The Sex Wars, Revisited: Sex Positive vs. Sex Negative Feminist Voices on Pornography

pornography and feminism 1

From the “sex wars” of the 1980s to today, feminism (as a multi-faceted and -faced movement with nearly as many iterations as there are practitioners, which is yet expected to comprise itself into one monolithic ideology) has, as a whole, grappled and often floundered with issues of sexuality and its representations in mass media.

We hear a lot about “sex positive” and “sex negative” feminism, and though these terms are simplistic, sometimes misleading and somewhat anachronistic (referring most often to the factions which developed during the antipornography and anticensorship debates of the 80s), they help delineate some of the fissures in the feminist movement.

Many feminists have dissected the divide and reclassified the debate as not one of sex positive/negative, but into the more descriptive and (possibly) inclusive terms of liberal/radical feminism. And while I think the semantics are worth noting and do matter, this approach nonetheless reinforces the gap and continues to create rifts in a movement that is already struggling to cohere and keep momentum.

Rather than pick a camp, we thought we’d explore the dialogue between the two positions, the arguments for both sides, and the ways in which they overlap, challenge each other, undermine each other and even bolster each other at times. It’s also important, always, to consider the ways that these divisions tend to ignore and silence feminists of color, lesbians, transgender women and feminists in poverty.[1]

We’ve compiled here a host of perspectives from both the sex positive and sex negative camps on the ever-controversial topic of porn.[2]

 

Radical or “Sex Negative” Feminist Voices

 

Andrea Dworkin, “Against the Male Flood”

“The oppression of women occurs through sexual subordination. It is the use of sex as the medium of oppression that makes the subordination of women so distinct from racism or prejudice against a group based on religion or national origin. In the subordination of women, inequality itself is sexualized: made into the experience of sexual pleasure, essential to sexual desire. Pornography is the material means of sexualizing inequality; and that is why pornography is a central practice in the subordination of women.”

 

Robin Morgan, “Theory and Practice: Pornography and Rape”

“Pornography is the theory, and rape is the practice.”

 

Catherine Alice MacKinnon, “Only Words”

“Protecting pornography means protecting sexual abuse as speech, at the same time that both pornography and its protection have deprived women of speech, especially speech against sexual abuse. The operative definition of censorship accordingly shifts from government silencing what powerless people say, to powerful people violating powerless people into silence and hiding behind state power to do it.”

 

Jillian Horowitz, “I’m a Sex Negative Feminist”

“What [being sex negative] does, in fact, mean is that the way you fuck is not ‘private,’ apolitical, or outside the realm of critique.  Sex does not happen in a vacuum immune to outside structural influences; in fact, it can (and does) replicate inescapable systems of power and dominance. Being sex-negative means acknowledging that sex, and kink, have nothing intrinsically ‘good’ or ‘positive’ about them (in direct contrast to sex-positive feminists, many of whom argue that sex is an inherent good and that less charitable opinions toward sex are the result of a poisonous, prudish society). It means, above all, engaging in the kind of sustained analysis of sex, kink and consent that we willingly grant to pretty much every other facet of our individual and collective existence.”

 

Breanne Fahs, “’Freedom To’ and ‘Freedom From’: A New Vision for Sex-Positive Politics”

“While radical feminists often have been seen as the opposite of, or contrary to, the beliefs of sex positivity, I argue that radical feminists have merely wanted more recognition of ‘negative liberty,’ or the freedom from oppressive structures that most women confront on a daily basis. (Not all sex positives have totally neglected the freedom from, but rather, have deprioritized the freedom from in comparison to other goals and priorities.) Advocating caution about the unconditional access to women that is built into the sex-positive framework, radical feminists essentially said that, without women’s freedom from patriarchal oppression, women lacked freedom at all. Real sexual freedom, radical feminists claimed, must include the freedom from the social mandates to have sex (particularly the enforcement of sex with men) and freedom from treatment as sexual objects.”

 

Susan Brownmiller (in “Pornography and Rape”)

“[In pornography] our bodies are being stripped, exposed and contorted for the purpose of ridicule to bolster that ‘masculine esteem’ which gets its kick and sense of power from viewing females as anonymous, panting playthings, adult toys, dehumanized objects to be used, abused, broken and discarded.”

