Monday, 15 June 2009

Guest Post: Pornography: fostering and perpetuating demeaning attitudes toward women

Many thanks to Caroline Ferguson, Women's Rights Officer at AUSA, for this contribution to our recent debate about pr0n, in particular in the context of the recent concerns raised about Issue 12 of Craccum.

I'm the WRO at the University of Auckland and I have just spent huge amount of time and energy dealing with this issue on campus. The recent Craccum at Auckland Uni which was full of pornographic content has been heavily penalised by the Students Association. Following this battle, I was extremely dismayed to find this pro-porn post on THM. The editors of Craccum didn't even bother to raise a pro-porn argument when defending their publication - I thought post-"Female Chauvinist Pigs", sex-positive 'liberating' 'stripping-is-empowering type feminism had been pretty clearly debunked - pornography has not 'benefited' women, and is no triumph of feminism (as Hugh Hefner argues). How is it that this argument is still continuing among feminists? It leaves us open to being viewed as an incoherent, vitriolic movement, undeserving of respect.

When we look at the issue of pornography, why not accept the distinction made by Dworkin and MacKinnon between porn and erotica. In this distinction, porn is defined as:
“the graphic sexually explicit subordination of women through pictures and words, that also includes women presented dehumanized as sexual objects, things, or commodities; or women presented as sexual objects who enjoy humiliation or pain; or women presented as sexual objects experiencing sexual pleasure in rape, incest or other sexual assault; or women are presented as sexual objects tied up, cut up or mutilated or bruised or physically hurt; or women presented in postures or positions of sexual submission, servility, or display; or women's body parts — including but not limited to vaginas, breasts, or buttocks — exhibited such that women are reduced to those parts; or women presented being penetrated by objects or animals; or women presented in scenarios of degradation, humiliation, injury, torture, shown as filthy or inferior, bleeding, bruised, or hurt in a context that makes these conditions sexual.” (Catharine MacKinnon, Feminism Unmodified (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1987), 176.)
This is distinct from erotica (and this is more than the 'semantic' difference which Enid writes it off as), which they define as "sexually explicit material premised on equality, which depicts women as genuinely equal and consenting participants in sexual encounters." If we then accept the reality that most mainstream sexually explicit material falls within the category of pornography, and not erotica, then its hard to see how a feminist who believes in the moral equality of men and women can write a post which, in general, does not recognise the reality of an oppressive and degrading industry ("being anti-porn is much like being anti-television").

I'd like to quote part of my submission to the Media Complaints Tribunal, which is the body responsible for penalising Craccum:
"Some people argue that pornography directly contributes to the scourge of violence against women, an unspoken national shame in New Zealand. Even if such a causal link cannot be irrefutably established, it is difficult to deny that pornography cultivates and perpetuates the view of women as sexually submissive and morally inferior citizens. In this way, pornography can be understood as violating the rights of women to equal status within the University. The seriousness of Craccum’s failures in publishing Issue 12 is rendered even more acute by the fact that Craccum is ultimately published and funded by AUSA. An important part of AUSA’s mandate is to promote an environment in which all students can educate themselves without fear of discrimination or harassment. For AUSA to be party to the publication and distribution of pornography on campus is oppressive, degrading and a serious betrayal of the student body it represents.

It has been argued that the frightening spectre of wholesale censorship outweighs the harm done to women by pornography. However, on closer analysis, it is revealed that the above view prefigures its own conclusion by denying that women have the right to free speech in the same measure as men do; pornography is censorship insofar as it fosters the public perception of women as somehow politically and morally deficient citizens. Thus, pornography violates women’s right to freedom of expression. If women are to participate in student affairs, including student media, in a meaningful way, it is important that AUSA matches its formal policies with clear directives and clear action designed to ensure that the dehumanising perception of women as merely sexual objects is overturned."
Sexual objectification is not the fundamental issue. Sexuality does not need to be premised on female submission, as the mainstream would have us believe. If mainstream pornography did not depict women as inferior the vast majority of situations, I would not have felt the need to respond to Ms Enid, but given the reality that I perceive, Ms Enid's pro-porn position is actually very insidious and damaging.

