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Pornography as propaganda: feminist pornography and egalitarian values

Date:23 March 2017
Author:Catarina Dutilh Novaes
Is pornography a bad thing?
Is pornography a bad thing?

Pornography has always existed; for almost as long as we have pictorial representations of people, we have pictorial representations of people engaging in sexual activities. The walls of Pompeii’s brothel are famously covered with erotic paintings, and erotic literature has a long and distinguished history. Nevertheless, with the advent of the Internet and other technological advancements, pornography has never been as ubiquitous as it is now. Given its pervasiveness, it has become a topic of study for psychologists, sociologists, media scholars, legal scholars, and philosophers.

The origins of current philosophical debates on pornography can be traced back to the so-called ‘porn wars’ in the United States in the 1980s. At the time, legal scholar Catharine MacKinnon sought to make the production and dissemination of pornography legally actionable in civil court. In collaboration with feminist writer and activist Andrea Dworkin, she wrote an ordinance proposed in the 1980s by the American city of Indianapolis, which would have allowed women to file discrimination charges against people who made or distributed pornography. It is in this ordinance that MacKinnon and Dworkin offer their famous definition of pornography as constitutively harmful: “We define pornography as the graphic sexually explicit subordination of women in pictures or words.” This means that, for them, pornography is by definition the subordination of women, and thus by definition ‘bad’.

In philosophical and legal circles, one of the main reactions to MacKinnon’s work was the liberal response according to which pornography is protected by the right to free speech, which in the US is guaranteed by the First Amendment. And thus, pornography was viewed as falling under the category of speech; its alleged harmful effects were viewed as accidental, thus not representing sufficient grounds to justify censorship. It is in this context that, in the 1990s, a number of feminist philosophers, in particular Rae Langton, sought to justify and vindicate MacKinnon’s position against the liberal challenge by taking seriously the idea that pornography is speech, and by further investigating the claim that pornography, qua speech, is essentially a form of subordination of women. To this end, they turned to speech-act theory, and in particular to the philosopher J. L. Austin (1911-1960).

More recently, a number of authors have questioned the adoption of a linguistic perspective such as speech-act theory to analyze the phenomenon of pornography (see this recent edited volume). Instead, a concept that has become increasingly popular in philosophical discussions about pornography is the concept of propaganda, originally a Marxist concept. (MacKinnon’s own analysis was deeply inspired by Marxist ideas.) The idea that pornography functions as propaganda can be found for example in the writings of feminist scholar Sheila Jeffreys: “Pornography as propaganda, according to feminist analysis, represents women as objects who love to be abused, and teaches men practices of degradation and abuse to carry out upon women.” In other words, for Jeffreys and many others, pornography is the propaganda of patriarchy.

But not all feminist thinkers have such a grim, negative view of pornography. Back in the 1980s, some feminists (e.g. Betty Dodson) rejected MacKinnon’s account of pornography as being by definition the subordination of women, and pointed out that pornography can in fact have a liberating, empowering effect for both men and women. More recently, the feminist pornography movement has been gaining traction, involving producers, performers, and theorists. In the words of one of its main exponents, Tristan Taormino: “Feminist pornographers are committed to gender equality and social justice. Feminist porn is ethically produced porn, which means that performers are paid a fair wage and they are treated with care and respect […] Feminist porn seeks to empower the performers who make it and the people who watch it.”

In opposition to what might be described as ‘mainstream porn’, where women are often depicted as accessories for male pleasure, in feminist pornography women are represented with a strong sense of agency. Moreover, feminist pornography seeks to provide more realistic representations of both male and female sexuality, as well as to showcase a wide variety of body shapes, colors and types. It seeks to embrace the full diversity of human sexual experiences.

Is feminist pornography a form of propaganda? In colloquial language as well as in traditional Marxist thought, ‘propaganda’ tends to have a negative connotation, but a neutral notion of propaganda seems in many senses to be preferable to analyze a range of phenomena. In a neutral sense, propaganda would be a message used with the intention to persuade a socially significant group of people, on behalf of a political institution, organization, or cause (a definition proposed by philosopher Sheryl Tuttle Ross). In this neutral formulation, feminist pornography fully satisfies the definition of propaganda, as it is viewed by its producers as a means to advance values of gender equality and social justice. Sheila Jeffreys and other thinkers may well be right that much of the pornography still produced serves as propaganda for non-egalitarian values, but what feminist pornographers claim is that this is not inherent to pornography as such. Pornography as a medium is neutral with respect to the values it will promote, and since it is a reality not going away any time soon, feminists would do better to appropriate this means to promote their egalitarian values rather than leave this powerful tool entirely in the hands of ‘the patriarchy’.

Whether there will be enough interest in the kind of pornography produced within feminist pornography remains to be seen; pornography is after all a form of entertainment, and thus at least to some extent dictated by what audiences want to see. But philosophically at least, feminist pornography holds the promise to show that ‘egalitarian pornography’ is not a contradiction in terms.


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