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Can we talk about porn without visiting ‘Sex Wars’? A Discussion on Anti-Porn vs. Pro-Porn Feminism Debate


The Conference “Towards a Politics of Sexuality” held at Barnard College in 1982 attracted great attention from various feminist stands. In fact, it fueled one of the most intricate and long lasting controversies in feminist literature, named ‘Sex Wars’. The Conference was accused by some feminists, or most commonly known as anti-porn feminists, of promoting an anti-feminist sexuality. Claiming “pornography is the theory, rape is the practice”, anti-porn feminists have advocated for pornography to be completely banned. As opposed to those arguments, others, referred as pro-porn, pro-sex or anti-censorship feminists, followed Foucault’s footsteps and suggested pornography to possess “knowledge of pleasure”.

Accordingly, the latter camp criticized the former to assign an essence to female sexuality. The conflict unsurprisingly spilled over to academia and Sex Wars have appeared to be an overarching framework to porn studies. The influence of anti-porn rhetoric on the field was criticized by their pro-porn counterparts to provide legitimization to research that are driven by subjective readings and/or lacking empirical data. On the other hand, pro-porn feminist discourse was censured to result in the praise of alternative pornography at the expense of narrowly researching mainstream porn and overlooking its fallacies. As the development of digital technologies, especially the emergence of Web 2.0, paved the way for alternative porn scene to proliferate, porn studies as a field was blamed to be aligned with the alternative porn industry due to the fear of association with anti-porn feminism. Consequently, discussions about issues such as the agency of sex workers, mode of production and labor of pornography were not addressed devoid of this deep polarization. In an industry where sex workers are silenced, demonized and often exploited, it is vital to discover forms of pornography offering possibilities for the emancipation of women and queer people. Yet, it is equally crucial to meet such opportunities not only with optimism and to go beyond the notion of agency.

While contributing to the empowerment of sex workers, feminist and queer communities, an increase in the sense of agency does not necessarily guarantee emancipation in all porn productions, even in those aiming at escaping capitalist mode of productions.

The known forms of pornography dates back to as early as to 19th century (Williams 2014). Yet its vogue reached to its peak in 21st century, mostly thanks to what digital communication technologies offer. Various forms of pornographic expressions continuously alter the way we live, experience our sexualities and identify ourselves. Therefore, it is crucial to examine pornography at a scale its impact deserves and at diverse levels reflecting its complex characteristics. While it is possible to find a common ground on the urgent need for a comprehensive discussion on porn, it is a lot harder to do so when it comes to how to talk about pornography.

Pornograhy has in fact been under the scrutiny of feminists for decades. The ongoing debate on pornography between two oppositionary feminist camps, or more commonly known as Sex Wars, have been functioning so long as a framework to Western feminist narratives on pornography (McNair 2014, Ryberg 2015). The rivalry stems from the Towards a Politics of Sexuality Conference held at Barnard College in 1982, which was accused by anti-porn feminists of encouraging an anti-feminist sexuality (Ryberg 2015). They advocated pornography to engender misogyny and patriarchy (McNair 2014) and accordingly demanded ban on all pornographic productions. The other side of the debate, referred as pro-porn,

pro-sex or anti-censorship feminists, opposed those claims believing that censoring pornoraphic content would jeopardize sexual freedom and right to free speech (Lipton 2012). Before going further in the discovery of Sex Wars and its impact, it is necessary to clarify how pornography is approached throughout this article.

Traditionally, pornography is conceptualized through the distinction between what is real and representational (Attwood 2009). The separation could also be traced back in private vs public distinction. In other words, enacting sex corresponds to private sphere, while its representation appears to be a public issue (Attwood ibid.). Grebowicz defines pornography as “material created specifically aid in masturbaing” (2013, 4). This definition alone signals a trait that constrain pornography to private sphere as it emphasizes masturbation. Whereas the archival work on pornography illustrate that pornography have travelled between public and private realms and have not necessarily settled in either one of them. The access to the