To quote Ariel Levy:
"the proposition that having the most simplistic, plastic stereotypes of female sexuality constantly reiterated throughout our culture somehow proves that we are sexually liberated and personally empowered has been offered to us, and we have accepted it. But if we stop to think about it, we know this just doesn't make any sense. Its time to stop nodding and smiling uncomfortably as we ignore the crazy feeling in our heads and admit that the emperor has no clothes."


Psycho Milt said...

How is it that this argument is still continuing among feminists? It leaves us open to being viewed as an incoherent, vitriolic movement, undeserving of respect.

The possession of the wrong gonads makes me strictly an outside observer of this issue, but in my experience of other movements, what's really vitriolic and undeserving of respect is telling other participants to shut up and keep their opinions to themselves because you'd like the movement to be "coherent," ie reflect your own opinion.

Anita said...


Your post makes a coherent argument that much of the porn that currently exists is damaging. It doesn't, however, even try to make the argument that porn in-and-of-itself is damaging.

Like many third wave feminists I would argue that porn is not the problem, it's the kind of porn that much of our society makes and wants that is the problem.

Should we battle that unhealthy porn by banning all porn? Or by separating the unhealthy content from a neutral concept and accepting and propagating porn which is healthy? Which will make more difference? Which is more right?

If I were to attack your position it would be to say that you are reinforcing external societal control over women's lives and bodies. Shouldn't women be free to use our own bodies, minds and hearts to make healthy safe porn that celebrates our sexuality?

Paul said...

I learn from this piece that what is unacceptable is Porn and what is acceptable is Erotica. This seems to be a distinction of taste dressed up as one of ethics. I learn also that to hold an opinion or a taste which differs from those of the author also is unacceptable.

Anna said...

The porn vs erotica thing is intriguing. I'd always thought that the distinction between them was that erotica had an aesthetic appreciation of bodies that is absent in porn. But then, when things like Boobs on Bikes are described as erotica, my distinction goes to hell.

Anita said...

<helpful>Erotica can be written too, and there's definitely erotica which is not about aesthetic appreciation or, in fact, bodies</helpful>

QoT said...

I'm really with Psycho Milt on this.

Hugh said...

I don't quite agree that the distinction between pornography and erotica is strictly one of taste. But a lot of what McKinnon says is, I suspect, overly narrow. Here's probably the most obvious example:

women presented being penetrated by objects

So anything involving the use of sex toys cannot be erotica.

I suspect this is not what McKinnon meant and that her definition is intended more as a guide than a specific checklist. But I'm not going to give her credit for that, because I shouldn't have to make such inferences. If she is going to put clear moral water between pornography and erotica she needs to put clear conceptual water between them too.

It's also worth noting that she seems either unaware of or totally uninterested in gay male pornography. Is her implication that it cannot be pornography because it doesn't depict women? The repeated use of the word 'women' in her definition seems to imply this isn't a grey area.

Anna said...

The thing that troubles me about the porn issue is that, although lots of logical arguments can be made in favour of them (and I tend to subscribe to these arguments, with some qualifications), many women feel deeply uncomfortable with porn. For some women, porn (however it might be defined or produced) has no potential to be sexually liberating; or the idea of sexual liberation itself is less important to these women than other feminist goals. That's fair enough too - sex will be more or less important to you depending on where you're at in life, and all the life experiences you bring to the debate.

Although I don't have any great ideas on how to do it, I think the feminist movement needs to respect that porn is confronting for many women, without being tempted to dismiss their objections with 'false consciousness' arguments (not that I'm suggesting commentators are doing this).

Paul said...

Yes, it is a matter of taste. There are progressive people who say that porn is liberating and prigs like Dworkin who draw false distinctions between porn and erotica (which really is no more than middle-class porn) and there are others who simply feel uncomfortable with it.

The problem with the Craccum porn paraody, apart from it being lamentably unfunny, was one of taste. Having photos of someone playing with herself on Rudman Green is vulgar and distasteful. Craccum's readers should not have been exposed to that: it is not something one would expect from the magazine. If one bought a girlie mag, one could hardly complain that it contains such pictures, but one is entitled to complain when they appear in a free magazine which is supposed to be available for all students.

Anita said...


Many men find porn confronting too. I'm not sure of the relative numbers, but when I used to do a job which required talking to people about porn (appropriate use policies and inappropriate use investigations – not the most pleasant job I've done) I think the rates of really uncomfortable talking about it were pretty similar for men and women.

