When Women Defend Pornography

by Dorchen Leidholdt

I'd like to talk about the theory underlying the thinking and action of that part of the contemporary women's movement that identifies itself as "pro-sex". It includes FACT (the Feminist Anti-Censorship Taskforce), No More Nice Girls, the veterans of Samois, and the editors and writers of On Our Backs, The Powers of Desire, Coming to Power, and Pleasure and Danger. I'm talking about all those groups and individuals who have labeled the antipornography feminist movement "anti-sex".

The antisex label is in large part an age-old antiwoman slur, originated by men to punish rebellious women for not doing what they wanted us to do. It's the flip side of that other time-honored slander, "whore", which is the way men punish women for doing what they force us to do.

But there is a partial truth in the antisex gibe. If you understand that sex is socially constructed - which we do - and if you see that male supremacy does the constructing - which we see - and if the sex in question is the sex men use to establish their dominance over women, then yes we're against it. We argue that this sex puts women down, that it keeps us there, and that in this society, pornography is central to its construction. I'm saying the antisex label that has been attached to us really should read: "against the sexual oppression of women." I'm also suggesting the converse: that knowingly or not, the "pro-sex" people are supporting and defending the sexual oppression of women.

At the core of pro-sex theory are ideas about restriction, repression, danger, and pleasure. These ideas are neither new nor unpopular. Their champions over the centuries have included the sex researchers, especially the Kinsey Institute; Hugh Hefner along with the less socially acceptable pornographers; left and liberal writers, lawyers, and political activists; Havelock Ellis; and the Marquis de Sade. In fact, the radical part of the second wave of feminism was sparked by opposition to these ideas and the practices they embody.

The problem with the ideas of the pro-sex people is that they beg important political questions - like how, why, and in whose interest. They fail both to look at sexuality as a political system and to examine women's position in that system. They make sense in the abstract, but are revealed as critically flawed when measured against women's actual condition in society. They are not feminist but "sexual liberationist." And I put "sexual liberationist" in quotes because it has never included the liberation, sexual or otherwise, of women.

Central to pro-sex thought is the idea that there is a plethora of sexual preferences and practices which profoundly violate societal restrictions. Among these restricted sexual activities - which are seen as wildly diverge - are cross-generational sex (to use their euphemism for child sexual abuse), fetishism, sadomasochism, and the making and use of pornography. Such deviant sexualities, so the theory goes, are at the bottom of a hierarchy of sexual privilege, which has heterosexuality, marriage and procreation at its pinnacle, and "vanilla" homosexuality somewhere in the middle. "Those engaging in these privileged acts," Carol Vance writes in her introduction to Pleasure and Danger, "enjoy good name and good fortune."

All of this sounds logical and persuasive until you move beyond society's pieties and look at what it actually practices. Then it becomes clear that, instead of being forbidden or persecuted, these frowned upon sexual activities are, in the case of men, promoted, encouraged, and rewarded, and, in the case of women, imposed and enforced. Moreover, instead of being incredibly different from one another, they all have a common denominator: a power relationship that replicates in miniature the power relations of society.

How deviant is cross-generational sex, for example, when, laws against child sexual abuse notwithstanding, the activity is so popular that more than a quarter of all females are sexually abused as children? How nonconformist is fetishism when "regular guys" proudly identify themselves as "tit men" or "ass men," and the best-selling men's entertainment magazines devote whole glossy pages to just our genitals, just our breasts? How taboo is sadomasochism when Penthouse boosts sales by displaying Asian women tied up like slabs of meat and strung up from trees and trendy sportswear manufacturers successfully promote their products by showing battered looking models in torn clothing? How forbidden is pornography when, aided by antiobscenity laws, the industry rakes in more than the film and record industries combined?

As for the hierarchy of sexual privilege, it too sounds convincing, until you examine the position of women in this hierarchy. Heterosexuality, procreation, and marriage may mean privilege for men, but they mean something very different for the married woman. Her "good fortune" is a one out of three chance of being a battered wife, one out of seven chance of being raped by her own husband, and a statistically undetermined probability that she will be her husbands domestic servant and that her identity will be subsumed in his. The so-called good fortune of lesbian feminists is either public denigration or invisibility and often loss of jobs and family.

It's not that "cross-generational sex," fetishism, sadomasochism, and trafficking in or using pornography are never punished. Sometimes they but never enough to dampen their popularity. Just enough to make them seem forbidden and keep them exciting. It's not that there are no sexual choices that truly violate society's rules. What I am suggesting is that the "deviant" sexual practices defended and promoted by the pro-sex people are't really proscribed by society; they're prescribed. They are not really deviant at all. They're good soldier conformity.

Another related idea in pro-sex theory is the notion of sexual repression. Whereas restrictions are real prohibitions, according to this school thought, repression is restriction internalized - the thought police that keep people from acting on or even knowing about their inner-most sexual desires. Unquestioned is the belief that society is unrelentingly hostile to sexual expression, especially to sex that centers around dominance and submission. "Erotophobic" is the adjective that crops up again and again in pro-sex writing.

