Letter & Response on Pornography

Against the Current, No. 3, May/June 1986

I APPRECIATE your commendable articles (ATC #2) on the Madison, Wisconsin feminist anti-censorship struggle opposing the efforts to legally ban pornography. As I am sure you are aware, the pornography issue is very much in debate among feminists, socialists, and gay liberationists and I appreciate your strong entry into the discussion.

I am troubled, however, about the conception of pornography underlying the argument in the articles. The articles imply that pornography is automatically sexist by virtue of being pornography. This is, of course, a big advance over the anti-porn feminists conception which defines pornography as “violence against women,” which plays into the hands of the Moral Majority and the Meese Commission.

Other feminists, notably Carnival Knowledge in New York City, have defined pornography as sexually explicit material designed to induce sexual arousal. They have sought to promote a feminist pornography.

The anti-porn feminists have argued that they are for feminist erotica and against sexist pornography. They do not allow for a sexist erotica or a feminist pornography.

The difference between pornography and erotica is one of degree and hard to determine-especially in legal terms–as [difficult as determining] what good art is. It helps not at all to define bad art as non­art. Similarly, pornography as presumably bad erotica is still erotica.

All erotica is subject to variations of political content just as all art is. Some erotica–most in our society-is sexist, though most does not encourage violence against women–in fact, quite the contrary is the case. Most art in our society has the same problem. The worst offenders in depicting violence against women are not pornography but the teen­age slash movies which seem to make a fetish of connecting sex with violence. This, unfortunately, links up with very real feelings in the American adolescent population at whom these movies are aimed.

The usual argument is that most pornography depicts men forceably using women for sexual gratification. A small percentage of available pornography does do this, especially since the advent of the video cassette which has opened up all kinds of “specialty” markets which were not much catered to when the major outlet of movies were theaters.

But the fact is that the run-of-the-mill pornographic theme is a male-directed one in which the men are passive and the women aggressive in asserting their sexual needs. Women initiate sex and orchestrate what is done in the sexual situations. Women are seen as enjoying what they are doing along with the men. It is not a fantasy of male domination. Rather it is a fantasy of men being take care of by women without having to expend any emotional effort. In other words, it is a fantasy of regression to being an infant-in-arms. Women are seen as super-powerful, not as dominated.

There have been efforts to make pornography that is not male-directed and not sexist, both lesbian and straight. On Our Backs, a San Francisco-based lesbian feminist magazine, has written about and advertised some of these efforts. There has been a Women’s Erotic Film Festival in NYC which contained, I am informed, many non-sexist films.

Only a puritan would argue that there is no place for erotica in our cultural life. Thus, my point is that people who support socialism and feminism should be clearly for improved and better pornography rather than debating whether parliamentary or extra-parliamentary means are the best way to abolish it.

Arthur Maglin, Brooklyn, NY


We are not in a debate about how to abolish pornography; we are in a debate about how to abolish a system of male domination over women. We are not merely debating tactics for protesting pornography, but the tactics and strategies for women’s liberation.

Pornography has become the flashpoint for feminist debate because it reveals different theories about women’s oppression and how to eradicate it. Differences in theory and tactics exist on every issue of interest to feminists, but no other feminist struggle is also simultaneously threatening the gains made by feminists. Feminists, lesbians, and gays foresee that the proposed anti-pornography ordinance will be used to attack their literature, art, and bookstores. It also carries the potential to increase the dangers faced by women who work in the sex industry, the very women the ordinance claims to protect. The debate over pornography reveals central differences among feminists over the role of the state in carrying out social change in the interests of women-and over the question of whether we seek to protect women, or liberate women.

Like Maglin, we support an alternative erotica. We have made our position clear that limiting critique and protest of sexist culture to pornography is mistaken. We are dismayed, however, by Maglin’s quick dismissal of the problem of pornography. We are far from complacent about the “run of the mill” sexism in pornography. That sexism is precisely what we object to. Pornography teaches men and women about the subordination of women and promotes that subordination. Women have every right to be angered by and protest the messages pornography pro­ motes about female sexuality as well as its racist and homophobic stereotypes.

Pornography has been used to harass women. Morever, there are documented cases when men have forced women to act out scenarios depicted in porn. When men pin pornography up on the walls of their workplace, they tell women workers that they do not belong there and are merely objects for male pleasure. This is sexual harassment which socialists and feminists have a responsibility to organize against. We understand that the point Maglin is trying to make in describing the “fantasy of regression” is that male sexual fantasies in pornography are not always violent or about the submission of women. As Maglin argues, this fantasy is male directed–but it is more than this. Even though the fantasy might suggest that women are “superpowerful,” it does so only in regards to sexual service provided to men: it is still a product of male domination not only because the form it appears in is mass produced by and for men, but because it presupposes the power of men over women. It neither challenges male power or advocates female equality or autonomy.

Maglin’s example reveals the problem with trying to simply create a “better pornography” without addressing the other components of women’s oppression. We must have a comprehensive strategy which furthers the struggle for women’s reproductive rights, sexual freedom, and economic power. We must fight male domination at every level: in the political arena, in the workplace, and in the bedroom.

Leslie Reagan, Marsha Rummel & Daniel Grossberg, members of Feminists Against Repression, Madison, WI

Short bibliography of important recent works written or edited by Varda Burstyn, Annette Kuhn, Laura Lederer, Neal M. Malamuth & Edward Donnerstein, Ann Sitow & Carole S. Vance.

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