Some would say it's against God's will, some that it's exploitative, some that it's just plain icky, some probably couldn't have put their discomfort into words.

Do you think more feminists find porn confronting than women-who-aren't-feminist? Or men?

P.S. I should probably that say it was a relatively liberal organisation, and that talking to a young woman about porn might have added to the discomfort for some of the older men.

P.P.S. Also that I'm not talking about people I talked to because they'd been caught breaching the appropriate use policy (they were universally uncomfortable), rather people I talked to about the policy, about the nature of my work, or in the course of investigating someone else's behaviour.

stargazer said...

i just wanted to thank you caroline, both for putting up this piece and for the work you've done regarding the craccum issue.

i have a real problem with the "porn is neutral" thing, because i don't think anything is neutral. shoes aren't neutral - we could have a lengthy discussion about the difference between male & female shoes, stilettos and other fashions which are injurious to health, the ribbing i've heard women get for wearing plain/flat-heeled shoes to work etc etc. food isn't neutral, the manner we eat isn't neutral (eg not using cutlery and sitting on the floor to eat are ways to take the class distinction out of the act of eating food). in fact i don't think anything is neutral.

so i don't see the point of having that discussion at all. and the problem i have with the whole Female Chauvinist Pigs", sex-positive 'liberating' 'stripping-is-empowering type feminism is that you end up with the same result that a misogynist position does. ie it looks to me like you're doing exactly the same thing and getting the same result, even if you think you're getting there from a different place.

and as i tried to say in my post, one of the end results is that the porn/objectification of women encroaches into every sphere of our lives, for all women all the time. and as caroline points out, this limits the freedom of many women to participate - i totally agree with the "pornography is censorship" paragraph you wrote in your submission.

so thanks again for your contribution.

Psycho Milt said...

i totally agree with the "pornography is censorship" paragraph you wrote in your submission.

Really? It struck me as a glaring non-sequitur. Can you explain it in a little more depth, Stargazer?

stargazer said...

it's explained in the post, second paragraph from the bottom.

Hugh said...

Stargazer, when Enid said pornography was 'neutral' I don't think she meant, as you seem to have taken it, that it was never controversial or never wrong.

You're actually illustrating her point very well with your examples. Shoes can be bad or good, depending on how they are implemented, promoted and used. Shoes can certainly be a component of patriarchy (stilettos are the best example) but they can also be, in their own modest way, empowering. The same is true of food, and also (I think she would argue) of pornography.

The point about a concept being neutral is that one can accept that it is predominantly, or even wholly, negative at the present without necessarily being intrinsically bad. One can have a conversation about shoes that talks about what they could be like and should be like without focusing entirely on what they are like. The same is true about pornography.

The real question is not whether it's possible to talk about pornography in this way, but whether it's productive.

As I said in my post on the issue, there's a tendency for both sides to talk past one another - I am sympathetic with the idea that ruminating about some hypothetical acceptable future pornography is not productive when so many people are being harmed physically and mentally by the contemporary industry. On the other hand, some people have told me that failing to do so is really harmful to those who are trying to establish some fertile blooms within the porn industry - or perhaps more accurately, in parallel to the existing porn industry.

You wouldn't argue that because stilettos are injurious to health, nobody should be able to talk about shoes except to denounce stilletos. I think the argument is the same about pornography.

Maia said...

I think it's a complete misinterpretation to suggest that Enid's position was: " sex-positive 'liberating' 'stripping-is-empowering type". Either it's a dishonest interpretation, or one that comes from not actually paying attention to what she's saying, but it's disrespectful either way.

Moz said...

Caroline, I thought the Dworkin-Mackinnon position had been pretty thoroughly refuted, and was in fact a cause of the pro-sex feminist movement in the US. As someone who accepts that heterosexual sex can be a consenting activity and can be initiated by a woman who is acting as a reasonable adult, Dworkin doesn't make any sense to me.

Hugh, one of the issues with Dworkin especially is that she only regards women as important, and heterosexual activity as inherently degrading for the woman. The possibility of any positive sexual activity between men and women is ruled out before the discussion starts. She has written books about why that is, if you're interested. And any question about gay male activity is meaningless to her.

