Klänge (1913), Wassily Kandinsky. Public Domain.

A Feminist Response to “Defending Pornography”

Nadine Strossen’s 1995 book Defending Pornography, originally published by Scribner (an imprint of Simon & Schuster) has just been published for the third time, this time by New York University Press.

Strossen is a professor at New York Law School and a Senior Fellow with FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression. She was the President of the American Civil Liberties Union for seventeen years, from 1991-2008. And most relevantly for our purposes, she was one of the most outspoken critics of second-wave feminism’s antipornography stance. Alongside a number of academic journal articles, Defending Pornography is where she made her case.

The front cover of the book’s first edition features neon typeface blaring the word “PORNO” in all caps. In the 2000 introduction to the second edition, Strossen recounts an “especially noteworthy example” of attempts at what she calls “Censorship of My Anticensorship Message.” The owner of a bookstore in California advertised a scheduled reading and book-signing by putting a large print of Strossen’s book cover on an easel at the entrance to his shop.

No sooner had he done this than some irate citizens stormed into his store, complaining that the very presence of the sign endangered the safety and welfare of women and children in their community and demanding that he take it down. When he refused, some of them announced that they would organize protests at my reading and boycotts of the bookstore. A number of them also filed complaints with the city government.

Reflecting on this episode, Strossen commented “I must admit that the book’s title and the cover of the original hardback edition are rather provocative… I was myself quite startled when the trade press publisher… first presented the cover design to me.”

Cover aside, reading Strossen’s book is likely to be a somewhat dissonant experience for any gender-critical (or, if you prefer, sex-realist) readers. That’s because in a social parallel, Strossen versus the group she calls the “MacDworkinites” (after Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin) is equivalent to Kathleen Stock versus the establishment feminist philosophers. Or, more generally, the 1990s’ clash between “anti-censorship” feminists and “anti-pornography” feminists is equivalent to today’s battle between gender-critical feminists and the entrenched version of liberal, intersectional feminism. The anti-censorship feminists were, at one time, as the gender-critical feminists are now: the dissenting minority view against what looked like a nearly-impossible-to-shift feminist consensus.

Indeed, Strossen saw herself as making an explicitly feminist case againstthe censorship of pornography, intending to bust apart the perception that there was one agreed-upon feminist view of porn. One of the sections of her 2000 introduction is titled “Not All Feminists Think Alike.” Chapter 1 (aside from the new prefaces and new introductions, the content of the book is the same in all editions) ends with the assertion:

Contrary to the MacDworkinites’ image of a unified front, many feminist women disagree with their implacably negative analysis of sexual expression, and reject their calls for censoring it. Moreover, contrary to the MacKinnon-Dworkin line that to dissent from their views reflects an elevation of free speech principles over principles of women’s equality, many feminist women oppose censoring sexually oriented speech specifically from a feminist perspective; we believe that censorship would not promote women’s rights, but, to the contrary, would undermine them.

Gender-critical feminists can relate to this: it is part of our project to bust apart the perception that there is one agreed-upon view when it comes to trans issues. The tactics Strossen reports the “MacDworkinites” using sound eerily similar to the tactics deployed by today’s “trans-inclusive feminists.” Here’s one example:

David M. O’Brien, professor of political science at the University of Virginia, was editing a textbook on various civil liberties issues, including the censorship of pornography. He wanted to include excerpts from some of my writings and some of MacKinnon’s. When she heard that some of my words would be included—heaven forefend—in the same book as hers, she had a tantrum and told the publisher that he would have to choose—her words or mine. The publisher refused to withdraw my piece—so MacKinnon pulled hers—even though the book was in galleys. In the end, MacKinnon was hoisted by her own petard; my piece got published and hers did not.

I could tell a virtually identical story with a less happy ending: a proposed book of interviews with women philosophers (a sequel to this one with mostly men) was dropped by Oxford University Press USA, after the feminist philosopher Kate Manne threatened to pull out when it was discovered that Kathleen Stock and I—both gender-critical—were to be included. OUP USA’s philosophy editor Peter Ohlin agreed with Manne and deemed our inclusion “problematic.” The interviewer (and curator of the collection) refused to remove our interviews. The result in this case, though, was no book, rather than, alas, Manne being hoisted by her own petard.

