Disclaimer: One, I always wanted to write one of these and two, I think it's necessary. This was a paper written for my feminist texts class in which I had to take one side of a heated argument (in this case, the question of pornography) and write a position paper describing its view and the view of the opposition. This paper is quite slanted towards one side of the argument (as most position papers are). My view on the subject, well, is a little more towards the middle. — michele

Pro-Sex Feminism: Redefining Pornography
(or, a study in alliteration: the pro pornography position paper)

“Feminism must not focus solely on what men have done to women. [It] must continuously seek ways in which women can unleash their own imaginary from the constraints that have been imposed upon them through rigid definitions of femininity.” — Drucilla Cornell

Censoring pornography will not only fail in preventing sexual violence but will also restrict the sexual expression of women and halt the progress of feminism. Censorship is a step back when all feminists should be making progress within this patriarchy. This does not mean that all pornography is inoffensive, but that bringing the law into what should only be a question of morality and opinion is dangerous. If it becomes necessary to strictly regulate pornographic materials by law, this will lead to restrictions in other areas of expression. Pornography is not a mind control device making sex offenders attack women. It is a realm, when used correctly, for the expression of a person’s fantasies without them actively participating in things that would be questionable in reality. There would be no need for a paper on this subject if every feminist agreed with the above statements (or found their differences to be slight) and others supporting and branching off from them. The evening news is hardly ever riddled with headlines like, “Top, Bottom, or Both: How Do You Butter Your Toast?” The problem is that not all feminist see eye to eye on the issue of pornography. Even this is a gross understatement when examining the heated arguments over this question.

The debate over whether pornography should be censored has been a significant dividing point among all feminists. There are three main factions within this debate. Anti-porn/pro-censorship, liberal, and pro-sex/pro-pornography feminists differ on what should be done about pornography and whether it is a main cause of sexual violence against women. An attempt to define and promote pro-sex feminism follows. A pro-sex feminist view of the pornography issue must begin with a definition of the word pornography. According to the American Heritage Dictionary, pornography is: “1. Sexually explicit pictures, writing, or other material whose primary purpose is to cause sexual arousal. 2. The presentation or production of this material. 3. Lurid or sensational material” (Bartleby.com, bartleby.com/61/15/P0451500.html). This can be contrasted with the American Heritage definition for obscene, “1. Offensive to accepted standards of decency or modesty. 2. Inciting lustful feelings; lewd. 3. Repulsive; disgusting...4. So large in amount as to be objectionable or outrageous” (Bartleby.com, bartleby.com/61/29/O0012900.html). While some feminists may consider pornography to be “repulsive” and “disgusting,” there is a marked difference between the two words. Even further, it can be argued that the distinction between something being pornographic or obscene is simply a difference of opinion.

The main idea that these three factions agree on is the existence of sexual violence against women and the fact that men are the primary perpetrators. They also agree that some forms of pornography display women in less than glorious ways: discriminating, debasing, and objectifying them. Differences arise when they look at what should be done to with pornography and its producers. Defending pornography may seem, to some, like a confused, misinformed attempt that only perpetuates male dominance over women. Yet with the threat of censorship which will impede the progress of current and future feminists, one could say that there is no other recourse.

Anti-Porn Feminists

The basic principle of anti-pornography feminist thought is that pornography directly related to, and causes sexual violence against women, whether it is heterosexual or homosexual. They state that all roles where the person is being penetrated (read: like a woman) should be seen as degrading and objectifying towards women. In the definitions section of her model ordinance, Dworkin states these things about pornography which have been supported by all pro-censorship feminists:

“Pornography” means the graphic sexually explicit subordination of women through pictures and/or words that also include the following: (a) women are presented dehumanized as sexual objects, things or commodities; or (b) women are presented as sexual objects who enjoy humiliation or pain; or (c) women are presented as sexual objects experiencing sexual pleasure in rape, incest, or other sexual assault; or (d) women are presented as sexual objects tied up or cut up or mutilated or bruised or physically hurt; or (e) women are presented in postures or positions of sexual submission, servility, or display; or (f) women's body parts-including but not limited to vaginas, breasts, or buttocks-are exhibited such that women are reduced to those parts; or (g) women are presented being penetrated by objects or animals; or h. women are presented in scenarios of degradation, humiliation, injury, torture, shown as filthy or inferior, bleeding, bruised or hurt in a context that makes these conditions sexual. (The Model Ordinance, nostatusquo.com/ACLU/dworkin/other/ordinance/newday/AppD.htm)

