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Ideas

pornography

by Susan G. Cole | March 11, 2003

One of the issues that the women’s movement has pushed into the public eye is violence against women in its many manifestations. There is a broad public consensus that it is wrong, with significant cost for women, families and society. In public policy terms, we allocate some of society’s resources to reduce it occurrence, severity and impact.

One can argue that there are other forces in our society that are equally damaging to women.

One of these is pornography. It has violence against women embedded in it, and it has other dimensions that are deeply challenging. It is a subject matter many of us shy away from, wrapped up as it is with sex and sexuality. There is less public awareness of what it means to us and to our society. There is not a consenus about how to address it across diverse communities of interest. There are the personal layers. There are the public layers, including huge economic and commercial forces always, relentlessly, pushing it. There are the political and legal layers.

Writer Susan Cole stands back and shares her perspective on pornography in this feature. Pornography, whether we like it or not, is one of the things that defines women and attitudes to women in our society. Is this the way we want it to be?

Ever felt like you’re completely swamped by sexual images? Ever wondered why, when you look at sexually explicit materials, they come across as degrading to women? Ever read about the rise of cybersex and do-it-yourself pornography on the internet? Ever suspected that all of this may be affecting your quality of life?

You’re not alone. Although there are definitely forces trying to pretend that it doesn’t exist, there is a long history inside Canadian feminism of a movement against pornography. It’s made up of women who believe that the presence of pornography and women’s second class status in society go hand in hand.

That movement officially began in 1977 when women all over North America – led by Women Against Violence Against Women – protested a movie called Snuff. It was advertised as a film featuring a woman’s real-life murder contextualized as a sexual turn-on. Though the film was eventually discovered to be a hoax, its release unleashed a stream of anger from women who believed that the entertainment industry had gone too far. How low had our culture stooped that we would tolerate the murder of a woman as sexual entertainment?

Snuff also triggered a drive to analyze pornography and the pornography industry in general. Feminists, inspired by Snuff, began to look at the conditions under which pornography – violent and so-called non-violent materials – was made. Who were the women in pornography? How did they get there? This in turn spawned an examination of the sex trade, since prostitutes or former prostitutes were most often the women in pornography. We discovered that most women living in conditions of prostitution were not there by choice and were either driven there by dint of financial need, or had found themselves on the streets after leaving sexually abusive situations in their home. In this way, the pornography issue began to encompass larger questions pertaining to both issues of economic inequalities and violence against women. More important, as feminists began to reconfigure it, it became obvious that pornography was not just a fantasy but had an impact in real life.

The anti-porn movement thrived on women’s visceral sense that a culture that tolerates violent pornography – in which women were often physically hurt – was a dangerous one for women. Research undertaken by feminists and laboratory researchers that examined the effects of pornography on users and the women around them supported those feelings. The groundbreaking work of Ed Donnerstein and Jim Check looked at the extent to which pornography desensitized users to issues of violence against women and adversely affected their attitudes about what women wanted from sexual relations and about women in general. My own research undertaken in shelters for assaulted women throughout Ontario discovered that nearly half of shelter residents had had pornography used against them – either it was shown to them against their will or in extreme cases, they were asked to replicate the activities in the pornography.

In the meantime, the issue of censorship has deeply divided feminists on the issue. Long-time political activists cringed at the idea of supporting laws that used the heavy hand of the state. And many left-wingers – who otherwise have been feminist allies – began to part ways on the subject. This fostered a fascinating debate in which anti-porn feminists began to question liberal values formally held dear by progressive people. The idea that freedom of speech – the kind embedded in the American constitution – was a fundamental social value came under closer scrutiny and was seriously questioned.

  • What good is free speech if people don’t have equal access to it?
  • What does it mean in a society where women are economically disadvantaged if the more money you have, the more speech you can buy?
  • Ironically the three words used most often to silence feminists on the pornography issue are the words “freedom of speech.”

And the irony deepens when we consider that the pornographer uses his so-called speech to diminish women, reduce our credibility in the world and silence us. Fortunately, we do not live in a country [Canada] that has made freedom of speech a bedrock value. Our Charter of Rights puts very specific limits on speech and our laws reflect that. And in polls taken around the country, the vast majority of Canadians support some restrictions on speech and expression. That doesn’t mean we don’t have to be vigilant about how our laws define and regulate pornography. Pornography is not the same as sexuality.

You can be anti-pornography and pro-sex at the same time.

Since 1977, a number of social and commercial developments have taken place that have raised further concerns about pornography. In mainstream culture, music videos consumed by children between the ages of nine and 16 (MuchMusic’s demographic) have grown more and more explicit. In the video age, the public porn cinemas have gone under and more and more pornography is consumed via video in the home. Cyber-porn – another way pornography is made and consumed – is also on the rise. In both cases, pornography is being consumed in private outside of public view.

Historically, feminists have come to understand that when violence against women and the products that promote it happen and are consumed in the home, it becomes even more difficult to find ways of doing something about it.

These developments make the anti-pornography movement more relevant than ever.

more to consider

Research shows that more and more women are consuming and making pornography? Shouldn’t that change our view of the issue?

Feminists argue that pornography constructs sexuality. It makes male dominance and submission feel pleasurable in scenarios that are not nearly as varied as pornography’s defenders say they are. Pornography’s narratives deliver the message that women are ready for sex at all times and under all conditions and crucially, that “no” means “yes” – all that’s required is a little coercion. When only men consumed pornography, they were turned on by male dominance. Now with women on board, women can get turned on to submission. So when we hear that more and more women are consuming pornography in more equal numbers, we don’t measure progress. Instead, we see that women are now becoming part of a perfect sexual system.

As regards the making of pornography, putting women behind the camera, even making gay and lesbian pornography, doesn’t necessarily change the dynamic. We have to ask the same questions about pornography no matter who makes it or what the content is:

  • Who are the women in these pictures (or films)?
  • How did they get there?
  • How come they’re there and we’re not?
  • And does anyone have the inalienable right to get sexual pleasure off the backs of people less fortunate than we are?
resources for this story
  • Pornography and The Sex Crisis, by SUSAN G. COLE, Second Story, Toronto | 1989
  • Power Surge: Sex Violence And Pornography by SUSAN G. COLE, Second Story, Toronto | 1995
  • Women Against Censorship, by Varda Burstyn, ed., Dougas and MacIntyre | 1985
  • Women Against Censorship, by SUSAN G. COLE, Canadian Journal of Women and the Law, Volume 1, Number 1. This is an anti-pornography response in a review of Burstyn’s book. | 1985
  • Pornography and Aggression, by ED DONNERSTEIN and NEIL M. MALAMUTH, eds., Academic, New York | 1984
  • Ordeal, by Linda Lovelace, Citadel, New York. Includes testimony from a woman who was forced into pornography, though the violence isn’t shown on camera. | 1980

This feature was first published on section15.ca’s predecessor site CoolWomen.

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