Feminism and Pornography:

A Dialogical Perspective

by Robert Cavalier (rc2z@andrew.cmu.edu)

In the 60s and 70s, debates over pornography mirrored the counter-culture's clash with conservative values. The nude actors in "Oh, Calcutta!" challenged the intent of obscenity laws to resonate with 'community standards' and Stanley v. Georgia (1969) upheld the civil rights of consumers to possess pornography in their home. In this classic Liberal vs. Conservative encounter, the Liberal argues that there already exist laws to protect people from violence and children from exploitation and that the government has no business getting in the way of people's freedom of expression. Moral beliefs about sex should not be used to censor individual tastes.

But with the proliferation of Adult Bookstores and the new VCR market of the late 70s, the issue of pornography became redifined by feminist writers seeking to explore the impact of that industry on women and their place in society. In this new context, Helen Longino defined pornography as "verbal or pictorial material which represents or describes sexual behavior that is degrading or abusive to one or more of the participants in such as way as to endorse the degradation" (The Problem of Pornography p. 27).

To these writers, the immorality of pornography is not its sexual content, but its violation of woman's dignity...'its lie about who women are and what they want.' Furthermore, this degrading lie is 'implicated in the committing of crimes of violence against women.' The link between pornography and crime moves the issue from a personal concern with moral conduct to a legal concern with civil protection. Robin Morgan's phrase, "pornography is the theory, rape is the practice," captures the explicit link between production of pornography and violence against woman.

The linkage of pornography to crime, if it could be causally established, would fulfill J. S. Mill's harm principle and buttress efforts to restrict pornography as a form of expression (protected by the First Amendment). Although the empirical evidence in this matter was never univocal, by the 1980s the issue of pornography was no longer seen simply in terms of the Conservative's attempt to 'protect' society from the ills of sex nor the Liberal's assertion that we have the right to read and look at what we please so long as we hurt no one and that all are of consenting age. Feminist thinkers undercut this traditional Conservative/Liberal dichotomy: "Into the symbiotic dance between left and right, between men who love to hate each other, enters the captive woman, the terms of access to whom they have been fighting over"(Only Words p. 9).

Catherine MacKinnon argues that pornography is not simply a form of expression with potentially bad effects, it is also a practice...not only 'words' but 'actions' involving treatment of real woman in real situations. And, in the sex industry, this treatment is essentially abusive. Furthermore, pornographic materials, in the hands of consumers, is a form of two-dimensional sex. Men (mostly) act on the woman in the pictures. The abuse is doubled.

In this redescription of pornography, such abuse should not be considered 'expression' but subordination, discrimination. In its distribution, pornography should have no more legal standing than a "Whites Only" sign. "On the basis of its reality," writes MacKinnon," Andrea Dworkin and I have proposed a law against pornography that defines it as graphic sexually explicit materials that subordinate women through pictures or words....This definition includes the harm of what pornography says -- its function as defamation or hate speech -- but defines it and it alone in terms of what it does -- its role as subordination, as sex discrimination" (p. 22).

Thus the anti-porn feminist position aligns itself with the move to censor pornography by making its unwanted presence an actionable offense. In its extreme formulation, the anti-porn feminist would ban its production and prohibit its dissemination.

But matters are not so simple. Ambiguity was always present within the feminist position, as witnessed by the 1985 cover of Ms. Magazine: "Is One Woman's Sensuality Another Woman's Pornography?" Betty Friedan, while expressing concern over the content of some pornography, voiced greater concern over the anti-porn feminist movement: "I want to express my view, on behalf of a great many woman in this country, feminists and believers in human rights, that this current move to introduce censorship in the United States in the guise of suppressing pornography is extremely dangerous to woman." It's dangerous because it aligns the essentially liberal woman's movement with the right wing of the conservation agenda, an agenda that gains momentum with such an alliance.

Over and above concerns with civil liberties, a number of feminist writers failed to hear their voices in the anti-porn literature. Some, like Sallie Tisdale, struggled with the politicalization of their sexual desires: "I was...simply ashamed of my own unasked-for appetites and shockingly incorrect fantasies, which would not be still, and which seemed to violate the hygienic dogma of sexual equality and Amazon health" (pp. 8-9). Some of those fantasies were of Bondage and Discipline. In truth, much of the 'violent pornographic sex' that is discussed, that which can be found in Adult Bookstores, is of sexual submission and domination. It is a kind of fantasy sex that plays itself out in an endless variety of male/female/hetero/homosexual permutations. It also plays off the essential 'objectification' of the self and other in the theater of the mind. For Tisdale, writers like Andrea Dorwkin and Catherine MacKinnon are simply out of touch with the complexity of the human sexual imagination. Mainstream pornography may have its problems (including work conditions), but its most common offense is its 'limited menu' and myopic view of woman's sexuality.

Combining both sexual preference issues and political coercion concerns, Pat Califia sees the MacKinnon/Dworkin legal initiative as opening the door for suppression of gay rights and the gay life-style. The 1992 Canadian Supreme Court decision regarding pornography, the so-called Butler decision, states in part: "If true equality between male and female is to be achieved, we cannot ignore the threat to equality resulting from exposure to audiences of certain types of violent and degrading materials." But, Califia writes, "the Butler decision has had almost no visible impact on the straight-porn industry. Instead, it has been used to impede the circulation of gay literature...The first obscenity case under Butler was a prosecution of Glad Day Bookstore, a gay business in Toronto, for selling the lesbian S/M magazine, Bad Attitude. Madonna's Sex, however, heated up Canadian cash registers with impunity" (pp. 107, 123).

