Fleshing it out: sex-positive feminism & neo-burlesque part 3


Author's note: If you haven't already done so, please read part 1 and 2 of Fleshing it out: sex-positive feminism & neo-burlesque!



The Porn Wars

Pornography is an issue that has dogged the feminist movement for decades, causing feminists to split into warring factions and ultimately weakening the impact that could be achieved through greater solidarity. Second wave feminists fought against pornography on the basis of what they believed to be harmful and objectifying treatment of women.  Today, many women who consider themselves sexually empowered are not only consuming pornography, they are emulating adult film stars in their clothing and behavior, and calling it freedom.

How can this one topic produce such opposite reactions among those whose shared ideals are women’s liberation and equality?  For one thing, not all sexually explicit material is created equal.

There is nothing necessarily misogynistic about sexually explicit content; if women are to be truly free to enjoy sex without guilt or judgment, they should feel free to participate in and consume this material if it appeals to them.  However, there is a great deal of pornography which does in fact exploit women by erasing their identities and using them as sexual objects, and much worse in some cases, violence and degradation being sold under the guise of entertainment and pleasure.

Our conflicted feelings about porn reflect part of the struggle of the Third Wave to find “a new approach to feminism that acknowledges women’s sexuality, and even the desire to be sexy, while at the same time remembering the fine line between sexiness and objectification” (Sarracino & Scott, 2008 p. 183).  Condemning all pornography will not do us any good.  Porn and its derivatives abound on the internet, television, and throughout popular culture, and would be nearly impossible to expunge.  Besides that, it can be downright unattractive for the feminist movement to present an excessively prudish or restrictive image if the goal is to have men and women self-identify as feminists and to contribute to the movement's goals.

A History of American Pornography

It is shocking to think that the most violent and degrading pornography today may have had its roots in a seemingly innocuous staple of childhood: the comic book.

During the 1940s and 1950s comic books were hugely popular, and were actually read primarily by adults, not children.  Roughly 30% of women and 40% of men were regular comic book readers (Sarracino & Scott, 2008, p. 61).  Popular storylines featured patriotic themes, and the American male was the hero often sent to save the helpless “good girl” from the enemy ‘other’ (Nazi or Japanese soldiers were often the villains in these stories).

Rosie the Riveter

Rosie the Riveter

When American men returned from World War II, they found that ‘Rosie the Riveter’ had come along and changed society, reducing men’s economically dominant position.  Women in the workforce caused a “crisis of American masculinity” (Sarracino & Scott, 2008, p. 67).

The resentment we can imagine these men experienced is exhibited in the comic books of the time.

The danger presented to female victims gradually took the place of the hero as the focal point in the typical comic book plot.   Sexual brutality toward women in comic book stories increased.



One very noteworthy exception was that of Wonder Woman, a comic book heroine who was created around this time by William Moulton Marston.  She was designed explicitly as a feminist superhero and never made into a sex object.)  In other comics though, for sins such as infidelity, maternal laxity, and choosing career over marriage, women were punished by such fates as stabbing, strangulation, decapitation, electrocution, and suffocation (Sarracino & Scott, 2008).

In 1954 the government cracked down with the Comics Code Authority to rid comic books of “sex, violence, gore, sadism, crime, and horror” (Sarracino & Scott, 2008, p. 62).  Afterward, comic books fell out of favor with men, and were replaced by men’s adventure magazines, something of a mix between pulp fiction and a literary magazine.  For fifteen years, these popular magazines offered stories and illustrations, often featuring women in lingerie being menaced by various threats, and by 1960, the reader was no longer associating with the thrill of heroism, but with the sadism of the villain.

Women were often whipped bloody on the covers of these magazines, when they were not being dismembered, dipped in acid or molten metal, or beheaded (Sarracino & Scott, 2008).

Men’s adventure magazines, which sold “fear and anger” with stories like “The Homosexual Epidemic,” were the opposite of the glossy, hip, Playboy, which debuted in 1953, and sold “pleasure and joy” with advertisements for the latest stereo equipment and interviews with intellectuals and celebrities (Sarracino & Scott, 2008, pp. 13,72).  Another important figure of the nineteen-fifties was the famous Bettie Page, who appeared in many photos and short films involving themes of BDSM (bondage/domination/sadomasochism.)



