A Feminist Defense of Pornography

by Wendy McElroy

The following article is from Free Inquiry magazine, Volume 17, Number 4.

"Pornography benefits women, both personally and politically." This sentence opens my book XXX: A Woman's Right to Pornography, and it constitutes a more extreme defense of pornography than most feminists are comfortable with. I arrived at this position after years of interviewing hundreds of sex workers.

Feminist Positions

Feminist positions on pornography currently break down into three rough categories. The most common one - at least, in academia - is that pornography is an expression of male culture through which women are commodified and exploited. A second view, the liberal position, combines a respect for free speech with the principle "a woman's body, a woman's right" and thus produces a defense of pornography along the lines of, "I don't approve of it, but everyone has the right to consume or produce words and images." A third view - a true defense of pornography - arises from feminists who have been labeled "pro-sex" and who argue that porn has benefits for women.

Little dialogue occurs between the three positions. Anti-pornography feminists treat women who disagree as either brainwashed dupes of patriarchy or as apologists for pornographers. In the anthology Sexual Liberals and the Attack on Feminism (1990), editor Dorchen Leidholdt claims that feminists who believe women make their own choices about pornography are spreading "a felicitous lie" (p. 131). In the same work, Sheila Jeffreys argues that "pro-sex" feminists are "eroticizing dominance and subordination." Wendy Stock accuses free speech feminists of identifying with their oppressors "much like ... concentration camp prisoners with their jailors" (p. 150). Andrea Dworkin accuses them of running a "sex protection racket" (p. 136) and maintains that no one who defends pornography can be a feminist.

The liberal feminists who are personally uncomfortable with pornography tend to be intimidated into silence. Those who continue to speak out, like American Civil Liberties Union President Nadine Strossen (Defending Pornography) are ignored. For example, Catharine MacKinnon has repeatedly refused to share a stage with Strossen or any woman who defends porn. "Pro-sex" feminists - many of whom are current or former sex-workers - often respond with anger, rather than arguments.

Peeling back the emotions, what are the substantive questions raised by each feminist perspective?

Anti-porn feminism

Page Mellish of Feminists Fighting Pornography has declared, "There's no feminist issue that isn't rooted in the porn problem." In her book Only Words, MacKinnon denies that pornography consists of words and images, both of which would be protected by the First Amendment. She considers pornography - in and of itself - to be an act of sexual violence. Why is pornography viewed as both the core issue of modern feminism and an inherent act of violence? The answer lies in radical feminist ideology, which Christina Hoff Sommers calls "gender feminism."

Gender feminism looks at history and sees an uninterrupted oppression of women by men that spans cultural barriers. To them, the only feasible explanation is that men and women are separate and antagonistic classes whose interests necessarily conflict. Male interests are expressed through and maintained by a capitalistic structure known as "patriarchy."

The root of the antagonism is so deep that it lies in male biology itself. For example, in the watershed book Against Our Will, Susan Brownmiller traces the inevitability of rape back to Neanderthal times when men began to use their penises as weapons. Brownmiller writes: "From prehistoric times to the present, I believe, rape has played a critical function. It is nothing more or less than a conscious process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a state of fear." How Brownmiller acquired this knowledge of prehistoric sex is not known.

Another tenet of gender oppression is that sex is a social construct. Radical feminists reject what they call "sexual essentialism" - the notion that sex is a natural force based on biology that inclines women toward natural tendencies, such as motherhood. Even deeply felt sexual preferences, such as heterosexuality, are not biological. They spring from ideology.

Men construct women's sexuality through the words and images of society, which the French philosopher Foucault called the "texts" of society. After such construction, men commercialize women's sexuality and market it back in the form of pornography. In other words, through porn man defines woman sexually - a definition that determines every aspect of her role in society. To end the oppression, patriarchy and its texts must be destroyed.

Liberal feminism

Liberal feminism is a continuation of 1960s feminism that called for equality with men, who were not inherent oppressors so much as recalcitrant partners to be enlightened. Equality did not mean destroying the current system, but reforming it through such measures as affirmative action. The liberal principle "a woman's body, a woman's right" underlay arguments ranging from abortion rights to lifestyle freedoms like lesbianism. The stress was upon the act of choosing, rather than upon the content of any choice.

Liberal feminists share the general liberal bias toward free speech, but they are in flux on pornography. Some liberal organizations like Feminists for Free Expression (FFE) have consistently opposed censorship in any form. Some liberal feminists like Sallie Tisdale (Talk Dirty to Me) have staunchly defended sexual freedom. But many liberal feminists commonly reason as follows: "As a woman I am appalled by Playboy ... but as a writer I understand the need for free expression."

Such arguments are not pro-pornography. They are anticensorship ones based on several grounds, including: great works of art and literature would be banned; the First Amendment would be breached; political expression would be suppressed; and a creative culture requires freedom of speech.

Other liberal feminists, who have accepted many of the ideological assumptions of the anti-porn position, seem willing to sacrifice free speech for the greater good of protecting women. For example, they also condemn the free market for commercializing women as "body parts," which demeans women. In "A Capital Idea," an essay defending pornography, which sometimes seems to be an attack, Lisa Steel comments:

Sexist representation of women ... is all part of the same system that, in the service of profits, reduces society to "consumer groups." And marketing is every bit as conservative as the military ... we pay dearly for the "rights" of a few to make profits from the rest of us.

Such muddled and ambivalent "defenses" often offend the sex workers they are intended to protect.

Pro-sex feminism

Over the past decade, a growing number of feminists - labeled "pro sex" - have defended a woman's choice to participate in and to consume pornography. Some of these women, such as Nina Hartley, are current or ex-sex-workers who know firsthand that posing for pornography is an uncoerced choice that can be enriching. Pro-sex feminists retain a consistent interpretation of the principle "a woman's body, a woman's right" and insist that every peaceful choice a woman makes with her own body must be accorded full legal protection, if not respect.

Pro-sex arguments sometimes seem to overlap with liberal feminist ones. For example, both express concern over who will act as censor because subjective words, such as "degrading," will be interpreted to mean whatever the censor wishes.

The statute that banned Margaret Sanger because she used the words syphilis and gonorrhea is no different, in principle, than the one that interprets obscenity today. There will be no protection even for the classics of feminism, such as Our Bodies, Ourselves, which provided a generation of women with the first explicit view of their own biology. Inevitably, censorship will be used against the least popular views, against the weakest members of society ... including feminists and lesbians. When the Canadian Supreme Court decided in 1992 to protect women by restricting the importation of pornography, one of the first victims was the lesbian/gay Glad Day Bookstore, which had been on a police hit list. Among the books seized by Canadian customs were two books by Andrea Dworkin, Pornography: Men Possessing Women and Women Hating. Such an event should not have surprised Dworkin who declared in Take Back the Night, "There is not a feminist alive who could possibly look to the male legal system for real protection from the systematized sadism of men" (p. 257).

