Here are some excerpts from my 'position' as found on the site's background material. I offer this as a way to articulate some of the cross currents underlying the feminists' perspectives on the issue of pornography... ****** ...Like a modern day casuistical exercise, the current issue of pornography reveals an unforeseen confluence of societal and technological change. "Cases" and situations emerge that seem to alter the paradigms that guided discussions of sexually explicit material in the recent past. Women own and publish magazines like "On Our Backs" and produce films like "Erotique" while amateur videos, Polaroid exchanges, on-line chat rooms, and pro-sex World Wide Web-sites proliferate outside the 'sex industry.' In this mix of past, present and future, proponents and antagonists seem to fall through simple categories that might once have contained them. MacKinnon aligns with Jesse Helms; Califia with Screw magazine's Al Goldstein. For pragmatists like John Dewey, this eruption of the problematical is symptomatic of dynamic change and forms the very area where moral conversations come into play. For neo-pragmatists like Richard Rorty, these conversations contain the possibility of re-describing our very sense of self and moral duty. We live, as the Chinese say, in 'interesting' times. Rorty's essay, "Feminism and Pragmatism," credits MacKinnon with the skill and imagination necessary to change the framework of a conversation such that the very terms of exchange become altered. "So she sees feminists as needing to alter the data of moral theory rather than needing to formulate principles which fit pre-existent data better. Feminists are trying to get people to feel indifference or satisfaction where they once recoiled, and revulsion and rage where they once felt indifference or resignation." (p. 3) If successful, the redescription of pornography as abuse and discrimination allow one to feel comfortable with censorship and prohibition. But Rorty cautions MacKinnon about wanting both to create new space for conversation while at the same time filling that space with 're-descriptions' that become 'true descriptions' -- allowing not for pragmatic experimentation, but dogmatic assertion. Many feminists, Rorty notes, "intermingle pragmatic and realist rhetoric" (p. 5). And in this mix of future vision and present perception, they run the risk of censoring those who disagree with them. Pat Califia writes "Of opponents to her bill who called themselves feminists...MacKinnon later said, 'Someone should explain to me how one can be a feminist and be pro-pornography...they're mutually exclusive." (p. 126) In her book, A Woman's Right to Pornography, Wendy McElroy questions those who wish to define away their opponents: "The growing intolerance within feminism is not a sign of intellectual confidence, which invites open discussion. It is a sign of dogmatic hostility toward anyone who disagrees." (p. 116) At what point does Rortyan 'redescription' turn into Orwellian NewSpeak?Sue Dwyer (sue) Tue, 03 Dec 1996 18:29:02 EST (122 lines)
Greetings all. I've been thinking about pornography as a feminist for about a decade now. My views about feminism and pornography have changed considerably over that time, and while I'm not currently in possession of the right view about either (what a surprise!) there are some things I guess I'm pretty much committed to now. So let me throw some of them out as a conversation starter. Along the way I'll try to make connections both to some of the background material for this forum (MacKinnon and Califia, as well as Robert Cavalier's piece) and to some of the conversation in the meta-ethics conference between Ross Poole, Fred D'Agostino and Charles Ess. 1. "Can one be a feminist and like pornography?" On some understandings of what pornography is, the answer is pretty clearly no. Robert quotes Califia quoting Mackinnon, who says, "Someone should explain to me how one can be a feminist and be pro-pornography . . . they're mutually exclusive." According to MacKinnon and Dworkin, pornography *is* the sexually explicit subordination of women. And if being a feminist means being opposed to the subordination of women, being a feminist obviously precludes being pro-pornography. But are MacKinnon and Dworkin right about pornography? I don't know to what extent Robert is disposed to a Rortyean pragmatism, but he helpfully invokes a Rortyean suggestion to the effect that what feminists like MacKinnon and Dworkin have done is *redescribe* pornography in such a way as to render it obviosuly problematic and for that reason an easier target for various legal action that we already take to be justified. If we think of pornography as sexually explicit subordination of women, then it appears quite natural to argue that pornography should be actionable under existing anti-discrimination law. I don't think that MacKinnon and Dworkin take themselves to be merely redescribing pornography; I think they intend to be conveying truths about what pornography really is. So Rorty's suspicion, well articulated by Robert that MacKinnon and Dworkin "create new space for conversation while at the same time filling that space with "essential truths"" is justified. (At least) two worries emerge. First, the "truths" about pornography according to MacKinnon and Dworkin don't strike other people (e.g., McElroy, Tisdale) as truths. Second, assertions of the form "this is how things really are" tend to be conversation stoppers. McElroy and to some extent Strossen complain that the M/D position represents a kind of dangerous dogmatism about pornography. I believe that the M/D view of pornography is often poorly understood and badly misrepresented. In fact, in my opinion, Strossen almost wilfully misunderstands it. This is not to say that the view is plausible, much less that it is true. But one cannot simply dismiss it as easily as some do. For example, Califia complains that it represents a return to a "Victorian image" of women's