By Jerry Barnett
Being in my late-40s, I’m one of a generation whose mothers embraced second-wave feminism – or Women’s Lib at it was better known at the time – in the late-1960s and early-70s. I came of age reading Spare Rib and other feminist magazines my Mum left lying around, and remember the importance of sexual liberation to the feminists of those days. In fact, those magazines constituted the first “porn” I encountered; my lasting memory is of articles about women’s rights to enjoy orgasms. I first learned what a clitoris was by reading humorous feminist articles about men’s inability to find one. I learned that women, like men, had sex drives, and were not to be judged as “sluts” if they chose to exercise them, nor “protected” from their own sexual needs.
But by the time I myself became politically active in the early-80s, much of the feminist movement appeared to have gone through a drastic transformation: from joyous to humourless, from sexual to sexless, from a celebration of everything female to an embrace of androgyny. The 1980s was a deeply conservative era in which much of what Women’s Lib and the sexual revolution had achieved came under attack, and the feminist movement was not immune from that conservative tide.
The divide in the feminist movement had been led by two powerful American anti-sex campaigners, Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin. While Dworkin had roots in progressive politics, MacKinnon did not: her father had been an extreme conservative Republican politician and lawyer, who had been involved in the “Lavender Scare” witch-hunt against homosexuals during the McCarthy era. MacKinnon, a lawyer like her father, used similar tactics to attack sexual expression.
MacKinnon and Dworkin dismayed many feminists by sharing anti-pornography platforms with the religious right, which at that time was – with the support of the Reagan administration – trying to dismantle the gains of the feminist movement, including access to contraception and abortion. The “MacDworkinites” further attacked some of the foundations of feminism; they declared that pornography was rape, and that no woman could therefore ever consent to appear in pornography, thus reducing female porn performers to mere objects and victims, who needed rescuing but whose own opinions were considered worthless.
Even worse, they attacked the idea that rape is the fault of rapists. By linking pornography with rape (without, it must be stressed, any research evidence to back this belief), they shifted the blame from the rapist to the porn. In other words, they agreed with the traditional patriarchal idea that men could not be blamed for rape if women flaunted their bodies. In her book Only Words, MacKinnon went so far as to argue that a brutal murderer/rapist, Thomas Schiro, was not to blame for his crime, because he had watched pornography beforehand. This argument, although couched in feminist language, is no different to the one that suggests women should not wear “provocative” clothing if they wish to remained safe; indeed, it is the line of thinking that leads conservative religions to insist that female flesh should be covered up: men (they argue) are simply incapable of controlling their own lust, and women who bare flesh are inciting the beast.
Dworkin and MacKinnon did not just target pornography, but also attacked sex-positive feminists, refusing to share debate platforms with feminists that disagreed with them, and even trying to suppress the works of feminist authors with whom they disagreed. During these “Feminist Sex Wars” of the 1980s, the MacDworkinites led a split in the feminist movement which exists to this day. Their goal was to censor pornography; this ultimately failed, because the First Amendment to the United States Constitution forbids censorship. But the ideas they created flowed worldwide, and have remained a part of feminist discourse for the past three decades.
The strongest pro-censorship force in Britain during the 1970s to 1990s was the movement led by the formidable Christian campaigner, Mary Whitehouse. But Britain was becoming an increasingly liberal and secular society, and by the time she died in 2001, her “anti-permissiveness” message was a target for mockery rather than widespread support. This, however, did not mean that anti-sex morality had died, but that it could no longer be presented in religious packaging.
Instead, the morality movement regrouped, using MacDworkinite feminist language and ideas, and presented itself as a women’s rights movement, rather than a moralistic one. The leading anti-sex feminist groups in Britain today, Object and UK Feminista, are small and appear to be unrepresentative of the feminist mainstream, but receive a generous amount of media coverage. They target all sexual and erotic expression, from striptease to pornography. Like Dworkin and MacKinnon, they refuse to accept that women who strip or have sex on camera have the right to consent; instead, these women are labelled as victims, and when the women themselves come forward to defend themselves (as happened in Tower Hamlets, East London, where strippers unionised to protect their right to work), they are dismissed as tools of “their pimps”, and their voices suppressed. “Shelley”, a stripper and trade union activist told me, in reference to anti-sex feminist activists:
It does seem very wrong that they’re trying to dictate what we can do to earn a living, what we can do with our bodies, how we can express ourselves and making such extreme judgements on what we can do. Basically telling us that we don’t have the right to choose what we’re doing. And I think that the biggest insult that we’ve heard against us is the idea that any dancer who says she enjoys what she does is the ultimate example of just how abused we are, without even realising it, how we’re suffering from Stockholm Syndrome, we’re in love with our abusers … it’s just massively insulting!