For that reason, while I'm unhappy with the Craccum edition, I can't accept Caroline's critique as sensible. It's akin to saying "Islam's treatment of women is problematic because it's not in accordance with the teachings of the Bible". It doesn't address the point at all, because it starts from a number of premises that I don't accept.

Keir said...

and as i tried to say in my post, one of the end results is that the porn/objectification of women encroaches into every sphere of our lives, for all women all the time. and as caroline points out, this limits the freedom of many women to participate - i totally agree with the "pornography is censorship" paragraph you wrote in your submission.

The problem I have with this is that anti-pornography is just as much censorship, and in fact when made into law has a track record of being even worse censorship.

See Avedon Carol on this.

(Also the porn/erotica distinction is blatantly a nonsense, esp as used by Dworkin et al who redefine the terms to have no connection to how they are actually used.)

Hugh said...

OK Moz, I should probably withhold judgement about McKinnon's work until I've actually read some of it but I am pretty sceptical. The idea of feminists seeing 'heterosexual activity as inherently degrading for the woman' is something I've encountered almost exclusively from the mouths of anti-feminists and almost never from self-identified feminists.

I find McKinnon's definition of pornography and erotica fairly problematic, but I'm going to be pretty sceptical that her position is/was as you describe it.

I know this isn't what you're saying, but this critique has become so pervasive that some anti-porn feminists seem to feel required constantly repeat their belief that heterosexual sex isn't innately bad before they're allowed to express a critical view of pornography. And that doesn't strike me as productive.

Deborah said...

Following this battle, I was extremely dismayed to find this pro-porn post on THM.

Good grief! Why? It's huge issue for feminists, and many feminists endorse or are pro-porn, or at least not anti-porn. It's a position worth understanding and discussing.

Anita said...

I'm with Hugh, shoes are a great example of something which is completely without political value in abstract, and in practice can be oppressive (stilettos), empowering (steel capped workboots in women's sizes), or socially neutral but useful (the shoes I'm gonna wear today to keep my feet warm and comfie).

I'll also pick up Hugh's point about gay male porn and extend it to lesbian porn made by woman and for women (as opposed to woman-on-woman porn made by men and for men). Lesbian porn is often subversive, a celebration of sexuality, and a strong positive way of reclaiming women's bodies.

Psycho Milt said...

it's explained in the post, second paragraph from the bottom.

I was hoping for an explanation that isn't an obvious non-sequitur. The author argues:

...on closer analysis, it is revealed that the above view prefigures its own conclusion by denying that women have the right to free speech in the same measure as men do;

First, a claim that opposing censorship denies women the same freedom of speech to which men are entitled. That's an assertion that needs backing up.

pornography is censorship insofar as it fosters the public perception of women as somehow politically and morally deficient citizens.

Backing it up, the claim that pornography (what? All of it?) is censorship because it promotes a view of women the author doesn't like. This is a non-sequitur, ie the bit following "insofar as" doesn't actually explain the bit before "insofar as."

Thus, pornography violates women’s right to freedom of expression.

You can't write "thus" if your preceding sentences have offered nothing to explain or prove what follows the "thus."

What I'm looking for is an explanation of the author's claim that gives some reason for actually believing it. As it stands, she's just supporting an assertion by making some more assertions.

Make Tea Not War said...

Often, I find that other peoples sexual fantasies and fetishes can be confronting, disturbing and just plain ick. The nicest, most decent people can go to some dark places in their thoughts. Pornography/erotica isn't creating that, it is reflecting that. This may be an uncomfortable truth but the dark places are part of human nature and sexuality-maybe even part of yours- and I think people should be judged by their actions not their fantasies or what they do in their bedroom with their consenting partner/s. In the end that isn't really any of your business.

I think that edition of Craccum sounds puerile, immature and in very bad taste. I agree there is a time and place for everything and I don't think the place for pornography is in everybodies face as they go about their day to day business. I also think some pornography, in some circumstances, can be harmful to individuals and to relationships and I don't think pornographers should be the primary source of sex education for the young. Encouraging a more honest, open culture and an emphasis on good manners and sensitivity would do far more to address these problems than trying to use feminism as an all purpose bludgeon to make the world, and everybody in it, as we'd like them to be.

tangerinecaro said...

