Further Dialogue on Pornography

Against the Current, No. 67, March/April 1997

Nancy Herzig and Rafael Bernabe

CATHY CROSSON’s REVIEW of Nadine Strossen’s “Defending Pornography” (“ATC” 63, July-August 1996) is a welcome addition to the debate on censorship and pornography.  [The issue was discussed further in an exchange between Crosson and Ann Menasche in “ATC” 65, November-December 1996.-ed.]

In Puerto Rico these questions have been widely debated lately.  The Church and right-wing groups have intensified their war on the three horsemen of immorality: abortion, gays and pornography.  Their campaign enjoys the sympathy of the PNP administration which, under the flag of moral regeneration, has-among other things-introduced prayer in public schools, turned campaigns against AIDS into campaigns against sex, tried to close down abortion clinics, confiscated “underground” rap CDs and harassed gay/lesbian clubs.

Conservative groups have opposed university courses on gay literature and, with the Police “Vice Squad,” have tried to close down the only store on the island which sells sexually explicit materials.

In the struggle against this, we have emphasized the need to oppose censorship.  We have also-if appropriate or necessary-defended pornography.  Let us briefly explain our position.

Why oppose censorship?  Because a freer, richer, sexuality cannot evolve by somebody (experts, feminists, socialists) legislating what liberating sex is, while censoring what falls beyond the practices so defined (1).  It can only emerge to the extent that people gain the possibility (through diverse means, including the right to create, circulate or use diverse forms of sexually explicit representations) of freely and consensually exploring their desires, interests, preferences, fantasies; of learning from their own and other’s experiences; of arguing and criticizing themselves and others; of defending themselves from criticism they consider misplaced.

People-men and women, queers and straights-will, or at least could, create a new sexuality (or sexualities) through a long process for which we have few guidelines or indications of what the results will be. It is naive to think that women agree on what is degrading or sexist in sexual representations: One cannot censor degrading/sexist images without imposing a specific notion (the censor’s) of what is degrading, what type of sex is right and which wrong.

This is also why the porn/erotica distinction will not do: There will be little agreement on the criteria for differentiating them and even less on how to classify specific works.  The exercise is either futile or authoritarian.

It has been argued that in a sexist culture women cannot choose freely.  If they enjoy certain practices (watching porn, s/m, etc.), it is because they have internalized their subordination, the male gaze, etc. Some of this may, or may not, be true. Women are as marked by dominant ideology as anybody.

But to turn this into a justification for censorship is to argue that some agency (the censors, Meese, Dworkin) must protect women from themselves.  What we have then is not a process of women’s self-liberation-perhaps from their own inherited consciousness-through their own experience and exploration, but rather redemption through the intervention of Big Brother or Big Sister.  (Nadine Strossen has rightly denounced this.)

As socialists, we insist on the principle of self- determination, of consensuality.  Nobody should be forced to engage in any sexual activity against their will, nor should any adult be penalized for consensually engaging in sexual practices others may find objectionable (2).

Anti-censorship liberals will share this view. As socialists we go further: We struggle to extend the conditions that materially enable self-determination for women, i.e. conditions (guaranteed income and services-health, day care, abortion-housing, employment, etc.) which enhance personal autonomy for women, and which thus permit them to refuse unwanted sexual relationships, encounters or practices.

In other words: There are some who oppose censorship as part of a laissez-faire (anti-affirmative action, anti-welfare) perspective, which-in the guise of rejecting “victimhood”-often revives the myth of the “self-made man,” or woman (3).  In struggling against censorship we also differentiate ourselves from such views.

But opposing censorship is not the same as defending porn. Some oppose censorship on other grounds: because censoring porn endangers valuable works (not porn) or limits freedoms which are otherwise important (not because they give us access to porn).  Compared to censorship, in this view, the circulation of porn is a lesser evil, a price paid for free speech.

We disagree.  Why single out porn for this treatment?  Why is it different from other types of representation?  Because it is often sexist?  Hardly: so are most representations within our culture, from literary classics to soap operas.

Because women or men may be harassed, exploited in the process of producing it?  This is at least equally true of most activities under capitalism, from office to sweatshop floor.  Because it commodifies aspects of human culture?  Capitalism does that with all our needs or passions.