I confess that I find this theory perplexing. It sounds fine in the abstract. It just doesn't apply to the world in which I live. When I walk down the street on my way to work in the morning, I pass newsstand after newsstand in which pornography magazines outnumber nonpornographic publications ten to one; I get ogled by businessmen with briefcases and construction workers in hardhats; I pick up the Daily News waiting for the Number 1 train, and, while trying to ignore the Penthouse subway advertisements undressing Princess Diana, I confront New York Post headlines about the rape and murder of a Harlem mother of six. I'm beginning to think that there's been a time warp, and the pro-sex people really inhabit America circa 1955.

Instead of being repressed, sex is being expressed and expressed and expressed. And it's not the sex of intimacy, mutuality, and equality, which the pro-sex people deride as "vanilla," that's being promoted and acted out. It's the supposedly kinky variety - the sex of dominance and subordination. How prevalent is this kind of sex? Consider John Briere and Neil Malamuth's 1983 study, which found that 60 percent of a sample of 350 ordinary male students indicated a likelihood of sexually coercing (read raping) a woman, and Diana Russell's 1978 study, which found that only 7.8 percent of a probability sample of 930 women had not been sexually harassed or assaulted. If you put these together, you realize that sexual dominance and subordination are a majority experience. Obviously the thought police are falling down on the job.

To be fair, not a11 the pro-sex people contend that male sexuality is repressed. Some believe that sexual repression is the particular plight of women, indeed, the only noteworthy problem of women. The argument goes like this: Because of our sexual repression, we must unquestionably make use of any means available to stimulate our desires - sex roles, pornography, whips and chains, swastikas, you name it. It is suggested that the more our desires and fantasies are like those of sexist men, the better. If only women can uncover our repressed sexual fantasies and give free reign to them, so it goes, then we will be liberated, too.

This apparently was the rationale behind an exercise Paula Webster conducted in a workshop at the 1982 Barnard conference on sexuality, organized by "pro-sex feminists." There she asked the women participating to write down, anonymously, their most forbidden sexual fantasies. Some of them went like this: "I want to buy a strap-on dildo"; "I want to fantasize about being a porn star"; "I want to rape a woman"; "I want to sleep with a young girl"; "I want to be fucked into insensibility every which way."

I'd like to break a real taboo at this point, and raise a few questions that the pro-sex people consistently evade. Where do these sadistic and masochistic fantasies come from? To borrow from Simone de Beauvoir, are they born or are they made? Are the really agents of our liberation? If we are aroused by them, does it automatically_ follow that we are empowered by them?

To begin to answer these questions, we have to look beyond the fantasies themselves to the culture in which they develop. It is not just coincidence that they imitate the violence men do to women and girls. Think about the implications for our sexuality of the following statistics: More than a third of us were sexually abused as children (Russell, 1984). For many of us, our first sexual experience was a sexual assault. Forty-four percent of us will be raped (Russell, 1984). The environment in which we learn about and experience our bodies and sexuality is a world not of sexual freedom but of sexual force. Is it any surprise that it is often force that we eroticize? Sadistic and masochistic fantasies may be part o our sexuality, but they are no more our freedom than the culture of misogyny and sexual violence that endangered them.

The inescapable fallacy of the sexual repression thesis, as applied to women by the pro-sex people, is that it looks at sexuality within a context of largely mythical sexual restrictions and outside an environment of real, ongoing male sexual exploitation and abuse. In doing so, it turns what is done to women's sexuality by external oppression into something we do to ourselves in our heads. It suggests that if only women can break through internal "taboos," we will have sexual freedom and indeed we will be free. It ignores the real political lesson of woman's sexual experience: women cannot have sexual freedom, or any other kind of freedom, until we dismantle the system of sexual oppression in which we live.

The failure to recognize and confront this system is most evident in pro-sex thinking about pleasure and danger. It is significant that the pro-sexers use the word "danger" to describe the less-than-rosy side of women's sexual experiences. Danger connotes the threat of something harmful. It does not describe the actual denigration, exploitation, violence that are done to women daily. Danger is the boogeyman in the dark. It is not the continuous insults, the leers and entreaties, the chattel status of our bodies, the real brutal fucks, the rapes, and beatings.

By making the sexual use and abuse of women into just a scary game, the pro-sex people can locate pleasure for women squarely in its midst. "Pleasure and danger" really mean "pleasure in danger"; "coming to power" means "orgasm within a system of power over and power against women." What is ignored is that the governing sexual system exists to keep women from exercising real power and experiencing authentic pleasure. Within its perimeters, there is no meaningful choice, real agency, or genuine pleasure.

