Feminism and Pornography

Posted: November 26, 2010 in Analysis, culture, Media, Popular Culture
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There is not just one standpoint of feminism as it has many strands (Freedman, 2001). Hence, there is no feminism but feminisms. This considers the multiple perspectives of feminism drawn from various era of the movement and its differing philosophical and political views. But there is something unitary and convergent in these perspectives, that is the struggle against the exploitation of women.

Freedman explains that at the baseline, the assertions of feminism are grounded in the views that women are assumed to be inferior in social position and they are discriminated because of their sex. She furthers that feminism calls for social, economic, political and cultural change to reduce and overcome discrimination of women. Taking from this view on feminism, I interrogate on how pornography results into tension in feminism, and how politics should take a standpoint to reduce that tension.

Cornell (2000) argues that understanding pornography must consider how those who consume it, engage in it and those against it construct its meaning. Cornell describes that some feminists are against pornography because: 1) sexual fantasies are private and personal which are representations of private speech; 2) it institutionalizes sexual slavery and trafficking of women and children; and 3) it represents sexually explicit materials of women subordination. Put simply, Cornell believes that pornography is obscenity that goes against public morality by capitalizing on the representations of women subordination, and which implicates the erosion of a woman’s self-representation or identity, worth and dignity in the context of a morally upright community.

Margarette Mead defines pornography cross-culturally as “words or acts, or representations that are calculated to stimulate sex feelings independent of the presence of another loved and chosen human being” (1953, cited in Peckman, 1969, p.23).  This definition is also problematic because it considers that which makes something pornographic leads to philandering, infidelity or adultery. Again, these pertain to moral rather than political issues. If the law takes on pornography as obscenity, as what Cornell thinks of, then the pleasures and natural beauty of sex are all reduced to something that is filthy and immoral. Morality is a shared understanding, a consideration and responsibility to uplift human dignity. Morality cannot be imposed or stipulated as political laws as it may restrict humanity’s civil liberties.  

Pornography is understood in contemporary culture as an adult material, so fundamental legal safeguards classify the media that delivers such representations either R or X. They are not intended for public viewing. Pornography is sexually implicit as it presents human sexuality and sexual acts. The argument then shifts on the obscenity of sex and its representation. Political debates extend as to whether pornography should be banned because of obscenity, but who judges what is obscene or not? Are sex, sexuality and human act of sex obscene?

The production of pornographic materials has economic gains to those who engage in it. Legitimate porn producers should abide by the laws that protect all those who engage in its creation and distribution. Producers have the license to create what they want, but that should go with social responsibility. The intent of producing porn material is to stimulate sexual desires for its viewers. Men and women alike can watch porn, as they choose to. Viewers like anyone else have the right to choose what they watch. Porn may serve useful to fulfill individual sexual desires and in the education of society members about human sexuality.

Social morality is essential, but that is developed as society changes its constructs of what is good for the society and for every individual in the community. Jaggar (1983) argues that political theory is significant to create social movement and change in the quality of social life. Individual members of the society are rational beings. They think and decide, as they can choose for what is good in their lives. Political theory must be emancipating for all regardless of gender or sex, age or ethnicity, faith or affiliation, ideology or idiosyncrasy because it must serve to guide the society in its evolution towards the higher good and the improvement of humanity’s quality of life. Therefore, politics has a role in reinforcing or reconstructing human morality.

In the 1980’s at the height of the Jerry Fallwell vs. Larry Flint case on libel in a pornographic case, the views of feminism on pornography were divided. Prior to this, conservative feminists see pornography as objectification of women – that is making women as sexual objects. Liberalists see that pornography deserves the same right to freedom of speech as guaranteed by the constitution in a democracy.

Liberal feminism has its history in the women’s struggle for equal rights in the society. Liberalism advanced the perspective that women too are rational individuals and that they deserve the same rights as men in politics have. Women have the same right to freedom of speech. However, the tension in liberal feminism as what Jaggar argues is that of between the individual and the society. While the society as a group of men and women should enjoy the same rights to freedom, justice and equality, the individual also has his or her civil liberty.

The contrasting view among feminists is that pornography objectifies women and that they are represented as sexual objects that dehumanize them or subordinates them. I wonder whether this is the same view that women in the porn industry have about what they do. Cornell takes the Mackinon and Dworkin’s positions on pornography, that so as not impinge on the individual civil liberty, pornography must be regulated, that the government should consider the subordination of women in pornographic materials as obscene.

There are nine points to Mackinon and Dworkin’s description of subordination of women in pornographic materials. Some of these views are debated within the feminist movement. Such are the images of being sexual objects, masochists, pleased in being raped, whores, bestial, filthy, injured, inferior and others. Their assumption rests on a belief that how porn represents women can affect how others in the society view women in general. This belief, I argue lacks empirical grounds on the issue that media’s impact in the society is still debatable.

I share the feminist views and goals for an egalitarian society. I empathize with their struggle for emancipation. I support the feminist claim for identity and equal opportunities. I regard women as equal to men regardless of the biological differences. I regard women as rational beings like any other human being. I see women as vital as anyone else for social, political, economic and cultural change. I have respect to women who can decide judiciously and critically for their liberty and self-promotion, in whichever state they may be.

On women in pornography, I say that they are women too. Like how we respect any woman to engage in any career, they deserve the same respect and protection that government has to provide for everyone in the society. On pornography, I see the craft is not to lash women or leash them as sexual objects, for men are there too which in the private confines of a viewer can be constructed as sexual objects. On women subordination in pornography, I say let’s have a poll to determine what women likes about sex. Now this to some conservative would be obscene. But to expand human knowledge it is necessary that we get into that, like as how we should acknowledge both divergent and convergent constructions of the realities in this social world.

Am I pro-porn or against porn? Pornography has always been a part of the world’s culture. It is hypocracy to say that it is not sexually pleasing or stimulating. It is ignorance to believe that humans in their complexity are not also sexual beings. I guess it is an artifact that anthropologist should consider to understand humanity, and its function to the society. I am against the outright abuse of women in whichever industry, on the basis of their sex.


Cornell, D. (2000). Feminism and Pornography. Oxford University Press.

Freedman, J. (2001). Feminism. Buckingham, UK: Open University Press.

Jaggar, A. (1983). Feminist Politcs and Human Nature. Sussex: Rolland & Allanheld.

Peckman, M. (1969). Art and Pornography as Experiment in Explanation. New York: Basic Books.


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