sexuality, one that has it that "women do not enjoy pornography, casual sex, genital sex, or sex outside the context of romantic relationship." I don't know of anywhere where either M or D have espoused such beliefs. And their analysis of pornography does not require that they are committed to these beliefs either. Indeed, if M and D are right about pornography constructing women's sexual desires, they would predict that women *would* enjoy pornography and these other things. M and D are not asking whether women have these desires, but they asking us to think about where these desires come from and whether they are good desires to have. (More on good and bad desires later, if anyone's interested.) So, is the M/D view about pornography true? One needs to do a lot of philosophical work - work that neither M nor D do - to render the claim that pornography literally silences and subordinates women plausible. Recall, M and D are not speaking metaphorically. I think the best attempt at this work is found in Rae Langton's, "Speech Acts and Unspeakable Acts" and Jennifer Hornsby's "Speech Acts and Pornography" (both reprinted in my anthology *The Problem of Pornography*). I'm happy to talk about this stuff, but for now just want to insist that one does need to do the work. It is no good to simply say that many women like pornography, that sex is good, or to claim that M and D cannot be right because if they were, we might actually have to restrict pornography. That a view, if right, would have bad practical consequences doesn't make the view false. Let me just say something about the dogmatism claim, especially since the very idea of open dialogue and conversation is guiding our efforts in this forum. There is, no doubt, a deep irony attached to MacKinnon in particular advancing (putative) substantive truths about what pornography is. In *Feminism Unmodified* she writes: "Having power means, among other things, that when someone says, "This is how it is," it is taken as being that way (164)." And a common theme in her work is the way in which power silences. The entire discussion about pornography, then, implicates a series of deep questions about credibility, knowledge and power. I grant that dogmatism is a bad thing. But I am very reluctant to refuse to make bold assertions about how things strike me, especially when I have thought about them for while and have some arguments to back up my claims. However, perhaps the admonition (that I detect in Robert's remarks, Rorty's suspicions, and McElroy's complaint), is not so much to give up making assertions about what pornography is, but rather to present an analysis of pornography that takes the following form: Try to think about pornography like this, and now like this. Now think about what sound public policy would like from each of these perspectives. I have some sympathy with this approach. In this way I think I align myself with some of Ross Poole's remarks about ethics in general. (I favor something like a McDowellian picture of moral judgment and moral motivation, minus the teleology and minus the Wittgensteinianism.) We test our view of things, in light of grasping - and I do mean understanding - others' views of things. At least with respect to social and political matters, there probably isn't an impartial perspective from which we can test the match between our beliefs and the world. We can only seek plausibility and coherence intra- and inter-personally. Bringing this altogether to answer the question I began with: Our interests, our pretheoretic moral commitments, and our explicit political commitments direct our attention to particular features of our social and cultural landscapes. The pragmatists were just right about that. So the world will, in some very real sense, "look different" to different people. Now, a big question: Does being a feminist entail that one see the world in a particular way, such that pornography will strike one as obviously problematic? No. But feminists on all sides of this discussion must be willing to take each other seriously. And that means not dismissing views like M and D's outright as a return to puritanism or as the thin of the wedge of repressive speech laws. About this, let me come clean. I am what MacKinnon calls somewhere a "free speech fetishist"; that is, I take the First Amendment very seriously indeed. But I know that I can't simply say, "Oh my, M and D's view leads to censorship so obviously it must be incorrect."Donna Michelle Riley (riley) Wed, 04 Dec 1996 14:50:20 EST (151 lines)
>Rorty's essay, "Feminism and Pragmatism," credits MacKinnon with the >skill and imagination necessary to change the framework of a >conversation such that the very terms of exchange become altered. "So >she sees feminists as needing to alter the data of moral theory rather >than needing to formulate principles which fit pre-existent data better. I think MacKinnon both redefines pornography and reprioritizes feminst values. MacKinnon is focused on women's subordination, pain, and harm, and she elevates the prevention of harm related to sexually explicit material above all others. She sets aside many other harms, or considers them only as they relate to pornography as she defines it. I think it is this elevation of harm caused by pornography (no matter how easy or hard the links are to establish) over all other harms that leads MacKinnon to her policy conclusions. Without this new prioritization, one can read MacKinnon's critiques of pornography and even agree with her points about harm without following her to her conclusions. When it comes to making policy, someone with a range of feminist values in a different configuration would weigh harm MacKinnon claims results from pornography against other harms -- for example, the harm caused by the represson of women's sexual freedom or the exclusion of women from opportunities for sexual expression, or the harm caused by cultural beauty myths. One's policy conclusions would ultimately depend