So why did I say that reading the book is likely to be a dissonant experience? That’s because, while identifying strongly with Strossen’s status in the debate over pornography, gender-critical feminists are also likely to strongly disagree with her substantive views about pornography. Gender-critical feminism is in the ideological tradition of radical feminism, which means it is on the MacKinnon-Dworkin side of the dispute.

I tend to be a very calm, detached, analytical reader, but I found myself often frustrated, occasionally confused, and on several occasions angry reading this book. I was frustrated with Strossen for being so uncharitable towards MacKinnon’s and Dworkin’s arguments against pornography. I was confused about why she kept insisting that her case against pornography was a feminist one, when it seemed to be a free speech one, which could be made against any form of censorship. I was angry with MacKinnon, for being an activist where she should have been an academic—for being a bad role model as an academic. And if I’m being completely honest, I was probably frustrated with myself, because I have tended to put both MacKinnon and Dworkin on pedestals. That made it hard to read them painted in such an unflattering light, and to understand that they were in many respects “the same” as those whose political tactics I currently despise.

Despite the book title’s claim to be defending pornography, Strossen’s real target is the claim that the censorship of pornography would be a good move from a feminist perspective. When I interviewed her for the Brain In A Vat podcast earlier this year, I described the Feminist Anti-Censorship Taskforce of which she had been a member as “feminists for pornography.” Strossen’s reply was that they weren’t for pornography but against censorship. “We were no more for pornography than women who support… the right to abortion are for abortion. … I’m fairly ignorant about pornography,” she said. The upshot of being against the censorship of pornography is, of course, that there will be pornography; but the argument is not one from the benefits of pornography, but rather one from the costs of attempts to censor pornography.

Strossen’s main argument is a practical one, and one not unique to women: censorship usually redounds against the marginalized, even when it is proposed in their name. So the censorship of pornography is likely to redound against women, even if it is proposed in their interests, as it is proposed by MacKinnon and Dworkin in their draft ordinance.

Let me briefly sketch the draft ordinance’s proposal before saying more about Strossen’s case against it. MacKinnon and Dworkin stated that pornography was “a form of discrimination on the basis of sex.” Their draft legislation defined pornography as

the sexually explicit subordination of women, graphically depicted, whether in pictures or in words, that also includes one or more of the following: (i) women are presented dehumanized as sexual objects, things or commodities; or (ii) women are presented as sexual objects who enjoy pain or humiliation; or (iii) women are presented as sexual objects who experience sexual pleasure in being raped; or (iv) women are presented as sexual objects tied up or cut up or mutilated or bruised or physically hurt; or (v) women are presented in postures of sexual submission; or (vi) women’s body parts – including but not limited to vaginas, breasts, and buttocks – are exhibited, such that women are reduced to those parts; or (vii) women are presented as whores by nature; or (viii) women are presented being penetrated by objects or animals; or (ix) women are presented in scenarios of degradation, injury, abasement, torture, shown as filthy or inferior, bleeding, bruised, or hurt in a context that makes these conditions sexual.

(This version is from 1985; for those interested in how it develops over the years, the book Debating Pornography uses a different version, which seems to be from 1997.)

My own reaction to the draft legislation is that it was an impressive attempt to name, so as to prohibit, a form of hate propaganda (or if you prefer, group defamation) against women. Women are not mere “things” to be used to the sexual gratification of men. It is not okay to hurt or injure women, or to make it sexual for men that women are hurt or injured. Maybe there are parts that are overly broad: those who believe in “feminist pornography” might think there is morally acceptable pornography that involves penetration by at least one kind of object (vibrators or dildos). We can argue about the details, but at least they were trying.