earliest forms of pornography in 19th century, for instance, were in public spaces but only limited to ‘gentlemen’ (Williams 2014). Later on in 20th century, pornography was carried to movie screens, textual forms of porn found themselves a space in printed magazines and the number of erotic book publications increased greatly. Consequently, consumption of pornography expanded to public sphere (Attwood 2010). While DVDs in 1990s brought pornography back to private spaces, the transition to online environments located pornography in a “private space within a public environment” (Patterson 2004, 120). As of today, media technologies altered embodiment of sexualities (Attwood 2009), because easy access to internet and its high speed of distribution resulted in a boom of pornographic productions (Grebowicz 2013). Attwood (2009) argues that pornography becoming more mainstream cannot solely be thought as an increase in the outreach of commercial media productions to a wider audience. It as well shows that ‘sex and technology are stitched together’ (2009 xiv). This stitched togetherness created new sexual encounters, like cybersex, that are in circulation not only for profit but also for pleasure (Attwood ibid.). Donna Haraway (1990) suggests in her well-known essay A Cyborg Manifesto, that the boundaries of bodies and technologies are blurred and as humans we are ‘cyborgs’. Similarly, Attwood believes technological advancements altered sex, gender and desires and we are becoming ‘sexual cyborgs’ (2010). As cyborgs, we experience ‘commercially available intimate encounters’ in a very ordinary fashion and while porn become more commonplace, the distinction between sex producer and consumer elides. Thus taking into account this journey, the article follows Linda Williams’ (1999) definition of pornography, which is “in a primary desire to arouse” (29), thus not limit its scope to any act, space or technology. Whereas the debates on pornography in 21th century does not necessarily rely on a strict distance between ‘real’ and ‘representational sex, or between sex and technology, it indeed was the case in 1980s, which is the era of the outburst of Sex Wars.

Anti-porn Feminism: “pornography is the theory, rape is the practice” 

Robin Morgan, one of the feminists leading the anti-porn camp along with her counterparts Andrea Dworkin, Catharine MacKinnon, Susan Griffin and Susan Kappeler, famously acclaimed that “pornography is the theory, rape is the practice” (1980, 139) suggesting pornography to fortify patriarchy (McNair 2014). According to Dworkin (2000), the sexual

intercourse taking place in porn guarantees a dominant position to men while objectifying and dehumanizing women as they are portrayed in total submission. Women in pornography are often seen to abide by the subordination of men in order to survive (Dworkin ibid.).

Hence, representation of systematic sexual violence in porn turns into an acceptable phenomenon, as if women wish to be dominated in their sexual nature (Dworkin 2000, Kurylo 2017). Similar to Dworkin, Catharine MacKinnon focuses on conditionality in her conceptualization of pornography. MacKinnon explains pornography by analogy with the infamous Pavlov’s dog’s primitive conditioning. She argues that female sexuality in pornography is marked only with subordination and sexual responses are conditioned to abusive situations (MacKinnon 1993). Pornography is not only accused by anti-porn feminists of working in favor of male domination in terms of what is represented. In addition to that, the production of porn itself was considered to be an act of rape. If to follow Morgan’s logic; women can not be willing to take part in pornography, thus should be forced to do so (1980). The rhetoric of anti-porn feminists can also be thought in relation to Western feminist theory where feminism is perceived in progressive and decade-specific terms (Ryberg 2015). The seeds of the lasting debate were thrown in early 1980s, during which the effect of 1970s sexual liberation wave were still felt. Therefore, according to Ryberg,

anti-porn feminism also emerged as an opposition to the sexual liberation movement.

Anti-porn feminists believe that the movement, in the name of liberating sexualities, served male domination and normalized violence towards women (Ryberg ibid.).

The entitlement, anti-porn, is not purely a moral stand. In fact, those feminists demanded the government of United States of America to act on pornography to be banned (Ryberg 2015). As a result of an influential campaign, the US government led by Ronald Reagan, the President then, agreed to take legal action against pornography. In 1986, Pornography Report to censor porn productions was prepared with the efforts of Meese Commission, which is named after Attorney General Edwin Meese (Williams 1999). Currently, American legal framework on pornography is not the same as it was in 1980s. Yet still, there are similar attempts taken by other governments in the 21st century, even decades after the first legal document criminalizing pornography. For instance in United Kingdom, representation of practices of bondage and discipline, sadism and masochism (BDSM) or any other act

including bodily harm was banned in 2014, whether they are produced with consent or not (Lee and Sullivan 2016).

Since 1980s, where porn is situated in regards to public and private sphere, the technologies it is disseminated through and how porn and society are interrelated to each other has transformed tremendously. Regardless, anti-porn rhetoric has been profoundly influential over media and governments and in shaping the public opinion. Anti-porn discourse, however, was constantly challenged by pro-sex feminists.