On the dangers of censoring pornography, pro-sex and liberal feminists often agree. On the possible benefits of pornography to women, they part company.

Dissecting Anti-Porn

Do the specific accusations hurled at pornography stand up under examination?

Pornography is degrading to women.

Degrading is a subjective term. I find commercials in which women become orgasmic over soapsuds to be tremendously degrading. The bottom line is that every woman has the right to define what is degrading and liberating for herself.

The assumed degradation is often linked to the "objectification" of women: that is, porn converts them into sexual objects. What does this mean? If taken literally, it means nothing because objects don't have sexuality; only beings do. But to say that porn portrays women as "sexual beings" makes for poor rhetoric. Usually, the term sex objects means showing women as body parts, reducing them to physical objects. What is wrong with this? Women are as much their bodies as they are their minds or souls. No one gets upset if you present women as "brains" or as spiritual beings. If I concentrated on a woman's sense of humor to the exclusion of her other characteristics, is this degrading? Why is it degrading to focus on her sexuality?

Pornography leads to violence against women.

A cause-and-effect relationship is drawn between men viewing pornography and men attacking women, especially in the form of rape. But studies and experts disagree as to whether any relationship exists between pornography and violence, between images and behavior. Even the pro-censorship Meese Commission Report admitted that the data connecting pornography to violence was unreliable.

Other studies, such as the one prepared by feminist Thelma McCormick in 1983 for the Metropolitan Toronto Task Force on Violence Against Women, find no pattern to connect porn and sex crimes. Incredibly, the Task Force suppressed the study and reassigned the project to a pro-censorship male, who returned the "correct" results. His study was published.

What of real-world feedback? In Japan, where pornography depicting graphic and brutal violence is widely available, rape is much lower per capita than in the United States, where violence in porn is severely restricted.

Pornography is violence because women are coerced into pornography.

Not one of the dozens of women depicted in pornographic materials with whom I spoke reported being coerced. Not one knew of a woman who had been. Nevertheless, I do not dismiss reports of violence: every industry has its abuses. And anyone who uses force or threats to make a woman perform should be charged with kidnapping, assault, and/or rape. Any such pictures or films should be confiscated and burned because no one has the right to benefit from the proceeds of a crime.

Pornography is violence because women who pose for porn are so traumatized by patriarchy they cannot give real consent.

Although women in pornography appear to be willing, anti-porn feminists know that no psychologically healthy woman would agree to the degradation of pornography. Therefore, if agreement seems to be present, it is because the women have "fallen in love with their own oppression" and must be rescued from themselves. A common characteristic of the porn actresses I have interviewed is a love of exhibitionism. Yet if such a woman declares her enjoyment in flaunting her body, anti-porn feminists claim she is not merely a unique human being who reacts from a different background or personality. She is psychologically damaged and no longer responsible for her actions. In essence, this is a denial of a woman's right to choose anything outside the narrow corridor of choices offered by political/sexual correctness. The right to choose hinges on the right to make a "wrong" choice, just as freedom of religion entails the right to be an atheist. After all, no one will prevent a woman from doing what he thinks she should do.

A Pro-Sex Defense

As a "pro-sex" feminist, I contend: Pornography benefits women, both personally and politically. It provides sexual information on at least three levels:

  • It gives a panoramic view of the world's sexual possibilities. This is true even of basic sexual information such as masturbation. It is not uncommon for women to reach adulthood without knowing how to give themselves pleasure.
  • It allows women to "safely" experience sexual alternatives and satisfy a healthy sexual curiosity. The world is a dangerous place. By contrast, pornography can be a source of solitary enlightenment.
  • It offers the emotional information that comes only from experiencing something either directly or vicariously. It provides us with a sense how it would "feel" to do something.

Pornography allows women to enjoy scenes and situations that would be anathema to them in real life. Take, for example, one of the most common fantasies reported by women - the fantasy of "being taken." The first thing to understand is that a rape fantasy does not represent a desire for the real thing. Why would a healthy woman daydream about being raped? Perhaps by losing control, she also sheds all sense of responsibility for and guilt over sex. Perhaps it is the exact opposite of the polite, gentle sex she has now. Perhaps it is flattering to imagine a particular man being so overwhelmed by her that he must have her. Perhaps she is curious. Perhaps she has some masochistic feelings that are vented through the fantasy. Is it better to bottle them up?

Pornography breaks cultural and political stereotypes, so that each woman can interpret sex for herself. Anti-feminists tell women to be ashamed of their appetites and urges. Pornography tells them to accept and enjoy them. Pornography can be good therapy. Pornography provides a sexual outlet for those who - for whatever reason - have no sexual partner. Perhaps they are away from home, recently widowed, isolated because of infirmity. Perhaps they simply choose to be alone. Couples also use pornography to enhance their relationship. Sometimes they do so on their own, watching videos and exploring their reactions together. Sometimes, the couples go to a sex therapist who advises them to use pornography as a way of opening up communication on sex. By sharing pornography, the couples are able to experience variety in their sex lives without having to commit adultery.

Pornography benefits women politically in many ways. Historically, pornography and feminism have been fellow travelers and natural allies. Although it is not possible to draw a cause-and-effect relationship between the rise of pornography and that of feminism, they both demand the same social conditions - namely, sexual freedom.

Pornography is free speech applied to the sexual realm. Freedom of speech is the ally of those who seek change: it is the enemy of those who seek to maintain control. Pornography, along with all other forms of sexual heresy, such as homosexuality, should have the same legal protection as political heresy. This protection is especially important to women, whose sexuality has been controlled by censorship through the centuries.

Viewing pornography may well have a cathartic effect on men who have violent urges toward women. If this is true, restricting pornography removes a protective barrier between women and abuse.

Legitimizing pornography would protect female sex-workers, who are stigmatized by our society. Anti-pornography feminists are actually undermining the safety of sex workers when they treat them as "indoctrinated women." Dr. Leonore Tiefer, a professor of psychology, observed in her essay "On Censorship and Women": "These women have appealed to feminists for support, not rejection. ... Sex industry workers, like all women, are striving for economic survival and a decent life, and if feminism means anything it means sisterhood and solidarity with these women."

The Purpose of Law

The porn debate is underscored by two fundamentally antagonistic views of the purpose of law in society.

The first view, to which pro-sex feminists subscribe, is that law should protect choice. "A woman's body, a woman's right" applies to every peaceful activity a woman chooses to engage in. The law should come into play only when a woman initiates force or has force initiated against her. The second view, to which both conservatives and anti-porn feminists subscribe, is that law should protect virtue. It should come into play whenever there has been a breach of public morality, or a breach of "women's class interests."

This is old whine in new battles. The issue at stake in the pornography debate is nothing less than the age-old conflict between individual freedom and social control.

