The Harm of Porn:

Just Another Excuse to Censor

An article by Avedon Carol

In spite of a long-standing anti-censorship tradition in the women's liberation movement - and indeed, a specific hostility toward sexual censorship - the view has become widely accepted by the media and therefore the public that feminists uniformly accept that pornography should be banned. This view has intensified as an increasing number of purportedly feminist campaigners have presented highly emotive speeches and documents, often backed up by spurious representations of scientific data, in support of the case for censorship.

Interestingly, the media has generally proven to be entirely uninterested in consulting long-time feminists with respected credentials, such as the former members of the feminist Red Rag collective or the current membership of the Feminist Review collective in Britain, all of whom oppose censorship. In America, Congress and the media were startled to discover that an attempt to introduce federal anti-pornography legislation was opposed by some of the best known names in modern feminism, ranging from Betty Friedan and Kate Millett to Karen DeCrow, Wendy Kaminer and Jamaica Kincaid.

How, then, did the anti-pornography position come to be seen as the only possible feminist position? A look at the history might be illuminating.

Well over 20 years ago, Dolf Zillmann, a right-wing moralist anti-pornography researcher, began trying to prove that pornography causes rape and other "anti-social" behaviour. With the help at various times of other researchers - most notably Jennings Bryant and J.B. Weaver - he has published numerous articles purporting to support this claim, and at many points managed to mislead other researchers and even feminists into believing that he had empirical evidence that males demonstrated greater "callousness toward women" and became "desensitized" to sexual violence after having been exposed to pornography.

Zillmann's position is a familiar one within the American moral right, who have persistently misrepresented the emergence of women's greater willingness to report and discuss sexual abuse and violence as evidence of a greater actuality of abuse and violence since the emergence of the sexual revolution and of it's even more pernicious little sister, feminism. Although all existing evidence shows that actual rape rates have not increased since 1960, the moral right has successfully used higher rape reporting rates to con the populace into believing that society has become more violent, principally due to more openness about sexuality and the increasing refusal of women to be silenced. We were too cowed to talk about being sexually assaulted before the late 1960s; therefore, it did not happen.

Unfortunately, news about Zillmann's "evidence" against pornography did not come accompanied by his credentials as an opponent of women's liberation. As is the case with most research, it filtered in by word of mouth and truncated newspaper items revealing only that "scientists" had "proven" a relationship between pornography and violence, "callousness toward women", or any number of other sins. The view that pornography was a cause of sexual violence or of sexism in general became popular currency within certain segments of society, including the research community and the women's studies departments of America. Until, that is, people actually started reading the existing research. But that came perhaps too late.

Zillmann's public relations did not inform naive readers that when he talked about "callousness toward women", he meant: a greater tolerance for homosexuality; a belief that women should be able to choose other priorities beside motherhood; less belief in marriage; a belief that women may enjoy sex and choose to participate in it for reasons other than pleasing their husbands or conceiving children - in short, the goals of most feminist groups of the time. Zillmann was unable to demonstrate any increase in misogynist or violent attitudes and desires, although he did try.

Nor did Zillmann and his supporters ever note that there were serious problems with his methodology, making even these results debatable. For example, Zillmann had attempted to expand his subject base by including non-students in his study. However, the older, more settled men in his study group left when they were told they would be watching pornography, leaving only the younger men who for the most part did not have enduring relationships and were, of course, living in student environments. But his control group continued to contain those older men, with the result that their experience of marriage and the desirability of one's current partnerships may have coloured the balance of attitudes about that subject. Similarly, the fact that they were both older and obviously more conservative may have been responsible for the other differences in attitudes between the two groups.

Meanwhile, Edward Donnerstein had also become interested in the idea that pornography had a causal connection with violence. He initially set up experiments demonstrating that psychology students in an aroused state - that is, in a state of higher skin temperature and faster pulse rate - were more likely to respond in a manner defined by researchers as "violence". He believed that since the stimulus used to incite this state of arousal was pornography, then pornography made male students more violent. (He more recently acknowledged that the same result could be achieved by riding a bicycle.) He did not demonstrate that the students themselves believed they were committing acts which could be painful or harmful to others, however. This is a much-ignored failing of laboratory research.

(Other researchers have found that men are more likely to demonstrate "helping behaviour" or "pro-social effects" after viewing pornography.)

It took time for men like Donnerstein to begin seriously reviewing the work of their peers and comparing notes. Unfortunately, before that happened, two well-known American feminists, lawyer Catharine MacKinnon and theorist Andrea Dworkin, presented what they called a model civil rights ordinance against pornography to the legislature in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and hearings were called to take "evidence" against pornography. Donnerstein spoke there in support of the anti-pornography view. Among other things, he asserted that research strongly supported a link between pornography and violence; he also presented slides, much as anti-pornography feminists have done, supposedly exemplifying the content of pornography and its influence on the culture.