Pro-porn / Pro-sex / Anti-censorship feminists

Pro-porn, pro-sex or anti-censorship being the eponym, these feminists opposed their anti-porn counterparts on three main basis: a) the meaning pornography possess b) the

consequences to emerge if pornography is banned and c) how sexuality, in particular female sexuality, is understood.

To begin with, pro-porn feminists are mostly inclined to Michel Foucault’s theorization of power and knowledge, especially when it comes to the cultural meaning of pornography. One of the most prominent scholars in porn studies that many pro-porn feminists look up to, Linda Williams, conceptualizes pornography based upon Foucault’s (1978) analysis on the history of sexualities. Following Foucault’s notion, “knowledge of pleasure”, Williams suggests that pornography is not a means to pleasure. Rather, it grants its consumer the knowledge of pleasure. To put it differently, pleasure is acquired from being able to know how pleasure looks like. Hence, pornography occupies a unique space to hold and transfer the knowledge about sex (Williams 1999), that is capable of contributing to the construction of truth on sex (Kurylo 2017). Foucault, to a certain extent, seems to be in agreement with the anti-porn feminists in the sense that pornography produces the “sexual truth”. As Schauer exemplifies the logic of Foucauldian power analysis on pornography:

“The acts depicted (like lesbian sex) or not depicted (like homosexual interaction between males) produce or fail to produce modes of sexual pleasure. In other words, acts that pornography shows as pleasurable will by persistent reiteration become

pleasurable. Acts that are not depicted, in contradistinction, fall into ‘disuse’ and may become culturally taboo as a result” (2005, 46).

Foucault, opposes the celebration of pornography solely on the basis of representation of diversities and freedom of expression. He believes that such a narrow focus conceals the power relations at play and oversees the fact that pornography possess the knowledge of the sexual truth (Kurylo 2017, Schauer 2005). However, he still departs from anti-porn feminist rhetoric for not demanding governments to control and/or ban pornography (Schauer 2005). Criminalization of pornography, to Foucault, would result in sexuality to become a threat to all other social relations (Kurylo 2017). Following Foucault, pro-sex feminist Gayle Rubin advocated that if state were to police sexualities through banning pornography, it would impose a hierarchical sexual value system and determine what is and is not acceptable sexual experience. ‘Good’ sexuality, that are heterosexual, monogamous, vanilla and so on, would predonderate over ‘bad’ sexualities, that are anything deviating from normative sexualities (Rubin 1991).

What makes Foucault a central figure in regards to Sex Wars is also due to his conceptualization of sexuality. To Foucault, sexuality is not formed through a discovery of hidden desires but is produced discursively through performance and is susceptible to spatiality and power relations (Foucault, 1997). Thus, it is neither fixed nor natural (Williams 1999). Accordingly, pro-sex feminists don’t problematize the representation of female sexuality in the way anti-porn feminists do. The latter distinct ‘hard’ sex from ‘soft’ sex when describing male sexuality against female sexuality, respectively, and believe that porn misrepresents female sexuality. The implication of this differentiation can be translated as male sexuality to be ‘pornographic’ while female sexuality to not leave the realm of ‘eroticism’ (Williams 1999). The fight over the essence of female sexuality (Schauer 2005), also signals a break from 1970s essentialist and sex-negative feminism (Ryberg 2015).

To Linda Williams, essentialism is one of the two reasons that anti-porn feminism is found problematic in their perception of female sexuality by pro-sex feminists. Firstly, Williams believes that positioning sexuality a priori to culture, power relations and history creates an illusion of and about sexuality, as if it exists in the nature alone (1999). It can be argued that

