This was an article posted 5/4/97 at the site Right Side of The Web
THE FEMINIST CASE FOR PORNOGRAPHY
Pornography has been called everything from bad art to the terrorist
propaganda of our alleged 'rape culture.' Radical feminists like Andrea
Dworkin & Catharine Mackinnon (whom ACLU President Nadine Strossen aptly
calls 'MacDworkinites') are only some of the most recent in a long line of
critics of sexual expression going back at least to St. Augustine, Bishop
of Hippo, in the 4th century A.D. But could porn be morally justifiable?
Could it even be defended on feminist grounds? If I haven't convinced you
that the answer is an overwhelming 'Yes!' by the end of this essay, I'll
HOW NOT TO DEFEND PORNOGRAPHY
Canaries used to be used to detect the poisonous, odorless gases that would
sometimes be released in coalmines. As long as the canaries were alive &
chirping, the miners knew they could breathe safely. Pornography serves a
similar purpose, according to most of its defenders. As long as
pornographers are free to practice their trade, the rest of us can breathe
freely without fear of censorship.
While this defense has its place, it doesn't offer any positive case for
pornography being an important value in itself or serving any other
legitimate purpose. This leaves it vulnerable to anti-porn theorists and
activists, and can often end up akin to the case for allowing Nazis freedom
of speech - not because it's valuable in itself, but only because the
precedent set by censoring anything could lead to the censorship of things
that really are goods in themselves. The next step for the opponents of
pornography is to isolate it from everything else so they can promise that
they'll only censor that bad ol' porn, and leave everything else alone - a
variation on the old 'divide & conquer' strategy that goes back at least to
Imperial Rome. 'First, they came for the pornographers...'
We don't have to approve of everything we oppose outlawing, but we do have
to set priorities. Censorship opponents have to focus their limited
resources upon protecting the most important things from censorship. So,
if pornography (or anything else, for that matter) has a high priority for the
pro-censorship side, but low priority for the anti-censorship side, then
censorship will tend to carry the day. This wouldn't be so bad if the low
priority assigned to pornography by the anti-censorship side were accurate,
but is it?
HOW PORN CENSORSHIP THREATENS WOMEN
Liberals like Strossen make the excellent point that censorship of sexual
expression like porn can, has been, and probably will be used by those in
power to suppress information that women vitally need. For example,
newspapers that sent contraceptive information through the U.S. Mail were
subjected to criminal prosecution for violating the Comstock Laws against
'obscenity' in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Women would have a
harder time escaping the sort of brood-mare slavery portrayed by Margaret
Atwood in THE HANDMAID'S TALE if they were unable to find out how to keep
from getting pregnant in the first place or how to get an abortion. The
whole pro-choice movement will have been in vain if this happens. The fact
that discussion of abortion was included in the list of things restricted
in the recent U.S. Communications Decency Act (passed despite being patently
unconstitutional on its face) proves that this isn't as unlikely as it
might first seem.
Strossen does a good job of outlining these sorts of threats in her book
DEFENDING PORNOGRAPHY: FREE SPEECH, SEX, AND THE FIGHT FOR WOMEN'S RIGHTS.
Her position as president of the ACLU will help bring attention to the
feminist opposition to porn censorship. This is all to the good. However,
Strossen's book has its weaknesses. For one thing, Strossen's style is
very much like the legal academic she is: long on Supreme Court cites & quotes,
lots of appeals to traditional civil liberties concepts, etc. - but not
much more depth than that. When Strossen goes beyond this territory, she
maintains her poise & the interest of the reader, but tosses off all sorts
of interesting insights that might prove very fruitful if they were
developed at greater length - only she never does that, but simply moves on
to the next one. This tends to come off something like being introduced to
a whole bunch of people, one after another, only being told their name and
one thing about them, without ever getting a chance to really get to know
any of them any better.
Strossen's breadth is complemented well by Wendy McElroy's more in-depth
study, XXX: A WOMAN'S RIGHT TO PORNOGRAPHY. Where Strossen's approach is
that of the advocate trying to persuade us that porn censorship is wrong,
McElroy's is more that of the investigative journalist, taking a good hard
look at pornography not only as art but as an industry as well, in which
real men and women work, make and lose money. She also goes into greater
depth about the positive benefits women can and do get from porn.
However, there's plenty of common ground between the two, and both make
many of the same points in different ways, so I won't try to distinguish between
the two much more. Suffice it to say that both books will improve your
understanding of the subject greatly. Back to the harm porn censorship
will inflict upon women.
One of the worst things MacDworkinites do is perpetuate stereotypes about
women that reinforce oppressive cultural roles about who women are & how
they must act in society. The 'Man of Steel/Woman of Kleenex' myth
underlies much of the anti-porn feminists' hysteria about how women need to
be protected from sexual expression. Women are just as much the passive
victims of evil, aggressive men in the MacDworkinite view as they are in
the mind of any patriarchal Victorian or Puritan. In their view, heterosexual
sex is always the violent degradation of women by men. It's impossible for
any woman in her right mind to consent to this violent degradation, so any
woman that does submit to it can only do so under some sort of duress or
because she's been brainwashed by the patriarchy. Porn is merely the
depiction of this violent degradation, which serves to glorify & perpetuate
This attack upon a woman's capacity to consent to sex/porn is one of the
most fundamentally anti-woman threats unleashed by MacDworkinites.
