Women and pornography

by Julia Lesage

from Jump Cut, no. 26, December 1981, pp.
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1981, 2005

Introduction: Special Section on Women and Pornography

With these articles on women and pornography, Jump Cut hopes to begin an ongoing analysis of pornographic film from a radical and feminist perspective. Little written on pornographic film takes into consideration both how images work and how pornography as an institution (economic, cultural, cinematic) specifically affects us. The topic has a social urgency that cannot be ignored. With the rise of cable television and video cassette rentals, pornography enters many homes. What impact does that have on adolescents' view of sexuality? (Do you imagine it's really kept out of their reach?) Furthermore, it has become a global issue, one of the most acute ways that capitalism's visual media have narrowly defined human sexuality and reached into the most intimate space of people's lives; every large city in the noncommunist world has its district where theaters show pornographic films from the U.S., Europe, and Japan. Even though mostly men go to those theaters, the reduced view of sexuality found in pornographic films affects women throughout the world.

In looking at the articles and books written on pornography (see Gina Marchetti's bibliography), we find a regrettable distance between works analyzing the history of the pornographic image, especially in the fine arts, which see the topic only in aesthetic or psychological parameters, and those protesting the abusiveness and the spread of the pornographic film and video industry. This latter group often does not analyze how images work and particularly how images are or can be related to fantasy. Image and sexual fantasy are interconnected with social and economic reality in a way that we must delineate more clearly if we are adequately to understand pornographic film and take any political action on it. These interconnections have not yet been traced out nor their functions defined by any one writer on either pornography or film. Articles that contribute to such an understanding are the ones we would like to see in Jump Cut.

Women may rarely have a chance or even the impulse to see pornographic film theatrically. A woman alone or a group of women together would feel, and probably actually be, physically threatened were they to attend commercial showings of such films, except on a college campus. The pornographic theater allows women as spectators only within the institution of woman-with-man, i.e., the heterosexual couple. To overcome this problem, several other women in the Chicago area and I have studied pornographic film on video cassettes within the privacy of our homes. As we have done this, we have heard from other feminists that they too would like to know what such films look like and discuss them with other women. The same video cassette market that has provided the Saturday-night turn-on to many heterosexual partners also provides a protected way for interested women to look closely, perhaps for the first time, at such films and so provides an avenue for feminists from all disciplines to begin to analyze what such films contain. Jump Cut would clearly welcome more of such work.

We have to begin somewhere. I have read about pornography and seen about a dozen films but have no stomach to look at the explicitly violent ones showing the physical abuse of actresses. In my own thinking about pornography, I can get only as far as formulating the questions that face me when confronting the issues of the films' content and style and the industry as a whole. These are listed here in the hopes of refining the direction further discussions might take in Jump Cut on the topic of pornographic film.


What is it? Sexual entertainment? Written and visual material specifically marketed and used for sexual arousal? Material that describes/represents explicit sexual behavior that is degrading (to women, to children) and endorses such behavior? Depiction of coercive, violent, or dominating sexual acts in a favorable way?

Almost all the images surrounding us have sexual connotations, and what feminists usually object to in pornography are nonsexual elements such as violence and domination. But still, pornographic images have as a specific purpose direct, sexual arousal of the spectator.

Is it a way out to distinguish pornography from erotica, the latter expressing personhood and mutual respect? Or does such a distinction depend too much on the receiver's individual taste (and class, race, and sex)?

What is degrading? If we are honest about what we, our friends, our lovers, children get off on, what do we find?

If women's erotica, such as Connie Beeson's film of two women making love, HOLDING, is shown in a package of erotic films, isn't the relation of the spectator, especially a male spectator, to such a film the same as to any pornographic film? Even to deal with defining the matter we need an understanding of contradiction, in the Marxist sense. [1]

What is the historical development of the present situation? What is the economic and social context of pornography's legitimization in the past 25 years? How was this change carried out through judicial decisions and through upping the ante in explicitness?

