A Response to Wendy McElroy’s “Banning Pornography Endangers Women”

As part of his defense of porn, “paco” suggested we look at Wendy McElroy’s essay, “Banning Pornography Endangers Women”. NPN’s Jendi Reiter did so and offers this analysis. Before we begin, we reiterate that NPN does not advocate censorship or banning of any kind of speech. We do mean to educate people about the nature of the porn industry and the impact of porn, and suggest some modest, court-approved zoning and health regulations that can mitigate the impact of sexually oriented businesses on our community. And now, Jendi Reiter…

Wendy McElroy, a noted libertarian feminist, wrote her essay to oppose the radical feminist critique of pornography as gender violence that violates women’s civil rights. She was particularly concerned about the Minneapolis anti-pornography ordinance (never passed) that Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin drafted in 1983, which would have allowed porn actresses to bring a civil lawsuit against the film producers and distributors. McElroy raises some valid concerns about the dangers of paternalism in the MacKinnon/Dworkin approach, but also makes some unsupported generalizations that ignore the conditions under which porn is produced and consumed.

McElroy questions the radical feminist presumption that no healthy, sane, free woman would truly consent to be in a hardcore porn film. She says this approach infantilizes women who make “unacceptable” sexual choices. Since the 19th century, feminists have fought for legal recognition of women as competent adults with control over their own bodies. It would be a step backward for women’s rights if the law ignored porn actresses’ prior consent to appear in these films, she says.

McElroy is right that we’re on dangerous ground when we ask the legal system to look beyond the formalities of consent, to pry into our innermost psyches to determine whether our choices were “truly” free. Since every choice is conditioned by outside pressure, this would be an impossible standard to meet. This points up a contradiction in some radical feminist legal reform projects. If society is so corrupted by patriarchy that even private choices lead to unjust outcomes, we agree that it would be unwise to give more coercive power to the government. We can’t expect the state to act more nobly than the market when both are products of the same corrupt culture.

However, McElroy overreaches when she attempts to argue that porn is not harmful. Because of her individualist mindset, she debates the propriety of porn as if it were merely speech or ideas, ignoring the fact that the actions on the screen were done to real women.

She also assumes that porn’s detractors have the burden of proving the link between porn and sexual aggression, to a relatively high scientific level of certainty, and then dismisses anti-porn studies as biased. (Since the essay is provided to us here as a pamphlet, McElroy does not give enough data or citations for the reader to evaluate her conclusion.) This presumption of porn’s innocence may make sense when legal regulation is involved, but there is no reason to stack the deck this way when the issue is how feminists generally should feel about porn. Common sense tells us that what we watch, read, hear and think about will have an impact on our behavior. If ideas existed in a vacuum of fantasy or academic debate, unrelated to real-world action, they’d hardly be worth protecting with the First Amendment. Or is our entitlement to fantasy so important that we mustn’t think about the real women who were consumed to bring our fantasies to the screen?

McElroy trots out the old canard that porn prevents sexual violence by making our society less repressed. “To further repress sex by restricting pornography might well increase the incidence of rape. Opening up the area of pornography might well diffuse sexual violence by making sexuality more understandable.”

In the first place, it’s not very feminist to suggest that men’s impulse to rape is an inexorable force, which demands a sacrifice (the women in porn films), like some virgin-eating beast of Greek mythology, to buy safety for the rest of us. Sexual desire is malleable. McElroy would have us settle for finding a “safe” outlet for sexual aggression instead of questioning the cultural stimuli that eroticize violence in the first place. Second, when she argues that watching porn will help us understand sex, she assumes that the type of sex portrayed in porn is normal, healthy, and good for women. This is largely untrue. Porn sex is only one type of sex—one that’s unnaturally focused on unrealistic body types, domination and humiliation, and the absence of love and commitment. Finally, the explosion of porn around the world since the 60s, and the increased sexual explicitness of the “mainstream” media, have not been shown to consistently reduce the incidence of rape, sexual harassment, or molestation. In many cases, the opposite appears to be true.

