this movement is to empower women and encourage them to withhold sex as the way to regain control of their bodies. While it is true that if women say no then they are gaining some control over their bodies, however problems occur when they are worn down, either by men or their own desire? What happens when they finally "give it up"? That control is gone and women, as a group, are right back where we started: with men inside us and without any power over our bodies, the only "real" thing we have. The overarching theme of the anti-sex/anti-pornography feminist movement is that men are constantly "inside" women, in everything we do and even in the language women use everyday. Anti-sex feminists claim their movement does not stand against sexuality per se, but rather against the current language and politics of heterosexual encounters. From this perspective, women must resist not only the sexual advances of men but also their own desires and attempt to recreate their desire into something for which there is not currently a name, making it something else entirely. Catharine MacKinnon argues that women cannot use sex as a way to dismantle men from their state of dominance because sex is inherently a large part of male supremacy. Anti-sex feminists argue not only against acts that benefit men, but also against the language that men created and use to control society. Dworkin notes that "w[omen] have no freedom and no extravagance in the questions we ask or the interpretations we can make...our bodies speak their language. Our minds think in it. The men are inside us through and through". This indicates that women are intrinsically, and unwillingly, tied to men despite differences in lifestyle choices, types of relationships, types of sex, consent, or geography. Anti-sex feminists see pornography as a continuation of this control, especially when it comes to S&M or other types of pornography where women are dominated by men. Naturally, when a porn scene is displayed out of context and contains graphic imagery, such as S&M, it is going to shock people into agreement, which is exactly what happened. Anti-porn feminists showed raunchy picture after raunchy picture and scandalous movie after scandalous movie where women were dominated, whipped, and raped and thus, gained more followers through misrepresentation. While I agree that the creation of these types of images is problematic, the anti-sex feminists failed to address two issues. First, they failed to mention was that not all pornographic images demeaned women. In fact, there are many images where women demean men or sex is mutually pleasurable between the [consenting, paid, adult] partners. Wendy McElroy, a sex-positve feminist, has been studying the effects of pornography on women for over a decade. During this time, she has interviewed hundreds of women in the porn industry, not one of whom said she was coerced into anything. She notes that she "decided to take the articulate voices of these adult women seriously and not dismiss them, as anti-porn feminists were doing." Secondly, and more importantly, they ignored the essential difference between the reality of demeaning women and the fantasy of demeaning women. Anti-sex feminists believe that if one is encouraged, then the other is as well, no matter what. I am frustrated by the idea that my fantasy must equate with my reality, given that the point of fantasy is to escape from reality. Lisa Johnson examines the interconnectednes of violence and desire in her collection of essays, saying "the familiar connection of sex and violence provokes in me two responses: there's the proper feminist critique...and then there's my real response. The one where I want someone to fuck the shit out of me" . Anti-porn feminists would argue that this response was created and conditioned by a male-dominated society and is routinely reinforced by the porn industry's advertisement of fantasies portraying rape and sexual assault. Sex-positive feminists acknowledge that the reality is different from the fantasy, even if the language contains stark parallels, and that reclaiming sex in whatever form is pleasurable for you is the ultimate form of control. While I personally don't like rape fantasies, I think it is wrong to try to regulate someone else's fantasies, especially on the basis that they are reinforcing sexual violence by having said fantasies. So what happens if, dare I say it, a woman actually enjoys sex because underneath everything else, she is a human being with biologically ordained desires? It seems that withholding the potential for incredible pleasure just to make sure someone else doesn't get any is like cutting off your nose to spite your face. Female pleasure is constantly overlooked in the anti-sex movement because, even if a consenting adult female in a monogamous unmarried relationship enters into a sex act with her loving male partner, he still has complete control over her and no woman can feel good as long as she isn't in control of her body. If every woman withheld sex because it was the only way she could maintain control over her body, either the human species would cease to exist or there would be an inordinate amount of rape in the world. Wendy McElroy discusses the implications of outlawing pornography in her essay "Banning Porngraphy Endangers Women". She reiterates the idea that eliminating pornography would infringe upon the first amendment but more importantly, she addresses the idea of female control. McElroy notes "the touchstone principle of feminism used to be " a woman's body, a woman's right." With regard to rape, radical feminists [agree] but on some sexual matters, saying yes apparently means nothing. Pornography could not degrade women more than this attitude does." Controlling female sexuality has long been the ultimate way to control women. Wendy Chapkis identifies the main problem with this argument by saying "male power is constantly reaffirmed even as it is denounced. In this way, anti-sex and romanticist feminist rhetoric tends to reproduce the very ideology it intends to destabilize." By withholding sex, it is made into something forbidden, something that women should try to refrain from doing for fear of a reputation or pregnancy or giving up control. When women give in to their own biological sexual urges in addition to hose of their male partners, the real problems begin. The feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s wanted to create a sexual liberation for women. Ironically, the