Feminists Confront Feminists Over Pornography

For a generation, there has been deep division within the feminist community about how to judge porn. Does it liberate women, or oppress them? Writing in
Pornography: The Production and Consumption of Inequality (1998, p.9-35), Ann Russo strives to reconcile dreams of individual liberty with the realities of social and economic inequality.

For anti-pornography feminist activists, writers, and scholars, pornography has never been simply an intellectual, academic debate over the interpretation of images; rather, the struggle has been against a multibillion-dollar industry that contributes to pervasive social inequalities and endemic sexual violence. It has never been a campaign to ban sexually explicit material; its object has been to challenge and to eliminate the pornography industry’s participation in discrimination, bigotry, and violence. The salient issue in the feminist fight against pornography has not been an objection to sexual activity or representations but, rather, to the sexism and racism of pornography, the structure and dynamics of eroticized inequality, and the sexual mistreatment, abuse, and violence that occur in connection with its production, distribution, and consumption….

Feminists involved in recognizing, challenging and trying to stop violence are concerned with what creates a social context of pervasive violence that is denied, minimized, and trivialized, and simultaneously is legitimated and defined as normative, consensual sexual relations… Why is there so little empathy and concern for victims of sexual violence, except in circumstances of interracial or interclass violence?…

The compelling issues and questions have to do with mistreatment, harassment, rape, battery, and murder, not sex per se. The imaginative feminist vision is a society free of inequality and violence, not a society free of sexual desire and expression…

[P]ornography constructs and perpetuates sexualized and racialized bigotry, exploitation, harassment, and violence against women… [it] presents sexual force and coercion as what women want and desire, and…legitimates discrimination, mistreatment, and abuse by making it arousing and entertaining…

[Anti-pornography] slide shows demystified the secrecy and the taboo aspect of the pornographic industry…encouraged women and men to recognize that the industry does not simply traffic in “sexual expression” but rather in misogynist and racist discourse and practices…

Contrary to most critiques of the feminist anti-pornography movement, the strategies have not been directed toward criminal laws to ban pornography or sexually explicit material in general. The goals have been critical analysis and discussion, as well as accountability by the industry for the harms created through pornography…

While feminists critical of the pornography industry focus on the products and practices of an industry, sexual liberals who have been involved in attacking the feminist anti-pornography movement define pornography as any sexually explicit expression. They include, for example, a wide range of materials, including greeting cards, “great” literature, feminist materials on sexuality, birth control, and reproduction, as well as lesbian and gay artistic expression (Strossen, 1995; Kipnis, 1996). Drawing upon such a braod definition serves to obscure the target of the feminist anti-pornography critique and make it seem as if feminists against pornography are against all forms of sexual expression…

The unqualified defense of the pornography industry on the grounds of a concern for the rights of sexual minorities has been effective in many progressive communities concerned with individual rights and privacy, and protection from government interference. The defense resonates among some feminists, particularly in lesbian and gay communities, because of the rampant homophobia and heterosexism being spread by right-wing forces in the country…

These are real issues of concern. However, the uncritical acceptance of the defense of pornography needs more discussion… For instance, by referring to adult/child sexual relations as “intergenerational sex”, sexual liberals neutralize the power dynamics involved between adults and children, ignore sexual abuse, and minimize the illegal trafficking of children by labeling all those who raise questions “moralists”. By classifying women who work in the sex industry as members of a “sexual minority”, sexual liberals imply that the work is a voluntary activity, representative of the woman’s (or man’s) own freely chosen sexual identity and desire; they ignore the economic conditions of the sexual exchange, the social and economic power of the producers and consumers, and the poverty, economic exploitation, and sexual abuse that may underlie the lives of those involved in the sex industry (Jeffreys, 1990; Summer, 1987). This is not to deny the possibility that some women’s work and their sexual identities and desires are overlapping, but only to acknowledge that this automatic assumption evades the social and economic contexts of women’s work in the industry…

The mass distribution of pornographic magazines, books, videos, and computer programs perpetuates sexual abuse and discrimination in the real world of social inequality because it legitimates sexual and racialized harassment and abuse as forms of sexual pleasure and entertainment. It creates an environment in which men (and women) have difficulty believing women who speak out about rape, battery, child sexual abuse, and sexual harassment. The messages in pornography about women’s pleasure in submission and pain contribute to men’s beliefs that sexual assault victims derive sexual pleasure from the experience…

A growing number of women and children are photographed and videotaped by their husbands, boyfriends, and/or relatives without their consent, and sometimes without their knowledge… While marketers claim that these are harmless fantasies, women survivors speak about the coercion, abuse, rape, and battering involved in video production, and about their fear and humiliation in knowing that people are buying videos of their abuse for pleasure and entertainment. According to proprietors who sell adult videos, these home-made videos account for approximately 20 to 60 percent of video sales in New England. The women have no legal redress; as Gaines (1992, p.26) writes, “women abused in this way are often too ashamed to seek public redress, consent can be obtained under duress and, in any case, no state or federal law prohibits marketing pornographic films of adults, even films showing the commission of crimes…”

Defenders of pornography… [fail] to address the reality that the producers and directors have economic and social control and power, sometimes enforced through violence or the threat of violence, to determine the conditions and substance of pornography’s production…

Micki Garcia, former director of Playmate Promotions, was for six years a supervisor, friend, and confidante to the “Playmates”. She “saw and felt the grim realities of the Playboy lifestyle: alienation from family and friends, drug abuse, attempted suicide, prostitution, unnecessary cosmetic surgery, mental and physical abuse, rape, attempted murder and murder…”

I am not suggesting that stories of coercion automatically cancel out the stories of empowerment and choice. But to simply accept the argument of “free choice”, when there are competing and conflicting narratives of economic exploitation, abuse, and violence, serves only to shield the industry from public scrutiny, and thus accountability for those women who are being harmed. To ignore, evade, and deny the attendant issues of discrimination, abuse, and violence does not help to validate women who work in the industry…

The goal is not to deny an individual woman’s right to choose to participate in the industry, but to target the structural inequalities both within the industry and in the social relations, structures, and institutions that shape the industry. This would include the problems of poor working conditions, coerc
ion, and harassment, as well as criminalization and stigmatization of women by social institutions outside of the pornography industry…

[S]peaking out, publicizing and protesting sexual violence, empowers women–it makes those harmed feel less alone and isolated, and it makes perpetrators more publicly accountable. Speaking out makes change possible because sexual abuse becomes a social and community issue, rather than an individual private tragedy…

Women are empowered, not disempowered, when they demand the right to be treated as human beings. Hope for a better life is possible when women struggle to change relationships, make decisions to leave relationships when equality and mutual respect are not forthcoming, and challenge and fight mistreatment and abuse in the workplace, in social institutions, and in capitalist enterprises whether or not they are connected with sexuality.

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