Rebecca Whisnant: “Not Your Father’s Playboy, Not Your Mother’s Feminist Movement” (explicit language)

Claiming you like a world of shallow relationships, exploitation, cruelty and abuse may make you feel better about it, but it is not true liberation. Rebecca Whisnant critiques third-wave feminism in “Not Your Father’s Playboy, Not Your Mother’s Feminist Movement”. This talk was delivered at “Pornography and Pop Culture: Re-framing Theory, Re-thinking Activism”, a conference at Wheelock College in Boston, MA (March 24, 2007). Below are excerpts from the talk. The full text is available at Said It, and there is a Google video (47 min) of Whisnant’s speech.

Before we start, we note that Whisnant is not a big fan of “religious, predominantly Christian, social conservatism”. We agree that some elements of this conservatism are troubling and confining. We don’t support the subordination of women (or gay people) in any context. However, we do feel the feminist anti-pornography movement would benefit from greater sympathy to religion and marriage. Christians, like practitioners of other faiths, come in many different varieties, and their potential help with the cause should not be summarily disdained. A hallmark of Jesus, or Buddha, for that matter, was their desire to reach out across lines that divide people, such as tribe, caste and class–radical concepts then and now.

One feminist movement that tries to make space for religion, families and men is womanism. This movement is worth learning from. We also recommend the blog of Hugo Schwyzer, who critiques porn from a religious and egalitarian perspective.

With all that said, Whisnant makes many valuable observations about the “waves” of feminism in America, that an individual’s behavior impacts other people, that the ‘free market’ imposes its own constraints on behavior, and that there are better things than perpetuating oppressive concepts…

I’ve been asked to speak this morning about the state of contemporary feminism, particularly in relationship to pornography and the porn culture that surrounds us. What’s meant by a porn culture will be explored in a number of ways over this weekend. But if you are here, it’s presumably because you already believe that, whatever a porn culture is, it’s not what feminists, or women, or anybody with a lick of sense ever meant by “sexual liberation…”

…a feminism that acquiesces to certain key male entitlements, while simultaneously presenting itself as bold and liberated and rebellious, is likely to be appealing to many women. A version of feminism that supports girls’ and women’s desired self-conception as independent and powerful, while actually requiring very little of them as far as confronting real male power, will similarly have wide appeal…

Listen, for instance, to Marcelle Karp and Debbie Stoller in their 1999 book The Bust Guide to the New Girl Order: “We don’t have a problem with pornography unless, of course, it doesn’t turn us on,” they write. “We realize that American porn culture is here to stay. So rather than trying to rid the world of sexual images we think are negative, as some of our sisters have done, we’re far more interested in encouraging women to explore porn, to find out whether it gets them hot or merely bothered … While the female market for fuck films is still far less than that of men, it’s a central tenet of our version of feminism to acknowledge that it exists at all…”

This is a common and familiar phenomenon: we adjust our desires based on what’s actually happening and on what we think is and is not possible. Philosophers have a useful term for the results of this process: “adaptive preferences.” The basic idea is simple: if I can’t have something (or think I can’t have it), then it behooves me not to want that thing. Conversely, if I’m going to get something whether I like it or not, then I’ll be happier if I can get myself to want it and like it. So people adapt their desires to fit their situations, rather than vice versa, thus minimizing the pain and cognitive dissonance of continuing to want something that they don’t think they can get: “if you can’t have what you want,” as the saying goes, “then want what you have.”

The concept of adaptive preferences is indispensable to understanding the self-reproducing dynamics of oppressive systems. In particular, I think it can help us understand the new brand of feminism of which I am, for the moment, taking Karp and Stoller as representatives—the brand that’s sometimes called “do-me feminism,” but for which the less polite moniker is “fuck-me feminism.” One blogger sums it up as follows (unsympathetically but still, I think, pretty accurately):

“Fuck-me feminism … is a school of thought that suggests [women] are empowered by reclaiming and controlling our own sexual objectification, by reclaiming the power of pornography and the sex industry for ourselves, and by flaunting our desire and willingness to have sex. In other words, being a man’s sexual object can’t hurt me if I want to be objectified; pornography and the sex industry can’t degrade me if I enjoy it or if I profit from it; being used for sex can’t devalue me if I’m using him too; being regarded as nothing more than a pussy to fuck can’t dehumanize me if I want him to fuck my pussy.”

