FLASHBACK 2005: The feminist debate over pornography heats up | City Weekly REWIND | Salt Lake City Weekly

FLASHBACK 2005: The feminist debate over pornography heats up 

Porn and Prejudice

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In commemoration of City Weekly's 40th anniversary, we are digging into our archives to celebrate. Each week, we FLASHBACK to a story or column from our past in honor of four decades of local alt-journalism. Whether the names and issues are familiar or new, we are grateful to have this unique newspaper to contain them all.

Title: Porn and Prejudice
Author: Jamie Gadette
Date: March 17, 2005

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There's nothing shocking about college-age students watching porn. Few, however, screen skin flicks with their strait-laced teacher providing running commentary around a porn film's predictable array of blow jobs, orgies and money shots.

Unleashing such taboo material onto a classroom of students doesn't bother University of Utah philosophy professor Cynthia Stark. She believes that confronting sexually explicit images is key to understanding female desire—and why some women equate porn with girl power.

Feminists are torn on the issue of pornography. Anti-porn feminists view it as an emblem of female subordination, while so-called "sex-positive" or "sex-radical" feminists tout its ability to transform docile women into fierce, independent creatures. While the debate seems driven by polar opposites, there are several gray areas clouding notions of what women want sexually, or whether it's even possible to accurately define female desire in a male-dominated culture. In conservative circles, the debate was over a long time ago. Pornography is bad no matter what, they claim. But as our society becomes more and more saturated by pornographic images, the debate among feminists and some academics has taken on increased urgency.

After spending the week juggling papers, student appointments and a sick toddler, Stark wants to know what happened to her social life. Just a few years ago, she was camping out for tickets to Sex: The Annabelle Chong Story, a Sundance Film Festival documentary about a well-known porn figure who starred in The World's Biggest Gang Bang, an event (and adult film) at which Chong set a world record for having sex with 251 men in 10 hours.

"The thing that was so great about the film is that you find out that when Chong traveled to London, she was gang-raped in the tube. And then here she is having sex with as many men as she can," Stark says, tucking a stray blond hair into her no-nonsense bob. "It's a classic case of where she's going to make the outcome right, because she's in control this time."

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Discussing graphic subject matter with this overalls-clad woman defies convention. Imagine talking dirty to a working, middle-age mom whose understanding of full-frontal exposure trumps that of even your hormone-charged brother. Stark, however, draws little pleasure from vast carnal knowledge. She doesn't "get off" on tawdry clips of seedy San Fernando Valley basements staging women and their simulated orgasms. Even during her tenure at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, Stark had a hard time stomaching the images she displayed as part of a course on pornography. She's since learned how to divorce knee-jerk repulsion from her desire to expose subtle, and oftentimes not so subtle, wrongs.

"I'm no expert," she says, noting that her first encounter with the sex industry occurred during graduate school at UNC, where a group of like-minded feminist scholars exposed its troubling implications. "I'm just indignant, even angered by depictions of women getting off on violent treatment or on degradation at the hands of men."

Stark turns on the lights to a sparse copy/computer center a few doors down from her office. She marches over to an empty PC and pops in I Get Wet (In All the Right Places) into its DVD player, then waits for the action to unfold. A young woman appears on-screen and takes a seat beside a table covered with sex toys. Her male companion sits down as well as asks if she needs work. "I really do—I need it bad," she says, and proceeds to perform fellatio on him.

"So that's how women get jobs—they give their bosses blow jobs! Well, then it's perfectly reasonable for him to ask for one," Stark says, rolling her eyes in disgust.

A grad student kills the mood when he drops by to work on his dissertation. Stark glances up. "We're just looking at some pornos—you don't mind do you?" she asks. "We don't want to shock anybody."

When the now-legendary adult film Deep Throat premiered in 1972, director Gerard Damiano delivered the goods without warning. He wasn't worried about offending the public. Why bother? Mainstream audiences were screening it at their neighborhood cinema, sucking down Coke and popcorn while Linda "Lovelace" Marciano nearly choked on Harry Reems. Few considered the flick's racy content worthy of battles over censorship, freedom of expression and sexual discrimination. How they missed that one is a mystery.

More than 30 years later, filmmakers Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato (Party Monster, The Eyes of Tammy Faye), have highlighted Deep Throat's cultural significance in their documentary Inside Deep Throat. Produced by Hollywood honcho Brian Grazer, the movie—which appeared at this year's Sundance Film Festival and opens March 18 at the Trolley Square Regency—features candid interviews with the original film's cast and director, as well as comments from high-profile figures including envelope-pushing director John Waters.