on one's prioritization of these and other feminist values, whether one buys MacKinnon's critiques or not. One positive aspect of MacKinnon's redefinition of pornography is the validation it gives to some women's experiences on an individual level; understanding MacKinnon's critiques of pornography can be a launching ground for women to learn to break down sexual messages and rebuild our own in ways that we find self-supporting. The problem is that MacKinnon's prioritization of feminist values seems to discount the point that what subordinates one woman may liberate another. MacKinnon elevates the elimination of subordination without regard to the potential for liberation. This focus loses sight of the discussion of women's sexualities and how to foster their expression. A case in point is the events that occured at Carnegie Mellon in the fall of 1994. The administration announced a policy that would eliminate university access to USENET newsgroups dealing with sexual issues. This included both binaries boards that carry sexually explicit images, and text boards that carry all kinds of discussions from S&M to sexual health to abstinence. This broad action was taken even though the policy stated that "The only criterion that will be used to withdraw a bulletin board is that the purpose for which it was established or its primary use makes mounting it illegal." The Vice Provost for Education, Erwin Steinberg, intimated that the University's carrying such material was tantamount to sexual harassment: "If posting posters or calendars of scantily clad women is considered "sexual harassment" or creating a "chilly climate," how will a picture of a bound woman being raped by a ski pole be considered?" Having not seen the image, one must question how Steinberg knew this was an image of "rape", and why he sees the ski pole as the primary agent (ski poles don't rape people, people rape people). One must wonder whether Steinberg is aware of how one finds, downloads, and decrypts binary images on the Internet, if he assumes placing an image in a clearly labeled newsgroup is equivalent to posting a physical picture in a workspace. Steinberg invited Frederick Schauer, one of the authors of the Meese Commission's report, to speak at CMU. Schauer suggested that women are underrepresented on the Internet because of the hostile environment created by pornography available there. He believed that CMU's elimination of certain newsgroups would protect CMU women and encourage us to participate online. Suddenly, CMU had raised concerns about women's participation and protection above concerns about academic freedom or its reputation for being on the cutting edge of Internet technology. CMU had elevated concerns about protecting women above concerns expressed by women themselves, despite a very vocal group of pro-sex feminists known as the Clitoral Hoods who publicly demanded that access to sexual material be restored. Unlike MacKinnon, who is consistent in placing women's harm on the top of her list, CMU had not taken much trouble to meet women's needs or hear their concerns before; this sudden interest in women's protection seemed out of place given past refusals to put lighting in a dark area where a rape allegedly ocurred, or to report fraternity date rapes in crime bulletins, because "the perpetrators do not pose a threat to the community". Despite this rhetoric about women, CMU's underlying concern was one of liability. This is due to attempts to regulate the Internet by classifying it into one of the four traditional media types: broadcasting, publishing, distributing, or common carriage. If CMU were found to be a broadcaster, publisher or a distributor, it could be found liable for carrying materials in violation of PA's obscenity law or federal child pornography laws. But web services and newsgroups can fit equally well, and equally badly, into all four media types. Therefore, the attempts to classify online services have created threats to both protected speech, as we saw in the case of CMU's newsgroup policy, and to minimal responsible controls in other cases. I'd also like to comment on Rob's statement: >pornography reveals an unforeseen confluence of societal and >technological change. "Cases" and situations emerge that seem to alter >the paradigms that guided discussions of sexually explicit material in >the recent past. Women own and publish magazines like "On Our Backs" >and produce films like "Erotique" while amateur videos, Polaroid >exchanges, on-line chat rooms, and pro-sex World Wide Web-sites >proliferate outside the 'sex industry.' I believe in the potential for new electronic media to open up opportunities for women's sexual expression. The Internet in particular gives women opportunity to address sexual topics from a place of relative safety. It frees women from local biases that sexualize and stigmatize women who are sexually open, and allows for anonymity where desirable. Because the Internet is expandable, it allows for a wide range of sexual expression and critiques of sexual expression from multiple perspectives. I believe it is a step toward creating space for the multi-positionality Lisa mentioned (though of course the problem of access is a major barrier, among others), taking us away from the "On Our Backs" vs. "Off Our Backs" dichotomy among feminists. For this potential to be realized, we need to move away from the traditional policy-making according to media type. As Jean Camp and I have proposed elsewhere, a more appropriate approach is to consider online services as a series of spaces that emulate phyiscal spaces. In this way, it is possible to create open spaces for all kinds of political and sexual expression, private spaces that operate as our own town squares, bedrooms, classrooms, workspaces, and so on, each with their own agreed-upon and well-understood protocols for communication. Though this proposal does not address ongoing debates in the real world about speech, it does encourage particpants in various cyberspaces to articulate the nature of the spaces they inhabit and the expectations for that space. It recognizes the multiplicity of spaces and purposes online and the need for both open forums and safe havens to promote discussion and expression.Lisa Z Sigel (ls4d) Wed, 04 Dec 1996 23:09:47 EST (104 lines)