OK, some responses:

Psycho Milt - you are right that I shut down the debate with the paragraph you quote in your first comment, and I apologise to those who hold differing opinions on the matter. Having just had to deal with this issue as the WRO, arguably the most difficult and disheartening position on any student executive, I hope that part of the vitriol in my piece can be read in its actual context: I had just had to fight this battle from scratch against students claiming really basic free press arguments, with no idea of the harm principle or the reality of the harm that was done in Craccum. This is similar to pulling out one's fingernails with pliers.

Paul: the distinction drawn between erotica and porn is designed to render sexually explicit material which does not denigrate or demean women as acceptable. More than simply being about the 'taste of the author', its about the depiction of roles in the material - and as Hugh points out, the definition is (although seemingly specific), one which must be read as a whole, in its own context. A bright line cannot be drawn between porn and erotica, but I think that beginning to draw distinctions can be very helpful, and could benefit both men and women.

Regarding your second post about my assertions, I am perfectly happy to send you some of the literature on the notion that pornography can in fact be a form of censorship. The basic idea, more clearly, is that for freedom of expression to be a meaningful right, and to have meaningful content, a correlative right to be able to speak meaningfully is needed. The perception of women, as depicted by mainstream pornography, places women in positions of inferiority and submission. The effect of such a perception serves to undermine the value of women's speech, in much the same way as if you forewarned an audience that a speaker was deficient in some fundamental way. This freedom of expression argument is one which has a relatively strong position legally, in comparison to other feminist arguments which relate more easily to morality and the harm principle.

Moz: I would dispute your assertion that in fact pro-porn feminists have 'won' this debate -from my experience as a young feminist activist the complete opposite is true. The Dworkinian analysis has been replaced with a more modern, simpler critique which focuses on the pornification of society - writers like Ariel Levy have shown clearly that the current mainstream culture of T&A at every turn is damaging to women. Many of the arguments for pornography sound, to me, a lot like people who think that pole-dancing classes are empowering.

Deborah: it is certainly proving an interesting discussion, and I do agree that my statements were rather strongly worded - perhaps its never best to blog after a three hour, extremely emotive and heated media complaints tribunal!

Phew. Did I miss anyone out?

Anonymous said...

Just wanted to post a comment in support of Carolyn's post. I have been personally affected negatively by pornography. I have also read Dworkin extensively and have to say I swung from being totally ok with porn to much more of a Dworkinian stance. That said I respect others stance on this issue but I would like to be able to personally "opt out" and not have to see porngraphic images every where I look.

Julie said...

Well this post has certainly been provocative. Thanks to Caroline for submitting it for inclusion, and for responding to criticism. Thanks also to commenters for disagreeing agreeably, I think this thread is a really good example of robust debate which remains ok.

My own thoughts differ somewhat from Caroline's, and for that matter from Anjum's and Enid's. Hopefully I'll get a chance to write them up by the end of the week.

Readers may also be interested in QoT's rather ahem vehement rebuttal.

Keir said...

A bright line cannot be drawn between porn and erotica, but I think that beginning to draw distinctions can be very helpful, and could benefit both men and women.

But this distinction bears no relationship to how the words are actually used though -- why not Good Porn & Bad Porn? Because then you admit the possibility of Good Porn, which you can't do because that would undermine the whole anti-porn aspect.

(But this is good --- well then it is not sf!)

And I would really, really like to see a response to the Avedon essay.

tangerinecaro said...


From Avedon: "What is disturbing is that women who call themselves feminists persist in asserting that the presence of pornography in the culture actually reduces women's visibility and achievement in public life"

I would absolutely and unashamedly argue that mainstream pornography reduces the value and worth ascribed to women in the public eye. If representations of people as inferior aren't damaging, then why would equivalent racist content be allowed? Black-face minstrels, anyone?

And once harm can be linked with pornography, then Mill's harm principle comes into play (ie the fundamental liberal notion that freedom of expression is valid and must not be limited until it ENCROACHES on the rights of others).

I note that Avedon gives one single line to Mackinnon's major argument, which I outlined in my previous post. I thought the rest of that article was very much attacking finicky aspects of the anti-porn, now perhaps better called anti-raunch culture movement, as opposed to a proper philosophical argument about why pornography must not be censored for the 'public good'?

Men have commandeered and repackaged women's sexuality, and I'm basically sick of having it forced back at me, and then people telling me to be quiet, because it means I am liberated! I will be liberated when I feel certain that I am treated with respect and dignity by my male counterparts. While it remains relatively acceptable for them to watch pornography, and have their attitudes and thoughts and gender roles shaped by this degrading industry, I don't think that is possible.