Acting out the roles of dominance and submission that the system forces on us is not the same as choosing them. Experiencing arousal and orgasm in the course o acting out these roles is not defining our own sexuality. I've come to believe that a human being can learn to eroticize anything - including banging one's head against a brick wall. I think that this is pretty much what sex has been for women - except that it's often more like being banged against a brick wall. Women learn to eroticize this abuse in spite of our bodies and against our interests. The sexuality our culture offers women today through pornography is not new, not avant-garde, not revolutionary. It's the same male supremacy has always forced on us: being used as the instrument of someone else's sexual agency - the instrument of someone socially male.

False assumptions of choice, agency, and pleasure have led the pro-sex people into mindboggling doublethink and utter callousness to women's condition. I offer two examples. In an article called "Pornography and Pleasure," which appeared in the 1981 Heresies Sex Issue, Paula Webster took issue with Women Against Pornography for interpreting a picture in its slide show as the documentation of a rape. Webster wrote, "I thought this [characterization] indicated certain biases about pain and pleasure and preferred positions. Yet the most important misunderstanding was that a mere representation was spoken as a reality." The representation in question was an actual photo of a prepubescent girl being anally penetrated by an adult man.

The second example is a quote from Kate Ellis in an article that appeared in American Film. She said, "There were always certain kinds of sex that took place out of the home and certain kinds in the home. Good women were in the home; bad women were someplace else. If a man wanted to do 'that,' he'd go to a prostitute. Cable porn can feed women's imaginations so that 'good girls' will feel free to do what 'bad girls' used to do." By holding up the condition of the prostitute as the model of sexual emancipation for all women, Ellis is operating in the great liberation. She is utterly denying the reality of prostitutes' lives. A 1984 study of San Francisco street prostitutes got at some of it (Mimi Silbert and Ayala Pines, 1984). Of the 200 girls and women studied, 60 percent reported sexual abuse in childhood and 73 percent reported having been raped since entering prostitution. That's about double the rape rate arrived at by Diana Russell in her study of mostly nonprostitutes. As for all the good sex, listen to Connie in Chicken Ranch, Nick Broomfield and Sandi Sissel's documentary about life in a legalized brothel in Nevada: "The old guys who can hardly move are good tricks. The young guys I hate. . . . I tell them, 'Please don't do that!' They think they can fuck you as long and as hard as they want. I say, 'You're hurting me!'"

In both examples the pro-sex people turn the tables on women's reality as surely as does pornography. Child sexual abuse becomes a child's sought-out pleasure. The woman who is bought and sold is the woman who is most free.

The stated goal of the organizers of the 1982 Barnard sexuality conference was "to create a movement that speaks as powerfully in favor of sexual pleasure as it does against sexual danger." The issue that this movement has yet to recognize or grapple with is the fact that under male supremacy, sexual danger - women's reality of denigration and abuse - is sexual pleasure. To speak powerfully in favor of sexual pleasure while blithely ignoring the fact that this pleasure is usually achieved through women's subordination and violation is to speak powerfully in favor of a system that keeps all women down.

In Pleasure and Danger, Carol Vance concludes her introduction by raising the sexual liberationist colors: "Feminism must insist that women are sexual subjects, sexual actors, sexual agents." But feminists who insist that this is true within the system of pornography insist on a felicitous lie. Within the predominant sexual system, articulated and reproduced in pornography, women are defined and acted upon as sexual objects; our humanity is denied and our bodies are violated for sexua1 pleasure; the bodies of our sisters are literally marketed for profit. We can't think away this system: it is practice as well as ideology, out there as well as inside. What we can do is analyze it, challenge it, fight and ultimately change it. In this struggle there is real subjecthood, action, and agency. The option is pro-sexism: to embrace pleasure in degradation and pacifying lies.

REFERENCES Russell, Diana E. H. (1984). Sexual exploitation. New York: Macmillan.

Silbert, Mimi H. and Pines, Ayala M. (1984). Pornography and sexual abuse of women. Sex Roles 10, Nos. 11/12.


This essay is based on a speech given at the National Conference on Women and the Law.

There is a small group of women within the feminist movement against pornography that rejects all sexual expression as oppressive to women (see A Southern Women's Writing Collective, "Sex Resistance in Heterosexual Arrangements" p. 140). Most feminists fighting pornography, however, believe that although male supremacy has turned sexuality into a weapon against women, sex is not inherently male supremacist and can be transformed through feminist consciousness and action (see Wendy Stock, "Toward a Feminist Praxis of Sexuality," p. 148). I, for one, find the contention of the Southern Women's Writing Collective - that sex by definition is what the pornographers make of it - both reductive and deeply pessimistic, and ultimately a capitulation to a culture that denies women our sexual potential and power.

See the December 1984 issue, in particular.

Georges Marchiano is the current leader of this trend.

Experts estimate the industry's profits to be approximately 10 billion dollars a year. See Report of the Attorney General's Commission on Pornography.

Copyright ? 1990, Dorchen Leidholdt.

This essay is published in "The Sexual Liberals and the Attack on Feminism" by Dorchen Leidholdt and Janice G. Raymond, published 1990 by Pergammon Press ISBN 0-08-037457-3

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