Pornographic films promise to show IT and lots of IT — that is, to show explicit sexual relations. But consider the IT that they show. Penises. Actors of both sexes frequently touching some but not other erogenous zones. Fucking. In the more violent films, a woman being hit in a way that you can see the red marks left on her body.

What is the difference in the IT depicted in heterosexual and gay male pornographic films? How would a women's pornography (yet to be made) depict IT?

The pacing, the predictability, and the narrowness of the IT seen in heterosexual pornography fascinatingly reveals much about ideological, hegemonic, male views of sexual relations. Because what I see is that the man comes and the woman doesn't — an adequate symbol for heterosexuality, especially as it is expressed in film.


Penises, labia, assholes, semen, and mouths in huge close-ups on the screen offer a direct and blunt encounter with the physical facts of sexual relations, but the films are abstractions, repetitive in form and very simple in their episodic style. The very directness and "dumbness" of the imagery surpasses metaphorical and symbolic interpretations on first viewing, but we must ask, what do all those images in their combination symbolically establish? In a sense, nudity is a costume.

What is the function of decor and various interiors — the depiction of private or not-so-private space? What is the function of money? Pornography originally meant "the depiction of whores," and even now women's sexuality is depicted in terms of pleasure and payment, not her work and ego management of the emotional scene.

How else is the depiction of women's sexuality limited? What's the significance of the adolescent woman as attractive and dumb? The middle-aged woman as the professional, the dominatrix, the phallic woman?

What images, what narrative constructions, what kind of pacing provide a sexual arousal for the predominantly male viewers? How does voyeurism function as an element within the films' narrative content, and how does it function in terms of the imagery presented to the spectator? When do we see conventionally romantic scenes? What "guarantees" are built in so the films are not too threatening? What vision of lesbians do these films perpetuate and why? [2]


Who go to these movies? Researchers variously say upper middle class males, potential rapists, or working-class males. The medium presumably serves as capitalism's cheap, clean, industrialized form of prostitution. The films are regularly shown in prisons — with what rationale, to what effect? What do we know about the cable television and video cassette market, a market that has exploded all over the world? Who watches these films, and do they do with that visual and narrative material?

What do we know of the industry — pornographic filmmaking, financing, recruitment and use of actors, and distribution? What are the ties of the pornographic film industry to organized crime? How are these films distributed internationally? How did it get to be so profitable and where does the money go?

Why do we need this institution devoted to male sexuality? What do pornographic theaters and bookstores mean to women's access to downtown areas at night? What demands do men make on women in the bedroom as result of having seen pornographic films?


Comparisons with male heterosexual pornographic film could usefully bring into the foreground issues that relate to all explicit depictions of sexual activity and issues particular to this genre. Worthy of study are gay male pornography, sexually explicit women's films, sex education films, and sexually explicit literature of all kinds.

How do gay male pornographic films differ from and resemble heterosexual pornography? How are the social relations in a gay porn theater unique? What are the historical links between gay porn and the development of a gay male ghetto? How is this related to gay male visibility and gay liberation (collective and individual)?

What kinds of women's erotic films do we have? How does the setting in which they are shown affect their reception? [3]

How does pornographic film function similarly to and different from pornographic literature, magazines, and photographs? How does advertising use pornographic conventions? How does art photography?

How are sex education films, used in sex therapy, medical schools, and social work, similar to and different from pornographic films? Are they intended only for scientific exposition and education or also as a turn-on so the students will be more empathetic with the sexual variant under consideration?

Would all cinematic depictions of heterosexual sexual relations in our culture reflect patriarchal ideology? Can gay or lesbian pornography escape? [4] What are our criteria for nondemeaning, nonexploitive, nonsexist films that present explicit sexuality?


What does pornographic cinema reveal about the way that male sexuality is constituted? [5] To what degree is the need or desire to look — and to get directly aroused by looking — a learned male trait, one tied to men's visual possession of public space? What does it mean that many women have an angry or bemused response to the same visual images that turn men on?

