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Deconstructing Feminist Perspectives on Pornography

Introduction

The question that this essay critically explores is whether pornography is related to oppression of women and whether the end to pornography is necessary for the emancipation of women. The feminist literature is not uniform on this issue. While there are feminist writers who argue that pornography should be criminalised and legal measures should be used to criminally bar pornography. One of the predominant views on this was taken by MacKinnon and it has been influential in feminist literature; she argues that pornography and prostitution are similar constructs that oppress female participants who derive neither pleasure nor benefits from it. On the other hand, there are some feminist writers who write in the tradition of what is called individualist feminism, like Mcelroy, who defend pornography on the ground that it also offers benefits to women participants and these should also be taken into consideration. This essay collates these different views on pornography in the field of feminist literature and it finds that there are some good arguments to be made in defence of pornography or against the view taken by MacKinnon particularly as the latter view fails to take into account the benefits of pornography to female participants, as well as the issue of female consumption of pornography.

Anti-porn feminism and the feminist defence of pornography

Pornography is becoming more and more mainstream and this has also led to the increase in anti-porn feminist literature which has brought to focus the ‘pornification of the society’. Pornification is defined as the mainstreaming of the construction and distribution of pornography in the society. Indeed, the issues of sex industry and pornography are seen as mobilising issues that have led to the growth of the anti-porn feminist literature in countries like the UK. The reason why pornography and prostitution mobilise the feminist scholarship or at least a section of it is because sexuality is viewed as a balance of power between individuals, so that pornography is considered to lead to skewing of balance of power in favour of the masculine as opposed to the feminine.

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Pornography presents an issue that affects not just women but also children, because of the increase in the pornographic business involving women and children; in response, countries like the UK have sought to penalise dissemination of obscene publications, which was also approved by the European Commission in Handyside v UK. With respect to laws criminalising banning pornography, the justification for this has been made on the back of rights like right to freedom of expression, freedom to disseminate pornographic material, and right to privacy. There is however, a lack of feminist approach to pornography at least in the legal sources. In the UK, when the government made a law to penalise pornographic material and confiscate copies of the publication, the objective of protection of morals was noted as one of the motivations for the law, while the counter-argument to this provided by the petitioner in Handyside was that it violated the right to freedom of expression under Article 10(2) of the European Convention of Human Rights. The European Court of Human Rights has allowed the state to regulate the publication of pornographic material, again linking this to the issue of morality writing that the state is in “principle in a better position than the international judge to give an opinion on the exact content of the requirements [of morals], as well as on the “necessity” of a “restriction” or “penalty” intended to meet these requirements.”


  1. Catharine A. MacKinnon, ‘Pornography as Trafficking’ (2005) 26 Mich. J. Int’l L. 993, 998.
  2. Julia Long Anti-porn: The resurgence of anti-pornography feminism (Zed Books Ltd. 2012).
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Aura Schussler, ‘The relation between feminism and pornography’ (2013) 4(6) Scientific Journal of Humanistic Studies 66.
  6. Handyside v UK (App no 5493/72) (1976) Series A no 24.
  7. Clare McGlynn and Erika Rackley, ‘Striking a balance: Arguments for the criminal regulation of extreme pornography’ (2007) Criminal Law Review-London 677.

The feminist scholarship on pornography does not take a uniform view of pornography. Opposing views within feminism can be seen in the radical feminism and individualist feminism approaches. The approach taken by Catharine Alice MacKinnon is a radical feminist approach which takes a position against the pornography; on the other hand, the approach taken by Wendy McElroy within the individualist feminism is in favour of allowing pornography. MacKinnon argues that pornography does not give any pleasure to the woman who participates in it because the woman does not feel any personal connections with their partners or take any pleasure in these activities and the participants say that “they usually feel nothing sexually [...] with someone they have no sexual interest in […] doing things that do nothing for them sexually.” The same view is also taken to prostitution by MacKinnon that the women who participate in this activity are oppressed. With respect to pornography, MacKinnon emphasises on the oppressive characteristic of the industry:

“built on force, some physical, some not,” in which “women and children” are “not there by choice but because of lack of choices” and “‘consent’ . . . only in the degraded and demented sense of the word . . . in which a person who despairs at stopping what is happening, sees no escape, has no real alternative, was often sexually abused before as a child, may be addicted to drugs, is homeless, hopeless, is often trying to avoid being beaten or killed, is almost always economically desperate, acquiesces in being sexually abused for payment . . . .”