 

Andrea Dworkin, Pornography

“The major theme of pornography as a genre is male power, its nature, its magnitude, its use, its meaning.”

“The woman’s body is what is materially subordinated. Sex is the material means through which the subordination is accomplished. Pornography is the institution of male dominance that sexualizes hierarchy, objectification, submission and violence. As such, pornography creates inequality, not as artefact but as a system of social reality; it creates the necessity for and the actual behaviors that constitute sex inequality.”

 

Megan Murphy,“The Divide Isn’t Between ‘Sex Negative’ and ‘Sex Positive’ Feminists”

“Radical feminism aims to attack gender roles and the social inequality and male violence against women that results from these prescribed gender roles. Therefore, from a radical feminist perspective, there can be no glorification of the ‘feminine’ or ‘masculine’ because 1) those roles are oppressive, and 2) they aren’t real, but are invented and enforced by a patriarchal society. ‘Feeling good’ about self-objectification is fine on an individual level (I mean, feel however you want — no one’s stopping you), but has nothing to do with feminism or with changing or challenging an oppressive system.

If more women make porn that is ‘female-friendly’ (whatever that means), it won’t destroy the porn industry or make that industry one that isn’t a primarily sexist one that promotes the abuse and degradation of women.

Any individual can feel ’empowered’ in any given situation, but that changes nothing in terms of the overall structures and systems and it changes nothing in terms of women’s collective liberation from said system.”

 

Patricia Hill Collins, “Pornography and Black Women’s Bodies”

“The treatment of Black women’s bodies in nineteenth-century Europe and the United States may be the foundation upon which contemporary pornography as the representation of women’s objectification, domination, and control is based. Icons about the sexuality of Black women’s bodies emerged in these contexts. Moreover, as race and gender-specific representations, these icons have implications for the treatment of African-American and White women in contemporary pornography.”

 

Gail Dines, Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked Our Sexuality

“The pornographers did a kind of stealth attack on our culture, hijacking our sexuality and then selling it back to us, often in forms that look very little like sex but a lot like cruelty.  The only solution to this is a movement that is fierce in its critique of sexual exploitation and steadfast in its determination to fight for what is rightfully ours.”

 

Gloria Steinem, “Erotica and Pornography”

“Consider also our spirits that break a little each time we see ourselves in chains or full labial display for the conquering male viewer, bruised or on our knees, screaming a real or pretended pain to delight the sadist, pretending to enjoy what we don’t enjoy, to be blind to the images of our sisters that really haunt us—humiliated often enough ourselves by the truly obscene idea that sex and the domination of women must be combined.”

 

 

Voices in Between

 

Audre Lorde, “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power”

“There are many kinds of power, used and unused, acknowledged or otherwise. The erotic is a resource within each of us that lies in a deeply female and spiritual plane, firmly rooted in power of our unexpressed or unrecognized feeling. In order to perpetuate itself, every oppression must corrupt or distort those various sources of power within the culture of the oppressed that can provide energy for change. For women, this has meant a suppression of the erotic as a considered source of power and information within our lives.”

 

Patricia Hill Collins, “Pornography and Black Women’s Bodies”

“Those Black feminist intellectuals investigating sexual politics imply that the situation is much more complicated than that advanced within Western feminism in which ‘men oppress women’ because they are men. Such approaches implicitly assume biologically deterministic views of gender and sexuality and offer few possibilities for change. In contrast, the willingness of Black feminist analyses of sexual politics to embrace intersectional paradigms provides space for human agency. Women are not hard-wired as victims of pornography, nor are men destined uncritically to consume it.”

 

Lliane Loots, “Pornography and Censorship”

“As feminists, the issue that needs to be addressed most profoundly is that (primarily) it is women’s bodies which carry the burden of sexually constructed representations and the issue of legislating or censoring sexually explicit material, does not, of necessity, address the lived reality of how the media does and can be allowed to represent women’s bodies and sexuality.”