Now we should note an important theme here: that on this view, as far as feminism is concerned, it’s not what I’m doing that matters, but whether I really want (or choose) to do it…

For those uninitiated to the “wave” model of U.S. feminism, the feminist movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, which focused most centrally on women’s rights in marriage, and then later on the right to vote, is usually called the “first wave.” The radical women’s liberation movement of the 1960’s and 70’s, and to some degree into the 80’s, is called the “second wave.” Starting in the early 1990’s, some young feminists began to identify as part of what they call the “third wave…”

One claim central to second-wave radical feminism is that women are a class sharing a common condition…

…[This] suggests a particular aim and purpose for feminist endeavor: namely, to figure out as best we can what serves the interests of women as a class (not just our own personal interests) and then to try as best we can—imperfectly, messily, but in good faith—to do that, support that, be that…

…[I]n recognizing the personal as political, second-wave feminists also recognized and embraced responsibility for the broader implications and consequences of their own “personal” choices around everything from work, family, and parenting to beauty, sexuality, and self-defense…

…Structurally speaking, as a person facing oppression of whatever kind, one has two choices. One can resist the oppression—in general, or in any particular instance—in which case one is likely to get viciously slapped down. Alternatively, one can obey, that is, act in ways that please the oppressors, perhaps in hopes of gaining some limited reward (or at least of avoiding the oppressive system’s very worst consequences). As you may have noticed, neither option is altogether attractive…

…[T]he essential feminist question is not whether some individual women like or choose or benefit in certain ways from X, but whether the overall effect of X is to keep women as a group subordinate to men.

Feminism is about ending the subordination of women. Expanding women’s freedom of choice on a variety of fronts is an important part of that, but it is not the whole story. In fact, any meaningful liberation movement involves not only claiming the right to make choices, but also holding oneself accountable for the effects of those choices on oneself and on others…

Now the third wave also has a take on sexual politics… On this view, for instance, a woman challenges the hierarchy when she plays a dominatrix role, or when she becomes a sexual consumer (for instance, using pornography or getting a lap dance at a strip club)—that is, when she adopts a standardly masculine set of sexual roles and activities. A woman also resists, on this view, when she uses the “power” of femininity—her beauty, her sex appeal and hotness, etc.—to her own perceived advantage. According to third-wave feminism, then, a woman can enact a liberatory and feminist sexual politics by adopting either a typically feminine or a typically masculine sexual role and persona, and running with it—as long as she does so freely and with the right attitudes and intentions…

I don’t take a stand here on whether it is possible or desirable to create sexually explicit material that expresses feminist values. Rather I look at some of the folks who claim to be doing that, at some of the materials they have produced and promoted, and at the grounds on which they claim those materials to be feminist ones…

[I]n “alt” or feminist pornography we do occasionally see women with something other than the Hollywood-prescribed body size and shape. (More often, the “alternative” appearance seems to consist mainly of tattoos and body piercings—but rarely does it involve having pubic hair, I’ve noticed.) But when we look at the statements of self-described feminist pornographers, the utterly liberal—even libertarian—politics at the core of this enterprise become unmistakeable. At bottom, as it turns out, this pornography is said to be feminist because it is made by women, who are freely choosing to make it. For instance, Joanna Angel, a self-described feminist pornographer, has said that “you could do a porn where a girl is getting choked and hit and spit on, the guy’s calling her a dirty slut and stuff and…that can still be feminist as long as everybody there is in control of what they’re doing.” (Remember: it’s not what you’re doing, but whether you’re doing it freely!)

…Thus it is that prominently featured on the website of “feminist pornographer” Nina Hartley is a new film entitled “O: The Power of Submission.” Perusing Hartley’s list of favorite links, one finds a site called Slave Next Door, which carries the tagline “real sexual slavery.” The portal page of this website reads, in part, “Slave Next Door is the graphic depiction of a female sex slave’s life and training for sexual slavery. It contains extreme bdsm situations and…sadistic training.” In clicking to enter the site, one is told, one affirms that one is “not here in the capacity of law enforcement or religious activist…”

…[W]hen you are doing something—virtually anything—are you more or less free in doing it when you know someone is watching? What if they’re taking pictures? What if they’re going to show those pictures to a whole bunch of people you don’t even know?…

…[W]hen you put some activity into the marketplace—that is, you decide to sell it instead of just doing it—does that make you more or less free in doing it? For instance, suppose you like to make music. Up until now it’s been a hobby, something you do in your spare time, but now you’ve decided that you want to get signed with a major label. All of a sudden you’re not free to make any old kind of music you want, are you? Now it’s “What do they think they can sell? What’s in vogue this week, and are you it, and if not, can they make you into it?”