Just as Dworkin and MacKinnon shared platforms with America’s Christian right, so these new anti-sex feminists share platforms with religious moralists: In Tower Hamlets the anti-striptease campaign meetings featured religious morality speakers alongside anti-sex feminists. Strippers who attended the meetings and tried to speak for themselves found themselves opposed by both feminists and women in burqas: some might see irony in this. Speakers from Object and UK Feminista sometimes find themselves on TV panels sitting alongside representatives of Mediawatch-UK, Mary Whitehouse’s organisation. The Women’s Libbers, to whom Whitehouse was an enemy of women’s rights, might be dismayed at this turn of events.
One might find oneself either supportive of or opposed to the stance taken by Object and UK Feminista; but more important than personal feelings about porn, or one’s ideology, is evidence. Quite simply, does evidence exist to demonstrate that public display of the female form leads to violence against women, as claimed by pro-censorship campaigners? The short answer is: no. The simple idea that men look at female imagery and become more likely to hurt women is insulting and (more importantly) lacks supporting evidence. In fact, the last four decades, which have seen a huge relaxing of restrictions on porn and other sexual expression, have also seen significant falls in violent crime, including sexual violence, throughout the Western World. In the United States, which maintains comprehensive federal statistics on crime, the incidence of rape is reported to have fallen by 85% between 1981 and 2006, at a time when porn usage was increasing rapidly. While it not clear what is responsible for this trend, one thing is for sure: this is the reverse of the correlation claimed by anti-porn campaigners.
The ferocity of the debate over sexual expression might lead a casual observer to believe that the evidence over harm is compelling, or at least ambiguous. But it isn’t. Despite decades (well, centuries – Britain’s first obscenity law was passed in 1857) of moralistic attempts to ban sexual expression, the truly amazing fact is that no smoking gun has been produced. There is no evidence that sexual and erotic expression involving consenting adults is harmful to women. The evidence, in fact, says the reverse: the most dangerous thing a society can do is to try to repress natural sexual urges. Sexual violence correlates, not with the availability of pornography, but with the prevalence of conservative religious attitudes. The naked female body is at its most “sexualised” when it is covered up, and made taboo. Attempts to blame rape and domestic violence on erotic and sexual imagery are at best misguided, and at worst divert society from tackling the true causes of these scourges.
Anti-sex feminism is, of course, far from mainstream. Sex-positive feminism is perhaps as strong as ever. Increasing numbers of feminist porn directors, instead of attacking the medium, have set out to improve it. The annual Feminist Porn Awards convention in Toronto is growing year on year. The SlutWalk phenomenon of 2011 saw thousands of women (and male supporters) worldwide rallying against slut-shaming, and defending their rights to use their own bodies as they choose, without stigma.
As a man, I don’t see anti-sex feminism as “man-hating”, as some describe it; its hatred appears to be aimed primarily at sexually-liberated women. Indeed, many female porn performers and strippers I have spoken to, including good friends of mine, attest to the fact that the strongest hate attacks they experience come not from men, but from women calling themselves feminists. “Shelley” told me:
I’ve never felt like an object in a derogatory sense; my audiences certainly never made me feel like that. The only people who have labelled me in that way, and made me feel like that, are Object and similar feminist groups.
To me, the saddest thing about anti-sex feminism is that it presents women as delicate creatures in need of protection. Women in their worldview cannot consent to be strippers, pornstars or glamour models. This portrayal of women as creatures who (unlike men) need protecting in this way is the very reverse of the feminism that my mother’s generation created. It is remarkably like the portrayal of the “weaker sex” popular in Victorian culture.
And most striking to me, none of the women I know or have known in my life conform to this stereotype. Most women of my age and younger enjoy pornography as much as men do – indeed, research suggests that, far from having more delicate tastes than men, women are aroused by a far broader range of sexual imagery than men are. The position of women in society has come so far over the four or five decades, since the sexual revolution and the second-wave feminist movement. It is disappointing to see some people still trying to turn back the clock.
Jerry Barnett is a sexual freedom campaigner and founder of the Sex & Censorship campaign. His book, Porn Panic! Sex and Censorship in the 21st Century will be published in early 2014. He can be contacted at sexandcensorship.org.