Should pornography be banned?


By Pip Hinman

It's almost received wisdom within some sections of the women's movement that to be a feminist is to support censorship of pornography. But a growing number of feminists are concerned about anti-pornography campaigns.

We disagree with the view that pornography is central to or a cause of women's oppression, and hence reject the strategy that flows from this approach. Pornography does not cause women's oppression, as Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon argue; it's a symptom of it.

Secondly, we believe that pro-censorship campaigns could assist the very powerful and conservative forces that maintain the systematic oppression of women.

Third, we believe that feminists should be campaigning for more freedom of expression, including the freedom to publish, distribute and consume sexually explicit material and material we find erotic, especially more material prepared by women for women.

We believe that a more repressive sexual regime will further narrow women's real choices. Feminists seek both to provide an analysis of women's oppression and to promote women's liberation, which means greater freedom of choice in our economic, social and sexual lives.

The word "pornography" came into use in the mid-19th century, when Victorian middle-class moralists declared that sexually explicit material was obscene, degrading and corrupting if made available to the general public. So pornography, which literally means "writing about prostitutes" was allowed only to a narrow elite.

Definitions of pornography were developed by the ruling class in order to decide what to ban. For the same reasons — to decide what to ban or censor — the anti-pornography feminists have developed their own definitions of what is pornographic. For instance, Andrea Dworkin describes pornography as "the graphic depiction of women as vile whores" and she says that pornography is violence against women. Susan Brownmiller thinks that it is "the undiluted essence of anti-female propaganda".

But when it comes to the practical business of drafting censorship laws, anti-feminist conservatives and anti-pornography feminists end up agreeing that pornography is sexually explicit material which is assumed to degrade women.

It is said that women know what is pornographic because we have a gut feeling against it. But most of us have ambivalent feelings about sexual imagery. Feminists need to challenge the conservatives' claim that sexually arousing equals degradation. We should also accept the large variety of subjective responses to different imagery. Your erotica might be pornography to me and vice versa.

Many women and some men are not used to seeing pictures of sexual activity and the display of genitals. We may feel disturbed, troubled or guilty. Images of attractive young women looking "sexy" may also arouse confusion or negative feelings about our bodies, especially in the light of the other billion dollar industry exposed by Naomi Wolfe in The Beauty Myth.

Sexist images

We are also reacting against the flood of sexist imagery that confronts us everywhere — every billboard, outside every newsagency, in every TV commercial and every soap opera. Pornography remains a small proportion of the total body of sexist imagery.

In a society which systematically oppresses women, culture inevitably reflects this oppression by promoting ideas that encourage men to believe that they have the right to dominate women in all areas of life. But this domination of women and its inherent violence predate the recent explosion of mass media and of pornography.

Much of pornography includes sexist imagery, sexist stereotypes and images that are degrading to women. But some of it, including pornography produced by and for women, doesn't.

Really violent sexually explicit material makes up only a small part of pornography. It is an even smaller part of a much larger body of sexist and violent imagery screening every day on TV and cinema screens and in a wide range of publications. This indicates the inadequacy of just focusing on pornography: misogynist and violent imagery in material which is not considered pornographic is much more widespread and many times more influential.

The most widely read heterosexual male pornography magazines, such as Penthouse, Playboy, and Mayfair, do not incorporate images that are explicitly violent, but they do fetishise parts of women's bodies. Yet many mainstream fashions also fetishise parts of women's bodies, emphasising certain characteristics such as breasts or thighs. If the objectification and sexual stereotyping of women is violent, then do Mills and Boon novels and popular women's magazines qualify as violence against women? Should they be censored?

Images of SM sex are explicitly "violent" — but if these practices are entered into consensually and enjoyed by both partners, can they really be? And what about lesbian SM pornography — is it also violence against women? Should this be censored too?


Some feminists argue that sex has become totally corrupted by the eroticisation of power relations. They argue that some women have been brainwashed into accepting this framework and some even enjoy politically "incorrect" sex.

This suggests that there is some essential or "true" female sexuality that is being suppressed. The ideal of "a sexual relationship between fully consenting, equal partners who are emotionally involved and do not participate in polarised roles" is proposed as women's true sexuality. But this analysis tries to define an ideal sexuality outside social conditions; it ignores the conflicting desires of real, existing individual women. It's a new brand of moralism which once again divides "good" women from "bad".

