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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 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 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anti-pornography movement, Catherine McKinnon and Andrea Dworkin, is one that has been subsequently revealed to be both outdated and no longer useful for modern feminists.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 see 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 a labor issue rather a feminist one.

Furthermore, although 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 perhaps subjective 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) in legal, judicial process as the more important issue of labor unionizing. Asked why she does the work that she does, one of the workers gives 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 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 “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). Or perhaps, what they are selling is fantasy anyway and in explicitly offering themselves as sexual beings to the view of the gazer they are, at least, in that instance actually fulfilling that role of being a straight woman, though in reality they have no interest in the men at all. This idea of a “false representation,” or a situation in which how something is used may determine or complicate how we define what it—nude dancing, stripping, pornography—is, is one which I will return to in much greater detail later in this essay.

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. On the other hand, 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 although third-wave feminism has become 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, 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.

In Live Nude Girls Unite, Vicki says 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. In this case, Vicki was forced to make a choice because of her economic conditions and though she ostensibly could have chosen other jobs (though perhaps they -were not as well-paying as dancing is) she freely and consciously chose to become a nude dancer. Though this choice was necessitated by economic conditions, there are other women who freely choose to become sex workers because they wish to. Patriarchic notions of the role of women may influence these women’s choice, or it may be a defiant stance against a country’s conservative position on sexuality or even a means of reclaiming a female identity that is both sexual and feminist. Herein lies, what is for me, the fundamental tension of feminism and pornography: feminism, especially the traditional, second-wave kind of feminism disallows a feminism that is sexual in nature. In denying what is biologically part of women, what many women take pleasure in, anti-pornography feminists are only buying into the notion that men are sexual beings and women are not (and should not be).

Moreover, this dangerous assumption that many feminists make—that women do not enjoy the work that they do in the sex industry—has not been proven to be implicitly true. 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.

Furthermore, in refusing to recognize even the possibility that a woman could choose sex work freely as her occupation, anti-pornography feminists are essentially falling for the very paradigm they’re trying to circumvent-they’re being just as patronizing as the men who oppress women. Drucilla Cornell, the editor for the anthology “Feminism and Pornography,” states it in much better terms in her essay “Pornography’s Temptation”: “To treat women in the [pornography] industry as reducible to hapless victims unworthy of solidarity refuses them that basic respect…By remaining ‘other,’ the epitome of victimization, she stands in for the degradation of all women. Her life is then reduced to that figuration of her.” As Cornell goes on to state, that victim used to be (and still sometimes is) the prostitute but is now the women working in pornography.

Numerous essays and books written by those who formerly or currently work in the sex industry as well as those who have interviewed extensively sex workers have all accused anti-pornography feminists of working with too far distance a view from the women they are attempting to “protect.” As one former editor and writer of a fairly large adult publication, Theresa A. Reed puts it, “especially troubling is the prevalent belief that sex work universally victimizes all women and that any women who doesn’t identify as a victim proves the point,” and that “the sad truth is that most anti-sex work feminists are woefully uninformed about the material and activities that they oppose.”[7] Perhaps the distancing feminists have enacted against sex workers is because they realize there is a danger in encountering a physical, human rebuttal of all the theories and ideas they have advanced about pornography, all at the expense, perhaps, reducing these women to no more than “victims.”. To acknowledge a choice, to acknowledge these women as workers, and most importantly, to acknowledge the explicit sexuality of these women would be, for anti-pornography feminists, a reason to doubt the solidity of their views, and to rethink their opinions. The fact that this distance still seems very much in effect only indicates to me that subconsciously, these feminists must be aware of how delicate their theories and ideas truly are. Otherwise, wouldn’t they be just as eager to “test” out or apply their theories on the women, on the industry itself? While McKinnon and Dworkin have acted in the legal arena, they and other feminists have yet to do much more than simply theorize or criticize pornography and the female sex workers.

At this point, I would like to move away from these already much-debated points about pornography and address a point that feminists have not tackled yet: 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.”[8]

I would like to return here to the notion of a “false representation,” specifically with regard to the lesbian nude dancer “performing” as a straight woman for the male customer. I see this situation as analogous to the man who uses non-pornographic material as pornography but slightly different because here it is not the viewer or the customer who is in control of the “material” but rather the women dancing. She is the one who is manipulating the terms of the situation because she is allowing the paying male customer to believe she is “attainable,” or “straight.” She is using her body as the medium through which to convey this false message, and likewise the men believe her. The woman is, in some ways, buying into the largely male-constructed idea/ideal of what it means to be a (sexy) “woman,” because she is dancing the way men would want her to, but also using that idea to garner the most money from the men. As one dancer in Live Nude Girls Unite puts it, the dancers are basically milking the men for as much money as they can get-what could be more subversive then that? They’re using what men want, namely their bodies, in order to get what they want-money. It’s not only an economic exchange but also one that perhaps gives the women the upper hand in the end because though they are essentially “selling” their bodies, they are gaining money which is the basis of most power in this country.