Wendy McElroy's books include XXX: A Woman's Right to Pornography (see review on p. 62) and Sexual Correctness: The Gender-Feminist Attack on Women. The Reasonable Woman is due from Prometheus Books in Spring, 1998.

http://www.secularhumanism.org/library/fi/mcelroy_17_4.html. Retrieved on Oct. 16, 2004.


Just a prude? Feminism, pornography, and men’s responsibility

Robert Jensen
of Journalism
of Texas
Austin, TX 78712
work: (512) 471-1990
fax: (512) 471-7979

copyright Robert Jensen 2005

[Talk delivered to the Sexual Assault Network of Delaware annual conference, Woodside, DE, April 5, 2005.]

by Robert Jensen

I want to begin by coming out: I am a man. More specifically, I am a white man. That’s important because it suggest two things regarding what I know about the world.

First, I know some things that women don’t know about men. By defintion, women are never in all-male spaces. Women don’t directly experience what men say about them when there are no women around. I do, and that means I know some things that the women here today don’t.

Being a man also means there’s a lot I don’t know, that I have had to learn -- and have to keep learning -- from women and a feminist movement. In these remarks, I’m going to speak about the feminist critique of pornography and the feminist anti-pornography movement, from which I have learned much. But in doing that, I should acknowledge the irony of a man talking to a group of mostly women about the feminist analysis of pornography. I need to make it clear that I am not speaking for women. Instead, I see my role as speaking with women, and with the ultimate goal of speaking about the insights of this critique to men.

But even that is complicated, of course, because women do not speak with one voice about pornography, nor any other issue. There are pro-pornography women who would contest much of what I have to say. All I can do is acknowledge the women who have helped me come to understand the issue, tell the truth as I see it, and ask men to take seriously this critique of the domination/subordination dynamic that is so common in pornography and, indeed, in the world.

The minute one begins to make such a critique, one can expect this response: Feminists who critique pornography are really just prudes at heart. Pornography’s opponents, we are told, are afraid of sex.

In one sense, that’s true. I am afraid of sex, of a certain kind.  I’m afraid of much of the sex commonly presented in contemporary mass-marketed pornography. I am afraid of sex that is structured on a dynamic of domination and subordination. I am afraid of the sex in pornography that has become so routinely harsh that men typically cannot see the brutality of it thorough their erections and orgasms.

I’m not against sex or sexual pleasure. I’m against the kind of sex that is routinely presented in contemporary pornography. I’m against that kind of sex because it hurts people in the world today, and it helps constructs a world in which people -- primarily the most vulnerable people, women and children, both girls and boys -- will continue to be hurt.

Pornographic sex

<>Let me describe one kind of sex that I’m afraid of. This is a scene from the film “Gag Factor #10” released by J.M. Productions, which boasts that it pushes the envelope in pornography. The company website brags that this gag series, which is going on #17 as of March 2005, offers “The best throatfucking ever lensed.” If you want a sample, the website has pictures and short video clips, under the heading “this week’s victim,” with the promise “new whores degraded every Wednesday.” <>

In one of the 10 scenes from “Gag Factor #10,” released in 2002, a nagging wife is haranguing her husband and asking why he is so lazy.
“Why can’t you do anything?” she asks, going on to insult his intelligence and criticize him because he doesn’t read. She asks him if he even can read, and then suggests Henry Miller, from which she starts to read. The camera focuses on her mouth as she reads, then cuts to his eyes, which look increasingly angry. The film cuts to the woman on her knees as he yells, “Shut the fuck up.” He grabs her hair and thrusts his penis into her mouth. From this point on, we hear almost exclusively from him: “Your teeth feel good you little bitch. Eat that dick.  … Are you OK? Are you crying? I love you. I fucking love you. Open that mouth.” He slaps her mouth with his penis. “Open wide. Choke. Open wider, wider. You’re so good baby. Put your mouth on my balls. You treat me so fucking good. That’s why I keep you here. Give me the eyes [meaning, look up at me] while I gag you. … Do you like to gag? Beg for it. Say please. Say please gag me some more. … Your throat is so good.”

At this point, she re-enters the conversation. She says, “Keep going.”

<>He says, “Good, that’s the fucking answer I was looking for.”

He the flips her over, putting her on the table with her head hanging over edge. She gags several times when he thrusts into her mouth. He holds her by the cheeks, spreading her face apart. She gags but he doesn’t stop. He allows her to catch her breath. Her face is unexpressive, almost frozen.

<>“I want those tears to come out again, baby. I want to choke the shit out of you,” he says.

He grabs her hair and drives his penis into her mouth. He says: “Suck that dick. Convulse. I want to see your eyes roll back in your fucking head. Yes, I love it.” He asks her if she loves it; she says yes. He ejaculates into her mouth and says, “Spit that cum out. I can’t hear you. What did you say? Don’t talk with your mouth full.”

<>He walks away and says “Don’t give me any more shit.”

“Gag Factor” is a type of “gonzo” pornography, which is the roughest form available in the mainstream pornography shops and also the fastest growing genre. This scene is more overtly misogynistic than some, but it is not idiosyncratic. The sex and the language in what the industry calls “features” typically is not as rough, though the message is the same: Women are for sex, and women like sex this way.



<>I am afraid of the sex I just described to you. I’m worried about the physical and emotional well-being of the woman in that scene. I’m afraid of the way in which the men who use that pornography will act in their own lives, toward women in their lives. I am afraid of the world that such sex helps to create.

I am afraid, and you should be, too.

If anyone wants to dismiss these concerns with the tired old phrases “to each his own” and “as long as they are consenting adults” -- that is, if you want to ignore the reality and complexity of the world in which we live -- I can’t stop you.  But I can tell you that if you do that, you are abandoning minimal standards of political and moral responsibility, and you become partially responsible for the injuries done as a result of a system you refuse to confront. I will defend that conclusion in a moment. But first, I want to make sure we come to terms with the scene I just described.

We live in a world in which a woman can be aggressively “throat fucked” to facilitate the masturbation of men. We all live in that world. We all live with that woman in “Gag Factor #10.” She is one of us. She is a person. She has hopes and dreams and desires of her own.

We all live with that woman who finds herself making a living by being filmed in another kind of gonzo film called a “blow bang,” in which a woman has oral sex in similar fashion with more than one man.

In one of these films, “Blow Bang #4,” released in 2001, a young woman dressed as a cheerleader is surrounded by six men. For about seven minutes, “Dynamite” (the name she gives on tape) methodically moves from man to man while they offer insults such as “you little cheerleading slut.” For another minute and a half, she sits upside down on a couch, her head hanging over the edge, while men thrust into her mouth, causing her to gag. She strikes the pose of the bad girl to the end. “You like coming on my pretty little face, don’t you,” she says, as they ejaculate on her face and in her mouth for the final two minutes of the scene.