Maia said...

Caroline - one of the things that you have missed is that what Ms Enid said bears very little relationship to what you claim she said.

Ms Enid was arguing that there is nothing wrong with the purpose and intent of material that is created with a purpose of getting people off (which is the definition she used of pornography - different and more wider than your definition. But your definition is not widely accepted, and does not reflect the common usage of those words).

That is not the same thing as arguing that pornography is empowering.

I don't know whether you are being deliberately dishonest or intellectually sloppy. But I think feminist discussions on porn are useless if they're imprecise, as the distinctions and differences are important.

tangerinecaro said...


My posts have been directed at the following parts of Ms Enid's original piece.

"Being 'anti-porn' is like being 'anti-television'. There is a lot of crap television out there. Much of it is harmful to political and civil society, to social progress, and to individuals. It is exploitative and unimaginative. Does this mean that our position should be 'anti-television'?"

On Dworkin and Mackinnon's porn/erotica distinction:
"I believe that these semantic distinctions only have meaning as consumer categories."

I also felt that the harm aspect of pornography is greatly underrepresented in her post, which has more of a 'mmm... hot guys' feel to it rather than a defence of the negative social aspects of pornography which I don't think should be treated so lightly.

I understand that Ms Enid seems to be writing slightly tongue in cheek, and that I came out with guns blazing, but if you had been on the Auckland University campus when the porno Craccum came out two weeks ago, and seen extremely distressed students being confronted with this industry, you might understand why a funny post on the matter was upsetting for me.

tangerinecaro said...

Also, Anita:

In response to "Shouldn't women be free to use our own bodies, minds and hearts to make healthy safe porn that celebrates our sexuality?" - this is exactly what I would like to see. Pornography in general creates a caricatured large breasted, blonde, submissive sexuality that men are told is the best that female sexuality has to offer. In making a clear distinction between porn and erotica, and trying to remove the insidious grasp that mainstream pornography has over the male (and female) mind, I think we could express our sexuality with more freedom and confidence.

Maia said...

And there is nothing in what you quote which comes anywhere near: "sex-positive 'liberating' 'stripping-is-empowering type feminism"

You have misrepresented, or misunderstood Ms Enid's position. You may disagree with her, what she actually may have made you angry, but that's no excuse for not dealing with what she actually said.

There is no possibility of having a meaningful discussion about sexually explicit material without acknowledging the difference between the positions: "material designed to arouse is not inherently damaging" and "participating in the commodification of women's bodies is liberatory"

tangerinecaro said...


The position of Ms Enid as I can see it (although you have stated that my view is 'deliberately sloppy or intellectually sloppy', and gone on to intimate that perhaps I don't actually understand the issue at hand) is that everyone will, and is going to objectify each other, and thus anti-porn arguments are redundant for basic reasons of human sexuality. This is represented throughout the piece in a light-hearted, joking tone.

I felt the need to write in response because the harm that is actually caused by pornography is immense and underrepresented in our society. The idea of everyone objectifying each other and that being fine does not tend to play out in an equal and respectful way - instead you have women choosing to objectify themselves for the benefit of the male gaze. This is the idea of raunch culture, which I brought into the debate as a similar issue, as I think it demonstrates why feminists who seek to improve the position of women in society should not support pornography. The porn-erotica distinction which I keep bringing up is a way to address Ms Enid's correct assertion that it is possible "support the right of people to sexually objectify each other, in ways that do no harm". Ms Enid's unwillingness to draw distinctions renders the porn/anti-porn debate polar, and if that is the case then I would have to choose the overall position of women in society as coming up trumps against individual sexual gratification.

tangerinecaro said...

Wee correction: Maia described my position as deliberately dishonest or intellectually sloppy

Keir said...

I would absolutely and unashamedly argue that mainstream pornography reduces the value and worth ascribed to women in the public eye. If representations of people as inferior aren't damaging, then why would equivalent racist content be allowed? Black-face minstrels, anyone?

First, that hoary old thing called free speech. You aren't addressing the point that censorship also has negative effects, and isn't just some magic wand.

I would absolutely and unashamedly argue that mainstream pornography reduces the value and worth ascribed to women in the public eye.