There were many problems with Donnerstein's testimony. There was cause for suspicion as soon as he projected his first slide to the hearing:

"This, I think, has nothing to do with pornography, but I think the message is very clear. We find it as a common scenario in most of the common material. This is a slide of a woman who is tied up, bound black and blue. It is nothing more than an advertisement for a Rolling Stones album cover. I think it is interesting, the woman is saying a scenario we find in a great deal of pornography. I am black and blue from the Rolling Stones and I love it. Violence is a sexual turn-on, that is the message which consistently comes through in this type of material."

In fact, the slide is in no way typical of pornography, or even of sadomasochistic (SM) pornography. Dozens of studies performed over the last 25 years have attempted to demonstrate that pornography is violent in the way that Donnerstein suggests in this quote, and each of them has failed. The vast majority of pornographic visual material is either standard pin-up fare or pictures people having fairly ordinary sex with each other; sadomasochism is a minority taste represented in only a small percentage of pornographic materials, and it rarely shows marks of any kind on the skin.

(Many misrepresentations of this kind have similarly been made about what is typical of pornography or SM material, often using slide shows: Organizing Against Pornography, for example, uses a photograph from Playboy in their slide presentation which shows a woman wearing an ammunition belt; they claim that this is typical bondage gear. It certainly is not. Even more disturbingly, claims are made by British campaigners that some particularly unpleasant material from the December 1984 issue of the US version of Penthouse is typical of pornography, without even distinguishing this magazine from the very different publication sold under the same title here in Britain. In fact, the material in question was an error on the part of the editors of US Penthouse, appealing neither to its mainstream audience nor to sadomasochists, and it has never been repeated. Those images were altogether atypical, not only of pornography in general and SM pornography in particular, but even of US Penthouse.)

In the course of his testimony, Donnerstein also refers to the work of other researchers, but does not appear to be citing them directly; rather, he seems to be referring to remarks they have made, perhaps verbally, representing their own work. He specifically mentions Neil Malamuth, another researcher who once used to believe that pornography increased the likelihood of violence but who, like Donnerstein, has since tempered his position. Anti-pornography campaigners seldom acknowledge that as these men became more aware of the context of their work, they ceased to claim that they had found evidence linking pornography to harm.

Even John Court, a former leader of the Festival of Light who made his name by presenting what he said was evidence of that link, has been forced to retract. Court was one of very few "scientific" sources called to the New Zealand Indecent Publications Tribunal in 1990 - they did not even bother to commission a scientific review of the research. When they specifically pressed him to confirm that research showed evidence of a link between pornography and violence, he said: "What I am saying is that we do not have evidence that there is such a causal link. I cannot sustain it from my data and I don't know anybody who can." Nevertheless, the New Zealand Tribunal declared that the link was proven.

In 1986, the virulently right-wing, anti-progressive Reagan administration convened hearings against pornography and commissioned reports from a variety of sources with the intention to prove that pornography was harmful and should be banned. Edna Einseidel was asked to review the existing research, but was finally unable to say that she found a link between pornography and violence. The US Surgeon General was asked to report independently, and another study was commissioned to investigate whether men's magazines had increased in violence.

Surgeon General C. Everett Koop reported that no evidence of harm from pornography could be found, and the men's magazine study found that violence had not increased, but only .06% of the imagery in men's magazines could be said to portray violence, force or weaponry of any kind. Nevertheless, the Final Report of the Attorney General's Commission on Pornography ("the Meese Commission") said that the relationship between pornography and harm had been proven; the Surgeon General's report to the commission and the results of the men's magazine study were suppressed and did not appear in the Final Report.

Perhaps most significant are the experiences in Canada, held up by MacKinnon as a feminist success story. In 1983, the Metropolitan Toronto Task Force on Violence Against Women had asked one of North America's leading feminists, Thelma MacCormack, who had formed the first women's studies programme in existence, to overview the research on pornography for them and attempt to locate a link between pornography and violence. She undertook the study and found no such link; when she reported, her work was suppressed and a new researcher was hired - this time a moral rightist who was happy to give them the answer they wanted.

But then Catharine MacKinnon came to Canada to present her view that pornography was degrading to women, in the 1992 Butler case. Largely by exploiting the homophobia of the conservative men in the courts - showing them male homosexual erotic materials - anti-porn women were able to convince the judges that pornography degraded women.

The authorities in Canada used Dworkin and MacKinnon's "feminist" language to expand the criminal code to include sexually-oriented materials they hadn't been able to reach, with the result that gay and feminist materials and shops were suddenly under continuous attack. The first successful prosecution was of a lesbian magazine and a gay bookshop. When the pattern of prosecutions became clear, one gay shop sued for harassment, with the apparent result that the police began to look elsewhere for victims - among student and radical bookshops.

