Pornography, Violence and Women-Hating

Against the Current, No. 69, July/August 1997

Ann E. Menasche interviews Diana Russell

DIANA E.H. RUSSELL, Ph.D is a feminist activist, scholar, researcher, and one of the foremost experts in the world on sexual violence against women and girls.  She is the author of twelve books, most of which are on the subject of violence against women: on rape (including wife rape), incest, femicide (the misogynist murder of women), and pornography.

She received the C. Wright Mills Award for outstanding social science research for her book, “The Secret Trauma: Incest in the Lives of Girls and Women” (NY: Basic Books, 1986).  She edited an anthology on pornography: “Making Violence Sexy: Feminist Views on Pornography” (NY: Teachers College Press, 1993.) Russell’s most recent book is “Against Pornography: the Evidence of Harm” (Berkeley: Russell Publications, 1993) (which may be ordered directly from Russell Publications, 2018 Shattuck Avenue, #118, Berkeley, CA 94704; Cost: $12.95 plus $3 postage & handling; Californians add $1.00 sales tax).

Ann E. Menasche, a feminist and civil rights attorney and a member of Solidarity in San Francisco, interviewed Russell for “Against the Current.”

Ann Menasche: Tell me a little about your background as a political activist and feminist.

Diana Russell: I’m from South Africa so my first activism was anti-apartheid activism.  I joined an underground movement there called the African Resistance Movement, which used sabotage against government property since other kinds of political activity seemed futile.  Later, I attended graduate school at Harvard and wrote my dissertation on oppression and revolution in an attempt to better understand why no revolution had occurred in South Africa.  I became a feminist much later.

I was very male-identified in graduate school, I looked down on traditional women and saw myself as different from them. The women’s movement broke down that male-identification.  Also, my three-year marriage gave me a crash course in sexism.

In 1969, I began teaching a course on women at Mills College.  Later, I helped develop the Women’s studies major there.  And I also started doing research on topics that I believed to be potentially groundbreaking for feminism.

A.M.: Have you gotten much support for this research in academia?

D.R.: Some. It’s not easy to be a radical feminist and get accolades from the patriarchy.  I don’t think we should aspire to that. My research did meet rigorous scientific standards for methodology, which is what I aimed to do, as well as having a feminist analysis.

Without a feminist analysis of violence against women, without taking account of gender, one completely misses the boat. When you focus on gender it changes everything.  Feminists have collectively completely changed society’s understanding of violence against women: the recognition of how prevalent it is and how it relates to ordinary male behavior.

A.M.: How prevalent is violence against women?

D.R.: It’s epidemic.  In my probability sample that was done in San Francisco in 1978, of 930 women that were interviewed, 44% had been victims of rape or attempted rape sometime in their lives.

That’s using a very conservative definition of rape-forced penile-vaginal intercourse, intercourse achieved by threats of violence, and intercourse when the woman was completely physically helpless, for example, unconscious, drugged or asleep, and attempts at such acts. It didn’t include forced oral or anal intercourse.  Nor did it include statutory rape where there was no force.

For child sexual abuse, the figure was 38%.  This percentage excludes exhibitionism, and other non-contact experiences of sexual abuse or harassment.  For incest experiences alone, the prevalence figure was 16% and for father-daughter incest it was 4.5%.

A.M.: How about battering?

D.R.: Wife battering was reported by something like 22% of my sample, but I consider that low. I asked only one question on this, which usually doesn’t suffice to obtain an accurate percentage rate.

The reason I obtained such high figures on rape was that I asked a whole battery of questions.  I didn’t just ask “Have you ever been the victim of rape or attempted rape at any time in your life?”

I asked, “Did you ever have this experience with a stranger?  What about an acquaintance?  What about a boyfriend?” Otherwise, women tend to limit their answers to stranger- rape.

On the other hand, I believe that the figure that is frequently cited for the prevalence of wife-battering, 50%, is too high.

A.M.: You also wrote a book on femicide.  What is femicide?

D.R.: The misogynist killing of girls and women, or, more broadly, the killing of women and girls “because” they are female.

I consider a man killing his wife or ex-wife an example of femicide.