Supporters of the rights of women have fought for centuries to gain
recognition of the legal competence of women to make their own decisions,
own property, get married, work for a living, etc. If the MacDworkinite
attack succeeds, all that will have been in vain, too.
A more moderate criticism made by some anti-porn feminists is that it only
perpetuates these negative stereotypes about women, thus leading men to
oppress women through sexual violence. However, what does this say about
men? Does this teach them how to keep from sexually victimizing women?
How to have sex without violence? How to appreciate & value the autonomy of
women they're sexually attracted to? Not in the least. The message
received by men who accept the MacDworkinites' view is that they're evil
beasts with no self-control who can't help raping every woman they have sex
with. The natural implication for a man unwilling to completely abandon
sex with women is not to care whether the women he has sex with consent or not,
whether he's too violent with them or not. After all, that would only be
an exercise in futility.
This leads to perhaps the biggest threat to women posed by the
MacDworkinites: that porn censorship could actually lead to MORE women
being raped. Consider the catharsis theory that's been around at least since
Aristotle; if it's really true that porn can allow potential rapists to
experience their sexuality without violence, then eliminating it could
increase their chances of doing so through rape instead. (Of course,
MacDworkinites argue that porn leads to rape, but not only does this
assume that men have no free will but it has also found little support in
the form of scientific evidence. Some studies have found a slight
correlation between the availability of porn & the incidence of
rape, but others have not. And the studies which did confirm this
correlation have also found the same correlation between rape & non-sexual
magazines which have a predominantly male readership, like Field & Stream.)
If this is too speculative for you, some concrete harm coming from
censorship of porn can be seen in British law. According to a friend of
mine in the U.K., showing erect penises in pictures, film, or video is
against the law in England.
Even American porno videos that are imported into the country are heavily
edited so as to remove all the 'offending' bits. The result is that
there's almost no pornography that would be of any interest to heterosexual women
(or to gay men) in the entire country. (Paradoxically, however, pictures
of bare-breasted women are allowed in tabloid newspapers that can be purchased
by anyone from many ordinary newsstands. How come the MacDworkinites
aren't protesting this obvious sexist double standard?)
HOW PORN BENEFITS WOMEN
Not only does porn censorship pose some grave dangers to women, but they
also stand to benefit from it in many ways. Pornography is one of the
safest forms of sexual experience available to women. Pornography offers
women sexuality without risk of being raped, impregnated, given a
sexually-transmitted disease, or the emotional trauma that can be
associated with the real thing. (About the only heart that's ever been broken by
pornography is the one in the song 'Pictures of Lily' by THE WHO). Some
psychotherapists also claim that it can be especially valuable for women
who have been sexually traumatized. Their clinical experience leads them to
conclude that pornography can help their clients confront their fears
safely, thereby helping them to enjoy sex once more.
Women can even benefit from some of the most controversial kinds of
pornography, such as 'rape' scenes, which have been subject to more
vehement attacks by the MacDworkinites than almost anything else. The 'rape scenes'
in Ayn Rand's THE FOUNTAINHEAD are troubling even to many admirers of
Rand's work. Self-described 'equity' feminist Christina Sommers has been debating
some of her 'gender' feminist critics about a similar scene in GONE WITH
Rape scenes can help a woman who's too guilty about her sexuality to even
think of herself as a willing participant fantasize about it anyways -
since it wouldn't be 'her fault' if that handsome hunk 'made' them do what he
(she) wanted most. (Most women's 'rape' fantasies don't include any actual
violence, just the understanding that it's all against the woman's will.)
Fantasizing about sex might help her get over her sexual guilt.
They can also break down social taboos about things like sex between
members of different social classes without invoking the penalties of the taboos.
I'm told that East Indian movies often have 'rape' scenes involving members
of different castes for this reason, although I haven't verified this
Some women even enjoy the fantasy of being sexually desired by a man so
strongly that he has to have her, now, no questions asked, no holds barred,
NOW! Porn allows them to enjoy these fantasies without the risk of getting
hurt because of misunderstandings or having things go too far.
If rape scenes aren't controversial enough for you, then consider the 'come
shot,' a (much-overrated, in my opinion) staple of most porn today. While
MacDworkinites call them inherently degrading, a woman can watch them on
video in the privacy of her own home & make up her own mind about what they
mean. Are they degrading, or does it prove that the man was pleased by his
lover if he ejaculates onto her? Has he just made himself superior to her,
or has he made her a love offering which she wouldn't be able to see
(Of course, this all assumes that heterosexual sex is good for women - a
premise the MacDworkinites don't share.)
Pornography also helps women who're lonely or unsatisfied with their
current sexual relationships. Women too busy to have a lover or are unable to find
one can still have something of a sex life with porn. Women who might look
to others to provide them with sexual pleasure can keep promises of
exclusivity they may have made to their lovers by turning to porn instead.
(This, of course, assumes that promising sexual exclusivity is a good thing
a premise *I* don't share :-).