I would absolutely and unashamedly argue that the mainstream representations of women in the French Academy reduced the value and worth ascribed to women in the public eye. But that isn't an argument against painting, or even an argument against the existence of the French Academy, because there are counterbalancing factors.

(Also, almost all representations of women etc etc, as Dworkin would argue, so why is porn singled out? And the erotica/porn distinction is blatant nonsense, corresponding in no way to anyone else's use of those words. Seriously, it is exactly the old sf/not-sf distinction, and it is just as nonsense.)

tangerinecaro said...


I am not pro-censorship in general. I do however ascribe to the basic ideals of freedom of expression, which, as I stated and as is encapsulated in NZ legislation with regard, for example, to hate speech, holds that expression is only to be protected so far as it does not infringe the rights of others. I think the degrading and submissive representation of women in porn infringes our right to dignity, and our right to express our own identity meaningfully.

In response to your other point, my main target is porn as a part of a larger raunch culture. As I have stated, distinctions can be a USEFUL way of helping to see what the problems with mainstream porn really are - all distinctions are open to debate and there will always be exceptions to the rule, but I don't think this means we shouldn't try to resurrect some sexually explicit material as valuable to male AND female sexuality, if that material can truly be non-misogynistic (which is the next major difficulty).

Maia said...

You still haven't responded to what I've actually been saying. Which is that nothing in Ms Enid's post resembles "stripping-is-empowering type feminism".

Ms Enid did not use 'pornography' in the same way that you use the word. In this comment you seem to be implying that since she did not use the same words to make the same distinctions you do you can't engage with what she's saying. I think that is what is polarising the debate.

tangerinecaro said...

The link between those two things is that a light-hearted pro-porn stance is reminiscent of a raunch culture position. Focussing on individual sexual gratification as opposed to wider social harms is what I object to, and that focus is concurrent in raunch culture and Ms Enid's post. I presumed that people would also draw this parallel, but perhaps now I've made it more explicit you will stop implying that I am unable to read/incompent/thick, Maia?

Also, our different uses of the word porn: all I am arguing is that to make a distinction between the loaded term 'porn' and the potentially positive 'erotica' (although sometimes misused e.g. boobs on bikes), is something which can foster legitimacy for sexually explicit, non-harmful material.

Anita said...


You seem to being using a Humpty Dumpty argument: I will describe one thing as porn and another as erotica, therefore it is so.

Yes, it is useful to differentiate between porn-which-is-oppressive-to-women and porn-which-is-not-oppressive-to-women, but all you've actually done is articulate your unusual definition badly and attack people who have a different (and completely normal) definition.

Seriously, in your first paragraph you have attacked most third wave feminists (and a good number of second wave) and blamed us for the patriarchy's attacks on feminism - all apparently only because we don't use your definition. Pretty pointless really.

Perhaps we could, instead, talk about how some sexual visual images are oppressive to women and some aren't. What makes something one or the other? How can we have less of the former? Would having more of the latter?

Moz said...

Hugh, you really do have to read Dworkin's and Mackinnon's writing to appreciate just how far they go all on their own. Dworkin in particular will clearly say "some heterosex is good", refuse to give examples then bag out anything offered. The ease of caricature is only part of the reason why anti-porn feminism has moved away from those two women (mostly it's the substance of their arguments). These days the critique is more nuanced and aware that some women do enjoy representations of heterosex.

Going into some of the US college sex rules stuff is a good introduction to D-M in practice - they successfully define ambiguous situations in a pro-woman way (to their way of thinking), but in so doing they alienate many women because their model eliminates most of what makes social situations work. Thinking about it, the Islamic model of requiring modest dress and social segregation is more practical.

AWicken said...

I think I can actually see where the "porn IS censorship" point is coming from, and indeed agree with it to a certain extent:

"porn" creates certain preconceptions about women;
Many of these preconceptions regarding possible contributions by women in non-sex/non-menial areas are negative;
therefore porn exacerbates the "work twice as hard to get half the credit" norm. In other words, twice as mich needs to be said in order to get the same audience credibility as someone not affected by these preconceptions as much - men.

However, I would say the bulk of this porn is pretty much impossible to identify with specific rules (beyond "gratuitous violence/beastiality/child" etc) - which is one of the main problems with censorship in general.