In articles entitled "Among Us, Against Us: Right Wing Feminism" and "The New Puritans: Does Equation of Pornography with Violence Add Up to Political Repression?," Califia argues strenuously against anti-porn feminism. No one is for rape, torture, and child abuse, but, in the view of this counter movement, organizations such as Women Against Violence in Pornography in the Media (WAVPM) espouse a Victorian view of women and their physical, emotional, and sexual abilities that is out of sync with the reality of many women's lives.

A middle ground, of sorts, is explored by Drucilla Cornell in The Imaginary Domain. While clearly not satisfied with the MacKinnon/Dworkin attempt to link pornography to intrinsically coercive speech acts, she does recognize the 'degradation' problem as found in many sex films and magazines produced by the mainstream sex-industry. But her response includes the possibility of sex-positive pornography of the kind found in women pornographers such as Ona Zee and Candidia Royalle.

For Cornell, the task is not to prohibit pornography because it is an act of sex discrimination, but to look for new and different ways that pornography can be explored and discussed. "It is a mistake, then, to reject out of hand the argument that 'more speech' is one feminist weapon to take up against the pornography industry. Candida Royalle's films [for instance] should be understood as a form of feminist practice. Without new images and new words in which to express our sexuality, we will be unable to create a new world for women" (p. 138).

The argument seems to have come full circle. But the debate has been unalterably changed by this circle. Discussions about "What's right or wrong with pornography?" move away from the standard liberal/conservative dualism to concerns with the representation of women and the subtle and complex domain of the sexual imagination. In the process, the very conversation about pornography changes. The issue becomes dialectical; the response, I'd argue, becomes Deweyan.

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.' (See below) 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 'essential truths' that prohibit further conversation. It's as if these 're-descriptions' 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? The answer lies in its effect on silencing critics. There are other voices in this internal debate and they need to be heard as well. This is not so much a matter of 'political free speech' as a matter of 'philosophical free speech.'

Pragmatists like Rorty take our post-Nietzschean culture seriously. There are no '800' numbers to call when we confront moral perplexity, no algorithms to use when deep conflicts of value arise. All that we are left with is what Dewey called 'social intelligence' -- that open forum where ideas clash and human truth emerges: "A liberal society is one which is content to call 'true' (or 'right' or 'just') whatever the outcome of undistorted communication happens to be, whatever view wins in a free and open encounter" (Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity p. 67). In this dialogical move, "...there are no constraints on inquiry save CONVERSATIONAL ones -- no wholesale constraints derived from the nature of objects, or of mind, or of language, but only those retail constraints provided by the remarks of our fellow-inquirers." (p. 165)

And that is why the unique form of this online environment bears special relation to the pressing issues discussed here. From the pragmatist's perspective, Computer Mediated Communication might provide an Electronic Agora where the market-place of ideas could hold full sway. Furthermore, the rich environment of the World Wide Web and its hypermedia design might be thoughtfully used to enrich the data being discussed and deepen the appreciation of the problems brought to light by the interlocutors. Indeed, the 'conversational turn' that has been occurring in meta-ethical theory requires us to consider ways of linking these kinds of 'papers' to a forum where, for example, MacKinnon, Califia, and Cornell could continue their conversations, buttressing their positions with links to other sources and people on the World Wide Web.



Califia, Pat. Radical Sex. Pittsburgh: Cleis Press, 1994.

Cornell, Drucilla.The Imaginary Domain. New York: Routledge, 1995.

Dwyer, Susan Ed. The Problem of Pornography. Belmont, California: Wadsworth, 1995.

MacKinnon, Catherine. Only Words. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1993

McElroy, Wendy. A Woman's Right to Pornography. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1995.

Rorty, Richard . Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. Cambridge Univ. Press, 1989.

------------- "Feminism and Pragmatism" Radical Philosophy Vol. 59 1991.

Tisdale, Sallie. Talk Dirty To Me. New York: Doubleday, 1994.

Robert Cavalier is a Senior Researcher at Carnegie Mellon's Center for the Advancement of Applied Ethics. He is also a member of the Philosophy Department, where he teaches courses in Ethics.


The mixed gender editorial staff of "O" Magazine confronts the stereotypes of a misogynist, Mafia dominated 'sex industry' :

'Published' Web-sites bypass the traditional bookstore/mail order distribution routes. The philosophies and attitudes found at many of these sites reveal a surprising variety of perspectives and experiences ( http://www.yahoo.com/Society_and_Culture/Sexuality/ ). See, for example:

"Yellow Silk Magazine" -- "Produced for women as well as men, YELLOW SILK always offers up its heat with a great deal of warmth, and figures the heart and brain are too often ignored as erotic organs." ( http://www.dc.enews.com/magazines/yellow_silk/ ) [Sorry, this site's link is broken.]

"People Empowering People" -- An "Organization which Explores Consensual Dominance/Submission, S/M and Bondage & Discipline Relationships with Acceptance, Caring, Respect and Dignity" ( http://www.xroads.com/apex/ ) [Sorry, this site's link is broken.]

Return to article