For MacKinnon, both pornography and prostitution are similar in that they involve the oppressive practices that subjugates the participant, who herself does not derive any pleasure or benefit out of the activity. Indeed, MacKinnon clearly states that “when you make pornography of a woman, you make a prostitute of her.” Whole some of the points that are made by MacKinnon are valid, particularly the oppression of women and children who are not consenting participants in the industry but are forced into it. However, this does not represent the problem with the industry but the larger problem of slavery like work conditions which are present even in the garment industry of South Asia and Eastern Europe. In other words, there is a problem of human trafficking and slave labour which is relevant not just to the sex industry and pornography industry, but also other industries which have nothing to do with sex labour, for example, garment industry.

MacKinnon is not alone in equating pornography with prostitution; there are other scholars who have written that both industries are overlapping and both have to be banned and criminalised and that the former industry should be treated as part of the latter. It has also been stated that the prostitution statutes should be used to criminalising production of pornography because “prostitution behind a camera is still prostitution.”

  1. Handyside v UK (App no 5493/72) (1976) Series A no 24.
  2. Pryanishnikov v. Russia 10.09.2019 (no. 25047/05).
  3. Ibid, Para 53.
  4. Catharine A. MacKinnon, ‘Pornography as Trafficking’ (2005) 26 Mich. J. Int’l L. 993, 995.
  5. Catharine A. MacKinnon, ‘Trafficking, Prostitution, and Inequality’ (2011) 46 Harv. C.R.-C.L. L. Rev. 271.
  6. Catharine A. MacKinnon, ‘Pornography as Trafficking’ (2005) 26 Mich. J. Int’l L. 993, 998.
  7. Ibid, 993.
  8. Zachary David Streit, ‘Note, Birds of an Illegal Feather: Prostitution and Paid Pornography Should Be Criminalized Together’ (2007) 5 Cardozo Pub. L. Pol’y & Ethics J. 729, 733.

On the other hand, there is an argument that pornography and prostitution cannot be equated because the former, unlike the latter, does not require a direct physical involvement and does not expose the sex labourer to dangerous physical, moral, and social contaminations. Because of this difference between the two constructs, pornography or performing sex for money in pornography is privileged over doing so in prostitution. Mcelroy, a feminist writer, has also made a defence of pornography by taking a view that pornography also offers benefits to women participants and these should also be taken into consideration. Mcelroy writes that there are three categories of writing in academia: first, which portray pornography as an expression of male culture that lead to commodification of women; second, a defence of pornography on the basis of respect for free speech with the principle that a woman has the right to do what she likes with her body; and third, "pro-sex" feminists who link pornography’s defence with the benefits it provides for women.

There is an argument against the emphasis on feminist scholarship’s focus on a link between pornography and sexual violence based on a feminist perspective because it is considered to be inappropriate to presume that there is no freedom or choice for women who are involved in pornography. It is argued that the feminist scholarship’s overemphasis on pornography as a patriarchal issue is inappropriate because this assumes male dominance and complete negation of female freedom or choice. This argument is also strengthened by research that shows that there is a significant amount of pornography which is commercial and is created in consensual environments. On the other hand, there is also evidence that shows that the pornographic industry is aimed at male customer and that the adult and pornographic material is consumed more generally by male consumers; for instance, one study showed that for many adult stores in Minneapolis, USA, the average customers were males. This study demonstrated how male customers in a neighbourhood adult store were made uncomfortable when a group of women came into the store. This goes to show that for the majority of the consumption of the pornographic industry is with the male customers, while the majority of the pornographic industry workers are women.