Bettie Page's images were fairly harmless and playful, even tongue in cheek.  There was always a certain knowing smile and agency in her work.  She was “both an active participant, enjoying acting out the erotic scenario with other female actors, as well as blatantly communicating to her viewer the absurdity of the whole scenario” (Willson, p. 149).

Much of the burlesque and some porn of the mid-century showcased the women’s identities and relied on their performances; however, Playboy has always favored an uncomplicated and arguably vacant though decidedly non-violent portrayal of women.  As Playboy founder Hugh Hefner put it in a 1967 interview:

vintage playboy

vintage playboy

We are not interested in the mysterious, difficult woman, the femme fatale, who wears elegant underwear, with lace, and she is sad, and somehow mentally filthy.  The Playboy girl has no lace, no underwear, she is naked, well washed with soap and water, and she is happy (Hugh Hefner, as cited in Levy, 2005, p. 58).

This ‘girl next door’ image is still the one favored in the ever popular Playboy today.

The floodgates of pornography opened in 1972 with the unprecedented success of Deep Throat, the first Hollywood-like pornographic movie.  The ‘plot’ was based on the premise of a woman whose clitoris was located in her throat.  The film used humor to “tell us to lighten up, not to take it seriously” (Sarracino & Scott, 2008, p. 15).  Linda Lovelace was its star (a.k.a. Susan Boreman, who later went on to join the feminist movement and described her experience in Deep Throat as riddled with hard drugs, spousal abuse, mobsters, and threats at gunpoint).  Another popular porn film followed, called Behind the Green Door which also featured a new star, Marilyn Chambers.  This film used hip music and made a celebrity of its leading lady to make people feel more comfortable.  These new, glamorous films helped open the door for pornography to work its way out of the fringes of American culture and move toward the mainstream (Sarracino & Scott, 2008).

Backlash Against Pornography

Pornography has always come under fire by patriarchal religious groups still espousing puritanical attitudes toward sex.  Ironically, these views of sex can still be found in modern porn – sex is ‘dirty’, ‘nasty’, the women who engage in the sex acts are often referred to as ‘sluts.’

In addition to religious groups, feminists too have taken issue with pornography since the 1970s, for its treatment of women as ‘sex objects,’ the questionable treatment and safety of its performers, and for the effect it may have on the society that consumes it.  However, for some years feminists were more concerned with issues like abortion, leading up to Roe v. Wade in 1972.  In 1975, when Susan Brownmiller wrote Against our Will: Men, Women, and Rape, she commented that “There can be no ‘equality’ in porn…[which,] like rape, is a male invention, designed to dehumanize women, to reduce the female to the object of sexual access, not to free sensuality from moralistic or parental inhibition” (Brownmiller, as cited in Sarracino & Scott, 2008, p. 173).  The movement at the time believed that violence was inherent to working in porn films, and they assumed that pornography represented rape.  Feminist groups, such as Women against Violence against Women, Women against Pornography, and Women against Violence in Pornography and Media rose up against this threat.

In 1983, feminists Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin led the anti-porn crusade.  They drafted an ordinance in the city of Minneapolis that would make porn a civil rights violation against women, arguing that pornography should not be protected under free speech, because it was not just speech, but an action carried out on female victims.  The ordinance was shot down, but the conservative politicians of Indianapolis soon asked for their help in cleaning up their own city.

Although these Reagan-era Republicans opposed abortion rights and the Equal Rights Amendment, feminist leaders Dworkin and MacKinnon aligned themselves with them on the pornography issue.

The ordinance was signed into law in 1984, but it was soon overturned by federal courts on the grounds that it was unconstitutional.  They had succeeded at raising awareness about the darker side of porn; unfortunately they had produced rancor and dissention within the feminist movement by getting into bed with the right-wingers.

The politics of Dworkin and MacKinnon were too severe for many feminists, even prompting the use of the term “MacDworkin extremism” (Sarracino & Scott, 2008 p. 179.).



The message in Dworkin’s book Intercourse, published in 1987 was widely interpreted as ‘all sex is rape,’ although Dworkin has said that her intent was to point out that domination is always an aspect of sex in an unequal society.

