Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality, Volume 12, May 11, 2009


Feminism and Pornography:
Building Sensitive Research and Analytic Approaches

Natalie Purcell
Department of Sociology, University of California, Santa Cruz

Presented on May 8, 2009 at Sexual Ontogeny: A Lifelong Work in Progress, The Western Regional Conference of the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality

Editor's note: The Journal has, for several years, offered to published papers that were approved and presented at SSSS meetings. The Journal does not do additional peer review of these papers, counting on the Society's committees to do this task.


A few years ago, an interdisciplinary group of graduate students and faculty formed the Feminism and Pornography Research Cluster at UC Santa Cruz. Since then, we’ve investigated the relationship of pornography to feminism through intense research and collective reading practices. In this essay, I will use the experience of the Research Cluster to reflect on existing literature about pornography and controversial sexual expression. With an eye toward building critical yet sensitive research agendas, I will interrogate how feminists have examined and talked about pornography. Specifically, I’ll look at how their personal stakes and emotional investments have shaped what gets studied and ignored, how findings are interpreted and reported, and how pornography researchers communicate and fail to communicate with one another.

I’m going to start with a review of existing literature on the psychosocial impacts of pornography and of its repression. This literature is a highly charged, politically oriented literature. Often, disagreements among those who study pornography are not only scholarly disagreements. They are political and they are personal. Most feminists working on pornography experience pressure to “take a side.” A researcher, whether she intends it or not, will probably be classified by her fellow feminists as either a defender or a critic of pornography. Efforts at etching a middle ground and efforts to achieve some form of “neutrality” have been few and far between, and they have been mostly unsuccessful in breaking the discursive norms of what is a largely bifurcated debate.

After I summarize the findings of this literature and note some of the trends I’ve observed in both camps, I will try to answer a few related questions about the legacy of feminist research on pornography:

I will close my presentation by stressing the continuing importance of research on pornography, and by suggesting how we might engage in this research in more sensitive and responsive ways. These strategies, I will argue, have the potential to take us beyond the dichotomous terms of the existing debate.


If you’ve read any sex wars literature—from personal manifestos to standard quantitative analyses—you probably know that investigations of pornography are seldom divorced from strong feelings. When reading, for instance, Diana Russell’s Against Pornography (1993a), you learn about more than the percentages of women who are victimized in sexual assaults, or the statistical correlation between exposure to violent pornography and attitudes toward sexual aggression. You learn also, whether Dr. Russell intends it or not, about her personal readings of pornographic texts and her visceral reactions to them. You learn whether this material provokes similar feelings for you. You learn whether Dr. Russell’s analysis makes you want to protest in front of the Hustler Club, sign up with the ACLU, or subscribe to Playboy. Because this literature is so unfailingly provocative and affectively-charged, it hasn’t always been taken seriously. It has been easy to dismiss findings with which one disagrees by charging that they are the product of the researcher’s personal bias or are a mere reflection of her own emotional reactions to pornographic texts.

I would not deny, on the basis of my own review of the literature, that affective orientations and emotional reactions have played a large part in the choice of research objects and subjects, the design of research methodologies, the interpretation of conflicting data, and the development of theory around pornography. I would deny, however, that this indicates excessively biased, unscholarly work worthy of dismissal. There are three reasons for this: First, feminists’ affective orientations and emotional reactions around pornography are not mere epiphenomena when it comes to pornography; they are among the significant psychosocial impacts of pornography that warrant serious analysis (cf. Ahmed 2004 on the materiality of affect). Second, emotional reactions to pornography and to research about pornography are rooted in the actual and perceived stakes of the debate. They are tied to identified consequences of pornography and of its repression (cf. Barad 2007 on tracing the material stakes of discursive phenomena). Third, feminists have made many substantive and analytically rigorous contributions to the study of the production, dissemination, and consumption of pornography, and they have traced many apparent and less apparent, direct and indirect, psychological and social consequences of pornography and of its repression.