…We need to find ways to challenge the naïve and regressive conceptions of freedom as the freedom to enter the marketplace and/or to choose among the options that the marketplace offers us. We need to suggest to people that—in many everyday contexts, but perhaps especially for the most intimate and potentially-creative activities of our lives, like sex and sexuality—real freedom in that activity means neither selling it nor letting somebody with a profit motive tell us what it is supposed to look and feel like.

[W]e sense a need for alternatives, and that need is real, but more commodified images isn’t it (and particularly not the ones they’re giving us). But it is true that our side needs to be more than just, as Dworkin once aptly put it, “the morbid side of the women’s movement…”

…[W]e need to draw on our own experiences of love and sex as joy and communion (and encourage others to draw on theirs). As radical feminists have long emphasized, patriarchy constructs our sexuality very profoundly, and even the most enlightened among us are not immune to that construction. But the construction, for most people at least, does not go “all the way down.” Despite everything, many people do have experiences of mutual and egalitarian sexuality…

…[A]s we continue to tell people what sexual freedom isn’t, we should also encourage them to think deeply and creatively about what it is. What would real sexual freedom look and feel like—the kind that everyone can have, instead of the kind that amounts to freedom for some at others’ expense? We need to richly imagine, and encourage others to richly imagine, another world: one in which no woman or girl is ever called “slut,” “prude,” “bitch,” “cunt,” or “dyke”; in which no woman, man, or child ever has to fear rape or suffer its damage to their spirits; in which men do not control their own and other men’s behavior by the threat of being seen and treated as women; and in which lesbian love and connection is not reduced to a pornographic fetish for men. In this world, every woman and girl sees her own body as beautiful, no man or boy is made to see his as a weapon, and people take part in sexual activity only when (and only because) they expect to enjoy it and to be honored and fulfilled therein…

Footnotes are included in the full text.

Rebecca Whisnant is assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Dayton, where she also teaches in women’s studies. She is co-editor, with Christine Stark, of Not For Sale: Feminists Resisting Prostitution and Pornography (Spinifex 2004) and, with Peggy DesAutels, of Global Concerns: Feminist Ethics and Social Theory (forthcoming from Rowman and Littlefield).

See also:

Our reviews of essays in Not For Sale, including A Review of Rebecca Whisnant, “Confronting pornography: Some conceptual basics”
We’d like to think that porn is different from, and not as bad as, prostitution, but both are paid sex acts, often performed under the same conditions of inequality. “[M]any men who would regard patronizing a prostitute as beneath them see nothing wrong, pathetic or shameful in their use of pornography.” (p.19) While prostitution is illegal, porn is legal and even protected by the Constitution. Whisnant says this is a false distinction. “Pornography is the documentation of prostitution. It is a technologized form of prostitution–prostitution at one remove…”

“Men: don’t use pornography. Throw it away and start dreaming your own dreams.” (p.25) Women: demand that your intimate relationships be porn-free. How long would the industry last if women said they wouldn’t date, have sex with, or marry men who used porn? Imagine a sexual life that springs from your own individuality and personality, not one that’s controlled by loveless mass-produced fantasies. (p.26)

Prostitution Research & Education: How Prostitution Works
Real sexual relationships are not hard to find. There are plenty of
adults of both sexes who are willing to have sex if someone treats them
well, and asks. But there lies the problem. Some people do not want an
equal, sharing relationship. They do not want to be nice. They do not
want to ask. They like the power involved in buying a human being who
can be made to do almost anything…

Ex-Porn Star Shelley Lubben Talks about Days on the Set: Tedious, Intoxicated, Painful, Risky
“Porn is harder than prostitution, where you are treated nice if you
are in the luxurious side of it. Porn was totally degrading and
shattering. None of the men in prostitution treated me sexually like
the men in porn did…”

Jenna Jameson’s Cautions to Would-Be Porn Stars
Jameson says porn has more pitfalls “than nearly any other occupation.” Drugs is one…

Porn Actresses: Most Careers Are Short, Few Are Lucrative (explicit language)
Although the industry is dependent on fans for survival, many of the
respondents reported a fairly negative image of the imagined viewer…
Ironically, then, actresses and actors are motivated in part to receive
recognition from a group they know little about and often disparage. In
addition, they reported little pride in the products they produce. Like
most artifacts in the “sleaze industry”, porn is disposable,
mass-produced, fungible, and easily forgotten… Unlike the “straight”
industry, actors and actresses are paid a flat fee for their
performances, and receive no royalties for successful projects. Bondage Porn Gone Chillingly, Cheerfully Corporate (explicit language)

Offerings at Kink include:

Whipped Ass
“As the title implies, you will be seeing extreme ass whipping. Our
girls turn on each other and dish out the punishment like no other site
out there.”