Attitudes towards pornography and prostitution do converge at some points within the discussion on pornography and prostitution and although there is distinction between these two concepts, it would be useful to refer to literature on prostitution as well because this would give some context to the feminist arguments on prostitution. It has been said that “prostitution is not a social aberration or disorder, but rather a consequence of well-established beliefs and values that form part of the foundation of all our social institutions and practices.” Prostitution is generally considered to be the oldest profession in the world; however, the question is how this oldest profession reflects on the power relations between men and women. Literature on pornography has been said to be covered under four categories: historical studies prostitution and society; writings by and about prostitutes which allowed them to describe and redefine sex work; studies on prostitution by outsiders to prostitution; and contemporary studies on the relationships between prostitution and society. This literature showcases the complex and the multi-varied approaches to research on prostitution and views and perspectives towards prostitution. The question that this essay seeks to critically respond to is whether pornography is related to oppression of women and whether the end of pornography is a prerequisite for women emancipation. There are different perspectives on this question. For example, Høigård and Finstad have argued that prostitution is inseparable from sexism and the patriarchal control that prostitution implies is a way for women to be precluded from access to real economic powers and choice. However, this may not be completely appropriate because there is evidence of a significant amount of pornography that is created in commercial and consensual environments.

  1. Sarah H. Garb, ‘Sex for Money Is Sex for Money: The Illegality of Pornographic Film as Prostitution’ (1995) 13 Law & Ineq. 281, 301.
  2. Anders Kaye, ‘Why Pornography Is Not Prostitution: Folk Theories of Sexuality in the Law of Vice’ (2016) 60 St. Louis U. L.J. 245.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Carine M. Mardorossian, ‘Toward a new feminist theory of rape’ (2002) 27(3) Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 743.
  6. Ibid.
  7. AJ Bridges, R Wosnitzer, E Scharrer, S Sun, R Liberman, ‘Aggression and sexual behavior in best-selling pornography videos: A content analysis update’ (2010) 16 Violence Against Women 1065.
  8. Georgina Hickey, ‘The Geography of Pornography: Neighborhood Feminism and the Battle against “Dirty Bookstores” in Minneapolis’ (2011) 32(1) Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 125.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid,

Feminist literature has complex and different approaches to prostitution. For example, Laurie Shrage in her article ‘Should Feminists oppose Prostitution,’ notes that prostitution raises difficult issues for feminists because while some of the feminists wanting criminal statutes on prostitution to be repealed as these are mostly used to harass prostitutes, others look at prostitution as a moral and objectionable problem which sees women providing sexual services for fees and subject themselves to sexual domination and degradation by men. Shrage herself holds prostitutes to some sense accountable and responsible in two ways: first, by profiting from patriarchy; and second, by being ideologically complicit in the task of encouraging others to also profit in the same way through the prostitution. On the other hand, in the edited works in ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Whores’, the anti-prostitution stance is rejected. Although there are conflicted views on prostitution within the feminist literature, there are two points that are noted to show the ways in which prostitution can present two issues of discourse on feminism and prostitution: first, that prostitution represents “a set of desires, beliefs, and practices, that under patriarchy, have been gender biased, extremely discriminatory to and of women and an exchange relationship in which sex is offered for sale – prostitution’s sex-economic dimension.” Based on this, the discourse on whether the end of prostitution is a prerequisite to the emancipation of women, can also take into consideration patriarchy and economic dimension. If on one hand, there is the patriarchal context which is related to oppression of women within a profession that seeks to benefit men and put women in a position of lack of dignity, on the other hand, there is the economic context, where the prostitute can be seen as a person in an exchange relationship. With relation to the patriarchal context, the discussion is with respect to the ways in which feminist perspectives look at prostitution in terms of oppression and patriarchy.