Let’s begin, then, with a brief review of these findings and with the divergent claims made by the opponents and the supporters of pornography. Note 1

Anti-pornography feminists and other researchers have outlined the following psychosocial effects of pornography:

These, as you can see, are very serious charges, most of which are backed up by empirical research and controversial theoretical defenses. Most anti-pornography feminists believe that the risks involved in the production, consumption, and dissemination of mainstream pornography far outweigh the risks posed by regulating and publicly criticizing it. Thus, their (much analyzed and often criticized) outrage, disgust, fear, and despair in relation to pornography are not only orientations toward pornography; they are also substantive reflections of and responses to what they believe pornography is and does—to the woman who encounters it, to those who use it, and to those who live in a culture where it is prevalent. Taking seriously divergent claims about what pornography is and does must be a part of analyzing the emotional charge and the rhetorical tactics of anti-pornography literature and activism.

The same should be said of work by feminists who criticize the anti-pornography position. “Sex-positive” or “sex-radical” feminists argue that far greater harm is done in restricting production of or access to pornography and in publicly criticizing the sexual practices of others. They identify the following risks associated with the public criticism of pornography:

Listening to and evaluating these arguments should be a part of the feminist conversation on pornography. Listening reveals, at the very least, that women on different sides of the issue have real stakes in the outcomes and consequences of the pornography debates. It reveals also that how we feel about pornography—the emotions and affective orientations it generates for us—are tied to our perceptions of what pornography actually does or what the repression of pornography does.

In evaluating these claims, did you find yourself sympathetic to arguments on both sides of the debate? Did you feel that the side you tend not to identify with makes some important points? If so, then you’d probably agree that those points ought to be taken into consideration in your own research or the research of those on both sides. Unfortunately, this kind of listening is exactly what’s missing in research on pornography. A review of the literature suggests that most outspoken researchers and activists take the substantive points and claims of their opponents seriously only when they don’t feel that their own cause is excessively threatened. Here are some of the trends I’ve noticed in literature on pornography:

I want to go into a little more depth on each of these, beginning with the first:

(1) Defining and/or operationalizing pornography in a manner that ignores the claims of one’s opponents.

Pornography is not a static or singular cultural object. Yet, since the dawn of the sex wars, many anti-pornography feminists have tried to circumscribe the definition of pornography and to cast it as something diametrically opposed to non-degrading “erotica.” Consider Diana Russell’s definition of pornography as “material that combines sex and/or the exposure of genitals with abuse or degradation in a manner that appears to endorse, condone, or encourage such behavior” (Russell 1993a: 48) . Dworkin’s and MacKinnon’s definition is even more succinct: for them, pornography is “the graphic, sexually explicit subordination of women” (Dworkin 2000a: 29) . But to create such a strict ahistorical definition of pornography is to turn a blind eye to non-heterosexual pornographies and to the efforts of feminists like Candida Royalle who have appropriated the term and worked to change the meaning and substance of the pornographic. Moreover, because so many anti-pornography feminists built their critiques into their definitions of pornography, any challenge to those definitions could (and did) become a near-devastating blow to their critiques.

By the same token, sex-positive feminists’ attacks on others’ efforts to define pornography are dangerous when they become refusals to acknowledge that anti-pornography feminists really are talking about something: the representational forms and practices they criticize and perhaps too hastily and stubbornly define have a substantive presence and, as such, have real and by no means singular impacts on women. Rejecting any operational definition by default is no less stubborn and no more open to the opposition than is the imposition of a strict, ahistorical definition.

I say this to emphasize the complex issues surrounding the operationalization of variables in controversial sexuality research. Sometimes, our definitions can determine in advance what we will find and what we’ll ignore. This, in turn, affects the political orientation of our research and determines the constituencies to whom we make ourselves intelligible and accountable.