Five men have finished. The sixth steps up. As she waits for him to ejaculate onto her face, now covered with semen, she closes her eyes tightly and grimaces. For a moment, her face changes; it is difficult to read her emotions, but it appears she may cry. After the last man, number six, ejaculates, she regains her composure and smiles. Then the narrator off camera hands her the pom-pom she had been holding at the beginning of the tape and says, “Here’s your little cum mop, sweetheart -- mop up.” She buries her face in the pom-pom and the scene ends.

Dynamite is one of us. She is a person. She has hopes and dreams and desires of her own.

The women in the movement to end men’s violence have helped society understand that we have to empathize with the victims of sexual assault and domestic violence. We also need to extend that empathy to the women in pornography and prostitution.

Now, please close your eyes. We are going to practice empathy, that most fundamental of human qualities. We are going to exercise our ability to connect our humanity with another, to travel to that person’s world and to try to feel along with another human being. We are going to be human, together.

I want us to think of that scene with Dynamite. One woman and six men. After she has performed oral sex on six men, after six men have thrust their penises into her throat to the point of gagging, after six men have ejaculated onto her, the camera is turned off. I want you to close your eyes and think not about the sex acts but about the moment when the camera shuts off. The men walk away. Someone throws her a towel. She has to clean the semen of six strangers off her face and body and from her hair. This woman, who is a person, who is one of us, who has hopes and dreams and desires of her own, cleans herself off. I want us to think about that moment.

Now, I want you to imagine that the women in that scene is your child. I want you to think about how you would feel if the woman being handed a towel to wipe off the semen of six men were your child, someone you had raised and loved and cared for. How does that feel?

Then I want you to imagine that woman is the child of your best friend, or of your neighbor, or of someone you work with. Then imagine that women is the child of someone you have never met and never will meet. Imagine that women is just a person, one of us, with hopes and dreams and desires of her own. Forget about whether or not she is your child. She is a person; she is one of us.

Close your eyes. Imagine that you are the one handing her the towel. Look into her eyes. We need to dare to look into her eyes and try to understand what she might be feeling. You can’t know for sure what she is feeling. But try to imagine how you would feel if it were you.

We are constantly told pornography is about fantasies. Those scenes I just described are not fantasy. They are real. They happened. They happened to those women. Those women are not a fantasy. They are people. They are just like us.

And after those scenes were put on videotape, the films were sold and rented to thousands of men who took it home, put it into VCRs or DVD players, and masturbated to orgasm. That also is real. Men fantasize when they masturbate, but the men who are masturbating are not a fantasy. Thousands of men have climaxed to the recording of those women being aggressively “throat fucked.” Those orgasms happened in the real world. Those men’s sexual pleasure was being conditioned to images of women being aggressively “throat fucked,” in the real world.

Those specific women and those specific men are part of the world we live in. And that idea of what a woman is, and that idea of what’s men’s sexuality is -- those ideas are also part of the world we live in. None of it is a fantasy. All of it is as real as we are.

So, I want to pose a simple question: What do we owe  those women? What do we owe Dynamite? What is our responsibility to her, to her hopes and dreams and desires?


Choices, hers and ours

At this point, some will say: “Whatever you or I may think of those activities, she chose to do that. She’s an adult. Who are we to condemn her choice?” I agree; we shouldn’t condemn her choice, and we shouldn’t condemn her. We should empathize with her. And we should think not just about her choice abut about the choices of the men who pay for the tape and create the demand for aggressive “throat fucking.”

From research and the testimony of women who have been prostituted and used in pornography, we know that childhood sexual assault (which often leads victims to see their value in the world primarily as the ability to provide sexual pleasure for men) and economic hardship (a lack of meaningful employment choices at a livable wage) are key factors in many women’s decisions to enter the sex industry. We know how women in the sex industry -- not all, but many -- routinely dissociate to cope with what they do. We know that in one study of 130 street prostitutes, 68 percent met the diagnostic criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder.

We know that any meaningful discussion of choice can’t be restricted to the single moment when a woman decides to allow herself to be sold sexually, but must include all the background conditions that affect not only the objective choices she faces but her subjective assessment of those choices. What matters is not just what is available but how she perceives herself in relation to what is available. We know that in anyone’s life, completely free choices are rare, that every choice is made under some mix of constraint and opportunity.

I know, for instance, that in my large lecture classes when I give a multiple-choice exam, virtually none of the students believes that such exams are an accurate or meaningful way of measuring their learning. I know that many of them find such exams to be ridiculous, as do I. But all of my students “choose” to take a test they know to be virtually useless (except for the data it provides me in a large cattle-call class so that I can assign grades at the end of the term). They choose to take that exam because if they chose not to -- no matter how sensible and compelling their analysis of the exam’s flaws -- they will not pass the course, and they will be denied something that is important to them, a college diploma. They could choose to reject the institution, and thereby give up that asset, but it would cost them. Their choice is free, but it is not made under conditions of complete freedom, given their limited power in the system. So, let us not be naïve about choice.

But, for the sake of argument, let’s assume that the specific woman who was used in that aggressive “throat fucking” movie made a completely free and meaningful choice to participate, with absolutely no constraints on her. That could be the case, but it does not change the fact that many women in the industry choose under dramatic limitations. And so long as the industry is profitable and a large number of women are needed to make such films, it is certain that some number of those women will be choosing under conditions that render the concept of “free choice” virtually meaningless. When a man buys or rents a videotape or DVD, he is creating the demand for pornography that will lead to some number of women being hurt, psychologically and/or physically. That is a fact in the world in which we live.

So, men’s choices to buy or rent pornography are complicated by two realities. First, at any given moment, the consumer has no reliable way to judge which women are participating in the industry as a result of a meaningfully free choice. And second, even if the men consuming pornography could make such a determination about specific women in specific films, the demand for pornography that their purchase creates ensures that some women will be hurt.

Given that conclusion, there is only one decision that men who claim to have even minimal standards of moral and political responsibility can make: They must not buy or rent pornography. Let me restate that in a personal way: You and I must not buy or rent pornography. You and I must not create the demand that creates the industry that creates a world in which vulnerable people will be hurt.

If we buy or rent pornography, we bear some responsibility for that world. We can try to pretend we don’t know that, but we can’t avoid that responsibility.


Justice and self-interest

That’s the argument from justice. It’s an argument that men, and the women who buy or rent pornography, should take seriously unless they want to abandon minimal moral and political standards.

But it is fairly obvious that arguments from justice do not always move people who are in positions of power and privilege. Maybe such arguments from justice should be enough to change people, but they often aren’t. So, arguments from self-interest are important, too.

Men should stop buying and renting pornography because it is the right thing to do. They also should do it because it is in their self-interest.

