Pornography: Silence or Choice?

By Emma Webb

This pamphlet is based on a talk presented to the Network Of Women Students of Australia (NOWSA) national conference held in July 1995. Emma Webb is a member of the Democratic Socialist Party and of the National Council of Resistance, the socialist youth organisation in political solidarity with the DSP.

Sexual images can be both positive and negative. They can challenge the old stereotypes of women as passive and sexuality as dangerous, presenting instead erotic imagery of women's sexuality as pleasurable and active. Pornographic images can also represent violence, abuse and degradation.  

How to deal with the two sides of sexuality and its imagery in today's society has been hotly contested among feminists. Is censorship of pornography the most effective strategy or does it only deal with the images and not the acts of violence directed against women? Or does censorship throw the baby out with the bathwater — sweeping away positive explorations of sexuality through the imposition of a new repressive morality and bolstering the campaigns of the traditional conservative opponents of women's liberation? 

Women have won many important gains over the last two decades and these have generated a higher consciousness of sexism, especially among young women. While many of these gains are now under attack, women today have expectations — going to university, getting a job and receiving equal pay — that most women didn't have 30 years ago. However, throughout this period the sexist and degrading portrayal of women hasn't changed much and this is one of the clearest indicators that equal rights legislation is not enough to fundamentally change the sexist institutions and social practices of capitalist society. There is still a long way to go before women are liberated. 

We confront this portrayal of women in all areas of our lives. They are never absent from the Packer and Murdoch newspapers, magazines or TV programs, or from advertising that uses sex and women's bodies to sell products. At the same time as our society seems to be obsessed with sex, exploring our sexuality, especially for women, is actively repressed. For example, in 1992, the federal government banned the distribution of a diary, the Fact and Fantasy File Diary, produced by the Family Planning Association to provide information to young people on sexuality and sexual health. 

How to fight this all-pervasive sexist imagery remains a central debate among feminists. In particular this debate has focussed on what is the most abhorrent and violent portrayal of women in pornography. Whether to campaign for censorship of pornography is obviously not just an academic debate — it's a question of how we actually go about fighting sexism. It's an international debate and one that's not going away as the most recent issue of access to pornography on the Internet has shown. 

 The pornography issue became one of the big feminist issues during the 1980s. It's worth noting the political climate of the '80s was one of conservatism and ideological backlash against the impact of the radicalisation of young people, women, lesbians and gay men that began in the '60s. This ideological attack on the gains won by social movements of the '60s and '70s was part of a broader offensive by the capitalist rulers aimed at driving down the living standards of working people and boosting corporate profit rates by dividing the working class more deeply between employed and unemployed workers and along the lines of race, sex, age, "skill levels," national origin and language. 

 A key goal of the offensive was to reverse the gains won by women, in particular to convince working women to accept, with less resistance and resentment, temporary unemployment or new jobs at lower pay, and cuts in social services, by reinforcing the idea that women's "natural" role in society is a childcarers and unpaid domestic labourers within the family unit. 

 One of the main battle lines of the conservative offensive has been over "moral issues" such as reproductive rights, particularly abortion, sexuality and the family. Attacks on social welfare were coupled with an ideological campaign to get women back into the home. Attacks on the right to abortion have been coupled with a push against open discussion and exploration of sexuality which were made more possible for women with the increase in availability of reproductive technology, giving women more control over their bodies and fertility choices. 

 The conservative offensive has caused demoralisation and confusion among many feminists. The overriding emphasis by some feminist on pornography over all other forms of sexist oppression is an adaptation to this ideological backlash. Many of the methods, arguments and explanations advocated by these feminists reflect a moralism which has a greater similarity to religious fundamentalism than to the way that the second wave of feminism addressed these issues by opening up an exploration of sexuality and reproductive choices, and rejecting the silence and "privacy" which has surrounded this area of human behavior with such detriment to women's lives. 

Pornography, a recent development

Before going on to examine the censorship debate it is useful to look at pornography more broadly — what it is and where it came from. 

 Sexual practices have been depicted in many cultures, from Greek and Roman to Chinese and Japanese, for centuries. The use of the term pornography to describe some of these depictions is much more recent. It arose alongside certain aspects of the repressive sexual morality developed by the capitalist ruling class during the 19th century. The Victorian period polarised, more so than ever before, what was considered "respectable" and what was not, and in the process divided women by these terms. 