Porn also provides a way for women to see what different ways of having sex
might be like - different positions, different partners, multiple partners,
different acts - without actually having to try them first. That way, they
can see if there's something they won't like about some sexual variation &
know what to avoid (assuming it's visible or audible). Variety is the
proverbial spice of life, & rare is the sex life that can't use some more
spice in it. Some women enjoy appearing in pornography made by themselves
& their lover(s) with home video camera equipment.
Also, many women make a very good living appearing in pornography. Porn is
one industry in which women almost always make much more than their male
co- stars. Many women make porno movies just long enough to raise the money
they need to pursue other career goals which are more important to them.
Or else they work part-time and still make enough money to support their kids
as well as being able to afford to spend most of their time raising them
instead of on the job. Any restrictions on the porn industry make this
path to economic support & upward mobility less accessible to women.
Finally, some of the biggest casualties of the MacDworkinite attack on
sexual expression have come from the weapon of sexual harassment laws,
company & academic policies, etc. This weapon has been one of their most
successful because it has spread the furthest, & because they've done the
best job of package-dealing something generally reasonable with something
The reasonable aspect of sexual harassment law is that sexual expression
can easily interfere with the normal activities in a business or academic
environment where people are supposed to be doing other things. And it's
easy to think of circumstances in which employees might be coerced into
doing sexual favors for their bosses - favors that weren't in the
employment contract because they weren't part of the deal. Most people can see how
hard it might be to get any remedy for that within a company, and switching
jobs can be difficult under the best of circumstances. Whether the law is
the right remedy or not, most reasonable people would agree that these
things are real problems in need of SOME remedy, whatever it might be.
The unreasonable part is when it comes to giving force of law to things
that should really just be matters of etiquette, and, worse than that, the
'hostile work atmosphere' theory of sexual harassment.
Under the 'hostile work atmosphere' theory, virtually any references to sex
can now be called 'sexual harassment' & used by an employee to sue for
damages from employers or to impose disciplinary measures upon employees or
students. There's very little way for anyone to tell the difference
between what might 'contribute to a hostile work environment' and what might not,
making virtually impossible for people to prevent themselves from doing
such things prospectively. This ought to make the 'hostile work environment'
doctrine void for vagueness, but unfortunately few courts have seen it that
What used to be bad taste can now be legally actionable. For instance,
when I was in college one of the guys who lived on the same floor as I in my
dorm decorated the outside of his door with a poster that had a girl in a bikini
on it. The RA told him to take it down, because she said it was sexual
harassment. It didn't interfere with dorm life at all, nor did it coerce
anyone into doing any sexual favors - believe you me, no one was doing him
any such favors :-). But it got called 'sexual harassment' anyways, and he
wasn't allowed to decorate his door the way he wanted to like everyone else
was allowed to decorate theirs. This example may seem trivial, but the
precedent set by it isn't. I'm sure plenty of other examples could be
mentioned, too, but this essay's probably too long already.
I found the chapter on sexual harassment in Strossen's book one of her
weakest, because she accepts the idea that it's okay to ban sexism then
tries to argue against banning it when manifested as 'sexual harassment.'
This just seemed like too much of an attempt to break the law of the
excluded middle to me. If it's okay to ban sexism, then that would have to
include sexist sexual expression. If it's not okay to ban sexist sexual
expression, then why's it okay to ban sexism at all?
One of the best things about McElroy's book, to my mind, was her
explanation of why most porn is bad art. Even among the staunchest defenders of
freedom of sexual expression, the most common complaint is that so much of it is so
in aesthetic merit.
However, porn was a black-market industry until very recently, and still
operates in a grey area where contracts are often nonexistent &
unenforceable in court, harassment by law-enforcement officials is a
constant threat, and the social stigma attached to the industry keeps away
most of the best actors, directors, & investors. (I've heard that the
bathtub gin that was made during alcohol prohibition didn't taste very
good, either. If alcohol hadn't been something we'd been making for millennia
before then, but had been a brand new industry made with brand new
technology, and was still barely legal, who knows what rotgut we'd still be
Paradoxically, many R-rated movies are much more erotic & sexy than more
explicit X-rated movies because pornography lacks acceptance as a
legitimate art form in its own right and remains subjected to misregulation.
Second-rate art is only to be expected from a genre stuck in second-class
status. The bright side about the lack of artistic merit in most porn is
that there's nowhere to go but up!
I hope that by now I've persuaded you of a few things:
1) Most opponents of porn censorship miss the boat because their defense is
vulnerable to MacDworkinite attacks & because they don't give porn high
enough priority due to their underestimation of its value as a good in
2) There is a defense to be made for porn on feminist moral grounds.
Censorship of pornography would harm women and deprive them of the very
real benefits women have to gain from pornography. Pornography is valuable to
women politically, emotionally, as entertainment & as therapy.
3) Women should be free to choose whether to partake of pornography or not.
Tim Starr - Renaissance Now! Think Universally, Act Selfishly
Assistant Editor: Freedom Network News, the newsletter of ISIL,
The International Society for Individual Liberty,
1800 Market St., San Francisco, CA 94102
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