Also, serial killing is frequently a form of femicide and has become much more widespread.  Even when murder looks gender neutral, it often involves a man trying to get back at a woman in his life.

A.M.: How common is femicide?

D.R.: It is frighteningly common and occurs throughout the world, as do all the other forms of violence against women that I have studied.  However, there aren’t good statistics about how prevalent it is. Femicide is still a somewhat unused concept.

A.M.: What impact does the prevalence of violence against women have on our lives as women?

D.R.: It’s enormous, and fundamental to our condition.  At the same time, it’s often denied.  It’s amazing how women can say, oh, I’m not affected, I don’t go out at night, I don’t do this, I don’t do that, I’m not scared.  They never felt free, they don’t know what it’s like to feel free.

Yet, many women are afraid of being killed or mutilated.  When a woman is being raped or battered, she is often afraid of being killed.  It’s often a near death experience.

A.M.: How do you respond to someone who says that to describe the situation of women as you do is to present women as passive victims without agency?

D.R.: You can’t talk your way out of the reality of oppression.  To make an analogy: In South Africa, racism has been the most serious and prevalent problem.  To deny that Black people in South Africa have been victimized by whites by saying that articulating this denies Black people’s agency is ridiculous.

Just as we could be talking now about white violence in South Africa, how Black people were treated, and how it’s clear who has the power, likewise with gender.  We’ve got to face this fact and try to deal with it, try to change it. Some women prefer to look away, and not be reminded of how oppressed we are.

A.M.: Your book, “Against Pornography”, attempts to establish a link between pornography and violence against women.  How do you define pornography?

D.R.: I define pornography as material that combines sex and/or the exposure of genitals with abuse or degradation in a manner that appears to endorse, condone or encourage such behavior.  I conceptualize pornography as both a form of hate speech and as discrimination against women.

A.M.: Can you give some examples of what you consider pornographic?

D.R.: Some examples from “Hustler”: a cartoon showing a jackhammer inserted into a woman’s vagina with a caption referring to this as “a cure for frigidity.”  Or of a woman being ground up in a meat grinder.  Photos and descriptions of a woman being gang raped on a pool table, described as an erotic turn-on for the woman.

A cartoon of a husband dumping his wife in a garbage can with her naked buttocks sticking out from the can. A cartoon of a father with a tongue in his daughter’s ear and his hands in her pants, again as an erotic turn-on. Or of a boss having sex with his secretary while beckoning his colleagues to come into the room to have sex with her also, with the caption referring to this as her “Christmas bonus.”

Pictures of dead, decapitated women with amputated bodies, as well as severed nipples and clitorises.  In each of these examples, Larry Flynt jokes about rape, battery, sexual harassment, incest, torture, mutilation and death, and presents this violence as sexy.

A.M.: How do you feel about erotica?

D.R.: I define erotica as sexually suggestive or arousing material that is free of sexism, racism, and homophobia, and respectful of all human beings and animals portrayed.

I find nothing degrading about explicit portrayals of sex per se, though erotica can of course be much broader than that. Even the peeling of an orange can be filmed to make it erotic.

A.M.: How do you respond to people who point out that it is impossible to obtain a consensus on what is pornography versus what is erotica, that “one person’s erotica is another person’s pornography?”

D.R.: There is no consensus on the definitions of many phenomena.  Rape is one example.  Legal definitions of rape vary considerably in different states.  Similarly, millions of court cases have revolved around arguments as to whether a killing constitutes murder or manslaughter.  Lack of consensus should not automatically mean that pornography cannot be subject to opprobrium or legal restraint, or that we cannot examine its effects.

A.M.: You state in “Against Pornography” that pornography is one of multiple causes of men raping women, other causes being male sex role socialization, sexual abuse in childhood and peer pressure.  Could you give a few of examples of the research that supports the view that pornography plays a role in causing sexual violence?

D.R.: First, there is the experiment by Malamuth in which he shows that being exposed to some typical violent pornography will change those men who weren’t force-oriented to begin with into having rape fantasies that they didn’t previously have. (1)

Second, there is the research that shows that pornography undermines the inhibitions of those who already have some desire to rape. For example, the work of Zillmann and Bryant shows that repeated exposure to pornography for a four-week period increased men’s trivialization of rape, increased their callousness towards women, made them more likely to say that rape was the responsibility of the victim and that it was not a serious offense, and increased their estimate of the likelihood that they would rape a woman if they could get away with it. (2)

Perhaps most important of all is James Check’s work making comparisons between the effect on men viewing violent pornography, degrading pornography and erotica in an experimental situation.