 The basis of this respectability related to the "dangers" of female sexuality and its regulation. Women were forced into a rigid duality. "Good" women were asexual, chaste before marriage and "pure" after. Sex was necessary for reproduction not pleasure, and therefore was to be confined to married heterosexual couples. All those women who had sexual activities outside these rigid guidelines were condemned to ruination which ultimately led to prostitution. So it's not surprising that pornography literally means pictures or writings about prostitutes. 

 But legislation concerning pornography and obscenity in England and the US encompassed much more. It censored the production, sale, possession or transacting of written and graphic sexual material; banned contraceptive or abortion drugs, devices and information; and criminalised homosexual behavior between consenting male adults. It also gave police greater summary power over working-class women and children. 

 Initially the development of the notion of pornography was associated with forms of art, access to which was restricted to bourgeois men who could claim some sort of academic interest. It was censored for women, children and working-class men. Restricting access to pornography limited opportunities for questioning "correct" values for sexuality, women and the family. In that way it became part of the ideology reinforcing the family system, the basic unit of capitalist society. 

 Because women were defined as falling naturally into the private sphere of the home and their domestic labour did not produce commodites for sale on the market, their work in the home was unpaid and their economic dependence upon fathers and or husbands reinforced by restricted access to education and paid work. If necessary they could be drawn into the labour market as a flexible reservoir of workers, and paid at a substantially lower rate. And their control over their fertility and expression of sexuality were increasingly eroded and criminalised. While these restrictions impacted differently according to class and race, women's sexual freedom was increasing curtailed during the 19th century. 

Problems of definition

Definitions of pornography have changed dramatically since the term was first used in the 19th century. At that time any type of sexually explicit material, whether it was in a scientific, medical, artistic or popular context, was liable to censorship. However throughout the 20th century pornography has been separated off from anything that can claim scientific or artistic merit. The general line of development has been to define pornography as something that is produced for the purpose of producing sexual arousal, having no other "redeeming" feature. This assumes that to set out intentionally to produce sexual arousal is despicable but if the main objective of the work is scientific or artistic, and the possibility of sexual arousal is only incidental, then these higher purposes may justify the publication. 

 Defining pornography in terms of the suppression and containment of sexuality and sexual arousal leads to enormous confusion. Images of sexuality can be positive and affirming. Many lesbian and gay male definitions and positive images of their sexuality have played an important part in their fight for democratic right and against persecution. Similarly feminism has redefined gender roles of masculinity and femininity, sexuality, and sensuality by using positive views and affirmations of choice and experimentation instead of passivity and submissiveness. In this context distinctions between what is erotic and what is pornographic have been debated and tested out, and the old morality that defined sexuality itself as dangerous and perilous to women has been challenged. 

 The search for a definition of pornography is only necessitated by a desire to impose restrictive legislation on its production and consumption. The main problem with trying to define it is that as Annette Kuhn (1988, p. 157) put it, pornography is "a social construct... subject to historical variations." What is defined as pornography in one culture, time and place, is not in another. In the same way, individuals will have a large variety of responses to different sexual imagery. Your erotica may be pornography to me, and vice versa. 

Is censorship the solution?

Trying to legislate on pornography also throws up the dilemma of the producer's intent as opposed to the consumer's response. For instance an author or painter may intend their work to be erotic or a form of social commentary; Fred Nile however may see it as pornographic. An example of this is contained in an article by Harriet Gilbert published in the book Sex Exposed (1992). She looks at a 1990 novel entitled Mercy written by Andrea Dworkin, the American feminist champion of anti-pornography censorship laws. The book graphically describes the continuous rape, torture and humiliation of the main character. Given its author, we can assume her intent was to expose violence against women, not that it be read for sexual excitement. However Dworkin's novel is exactly the sort of material that could be banned under the laws she herself proposes. 

 In 1983 Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon drafted an ordinance passed by the Minneapolis City Council aimed at giving women the right to take producers, distributors, sellers and/or exhibitors of pronography to court if they felt they had been harmed by the material. Dworkin and MacKinnon argued that this was not based on the notion of obscenity but on sexual discrimination since, they argued, pornography degrades and subordinates women and was therefore instrumental in keeping women in subordinate social positions. The ordinance was vetoed by the mayor. 