(2) Collapsing the positions of the opposition into single extremist stance

In both camps, I’ve observed the oversimplification of the other side’s position, and the move to characterize all members of the opposing camp in terms that really represent only the most extreme voices (and sometimes not even those voices). For instance, many sex-positive texts label anti-pornography feminists as “gender-essentialist.” The latter are accused of positing an idealized, innocent, and victimized femininity, which they place in binary opposition to a demonized, aggressive masculinity. While I am certain that some of the feminists who oppose or criticize pornography take essentialist positions, this is by no means the mantra of the movement, and the establishment of these binary gender roles is generally what they criticize pornography for doing. Strong social-constructivist positions are much more common than essentialist positions among anti-pornography feminists, but you would never know this if you’ve read only how sex-positive literatures characterize the anti-pornography position (Dworkin 1991; MacKinnon 2000a: 172) . Sex-positive literatures also tend to label anti-pornography feminists as “pro-censorship” (cf. Williams 1999) . But some are opposed to censorship in all its forms and are instead interested in working to reshape demand by promoting media literacy and fostering greater sensitivity to violent or misogynistic representations of women (Simonton 2008a; Simonton 2008b) .

On the other side, anti-pornography activists accuse sex-positive or sex-radical feminists of supporting all forms of sexual expression regardless of their impact on the individuals involved. In fact, sex-radical feminists draw their own lines and many support freedom of sexual expression only among consenting adults. What these examples illustrate is a tendency to consolidate the views of the opposing camp into a single extremist position, which can then be dismissed as unserious at best or outrageous at worst.

(3) Completely ignoring the claims of harm articulated by the other side.

As we saw, feminist critics and defenders of pornography do not simply make sweeping condemnations or offer uncritical celebrations. Instead, each side makes empirically-supported and theoretically persuasive arguments based on harms that they have identified as consequences of pornography on the one hand, and the repression of pornography on the other hand. The evidence that supports these claims of harm tends, however, to be completely ignored or dismissed by those on the other side of the fence.

A review of the literature turns up countless examples. In an effort to establish a solid political platform and to name (what they see as) the overwhelming harms associated with mainstream pornography, feminist critics of pornography consistently fail to acknowledge the threats of sexual repression and shaming associated with the regulation of pornography. When they do acknowledge them, it is from a defensive stance and with the intent to minimize them or deny their veracity. In seminal works, both MacKinnon and Dworkin tend to write as though there is no opposition, no conflict within feminism. Both claim to speak about and for “women as a class” (Dworkin 2000a: 26,32,29). Ignoring the claims of many sex workers and their advocates, Dworkin assumes that a woman’s self-expression or speech in pornography is always her “pimp’s” speech (Dworkin 2000a: 32). Likewise, in comparing the production of all pornography to child pornography and in labeling all filmed depictions of rape as cases of actual rape, MacKinnon neatly sidesteps questions of consent and will (MacKinnon 2000b: 111). As such, she ironically ignores the protests of the women whose speech, she argues, was ignored in the making of pornography.

The other side hasn’t done much better. Instead of, for instance, admitting the challenges posed by data correlating exposure to violent pornography with propensity toward sexual violence, most have simply dismissed the data as the bogus product of biased research. Personal testimonies in particular are ignored or scoffed at, when they are some of the best data we have yet on the psychosocial effects of pornography.

(4) Attributing the positions of the other side exclusively to emotional reactions on the part of individual researchers.

They’re not called the “sex wars” for nothing. Ad hominem charges and outright dismissals of “the other side” have been common. Drucilla Cornell has noted the regular use of sexual shaming and ridicule to dismiss or vilify the opposition (Cornell 2000a) . Just as MacKinnon accused women who opposed her efforts of collaborating with the oppressors, so critics of anti-pornography feminism have repeatedly claimed that Dworkin, MacKinnon, and their supporters merely reproduce the pornography they criticize or are “obsessed” with violent pornography because it really turns them on (Bright 1995; Brown 2000: 210; Hollibaugh 2000: 456) . This discursive violence has produced a conversation of offense and defense, of attack and counter-attack, where openness to the opposition is almost unthinkable.