To explain that, I want to tell a story from my experience at the 2005 convention of the pornography industry, the AVN Adult Entertainment Expo, which I attended as part of a team working on a documentary film called “’Fantasies’ Matter.” At the end of our first day filming at the convention, the film’s director/editor, Miguel Picker, and I walked out of the Sands Expo Center in Las Vegas without saying much.

We had just spent the better part of the day together on the exhibition floor, which featured about 300 booths visited by thousands of people. Miguel had been behind the camera, and I had been interviewing pornography performers, producers, and fans about why they make, distribute, and consume sexually explicit media.

We had spent the day surrounded by images of women being presented and penetrated for the sexual pleasure of men. All around were pictures and posters, screens running endless porn loops, and display tables of dildos and sex dolls. I had listened to young men tell me that pornography had taught them a lot about what women really want sexually. I had listened to a pornography producer tell me that he thinks anal sex is popular in pornography because men like to think about fucking their wives and girlfriends in the ass to pay them back for being bitchy. And I interviewed the producer who takes great pride that his “Gag Factor” series was the first to feature exclusively aggressive “throat fucking.”

Miguel and I had spent the day surrounded by sex for sale, immersed in the predictable consequence of the collision of capitalism and patriarchy. We had talked to dozens of people for whom the process of buying and selling women for sex is routine. When that day was over, we walked silently from the convention center to the hotel. The first thing I said was, “I need a drink.”

I don’t want to feign naivete. As a child and young adult, I used pornography in fairly typical fahsion. I have been working on the issue of pornography since 1988. I have talked to a lot of people about pornography, and in very short and controlled doses, I have watched enough of it to understand how corrosive it is to our individual and collective humanity. But I had never been to the industry convention before; I had always found a reason to avoid it. As Miguel and I left the hall, I understood why.

“I need a drink,” I said, and we stopped at the nearest hotel bar (which didn’t take long, given how many bars there are in a Las Vegas hotel). I sat down with a glass of wine. Miguel and I started to talk, searching for some way to articulate what we had just experienced, what we felt. But all I could do was cry.

It’s not that I had seen anything on the convention floor that I had never seen. It’s not that I had heard something significantly new or different from the people I had interviewed. It’s not that I had had some sort of epiphany about the meaning of pornography. It’s just that in that moment, the reality of the industry, of the products the industry produces, and the way in which they are used -- it all came crashing down on me. My defenses were inadequate to combat a simple fact: The pornographers have won. In the short term, the efforts of the feminists who put forward the critique of pornography, the sex industry, and men’s violence have failed. The pornographers, for the time being, have won. The arguments from justice lost. The pornographers not only are thriving, but are more mainstream and normalized than ever. They can fill up a Las Vegas convention center, with the dominant culture paying no more notice than it would to the annual boat show.

And as the industry has become more normalized, paradoxically, the content of their films becomes ever crueler and more overtly degrading to women. The industry talk is dominated by talk of how to push it even further. Make it nastier. Make it, in the terms of one industry observer, “brutal and real.” That’s the way the pornographers and the customers like it: Brutal. Because brutal is real. And real sells. It is real, and that’s at the heart of the sadness. What was reflected on the convention floor was not just a truth about pornography, but a truth about gender and sex and power in contemporary culture, as well as a truth about the brutality of capitalism. At the end of that day, I was more aware than ever that the feminist critique of pornography is not simply a critique of pornography but about the routine way we are trained to be sexual, about the eroticization of domination and subordination. Feminism, as I learned it, is a full-bore attack on systems of illegitimate authority, of which male dominance is one, along with white supremacy, capitalism, and imperialism.

And at that moment, all I could do was cry. It was a selfish indulgence, because at that moment, my tears were not for the women who are used and discarded by the industry, or the women who will be forced into sex they don’t want by the men in their lives who use pornography. The tears were not for girls and young women who bury their own needs and desires to become sexually what men want them to be. I wish I could honestly say that was front and center in my mind and heart at that moment. But the truth is that my tears at that moment were for myself. Those tears came because I realized, in a more visceral way than ever, that the pornographers have won and they are helping to construct a world that is not only dangerous for women and children, but also one in which I have fewer and fewer places to turn as a man. Fewer places to walk and talk and breathe that haven’t been colonized and pornographized. As I sat that, all I could say to Miguel was, “I don’t want live in this world.”

I think at that moment Miguel didn’t quite no what to make of my reaction. He was nice to me, but he must have thought I was going a bit over the top. I don’t blame him; I was a bit over the top. After all, we were there to make a documentary film about the industry, not live out a melodrama about my angst in a Las Vegas hotel bar.

The next day Miguel and I hit the convention floor again. At the end of that day, as we walked away, I made the same request. We sat at the same bar. I had another glass of wine and cried again.  Miguel, I think, was glad it was the last day. So was I.

Two days after we left Las Vegas, Miguel called me from New York. This time he was crying. He told me that he had just come to his editing and recording studio and had put on some music. Miguel is not only a director and editor, but a very talented musician. He’s one of those people who understand the world through music. He told me that he had put on music that he finds particularly beautiful, and then the floodgates opened. “I understand what you meant in the bar,” he said, speaking through his own tears.

I tell that story not to glorify two sensitive new-age men. Miguel actually is a sensitive person, though not very new-age. I’m not new-age, and I don’t feel particularly sensitive these days. I feel harsh and mean. I feel angry most of the time. I spend most of my days on political organizing. I don’t write poetry. I’m from North Dakota. People from North Dakota don’t write a lot of poetry. We shovel snow.

I tell that story because it’s never been clearer to me that in the struggle over pornography, the sex industry, and men’s violence, it is not enough to be right and to make arguments solely about justice. The central insights of the feminist critique of pornography are, I believe, right. I think it is the most compelling way to understand the issue. If anything, that critique of pornography is truer today than it was when the founding mothers of the movement first articulated it in the late 1970s.

But we live in a society in which the pornographers have won, in the short term. Their products are more widely accepted and available than ever. Much of the culture has bought the “pornography is liberation” and “pornography is freedom” lines. To the degree that an anti-pornography position can get traction in the dominant culture, it comes from right-wing groups that have co-opted the language of feminism -- the political language of harm -- as a cover for a regressive moralism that rejects the values of feminism. Those same right-wing groups typically resist a critique of the capitalist commofication of everything, an analysis crucial to understanding pornography.

At this moment, being right is not enough. We have to find ways to tap into the humanity of people, a humanity that is systematically diminished and obscured by capitalism and patriarchy, as well as the explicit racism in pornography. That’s the argument from self-interest that men must hear. Men get something very concrete from pornography: They get orgasms. For most men, it’s an extremely effective way to gain physical pleasure. But it comes at a cost, and the cost is our own humanity. To be a man in this sense is to surrender some part of your humanity. I speak from experience here: It’s a bad trade-off. No orgasm is worth that much.