anti-sex followers who call themselves feminists are going directly against the original foundations of the feminist movement. By advocating a withholding of one's body for pleasure, the anti-sex movement is playing right into the hands of the conservatives they supposedly are working against. When legislation initiated by feminists arises preventing women from controlling their own bodies, a serious problem has occurred pertaining to the ultimate goal. The goal of anti-sex/anti-porn feminism is to help women regain control over their selves by withholding sex and eliminating an outlet for fantasies. So then how are women supposed to know how to control their bodies when they don't actually know the full capacity of their bodies? While I agree that there are many other ways to know one's body than engaging in heterosexual sex acts, anti-sex feminists want to get rid of this opportunity as well. If women are ever going to get anywhere in society, we need to break out of this mass of "sex is bad and only men should be interested in it" propaganda. Society has always considered sex the "original sin" and this belief has been reinforced by almost every aspect of society, including anti-sex feminists. However, awareness of modern variation in type and amount of sexual activity have caused society to "rank" what is more acceptable. In Thinking Sex, Gayle Rubin describes a diagram of the "sex hierarchy". This hierarchy contains two circles, the inner containing more acceptable types of sex, including procreative, married, heterosexual and "vanilla". The outer circle is reserved for types of sex deemed "bad, abnormal and damned" such as non-procreative, unmarried, homosexual and "with manufactured objects". As can be inferred from these minimalist lists, society deems the majority of sexual encounters as negative. According to anti-sex feminists, heterosexual sex acts that involve penetration, no matter what the situation, give total control to the man and none to the woman. However, there are many other types of sex than heterosexual and penetrating. There are sex acts that don't involve vaginal penetration and there a sex acts that are not heterosexual. Interestingly enough, there are more laws pertaining to non-vanilla sex acts between consenting partners than there are for child molesters. For as long as civilized society has existed, people have been experimenting in some way with sex, whether it is through oral-genital contact, the use of manufactured objects, multiple-partner sex, gay and lesbian sex or S&M. The breakdown occurs when people don't acknowledge that what disgusts them sometimes works for others. In her study, McElroy recognizes the irony of comparing a woman who enjoys pornography to a child. The Minneapolis ordinance on pornography states that "children are incapable of consenting to engage in pornographic conduct...and therefore require special protection. By the same token, the physical and psychological well-being of women ought to be afforded comparable protection." The idea that women are compared to three-year-old children that have no control over themselves is incredibly offensive, not to mention demeaning in itself. If anti-sex feminists are looking to get away from demeaning women, backing documents such as this one surely isn't the way to do it. Sex conflicts arise mostly due to "moral panics", defined as "the "political moment" of sex, in which diffuse attitudes are channeled into political action and from there into social change". This is when that fine line between personal morals and national/state law is crossed all too quickly concerning sex most likely because "legislators are loath to be soft on vice". However, who gets to decide what is "right" when it comes to sex? Sex-positive feminists hold that sexuality is political and it will always be political, thus withholding sex until further notice will only further the oppression that women have been trying to break free from for decades. Argues Rubin, "sexual liberation has been and continues to be a feminist goal...[but] the fact remains that feminist thought about sex is profoundly polarized" leaving too much open ground for feminist and male chauvinist bias. Women are not equal in the current world, nor are they inferior, which displays the incredible discrepancy of language for where women truly stand and what they should do to attain equality and respect. Withholding sex is not the answer, because it denies female pleasure, reinforces male dominance and prevents the continuation of the human species. However, if there are some women who buy into the anti-sex ideal and some who do not, this stark division only serves to aggravate the situation. Not only does it not accomplish anything pertaining to what is the best course of action for women, but it also retains the position of supreme sexual power for men. Rubin, as a sex-positive feminist, seems to think that "it is time to recognize the political dimensions of erotic life" including pornography and non-vanilla forms of sexual expression. Presumably, acknowledging the underlying issue will display some answers concerning how women are to proceed in a world bombarding them with contradictory statements about sex. Since outlawing pornography would not only infringe upon the First Amendment but also serve to endanger women, I believe it is unwise to do so. Although I don't enjoy rape fantasies or S&M, it is certainly not my place to regulate someone else's ideas about sex or pleasure nor would I ever presume to do so. Athough I would love to have a society where gray areas were acceptable as legislation, that is unfortunately not the case. Black and white, either/or is necessary to regulate and people will always be on opposing sides of the sex, and more specifically pornography, argument. I have to agree with Chapkis and Rubin that sex-positive feminism and thusly, legal pornography is the best way to go. If women are every going to be able to take control of their selves, they need to start with the most personal aspect of their lives: their sexuality.



Comments made prior to 2007

kathryn Corbins article on The ant porn vesus "sex positive" movement, and her expalanation of Catharine Mackinnon's writing is amazingly myoptic.

Oh I hate to say it, since I am a male and dont really feel comfortable with this sort of critique directed at a female feminist, but reading this article i can only say that she does not Understand MacKinnon at all ... Reader on the web, 18 February 2007