what Williams underlines corresponds to a greater debate in feminist literature: whether material or culture comes first. The former is championed by Simone de Beauvoir, whose theorizations long constituted a base for gender studies. She mainly claims that gender is a social artefact founded upon material sex (Beauvoir and Parshley 1963). Several decades later, Judith Butler, turned de Beauvoir’s theorization upside down by arguing both ‘material’ sex and ‘cultural’ gender are discursive, and is susceptible to culture (Butler 1999). Surely, the dispute between anti-porn and pro-porn feminists do not necessarily correspond to de Beauvoir’s material sex vs. Butler’s discursive sex (and/or gender). Still, it is worth considering that de Beauvoir and Butler’s oppositionary theoretical approaches feed the arguments of both sides of the Sex Wars. Secondly, Williams is critical of anti-porn feminists’ persistent efforts to position ‘soft’ female sexuality against ‘hard’ male sexuality, since it leaves no room for non-heterosexual sexualities. She points out that anti-porn feminists perceive female sexualities solely as a negation to male sexualities (1999). If to apply Butler’s (1999) notion of “heterosexual matrix”, which is a concept referring to making sense of sexualities through the heterosexual gaze, pro-sex feminists believes that anti-porn discourse operates within the heterosexual matrix. Interestingly enough, Andrea Dworkin, one of the most well-known anti-porn feminists, blames women who enjoy heterosexual relations to collaborate with the phallic enemy (Williams 1999). This argument, typically representative of radical feminism of 1970s, is believed to imply that female sexuality includes subtle lesbian elements (Butler 1999). Yet, anti-porn feminist rhetoric is still considered by Butler to reinforce heterosexual matrix because it goes hand in hand with an understanding of an essentialist sexuality (1997). As Schauer claims, anti-porn feminists “does not argue for a utopic conception of female sexuality, but rather argues from it” (2005, 45).

Anti-censorship feminists as well heavily criticize anti-porn feminists for their generic victimization of women (Williams 1999). This, to Lipton (2012), leads pro-porn feminists to celebrate non-mainstream porn productions, like lesbian, dyke, feminist and queer porn.

Pro-sex feminists cheered such productions for challenging the anti-porn rhetoric, the moot aesthetics and messages conveyed by mainstream pornography. The celebratory attitude of pro-sex feminists towards alternative pornography, or shortly referred as altporn, even consolidated with Web 2.0, which allowed alternative pornography to proliferate (Maddison

2013). Altporn scene were believed to transform the aesthetics, modes of production and the cultural meaning of pornography (Maddison ibid.). Since both anti- and pro-porn feminists were critical of mainstream porn, though not due to same reasons, the latter is argued by the former to clung to altporn scene (Lipton 2012, Maddison 2013). Alternative examples to mainstream pornography, to many pro-porn feminists, proved that porn was not the main cause laying behind the oppression on women (Ziv 2014). In short, pro-sex feminists did not only counter anti-porn feminists’ demands for pornography to be banned, but they were also in support of those that diverge from mainstream porn scene.

The Cost of Sex Wars

Sex Wars has been a mandatory step to be visited before even entering to the field of pornography. It has been highly influential in determining the way pornography is researched, thought about and made meaningful. It is possible to claim that Sex Wars is a magnetic focus point sticking the field together around a series of rich and multilayered theoretical discussions on the relations between pornography, society and technology. Still, it costed an entire field to be divided into two oppositionary poles. Williams argues that Sex Wars operating as a framework to porn studies yielded theoretical discussions to “never go beyond superficial judgements about sexism” (2014, 27). Similarly, McNair (2014) believes that the polarizing effect of Sex Wars threatens the trustworthiness of research on pornography as they tend to be too subjective and/or deviate from empirical data. Although both anti-porn camp and mainstream media claim pornography to trigger violent behaviour, McNair underlines the fact that there is almost no research proving such allegations.

Perceptions on pornography, to McNair, are not based on conducted research but rely on personal anecdotes and/or secondary sources (2014).

The polarized nature of pornography studies force researchers to align with one pole or another. Pro-sex camp, as mentioned previously, is frequently associated with altporn scene. More recently, porn studies is believed to lean more towards pro-sex feminist rhetoric thus has lost its critical distance to the porn industry (Williams 2014). In order not to be labeled as anti-porn feminist, the field approached to porn industry more and more and overlooked their commercial relations (Williams ibid.). In addition to that, the constrained optimistic attitude

towards altporn scene is argued to prompt an excessive amount of research on

non-mainstream porn scene while the mainstream pornography was not paid a similar attention (Maddison 2013, Williams 2014). In other words, Sex Wars’ polarizing effect carries the risk to possess, or at least alleged to possess, a hidden agenda behind academic research upon pornography.

Although being an immense influence on pornography studies, Sex Wars as a framework seems to weaken as the field grew bigger and got more complex (Lee and Sullivan 2016). Sex Wars for long forced the field to be more concerned with how sexualities are represented and consumed. Therefore, crucial issues such as the labour of pornography and its mode of production were ignored (Lee and Sullivan ibid.). With Sex Wars losing its weight on porn studies and Web 2.0 technologies giving voice to feminist and queer productions and performers, the questions of agency, mode of production and labour rose as a central focus.