Reems bottomed out as a suicidal alcoholic before resurfacing as a born-again Christian who works in Park City real estate. He broke an 18-year silence to promote the documentary. As soon as the festival concluded, however, he returned to a life of relative obscurity. Reems told City Weekly that once the credits rolled, there was no further reason to bare his soul to the press. But before his relapsed silence, Reems echoed critics' praise of Deep Throat as a conduit for sexual liberation—accolades Stark finds hard to swallow.

"The plot of Deep Throat is that this woman's clitoris is in her throat. I mean, talk about a male fantasy," she says, adding that Marciano later claimed she was forced to perform the act under hypnosis.

In her memoir, Ordeal, the late Marciano recounted myriad horror stories of abuse incurred on and off the set. Disturbing tales of her being forced at gunpoint to copulate with animals, perform fellatio on strangers and other gross terrorization were recounted at the 1983 Minneapolis hearing of an anti-porn ordinance crafted by feminists Catherine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin. The ordinance claimed that all women who worked in porn were coerced and could bring suit against the films' producers and distributors. It was eventually tossed out as unconstitutional. Nevertheless, MacKinnon and Dworkin's fight against pornography inspired a generation of second-wave feminists to carry the torch.

At the time, Stark was at UNC teaching "Philosophical Issues in Feminism," a course suited for analyzing MacKinnon and her perceived role as prudish free-speech foe. "I simply found the debate fascinating," she says. "I guess it's not pornography per se that interests me, but the general issue of how freedom of speech might contribute to social injustice—an idea that ACLU types can't seem to fathom."

MacKinnon, an attorney who is often referred to as a "feminist censor," defines pornography as graphic, sexually explicit material that subordinates women through words and pictures. She also labels it as an action, not speech, and therefore not protected by the First Amendment. Stark believes most critics fail to understand the distinction between acts and depictions of acts, and so dismiss MacKinnon as a threat to democratic ideals.

"Some people are just really reactionary against her like, 'She's against free speech and that's the end of the story,' and I think it's a lot more complicated than that."

Stark's personal views are equally complex. Her analysis of MacKinnon appears in two published essays, "Pornography and Freedom of Speech: A Map of the Debate," and "Is Pornography an Action?: The Causal vs. the Conceptual View of Pornography's Harm," neither of which glorifies the feminist lawyer. The latter work questions whether pornography is truly the ultimate source of female oppression: "Unless one accepts MacKinnon's implausible behavioristic approach to explaining why pornography—but not other subordinating speech acts—plays a special role in the construction of social reality, one does not have nonarbitrary grounds for targeting pornography for regulation."

Stark is sympathetic to MacKinnon's arguments insofar as she shares her belief that restricting sexually explicit material is not an obvious violation of the First Amendment. She disagrees, however, with MacKinnon's push to ban certain pornographic works as a means for ending female subordination. Stark opposes the policing of porn, calling it an ineffective approach to eradicating misogyny and sexual inequality. Rather than eliminate pornographic imagery, why not increase awareness of pornography's effects? Knowledge, she says, is more powerful than a spread shot.

Most attempts to restrict pornography are written off as constitutional violations. The 1973 landmark case, Miller v. California, noted pornography as a generic, not legal, term highly dependent on context. The case also established a three-prong obscenity test for determining whether materials were obscene and therefore unprotected by the First Amendment. The test examines how certain materials relate to "adult community standards," particularly whether a work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.

Thanks to Roth v. United States, however, Utah has control over the type of material sold and distributed within its borders. The 1957 case found that the state's social interest in order and morality outweighed whatever slight social value there might be to obscenity. As a result, Utah residents may own and view hardcore porn at home, but may not sell it to others or display it in a public setting.

Stark didn't approach pornography as a censor or legal expert, but as a scholar. Her initial intellectual pursuits were geared toward philosophy, particularly the work of political philosopher John Rawls. A Harvard University professor who died recently at the age of 81, Rawls lectured and wrote on the importance of society based on equality and individual rights, thoughts that resonated with Stark's feminist beliefs.

When Stark was busy studying political philosophy for her doctoral dissertation in the 1980s, the debate on pornography was just heating up. With gender studies on the brain, Stark couldn't ignore porn's relationship to the status of women. She leaped into anti-porn feminism with a number of like-minded UNC grad students hoping to wipe out negative stereotypes about female sexuality. They talked theory in cafes and bars, raving over slideshows hosted by Cookie Teer, then owner of Southern Sisters Bookstore, a woman full of piss and vinegar whose list of enemies doubled with every victory she achieved over patriarchal rule.

