by Wendy McElroy
Since the mid 1980s, a strange sight has been on the political horizon. Feminists are standing alongside their arch-enemies, conservatives and religious fundamentalists, to call for anti-pornography laws.
This phenomenon threatens the well-being of women in at least three important ways:

  1. Feminism is no longer a stronghold of freedom of speech;
  2. Women’s unacceptable sexual choices are now under new attack;
  3. It involves rejecting the principle “a woman’s body, a woman’s right.”
Gender Violence?

At the root of this threat is a new definition of pornography, which has emerged from the extreme feminism, known as radical feminism. It states that pornography is gender violence that violates the civil rights of women. Anti-porn activist Catherine MacKinnon once explained, “We are proposing a statutory scheme that will situate pornography as a central practice in the subordination of women. …” Radical feminists call for civil, as well as criminal, proceedings because this avoids sticky constitutional issues, such as the First Amendment. Civil courts also have lower standards of evidence and no presumption of innocence.
But why is pornography viewed as violence in the first place, and not merely words or images? This view was well embodied in the much-cited Minneapolis anti-porn ordinance of 1983. The ordinance stated that all women who worked in porn were coerced, and could bring a civil lawsuit against producers and distributors. Coercion was deemed to be present even if the woman was of age, she fully understood the nature of the performance, she signed a contract and release, there were witnesses, she was under no threat, and she was fully paid.

Women and Consent

Consent by the woman was rendered impossible. The author of the Ordinance, MacKinnon, later explained that “in the context of unequal power (between the sexes), one needs to think about the meaning of consent – whether it is a meaningful concept at all.” A male-controlled society made it impossible for women to consent. Women who thought they agreed were so damaged by male society that they were not able to give true consent.
In over a decade of defending pornography against such attacks, I have avoided First Amendment arguments and preferred to challenge the anti-porn zealots on their own terms. The key questions became: Are women coerced into pornography? and How does porn relate to general societal violence against women? A secondary – but essential – question was whether pornography provided any benefit to women.
Regarding the first question, I appealed directly to women who were involved in the production of hard-core pornography such as S/M, where it seemed most likely that violence would occur. In the hundreds of such adult women I spoke with, every single one said they had not been coerced into performing pornography, nor did they know of a woman who had been. I decided to take the articulate voices of these adult women seriously and not dismiss them, as anti-porn feminists were doing.
To such evidence, radical feminists routinely answer that no “healthy” woman would consent to pornography. Therefore, such women were damaged by a male culture and incapable of rendering consent. The Minneapolis ordinance had argued that women, like children, needed special protection under the law: “Children are incapable of consenting to engage in pornographic conduct, even absent physical coercion, and therefore require special protection. By the same token, the physical and psychological well-being of women ought to be afforded comparable protection. …”

A Woman’s Body, A Woman’s Right

In the 19th century, women battled to become the legal equals of men, to have their consent taken seriously in the form of contracts and to have control of their own bodies legally recognized. Now anti-pornography feminists are asking the law to dismiss women’s written consent.
Moreover, consider how contemptuously radical feminism is treating the “unacceptable” choices of these adult women. If a woman enjoys consuming pornography, it is not because she comes from another background, has a different psychological makeup, different goals in life or an unusual perspective. No: it is because she is mentally incompetent. Like any three-year-old, she is unable to give informed consent regarding her own body.
The touchstone principle of feminism used to be, “a woman’s body, a woman’s right.” With regard to rape, radical feminists still declare, “No means no.” But on some sexual matters, saying “yes” apparently means nothing. Pornography could not degrade women more than this attitude does.
As to whether cultural pressure has influenced the decisions of porn actresses – of course it has. Our culture has some impact on every choice we make, including the choice to become a feminist. To say that women who participate in pornography cannot make a choice because of cultural pressure, however, is to eliminate the possibility of choice in any situation.
What of women who do not become involved, who detest pornography? The simple answer is that they should not buy it. Moreover, they should use peaceful means to persuade others that pornography is improper. But they should not use the law.
Here, the second question initially posed comes into play: How does porn relate to general societal violence against women?
The radical feminist argument runs: Pornography leads directly to violence against women, especially rape. Thus, every woman is a victim because every woman is in danger.
This argument assumes:

  1. That pornography impacts on people’s behavior,
  2. That the impact can be measured objectively and
  3. That it can be related to sexual violence.
Pornography and Sexual Aggression

Pornography may well impact upon behavior, although recent studies question the extent. But it is extraordinarily difficult objectively to measure that impact. Sexual responses are extremely complex, and elude artificial lab conditions. Moreover, the standards used and the conclusions drawn usually depend on the bias of researchers and those who commission the research.
For example, in 1983, the Metropolitan Toronto Task Force on Violence Against Women commissioned Thelma McCormack to study pornography’s connection to sexual aggression. McCormack’s study indicated that pornography might be cathartic and, so, it might reduce the incidence of rape. Her report was discarded and reassigned to David Scott, a non-feminist committed to anti-pornography, who produced more palatable conclusions.

Statistics, Assumptions and Biases

Statistics almost always contain assumptions and biases. Sometimes the bias is an honest one. For example, a researcher who believes that sexual aggression is a learned behavior will naturally ask different questions than someone who believes aggression is an instinct. Other forms of bias are not so honest. For example, when a reporter for the Boston Phoenix asked the radical feminist Susan Brownmiller to supply some evidence for her assertions, she snapped back: “The statistics will come. We supply the ideology; it’s for other people to come up with the statistics.”
For the sake of argument, let’s assume that a correlation exists between pornography and rape. What would such a correlation prove? A correlation is not a cause-and-effect relationship. It is a logical fallacy to assume that if A is correlated with B, then A causes B. Both might be caused by a totally separate factor, C. For example, there is a high correlation between the number of doctors in a city and the amount of alcohol consumed there. One does not cause the other. Both result from a third factor: the size of the city’s population.
Similarly, a correlation between pornography and rape may indicate nothing more than a common cause for both. Namely, that we live in a sexually-repressed society. To further repress sex by restricting pornography might well increase the incidence of rape. Opening up the area of pornography might well diffuse sexual violence by making sexuality more understandable.

State Oppression

There is great irony in radical feminists aligning with their two greatest ideological enemies: conservatives and the patriarchal state. They now appeal to this state as a protector. There is a sadness to the irony: it has been state regulation, not free speech, that has oppressed women. It was the state, not pornography, that burned women as witches. It was 18th-century law, not pornography, that defined women as chattel. 19th-century laws allowed men to commit wayward women to insane asylums, to claim their wives’ earnings, and to beat them with impunity. Now 20th-century anti-porn laws may define what sexual choices are acceptable for women to make.

Benefits of Pornography

Indeed, pornography brings benefits to women. In censoring pornography, the state will impoverish rather than enrich them. Lisa Duggan explains:

“The existence of pornography has served to flout conventional sexual mores, to ridicule sexual hypocrisy and to underscore the importance of sexual needs. Pornography carries many messages . . . it advocates sexual adventure, sex outside of marriage, sex for pleasure, casual sex, illegal sex, anonymous sex, public sex, voyeuristic sex. Some of these ideas appeal to women reading or seeing pornography, who may interpret some images as legitimating their own sense of sexual urgency or desire to be sexually aggressive.”

Pornography and feminism have much in common. Both deal with women as valid sexual beings. They share a history of being targeted by obscenity laws, such as the Comstock laws (1870s) which were used against pornography and birth-control information. Feminist material – especially lesbian material – has always suffered under the regulation of sexual expression.

Sexual Liberation and Freedom of Speech

Two burning questions that confront women at the turn of the century are: Can feminism embrace sexual liberation? Can the freedom of women and freedom of speech remain fellow travelers?
The feminist Myra Kostash answers the latter by paraphrasing Camus: “Freedom to publish and read does not necessarily assure a society of justice and peace, but without these freedoms it has no assurance at all.”
Wendy McElroy is the author of XXX: A Woman’s Right to Pornography (St. Martin’s, 1995) and Sexual Correctness: The Gender Feminist Attack on Women (McFarland, 1996) and most recently, Individualist Feminism of the Nineteenth Century. She edited the anthology Freedom, Feminism and the State (Cato Institute, 1982) and is a contributing editor to Liberty magazine and FEE’s Ideas on Liberty. Her articles have appeared in diverse periodicals ranging from the Future of Freedom Foundation’s Freedom Daily and The Voluntaryist, to National Review and Penthouse. Websites: and

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