This was the final paper for my Feminist Philosophies class. I’ve taken a lot of heat for writing it and I think I have learned a lot about sex positive feminism since the initial release of the paper. My paper was sliced and diced to pieces on a few blogs. I kept my mouth shut and listened. I talked with my philosophy professor. I talked with my sex positive friends. I listened some more. I’ve decided that I am on the fence about pornography. I need more time to figure out the complexities of something that I feel is oppressive. I feel that pornography contributes to the “patriarchy.” However, several people have informed me that my paper is oppressive. I am simply posting the paper now to show where I was at a few months ago…
According to bell hooks (2000), feminism is defined as “a struggle to end sexist oppression” (p. 26). There are multitudes of definitions for “feminism”, but I believe that ending sexist/patriarchal oppression is a just rationale for acceptance of hooks’ definition as the definition of feminism in this paper.
One particular form of feminism, radical libertarian, is constructed on the basis that the sex/gender system is the cause of women’s oppression. There are two aspects of radical libertarian feminism that I believe are in direct contradiction with hooks’ definition of feminism. Radical libertarian feminist believe that pornography and prostitution are acceptable practices that are liberating for women. Radical libertarian feminists contend that repressing women’s sexuality in any way is oppressive and leads to the continuation of patriarchal oppression.
Unfortunately, I disagree that pornography and prostitution lead to the liberation of women. I believe that pornography and prostitution maintain, increase, and encourage patriarchal domination/oppression and thus this brings me to the central question of this paper: Is radical libertarian feminism a feminist philosophy if feminism is defined as a movement which seeks to end the oppression of women? I would posit that radical libertarian feminism is not an actual feminist philosophy because it fails to grasp the damaging consequences of pornography and prostitution.
I will attempt to give numerous examples of how pornography and prostitution contribute to the continuation of the oppression of women. Having read both pro and anti pornography/prostitution prose, I have determined that radical libertarian feminism is in fact a feminist faction that is simply a patriarchal movement which disguises its true objectives behind veils of free speech and anti-censorship rhetoric.
Radical Libertarian Feminism
On the surface, radical libertarian feminism appears to be a valuable form of feminism. Cara Stewart (2003) states that, “radical libertarian feminists like to violate sexual norms and believe that women should control every aspect of their sexuality.” I am an overt proponent of free expression that does not come at the expense of another group. However, I believe that there are significant flaws within radical libertarian feminism. Similar to white supremacist views, radical libertarian feminism’s construction of freedom of sexual control for women is built upon freedom for some and oppression for others. A white supremacist would say that whiteness is superior to any other race and that white privilege is something that is acceptable. This superiority idea and privilege acceptance, oppresses and devalues people of color. A radical libertarian feminist who states that pornography and prostitution are liberating for women seems to be liberating some women and denigrating/oppressing others. In fact, most of the scholarly writings, newspaper articles, and online resources which speak of radical libertarian feminism fail to mention women of color, women from countries other than the United States and Canada, and women from non-educated, lower socio-economic backgrounds. If women of color are mentioned in writings on pornography or prostitution, they are portrayed as victims of racism or patriarchal oppression. There does not seem to be anyone who has written anything positive about women of color engaging in pornography or prostitution.
bell hooks (2000), in referring to mainstream feminism’s goal of achieving gender equality, asks the question of “which men?” Which men should women be equal to? Similar to hooks, I think it is prudent to ask a parallel question to proponents of radical libertarian feminism. Which women? Which women are liberated by the practices of pornography and prostitution? This leads me to ask another question: What exactly is pornography?
I think that to discuss why pornography is a practice which devalues women and in turn devalues radical libertarian feminism, requires an attempt at defining pornography. Pornography has been defined by numerous feminists. Defining pornography in a patriarchal landscape can be a slippery task. Pro-pornography advocate, Wendy McElroy (1995), states that a definition of pornography serves only those individuals who are trying to “control the debate [about pornography]” (p. 42). Most sources that represent a radical libertarian feminism view fail to include a definition of pornography. I think this is because a pro-pornography definition would expose the inherent ugliness of pornography. To create an inclusive definition of pornography would force pornography advocates to acknowledge the voices of the anti-pornography movement. I attempted to find a pro-pornography definition but unfortunately most of the language revolves around debunking anti-pornographer definitions. If pornography is a good thing for women, I would think that proponents of pornography could give it a meaning which upholds their libertarian values.