Pornography is sexual.  It is a representation which seeks to sexually excite us. It wants to turn somebody on. That, not sexism, is what makes it different.  That is why the (very sexist) right hates it. And it is that which should also make it a legitimate aspect of our culture.

If sex is a valuable aspect of our humanity, then porn’s intended effect-making us horny-is at least as legitimate and valuable as the effects (laughter, tears, tension, relaxation, indignation, aesthetic enjoyment, etc.) generated by other representations (non-sexual film, writing, photography, etc.) which we consider legitimate, even if some, or most, of them are sexist and even as we criticize them for it.

We criticize what we find objectionable in all of these other forms of expression, but we do not wish to abolish them. Unless sexual excitement is evil, our attitude to porn should not be any different.

Similarly, the fact that capital commodifies leisure does not lead us to support attempts to extend the working day, but rather to defend our free time from the encroachments of capital, while seeking to transform it.

If capital, for its own reasons, in some cases has extended the public space for the circulation of (commodified) sexual representations, it should not be our objective to close that space, but to defend it against the censors, while struggling to free it from its subordination (in terms of the products, the conditions of their production, etc.) to the needs of capital and the imperatives of the market.

It is true that representations which seek to sexually excite have a bad name. But it should be our objective to defy that. The low regard in which they are held is not due to the sexism, which we must criticize, but which they share with most other prestigious, legitimate aspects of our culture, but to the precarious legitimacy of sexuality itself.

It is fear, shame and guilt with which we (above all, women) are still taught to relate to things sexual.  The latter is still a realm of dirty, sinful, immoral, shameful impulses.  Legitimate sex for some may only occur within very limited contexts (married heterosexual couples, for instance).

After all, according to our obscenity laws, artistic, religious, literary, etc. value can save works (no matter how offensive) from being banned as obscene: but not so with sexual value.  Sexually exciting content is, by itself, considered worthless, a second-class citizen, a sort of undocumented alien that can only naturalize itself by marrying some “higher” value.

This is another problem with the porn/erotica distinction, beyond the futility of the exercise.  Why should we even try to segregate sexually explicit materials which (we?  Dworkin?  Sharon Stone?) consider sexist as a special category (porn), if we don’t do the same with sexist non- sexual dramas, comedies, etc. even when we criticize their sexism?

To do so is to again single them out because they are sexual.  In other words, in debating right-wing censors we have found it impossible to introduce the porn/ erotica distinction without dragging anti-sex prejudices into our struggle against sexism.  Defending pornography helps us fight those prejudices, while struggling against sexism: That struggle will change porn and how it’s produced, not abolish it.


  1. There are of course reasons for opposing censorship not directly related to sex or porn. Everything in this article refers to adults.  The age of consent question is an issue too complex to discuss here. We have presented our views in more elaborate form in: “Puerto Rico: zona libre de sexo?” “Nmada”, 2, Oct. 1995.  Some useful works are: Lynne Segal, “False Promises: Anti-Pornography Feminism,” “Socialist Register,” 1993; Raquel Osborne, “La construccin sexual de la realidad” (Ctedra, 1993); F.M. Christensen, “Invitacin a la violencia: la evidencia,” “Debate feminista”, marzo 1994; Bruce Shapiro, “From Comstockery to Helmsmanship,” “The Nation”, Oct. 1, 1990; Marcia Pally, “Sex and Sensibility” (Ecco, 1994); articles by Snitow, Califia, Hunter, Willis, Duggan, Vance in “Caught Looking” (Long River, 1995); Sallie Tisdale, “Talk Dirty to Me” (Doubleday, 1994); Pat Califia, “Public Sex” (Cleiss, 1994); Lynn Hunt ed. “The Invention of Pornography” (Zone, 1993); John D’emilio, “Making Trouble” (Routledge, 1992); Wendy McElroy, XXX: “A Woman’s Right to Pornogarphy” (St. Martin’s, 1995).  There is still much to learn from Herbert Marcuse, “Eros and Civilization” (Beacon, orig. 1955) partcularly Part II, “Beyond the Reality Principle.”
  2. We would extend this to sex work, a complex issue we cannot discuss here.
  3. This is the weak spot of many liberal feminist critics (Pally, McElroy, Tisdale, less so of Strossen) of pro-censorship feminism.

Nancy Herzig and Rafael Bernabe are activists of the Puerto Rican socialist group Taller de Formacion Politica (Workshop of Political Formation).

ATC 67, March-April 1997