Strossen, however, does not seem to agree with MacKinnon and Dworkin about anything. She does not think that pornography is a form of discrimination on the basis of sex. On the contrary, she thinks “pornography” is an epithet used to describe material with sexual content the speaker doesn’t like. She does not think pornography subordinates women. She thinks pornography is subjective, so that what it does—if anything—will differ from person to person (this view is expressed particularly clearly in our interview). She thinks the anti-pornography view is anti-sex—that it presents sex as something that is bad for women. She seems, in the book, to take sex as we know it to be natural, and something women can enjoy, and enjoy seeing depicted, as much as men. There is no critique of sexual practice, or the messaging of pornography (even if only the most brutal kinds of pornography), in the book. She spends a chapter reviewing the empirical evidence for whether pornography causes harm, narrowly interpreted as whether watching pornography directly causes ordinary men to harm the women they have sexual contact with. But neither Dworkin nor MacKinnon rest their case on pornography being a harm of that narrow kind. Dworkin describes pornography as propaganda; MacKinnon discusses whether it is better described as defamation or discrimination; both talk about it inciting harm against women. Both talk about the harm that is done to women in the making of pornography. None of that is addressed by Strossen, or even acknowledged.

We get the first hint of her argument in Chapter 1:

All censorship measures throughout history have been used disproportionately to silence those who are relatively disempowered and who seek to challenge the status quo. Since women and feminists are in that category, it is predictable that any censorship scheme—even one purportedly designed to further their interests—would in fact be used to suppress expression that is especially important to their interests.

Later, at the end of Chapter 11, this is filled in, drawing on the preceding discussion in that chapter. She gives nine reasons for why “censoring pornography would undermine women’s rights and interests.” These are:

  • It would lead to the suppression of work that women/feminists value.
  • Enforcement would disproportionately target members of the least powerful groups, “including feminists and lesbians.”
  • It would “perpetuate demeaning stereotypes about women, including that sex is bad for us.”
  • It would present women as victims, which is disempowering.
  • There would be opportunity costs, because instead of censoring pornography, we could be doing things that actually do counter violence and discrimination against women.
  • It would be bad for women who work in the sex industry.
  • It would get in the way of women’s attempts to develop their sexuality.
  • It would help patriarchal political parties/factions.
  • “By undermining free speech, censorship would deprive feminists of a powerful tool for advancing women’s equality.”

Not all of these reasons are convincing. It is not bad for slaves when slavery is ended—or at least, the ways in which it is bad are not sufficient reasons to keep slavery going. So too for women working in the sex industry. The vague idea that conservatives don’t like pornography and we’d be strengthening the hand they’d then use to smack us with could just as well be run in the other direction: by not opposing pornography, we’re strengthening the hand progressives will soon use to smack us. (This is already happening in the allegedly “progressive” view of sex work, surrogacy, and trans rights). You don’t have to think “sex is bad for women” to object to the view of women that pornography puts forward, which encompasses considerably more than “just sex.” (That said, I personally think that sex is also not “just sex”—that is, there’s a distinction to be made between sex as we know it and sex as it could be.) Porn has probably had a net negative effect on women’s sexuality, if only through the expectations it causes heterosexual women’s sexual partners to bring to the bedroom.

Still, some of the reasons are convincing. Strossen details a number of cases in the book of censorship laws being used in ways that are disproportionately negative for those they were meant to help, such as anti-racism hate speech rules on campus being used against black students trying to speak about racism. And I think a more general point about censorship is right: attempts to censor or suppress things generally make them exciting and desirable to people. If we care about women’s equality, then we want to make hate propaganda about/against women less exciting and desirable to people, not more.

In the 2000 introduction to the second edition, Wendy Kaminer wrote that Defending Pornography would “always be timely,” and Strossen agreed in her new preface to the 2024 edition, writing that “Kaminer’s prediction… has proven prescient.” I disagree.

Defending Pornography is a postcard from a moment in time, the moment before the liberal feminists won the sex wars. The dissident position Strossen occupied in 1995 is now the orthodox position. “Pornography” is no longer plausibly described as an “epithet” or a “pejorative.” Almost everyone watches porn, and almost everything is pornified. It’s time not just for a new cover and a new preface of Strossen’s book, but a renewed version of the book—the Animal Liberation Now (2023) to Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation (1975). It’s time for Strossen to reassess her argument, taking seriously the pervasiveness of pornography and the contribution it is plausibly making—along with other things—to the persistence of women’s inequality. We can agree that censorship and suppression are strategies likely to backfire, and yet still think that pornography is not something whose existence a feminist can defend.