  1. Laurie Shrage, ‘Should feminists oppose prostitution’ (1989) 99(2) Ethics 347, 360.
  2. Lynn S. Chancer, Reconcilable differences: Confronting beauty, pornography, and the future of feminism (Univ of California Press 1998) 176-177.
  3. Cecilie Høigård and Liv Finstad, Backstreets: Prostitution, money, and love (Penn State Press 1992).
  4. AJ Bridges, R Wosnitzer, E Scharrer, S Sun, R Liberman, ‘Aggression and sexual behavior in best-selling pornography videos: A content analysis update’ (2010) 16 Violence Against Women 1065.
  5. Laurie Shrage, ‘Should feminists oppose prostitution’ (1989) 99(2) Ethics 347, 347.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Gail Pheterson, A Vindication of the Rights of Whores (Seal press 1989).
  8. Lynn S. Chancer, Reconcilable differences: Confronting beauty, pornography, and the future of feminism (Univ of California Press 1998) 191.

Carol Gilligan has argued that there are crucial differences between men and women in how they make different relational errors, with men understanding women from the prism of maleness, and women understanding femaleness through the experience of others (or non-female). This leads to the men and women tacitly colluding “in not voicing women’s experiences and build relationships around a silence that is maintained by men’s not knowing their disconnection from women and women’s not knowing their dissociation from themselves.” The principal argument made by Gilligan is that there are empirically verifiable differences between the way women and men think about relationships which men using a moral perspective to evaluate relationships and, women using ethical perspectives. Does this have a significance for how men and women approach pornography? How does this reflect on differing perspectives towards prostitution by men and women?

MacKinnon takes a different approach to looking at feminine perspectives from Gilligan; importantly, she notes that female morality cannot be morality “in a different voice” but morality in the feminine voice and when it is argued that women think in relational terms the response to that can be that women’s social existence is defined in relation to men. With reference to pornography. Mackinnon argues that the pornographic industry is as an industry not a form of representation, and an industry that is embedded within and that supports the basic patriarchal construction of what it is to be a woman. However, this viewpoint does not take into account the voluntary and exchange based transaction between the person who performs labour in the industry and the person who consumed the product of this industry. A research that explored into the women’s experiences and views of pornography within the broader context of conflicting feminist positions on pornography adopted a qualitative approach to exploring these attitudes and found that the feminist anti-porn stance in particular has influenced their perspective on pornography but still that the experiences remain variegated, and complex. For example, going back to the work done by Høigård and Finstad, they found that that most interviewees (prostitutes) had recounted to the researchers that all of them were forced to prostitute their bodies because they need money, so they are not doing this out of choice but need for money. They also recounted that they have developed psychological defences to avoid the feelings of alienation that their work brings into their lives. The same argument could also be made with reference to pornography as well because women who willingly allow this representation of themselves may be doing so because of the money component.

Some of the critiques made against MacKinnon are that her scholarship against pornography is based on its ‘parasitic’ relation to the phallocentric discourse of gender and sexuality and its alliance with reductive and behaviouristic psychology. It is argued that MacKinnon’s influence on the changes made in the criminal justice system towards pornography only enhances the power of state regulation of sexuality. In other words, it can be argued that the criminalisation of pornography only leads to the harassment of the women who are providing labour in this industry.

  1. Carol Gilligan, ‘Letter to Readers, 1993’, In A Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development (2nd ed., Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press 1993).
  2. Ibid, xx.
  3. Ibid.
  4. MacKinnon, Towards a Feminist Theory of the State, pp 51-2.
  5. Karen Ciclitira, ‘Pornography, women and feminism: Between pleasure and politics’ (2004) 7(3) Sexualities 281.
  6. Cecilie Høigård and Liv Finstad, Backstreets: Prostitution, money, and love (Penn State Press 1992) 180.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Lynne Segal, ‘Only the literal: The contradictions of anti-pornography feminism’ (1998) 1(1) Sexualities 43.
  9. Ibid.