This broad definition could also be used to restrict artistic endeavors by feminists. Performance artists use different mediums to express their art, some of which could be categorized as any of the above letters, whether they intended social commentary, parody, or anecdotal material. The inclusion of text in this definition must also be questioned. How far could someone take that definition to ban books or magazines that have nothing to do with mainstream porn? For example, in Canada, where they have adopted a law similar to the one that MacKinnon and Dworkin proposed, the law was used to remove books form a lesbian/gay bookstore (including two of Dworkin’s books), not the heterosexual porn that its writers intended to target (McElroy, “A Feminist Overview of Pornography”). Apparently all forms of porn boil down to heterosexual style. In their definition of pornography it is stated that children, men or transsexuals can be substituted for women as they are put into the woman’s role.

From the above quote and other pro-censorship writings one could surmise that porn is inherently degrading towards all women and those who don’t see it that way are like children in their inability to understand and sympathize with the anti-porn movement. These self-appointed protectors place themselves at the top of the female evolutionary scale. They believe that it it’s their duty and right to save their hapless sisters from a fate of degradation and objectification. Women who enjoy porn and are aroused by it are not always so misled. They can and do make conscious decisions to act in and view pornography without being led by the hand.

Another statement that Dworkin makes concerning pornography is that since it causes sexual violence towards women, it should be censored in order to decrease these acts of violence. “If pornography causes rape, or sexualized torture, or increases sadism against women, or plays a role in serial murders, or contributes substantially to legitimizing violence against women isn’t it important to do something about pornography?” (Dworkin, Model Ordinance). The operative word in this question is if. There is no proof that pornography causes these things, rather, it has been shown that there might only be a correlation between these acts and pornography. To assume that porn is the major cause of violence against women (not even covering that it’s an act of violence itself) gives too much credit to the porn industry. Some studies have show that men who are more likely to commit violent sexual acts view less porn than their more normal counterparts. Also one cannot say that rape is caused by pornography simply because there is a high distribution rate of porn in some cities where many rapes occur. Strossen counters that in many other countries where pornography is outlawed, like those in the Middle East, rampant violence and sexual violence against women occurs. Furthermore, in countries with looser obscenity laws and greater circulation of porn than the United States, like Japan and Sweden, the occurrence of rape is lower than it is here. This gives reason to doubt the pro-censorship feminist claim that sexual violence against women and pornography are related.

Pro-censorship feminists claim that all women in the pornography industry are lured into it and/or victims of childhood sexual abuse. They think that if the women enjoy their work that they are deluded pawns of the patriarchy. A woman is exploited and victimized each time she participates in a pornographic production. There are many things wrong with this blanket assumption. Firstly, though some women in the porn industry were victims of sexual abuse, others chose their employment freely as a lucrative source of income. The pro-censorship feminist’s answer to this completely degrades and belittles the women they are supposedly trying to “save.” They state that most women in the porn industry are poor and “usually uneducated.” (Dworkin, notstatusquo.com) This can also be said about many women in the housekeeping, food service, and maintenance fields. Yet this does not necessarily mean that these women lack the common sense to know when they are exploited. It’s highly doubtful that most women in the porn industry need a primer discussing the finer points of pornography from women who have absolutely nothing to do with it besides condemning it. Women are not children. Sometimes it seems as if pro-censorship feminists forget this simple statement. It rings to close to the common theme of a small, elite group “sacrificing” themselves for the betterment of an entire race, much like the “talented tenth” attempted to promote the black race by focusing solely on their needs.

Anti-porn individuals assume that pornography is made strictly for male enjoyment. They also imply that women who watch it are confused and childlike in their conformity. Some women read and view pornographic media because they enjoy it. This is not because they have fallen into a trap of the patriarchy. Others look at it to criticize or use the material to prove their unfounded points. It is not unhealthy to enjoy porn, no more than it is unhealthy to fantasize. In her article “Porn and Censorship,” Betty Dodson mentions that women comprise half of the total number of consumers who buy or rent adult videos in the United States (www.bettydodson.com/ffe-porn.htm). It is highly unlikely that all of these women are uninformed, uneducated consumers. This statistic shows that women are interested in porn whether they buy it alone or with a partner.

