ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
Thursday, March 06 2008
Porn's "liberation"; it still looks a lot like
By Colleen Carroll Campbell
Remember the anti-pornography feminist movement? Remember that powerhouse
alliance of such feminist leaders as Gloria Steinem, Susan Brownmiller,
Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin that raged with righteous indignation
throughout the 1970s and 1980s against an industry that objectifies women's
bodies for profit?
It's understandable if you don't. The anti-pornography campaign catalyzed by
the rhetoric of such feminist activists as Robin Morgan — who famously
proclaimed in 1974 that "Pornography is the theory and rape is the practice" —
has all but disappeared from public view today.
In its place has sprouted a very different feminist response to pornography, a
growing trend toward women embracing pornography as a sign of sexual liberation
Signs of this shift abound — from the popularity of women's pole-dancing
classes to the explosion of female exhibitionism among reality TV contestants
who compete for the chance to debase themselves before strangers. Porn stars
who once were pitied and shunned now write bestselling memoirs gobbled up by
women eager to emulate their seductive prowess. Pornographic images once hidden
in the recesses of the magazine rack now clutter mainstream magazine covers,
the broadcast airwaves and the e-mail in-boxes of women as well as men.
Pornography has gone mainstream. And it has done so with the tacit approval and
often outright support of many American women, particularly young women.
A recent Brigham Young University study of more than 800 college students found
that while young men are far more likely to view pornography — nearly nine in
10 men report doing so, compared with about three in 10 women — women
increasingly are tolerant of it. Half of the young women surveyed said they
consider pornography acceptable.
Driving this acceptance is an odd mix of feminism and fatalism. As vehemently
as the waning ranks of anti-pornography feminists may deny it, the college
women who tag along with male classmates to strip clubs and disrobe for "Girls
Gone Wild" camera crews on spring break are the logical heirs to the 1960s
sexual revolution that equated women's liberation with undisciplined sexuality.
Confronted by a post-feminist culture that has reduced sex to a recreational
sport and women's bodies to a commodity, these young women have decided that
they might as well join the raunchy revelry and imitate boys behaving badly.
Journalist Ariel Levy chronicled this phenomenon in her 2005 book, "Female
Chauvinist Pigs." Noting the degrading antics of many young women in our
porn-saturated culture and their oft-repeated desire to be seen as "one of the
guys" as they objectify themselves and other women, Levy argued that women are
internalizing and perpetuating the very misogyny against which early feminists
Levy notes that young women often regard their celebration of our
porn-saturated culture as an ironic joke. But it's a joke that earlier
generations of American feminists and suffragettes probably would not have
found funny. Their victories depended on refuting the age-old idea that women
are the property and playthings of men, rather than persons in their own right.
That degrading view of women is alive and well in America's $13 billion-a-year
pornography industry. Pornography peddles the same lies that always have been
told about women: that women's bodies exist to be used and ogled by men, that
male sexual satisfaction demands the subjugation of women, that a woman's worth
boils down to the size and shape of her body parts.
Women living in 21st-century America like to believe that such lies are too
passé to pose a real threat to our dignity. But the more we laugh at our own
objectification, the more regret we will feel on the day we finally discover
that the joke of pornography was on us all along.
Colleen Carroll Campbell is an author, television and radio host and St.
Louis-based fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Her website is