Real life suggests that sexual domination or submission is no indicator of personality or behaviour toward others. Men who, for example, enjoy masochistic and submissive sex, are not necessarily masochistic and submissive in their daily lives. Sexual preferences and behaviour may not mirror attitudes and behaviour outside the context of sexual activity.

Andrea Dworkin argues that pornography is itself violence and cites anecdotal evidence about sex workers and women who work in the pornography industry. The famous example is the snuff movie — in which an actual murder is supposed to be seen on screen. The perpetrators are real murderers and should be treated as such. But it is simply ridiculous to put images of violence on a par with real violence.

Undoubtedly, millions of women all around the world are forced, at least by economic pressures, to work as sex workers and take part in the pornography industry. But millions more slave as domestics, super-exploited labourers in industries and unpaid labourers in the home. Many more are trapped in cruel and loveless marriages. This is all part of the horror of class society, which is systematically violent against women and against the great majority of the world's population. This shows how ridiculous it is to claim that pornography is the cause of women's oppression.

An analysis of women's oppression that sees pornography as the cause leads to an inadequate strategy for fighting it. The belief that there is a direct link between one kind of media representation — pornography — and the level of violence against women can obliterate analyses of other sources of female oppression. It also threatens to stifle the rich discussion about women's sexuality by constantly reducing this discussion to pornography.

The last thing we need today is a new moralism about politically correct sex.

Incitement to rape?

Another argument for censorship says that "pornography is incitement to sexual hatred". "Pornography is the theory, rape is the practice" — is the famous quotation from Robin Morgan, meaning that rapists are inspired to act by the things they see in pornography. Some feminists believe that we live in a rape culture, where all men are rapists.

But the evidence for this is largely anecdotal, given by women who have been sexually abused by their husbands or lovers who use pornography. This evidence must be treated with care. It may well be a way of the offender trying to shift the blame and relieve himself of some guilt, blaming pornography for supposedly "making" him commit a crime.

The "theory and practice of rape" thesis also does not explain why the vast majority of men who read pornography do not rape, nor does it take into account the many men who physically, psychologically and sexually abuse their partners without reference to pornography.

The statistical evidence linking rape and pornography is less than clear; feminist authors and researchers such as Lynne Segal have spent a lot of time documenting this and warn that all research must be treated with caution.

According to the British Feminists Against Censorship, evidence shows that many sex offenders have been exposed to pornography later than other men and have seen less of it. At the same time, men who have committed violent acts against women have often been preoccupied by non-pornographic images in art and literature. Almost any stimulus may act as a trigger to sexual arousal or to violent impulses, or both.

If pornography is the theory and rape is the practice why is it that the legalisation of pornography in Sweden, Denmark, West Germany and Holland has not increased the sex crime figures in those countries?

This argument is based on a behaviourist notion that human beings are programmed by their biology and social conditions.

The biological determinist view can at first glance appear to be "common sense". But it fails to acknowledge that humans are more complex beings than other animals and that, unlike Pavlov's dog, we do not always respond in the same way to the same stimuli; self-consciousness, reflective and reasoning power and emotional response all come into play.

To see men as naturally programmed for violence is to endorse the most conservative views on human nature — to see it as unchanging and essentially unchangeable. It is a defeatist theoretical analysis — one which states that it is useless to try to change attitudes and the social climate. To argue that men are programmed — whether by their hormones or by their conditioning — is also to absolve them of responsibility for their actions.

Even if it were true that most pornography promoted violence against women, it wouldn't follow that we should not be exposed to it. Ignorance can never make us safer.

Images of war can be used to expose the horror of war and explain its causes, as much as to promote it, depending on the context. We can apply the same approach to sexually explicit and violent images which can be used to demystify pornography, explain sexism and its causes,

There is one stark lesson we can draw from the experience of women in eastern Europe and the former USSR. Where sexuality is repressed, it can easily be packaged and sold back to us, particularly in its most misogynist form. Censorship in eastern Europe didn't diminish the demand for pornography — and it certainly didn't stop violence against women and children.

Right-wing trap

Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon say that pornography is central in maintaining men's dominance over women. This position has led them to ally with extreme right-wing anti-feminists to introduce anti-pornography legislation in several states in the USA.