Two of the most cited anti-pornography feminists are Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon. I found that sources which were against pornography frequently cited Dworkin and MacKinnon while pro-pornography sources tended to minimize the use of so-called “MacDworkinite” writings. Dworkin and MacKinnon drafted a model civil rights law which gives specific definitions of pornography:
Pornography is the graphic sexually explicit subordination of women through pictures and/or words that also includes one or more of the following: (i) women are presented dehumanized as sexual objects, things, or commodities; or (ii) women are presented as sexual objects who enjoy pain or humiliation; or (iii) women are presented as sexual objects who experience sexual pleasure in being raped; or (iv) women are presented as sexual objects tied up or cut up or mutilated or bruised or physically hurt; or (v) women are presented in postures or positions of sexual submission, servility, or display; or (vi) women’s body parts — including but not limited to vaginas, breasts, or buttocks — are exhibited such that women are reduced to those parts; or (vii) women are presented as whores by nature; or (viii) women are presented being penetrated by objects or animals; or (ix) women are presented in scenarios of degradation, injury, torture, shown as filthy or inferior, bleeding, bruised, or hurt in a context that makes these conditions sexual (as cited in Blakely, 1985, p. 46).
This definition does not represent a fictitious view of pornography. I believe it simply includes every conceivable act of that which is named, pornography. Another definition which is shorter in length but equally as powerful comes from Laura Lederer. According to Lederer, pornography is “the ideology of a culture which promotes…crimes of violence against women” (as cited in Mielke, 1995, p. 27). In 1994, Ms. Magazine held a round table feminist discussion regarding pornography (Dworkin, Findlen, French, Gillespie, Jacobs, Ramos, and Shange). Several definitions of pornography were discussed. Norma Ramos (Dworkin et al., 1994) defined pornography as “a system and practice of prostitution, as evidence of women’s second-class status. It is a central feature of patriarchal society, an essential tool in terms of how men keep power over women” (p. 34).
Pornography is liberating
Annie Sprinkle is an outspoken advocate for pornography. She is frequently referenced in books that declare that pornography is empowering for women. Sprinkle, who defines herself as a radical libertarian feminist, states that she is a “post porn modernist” (Touma, 1994). According to Sprinkle:
Post Porn Modernists celebrate sex as the nourishing, life giving force. We embrace our genitals as part, not separate, from our spirits. We utilize sexually explicit words, pictures and performances to communicate our ideas and emotions. We denounce sexual censorship as anti-art and inhuman. We empower ourselves by this attitude of sex-positivism. And with this love of our spiritual selves we have fun, heal the world and endure (as cited in Touma, 1994).
Sprinkle is an extremely public figure in the pornographic industry. She is a woman who has “stepped outside of the dominant culture altogether, embraced the sex industry, and felt a sense of empowerment that…women seldom experience” (Assiter and Carol, 1993, p. 153).
Sprinkle is also completely in denial that pornography can be attributed to anything negative. In an interview on her personal website, AnnieSprinkle.Org, she stated that child pornography “does not exist” and that “the only nude picture of a 12 year old girl you can find on the internet was put there by the FBI to entrap pedophiles” (Annie Sprinkle). Unfortunately, child pornography does exist as evidenced by a recent New York Times article in which a child pornography ring was revealed consisting of over 1,500 customers, all of which were men (Eichenwald, 2005). Sprinkle consistently swears that pornography provides her with an avenue to a “safer world”.
Sprinkle experiences pornography as an active participant. She is a porn star. Porn stars like Sprinkle, Nina Hartley, and Jenna Jameson frequently posit that pornography is a good thing. The views of women who are pornography consumers or users are seldom presented. In Talk Dirty to Me, Sally Tisdale declares her ardor for pornography (1992). She asserts that she uses pornography to “make peace” with herself. Pornography helps to expose herself “truly” to herself (Tisdale, 1992, p. 46).
In addition to porn stars and porn users, I think it valuable to include the voice of a proud pornography purveyor. According to pornography actor and producer Adam Glasser:
[Pornography] completely changes their life. If they get into the right situation, the right hands, and they have a good head on their shoulders and some support from somewhere, this could be a life-changing business as far as giving people a freedom and financial stability that they have never ever imagined for themselves (as cited in Frontline, 2001a).
Glasser claims that women are safer in the pornography industry and that he has had numerous women contact him with stories of how pornography was liberating to them (as cited in Frontline, 2001a). It should be noted that Glasser is selling a product and that he is in the pornography industry to make money. Why would he ever say anything negative about what he is selling?
Pornography harms women
I presented what I believe is a fair representation of what pornography is and how pornography has been labeled as liberating for women. I did not want the pro-pornography voices to overshadow what I believe are the true non-liberating factors of pornography.
Pornography is violent. I believe that it is violent because the creators of pornography tell me that I am correct. Rape is an act of violence. Rape is portrayed in pornography as something that is supposed to arouse. Since most users of pornography are men, I can only guess that this means that rape in pornography is designed to arouse men. In gonzo pornography, men frequently rape women.