Teer's in-class presentations involved projected images from Playboy, Penthouse and Hustler, including photos that expressed a great deal about women's status without being graphic or sexually explicit. One slide showed a woman wrapped in a snake, bound into submission. Another depicted a forest full of Asian women strapped in tight nooses, their seemingly lifeless bodies dangling from various tree limbs.

Stark was surprised to find that a large number of cartoons contributed to the more offensive material. "I remember this one from Playboy showing a man in a bathrobe, and this little girl who was obviously prepubescent was putting her clothes on and saying, 'You call that a molestation?'" Stark sees little redeeming value in such lurid imagery, but rejects the idea of banning similarly offensive material outright. Instead, given the chance, she would start an institute giving grants to feminist filmmakers to create films portraying women as sexual agents in humanizing and respectful ways.

Rebecca Whisnant, an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Dayton in Florida and friend of Stark, adopted Teer's slide show as part of her own course curriculum. She hopes new generations will raise questions and reach discoveries similar to those that dominated her first skin flick screenings.

"I felt I was seeing the distillation of every possible dimension of cultural misogyny displayed on the screen as entertainment and masturbation material for men," she says. "I couldn't believe it. I couldn't believe anyone could think that was not harmful to women. I felt it was something I had to understand better."

Whisnant's slide shows display various forms of pornography, including bondage, sadomasochism and other common fetishes. There are also examples of women being penetrated by various objects such as vacuum cleaner hoses. Whisnant often examines images heavy on racial stereotypes. A spread in Playboy's "Girls of the ACC" Southern universities edition, for example, shows a white woman placed above a black woman who is posed on all fours, doggy-style.

Whisnant understands why many people have a hard time looking at such off-putting photos, but like Stark finds its necessary for exposing our culture's dominant views on sexuality, especially now that pornography has infiltrated mainstream media, masquerading as harmless sexual titillation in teen-oriented television series and magazines like Maxim or Stuff.

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Concern over how this proliferation might affect children prompted the Utah Senate to approve controversial legislation aimed at giving parents more control of their home Internet connections. Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. is currently reviewing Senate Bill 260, which would create a database of Utah Websites "containing material harmful to minors." If signed, Utah Internet providers must rate content as well as provide a way to disable certain sites. Those who fail to do so will face felony charges.

Pornographic themes also prevail in prime-time sitcoms, dramas and ad campaigns directed toward ages 18-35. Whisnant says the trend has a troubling effect on the way viewers approach personal relationships. Some "women are having to confront their male partners' use of pornography in many ways, including pressures to watch it and imitate it," she says, adding that they might otherwise dodge such degrading pursuits.

But one woman's slut is another woman's goddess. A number of sex-positive feminists see nothing wrong with pornography, save for the obviously disturbing rape scenes or snuff films. Nina Hartley, Joani Blanks, Susie Bright and Carol Queen are among the most significant voices advocating a woman's right to be "bad." Their position stems from the second-wave feminist credo, "my body, my choice," which implicates anti-porn feminists as anti-feminists.

Blanks founded Good Vibrations, a San Francisco-based sex shop run by women, for women. In addition to selling a healthy supply of sex toys, erotic literature and videos, Blanks' shop offers customers free information on "doing it," what to "do it" with, how to "do it," and just about anything else pertaining to "it." There are also staff outreach programs for schools and other institutions educating audiences on basic sex awareness and HIV prevention.

Queen, a sex writer, therapist and performer living in Oregon when Good Vibrations first opened, didn't visit the erotic emporium until it established a distinct niche among countless other purveyors of porn.

"It was a radical departure to visit a women-oriented place after the male-oriented sex shops I had ventured into with my girlfriend," she wrote via email from her desk at the new nonprofit Center for Sex & Culture. "It was far more comfortable there, with many more items I could relate to and imagine using. Most importantly, their sexual products are not sold with prurience, shame or sleaze."

Queen now works for Good Vibrations as a staff sexologist educating visitors on erotic diversity, sexual functioning and enhancement, and sex and culture. She also writes a regular column for the company's website.

Queen, personally, had seen little porn and largely bought into anti-porn rhetoric before receiving her Ph.D. in sexology from San Francisco's Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality. "We watched a lot of porn there because it documents the sexual obsessions and interests of our culture at the historical moment porn is made," she wrote. "It also allows one to understand what our own 'hot-button' issues are—our likes and our discomforts."