In the early 1980s the Minneapolis City Council passed an ordinance, drafted by Dworkin and MacKinnon, which would allow women to take legal action against anyone involved in the production, distribution or sale of pornography on the grounds that they had been harmed by the image of women that it portrayed. It received no support from local feminist groups.

A year later a similar ordinance was introduced into the Indianapolis City Council, and attempts were made to pass similar legislation in Los Angeles and Cambridge, Massachusetts. A two-year legal battle by the Feminist Anti-Censorship Task Force, and media groups and publishers, finally resulted in the ordinance being declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.

In this ordinance, for the first time pornography was defined as a form of sex discrimination, which would have allowed individuals to sue in a civil court to ban specified sexually explicit materials and to collect damages for the harm done by the pornographers.

Both Dworkin and MacKinnon argue that these ordinances are not censorship laws, but civic ordinances which empower women. They claim that these laws are no different from laws dealing with incitement to racial hatred. (Such laws are themselves problematic in that they do not distinguish between oppressor and oppressed, and are often used against the latter.)

The legislation was very popular with right-wing legislators in each city. During the public hearings on these ordinances, the feminist phrase "degrading to women" was continually converted to "degrading to femininity" by the men who ran the hearings.

Definitions in the ordinances are vague and all inclusive. Pornography is defined as the "sexually explicit subordination of women," in "postures of sexual submission". Interpretation of such phrases is left to the citizen who files the complaint and to the judge who hears the case. Feminists Against Censorship say the legislation does not just prohibit the images of gross sexual violence that supporters of the ordinance claim is its target, but drifts toward covering a lly explicit material.

It is not unusual for such legislation to be used far more broadly than originally intended. For example, an anti-pornography law in the Canadian province of Ontario was recently used to raid a bookshop for carrying a sexually explicit lesbian magazine.

The unholy alliance some feminists make with the right wing is cause for serious concern for feminists. The agenda of the right wing has not changed — it is to limit our choices, to take back the gains of decades, to reassert the reactionary pro-family ideology and women's role within it, to restrict our sexuality, to restrict our economic and social options. The conservatising years of the 1980s in the US, Britain and Australia have given rise to a renewed attack on our rights, as Susan Faludi so well documents in Backlash.

Feminists have always attempted to de-link sexual relations from economic dependence within the family, and we don't want to make it easier for the back to the family brigade under the guise of supporting "feminism".

Anti-censorship agenda

The women's liberation movement has consistently sought to explain why men are violent against women; we have campaigned against sexist media imagery which stereotypes women — we want a wider recognition of women as capable, strong, independent and sexual beings.

While moral crusaders worry about the corrupting influence of explicit sexuality, the women's movement realised that one of the many barriers to our liberation is the repressed nature of sexuality within the existing family system. Sexual freedom, the chance to experiment sexually, has always been of vital importance to women asserting their self-identity. Prescriptions of "politically correct" sex, of any variety, run counter to feminism's desire to empower women to explore their sexuality.

We have a responsibility to counter in the most effective way images which are sexist or exploitative — not by seeking to have them banned, but by initiating a much more wide-ranging debate about sex, by lobbying for better sex education in schools, by creating more informed, tolerant and responsible social attitudes to the expression of sexuality, and by supporting those who are creating an alternative body of sexual images for women.

Women need open and safe communication about sexual matters, including the power relations of sex. We need a feminism which is about choice — about taking control of our lives, including our sexual lives.

We erotic material produced by and for women, freed from the control of right-wingers and misogynists, whether they sit on the board of directors or the board of censors.

We don't need new forms of guilt parading under the banner of

We need a safe, legal working environment for sex workers, not repressive laws or an atmosphere of social stigma that empowers police and pimps to brutalise them.

We need an analysis of violence that empowers women and protects them. Feminism should be a critique of sexism, masculine power and patriarchal society. It also must be willing to tackle issues of class and race and to deal with the variety of oppressions in the world, not to reduce all oppressions to pornography.

Ruth Wallsgrove of the British feminist magazine Spare Rib was right in 1977 when she said: "I believe we should not agitate for more laws against pornography, but should rather stand up together and say what we feel about it, and what we feel about our own sexuality, and force men to re-examine their own attitudes to sex and women implicit in their consumption of porn."

Reading Green Left online is free but producing it isn't ...

Green Left aims to make all content available online, without paywalls, but we depend on your support to survive.