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Towards a New Feminist Approach to Pornography

YJ's picture

In the age of what many believe to be the “third-wave” of feminism, one that challenges the notion of what it even means to be “female” or “feminist” and has expanded to include those who may not or could not have been part of the first or second waves of feminism, it becomes clear that one of the major differences between the older waves of feminism and the one we are in now (third-wave) is exemplified in the attitude towards pornography. Here, I use the term in a very broad sense since so many feminists define it differently and I mean it to include both sex/sexual work such as prostitution and stripping as well as the pornographic movie industry.

In the course of my preliminary research, I do believe that the older feminist stance on pornography, as represented by the leaders of the heyday of the feminist anti-pornography movement, Catherine McKinnon and Andrea Dworkin, is one that has been subsequently revealed to be both outdated and no longer useful for modern feminists. I would argue that while many feminists, including third-wave ones still sees many problems with pornography, it no longer seems to be the central focus as it was during the 1970 and 80s. It is not necessarily that feminists have come to embrace pornography, but rather that it has come to be acknowledged as not quite as threatening, damaging, or necessarily anti-feminist as second-wave feminists insisted it was. There are many feminists today who now see sex work such as stripping as simply a labor issue rather a feminist one.

Furthermore, though the issue is still a contentious one among many feminists, the approach to and the terms of the debate seem to have changed dramatically since the 1980s. While there are still many feminists, of both second-wave and third-wave, who are still quite strongly anti-pornography, many others have expanded the parameters of the debate to include issues such as the trafficking of female sex slaves in third-world countries and the unfair treatment of sex show workers. The recent documentary Live Nude Girls Unite takes a vastly different approach to the issue of sex/sexual work (though it is biased because it was produced by one of the sex show workers who also narrates the film), really treating the issue of feminism and sex work as secondary (really as a non-issue) to the more important issue of labor unionizing. As one of the workers in the film says when asked the question of why she does the work that she does, her answer is a quintessential feminist answer: “It’s my body, why shouldn’t I be able to do whatever I want with it?”[1] And yet, there are many feminists, notably McKinnon and Dworkin who would undoubtedly have a major problem with both the nature of the work and the answer given by this worker. Both would likely answer along the lines of: “Women have been conditioned into believing that their value as human beings arises from their sexuality, their values as sexual objects. Thus, we are made to feel we are making a conscious choice to enter into this type of work, but we are not truly making a free choice.”

Perhaps there is also a bit of Michel Foucault in there as well, but the basic point is the same-do women really choose to become sex workers, pornographic film actors, strippers, etc. or is it a “false consciousness?”[2] However, if you believe in the latter notion, then is there any space for free will, for choice? Are women always the victims? Or in choosing to celebrate their sexuality, possibly even reclaiming it from the male gaze are they then actually working to subvert the patriarchy[3]? Because if women are placing their own value into their bodies, as opposed to the value placed upon them by the “male gaze,” then isn’t that similar to the identity politics of race and sexuality in which certain terms previously held to be derogatory (and some still see as offensive) are now being “reclaimed” in a positive light, such as the word “queer?” I’m not suggesting that pornography is liberating women, but perhaps the women choosing to participate in it are not functioning as merely sexual objects but reclaiming their sexual identity from the men who have previously defined it. Interestingly enough, in Live Nude Girls Unite, several of the women who dance in the peepshow, including Vicki herself are lesbians. Thus, though they are literally being paid to be held under the “male gaze,” they are, in reality, unattainable to the men watching (who probably have no idea that they are in fact, lesbians).

The “pornography” issue for feminists has evolved in response to the expansion of the boundaries of feminism-it is no longer just about the movie industry, the sex work, but in what context this is all occurring. For example, most feminists would probably have a much bigger problem with young girls being sold as sex slaves than with a woman consciously and completely voluntarily choosing to participate in a pornographic movie. However, the argument some feminists have given in response to the latter situation is to assume that no woman would ever consciously or voluntarily choose such work, that either they have been forced into it or have been conditioned by society into believing that the only worth they carry is in their sexualized bodies. However, why is it so problematic for women to be proud of their bodies, to want to engage in sexual acts on film for money? I’m not denying that there aren’t women who have been forced into filming pornography, but I am contesting the notion that every time a woman puts on a sex show, is filmed having sex, or even dances nude, is inherently being forced. It is denying those women their own choice, reducing them to a victim status, which I’m not sure is any better than the supposed degradation they must endure every time they engage in such acts.