I appreciate McElroy’s warning about the limits of the law. Women’s historical experience of subordination should teach us that “empowerment” is not always a warm and fuzzy word. Power corrupts, even if held by feminists. However, liberal feminists should not become such cheerleaders for choice that they fail to ask why certain choices are available and others are not even imagined. McElroy takes demand for porn as a given, and narrows the issue to whether individual women are free participants. Why can’t we advocate for something more–for a society where men and women are less aroused by violence, and can express their sexuality as individuals, without prepackaged commercial fantasies?

Wendy McElroy’s essay was published in pamphlet form by the libertarian group ISIL, the International Society for Individual Liberty.

2 thoughts on “A Response to Wendy McElroy’s “Banning Pornography Endangers Women”

  1. The Welcome message for this site states it’s purpose as “…supports reasonable regulation of sexually oriented businesses in Northampton, Massachusetts.”
    As a lesbian living in Northampton for over 20 years I believe that if this store wants to join our divers community then who are we to try and censor that. If you keep the store from arriving based on your “… reasonable regulation of sexually oriented businesses…” I could name many more stores in northampton that should be closed down. Hell, The hetorosexuals could decided to close down any of the gay & lesbian shops claiming that we corrupt society and promote a gay lifestyle.
    I work near the site of the up and comming Amazing.net, and I probably only see maybe 20 people walk by during an 8 hour shift. I believe that as long as there is no nudity posted on the outside of the building, the kind of products they sell to adults on the inside doesn’t matter. It is legal.
    One post states “the making and viewing of porn causes suffering.” (I assume you mean the people involved in the movie suffer.)Well, if that is the case…have you been to Walmart? Walmart is one of the biggest companys in the USA. It has great prices. My point, you shop there and you cause suffering. Walmart uses child labor from 3rd world contries.
    We all have a god given right to Free Will. We make the choice to walk into Walmart, we make the choice to walk into a “porn shop”.

  2. Most of your points, particularly the issue of censorship, have been addressed in our FAQ (left-hand column). Freedom of speech is an important value, but it’s not the only important value. As the 20th century amply demonstrated, when one principle is advanced to an extreme degree over all others, ugly situations often follow.

    20 pedestrians in 8 hours passing 135 King Street sounds rather low to me. We might have to do a count to settle that issue.

    We have been trying hard to advocate a balanced approach that spares shops like Pride & Joy while demonstrating that Capital Video does not deserve the benefit of the doubt. We trust Northampton citizens can make the right distinctions.

    As for suffering, I would like to call your attention to this movie sold at Amazing.net, Lesbian Bukkake #5. As we have observed before, bukkake is “a group sex practice wherein a series of people take turns ejaculating
    onto someone. There can be strong overtones of erotic humiliation in
    this practice.” In the case of lesbian bukkake, “Because women do not generally ejaculate during orgasm, in practice
    most pornographic films that purport to depict female ejaculation
    actually show women urinating.” I am not citing this example to be anti-gay, but to show how humiliation and suffering are themes in Capital Video products regardless of sexual orientation.

    Your comparison of a Capital Video porn shop to Wal-Mart is as absurd as the comparison that has been proposed to Dunkin’ Donuts. Wal-Mart might not be an ideal retailer or employer but it does provide a wide variety of useful goods to the public at reasonable prices. It is plausible to argue that its benefits outweigh its flaws. If Wal-Mart has callous labor practices, then it should reform them. I don’t think, however, that child labor is necessarily inherent to their business model. It’s much harder to separate suffering–for porn workers, consumers, and communities–from Capital Video’s activities. I would also say that Wal-Mart is considerably more responsive to public concerns than Capital Video is.

    Judgment calls everywhere, folks. It’s an imperfect world. We do the best we can.

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