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What is Pornography to Feminists Anyway?

YJ's picture

As I have been reading various essays addressing the feminist perspective on pornography, it seems one thing is clear: there are only multiple perspectives but no dominant one that can be called representative of the “feminist” perspective on pornography.[1] It seems that a lot of categorical mistakes, unclear definitions and a sort of muddling of the various issues that may or may not legitimately be counted as such under “pornography” (depending) on how you define it, have led to the confusion. Even the deceptively simple task of classifying certain kinds of occupations or things as “pornographic” has led to heated debates among feminists (and presumably among others); for instance, does prostitution count as “pornography?” Does stripping count as “pornography?” Does the work or subject only have to be sexual in nature or occur in a very sexualized setting to count as “pornography?” This is precisely part of, and indeed, probably the linchpin of the mess that is the debate over the relationship between pornography and feminism, or to be more precise: what that relationship should be.

One major issue is that neither feminists, nor anyone else for that matter, can agree on a definition of what exactly pornography is. Though Catherine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin famously advanced a definition, albeit a legal one, through their Human Rights Ordinance of the City of Minneapolis, it was and has been rejected by many feminists as being too rigid and perhaps too severe.[2] MacKinnon and Dworkin’s unholy alliance with political right-wingers in passing the ordinance was another red-flag for feminists who have been and still are wary of the republican politicians who generally hold more traditional (read: patriarchic) beliefs about the family structure and thus the role of women in society.

With so many feminists operating under such different definitions of pornography, it is difficult to understand what the debate is even about when the issue-- the concerns with or definition of pornography under which that particular feminist (or feminists) are operating under-- always seems to be changing. For example, MacKinnon and Dworkin (as well as other feminists) often include child pornography as part of their definition, whereas other feminists would only classify mainstream pornography films (generally heterosexual in nature) as pornography. For myself, I’m a bit skeptical about linking child pornography to mainstream pornography because they seem vastly different to me- a child can never consent to such acts but an adult woman conceivably could. I say “conceivably,” because based on the characterization of pornography given by MacKinnon and Dworkin, the woman never makes the choice to work in pornography but is always the victim of circumstances (economic, political, social, etc.).

To me, that seems to limit the realm of what counts as feminism, one of the ways I’ve always personally defined feminism is the right of a woman to make choices for herself, whether its choosing a career, choosing to have kids, and choosing her occupation. It’s hard for me to believe that every woman in pornography films have been forced; isn’t it just as possible that some of those women chose such a career because they enjoy sex? In refusing to recognize even the possibility that a woman could choose sex work freely as her occupation, MacKinnon and Dworkin are essentially falling for the very paradigm they’re trying to circumvent-they’re equating women who are sexualized-for whatever reason and through whatever media-as being “forced” and thus leaving no room for choice. 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.”[3] 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.

While I do not discount the accusations of abuse MacKinnon and Dworkin and other feminists have made against pornography because undoubtedly abuse, sexual harassment and other ill treatment to be found in many “traditional” workplaces also occur in pornography, I’m as yet, not convinced that it occurs more rampantly or flagrantly. Maybe I am either too naïve or too harsh in thinking that if there was such gross abuse, it would have come out by now or maybe it is too soon to tell and such atrocities will be discovered. In either case, I still don’t think it’s wise for feminists to assume that all women involved with pornography or other sex work are “victims.”

While I do think that mainstream pornography is certainly not woman-friendly in most (if not all) aspects, I do not think we should merely do away with pornography; a sentiment also expressed by Gayle Rubin in her essay, “Misguided, Dangerous and Wrong: an Analysis of Anti-Pornography Politics.” What we need is more women in power in the pornography industry, and then I think we could see, if not positive, then less negative impacts on women. I think what is really at the heart of the issue of feminism and pornography is what’s at heart for all the issues for feminists: in operating in such a male-dominated society (and world), women are continually suppressed, victimized and “othered.” Pornography is simply a small (albeit extreme) symptom of the illness that afflicts society as a whole- in order to really treat it, we must cure the illness first.