However, a revised version of this legislation, backed by anti-feminist conservatives, was passed by the Indianapolis City Council. The Feminist Anti-Censorship Task Force, along with other organisations and activists in the US, coordinated opposition to the legilslation in various cities and after a two-year court battle the Supreme Court declared the ordinance unconstitutional, on the basis that it violated freedom of speech. 

 Feminists who have argued for censorship have done so on the basis of a new definition of pornography which identifies it with sexually explicit images of degradation and violence against women. The Minneapolis Ordinance says that pornography is "the sexually explicit subordination of women, graphically depicted whether in pictures or in words... women are presented dehumanised as sexual objects, things or commodities... who enjoy pain or humiliation...  in postures of sexual submission... reduced to body parts" (Kelly, 1988, pp. 54-55). 

 A major problem with this law is that, although feminists may know what is degrading and dehumanising to women, it is not feminists who will make the decision in court. It's interesting to note that during the hearings of the Minneapolis ordinance, the men running the hearings kept changing the phrase "degrading to women" to "degrading to femininity." Censorship laws give the judges, the majority of whom are not women (let alone feminists), the power to define what is sexually moral and what is not. In Toronto, Canada, an reinterpretation of existing obscenity law along the lines of the Dworkin/MacKinnon ordinance, was used to ban the lesbian magazine Bad Attitudes and raid a lesbian and gay bookshop. 

Sexuality as violence

Feminists Against Censorship, a British organisation, get to the crux of the matter in their pamphlet The Case Against Censorship (Rodgerson and Wilson, 1991). They note that the difference between pro- and anti-censorship feminists comes down to different views on the causes of women's oppression and therefore on how to fight for women's liberation. 

 Feminists like Dworkin and MacKinnon elevate the abolition of pornography to a strategy for liberating women. Dworkin in her book Pornography: Men Possessing Women (1981) says that pornography is the ideology behind all forms of women's oppression and women cannot be liberated before it is banned. The strategy of banning pornography to liberate women is based on the view that women's oppression is caused by the domination of an inherently aggressive male sexuality over an inherently egalitarian, non-aggressive female sexuality. The conclusion is that all men are latent rapists, waiting to be activated by pornography — hence the saying "pornography is the theory, rape is the practice." 

 This is a biological determinist view that doesn't leave much scope for women's liberation other than an attempt by individual women to totally isolatate themselves from any possible contact with men. If all men are inherently oppressors of all women then we may as well give up struggling now. 

 This biological determinist view has also been combined with behaviorism — the view that certain responses will result from certain conditioning and stimuli so that people are programmed by conditioning. While clearly we are socially conditioned to behave in certain ways, behaviorists miss out the vital element of self-consciousness, reflective and reasoning power, and emotional response. To see men as programmed for violence not only endorses the most conservative view of human nature, it also absolves men of any responsibility for their actions. Further, it contradicts a lot of scientific evidence. 

 Rosalind Coward (1982), in an article entitled "Sexual Violence and Sexuality" draws out other problems with the view of an inherent aggressive male sexuality. It implies that any expression of male sexuality will be oppressive to women. It follows from this that any woman engaging in sexual activity with a man is willfully or unconsciously sustaining the structures of male domination — "sleeping with the enemy" is how it has been characterised. Any sexual display or representation of sex which gives men sexual pleasure is also seen as a problem. This implies that women should withdraw from any public, or even private, exploration of sexuality in order to avoid male manipulation. 

 The Indianapolis ordinance stated that "the mere existence of pornography degrades and demeans all women." Embedded in this view are other familiar themes which blur the question of pornography with sexuality in all its manifestations, positive and negative. These include the old morality that sex is degrading to women but not to men; that sex is violence against women; that sexuality is a male attribute; that men inflict "it" on women; that allowing vaginal penetration is submission; and that heterosexual sexuality is oppressive and sexist. Andrea Dworkin (1981) has gone as far as to equate heterosexual sex with institutionalised rape, saying that there is no male conception of sex without force as the essential dynamic. So male sexuality is power driven, genitally oriented and potentially lethal. Male sexuality and violence are inextricably linked and compulsive — "the stuff of murder, not love" (Dworkin, 1980, p. 152). 