 

Jennifer C. Nash, “Strange Bedfellows: Black Feminism and Antipornography Feminism”

“While my critique of black feminism’s sexual conservatism emphasizes the importance of theorizing pleasure, I do not imagine sexual pleasure as a site of liberation wholly outside of domination. In fact, my emphasis on pleasure is informed by antipornography feminism’s important insight that pleasure can obscure inequality, eroticize subordination, and entrench hierarchy, functioning as a ‘velvet glove on the iron fist of domination.’ While mindful of the ways that dominance can disguise itself as pleasure (and to the ways in which dominance and pleasure are often coconstituitive), I turn my attention to pleasure in the hopes of creating a rupture in the dominant subordination narrative, a gap that can produce space for imagining the critical linkages between black female sexuality and black female subjectivity.”

 

Drucilla Cornell, “Pornography’s Temptation”

“We need to separate legal action to be taken in the production of pornography from action addressed specifically to the distribution of pornography. I insist on these distinctions primarily to serve the feminist purpose of treating women, including porn workers, as selves individuated enough to have undertaken the project of becoming persons. To treat women in the industry as reducible to hapless victims unworthy of solidarity refuses them that basic respect. The wealthy woman as moral rescuer has had a long history in both the United States and England. The prostitute, in particular, has always been a favourite candidate for rescue. By remaining ‘other’, the epitome of victimization, she stands in for the degradation of all women. Her life is then reduced to that figuration of her.”

 

Diana E. H. Russell, “Pornography and Rape”

“Most anti-pornography feminists consider it vitally important to distinguish between pornography and erotica. I define pornography as material that combines sex and/or the exposure of genitals with abuse or degradation in a manner that appears to endorse, condone, or encourage such behavior. Erotica refers to sexually suggestive or arousing material that is free of sexism, racism, and homophobia and is respectful of all human beings and animals portrayed.”

 

 

Liberal or “Sex Positive” Feminist Voices

 

Wendy McElory, XXX: A Woman’s Right to Pornography

“Sexual freedom—especially pornography, which is sexual free speech—is an integral part of the battle for women’s freedom. The censoring of sexual words and images does not simply lead to the suppression of women’s sexual rights. It is an attempt control women themselves. For women’s rights have traditionally been phrased in terms of their sexuality: marriage, abortion, birth control. To surrender one iota of women’s control over their own sexual expression is to deny that it is their sexuality in the first place.”

 

Linda Williams, Hard Core

“Re-vision in this sense is undertaken by women authors as a necessary ‘act of survival’ in order to be able to create at all. The visual aspect of this metaphor of revision has been particularly useful for thinking about film. It seems to me that it is precisely within this traditionally male genre [of pornography] that the idea of re-vision is most compelling: ‘survival’ here means transforming oneself from sexual object to sexual subject of representation.”

 

Judith Butler, “The Force of Fantasy”

“In point of fact, it may well be more frightening to acknowledge an identification with the one who debases than with the one who is debased or perhaps no longer to have a clear sense of the gender position of either; hence, the insistence that the picture enforces an identification with victimization might be understood not only as a refusal to identify—even in fantasy—with aggression, but, further, as a displacement of that refused aggression onto the picture which then—as a transferential object of sorts—takes on a personified status as an active agent that abuses its passive viewer (or which stands in for the phantasmatic figure of ‘patriarchy’ itself). Indeed, if pornography is to be understood as fantasy, as antipornography activists almost invariably insist, then the effect of pornography is not to force women to identify with a subordinate or debased position, but to provide the opportunity to identify with the entire scene of debasement, agents and recipients alike.”

 

Bobby Lilly, sex worker, quoted in Wendy McElory’s XXX: A Woman’s Right to Pornography

“We have to understand the potential there is [in pornography] for women to speak about ourselves. This has not been tapped. It is only just beginning. If we close the doors to sexual expression, we will never find the connection between sex and our power.”

 

Kate Ellis, Barbara O’Dair and Abby Tallmer, Caught Looking

“To close the avenues of sexual speech, at a time when women are only beginning to listen in on and participate in hitherto largely male-dominated conversations, and to hold conversations of our own, seems to us to endanger the climate of cultural demystification that has made these welcome beginnings possible.”