If male gender identity is directly tied to sexual performance, pornography reflects that compulsiveness. In a driven way, the films express men's need to assuage threats against their power, their penises, their orgasmic capacity. In what ways do the content of pornographic films and the social use of the institution of pornography prop up male gender identity?

How does that compare to the way that women use visual and written material from the culture around them to express their sexual and emotional concerns? Their identity?


What exactly is the sadism and violence found in pornographic films and how does it compare to the violence found in other films?

How is the image of women manipulated in the culture at large, and what is the relation of that to pornography? Is violence in the imagery the criterion for defining what is bad in pornography? What is the relation of violent imagery to violent fantasies?

What does it mean for men to have violent and transgressive fantasies about women and/or to see rapes depicted within a cinematic institution set up for their pleasure?


What is the relation between individuals' capacity to create images and their psychological development from infancy on? The child is as "sexual" as the adult and creates her/his own sexual imagery and sexual "script." which are tied both to cultural determinants and to the individual's own history. How does pornographic film content reflect that?

Sex always expresses some aspect of interpersonal relations — love, hostility, anger, dependency, power, submission, identity, or affirmation of existence. To what extent would or could a nonsexist sexually explicit cinema draw on violent emotions and scenarios learned from childhood and part of the strong emotional response elicited by sexual encounters?


In what ways are our fantasies related to our social values? Certainly there is no direct relation. Women have an extremely wide range of fantasies and not all women fantasize. Often our fantasies are our way of accommodating to a hostile world. Any turn-on is necessarily related to our feelings and imagination, and as Pat Califla writes, "To limit or expurgate the sources of our erotic imagination cramps and censors our erotic aspirations." [6] Women often feel ashamed because they have bondage or so-called masochistic fantasies. What are the connections between these fantasies and the fact of living in an oppressive culture, our very language being shaped by it? Women may use these fantasies to heighten sexual tension and as metaphors for abandonment to sexual pleasure, the pleasure of the fantasy residing in the woman's complete control over the scenario even as she imagines being compelled. The same images — ones of bondage, especially — mean very different things to men and women in the use made of them and in terms of real power differentials between men and women. As Ethel Spector Person, feminist analyst, puts it, the way gender training moulds sexuality, and "socialization into passivity or activity, subordination or autonomy, is decisive for the way sexuality (sensuality) is experienced and for the fantasies that attach to it." [7]

We must ask: what are the relations between men's sexual fantasies and men's power to express them, in this instance in pornography, and women's sexual fantasies and their use of the cultural material around them and their capacities or opportunities to discover what their own non-colonized sexuality might be?

In the women's press, a lively debate has been carried on by women active in attacking pornography and women defending the rights of sexual minorities. This argument deals with, among other issues, the politics of sexual fantasy and the role that dominance and submission play or should play in women's lives.


Sexuality seems such an intimate part of our identity it is often hard to see how historical contingency forms a substantial part of our sexual selves. [8] To what degree does pornographic film come from an historical process so that it seems "reasonable" culturally that such an institution exists? In a sense, as Michel Foucault points out, it proceeds logically from the nineteenth century's Romantic confessional literature and the Catholic Church's institution of the confessional itself — in both cases, to tell the truth meant to tell the tawdry secrets about one's sex life. [9] To what extent does the spread of pornographic film and video represent a "will to know" and to share with others a previously hidden seeming "truth"? To what extent does my own criticism fall within the same historical trajectory of seeking the truth through a discussion of sexuality? How is the feminist discussion of sexuality's political dimension different and why?

Foucault also describes a concomitant aspect of the contemporary interest and focus on sexuality — that since the nineteenth century, sex has been an extremely flexible ideological instrument manipulated, within relations of force, to achieve effects of domination. And he notes as the historical origins of this in the nineteenth century that children were sexualized, women made hysterics, perversions specified, and populations regulated. How does the contemporary spread of pornographic film serve as an instrument of social control, of ideological constraint, in the way that Foucault describes?