In feminist literature, there has also been an argument made against pornography on the ground that it is violent in nature and leads to increased violence against women and a range of feminist literature has raised this argument, which also argues that pornography is problematic because it can be linked to pornography consumption may also be related to sexual violence against women. The link between sexual violence and pornography is also linked to the concept of patriarchy particularly in the context of the propagation of negative perceptions of women and leads to misogynist perceptions to sexual violence. Morgan went so far as to say that “pornography is the theory of rape, and rape is the practice.” Langton and West also argued that pornography is the presupposing of the rape myth that posits that women enjoy being raped and that this is also a problematic in terms of allowing pornography to be viewed. The argument is that pornography misrepresents women attitudes to rape thereby allowing the growth of the misogynist attitudes towards women with one statement noting that pornography told lies about women but truth about men. The misrepresentation of women in pornography is most commonly seen in the way the pornographic material leads to misreading of ‘no’ by women as ‘yes’ based on the ideas normalised through pornography that sometimes when women say no they mean yes. Again, like on the issue of prostitution, there are varied views and perspectives on whether pornography leads to violence against women and the perpetuation of the rape myth. There is some research that opposes this view point, particularly Williams has established that it cannot be said generally that all pornographic content raises presupposition of the rape myth or the myth that when women say no they mean yes. This is confirmed in a more recent research study that established that there are not many pornographic movies that have perpetuated the rape myth by showing rape scenes.

The objection to pornographic material is also based on the link between pornography and sexual violence or rape. There is a feminist argument that there is a link between exposure to pornography and perpetration of sexual violence, but this does not find support on empirical data as seen in one study that concluded that there was little evidence of negative impacts of pornography which was violent or hard core in nature. The same study also concludes that there is ‘inverse relationship’ between consumption of pornography and rape rates.

There is also a lack of attention given to female consumption of pornography. While feminist literature emphasises on how the majority of the consumption of pornography are male consumers, there is little attention paid to the fact that women can also be consumers of pornography involving both male and female pornographic workers. One study on female viewership of pornography and other similar media suggests that there are a number of women who are also involved in watching pornography. This absence of considerable literature on female viewership of pornography also suggests that there is a problem with accepting the argument that pornography is a patriarchal construct and women are the oppressed class while men are the consumers of this material because this viewpoint fails to take into account the female viewership of pornographic content.

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  1. Robin Morgan, ‘Theory and practice: Pornography and rape’ (1980) Take back the night: Women on pornography 134.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid, 189.
  4. R Langton and C West, 'Scorekeeping in a pornographic language game' (1999) 77 Australasian Journal of Philosophy 303.
  5. J Stoltenberg, Refusing To Be a Man: Essays on Sex and Justice (London: UCL Press 1989).
  6. R Langton and C West, 'Scorekeeping in a pornographic language game' (1999) 77 Australasian Journal of Philosophy 303.
  7. Linda Williams, ‘Power, Pleasure, and Perversion: Sadomasochistic Film Pornography’ (1989) 27 Representations 37.
  8. AJ Bridges, R Wosnitzer, E Scharrer, S Sun, R Liberman, ‘Aggression and sexual behavior in best-selling pornography videos: A content analysis update’ (2010) 16 Violence Against Women 1065.
  9. CJ Ferguson and RD Hartley, ‘The pleasure is momentary… the expense damnable?: The influence of pornography on rape and sexual assault’ (2009) 14(5) Aggression and Violent Behavior 323.
  10. Ibid.
Conclusion

To conclude, pornography raises opposing viewpoints in feminist literature. On one hand, there is a perspective that pornography is an oppressive and patriarchal construct which should be banned because the industry is leading to oppression of women. On the other hand, within feminist literature itself there is defence of pornography which is based on the benefits that are provided by the industry to those who are voluntarily involved in it for monetary or other benefits. Another important factor that can be taken into account for the feminist defence of pornography is that there is lack of consideration given to the female consumption of pornography. The feminist literature against pornography fails to take into account the fact that not all participants in the industry are female and not all consumers are male. To conclude, pornography may provide some benefits to women and to treat women as the victims of the industry is to deny the economic and consensual nature of the work which is involved in the major part of this industry.