That’s why the experience that Miguel and I had on the floor is important. On that day, the concentrated inhumanity of the pornographic world overwhelmed us. I went onto the convention floor knowing a lot about pornography. I left the floor feeling it more deeply than ever before. We know a lot about the pornography industry and its effects. We know there is a compelling critique. We have to be willing to feel it, as well.


Feeling and thinking our way forward, together

I realize that this task is difficult: We have to help men understand the depravity of their own pleasure. We have to make them feel that sense of desperation, articulating it in a way that leads people to action not paralysis, hope not despair, resistance not capitulation. We have to make them face what pornography does to us all, men and women. For men, we have to make them face that to be a pornography user is to be a john, to be someone who is willing to buy women for sex, someone who sees sex as a commodity, someone who has traded his own humanity for an orgasm.

Those realities are not easy for women to face either. I can’t speak for women, of course, but I assume that it is not easy to be a woman and understand how pornography portrays women and their sexuality, and to know that men like it. Put bluntly, in pornography, women are reduced to three holes and two hands. In pornography, women are reduced to the parts of their bodies that can sexually stimulate men. Women are not really sex-objects (which at least implies they are human) but more fuck-objects, simply things to be penetrated. I imagine that is not an easy thing to face when you are faced with pornography all around you. I imagine it is not easy to realize that this is the world in which women learned to be sexual.

Men have some difficult realities to face. So do women. I understand how painful those realities can be, because I have struggled, and continue to struggle, with them, and I have talked to many other people about their struggles. Sometimes I feel like I know too much. Sometimes I wish that I didn’t have all these pictures in my head. Sometimes I wish I had never heard the stories of women’s pain that I have heard.

But I never wish I were back where I was 20 years ago, because 20 years ago I also was in pain, albeit a very different kind. In some ways, that old pain was easier to mask, but it was impossible to escape. This newer pain might be more intense at times, but it is a necessary part of the process that has changed my life for the better. I don’t really like it, but I accept the need for it, because this pain can lead somewhere. It can lead to a long and difficult, but ultimately rewarding, process of trying to revision sexuality. It can lead to involvement in a political movement to change the world that, even if not successful in the short term, holds out the hope for not just personal but societal transformation. Confronting the violence and pain of the world, both outside and inside me, has led me to meet many amazing people whose friendship and love has sustained me through difficult times.

When we talk like this, one of the predictable rejoinders is that we are trying to impose strict sexual rules on others. As one prominent pro-pornography feminist scholar, Linda Williams, put it in a recent interview, “Really, who are [anti-pornography activists] to tell us where our sexual imaginations should go?”

I agree. No one can tell others where their sexual imaginations should go. Imaginations are unruly and notoriously resistant to attempts at control. But our imaginations come from somewhere. Our imaginations may be internal in some ways, but they are influenced by external forces. Can we not have a conversation about those influences? Are we so fragile that our sexual imaginations can’t stand up to honest human conversation? It seems that pro-pornography forces live with their own fear of sex, the fear of being accountable for their imaginations and actions. The defenses of pornography typically revert to the most superficial kind of liberal individualism that shuts off people from others, ignores the predictable harms of a profit-seeking industry that has little concern for people, and ignores the way in which we all collectively construct the culture in which we live.

I have no interest in telling people where there sexual imaginations must end up. But I would like to be part of a conversation about the direction in which we think our sexual imaginations can move.

So, I am afraid of the sex that pornography creates because it hurts people. But I am not afraid of talking about an alternative to the cruelty and brutality of the pornography industry. I need that conversation. I can’t do this on my own. I’m not smart enough and I’m not strong enough. I need help. I know the direction I want to move, but I stumble on the way. I have made mistakes that have hurt others and hurt myself. I can correct some of those mistakes on my own, but none of us can do this completely on our own.

So, can we start talking about how to move our sexual imaginations toward respect, toward empathy, toward connections based on equality not domination? Can we give up enough of our fear of the unknown to try to imagine together what that might look like?

This culture tends to talk about sex in terms of heat: Who’s hot, what kind of sex is hot. What if we shifted to a language of light? Sex not as something that produces heat, but something that shines light. Can we talk about moving toward the light? The light that is inside me and inside you. The same light that is inside Dynamite.

I want to live in a world in which Dynamite can tell us her name, not the pornographers’ name. I want to live in a world in which we hear her about her hopes and dreams and desires, not the pornographers’. I want to live in that world not just for her sake but for my own, because it is that world in which I can find my own authentic hopes and dreams and desires.

We have given the pornographers far too much power to construct our sexual imaginations. It is our world, not theirs. It is our world to take back. This is not just about taking back the night, but taking back the whole day, taking back the culture’s imagination, taking back the way we see men and women and sex. If we do not, I fear that the light inside us will dim. Our hopes and dreams will be increasingly shaped by the pornographers. And our hopes for a desire based on equality, maybe even the dream of equality, may not survive. I am afraid of that.

We all need to work to make sure that does not happen. For Dynamite’s sake. For your own. For all of us.


Robert Jensen is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin, a founding member of the Nowar Collective, http://www.nowarcollective.com/, and a member of the board of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center, http://thirdcoastactivist.org/. He is the co-author of Pornography: The Production and Consumption of Inequality (Routledge) and author of Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity (City Lights Books). He can be reached at rjensen@uts.cc.utexas.edu.







May 08, 2002






Nude Beaches

Best of Bay

8 Days a Week

Political events




Andrea Nemerson's

Norman Solomon's

The nessie files

Tom Tomorrow's
This Modern World



PG&E and the California energy crisis

Arts and Entertainment

Venue Guide

Electric Habitat
By Amanda Nowinski

Tiger on beat
By Patrick Macias

By Josh Kun


Music Listings

Event Listings

Art Listings

Stage Listings

Film Listings

Submit your listing


By Annalee Newitz

Without Reservations
By Paul Reidinger

Cheap Eats
By Dan Leone


Our Masthead

Editorial Staff

Business Staff

Jobs & Internships




Obscene feminists
Why women are leading the battle against censorship.

By Annalee Newitz

DIAN HANSON IS sorting through dozens of porn magazines. In one pile are Jaybird nudist publications from the late 1960s, featuring what she calls "crotch liberation" fantasies of happy, unshaven hippie kids. Filed in a different category are the British magazines, which "are so tidy and sensible – they have names like Practical Photography."

Hanson, a career pornographer who has run popular adult magazines like Leg Show and Juggs, is working on several pictorial histories of men's magazines for art publisher Taschen. She's been on the editorial staff of various porn mags since 1976, and although she's joined the art world now, she says proudly, "I still consider myself a pornographer."

Although Hanson estimates that close to 10 percent of adult magazines are run by women, public perception lags behind the facts. Most people assume women avoid pornography. Playboy's CEO may be Christie Hefner, and the wildly popular adult Web site Danni's Hard Drive may be woman-owned, but the conventional wisdom is that naked pictures exist only in man's domain. Women are supposed to be deeply disturbed by porn – that's why companies marketing "adulteryware" on the Internet aim their e-mail ads at women, who will supposedly want to catch their male companions in the "naughty" act of downloading a little tits and ass.