 This confuses several things. Censorship as the solution to violence against women doesn't differentiate between violent images and violent acts. Depictions of rape and rape itself are obviously different. While there is a connection, they are not identical and cannot be treated in the same way (or should Dworkin herself be charged with rape for depicting acts of rape in her book Mercy?). Banning a description or picture of a violent act doesn't deal with the act itself or its causes. 

Victimising and elitist

Both Dworkin and MacKinnon have also argued that women who participate in or enjoy pornography or have heterosexual sex are brainwashed or programmed into these activities by men. In order to maintain this view they have to virtually obliterate the idea that women are active agents in the choices they make about their lives and their sexual activity. Dworkin and MacKinnon instead reinforce the idea of women as victims, as passive and helpless, needing to be guided into an understanding of the "errors of their ways" by those who "truly" understand the nature of sexuality. 

 This amounts to prescribing a "politically correct" sex and an elitist view of social change — of how women should fight against their oppression. Instead of being encouraged to challenge, experiment and fight against the ways they are oppressed, thus empowering themselves and building up the collective strength of the movement through the process of struggle, women are told to rely on a new set of "feminist" experts. 

 This is an old and very sad story for women. It is exactly what the right-wing moralists proclaim to keep women in their traditional dependent roles of wives and mothers. As Jane Campbell (1988) has said, "it is akin to a new brand of moralism which can too easily result in divisions between good feminists and bad (or at least ignorant) women. It is a reversal of the feminist commitment in sexual politics of asserting women's active and independent sexual needs, whether they be with men or women." 

The divisiveness of this moralism has been actively enforced within feminism. In order to bolster their elitist analysis, other voices in feminism and beyond must be silenced, particularly on the central question of sexuality. For example, in April 1982 the Women's Centre at Barnard College in the US held the Scholar and Feminist Conference entitled Towards a Politics of Sexuality. A coalition set up by individuals associated with Women Against Pornography, Women Against Violence Against Women and the New York Radical Feminists made efforts to stop the conference, claiming that its participants advocated and were engaged in "anti-feminist" thought and practice and were in fact not feminists at all. The Barnard College administration reacted by confiscating 1500 copies of the conference guide and certain funding bodies withdrew their support. Despite all this the conference went ahead, attended by some 800 women and an open, inclusive discussion took place. 

 This moralism also denigrates sex workers. Lynne Segal (1990) outlines why the anti-sex worker positions that flow from these arguments to censor pornography are particularly derogatory and useless to many women. "We are exhorted to save our sisters the 'coerced pornography models' but many sex workers are not looking for this kind of feminist salvation. In fact they resent the stigmatisation of sex workers by anti-pornography feminists." 

 There are numerous reasons why sex workers choose the work they do, including economic coercion (which is not "coercion by men"). Some may enjoy their work, some may not. But the point is for many, their feelings of victimisation are not caused by their work per se, but by fears of arrest, low pay, poor working conditions, inadequate health care and social stigmatisation. As Lynne Segal (1992, p. 9) says, "These are all dangers they see as exacerbated by state censorship and criminalisation of their work. Sex workers provide an important corrective to feminist debates around censorship suggesting that it is the privileges of largely white middle class anti-pornography feminists, who are not as exploited or oppressed as other women, which enables them self-centredly to present the issue of women's sexual objectification by men as the source of oppression of all women." 

 Feminists promoting censorship have also used the argument that "pornography is big business" therefore banning it will impinge on capitalism's ability to make profit from the oppression of women. Of course it is big business, just like the cosmetics, plastic surgery, women's magazines and diet industries are. Capitalism has made sex and women's bodies a commodity. Capitalism relentlessly creates new needs and wants to keep people constantly unsatisfied, in order to sell commodities. Women are made to feel ugly and inadequate in order to sell cosmetics and so on. 

 Capitalism distorts and alienates both women and men from our sexuality in many ways — through gender role stereotyping, through repressive sexual morality, through advertising that uses sex to sell products, etc. Because most of us have to work all day to survive and women bear the double burden of domestic labour, this doesn't leave much space for developing and exploring human creativity. We are vulnerable to the volume of manipulative imagery and ideas that bombard us from every side. Pornography is one of the ways that sexuality is packaged and sold back to us. Banning pornography does not change this. 