Sexuality, and especially pornographic film and video, is related to the notion of leisure (as opposed to work) and of recreation and entertainment.

In what way is the sexual and private self, who may see pornography and who may use pornographic materials for what seem to be very private fantasies, embedded in economic, class, and gender realities that shape sexuality? How does the bringing of explicit sexuality into the public sphere as an object of consumption change the public sphere?


In a sense, this discussion of pornography is reactive. What would be an appropriate cinematic form for expressing women's sexuality? Can we imagine it? The women's movement has never opposed sexual freedom and honesty but has fought to expand and protect women's freedom to choose and to make demands in both the private and the public spheres. Women are making political demands within the personal sphere so as to expand our social notions about what a proper or satisfying sexuality might be.

Furthermore, many women do not take their identity or even major concern from the realm of sexual relations; they have many ways of enjoying sensuality. At the same time, all women receive pornographic visual material obliquely in advertising and in notions of "glamour." They live in a society, the ideology of which encourages violence against women. We must ask in what ways pornography controls and inhibits all women's sexuality and controls and inhibits their access to public space. Take Back the Night marches have been organized in many cities to demand safe public access to previously "unsafe" areas of the city, especially at night. They also redefine rape and wife beating as "public," not private, crimes and proclaim the survivors of such crimes as women's heroes. In the past, however, survivors were expected not to talk about the abuse, to deal with it as a personal problem, which kept women from learning and uniting around issues of sexual abuse.

What remedies would we propose if we oppose some or all pornography? A liberal remedy is to create red-light districts in the center of the city — a bourgeois response. What kinds of pressures should be brought on legislators, mass media corporations, or individuals? What demands should feminists make on the left, on other feminists, about pornography? What demands can people make on each other, individually and collectively? What are the consequences, in the short term and in the long term, of the demands we make?


1. For a discussion of the Marxist concept of contradiction as applied to feminist film criticism, see "Dialectical, Revolutionary, Feminist: Sara Gomez's ONE WAY OR ANOTHER," Jump Cut 20 (May 1979).

2. For an effective visual analysis of one photograph depicting lesbians, see Andrea Dworkin's "The Lesbian in Pornography: A Tribute to Male Power," Sinister Wisdom 15 (Fall 1980).

3. See Jacqueline Zita's article on the films of Barbara Hammer, "Counter Currencies of a Lesbian Iconography," Jump Cut 24/25 (March 1981).

4. Gregg Blackford, "Looking at Pornography: Erotica and the Socialist Morality," in Pink Triangles: Radical Perspectives on Gay Liberation, ed. Pam Mitchell (Boston: Alyson Publications. 1980).

5. For useful feminist studies comparing male and female sexual organization, see Nancy Chodorow, The Reproduction of Mothering (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978); Ethel Spector Person, "Sexuality as the Mainstay of Identity: Psychoanalytic Perspectives," Signs 5, no. 4 (1980).

6. Pat Califia, Sapphistry: The Book of Lesbian Sexuality (Tallahassee: Naiad Press; 1980), p. 1. A large controversy has arisen around appropriate feminist responses to pornography, with Califia taking a libertarian stance, arguing for the rights of sexual minorities. For a thorough overview of opposing views expressed at conferences, see the constant coverage of this topic in the feminist periodical, off Our Backs. Discussions of women's erotic imagination that take a different approach than Califia's are Melanie Kaye's "Sexual Power," Sinister Wisdom 15 (Fall 1980); and Andre Lourde's "Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power," in Take Back the Night: Women on Pornography, ed. Laura Lederer (New York: William Morrow, 1980).

7. Person, p. 619.

8. See the Editor's Introduction to the Radical History Review's issue on sexuality in history (no. 20, Spring/Summer 1979) by Robert A. Padugug: "Sexual Matters: On Conceptualizing Sexuality in History."

9. Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Pantheon Books, 1978). Originally the French title was The Will to Know. His book does not deal with the most general aspects of women's oppression as have been explored within the women's movement.