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 were being simulated but made to look real, wouldn’t it have the same effect on the viewer regardless? Most people, I would argue, would not go so far as to suggest censorship to the point of eliminating sexually explicit scenes in movies or to attempt to control the use of any material that could conceivably be characterized as “pornographic.” Just as a poet cannot control how her poetry is read, as Adrienne Rich was furious upon learning that heterosexual couples were using her explicitly lesbian poetry for their own purposes, so too are feminists unable to control all the “pornographic” material in the world. As Richard Goldstein says quite aptly: “Even if there were no pornography, there would be pornography.”[9]

Another gray area worth examining is the very thin line between what is deemed “pornography” and what is deemed “erotic art.” Though there have been arguments offered for the various differences between the two, similar in vein to McKinnon’s attempt to distinguish between “pornography” and “erotica” (which is for her, and this is admittedly a huge oversimplification on my part, that the former is degrading to women and the latter is not), to me the distinction is almost nonexistent, especially within the context of this essay. By that, I mean to say that both “erotica,” “erotic art” and “pornography” all function—on the most basic level at least—in the same way to the viewer, producing (for most people) a physically aroused response. It is still unclear to me exactly how “erotica” and “erotic art” are so essentially different from pornography because the intent and the motivation for the production is similar for both forms of works. Indeed some pornographers are advancing a position that claims pornography can and is a form of art. While I would hesitate to go as far as that, the meaning for all these productions depends precisely upon those gazing upon it. What is obscene for one person may simply be “erotic” for another, and what is considered “degrading” by some feminists may be “erotic” for other feminists.

Even if feminists were successful in eradicating the literal sex industry itself—the nude dancing, the films, the theaters, the strip clubs, the books, etc.—they would still be unable to stop men from using scenes from movies, passages from books and the like as pornography. Of course, feminists argue that the problem of pornography isn’t its sexual explicitness but in its depiction of and actual degradation of women. But again, the problem remains that pornography is not the root of the problem of why women are still not equal to men and why there still exists a patriarchy (or fraternity). Pornography is certainly not aiding in solving these problems and thus, is an easy scapegoat for feminists to blame. I would argue in focusing on the evils of pornography, feminists are merely masking larger, deeper, and far more important issues. Pornographic material has been around almost as long as man has-but it has not been the tool by which men have oppressed women. That tool has largely been political, cultural, even physical. Pornography is only part of the problem, and again getting rid of the sex industry wouldn’t mean a society free of patriarchy. Indeed, it would almost be as oppressive to women in denying them their choice to work and identify as a sexual worker as it would for men to force women to perform as sexual workers.

If third-wave feminism is about expanding the boundaries of “feminism” and what it means to be a “feminist,” I think it makes perfect sense to suggest a feminist approach towards pornography that can embrace both the pro-pornography, anti-pornography camps as well as any position in between. In other words, perhaps the most useful and the best attitude for feminists to take in regards to pornography is to see it as precisely the complex issue it is, to understand its dimensions, and finally to really listen to the women who are the very people feminists speak of when they speak of pornography “degrading” and “oppressing” women. I realize that this essay itself has taken a stance that is certainly more pro-pornography than anti-pornography, but that grew from my own response to the sheer amount of material devoted to anti-pornography and by contrast, the very small amount that is pro-pornography.

I would like to end my essay by asserting its very incompleteness-there is so much more to the issue of “pornography” which is beyond the scope of this paper such as how gay pornography fits into and complicates this relationship between pornography and feminism, how women of color have been largely absent from the terms of the debate, the difference between “prostitution” and “pornography” and much, much more. In moving towards a better, more inclusive feminism, I hope that feminism will continue to both question pornography, its own attitude towards pornography, and continually revise and rework both the terms of the debate as well as provide a space for the sex workers who have been ignored by feminists for far too long. Including them in this new feminist approach to pornography would only be the first step in a process that will likely, and hopefully, only continue to change and evolve the dimensions of the issue of pornography.

[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] Theresa A. Reed, “Private Acts versus Public Acts: Where Prostitution Ends and Pornography Begins,” in Prostitution and Pornography: Philosophical Debate about the Sex Industry (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2006) 252-253.

[8] McElroy, 98.

[9] Lynne Segal and Mary McIntosh, eds. Sex Exposed: Sexuality and the Pornography Debate (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1993) 65.


Mary's picture

your paper

I grew up around sex workers. Your paper is BS to put it frankly. Sounds like a white girl out of her depth. It really makes me angry all this third wave crap. I have seen the results. I have experienced damage from being around it as I saw other children. I still know people in the different sex industries but have never once seen it as positive for the women involved nor for the young girls it effects by sexualizing them. Women, girls and boys were not meant to be bought. In body nor in soul. I come from Native American culture where sex is viewed as healthy. There is nothing healthy about the sex industry. I knew woman that said they liked being prostitutes and I watched one die from aids and another hung herself in front of her children. That is just two. I have seen foster children age out right into the sex industry. All of the sex industry workers I have ever known had been victimized as a child. Most lacked living skills, education, even a decent chance. But they all felt power by turning it around like you say. As their lives went to shit. This is just another example of feminist being clueless. I will not participate in feminism as humanism looks much more sane to me as a thinking powerful woman of color.