It reminds me of the notion that women who are sexually promiscuous are “bad,” that there is something wrong with them, and yet the same cannot be said of sexually promiscuous men. Wendy McElroy, in her book XXX: A Women’s Right To Pornography interviews several pornographic film actresses, all of whom refrain from telling women their occupation because they have had so many negative reactions in the past-especially from feminists.[4] In fact, at the pornography convention McElroy attends as part of her research for the book, the word “feminist” is considered by both the men and the women there as a “dirty” word.[5] This is where I really see the shortcomings of second-wave feminism; instead of passing moral judgment on the women who work in the sex industry, I think it’s time to accept them as women who could become a valuable part of feminism. It is interesting to note that though third-wave feminism has becoming much more inclusive, many of the women working in pornography are described (by both themselves and outsiders) as stigmatized by their profession.[6] The one place they should be able to gain entry would ostensibly be feminism, but even there they have been shunned and condemned (or alternatively, exploited for the sole purpose of renouncing pornography). It has only been recently that more feminists, such as McElroy, who have proposed the possibility of a feminism that is pro-pornography.

This may also be a strange thing to say, but if part of how a woman identifies is sexually, who am I to judge that? I may not agree with it, and I certainly wouldn’t go out of my way to promote pornography as a positive thing for feminists, but I also wouldn’t say that it is so harmful as to require its immediate eradication. There seems to be a whole host of other issues far greater in importance than pornography (at least in terms of the old debate which focused primarily on the pornographic film industry). There is also something presumptive in a feminist stance that assumes getting rid of the pornography industry, including prostitution, sex shows, stripping, and the like would necessarily benefit all women and that it would lead to a better, less patriarchic society. It may put a whole lot of women out of work, already struggling to make ends meet who couldn’t afford to go to college, and is severely constrained in her economic opportunities. As Vicki says in Live Nude Girls Unite, she chose to work as a sex show dancer because she wasn’t making nearly enough as a stand-up comedian and wanted something that would pay decently.

The other dangerous assumption many feminists make, as I have mentioned before, is that women do no enjoy the work that they do in the sex industry. On the contrary, at least according to the firsthand accounts offered in both Live Nude Girls Unite and XXX: A Women’s Right to Pornography, it seems that most women enter this type of work because they enjoy sex or sexually explicit work. It is a simple and obvious point, but one that many second-wave (and third-wave) feminists refuse to accept. Accepting it, of course, would directly refute one of the main premises of the feminist anti-pornography position that there is always a degree of coercion in pornography. None of the actresses McElroy interviewed made any claim of coercion, and most had only “heard” of reports but never actually knew anyone who had been coerced. I do believe it is safe to assume in that regard, that women are not being victimized in this way in the pornographic industry. Of course, such situations must and continue to occur but with the tightening of regulations on the industry I doubt it is as rampant a problem as many feminists maintain it is. Otherwise, I’m sure it would have come out eventually because such a serious problem would hardly go unnoticed or unreported.

Finally, I would like to address a point that feminists have not addressed: if a man uses material that is not literally “pornographic” in nature but uses it in the same way he would a pornographic movie, would it then be considered “pornography?” For example, if a man uses a sexually explicit scene from a mainstream movie in the same way he would a pornographic movie, does that then constitute the movie as “pornographic” material? Should that movie be deemed as harmful to women? How many television shows depict women as the victims of rape or sexual crimes? Should those also be banned? As many feminists have pointed out, it isn’t just the pornography industry that is producing what can be called degrading images of women, but films, magazines, and television shows all depict women in countless ways that could also be described as “degrading.”[7] What feminists need to do, and some have already begun to do so, is to rethink the criteria of what is truly degrading to women and the context in which those portrayals occur. If a woman can consent to acting in a rape or sex scene for a movie, can’t a woman also consent to acting in a sexually explicit film? Where is the difference, except that the former is simulated and the latter actually depicted? The effect both instances have on the viewer is the same-s/he believes s/he is watching an actual rape occurring or a watching two people having sex. McKinnon equates watching and masturbating to pornography as a “behavior,” and a dangerous one at that but even if the sex in pornography was being simulated but made to look real, wouldn’t it have the same effect on the viewer regardless?

And this is the issue I am left struggling with and still thinking through. Some other issues I would like to also consider or think through some more is the “representational politics” (as Cornell terms it) of victimization that occurs with anti-pornography feminists, as well as formulating my own hypothesis as to what the third-wave feminist stance on pornography should be. While I have gestured to what that could be, I think it’s a hypothesis that needs to be more clearly articulated. Other issues which I have yet to address and probably need to would include other perspectives on the pornography debate, particularly those from feminists who are women of color as they perceive the issues in a very different way.