So what do we make of these trends in feminist conversations about pornography? Is this simply evidence of feminists behaving badly? Not exactly. I’m going to argue that what seems like bad behavior is often rooted in real cognizance of what is at stake for at least some of the players in these debates. And I’m going to make that argument by way of a short anecdote.

Let’s transport ourselves for a moment back to 1981, when these debates were just taking form. This year, anti-pornography feminists made a roundly-criticized documentary about the effects of pornography. This documentary was called Not a Love Story, and it included feminists’ personal testimonials about the impact of pornography on their own lives. For instance, the film shows anti-pornography activist Robin Morgan breaking down in tears as she describes her feelings about pornography and mourns the absence of a more gentle, sensitive mode of sexual expression. Upon its release, many sex-positive feminists attacked Not a Love Story as absurd and pathetic. Laura Kipnis, for instance, characterized its anti-pornography sentiment as a classist and puritanical effort to “remove the distasteful from the sight of society” (Kipnis 1996: 139 in Paasonen 2007: 54) . Kipnis mocked the feminist testimonials in the documentary film, and she saved some of her harshest words for Robin Morgan. Scoffing dismissively at Morgan’s tears, Kipnis calls them “the only publicly permissible display of body fluids” (Kipnis 1996: 137-40). Here, Kipnis reads Morgan’s tears as expressions of bourgeois disgust, signifiers of her compulsion to regulate the sexual expression of others. In this reading, the harm that Morgan names—the hurt that she struggles to articulate—is defensively ignored by a feminist who rejects her agenda.

Why react that way? Is Kipnis just being gratuitously mean? Is she incapable of seeing that maybe Robin Morgan has a point? That maybe there are sexual possibilities foreclosed by the prevalence of mainstream pornography? I don’t think we can simply attribute Kipnis’s reaction to nastiness or ignorance. To understand Kipnis’s reaction, we need to understand what she believes is at stake in the aftermath of the documentary. In truth, the anti-pornography activist and her public tears represent, in the eyes of many sex radicals, a concrete and ominous threat. For many lesbians, gay men, queer people, and others, anti-pornography feminists’ criticism of other people’s sexual practices is narrow-minded and irresponsible (Hollibaugh 2000; Ross 2000) . In particular, their attempts to use state intervention and coalition-building with the right-wing in the name of protecting women from pornography could be a profoundly dangerous strategy (Ross 2000: 293) . State legislation restricting and repressing the sexual expressions and representations of women, and lesbian women in particular, has a long and violent history. In this context, Robin Morgan and her collaborators look more like aggressors than victims. Kipnis’s reactions starts to look less like a nasty attack and more like a smart defense.

Refusing to respond openly to Morgan’s pain is a reasonable reaction to the threats she poses, but it clearly forecloses other interpretive possibilities. Morgan’s tears, after all, are notonly a manipulative political strategy or an expression of false bourgeois consciousness. What if we read Morgan’s tears as expressive of real hurt, rooted not only in the shame of a middle-class morality but also in the repeated depiction and performance of misogyny and sexual aggression that Morgan herself names as the culprit? Even if we disagree on the multidimensional sources of Morgan’s pain, can we read her tears as a display of her hurt and vulnerability, as a sign of her courage in publicly confessing these feelings, and as an indication of the substantial stakes of the pornography debates? For sex-positive feminists, what are the risks of reading Morgan’s confession with compassion?