Check found that the violent material had the most negative effect, the degrading material had the next most negative effects, and the other sexual material had no negative effects at all. The negative effects he documented included an increase in the self-reported likelihood that the men would actually act out a rape. (3)

A.M.: Katha Pollitt, writing in the February 2 issue of “The Nation” disputed that pornography caused real life harm to women.  Pollitt wrote, “any serious discussion of texts that cause real life harm to women would have to begin with the Bible and the Koran: It isn’t porn that drives zealots to firebomb abortion clinics or slit the throats of Algerian schoolgirls.”  How would you respond to that?

D.R.: Nonsense! None of us are claiming that pornography is the single cause of violence in the world.  Also, Pollitt’s not even using sexual violence as examples.  If Pollit had looked at my book, “Against Pornography”, and studied the examples of pornography and the research reviewed there, I don’t think she could continue to take such a position.

A.M.: How do you respond to the charge that the Andrea Dworkin-Catherine MacKinnon approach to fighting pornography amounts to censorship that would dangerously restrict free speech?

D.R.: Dworkin and MacKinnon do not advocate banning or censorship of pornography.  What they advocate is that anyone who has been victimized by pornography and can prove it in a court of law should be able to do so. That’s not censorship, that’s accountability.

It seems that if you make any proposal against pornography, people equate it with censorship.  One of MacKinnon and Dworkin’s major contributions in this area is to try to recast the debate about pornography-they maintain that this is not primarily a debate about freedom of speech.  It’s an issue of discrimination against women.

Discrimination based on sex, race, or sexual orientation is not acceptable and, in some instances, it’s illegal.  Take sexual harassment, for example.  There’s a law against sexual harassment, that it constitutes discrimination against women and some men.

Catherine MacKinnon is largely responsible for developing this analysis.  She conceptualized sexual harassment in this way. Most people don’t protest that the laws against sexual harassment constitute an attack on free speech, that men in the workplace should be able to say whatever they like to women, to proposition them and talk about their breasts, and ask them about their genitals and whatever, as an exercise of their freedom of speech.

It is recognized that such behavior, even though it involves speech, is not acceptable, that it’s discrimination and it’s abuse of power and it makes a hostile environment against women.  Even the display of pornography in the workplace is considered to contribute to a hostile environment and is therefore against the law.

We are making a similar argument, that pornography outside the workplace also makes for a hostile environment, a dangerous environment because it promotes rape and other forms of sexual violence.  (4)

A.M.: Given that this controversy exists, do you think it is helpful to discuss what one thinks about pornography separately from one’s position on what should be done about it?

D.R.: Yes, I think it’s imperative! I try to insist that people not start discussing what to do about it before they’ve discussed if it is damaging or not. If it’s not damaging, you don’t have to do anything about it.

There are people who take the position that pornography is extremely damaging, but the law isn’t the way to handle it. Nikki Craft is one feminist and dedicated activist who takes this stance.

A.M.: Could you mention some of the ways that a person can organize against pornography if one is opposed to censorship and disagrees with the Dworkin-MacKinnon approach?

D.R.: In my book “Making Violence Sexy”, I have a whole section at the end about feminist actions against pornography, none of which constitute censorship or requires the passage of any laws. You can do educational campaigns like the recent campaign against the movie, “The People vs. Larry Flynt.”

We organized press conferences and picket-lines.  We were not advocating censorship.  We were not even advocating boycotting the movie, although boycotts do not constitute censorship either.  Somehow, whenever we express our own First Amendment rights to protest pornography, we’re called censors-which is absurd.

I think education is important because half the people who say pornography is fine don’t have a clue what they’re really talking about.  Again and again, we find if you show people what’s in pornography, they are shocked, particularly women.

A.M.: What was the objective of your campaign against the Larry Flynt movie?