By stating that porn causes sexual violence against women, pro-censorship feminists are harming women more than helping. If a law was passed using this as its basis sex offenders would be able to escape maximum punishment by claiming that porn made them (insert appropriately violent and offensive act). This removes some of the responsibility from these men and onto a form of expression. What would the world be like if every rapist could claim porn as a motive like an insanity plea? Would they then be put in porn rehabilitation centers to deprogram their porn addled brains? This doesn’t seem like an adequate solution to the problem of sexual violence.

What Censorship Would Accomplish

According to Nadine Strossen, anti-porn feminists have three main assumptions that back their main view, that, “censorship would reduce sexism and violence against women:”

  1. that exposure to sexist, violent imagery leads to sexist, violent behavior;
  2. that the effective suppression of pornography would significantly reduce exposure to sexist, violent imagery; and
  3. that censorship would effectively suppress pornography (Strossen, 248)

The first assumption has been covered earlier and the other two are simple to refute. Sexist, violent, and degrading imagery exist in all forms of media and speech. Another problem with the second statement is the use of the word “effective.” Yes, if pornography could effectively be suppressed then the images from it would not be on the market but the problem with assuming this is that porn will never be fully suppressed. Censoring it will just place it back in the underground, perhaps even creating a greater demand for the newly vorboten goods. The only thing that will come from censorship is a large backlash filled with hostility towards the women who lobbied for it. If male society is so hostile towards women, removing a source of “release” will not make it any more receptive to feminist goals.

Censoring Porn is Not the Answer

Not all porn is “bad” porn. Women in the United States are enjoying videos, books, and magazines, made for and by feminists, which under the MacKinnon/Dworkin definition would be considered censorable porn. Women can live out their fantasies in the privacy of their homes alone or with partners. It allows women experience things they are curious about but would/could never try themselves. It also could be beneficial for relieving male aggressive tension. If they can see something on film being acted out, they may be less likely to commit the offense in real life. What is perfectly legal in a fantasy setting can be dangerous in reality. Censorship would remove a major source of relief for some men (McElroy).

Another argument against censoring pornography is that a law controlling the distribution and production of porn might carry over into other spheres. Freedom of speech, whether porn can be considered speech or not, is essential to the feminist movement. Anti pornography laws have been used to keep women in the dark about their sexuality under the pretense of protection. “Laws directed against pornography or obscenity, such as the Comstock Law in the late 1880s, have always been used to hinder women’s rights, such as birth control” (McElroy, “A Feminist Overview of Pornography”). If women allow the government control over sexual expression (and this will be the case for pornography is subjective), if they ally with the religious/conservative right in banning pornography, they might stop more than the traffic in women. Laws can be interpreted in so many ways and it seems that anti-porn feminists are almost returning to a Victorian definition of female sensibility. Women are not so fragile to need the coddling and restriction that they propose. A law against pornography would make it harder for women to explore all aspects of the sexuality.

Watching and reading pornographic materials can be a large part of some women’s sexual exploration. If it were made illegal women might be put in more dangerous situations for experimentation than simply traveling to a video or book store. Feminists have always struggled against the law, inciting change and reform. There may be situations in which using the laws of a male dominated society is worthwhile. The question of pornography is not one of them, at least not in the way current pro-censorship feminist are proposing.

Law is, at least in part, a force for accommodation to current social norms, even if it also provides us with a critical edge in its normative concepts such as equality...Feminism expresses an aspiration to struggle beyond accommodation... [to] demand that we live with the paradox that we are trying to break the bonds of the meanings that have made us who we are as women. (Cornell, 98)

Because feminists have fought so hard to differentiate themselves from the conservatives who have repressed them, it seems futile to revert to antiquated definitions of what women are capable of handling. This return to patriarchal femininity will only reduce women to hapless pawns, unable to protect themselves from the evils of male society. Shielding women from things that they are supposedly too (uneducated/damaged/ deluded/unfit) to understand goes against what feminists stand for. Children need to be protected. Women need to be educated so they can protect themselves.

What Should Be Done

There will always be degrading material in circulation; snuff films will never be completely eradicated. There will also always be violence, sexual or other unless the world suddenly becomes a utopia. “Men have forced women to do things - sexual and nonsexual - for centuries. The problem is not sex, it’s force” (Dodson, Porn and Censorship). Placing restrictions on sexual expression will not help in decreasing the violence. Feminists are in agreement that there exist some forms of pornography that are degrading and promote violence towards women. The difference lies in whether they believe all pornography does this or only certain types. The key to battling the influence that the “bad” forms of pornography have on women is educating women about their sexuality. Education, along with other tactics, can prevent degrading, violent porn from disturbing those sensitive to its messages.