Tracking porn's evolution makes it easier to distinguish positive developments in human sexuality from negative trends. For every move toward female-centered and female-directed adult films like Chloe's I Came, Did You?, there are several gonzo porns like BangBus—a degrading series featuring two men trolling for female contestants to have sex with strangers in the back of their van. The films usually end with the woman getting tossed out on her naked rear, sans compensation for being utterly humiliated.

"Most people in the porn industry find this a very troubling trend and are not in favor of it," Queen wrote. "This is the sort of porn that the Justice Department is trying to curtail."

In addition to academic applications, Queen discovered porn as an outlet for her exhibitionist tendencies. She has appeared in several pornographic films including Bend Over Boyfriend, Real San Francisco Lesbians, Volume I, and The Ecstatic Moment.

"I found it to be more diverse than the anti-porn rhetoricians had let on," she wrote. "I love being front of the camera. It centers my own sense of sexuality so I don't feel nervous." Queen refutes MacKinnon's claim of pornography as an action and not speech, saying it is only an action while being filmed. Adult films are exercises in fantasy, providing an outlet for desire and opportunity to lose oneself in the moment, she believes.

Whisnant questions the motivations driving women like Queen to claim they "own" their sexuality, chalking up those assertions to the mentality that if you can't beat them, join them. "They know they can't combat [cultural norms] and so the thing to be is a cool, liberated modern chick who is one of the guys—not one of those prudish, repressed women who men are mad at," she says.

Some sex-positive women mix radical sex appeal with a radical attitude, placing elements of porn into more intellectual contexts where a woman's interests, thoughts and political views are just as valued as her body. SuicideGirls.com showcases seemingly hip, liberated women taking charge of their sexuality. The site features modern-day pinup girls defying conventional beauty standards. As opposed to typical Playboy centerfolds, these women sport tattoos, piercings and colorful hair. With names like Aphobia, Ryder, Seraphim and Trementina, their profiles venture beyond long-walks-on-the-beach fodder in favor of daily, full-length journal entries. Want to know more about a David Lynch-loving rockabilly fan? Simply select her name from the site's convenient, alphabetized list to get inside her head. One entry from a Suicide Girl dubbed "Geraldine," analyzes a 1956 Mademoiselle article, "What's Wrong With Ambition," a piece highlighting female upward mobility. Geraldine writes, "the most shocking, radical aspect of the 'Ambition' story was the response it provoked both in letters and in stories published in other magazines. 'They make me nervous,' said one married woman of girls cut loose in major cities."

These insights are common among featured Suicide Girls, but Whisnant wonders whether their minds might be more valued if their bodies weren't also on display. "Is it good? Is it empowering? Is it something that won't have the kind of effects that other porn has on women? I don't see any reason to think that," she says. "The basic dynamic is still the same—men have decided that they want to see and consume and have access to a particular kind of woman. Men are still having a sexual experience in which they are in complete control."

MacKinnon likely would argue against Suicide Girls as a positive influence on female liberation. She believes that in the context of male dominance, where women are defined as beings permissibly objectified by men, women can't voluntarily attach new meaning to their roles as strippers, prostitutes, porn starts or any other type of sex worker. Stark thinks it's easier to understand the argument in terms of racial inequality.

"Suppose a black person decided, right after Reconstruction, that he was going to be kept in a servile way toward white people claiming, 'You know, I have a different meaning for this. It's my freedom to act like I'm servile. I do this because I feel like it,' well, that wouldn't really work," Stark says.

While the comparison may seem far-fetched, it's telling of the communication breakdown between anti-porn feminists and sex-positive feminists. Where one group sees power, the other spots slavery. One feels a duty to stop the subordination of women, the other rallies for freedom of expression. On issues of censorship, the sex-positive camp tends to align anti-porn feminists in the same camp as right-wing moral crusaders. Stark believes such parallels are unfounded.

"I think it's really a problem, because those people [moral crusaders] hate women as much as pornographers do. I mean, they aren't our friends," she says, spitting out the last sentence as if it was spoiled. MacKinnon, however, joined forces with right-wing anti-porn leaders during the Minneapolis anti-porn ordinance hearings, a move more rooted in desperation than any meeting of the minds. Her end goal of eliminating women's subordinate status meant siding with people opposed to feminism.