There's a reason for this. In the 1980s and '90s, antiporn feminist crusaders Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon sparked intense debate among feminists and progressives by forming a coalition with the religious right to stamp out pornography, based on the idea that it violated women's civil rights. They never managed to push through a piece of federal legislation called the Pornography Victims Compensation Act that would have denied porn First Amendment protection as free speech. Although Dworkin-MacKinnon ordinances in more than a dozen states were struck down – largely owing to feminists who organized against them – they nevertheless left a mark on U.S. pop culture, as well as the municipal laws of several cities, including Indianapolis. These days women, and feminists especially, are still being treated as if pornography should threaten and disgust them.

Yet the truth is, women are generally in the vanguard when it comes to fighting sexual censorship. The civil rights lawyers, activists, sex workers, media pundits, and professors who fight for your right to have dirty pictures are by and large female. Many call themselves feminists.

And the people fighting to stamp out pornography today are most decidedly male.

Attorney General John Ashcroft; his sympathizers in Congress, such as Mark Foley and Orrin Hatch; and powerful male-dominated lobbying groups like the Family Research Council and the American Family Association are on the warpath to eliminate "obscene materials" on the Internet. They're doing it using an argument conservative pundit George Gilder would undoubtedly deem feminine in the extreme: these antiporn boys say they want to protect the children.

Legislation such as the Child Pornography Prevention Act (the so-called morphing law recently ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court) and the Child Online Protection Act (the American Civil Liberties Union has challenged COPA's constitutionality, and a ruling is expected from the Supreme Court any day now) is aimed at censoring adult free speech to protect children and teens.

Ann Beeson, the ACLU's chief counsel in the COPA case, told us that although "the rationale is to protect children, every single law [like COPA] we've seen considered is to censor adults' access to speech. I think [conservative groups] are trying to legislate morality through these laws."

The conservative "morality" that inspires COPA is just one reason feminists are combating legislation that could ultimately cripple the First Amendment. They are also fighting for a basic civil liberty that women gained only a few decades ago and that teens are rapidly losing: the right to speak freely about your sexuality without fear of social, political, or legal reprisals.

From sexism to paternalism

Judith Levine's new book Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children from Sex has placed her at ground zero in current controversies over the broad range of issues that fall under the umbrella of "child porn." Her simple message – that it's OK for kids and teens to have sexual feelings and that legislation like COPA will prove harmful in the long run – has earned her potshots from conservatives and nervous write-ups in Time and USA Today. Levine says her position in Harmful to Minors grows out of feminist arguments against censoring pornography from the early '90s.

"Censorship historically has been attempted in the name of protecting women, children, and the feebleminded from 'bad' ideas," she says, explaining that the public has "anxiety about kids having sexual experiences." She believes right-wing groups hook into this understandable fear when they propose legislation to ban images that merely "resemble" children or when they attempt to censor sexual images on the Internet because children might see them.

People get so uneasy thinking about young people and sexuality that it's unlikely they'll bother to learn about the real effects of legislation such as the Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA), which reads more like an Internet-censorship act than something designed to protect kids. If passed, CIPA would halt federal funding for public libraries that don't use highly unreliable "censorware" on their computers. In Multnomah County Library vs. United States of America, the CIPA case, the ACLU's legal team represented Multnomah County and argued that censorware blocks access to politically progressive sites (including the ACLU's) and medical education sites, as well as hardcore pornography, thus making the tools harmful to adults who value free speech.

Levine marshals a traditional feminist argument to explain the problems with using children as an excuse to censor free speech: "Feminists have made the argument that women can tell the difference between coercion and consent. Women also have desires of their own. A similar argument can be made about teen sexuality. Teens are sexual and do have desire. It is our obligation as adults to respect their sexual autonomy." In other words, laws like these are not only problematic from a civil liberties perspective but also disrespectful of young people's rights.

Obscenity vs. child pornography

First Amendment activist and feminist Marjorie Heins points out that there's a crucial and often ignored difference between child porn laws designed to protect actual children from being abused and censorship laws like the Child Pornography Prevention Act (which would have outlawed any images, including cartoons and CGI, that "convey the impression ... of a minor engaged in sexually explicit conduct"). Heins, who heads up the Free Expression Policy Project at the National Coalition Against Censorship, worries that people confuse obscenity laws with child pornography laws.

Obscenity laws provide exceptions to the First Amendment, defining when it's appropriate for free speech to be censored. Child pornography laws such as the landmark Child Pornography Law of 1982 are there to protect children who are being used by adults to create porn. "The new laws are so broad that they shift toward mind control, not protecting real kids," Heins says. "Child porn laws can be justified because they are protecting kids from sexual exploitation. But today there's a general shift towards basing obscenity laws on the argument that minors must be protected."

As a result, you get laws like COPA that censor Web site content based on the idea that merely looking at pornography will hurt kids or turn adults into pedophiles. The problem is, as Heins points out, this kind of argument represents a slippery slope. "With this notion, any material could be banned based on the idea that it could arouse desires that were disapproved of," Heins says.

Activists in the women's movement have already dealt with the difficulties of balancing people's right to free speech with their rights to be protected from harm. "Feminists have pointed out that there is violence against women," Levine says. "And when it happens, we need to punish that. We need to create a culture where women have the ability to protect themselves. For children, the issues are similar. Children are going to be out in the world; they are going to be seeing media. So we need to prepare them with personal skills and good information. We need laws to protect them if they are harmed, but we also need to empower young people to express themselves sexually."

If you listen to Levine and Heins, it's obvious why women – and especially feminists – are involved in current battles against censorship. Historically, women's rights have been taken away and women's voices silenced to "protect" them from political and sexual knowledge. Obscenity laws have often been used to keep women from becoming educated about their bodies and their sexual choices. One might say that there would be no feminism as we know it without the First Amendment right to free speech, especially when it comes to sex and gender issues.

Remembering Dworkin

Although the women who make and defend pornography ally themselves with feminism, Beeson says it would be more accurate to say that censorship is a "very traditional civil rights issue, and the only time it was associated with feminism had to do with the lobbying efforts of Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon." ACLU president Nadine Strossen agrees. The author of Defending Pornography: Free Speech, Sex, and the Fight for Women's Rights, Strossen says the heyday for feminists against censorship was a decade ago, when the group Feminists for Free Expression was founded in response to MacKinnon and Dworkin's proposed Pornography Victims Compensation Act in 1992.

These days Strossen sees a pro-sex agenda as "part of mainstream feminism." And yet she acknowledges that "these debates never go away in the feminist community"; Dworkin's presence, and her passionate antiporn rhetoric, are still quite influential.