A horrific example of the violence in the pornographic industry is the story of Linda Marchiano. Marchiano, whose stage name is Linda Lovelace, starred in the 1970’s pornographic film, Deep Throat (Horne, 1997). In Deep Throat, Marchiano is depicted as a woman whose clitoris is located in the back of her throat. In the movie, Marchiano’s only method of achieving an orgasm is to have a man’s penis shoved into her mouth and down into her throat. As a feminist, I am for non-violent oral sex. I believe it is a healthy, non-oppressive form of sexual expression. In Deep Throat, Marchiano was forced to act like she enjoyed being submissive. In 1980, Marchiano wrote a book called, Ordeal (West, 2005). “In Ordeal, Marchiano tells of how she was abducted, hypnotized, drugged, beaten and tortured in order to perform her starring role” (as cited in West, 2005). Pornographic arousal for patriarchy was exchanged for Marchiano’s well-being.
How can radical libertarian feminism maintain membership within the context of feminism? Women are being hurt. According to Catherine MacKinnon:
Pornography is a harm of male supremacy made difficult to see because of its pervasiveness, potency, and, principally, because of its success in making the world a pornographic place…to the extent pornography succeeds in constructing social reality, it becomes invisible as harm (as cited in Lee, 2005, p. 99).
How can radical libertarian feminists control their sexuality without simultaneously hurting women? I don’t think it is possible as long as patriarchy is the dominion in which pornography exists.
In 1998, the Oregon Department of Corrections banned inmates from possessing pornographic materials (Roberts, 1998). The administrator who handles mail operations stated that the ban was put in place to curb rape. Even the American Civil Liberties Union thought that the prison ban on pornography would hold up in court (Roberts, 1998). It seems quite obvious then that if banning pornography in state prisons helps to prevent rape and other forms of violence, why then would a similar ban in the rest of society not help to prevent rape and other forms of violence? Nadine Strossen of the ACLU says that pornography must be tolerated because of free speech or the First Amendment (as cited in Atcheson, 1995). I do not understand how the KKK has been prosecuted for committing violent acts while pornography in the non-Oregon prison world is allowed to contribute to violence and oppression against women. Racists are not allowed to hide behind the banner of the First Amendment while perpetrating violent acts.
In 1991, Robert J. Stoller’s ethnographic text, Porn: Myths for the Twentieth Century, was published. Stoller conducted interviews with “producers, directors, actresses and actors involved in the production of X-rated videos aimed at the heterosexual male consumer” (Mielke, 1995, p. 84). The violence in the pornography industry is described in detail in an interview by Stoller:
Producer-performer Bill Margold told Stoller that his reason for being in the adult film industry is, in large measure, to satisfy the desire of the male consumer to see the male porn stars “getting even with the women they couldn’t have when they were growing up.” According to Margold, when they ejaculate on a woman’s face or “somewhat brutalize her sexually,” male porn stars are satisfying male viewers’ desires to gain revenge against women for remaining beyond reach (as cited in Mielke, 1995, p. 84).
Pornography seems to use violence to push what Robert Jensen (2004a) calls “the edge.” According to Jensen (2004b), “As pornography has become more acceptable, both legally and culturally, the level of brutality toward, and degradation of, women has intensified.” In Japan, a form of pornography which is extremely violent is called bukkake (Wikipedia contributors, 2005). In “forced bukkake” pornography, a woman sits in a chair and then is ejaculated on by a dozen to fifty men (Wikipedia contributors, 2005; Frontline 2001b). Jensen furthers the fact that pornography is violent by confirming that:
…from both laboratory research and the narratives of men and women, it is not controversial to argue that pornography can: (1) be an important factor in shaping a male-dominant view of sexuality; (2) be used to initiate victims and break down their resistance to unwanted sexual activity; (3) contribute to a user’s difficulty in separating sexual fantasy and reality; and (4) provide a training manual for abusers (2004b).
According to Assiter and Carol (1993), “very little pornography actually depicts violent acts” (p. 21). Perhaps this is true, but pornography does contain and perpetuate violence and it has been shown to contribute to violence. Dr. Edward Donnerstein and Dr. Neil Malamuth have conducted research which “has shown that…pornography increases male acceptance of aggression toward women, trivializes rape, and distorts perceptions of rape and forced sex” (Blakely, 1985, p. 40-41). Radical libertarian feminism might aid women from being repressed sexually but it contributes to the oppression of women by advocating for pornography.
Pornography objectifies women. In heterosexual pornography, women are seen as the means to end. I think that most men consume pornography so that they can masturbate to the objects on their screens. For Catherine MacKinnon (1989), pornography “constructs women as things for sexual use and constructs its consumers to desperately want women to desperately want possession and cruelty and dehumanization. Inequality itself, subjection itself, hierarchy itself, objectification itself…is the apparent content of women’s sexual desire and desirability” (p. 327).