Wired Pussy
“This site is shocking, literally. Our girls are put to the test when
they are bound, gagged, and shocked over and over. It’s all in good fun
of course!”

Sex and Submission
“Our powerless girls scream as they are tied up and forced to have sex
over and over. Are they screams for help or do they really just want

Penn State Law Professors Trot Out ‘Female Porn Leaders’ to Whitewash Realities of Adult Industry (explicit language)
King, like Daniels, sees porn regulation as a matter of tolerating
opposing viewpoints. No one is forcing anyone to watch porn. She’s
right–unless you happen to be the child of a porn user, the victim of a sexual predator, a woman in a hostile workplace environment, or a neighbor of a porn shop with certain kinds of displays

How can women really feel “empowered” working in an industry that can’t even agree that it’s immoral to stick a woman’s head in a toilet [explicit link]? It’s no wonder that after exposing women to porn, one study found their desire to have daughters fell by more than half.

Carol Smith, former porn performer, quoted in Not For Sale

Cited in Biting Beaver; see our reviews of essays in this book

“What I saw were women just like myself who were desperate, addicted to
drugs, homeless, and I’m sure probably at least 80 percent of them
suffered from sexual abuse as children. I saw them re-living their
childhood experiences by getting into that industry. They were looking
for attention, pleasing men, and being abused. And that’s all they
know. They think it’s great. They think it’s wonderful. I could’ve
looked you in the eye ten years ago and told you that I loved being in
pornography, was proud of what I was doing and that I was having a
great time. But now I can tell you that it’s so far from the truth. I
was very convincing. I could convince you. I mean, I could walk up to a
porn star today and she could tell me the same story and I can remember
being in that place.”

Gail Dines Presents: Pornography and Pop Culture (explicit)

Gail Dines
is Professor of Sociology and Women’s Studies at Wheelock College in
Boston. For 20 years she has lectured across the country against
pornography and sexist portrayals of women. A Google video (1 hr 2 min) is now available of the lecture she gave to a rapt audience at the Pornography and Pop Culture conference
at Wheelock on March 24. This video describes the increasingly harsh
misuse of women in modern pornography–such as in the emerging
“ass-to-mouth” genre–and how the people, money and values of porn
reach deep into mainstream media and corporations.

Video Presentation: A Content Analysis of 50 of Today’s Top Selling Porn Films (explicit language)
“Well, of the popular films that we coded, less than 7% were directed
by females. It is still dominated by very male-directed films. And we
are now in the process of writing our second article from this study
[where] we look at female-directed films specifically. And guess what.
They’re not different. Not the bestselling popular ones. They’re on the
whole just as violent, just as aggressive… One difference we’ve noted
consistently is that they tend to show much more female to female

Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture
Female chauvinist pigs are women who have internalized sexist values to
such an extent that they imitate the most irresponsible and aggressive
kind of male sexual behavior. They have convinced themselves that it is
feminist and empowering to have numerous casual, exploitative sexual
encounters, and they show contempt for women they perceive as too
“feminine” (meaning emotional, vulnerable and modest)…

I Was a ‘Self-Esteem Vampire’: A Woman’s Journey Out of Watching Porn (explicit language)

I asked myself honestly, what was I getting out of porn? The answer surprised me. It terrified me. It shamed me…

I was getting a sense of power from watching the humiliation and degradation of the women on the screen.

I was claiming power, the all-elusive power that women strive for their
entire lives, from degrading and enjoying the degradation of other
women. I had absorbed a lesson from the patriarchy: women are easy to
degrade, weaker, and more vulnerable, so much so that even another
woman can take their power. Watching women being slapped and hurt was
filling that void within me that was taken so many years before by men.
It allowed me to feel powerful and in control…

D.A. Clarke: Women Adopting Men’s Bad Habits Is Not the Answer
For women, including lesbians,
have absolutely nothing to gain from nihilism, fascist chic,
self-conscious decadence, and a romanticisation of the crimes of dead
privileged men. That is not the way to legitimise our lives and lovers.
When life is valued cheaply and pain is in vogue, it is women’s and
children’s lives which will be valued cheapest of all, and women’s and
children’s pain which will be the raw material for entertainment. When
fantasy is valued over truth, it is the truths about our
lives and deaths which will be hidden, and the fantasies of others
which we will be made to serve. When brute force is admired and bullies
are cultural heroes, the vast majority of women and children will be
the losers.

The conflict of values can be represented as a struggle between ethics of excess and moderation…