Dworkin, for her part, is still convinced that pornography and feminism are at odds. In her new autobiography, Heartbreak, she explores many of the reasons mainstream representations of women's sexuality are still deeply troubling for her. Despite the work of people like pornographer Hanson, who describes herself as "a feminist in practice," and local San Francisco feminist pornographers like Carol Queen and Shar Rednour, Dworkin says "feminist porn is irrelevant. What women need to do is break out of male control, and porn is an act of conformity."

Although she's known for a hard-line stance against pornography, based on the idea that graphic sexual images are equivalent to sexual assault on women, Dworkin's fuck-you-I'm-a-feminist political rhetoric has influenced the pro-porn feminist community in unexpected ways. Many of the reasons Dworkin is against pornography have become the reasons feminists have started making it. Both Dworkin and the feminist pornographers who grew up reading her work want to reclaim their bodies and their sexual identities.

"I think that one of the things pornography has done is that it's changed the way women experience their bodies so that sex is what you look like, not what you touch or what you feel and do," Dworkin says. Few feminist pornographers would disagree.

Rednour and Jackie Strano, who run SIR Video, have made careers out of removing the slick, sexist images from porn: using tattooed, variously sized, butch and/or femme women in their videos, they show that sexiness is about what you do, not how much you can conform to the generic Playboy-model mold. A star in one of SIR's recent productions said being in the movie was "about affirming for myself that being a sexual person is OK and that wanting to receive sexual attention is natural and healthy."

While feminist lawyers and pundits argue for pornography as a form of free speech, feminist pornographers think of it as a form of social and cultural validation. Women whose bodies have been deemed unacceptable by mainstream culture – "too fat," "too old," "too dark," "too butch" – can use feminist porn to show that they deserve sensual attention as much as anyone else. This is, in part, a lesson they learned from pissed-off women like Dworkin, who has argued her whole life for a world where women's bodies aren't treated, as she might say, "like shit."

Today, Dworkin says she feels the same way she always has about these issues. "I think sexuality is there to be enjoyed, but there are a lot of problems before you get to the enjoyment part. There are a lot of ways that women's bodies are devalued, and I think that keeps you from feeling pleasure."

Dworkin's frankness in her writing may ironically mirror the rhetoric of the feminist porn movement, but of course, there are still fundamental disconnects. I ask Dworkin whether feminist pornography could help women who have been deemed "unattractive" by mainstream culture to feel valued and desirable. "Lenny Bruce said that men will fuck mud," Dworkin responds flatly. "I think he's right. I don't think any woman has any trouble getting laid because of the way she looks. I really don't. Women may have trouble having sex because they're shy or unwilling, but I don't think any woman doesn't have sex because she's not pretty."

Dworkin's point is that in a world full of pornography, women might as well be mud. It's clear why she thinks women's rights hinge on eliminating porn. But feminist pornographers take a different tack, trying to turn pornography into something that can set us free. Dworkin alerted women to the problems with porn, and feminist pornographers are trying to fix those problems – one porn movie and adult Web site at a time.

Feminist cyber-liberties

Strossen says she thinks Dworkin and MacKinnon have become little more than a bad memory. Pornography, she says, is "not a big issue on the feminist agenda. It's not about feminists and nonfeminists. It's about people who follow Internet issues and those who don't." Not surprisingly, some of the most prominent attorneys involved in cyber-liberties cases like COPA are feminists such as Beeson, as well as Shari Steele and Cindy Cohn, president and legal director, respectively, of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) in San Francisco.

Unlike film and magazines, the Internet emerged as a mass medium during a time when feminism had profoundly changed women's sexual roles in the United States. Some of the earliest and most successful examples of adult Web content were created by women like Danni Ashe, owner of Danni's Hard Drive. The importance of women in the online adult industry can be gauged just by looking at several months of Adult Video News Online, the magazine of record for the adult Web industry.

Female pornographers (not porn stars) are featured regularly on AVN Online's covers, and a recent cover was devoted to queer adult Web sites. While women may be underrepresented in the tech industry, they make up more than half the people surfing online. And as adult e-commerce leader Xandria.com has proved, women are consuming more sex-related retail items than ever before.

It wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that the Internet has helped empower women sexually by providing them with a way to gain easy access to sexual information and education – in a form that's safe and private. Therefore it seems natural that the energies feminists once put into fighting Dworkinite antiporn lobbies will now go toward fighting censorship online – whatever form that censorship takes. Indeed, it would seem that civil liberties online are quickly becoming a cause célèbre for feminists, even if they aren't a feminist issue per se.

ACLU counsel Beeson speculates that future legal battles around obscenity in cyberspace might turn into right-wing appropriations of classic feminist issues like sexual harassment. "We're seeing people dredge up old laws about harassment and public nuisance to justify mandatory [Web] filtering in public places," she says. Conservatives might argue that it constitutes "harassment" if people are able to find pornography on the Internet using a computer terminal in public libraries or at work. But, Beeson states firmly, "we're going to prevent the expansion of indecency law."

There's no doubt that the future of obscenity law is bound up with the Internet. New legislation and regulations will determine what can be posted online, as well as who can view it and where. As we wait to find out how the Supreme Court will rule on COPA, dozens of similar cases are waiting to erupt all over the country. In March, for example, the Pennsylvania General Assembly passed a law that requires Internet service providers to monitor the Internet-usage activities of all their customers to stop child pornography. Because such monitoring is astronomically expensive, most ISPs will simply resort to filtering content using the same kinds of censorware that are at issue in CIPA. This sort of law is an invitation both to invade citizens' privacy and to censor their Web surfing.

Many cyberlaws that will lead to censorship – like the one in Pennsylvania – are based on protecting children. "Perhaps they don't feel comfortable censoring adults. That's the positive spin," Beeson muses. "But that's also the negative. They're still legislating morality with these laws." And obscenity is only one issue among many that confront cyber-liberties feminists of the 21st century. Other First Amendment activists, like Cohn of the EFF, are concerned about the chilling effects on free speech caused by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act – which limits fair use and criminalizes copyright violations. Still others, like Sarah Andrews, research director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, focus on protecting people's privacy online.

The feminist-led battle for freedom of expression on the Internet is part of an ongoing crusade, according to Strossen. "[Internet censorship] was part of the agenda under Clinton and Reno, too," she says. "Democrats and Republicans both gang up on free speech. Clinton signed all three federal pro-censorship laws. All that's happened recently is that the caption on the case changed: now it's ACLU v. Ashcroft instead of ACLU v. Reno." As future cyber-censorship laws are written, the caption will no doubt change again. But one thing is for certain: feminists will continue to be powerful players and activists in the battle for free speech online.

As Hanson argues, "real feminism isn't about worrying whether porn is for you. It's feeling free to make your own choices. We don't have to be protected. We can go out into the world and deal with what's there."

E-mail Annalee Newitz at annalee@techsploitation.com.