There are many ways that feminists can change the impact porn has on society without resorting to laws that will only backfire. One way is for there to be more feminist porn producers. If there is more female-friendly porn on the market, the impact of the bad porn will lessen. As Betty Dodson states, “The answer to bad pornography is good pornography, not no pornography” (Dodson). By educating women in the porn industry without taking away their free will, the flow of degrading materials will slow as quality ones are put into the market. Female artists, like Susie Bright and Annie Sprinkle, who embrace pornography and what it has to offer women. By empowering these women feminists can work from within the porn trade to change the course of mainstream porn.

An increased feminist participation in educating all women should take place. There are already organizations like CAKE NYC and Feminists for Free Expression along with countless performing artists (some of them former porn stars or sex workers) who attempt to enlighten women to the benefits of sexual expression and the dangers of censorship. This work should be expanded as more women begin to explore their sexuality.

There also needs to be a separation made between different types of pornography. Feminists agree, as does the law, that child pornography is illegal. This type of pornography should be held separate as children are not just surrogates for women but are being exploited in their own right. Transsexuals also cannot be just a replacement for women as they have their own particular sexual identity issues and affiliation. Lesbian and gay porn must also be differentiated from mainstream heterosexual porn in definition for the same reasons stated above. What some pro-censorship feminists do not realize is that some things just don’t boil down to a “woman thing.” Each community has differing concerns with regards to porn.


The argument over the fate of pornography and whose hands should be controlling that fate will likely rage on indefinitely. There will always be opposing factions on either side of the censorship issue thinking up new ways to discredit their opposition. What can be said (and probably refuted by some) is that a blanket censorship of pornography without specific definitions will impede the progress of the feminist movement. Feminists need to come together on this issue so that women may feel more secure in their sexuality and its expression. Prohibiting all pornographic materials on a supposed basis of universal degradation and humiliation is not the solution to the problems of female victimization and sexual assault. The offenders themselves must be held primarily responsible until it is proven that pornography is the cause of their violent tendencies. There is a strong doubt that this will ever be the case, but if it is true, only then can feminists rightly lobby for censorship.

Works Cited

Barcella, Laura. “CAKE NYC: Reshaping Perceptions of Women’s Sexuality.” Moxie Magazine. 8 May 2002 <http://www.moxiemag.com/moxie/articles/profiles/cake.html>.

Bartleby.com. The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language: Fourth Edition. 2001
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(Obscene). 8 May 2002 <http://www.bartleby.com/61/29/O0012900.html>.

Cornell, Drucilla. Oxford Readings in Feminism: Feminism & Pornography. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Cornell, Drucilla. The Imaginary Domain. New York: Routledge, 1995.

Cavalier, Robert. Feminism and Pornography: A Dialogical Perspective. Carnegie Mellon Center for the Advancement of Applied Ethics (CAAE). 8 May 2002 <http://caae.phil.cmu.edu/Cavalier/Forum/pornography/background/CMC_article.html>.

Dodson, Betty. “Feminism and Free speech: Pornography.” Feminists for Free Expression 1993. 8 May 2002 <http://www.bettydodson.com/ffe-porn.htm>.

Dworkin, Andrea. “Model Antipornography Civil-Rights Ordinance.” Andrea Dworkin Online Library. Feb. 1994. 8 May 2002 <http://nostatusquo.com/ACLU/dworkin/OrdinanceModelExcerpt.html>.

Juno, Andrea and Vale, V. Angry Women, Re/Search #13. San Francisco, CA: Re/Search Publications, 1991.

McElroy, Wendy. “A Feminist Overview of Pornography, Ending in a Defense Thereof.” WendyMcElroy.com. 8 May 2002 <http://www.zetetics.com/mac/freeinqu.htm>.

Newitz, Annalee. “Obscene Feminists: Why Women Are Leading the Battle Against Censorship.” San Francisco Bay Guardian Online 8 May 2002. 9 May 2002 <http://www.sfbg.com/36/32/news_womenvscensorship.html>.

Russell, Diana E. H., “Nadine Strossen: The Pornography Industry’s Wet Dream” Echo NYC 1995. 8 May 2002 <http://www.echonyc.com/~onissues/russell.htm>.

Strossen, Nadine. Defending Pornography: Free Speech, Sex, and the Fight for Women's Rights. New York: Scribner, 1995.