 Banning doesn't get rid of pornography, it just pushes it underground, creating a black market, divorced from public discussion and positive sexual alternatives. And banning pornography in the First World would drive more of it offshore into the Third World where women are already more oppressed. 

For a feminism that defends choice

Arguing against censorship of pornography does not mean condoning, ignoring or de-prioritising campaigns around the often violent and usually misogynist portrayal of women in capitalist society. We have a responsibility to counter in the most effective way images which are exploitative and sexist — not by seeking to have them banned, but by initiating a much more wide-ranging debate about sex; by campaigning for better sex education in schools; and by creating more informed and responsible social attitudes to the expression of sexuality. 

 However if we are going to effectively fight sexism we can't just focus on sexually explicit portrayals of women. The establishment media, advertising, education system and other institutions, as well as the right-wing moralists who also campaign against pornography, all reinforce women's traditional roles. All objectify and degrade women. 

 Women's liberationists have sought to explain why some men are violent to women and why this society systematically oppresses women. They have campaigned against sexist media imagery which stereotypes women, wanting a wider recognition of women as capable, strong, independent and sexual beings. While moral crusaders worry about the corrupting influence of explicit depictions of sexuality, feminists have recognised that one of the main barriers to women's liberation is the repressed nature of women's sexuality within the existing family system. 

 Sexual freedom, the chance to experiment sexually, has been of vital importance to women asserting their self-esteem and self-confidence. This exploration of sexual liberation has been part of the second wave of feminism from its very beginnings. Prescriptions of "politically correct" sex, of any variety, run counter to women's right to explore and express their sexuality. A more repressive sexual regime, through censorship, will not aid but in fact will hinder the struggle for women's liberation, just as it has in the past. 

 Women need a feminism that is about choice — about taking control of our lives, including our sexual lives. Such a choice can't be some abstraction separate from the social context in which we exercise it. Choice has to be real not token. Women should have access to erotic material produced by and for women, free from the control of right-wingers moralists and misogynists, whether they sit on the board of directors publishing houses and film studios or on the board of censors. We don't need new forms of guilt parading under the banner of political correctness. We need the confidence to choose for ourselves and know that our rejection has as much social weight as our acceptance. And we need a safe, legal working environment for sex workers, not repressive laws or an atmosphere of social stigma that empowers police and pimps to brutalise them. 

 We need an analysis of violence that empowers women, not one that reinforces the view that women are inherently powerless, timid, non-aggressive and submissive. Feminism should be a critique of this society, of a society that promotes violence against women in many forms, not a blame-the-indvidual, knee-jerk reaction that looks to the capitalist state for the solutions. Instead, we need a mass, feminist movement that allies itself with all those fighting the system of social relations which perpetuates violence, competition and oppression. 


Campbell, Jane, "Pornography — Is it a Feminist Issue?," Australian Feminist Studies, No.7, 1988 
Coward, Rosalind, "Sexual Violence and Sexuality," Feminist Review, No. 11, 1982 
Dworkin, Andrea, "Why So-Called Radical Men Love and Need Pornography" in Lederer, L. (ed.) Take Back the Night, William Morrow, New York, 1980 
Dworkin, Andrea, Pornography: Men Possessing Women, Women's Press, London, 1981 
Dworkin, Andrea, Mercy, Secker & Warburg, London, 1990 
Gilbert, Harriett, "So long as it's not sex and violence" in Segal, L. & MacIntosh, M. (eds.) Sex Exposed, Virago, London, 1992 
Kelly, Liz, "The US Ordinances: Censorship or Radical Law Reform?" in Chester, G. & Dickey,J.(eds.) Feminism and Censorship Prism Press, Great Britain, 1988 
Kuhn, Annette, quoted in Campbell, Jane, "Pornography — Is it a Feminist Issue?," Australian Feminist Studies, No. 7, 1988 
Rodgerson, Gillian & Wilson, Elizabeth, (eds.) Pornography and Feminism — the Case Against Censorship, Lawrence & Wishart Ltd., London, 1991 
Segal, Lynne, Is The Future Female?, Virago, London, 1987 
Segal, Lynne, "Pornography and Violence — What the Experts Say," Feminist Review No. 36, 1990 
Segal, Lynne & MacIntosh, Mary, (eds.) Sex Exposed, Virago, London, 1992