[1] Not a direct quote.

[2] Drucilla Cornell, ed. Feminism and Pornography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 9.

[3] Over break, I was speaking with my sister about the topic of this paper and she mentioned the philosopher ­­­­­Carol Pateman (who wrote The Sexual Contract), who says that “patriarchy” is not the right word for the system of male dominance in place now, but rather the correct term is a “fraternity” in which men work together to oppress women. However, I will continue to use the term “patriarchy” for the sake of simplicity.

[4] Wendy McElroy, XXX: A Women’s Right to Pornography (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995), 146-192.

[5] McElroy, 16.

[6] Ibid, 18.

[7] McElroy, 98.


Ann Dixon's picture

side point to Adrienne Rich

ndegeorge commented that she had difficulty with Rich's difficulty with straight women reading her poetry to their husbands in bed. I wonder if your thinking about the feminist approach to pornography might shed light on this and also might even be developed further by this.

There is a history of straight men using lesbian sex in pornographic film. If Rich's poetry is being used for 
heterosexual erotic purposes, how does it change her creative and political  work? 

Good luck with your paper,

Ann '83 

Anne Dalke's picture

Making the Imaginative Literal

Like Juni, I noted the replacement, in your footnotes, of "patriarchy" with "fraternity"; what I also noted was your decision, in our text, to keep the older term in play...why was that? What does your language choice tell us about the frameworks you are using in your analysis here?

What I'm liking in this draft, YJ, is its historical context, its awareness that there are eras in which ideas arise, followed by new eras in which those ideas are revised. I like it that you are thinking "Towards a New Feminist Approach," and that this draft ends with an account of what you are "left struggling with and still thinkng through." The paper, in other words, models the sense of historical change that it is reporting on.

As you work further towards formulating your own hypothesis of a third-wave feminist stance on pornography, I'd ask you whether it needs to be a singular stance. One thing that riding the third wave has demonstrated is the inadequacy of singularity, the necessity of multiplicitous visions of how to operate in the world....

Interesting also is your willingness to look @ the pleasure that sex workers testify to, and @ the possibility of thinking of sex work as a labor issue. But perhaps the most interesting spot in the paper, for me, was where you ask questions about what it means when a man "uses material that is not literally 'pornographic' in nature" in the same way he would porn, "does that then constitute 'pornographic' material'?" Is there a difference, in other words, between literal and figurative pornograpy? Is pornography defined by use? And what does it mean to say that an imaginative project is "literal"?

Key also to your analysis are the matters of passing judgment and of free choice (when is a choice free, when is it choiceless? Aren't all our choices constrained in some way or another? Does that make them not "real"?) These matters touch also on what Abby talks about in Making Sex Untouchable.

I'm looking forward to seeing where you go from here--

juni's picture

porn: pro or anti?

Yoo Jin --

You're asking questions that relate to and reinforce each other. By semester end you will have a good paper here!

I like your sister's observation about the"fraternity." Blaming the patriarchy is less clever than citing the unspoken agreement among men to maintain their status at the expense of status for competitors, i.e., women. Terms change with the times.

It's tempting to support censorship, but as long as the issue of porn is defined as censorship or no censorship, it will get about as far as gun control, where the issue is framed as guns or no guns, when the question is really only one of regulating their use. Issues are not black & white, they require examination, duscussion and common sense solutions.

NPR today had a story on cable company bundling of channels. The industry, citing "competitiveness," wants the right to offer program bundles of its own design rather than letting consumers choose only the programs they want. Subscribers object that, if they don't want, e.g. (specifically), sex channels, they shouldn't have to have them. But the airways are public property, so shouldn't subscribers, not purveyors, trump? If the providers want to offer porn, let them; but to slip it in with Leave it to Beaver--?

Blanket censorship is the easy way out -- it's like expecting schools to teach children everything that parents don't teach them. We all have to take some responsibility. But let people who buy cable choose the shows they want. That way porn stands or falls on its own merits.

My underlying concern is that the fraternity does indeed control the media, both news and entertainment, with the result that sex and violence permeate our culture, when it's courage and faith that we need in these "uncertain times." (The reason fairy tales had "morals," -- pithy summations of their theme -- was to provide young minds with good examples, of courage, conviction and trust rather than fear, insecurity and mistrust.) A dose of it all can't hurt but do we have to be saturated with it? Our values underlie our culture, are its foundation. It seems to me that the fraternity destroys achievement by destroying optimism. It promotes a culture of submission and hypocrisy, and that's what's obscene.

It's good that women are speaking up; if we don't, who will?