And with this expansion of the criminal code, the customs service was free to seize ever more books, in one case taking two books by Andrea Dworkin. Eventually, after a public outcry, those two books were permitted to enter the country, but other materials made by and for lesbians and feminists are still kept out.

Ironically, anti-pornography women in Britain have held up these examples in New Zealand, America, Canada and similar cases elsewhere as evidence that both science and society have now accepted empirical proof against pornography. This is more than a little bit of a distortion - in fact, even some of the feminists who supported the change in Butler have come to believe it was a foolish move, and American feminists have become increasingly more motivated and organized against censorship in the wake of the Meese Commission's report and the attempt to create a federal version of the failed MacKinnon-Dworkin ordinance.

But in Britain, where pornography is already more restricted than it is anywhere else in the English-speaking world or in Western Europe, sexual media is easily smeared for an audience that is seldom given an opportunity to see what really is sold under the name of "pornography". Tales of a seamy underworld where everything - and everyone - can be bought and sold play well to an uncritical press that is never interested in tracking down support for such claims. Thus, anti-pornography activists are free to inform the media that you can buy images of women being raped and tortured to death in any shop, perhaps under the counter, when in fact it would be difficult to find such materials anywhere - even in America, where there are no restrictions whatsoever on the amount of violence that can be purveyed in "adult" venues.

In more than 20 years of reviewing pornography for my research, I have never found a photographic or motion picture image of a woman bleeding in any porn shop in the United States or any private collection there or in Britain. Gayle Rubin, a feminist anthropologist who continues similar work from San Francisco, says that she, too, has been unable to locate images that fit the descriptions so popular in anti-pornography claims. No police authority in any country in the world has ever been able to document the existence of a so-called "snuff" movie, where actresses are purportedly murdered to produce "pornography". Even child porn, that favourite bogeyman of police and campaigners, is so rare that many porn researchers as well as porn aficionados say they never saw any child porn even in the 1960s and early 1970s in America, before any anti-child porn laws existed there. Not only has pornography in the United States become less violent over time, but it was never as violent as anti-porn campaigners claim.

Yet after hearing from every media source that pornography is child porn, torture, degradation and murder, it is easy to get many people to say that "pornography", whatever it is, is degrading and should be banned. Thus we have seen a continual increase in restrictions on pornography and extension of police powers, justified by these claims, and yet ultimately having little to do with this kind of material; in fact, the media that are seized are more likely to be photographs and videos of adults performing ordinary sex acts or men merely posed with erections, with some art photographs removed as well.

As those among us who have studied child abuse and sexual violence (or experienced it) know all too well, rape and abuse are problems that go deeper and are more intractable than anything that can be blamed on the camera and the printing press. Abusive relationships take many forms and almost anything can be seen as the "cause" of abusive behaviour. As many husbands have harassed and humiliated their wives over cooking and housework as have done so over sexual issues - and many women have learned, to their chagrin, that abusers are often more likely to try to suppress sexual expression in their wives than they are to try to force such expression. And most abused women - including those who have suffered sexual abuse - have little to say about pornography as a specific problem in their relationships.

Indeed, criminologists and clinical workers alike are largely in agreement that pornography is not causal to sex crime and abuse. In the United States, treatment centres and law enforcement agencies have collected data on sex crime for over 50 years, showing no correlations linking it to pornography.

That moral rightists continue to support the anti-porn arguments is not surprising. They are correct in noting that women have experienced greater freedom during the period that mass-produced pornography has become available, and they see this correlation as positive proof that pornography causes harm by encouraging women's liberation.

What is disturbing is that women who call themselves feminists persist in asserting that the presence of pornography in the culture actually reduces women's visibility and achievement in public life. Diana Russell, in her book Making Violence Sexy, even goes so far as to compare the position of women in the west with the condition of Jews in Germany during the Third Reich. Catharine MacKinnon has claimed that pornography itself "censors" women, and that women's voices in the public discourse have been silenced by it.

This is a ludicrous position to take at a time and place in which women are more visible, more vocal, and more able to claim public recognition for our achievements than we ever have been in history. In other parts of the world, people - and women in particular - are truly being censored: in Pakistan, where a woman is under death threat for having suggested that women deserve greater freedom; in Turkey, where the entire staff of a newspaper has been arrested and most of them killed; in China, where the penalty for producing pornography is death. Women's rights and freedoms do not flourish in those nations, nor in any of the others in which pornography is banned. We would do well to ask whether we truly wish to emulate them.


This article originally appeared in the June-July-August 1995 issue of The Law.


Avedon Carol is a founding member of Feminists Against Censorship and is the author of Nudes, Prudes and Attitudes: Pornography and Censorship, New Clarion Press, 1994; she also co-edited, with Alison Assiter, Bad Girls & Dirty Pictures, Pluto Press, 1993. Information about these and other books from Feminists Against Censorship can be found elsewhere on this site on our "Publications" page.

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