pornography, feminism and my response to the 2013 film, lovelace
While the second wave feminist movement made considerable achievements for women in the second half of the 20th century, a tension arose in the late 1970s, which caused feminism to split into two: radical and liberal feminism. In the late 1970s and 1980s particularly, radical and liberal feminist groups took part in a number of heated debates, all relating to sex and sexuality issues. While radical feminists viewed sex and sexual acts as part of a patriarchal institution that oppressed women, liberal feminists asserted that it was a woman’s right to be liberated sexually.
One of the most well-known debates between the two groups was on pornography and the porn industry and developed into a debate that is still ongoing today. On one side of the debate, radicals such as Andrea Dworkin and Adrienne Rich in the United States asserted their view that pornography is part of society’s heterosexual institutions, which oppress women. They proposed a link between pornography and male power and violence against women and argued that it was in women’s best interests for the state to ban the porn industry.
On the opposing side of the debate were liberal feminists, or “pro-sex feminists”, such as Gayle Rubin, Camille Paglia and Naomi Wolf. In response to fadical feminists’ criticism, liberal feminists argued that it was a woman’s right to be involved in sex and pornography. They emphasised that many women enjoy both activities and argued that there was nothing inherently oppressive about pornography or heteronormative sexuality.
Although the debate on pornography is one that still occurs between feminists and non-feminists today, the Feminist war was particularly heated in the ’70s and ’80s. At this time there were many political debates and protests over whether the porn industry should be more strictly regulated or made illegal in America.
In 1976 for example, the feminist group known as Women Against Violence Against Women organised several protest demonstrations against the pornographic film Snuff. This group was founded by Andrea Dworkin who was, with the help of co-feminists such as Catherine Mackinnon, particularly successful in getting the issue of female oppression in pornography on the political agenda. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Dworkin and MacKinnon discussed civil rights litigation as a possible approach to combating pornography. They argued that pornography inflicted on women’s rights, and rallied for an amendment to the laws on pornography to allow women to sue producers and distributors.
While the legal banning of pornography does seem extreme when considering the liberal feminist point that both porn and sex are indeed enjoyed by women, I personally do take issue with the porn industry when considering the arguments of radical feminism and reading individual women’s narratives, which detail oppression and abuse at the hands of the porn industry.
Linda Boreman’s autobiography Ordeal, for example, details the horrific abuse she endured at the hands of her ex-husband, Chuck Traynor, when she was involved in the porn industry. Boreman details how she was coerced into making Deep Throat and other films in the 1970s and into presenting herself under the name ‘Linda Lovelace’ for the marketing purposes of the porn industry.
In the 2013 film Lovelace, Boreman’s experiences are well represented. Although I do not align myself with neither radical nor liberal feminism, I well understood the argument that pornography oppresses women when made privy to Linda’s horrific treatment. Despite being forced into film by her controlling and abusive boyfriend, Boreman continued to appear in pornographic films as a “liberated” and self-contented individual. By continuing the filming process, the industry habituated her abuse and communicated to the public that it was somehow okay to objectify women and use them for men’s sexual pleasure.
To me, the film Lovelace clearly highlighted the way in which the porn industry could be used to oppress and exploit women. While it is true that many women do claim to enjoy pornography and heteronormative sex, I wonder how many of these claims are influenced by the social institutions under which they oppressed. Lovelace revealed that Boreman was being forced to present herself as a sexually liberated porn star by a boyfriend who wanted the money. Personally, the film makes me wonder how often women are forced into porn by men or by poor economic circumstances, which give them little choice but to work for the money.
While I would always consider the liberal feminist view when analysing the implications that pornography has on the welfare of women, I do wonder about the real validity of their claims. Does claiming freedom really equal liberation? Or is it just a mask for a deeply entrenched form of oppression that is maintained by heteronormative social institutions?