Books

  1. Kelly Simca Boyd, ‘“One index finger on the mouse scroll bar and the other on my clit": slash writers' views on pornography, censorship, feminism and risk’ (Dept. of Women's Studies, Simon Fraser University 2001).

Boyd KS, ‘“One index finger on the mouse scroll bar and the other on my clit": slash writers' views on pornography, censorship, feminism and risk’ (Dept. of Women's Studies, Simon Fraser University 2001).

Chancer LS, Reconcilable differences: Confronting beauty, pornography, and the future of feminism (Univ of California Press 1998).

Gilligan C, ‘Letter to Readers, 1993’, In A Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development (2nd ed., Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press 1993).

Høigård C and Liv Finstad, Backstreets: Prostitution, money, and love (Penn State Press 1992).

Long J, Anti-porn: The resurgence of anti-pornography feminism (Zed Books Ltd. 2012).

MacKinnon K, Towards a Feminist Theory of the State (Cambridge University Press 1989).

Pheterson G, A Vindication of the Rights of Whores (Seal press 1989).

Stoltenberg J, Refusing To Be a Man: Essays on Sex and Justice (London: UCL Press 1989).

Journals

Bridges AJ, R Wosnitzer, E Scharrer, S Sun, R Liberman, ‘Aggression and sexual behavior in best-selling pornography videos: A content analysis update’ (2010) 16 Violence Against Women 1065.

Ciclitira K, ‘Pornography, women and feminism: Between pleasure and politics’ (2004) 7(3) Sexualities 281.

Ferguson CJ and RD Hartley, ‘The pleasure is momentary… the expense damnable?: The influence of pornography on rape and sexual assault’ (2009) 14(5) Aggression and Violent Behavior 323.

Garb SH, ‘Sex for Money Is Sex for Money: The Illegality of Pornographic Film as Prostitution’ (1995) 13 Law & Ineq. 281.

Hickey G, ‘The Geography of Pornography: Neighborhood Feminism and the Battle against “Dirty Bookstores” in Minneapolis’ (2011) 32(1) Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 125.

Kaye A, ‘Why Pornography Is Not Prostitution: Folk Theories of Sexuality in the Law of Vice’ (2016) 60 St. Louis U. L.J. 245.

Langton R and C West, 'Scorekeeping in a pornographic language game' (1999) 77 Australasian Journal of Philosophy 303.

MacKinnon CA, ‘Pornography as Trafficking’ (2005) 26 Mich. J. Int’l L. 993.

MacKinnon CA, ‘Trafficking, Prostitution, and Inequality’ (2011) 46 Harv. C.R.-C.L. L. Rev. 271.

Mardorossian CM, ‘Toward a new feminist theory of rape’ (2002) 27(3) Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 743.

McGlynn C and Erika Rackley, ‘Striking a balance: Arguments for the criminal regulation of extreme pornography’ (2007) Criminal Law Review-London 677.

Morgan R, ‘Theory and practice: Pornography and rape’ (1980) Take back the night: Women on pornography 134.

Segal L, ‘Only the literal: The contradictions of anti-pornography feminism’ (1998) 1(1) Sexualities 43.

Shrage L, ‘Should feminists oppose prostitution’ (1989) 99(2) Ethics 347.

Schussler A, ‘The relation between feminism and pornography’ (2013) 4(6) Scientific Journal of Humanistic Studies 66.

Streit ZD, ‘Note, Birds of an Illegal Feather: Prostitution and Paid Pornography Should Be Criminalized Together’ (2007) 5 Cardozo Pub. L. Pol’y & Ethics J. 729.

Williams L, ‘Power, Pleasure, and Perversion: Sadomasochistic Film Pornography’ (1989) 27 Representations 37.


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