Overall, I find the issue of feminism and pornography very interesting and pertinent. However, there are some things I would like to look at more in depth, especially MacKinon and Dworkin’s (and others) claim that there is a strong link between child pornography, rape, and pornography. I would also like to explore and possibly take a more theoretical approach to pornography but eliminating, if possible the legal theory it often becomes entangled with because I think that only serves to further complicate the issue rather than clarifying it. Though I am still waiting to read MacKinnon’s “Defamation and Discrimination” essay (which is surprisingly hard to find within the Tri-Co), I do believe I’ve read much more feminist anti-pornography perspectives and thus would like to explore more feminists who are pro-pornography. Ultimately, I hope to find my own personal stance on the matter; so far I’m probably smack in that gray middle area of the debate but leaning a bit more in favor of the pro-pornography feminists rather than the anti-pornography side. I think this is in large part due to the often vitriolic language anti-pornography feminists like MacKinnon and Dworkin use in their essays-I often feel they are too harsh in their judgments as well as sometimes too quick to make assumptions. However, I’m not, as even many pro-pornography feminists are, entirely comfortable with pornography (I’m referring to mainstream films here) as it exists today. I am trying to keep my mind open however as I research and think about this very complex issue. The bibliography below includes both works I have read and ones I plan to read.



[1] Of course, complicating this even more is that there is still no one definition of “feminism” either, but I will refer to “feminism” anyway, for the sake of simplifying what is already a very thorny issue. I think we can agree that there are at least a few widely shared goals among feminists, such as equality, and thus I am only referring to feminism in its broadest terms.

[2] Catherine MacKinnon, “Only Words,” in Feminism and Pornography, ed. Drucilla Cornell (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 104-105.

[3] Cornell, 552.

*Note: I had some trouble with the formatting of footnotes in the blog, they appeared as hyperlinks but then I didn't know how to actually link the text to the number in the text.


Assiter, Alison and Avedon Carol. Bad Girls and Dirty Pictures: The Challenge to

Reclaim Feminism. London: Pluto Press, 1993.

Berger, Ronald J., Patricia Searles and Charles E. Cottle, eds. Feminism and

Pornography. New York: Praeger Publishers, 1991.

Cornell, Drucilla, ed. Feminism and Pornography. Oxford: Oxford University Press,


McElroy, Wendy. XXX: A Woman’s Rights to Pornography. New York: St. Martin’s

Press, 1995.

Russell, Diane E.H. Dangerous Relationships: Pornography, Misogyny and Rape.

Thousand Oaks: Sage Publishers, 1998.

Segal, Lynne and Mary McIntosh, eds. Sex Exposed: Sexuality and the Pornography

Debate. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1993.

Spector, Jessica, ed. Prostitution and Pornography: Philosophical Debate about the Sex

Industry. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2006.

Weisberg, D. Kelly, ed. Applications of Feminist Legal Theory to Women’s Lives: Sex,

Violence, Work, and Reproduction. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1996.

Two films/documentaries I’d also like to look at:

1) Live Nude Girls Unite.

2) Patently Offensive: Porn Under Siege.






Mary Clurman '63's picture

Buddy System/Project

Hi YJ -- Ann Dixon said that the class would like feedback from one of us alumnae, and suggested me for you. I've just read your two Web papers and Prof. Dalke's comments.

Prostitution is something I've never turned my mind to (but you've inspired me to request books from my local library: Take back the Night: Women on Pornography; Dirty Looks: Women, Pornography, Power; and Defending Pornography: Free Speech, Sex, and the Fight for Women's Rights), and I do have some thoughts on pornography. You've put out a lot of possibilities and much admirable effort into getting it properly on paper, but you make me wonder, why prostitution, why pornography? What do these phenomena mean to you personally? Polemics are tempting when it comes to papers (I left BMC after 2 years because I found myself writing in triple negatives), but it's real fun to write about something when it affects one's whole self, not just one's "male-advised" mind.