D.R.: Our objective was to educate people about the lies that are told in the movie, to point out the violent and women-hating content of “Hustler” magazine that was completely omitted from the film, and to point out what Larry Flynt is really like, so Milos Foreman and Oliver Stone’s efforts to turn him into a hero will be undermined.

Flynt himself has said that the film is a massive free advertising campaign for “Hustler” magazine.  Since the movie, the circulation of “Hustler” has gone up, in spite of the fact that the movie has not done so well at the box office.  I believe it only made about twenty million whereas it cost about sixty million to make. It was expected to be a great success, but this was before feminists began protesting.

A.M.: Besides feminists in the Bay Area, who else has spoken against the movie?

D.R.: Gloria Steinem and Flynt’s daughter, Tonya, were major actors in the protests.  Feminists in New York and in other U.S. cities as well as in other countries also protested the movie.

In Sweden, feminists took a more militant boycott approach and actually did try and stop men from going to the movie.  They were very effective and got a lot of news coverage.  Women in England also protested the movie when it opened there on April 11.

A.M.: How can change come about for women?  How can we create a world where women are not kept in our places by violence and the threat of violence?

D.R.: We need to increase the level of consciousness about male violence against women.  We’ve made some progress in the United States in many areas.  For example, sexual harassment is now recognized, it wasn’t recognized before.  I hope femicide will also become recognized.

The old way of men blaming women for the violence has been challenged by feminists.  However, we haven’t yet seen a decline in the violence itself.

I often think we would be more effective if women as a gender were more militant in our response.  I’m not talking about on an individual level—although I favor that too. But we must join together in organizations to act more militantly, even if those organizations are small four-women ones.

As with pornography, those who are the victims of it, the targets-as Black people are with racist material-really have to be the mobilizers.  I think direct action and civil disobedience would be extremely effective for women to use.

We are just a handful of people trying to educate a nation, meanwhile, pornography is a multibillion dollar industry miseducating people.  Though many women have been arrested for peace and civil rights work, very few women appear to be willing to get arrested for feminist causes.

People talk about a war between the sexes, but it’s more like a massacre, because women often don’t fight back. And we can’t all fight our separate battles in our own homes.

Organizing together is really the secret; organization is the answer to making change.  As Andrea Dworkin has said, women have been very good at “endurance” but not at “resistance”.  We must change this.


(1) Malamuth, Neil (1981).  “Rape fantasies as a function of exposure to violent sexual stimuli,” “Archives of Sexual Behavior” 10, 33-47.

(2) Zillman, Dolf & Bryant, Jennings (1984).  “Effects of massive exposure to pornography.”  In Neil Malamuth and Edward Donnerstein (eds.), “Pornography and Sexual Aggression” (New York: Academic Press) 115-138.

(3) Check, James & Guloien, Ted (1989).  “Reported proclivity for coercive sex following repeated exposure to sexually violent pornography, non-violent dehumanizing pornography & erotic.”  In Dolf, Zillman and Jennings, Bryant (eds.), “Pornography: Recent Research Interpretations and Policy Consideration” (Hillside, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum) 159-184.

(4) NOTE BY ANN MENASCHE: Russell is correct that First Amendment issues are complex, often involving the balancing of other rights, and that freedom of speech cannot and should not be held to be absolute.  In my view, however, the Dworkin-MacKinnon ordinance, at least its cause of action against trafficking in pornography (which is essentially a cause of action for group defamation that any woman may enforce) gives too much power to the courts to determine and suppress (through injunctions or large damage awards) depictions of sexuality that the courts deem unacceptable.  It is easy to imagine a scenario of a right-wing woman going to court claiming that non-violent lesbian erotica, or books like “Our Bodies, Ourselves”, are “degrading” and “hurt” women, and some right-wing judge buying the argument.

ATC 69, July-August 1997

1 comment

  1. I challenge you to read at least 10 copies of Hustler magazine, or at least go to there’s no porn there. I understand that much of the porn is disgusting to most people however the politics and stories that they run are found nowhere else. I have a subscription to read writers that I can’t find anywhere else. They are the ones who found and neutered Greg Palast. They have more women writers then any other magazine. I know that porn turns off most people as does Larry flynt, but he has an eye for interesting stories and topics and goes where no one else goes.

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