I think that MacKinnon is correct when she argues that pornography turns women into objects. A pornography web site offers this view of women in the description of a DVD: “women were born with three holes for one purpose: To cram a cock deep inside every cuddly cavity! Like true cock sockets, our whores subject their beautiful bodies to the nastiest 4-way debauchery ever lensed” (Zero Tolerance, 2005). Robert Jensen’s description of pornography eerily mirrors the pornographers: "In pornography, women are three holes and two hands. Women in pornography have no hopes and no dreams and no value apart from the friction those holes and hands can produce on a man’s penis" (Jensen, 2004a). Bob Guccione of Penthouse magazine declared, "When I see a pretty girl the thing that I immediately think of is not how she looks to me, but how she would look to my readership. In other words, what is her centerfold potential" (Erase the Dark, 2003)? Guccione is turning women into things that can be sold for men’s pleasure. Women in pornography are turned into commodities which are bought and sold. Women are constructed as objects and not subjects. Radical libertarian feminism does not provide any substantive rationale for how it is acceptable for women to be oppressed by the objectification of women through pornography. I do not think objectification contributes to the end of sexism. Radical libertarian feminism is not feminism. Feminism is a movement that seeks to end the oppression of women.
Prostitution is the act of women being sold for sex. It’s very similar to pornography. Whereas pornography is mostly legal in the United States, prostitution is mostly illegal. Prostitution is violent. It also objectifies women. I know this to be true because I was recently in Las Vegas, Nevada where I was bombarded by people who were handing out cards. Each card contained sexually explicit photographs of women who were supposedly “ready and willing” to “get me off” sexually. Apparently, prostitution is a thriving industry in Las Vegas. Interestingly enough, I did not see a single advertisement for male prostitutes. If prostitution is work, why are men not selling themselves to women? I think it is because in the world of prostitution, men are pimps and women are whores. I think it is concentrated patriarchal oppression. I do not know of any women who act as pimps with men as their whores. According to Annie Sprinkle, “Whores are rebelling against the absurd, patriarchal, sex-negative laws against their profession and are fighting for the legal right to receive financial compensation for their valuable work.” I think Sprinkle is incorrect. Whores are oppressed by the patriarchal pimps who sell them to other patriarchs.
In Amsterdam’s Red Light District, women are displayed like department store products. Women are people, not products. The Internet is home to a myriad of stories which state that the prostitutes in the Red Light District enjoy their “jobs” and that they do not feel oppressed. What about other women? What about women who are forced to face the realities of what prostitution does to them? Radical libertarian feminists would say that the women who enjoy being prostitutes are liberated. What about the women who are sold like cattle into prostitution rings? How are they liberated? According to Andrea Dworkin (1994), “prostituted women are being killed every single day.” I do not believe that radical libertarian feminism is feminism. Feminism is a movement that seeks to end patriarchal oppression in any form. I believe that prostitution oppresses women and supports patriarchy.
Perhaps pornography and prostitution do provide some women with a means of expressing themselves and that via that expression; they are able to break free of patriarchal bonds. Although, I wonder why more women do not choose to consume pornography or to become porn stars and prostitutes? I think it’s because most women do not see pornography/prostitution as liberating. I think pornography was created for men, by men, and that the women in pornography do not accidentally have large breasts and skinny bodies. They are constructed as objects for patriarchy.
Why, if prostitution is so good for women and radical libertarian feminism, are so many women abused, diseased, and murdered because of their participation in the world of prostitution? There are very few women who advocate for pornography and prostitution who have ever been porn stars or prostitutes. I think it is easy for them to sit in their offices and write about the benefits of pornography and prostitution. They will never have to suffer through triple-penetration sex scenes, or be advertised like property, or have to sit in a chair while a dozen men ejaculate on their face in a bukkake film.
However, how does the inherent violence, dehumanizing effects, subordination, and objectification of pornography/prostitution affect men? It seems like it creates men who are prime examples of patriarchal oppressors. Robert Jensen (2005) writes of men who use pornography as just “johns”. A john is defined by Jensen (2005) as “a man who buys another human being for sex” (p. 1). According to Jensen (2005), lots of “men masturbate, or have masturbated, to pornography…[and that] when you masturbate to pornography, you are buying sexual pleasure. You are buying women” (p.1).
I do realize that this paper has been written from a heterosexual perspective. I attribute that to my own experience as a heterosexual man. Besides, almost all pornography is constructed for a heterosexual audience. Even if the pornography is supposedly for lesbians or gay men. It still showcases objectification and violence. These are the calling cards of dominator patriarchal culture.
I think I have shown that radical libertarian feminism contributes to the oppression of women and that it is therefore not feminism. I do not think you can liberate one person while oppressing another and still maintain membership in the feminist movement. I guess this means that I am a radical cultural feminist. I am for the end of patriarchal oppression.
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