"Our reasons for being opposed to porn are dramatically different from those on the moral right," Whisnant said. "Their opposition is based in this idea that each woman should be privately owned by one type of man, and that sex is only acceptable within a particular nuclear context."

Both anti-porn feminists and sex-positive feminists are repulsed by traditional roles casting women as subservient caretakers. Neither group wishes to play passive housewife to some authoritarian husband. Why, then, is it so hard for them to reach common ground?

Susie Bright, a sex-positive author, editor, publisher and performer known for her radical politics, thinks feminism has gotten bogged down in specifics. She notes that women should be recognized as whole beings, not defined in respect to gender roles or servitude. While her views will never be confused as being anti-porn, Bright doesn't necessarily view sex as an absolute gateway to power. "I'm embarrassed by women whose only nod to female liberation is their predilection for a short skirt," she wrote via email. "This wasn't what the pioneers of female revolution had in mind. We didn't give a s-t about clothes—we wanted to transform the world." In other words, true feminism isn't about stripping down and turning tricks.

Bright's activist leanings surfaced as early as age 8, when she opposed Ronald Reagan's run for governor with pamphlets signed, "Concerned Citizens of California." In high school, her counterculture interests colored The Red Tide, an underground student newspaper running features on access to free birth control and other controversial subjects.

Since then, Bright has amassed an impressive body of work, from essays and adult videos to sex-education books for children. She's also drawn a great deal of criticism from those who'd rather not read up on her erotic encounters. Her main defense of pornography is that generic, socially acceptable industries such as health care, oil and food, are just as flawed. For Queen, porn is only reckless when produced under dangerous conditions, such as films involving violence or stars who refuse HIV testing. If people want to tear down the sex industry, they should scrutinize it with the same respect applied to debates over HMOs.

"Where there is corruption, point it out. Where there is exploitation and oppression, point it out. But don't act like nudity, desire and sex make an occupation worse. If anything, it's one of its redeeming qualities," Bright wrote, adding that without a profit motive, fewer women would perform in porn shoots, but fewer, too, would work as waitresses and secretaries.

Few waitresses, however, base their sexual identities on their restaurant experience. Some servers might take issue with being compared to porn stars simply because they share a need to pay rent.

Queen, who is proud of her work in the sex industry, thinks some sex-positive feminists exaggerate porn as their definitive pass to personal and professional freedom.

"If porn is liberating, it is liberating to individuals: in some cases those who make it; in some cases those who watch and enjoy it," she wrote. "But I wouldn't call it liberating by definition—that's too much of a generalization for me."

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Porn itself is rife with generalizations. Back in the copy room, Stark laughs at the cliche plot devices present in The Kiss, a well-funded production featuring Jenna Jameson. The big-bosomed porn star writhes around, leaning over a chair to lock lips with a leather-clad lady. A menacing man orders Jameson to stip. He puts a collar around her neck, calls her a kitty and orders her to crawl on the floor. Stark chuckles. She didn't think it would be so easy to highlight pornography's failings from one random stash of adult films.

"Would men find women crawling on the floor sexually appealing in a culture that didn't already treat women like sexual things? They might find it offensive," Stark says, adding that our male-dominated culture limits the power of pro-porn arguments. "Libertarianism is fine in a culture of equality. I don't know what you're supposed to make of it in a culture of inequality, because you can't really view the person's sexuality as if it were untainted by sexual dominance. Who knows where their fetishes came from?"

Who knows, indeed? But wherever they came from, MacKinnon believes they were aided by pornography's depiction of women as submissive creatures, objectifying the female form. And where there is objectification, there should be no First Amendment protection. Pornography supporters worry that qualifying something as "objectifying," is subjective and apt to affect non-pornographic works of art. MacKinnon doesn't care. As long as the material fits her set of criteria, it counts as pornography. If any socially acceptable art falls into that category, so much worse for the art.

Such reasoning spits in the face of self-expression. However, for MacKinnon and many other anti-porn feminists, their end goal of true sexual liberation justifies tampering with aesthetics. "It's really about the overthrow of male dominance," Stark says. "Only in the absence of male-dominated sexuality would you really be able to get a handle on what kind of desires women have—and likewise for men."

In the meantime, Stark encourages students to view critically the next porn or sexually alluring images they catch at parties, on commercial screens, in magazines and on billboards. Ask whether the woman depicted is getting off on power, or just getting screwed by a male-dominated fantasy. Ask who's really in control. The answer may disturb you. It could just as easily turn you on. Chances are, it will do a little of both.

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