Below is an excerpt from Intercourse:

Intercourse occurs in a context of a power relation that is pervasive and incontrovertible.  The context in which the act takes place, whatever the meaning of the act in and of itself, is one in which men have social, economic, political, and physical power over women.  Some men do not have all those kinds of power over all women; but all men have some kinds of power over all women; and most men have controlling power over what they call their women – the women they fuck (Dworkin, 2006, p. 158-159).

Another harsh passage reads:

[W]omen feel the fuck… as possession; and feel possession as deeply erotic; and value annihilation of the self in sex as proof of the man’s desire or love, its awesome intensity….sex itself is an experience of diminishing self-possession, an erosion of self.  That loss of self is a physical reality, not just a psychic vampirism; and as a physical reality it is chilling and extreme, a literal erosion of the body’s integrity and its ability to function and to survive…  This sexual possession is a sensual state of being that borders on antibeing until it ends in death. (Dworkin, 2006, p. 84)

In her lifetime, Dworkin had been a sex-worker, as well as a feminist activist and academic, and suffered from a great deal of abuse in her life, much of it sexual abuse.  This wide range of experiences would lend credibility to her words, but they seem to describe what a person might feel regarding rape rather than consensual sex.  Applying these ideas to include all sex between men and women is to grossly overstate the point.  Given the irrational nature of her sweeping claims, it is hard to believe her words could have had as much impact as they did.

This kind of exaggeration not only contributes to a stereotype of hysterical and paranoid feminists, it would have been difficult for many women to relate to such statements.  Therefore, not only did this approach alienate those outside the movement, it also scared away existing sympathizers and cost the movement the loss of some potential new supporters.

Feminist conferences, such as the Barnard Conference of 1982 got ugly as factions formed (Comella & Queen, 2008).  Feminists who did not support the anti-porn movement felt they were “being denied space and credentials to speak for [them]selves” (Comella & Queen, 2008, p. 280).

They began using the term ‘sex-positive feminist’ to differentiate themselves from the anti-porn movement, despite the fact that anti-porn feminists were thus incorrectly categorized as ‘anti-sex’ by default.

Since this controversy, sometimes called the ‘sex wars’ or the ‘porn wars,’ feminism has never been as unified as it once was.  By the end of the 1980s, feminism was greatly dispersed. The anti-porn feminists who have carried on are still sometimes dogmatic and intolerant of others’ opinions, such as at a recent national conference where anyone not identified with the anti-porn stance was excluded (Sarracino & Scott, 2008 p. 181).

American Porn Thrives

As the feminist movement lost momentum, porn gained it.  Since the boom in the seventies, pornography has crept further and further into the mainstream.

Today, porn is a ten to fourteen billion dollar a year industry (Sarracino & Scott, 2008, p. 9).  Certain popular media have helped make porn seem more ordinary and acceptable, such as the sexed-up music videos featured on MTV.  Arguably, the pop culture icon who has had the most influence on sexual attitudes was Madonna.  Whether or not you are a fan of her music, her public persona, or her political antics, it is difficult to deny Madonna credit for all she did to shake up ideas about women’s sexuality during the heyday of her career in the 1980s and 1990s.  Madonna associated herself with the gay community before it was considered cool.  Gender-bending has been a popular theme in Madonna’s work.  “I think I have a dick in my brain.  I don’t need to have one between my legs,” she has said (Madonna, as cited in Sarracino & Scott, 2008, p. 96).  She brought highly sexualized images into mainstream culture through her music videos, live performances, films and books.  She created an image of empowered female sexuality, even domination.  In 1990, feminist dissenter Camille Paglia wrote “Madonna is the true feminist.  She exposes the Puritanism and suffocating ideology of American feminism, which is stuck in an adolescent whining mode” (Paglia, as cited in Sarracino & Scott, 2008, p. 94).



Madonna’s brand of feminism helped shape the attitudes of third wave feminists, prompting such proclamations as that of Elizabeth Wurtzel in her 1998 book Bitch, “These days putting out one’s pretty power, one’s pussy power, one’s sexual energy for popular consumption no longer makes you a bimbo.  It makes you smart” (Wurtzel, as cited in Baumgardner & Richards, 2000, p. 141).

Sarracino & Scott (2008) cite Madonna’s “Open Your Heart” video as a prime example of this sexual power, where she posed as a peep-show performer.