The words and actions of feminists on both sides of the sex wars cannot be viewed in isolation from the material stakes of the debate in which they are engaged. Likewise, existing feminist theory and research on pornography must be read in the context of its authors’ multidimensional political aims. Feminists who researched and wrote about pornography usually did so because they were aware of and concerned about the potential outcomes of the sex wars. Their own personal stakes in the debates and their often savvy awareness of the exigencies of effective political mobilization are reflected in the diverse literatures that they produced. For instance, anti-pornography feminists like MacKinnon and Dworkin wrote as they did in a powerful and important effort to articulate how a culture of pervasive sexual violence and gendered hierarchy is reproduced. They hoped to expose and perhaps one day break the cycle of violence and oppression. This is neither apology nor excuse for their tactics, but an acknowledgement of the complex sociopolitical and legal frameworks within which feminists must do their work—frameworks that, for the most part, are not of their own making and are often inadequate or hostile to their ends. This required, at times, building coalitions across political difference that made others feminists, like Kipnis, cringe. With this in mind, it becomes a little clearer why feminist literature on pornography has taken the polarized form that it has. It also becomes clear why this debate has been so emotional, personal, and frequently antagonistic.

This, I want to reiterate, is not an indication that the literature is too biased to be valuable or that it lacks scholarly adequacy. Unfortunately, it’s often taken as an indication of precisely that. The history of feminist work on pornography has made it very difficult to be taken seriously as a feminist scholar on the topic. This, paired with the plain acrimony of the debates themselves, is one of the reasons that feminist scholars today avoid researching pornography. Above all, they are wary of reiterating the same old debates, of being forced to occupy one defined stance or the other. This, I think, is regrettable because pornography is more prevalent than ever and arguably more misogynistic and violent than ever (Jensen 2007; Lane III 2001). More women are also involved in the production of pornography than have ever been in the past (Lane III 2001).

Knowing that the material stakes of the debate haven’t changed much over the years, is it possible for the conversation to unfold in different—and dare I say, kinder and more responsive—directions? I want to argue that there is, in fact, some common ground to work on. Feminists have different and conflicting stakes in the outcomes of the pornography debates, but they also have shared stakes. Feminists on both sides were (and are) attempting to address the material and discursive violence done to women and to create an environment where women and sexual minorities have greater freedoms and fewer obstacles to living the lives they want to live. Feminists with divergent positions are struggling to identify, articulate, and account for the pain that women have experienced as a consequence of sexism, stereotypes, and other physical, social, and psychological violence.

If we acknowledge these shared stakes, then we might begin to open up to the stakes of our opponents—of those we have felt compelled to defensively ignore or criticize. Breaking out of the same discursive trap will require this shift. If we want to learn from the sex wars without staying at war, we’ll have to listen better and more openly to those we perceive, sometimes for good reason, as threats to the causes we care about. Relating more responsibly with fellow researchers, subjects, and interested publics will demand taking the risk of attentive engagement with the multidimensional and multidirectional suffering caused by the sex wars, by pornography, and by its repression. I’m calling today for a mode of responsible relating grounded in better recognition of the complex stakes of all those involved in and affected by research on pornography.

In addition to becoming better listeners, there are several ways that sexuality researchers can build greater sensitivity into their own practice:

I have offered this talk as an acknowledgement of the personal and collective risks facing feminists and other researchers who talk about sex and pornography, and as a plea to continue the conversation with greater sensitivity to those vulnerabilities. We can gain the freedom and the will to learn from one another and to talk across our differences only if we acknowledge one another’s vulnerabilities and recognize the potential cross-cutting harms involved in producing, consuming, repressing, and even researching pornography today.



I would like to thank the Feminism and Pornography Research Cluster and our sponsoring organization, the Center for Cultural Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Special thanks to my colleagues Lydia Osolinsky, Marsh Leicester, Katie Kanagawa, Allison Day, and Candace West for their comments on drafts of this presentation. Thanks to the Western Regional of the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality for the opportunity to deliver this presentation and to the Institute for the Advanced Study of Human Sexuality for offering to publish it in the Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality.


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Note 1: As a disclaimer, I want to note that anti-pornography feminism and sex-radicalism, as they are often labeled, represent diverse and occasionally overlapping positions, and there is significant controversy within each camp. There has, however, definitely been a historical coalescence into two opposed pro- and anti-pornography camps. Research findings and the development of theory around pornography reflect this division, which I will in turn replicate here.