I have a "list" of questions, answers, and concerns that respond to both Sue and Donna's points so far. So I'll start at the top and work my way down, hopefully to a coherent working position. Most of my 'questions' respond to problems of definition. 1) Sue, could you please explain at greater length what sort of philosophical work you have in mind when you write the following: So, is the M/D view about pornography true? One needs to do a lot of philosophical work - work that neither M nor D do - to render the claim that pornography literally silences and subordinates women plausible. Recall, M and D are not speaking metaphorically. I think the best attempt at this work is found in Rae Langton's, "Speech Acts and Unspeakable Acts" and Jennifer Hornsby's "Speech Acts and Pornography" (both reprinted in my anthology *The Problem of Pornography*). I'm happy to talk about this stuff, but for now just want to insist that one does need to do the work. I tend to understand pornography as culturally contingent and definitions of it as emerging from specific historical and cultural formations. Philosophical work seems to me to take a different approach. Can you spell out what kind of philosophical work you're calling for and where it can go? 2) Sue begins her answer to the question, 'can one be a feminist and like pornography?' by saying "On some definitions of what pornography is, the answer is clearly no." With the MacKinnon/Dworkin definition of pornography, there is a contradiction: pornography is oppressive to women, and the aim of feminism is to work against the oppression of women. I want to point out that the issue doesn't have to be constructed in the absolute terms that MacKinnon and Dworkin's analyses require. I'd like to bring up the issue of feminist priorities. The argument so far has raised the question of whether Califia can be a feminist. Consider the following: [L]et me explain why I still call myself a feminist. I believe that the society in which I live is a patriarchy with power concentrated in the hands of men, and that this patriarchy actively prevents women from becoming complete and independent human beings. Women are oppressed by being denied access to economic resources, political power, and control over their own reproduction. This oppression is managed by several institutions, chiefly the family, religion, and the state. An essential part of the oppression of women is control over sexual ideology, mythology, and behavior. (Pat Califia, Public Sex 166) Califia's understanding of feminism -- with its structural conception of patriarchy -- does not place pornography at the center of women's oppression. M/D place it at the center. According to Califia, we can still enjoy porn as feminists, inasmuch as feminist can enjoy many things under patriarchy (e.g., loving women, raising children, having sex). Some pornography may be a symptom of the oppressive patriarchal system in which we live. In this view, fighting what may be a symptom of the state, familial, and religious oppression (e.g., pornography) might misdirect our attention. Indeed, fighting the symptom has resulted in the fragmentation of the feminist community. The central importance that M/D place on porn, by moving it from a symptomatic position to a position wherein porn can act to degrade women, is not the only viable feminist position to have. Unionizing women who work in the sex industry, rather than shutting down that avenue for employment, may be a more significant way to fight oppression. M&D have laid out a definition of pornography which doesn't just define pornography; it also stipulates what the priorities of the feminist community ought to be. The result is that women like Pat Califia, who work with the sex industry in a way that's consistent with working against the oppression of women would be, by M&D's definitional fiat, excluded from the feminist community. 3) On a related note, I'd like to return to Sue's description of the relationship between pornography and First Amendment rights. She writes: It is no good to simply say that many women like pornography, that sex is good, or to claim that M and D cannot be right because if they were, we might actually have to restrict pornography. That a view, if right, would have bad practical consequences doesn't make the view false. This proposition says that accepting M&D's definition might have undesirable consequences for First Amendment rights, but that such consequences imply nothing about the status of M&D's claims about the oppressiveness of pornography. However, if we're thinking about censoring pornography as feminists because it oppresses women, then we should think about whether that censorship will oppress women even more. As Donna points out, the censorship of pornography at CMU ended up censoring women. And here, it's worthwhile to return to Califia. The state, particularly the Canadian government, has censored Califia's work. Pornography has not silenced her; the state has. And part of the reason she poses a threat is because she creates a sexualized female subjectivity in her work. I suggest that we ought to take the formation of this subjectivity seriously, whether or not we like what emerges. Here I think I reiterate what Donna said about the need to form both open, public spaces and safe private havens wherein women can begin the work of articulating a sexuality that in the past has been largely articulated for us. By censoring pornography, we can silence the articulation of a female sexuality in all its forms. This sort of consequence should inform the stand we take on M&D's propositions.
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