Yes, she seemed to be saying, you can view my performance, you can even thrill to my body, but in doing so you give me control over you…The audience…must pay to keep open the panels through which they gaze… The power…is completely unshared.  It is Madonna’s alone (p. 95).

Another strong media presence to push the sexual envelope was radio talk show host Howard Stern.  Stern’s show, which was nationally syndicated for many years and is still available on uncensored satellite radio, regularly featured adult film stars as guests.  It was Howard Stern who gave porn star Jenna Jameson the publicity that would eventually lead her to have the most successful career of any adult film star.

Jenna Jameson has become famous for ‘crossing over’ into mainstream pop culture, by appearing in guest spots on the E! Channel and in films like Howard Stern’s Private Parts (Sarracino & Scott, 2008, p. 105).  Her industry peers laud her abilities as an actor (Morgan, 2006), and her autobiography was a bestseller in 2006 (Levy, 2005).  Her unique career has made her a much-discussed figure in the study of porn’s increased public acceptability.

One of the things that might make Jameson more likeable in the mainstream is that her work does not feature blatantly cruel treatment of women, and she typically looks like she is enjoying herself onscreen.  Surprisingly, her films also tend to contain themes of female self-empowerment (Sarracino & Scott, 2008, p. 108).  In 2005, Jameson starred in a remake of The New Devil in Miss Jones where the main character’s damnation is based on her failure to take control of her personal, professional, and sexual life.  This theme is actually quite popular in high-end pornography, and would seem to suggest there is some progress being made in these areas (Sarracino & Scott, 2008, p. 112).

Gays and lesbians have helped pave the way to changing the range of what is represented in porn.  LGBT activists have used pornography as an important tool in their activism as sexuality is central their politics.  Now feminist porn has emerged, and is growing with companies such as Candida Royalle’s Femme Productions.  Today, there are even Feminist Porn Awards.

Feminist porn is characterized by things like beautiful settings, attractive lighting, more seduction with less mechanical-looking close-ups of penetration, more real orgasms, and more average body types.

Of course, most importantly, feminist porn does not feature women being treated badly. A history of porn would lack integrity if it did not acknowledge the existence of a deplorable side to pornography.

Merriam Webster offers three definitions for pornography:

1:  the depiction of erotic behavior (as in pictures or writing) intended to cause sexual excitement 2 : material (as books or a photograph) that depicts erotic behavior and is intended to cause sexual excitement 3 : the depiction of acts in a sensational manner so as to arouse a quick intense emotional reaction <the pornography of violence>

(Merriam Webster, 2009)

The 'dark porn' that falls under the third definition has little, if anything, to do with the first two definitions.  It is not sex that is being sold here, but the truly obscene: violence and degradation.  Dark porn actor Bill Margold offers this insight:

My whole reason for being in the Industry is to satisfy the desire of the men in the world who basically don’t much care for women and want to see the men in my Industry getting even with the women they couldn’t have when they were growing up… I believe this.  I’ve heard audiences cheer me when I do something foul on screen.  When I’ve strangled a person or sodomized a person, or brutalized a person, the audience is cheering my action, and then when I’ve fulfilled my warped desire, the audience applauds (Margold, as cited in Sarracino & Scott, 2008, p. 117-118).

Gory horror films sell the same brand of ‘pornography,’ even when explicit sexuality is not a factor.  If porn is becoming more mainstream, does this mean that the darkness of violent porn will follow suit?  One could say that it already has.

Going back to the comic books of the midcentury, we could follow the trail of sensationalized violence up through the ‘slasher movies’ that have been selling out box offices for decades.

The overall effect on society is difficult to measure; however no study has proven that porn causes increased violence toward women (Jensen, 2007). In fact, strangely, between 1993 and 2005, rates of reported sexual assault dropped anywhere from sixty to eighty-five percent, despite the increased availability of porn via the internet (Sarracino & Scott, 2008) (D’Amato, 2008).  It has even been suggested that this decrease in rape may be attributable to internet pornography (D’Amato, 2008), but no one has convincingly proven any correlation between the two.

Please stay tuned to this blog for parts 4-6 of Fleshing it out: sex-positive feminism and neo-burlesque. As always, thank you for reading!


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