 

Susie Bright, “The Prime of Miss Kitty MacKinnon”

“It’s the easiest thing in the world to be disgusted by sexuality—we’ve been raised to do it automatically. It’s quite a different matter to embrace sexual diversity, or as a woman, to say that female orgasm is crucial to female power. MacKinnon has never liberated masturbation. She indicts sexuality like a traditionalist, stating boldly that ‘Pornography is masturbation material. Men know this.’ But what about women? MacKinnon apparently finds the idea that women masturbate, perhaps even using sexy words and pictures, altogether unbelievable—or yet another symptom of a pimp’s brain-washing. It’s this arrogance and condescension that make women, not men, MacKinnon’s fiercest and bitterest enemies.”

 

Jennifer C. Nash, “Strange Bedfellows: Black Feminism and Antipornography Feminism”

“In mobilizing the Hottentot Venus to critique dominant representations of black women’s bodies, black feminism has permitted a pernicious sexual conservatism, wearing the guise of racial progressivism, to seep into its analytic framework. By sexual conservatism, I refer to black feminism’s tendency to foreground examinations of black women’s sexual exploitation, oppression, and injury at the expense of analyses attentive to black women’s sexual heterogeneity, multiplicity, and diversity. In emphasizing black women’s continual sexual degradation, rather than the complex interplay between ‘pleasure and danger’ that constitutes black women’s sexual subjectivity, black feminism has become steeped in an ‘epistemological respectability,’ producing an intellectual formation that tends to avoid questions about black women’s sexual desires, black queer subjectivities, and the various forms of black women’s pleasures.”

 

Lisa Henderson, “Lesbian Pornography”

“Envisioning a deeply sexual world among women, these images trade at once on liberatory imagination and subcultural cachet. Lesbians may not consciously experience their sexuality as transgressive, even as they know it to be institutionally reviled. But such fixed, public representations of lesbian sex in a declaratively lesbian context like On Our Backs are a potentially transgressive and transformative site. What is socially marginal becomes symbolically central through a politicized appropriation of sexual taboo, a threat (in the service of lesbian desire) to the sexual codes of both straight society and anti-porn feminist orthodoxy.”

 

Feona Attwood, “No Money Shot? Commerce, Pornography, and New Sex Taste Cultures”

“[Because of the internet] it is now possible to create, distribute and access a much more diverse set of sexual representations than before. Pornographers may operate independently of the established industry in new and alternative ways, while small groups of independent and ‘savvy media practitioners’ are producing and distributing alternative porn in online arenas for peer-to-peer sharing, sex activist and art networks. This is a ‘collaborative’ producing of porn, the beginnings, in Katrien Jacobs’ view, of a democratization of porn which challenges existing frameworks for representing sex.”

 

Drucilla Cornell, “Pornography’s Temptation”

“[The phrase ‘representational politics’] accurately describes the effort in these [‘femme’ pornographic] materials to unleash the feminine imagery into new representational forms that challenge the stereotypes of femininity governing the presentation of the female ‘sex’ in the mainstream heterosexual porn industry.”

 

Angela Carter, “Polemical Preface: Pornography in the Service of Women”

“Pornographers are the enemies of women only because our contemporary ideology of pornography does not encompass the possibility of change, as if we were the slaves of history and not its makers, as if sexual relations were not necessarily an expression of social relations, as if sex itself were an external fact, one as immutable as the weather, creating human practice but never a part of it.”

 

[1]Unfortunately these voices are underrepresented in this article as well, due to scope, but we hope to provide more inclusive samples in further articles dedicated to these more marginalized voices (including voices of sex workers themselves).

[2]There is so much to cover on this topic, and so much being said, that we intend to turn it into a series eventually, covering a range of issues and voices. To begin with, the debate of sex positivity/negativity addresses a huge range of sexual practices, including pornography, strip dancing, burlesque, prostitution and sex trafficking. This seems far too wide a range to get our minds and our mouths around (pardon) in one article, so we’re focusing here solely on pornography, with plans to address other topics in further articles.

 

Works Cited

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