This is not helped by building obscure definitional differences between two commonly used, widely overlapping, and emotionally loaded terms: "porn" and "erotica", as has already been pointed out.

If one will permit a small degree of levity, these are irregular nouns - "I like erotica, he likes porn, they have been arrested for possessing and distributing objectionable material".

Maia said...

Caroline: "The link between those two things is that a light-hearted pro-porn stance is reminiscent of a raunch culture position."

Any light-hearted pro-porn stance? That seems to me to be an extraordinary claim.

Ms Enid wrote a light-hearted post about one aspect of the debate over pornography, and how she defined herself as pro-pornography. She specifically mentioned that she wasn't going to discuss 'the porn industry' as it exists, because she wanted to talk about pornography theoretically - and she defined pornography as material designed to arouse.

Her argument is that porn is not inherently problematic - which you repeatedly conflate with an argument that porn is liberatory (I don't think raunch culture is exactly a position - but that is how you have been parsing it's position so far). Calling it 'reminiscent' does not hide the fact that these two positions are different.

I don't know why you do this. I think you are being unfair to Ms Enid. It was probably unwise of me to suggest motives why you were doing this, but I wanted to convey to you teh seriousness of what you were doing. Instead of acknowledging that there are nuances in positions on sexually explicit material that you do not agree with, you keep on repeating your inaccurate characterisation of Ms Enid's position.

I agree with everything Anita says about you expecting words to do all your work for you.

tangerinecaro said...

Perhaps you failed to read the contextualising statement at the top of my post which describes my post as also being in response to the recent Craccum.

In general:
I'm in the middle of exams, and have just lost a week of my study/life having to fight against porn at my university - I have tried to outline that certain aspects of my original post probably went too far, but I maintain my anti-porn position totally irrespective of Ms Enid's post, or Maia's personal attacks and that position was what I hoped to convey.

Ms Enid, I apologise for the parts of my original post which characterise your attitude as one reminiscent of raunch culture.

Maia and Anita - if you read my earlier comments, I outline why I think why I think making distinctions can be helpful and actually 'save' sexually explicit material from having to be written off as misogynistic. I also think we need to realise the point at which most pornography becomes part of the male-dominated/consumer-mad raunch culture, and protest against its degrading representations of women.

Moz: If you read my above comments you will notice that I am more an adherent of Mackinnon, although the claims that Dworkin said all heterosex was bad for women were refuted by her in a later work.

Atomic said...

It seems to me that if we start from the proposition that we accept that certain depictions of women are harmful, we should seek to minimise or eliminate that harm. Perhaps the harm that a particular image causes isn’t easy to pinpoint or the distinction between something degrading and something empowering is contestable – that is what this debate appears to be primarily about – but these issues shouldn’t distract from the broader picture of oppression that Caroline rightly identifies. Regarding the earlier discussion on censorship, I would respond that the law is all about ever retreating or advancing lines in the sand and the fact that redrawing these lines in relation to the censorship of pornography may be difficult and may involve constant reevaluation is no reason to abandon the most obvious tool we have to minimise the harm caused or perpetuated by pornography. More generally, I think as feminists we should be constantly challenging those who promote depictions of women we individually or collectively feel are degrading and harmful, seeking to influence public and elite opinion. This is exactly what Caroline has done in relation to Craccum and she should be congratulated and supported for taking action on behalf of us all.

Julie said...

I think it's important to note that Caroline contributed this post in good faith, and in the context of the situation at the University of Auckland at the time. Having myself been through the wringer of AUSA politics and attempted to challenge sexist content in Craccum back in the mists of time I understand what a difficult experience that can be. So can we maybe be a little bit less abrasive with our disagreeing? I'm not deleting any comments, just asking that people maybe not throw around words like "dishonest". No one likes being accused of lying (or sophistry PM) and I think everyone here is genuine in their point of view, even if you personally think that opinion is wrong.

Thank you all for your contributions to date, especially Caroline who has faced some daunting arguments! This has been the third post here in recent times about the broader issue of pornography, and I think we have well and truly shown there is a broad diversity of view on the matter amongst the broad church of feminism. Do please keep it up.

Anonymous said...

I would just like to say that I'm just so glad that something was done about that issue of craccum. I wasn't aware until thursday of that week of the content and was astounded.