Again, I hadn't thought about it before, but your name and your topic led me to wonder about Asian prostitution, and whether you know anything about that specifically. I will be in Bangkok with the Peace Cops in January, and now I intend to pay attention to the question when I get there.

I'd guess that firsthand information will be very different from the academic materials we are reading now. Too bad to have to view such a topic from arm's length. The issue of prostitution itself is hardly a natural for academic theorizing, in that you wonder what kind of wisdom can come from such a distance. I know there are personal safety issues in researching directly, or at least assume so, as all I (think I) know about prostitution is what I've seen in films. (Remember Venus Xtravaganza.) Surely there are writings by former prostitutes or by firsthand researchers/interviewers available somewhere? What a topic for an oral history project! (Don't take it on without consulting w/ Prof. Dalke!)

The line between what we call pornography and what we call erotic literature is razor thin and reminds me of the cartoon of the guy sliding down a banister that becomes a razor blade: painful. We Americans are pretty prudish, or profess to be, but the enthusiasm of men for the term "fuck" suggests that their prudery hides an IED. It tells me that sex is always on men's minds (even well-educated, older men-friends volunteer that this is so), so I don't know why they should play at prudery except out of hypocrisy.

I certainly wouldn't banish men, but they, too, need re-educating.

Is sex always on women's minds? I can't say that it has been on mine. Is it that my sources exaggerate? Do they mean, when a woman is present, or do they mean pretty literally ALL THE TIME? You will probably find more "right-wingers" on the subject of sex than on anything else in this country.

You may feel that there is no position for the individual in feminism, but since feminism means so many things, you have only to make one. If you'd like more on this, let me know.

I do love to think and surely I seem opinionated, yes? But my opinions are hard-earned, by this age (66) -- I hope that sharing them with you will be some help -- a different viewpoint at least.


One Student's picture

There's a magazine called

There's a magazine called 'Spread' for sex workers, which might interest you.

I suspect that sex workers are one group whose voices are often not heard by the academics and activists and opinion-makers. I don't know how much the magazine caters to ... porn actors, I guess you'd call them, but perhaps they have their own publication. In any event, I think it would be fascinating to investigate what sex workers/porn actors think of their work, and how that's different from how it's understood in academia, etc. 

Anne Dalke's picture

what that relationship should be

I want to start, YJ, where you ended, ducking the definition of "feminism." I think you have to figure out what sort of feminist you are--what sort of operative definition of feminism you are working with--is it first wave, with a focus on individual rights? second wave, focusing more on materialist, socialist concerns? third wave, with an attention to varieties of sexual practices and identities?

The feminist presumptions you bring to your inquiry into the pornography debates will have everything to do with where you come down in them. (For a useful overview of the history of feminist positionings, you might look @ Rosemarie Tong's 1998 Feminist thought:  A More Comprehensive Introduction.)
While you're in the library, the McKinnon article is in her Only Words; HC, BMC and Swat all have copies (Swat has three of them...)

You will also want to be in conversation with Abby, who is asking questions simiilar to yours regarding the relationship between freedom and oppression, and looking likewise at the ways in which "representation matters," what "real implications" it has in the "world of reality and every day experience." Your quote from Drucilla Cornell--that the victim's "life is reduced to that figuration of her" would form an interesting talking point for the two of you.

Another dimension you might want to think more about (this would be second-wave-y) would be the material: you speak of women working in porn as either forced or "enjoying sex." There is of course @ least a third option, that they are choosing to work. Don't forget the labor dimension here (Live Nude Girls Unite!, the film you mention wanting to see, will highlight this for you).

I was struck also by your suggesting that porn is a "symptom of the illness" (of women's oppression), which needs to be cured first. Are you suggesting an intervention on that scale? What shape would that take? I noted too your claim that what we need is "more women in power in the pronography industry," and found myself curious about your sense of the role and importance of power in feminism. What does it look like, how does it operate? (What would Virginia Woolf say? Foucault? Rubin?)

I like and affirm (of course!) your final move to open-mindedness; one way to keep things open would be to avoid the binaries of "pro" and "con"...there are lots of spaces inbetween!