Not Safe for Work: Why Feminist Pornography Matters


Claire Potter in Dissent:

Pornography transformed women into “adult toys,” wrote feminist activist, journalist and Women Against Pornography (WAP) co-founder Susan Brownmiller in 1975, “dehumanized objects to be used, abused, broken and discarded.” “Pornography is the theory; rape is the practice,” former Ms. magazine editor Robin Morgan declared in 1977. Pornography, some argued, was a form of terror: women “will know that we are free when the pornography no longer exists,” wrote Andrea Dworkin, one of the most well-known advocates of anti-porn feminism, in 1981. In 1996, legal scholar Catharine MacKinnon argued against the idea that pornography was a creative practice entitled to First Amendment protection. While pornography itself was not responsible for sexual assaults against women, wrote MacKinnon, “men who are made, changed and impelled by” porn were.

Yet porn also had its defenders: politicians, media figures, and civil libertarians who had historically sought to free sexuality from control by the state. Even more importantly, porn was vigorously defended within feminism. Beginning with a clash between feminists at the 1982 Barnard Conference on Sexuality, the struggle came to a head when Dworkin and MacKinnon drafted an anti-pornography civil rights ordinance at the request of city officials in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Although the ordinance passed, Mayor Donald Fraser refused to sign it, prompting anti-pornography activists to take it to Indianapolis, a city whose mayor supported the legislation. Here, the Feminist Anti-Censorship Task Force (FACT), a coalition of New York academics and culture workers allied with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), successfully challenged the ordinance’s constitutionality. Allowing people who believed they had been harmed by porn to sue for damages, they argued, would turn all erotica and sexual materials into a potential legal liability for the seller and result in de facto censorship. In effect, this prevented enactment of the ordinance anywhere in the United States.

Defenders of porn within radical feminism did not seek to deny the reality of exploitation and sexual violence: novelist Dorothy Allison, a member of FACT, wrote freely about having been subjected to cruel, sexualized beatings and incestuous rape as a child. But feminists who called themselves “pro-sex” objected to the idea that consuming or making porn was categorically harmful. Journalist Ellen Willis asked in 1979: “Is there any objective criterion for healthy or satisfying sex, and if so what is it?”

More here.