What Does Porn Offer for Emancipation of Feminist and Queer Communities and Sex Workers?

Today, the main source of income for the porn industry is from online productions (Zecca 2017). Correspondingly, consumption of pornography rely on online productions as they are easy and very quick to access. Hence both the consumption and the production of online pornography mushroomed (Grebowicz 2013). The emergence of Web 2.0 was a game changer for porn industry. Following Web 2.0, online scene rapidly fell under the influence of ‘porn tubes’ (Slayden 2010). The tube sites, which host and stream content similar to video sharing platform Youtube, hold the monopoly of online pornography (Slayden 2010). They distribute content for free as they pirate copies. Consequently, producers’ revenue decreases and they either shrink in capacity or completely run out of business (Edelman 2009, Lee 2015, Ruberg, 2016). The emergence of feminist and queer pornography was believed to provide a safe space for sex workers and to counter the misogynist mainstream narratives (Wilkinson 2017). Not only that, but most of the alternative porn productions claim to follow ethical production and distribution process coupled with fair-trade business model, which is composed of two main premises. First, such productions aim at a sustainable business where the rights of sex workers are guaranteed and their agency is realized. Second, they assert that

they are representing their communities with correct aesthetics (Maina 2014, Mondin 2014). Ethical forms of pornography also means that consumers should pay for their porn. In return, customers are ensured that performers give consent for their participation in pornographic material and that their rights, safety and health are assured (Lee 2015). The stigma around pornography, or sex work in general, does work unfavourably for sex workers. Apart from the stigma, the industry is marked with intensive physical work, lack of performer’s control over production, discriminatory casting system, health and safety risks and more (Scott 2016). Given the oppressive and discriminatory climate of porn industry, it is worth celebrating what altporn scene, especially feminist and queer porn productions, offers. Not only in terms of the representation of sexualities, but also focusing on the labor rights of performers and ensuring their consent seem to be empowering in a business that is usually fueled with human trafficking. In addition to opening a space for the underrepresented, altporn scene is also in a claim to promote the agency of performers. The notion of agency, which is particularly important for feminist and queer analysis since it grants possibility to reach to the entitlements gained by women and queers, was mostly thought in relation to a ‘privatised zone of entitlement’ (Maddison 2013). According to Maddison, if agency is to remain a private entitlement matter, it would prevent the limits of agency to be uncovered and neoliberal conditions to be overseen (2013). It is argued by numerous ethical porn productions that performers are enabled to have control over the production process (Lee and Sullivan 2016), for instance through intervening into the scripts or even demolishing them, and choosing with whom to work and more (Mondin 2014). As seen with these examples, agency is often understood in relation to personal choice and technological democratization. Therefore, it creates a ‘constrained optimism’ (Maddison 2013). Sabsay rightfully reminds that self-ownership model and freedom of choice, which emerge as one of the most popular arguments in support of sex work, go hand in hand with neoliberal exploitation and ignore global economy (2015).

While the notion of agency in the ethical porn discourse is mostly limited to individuality hence surpasses mode of production, the latter is not completely out of focus. Wilkinson celebrates Web 2.0 technologies as they allow post-capitalist, non-capitalist, anti-capitalist or ‘slightly capitalist pornographies’ to come to life (2017). As opposed to Wilkinson’s approach to Web 2.0, Ruberg warns about not conceptualizing online porn as an utopia that is

free of capitalism, since online sexual culture made it harder to differentiate labour from play (Ruberg 2016). In fact, some behind-the-scenes material, which are mainly composed of interviews with performers to supposably reveal the labour of pornography, were found to be curated through contracts that bind performers to speak positively about their experience (Scott 2016). While this does not necessarily mean all behind-the-scenes material deviate from the real labour experience, it is crucial to perceive such material as a part of a discourse formed in relation to the labour of ethical porn productions (Scott, ibid.).


All in all, pornography is a very vibrant field of study and is complexed with multiple issues, directly or indirectly affecting the lives of many. Anti-porn rhetoric, not unexpectedly, applauds the contemporary climate of pornography that is marked with an increasing trend to criminalize sex workers, demonize women and queer people and sexualities. Therefore, it is of paramount importance to discover the forms of pornography that offer a space for the emancipation of women and queer people. Keeping this in mind, it is as crucial as to develop a critical perspective that does not get stuck with neoliberal premises on emancipation and goes beyond the dynamics of the dichotomy of Sex Wars.

Footnote and Bibliography




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