Paper presented at the 3rd Annual Qualitative Methods Conference: "Touch me I'm sick"
8 & 9 September 1997, University of South Africa Regional Office, Durban

The Politics of Lesbian Pornography

Fiona Scorgie

Centre for Gender Studies, University of Natal, Durban

During the eighties, western feminists engaged in heated debates about the nature and effects of heterosexual pornography. These debates largely neglected to examine the issue of lesbian pornography, which to date has featured only marginally in feminist commentaries on pornography. The industry for lesbian erotica and pornography, which has been growing steadily over the last decade (mostly in America, Britain and Europe), necessitates a revisiting of the terms and theoretical premises of the feminist pornography debate. It is the aim of this paper to explore some of the dilemmas which the issue of lesbian pornography has raised for feminists. It does this by focusing on the various theoretical positions which have been staked out in response to the emergence of lesbian pornography as a distinct sub-genre. Finally, the paper examines how these responses have been shaped by forces and tensions within the feminist movement, and contextualises them within the pornography debates in feminism more broadly.

" the Nineties, lesbians are definitely in the vanguard of the new porn" (Sprinkle, cited in Brown, 1994: 37).

Defining 'pornography'

The nature of the 'pornographic' is undoubtedly one of the most frequently contested questions debated in contemporary feminist analyses of sexuality. It is virtually impossible to arrive at a single definition upon which everyone will agree. Because these definitions are central to the way that feminists have aligned themselves in the pornography debate, it is important to examine how they differ. While some feminists have defined pornography as inherently oppressive to women, others have contested the simplicity of this definition, instead, de-emphasising its role in women's oppression, and focusing on the intention of pornography to simply 'arouse'. In the late 1970s and for most of the eighties, the feminist debate over pornography tended to be dominated by an anti-pornography position, which sought to analyse and critique the material in terms of its function in a male-supremacist society(1)

(Strossen, 1995).

Crucial to the feminist opposition to pornography is the distinction made between pornography and 'erotica'(2), where 'erotica' is understood as "sexually explicit materials premised on equality" (Itzin, 1992: 446), while 'pornography' is seen as material which eroticises unequal power relations. It would be fair to say that the anti-pornography position defines pornography, and subsequently builds its opposition to it, on the understanding that there is an indisputable and inevitable link between pornography and women's oppression(3)

. This link has been theorised in a number of ways:

Firstly, it has been argued that porn involves a direct exploitation of women and children for whom the sex industry is one of the few economic options available. Related to this is the observation that some porn involves the actual 'documentation' of real life sexual abuses of women and children, who are harmed in its production (Itzin, 1992).

Secondly, pornography has been argued to play a role in promoting actual acts of sexual violence. In this regard, pornography has been seen both as contributory - by creating a 'climate' in which it is more likely that women will be sexually abused (Itzin, 1992) - and as causal - by directly encouraging men who view pornography to abuse women and children (Russell, 1995).

A third way in which pornography has been argued to be linked to women's continued subordination is through its eroticisation of male power and of sexual violence. This process of eroticising subordination is argued to be especially dangerous, because it is said to normalise male supremacy and the current exploitative sexual relations between women and men (Stoltenburg, 1995).

Finally, pornography is claimed to 'objectify' women. Kappeler (1986) argues that it is the nature of the pornographic genre to place women as objects for the spectatorship of men, and thus to deny them subjecthood. In this objectification, women are refused a voice in society - a denial which both reflects and upholds unequal relations of power between the sexes: "The objectification of women is a result of the subjectification of man" (Kappeler: 1986: 50).

A counter argument to the anti-pornography feminists' condemnation of pornography has been levelled from what may broadly be termed liberal and libertarian feminist perspectives. 'Pornography', from this viewpoint (commonly known as the 'feminist anti-censorship' position), is defined more broadly in terms of its intention to sexually stimulate the reader/ viewer. Thus, the argued connections between this material and questions of abuse, violence and gender oppression are questioned, and the pornography/ erotica distinction are contested. These theorists have pointed out that the ability to draw this distinction relies on criteria for judgement which are too subjective to have any meaning (Rubin, 1995). As Salaman (1993: 43) puts it, "to suggest that erotica is good, and pornography bad is, in my opinion, just plain nonsense. If you find some porn exciting then it will be erotica for you..." British pressure groups such as 'Feminists against Censorship' (FAC) and the Feminist Anti-Censorship Task Force (FACT), which have spearheaded the feminist opposition to the censorship of porn, have been at pains to point out that the anti-pornography argument is not the only feminist position (Rodgerson and Semple, 1990). They have attempted - in particular - to problematise anti-pornography arguments which assert the existence of a causal relationship between sexual violence and the viewing of pornography. While acknowledging that much pornography is indeed sexist and degrading to women, feminists opposing greater censorship of sexually explicit materials, have generally argued that these materials need to be published, so that criticism may be launched by feminists in the open(4)


Many theorists have observed that the pornography debate has seldom moved beyond the impasse created by the two fundamentally opposed positions outlined above (Segal, 1990; Strossen, 1995; Norden, 1990; Bensinger, 1992). .Although obviously more than two views on pornography are possible, what has happened is that the bipolar nature of the debate has led it to a point of stasis (Bensinger, 1992). At this point I would like to introduce the question of lesbian pornography, and begin to examine how it has been conceptualised and addressed within the constraints of this theoretical impasse.

'Lesbian Pornography'

This paper began by asserting that it is not possible to settle on a single definition of 'pornography' upon which all would agree. Certainly, the discussion thus far has demonstrated that at least two different approaches to the defining of pornography currently have credibility among feminists. When speaking of 'lesbian pornography', then, which of these two definitions is being employed? Rather than attempting a pre-mature answer to this question, I would like to consider the following observation instead: much of the literature dealing with the notion of 'lesbian pornography' makes frequent mention of specific publications, by name, and although feminists have differed widely in their assessment of this material, it is clear that they all seem to be referring to the same type of material. The publications to which I refer all appeared on the market at roughly the same time - in Europe, the United States, Australia and Canada in the late eighties. Examples of these are publications such as On Our Backs (San Francisco), Bad Attitude, Outrageous Women (Boston), Quim (Britain), and Wicked Women (Australia). They are publications "...depicting lesbian sexuality for a lesbian market, made by lesbians, as opposed to that made by men for the male gaze and men's arousal" (Creith, 1996: 14). Many aim to subvert conventional heterosexist codes of sexual desire (Rubin, 1995), and frequently include photographic representations of lesbian sadomasochistic practice(5).

Before the emergence of these new publications onto the pornography market, lesbians tended to 'borrow' mostly from the imagery contained in mainstream heterosexual and gay male pornography (Smith, 1992). Sexually explicit imagery involving only female models and characters is not uncommon in heterosexual pornography, but because this pornography is constructed around the (male) desire for penetrative sex, any scene depicting women engaged in 'lesbian' poses, is usually directed towards accommodating this desire (Smyth, 1990). Thus, 'lesbian' sex scenes appearing in heterosexual pornography magazines tend to emphasise the genital area of the female model(s) as awaiting the (imagined) penetration by the male voyeur. The 'borrowing' of this imagery by lesbians has sometimes involved attempts to 'subvert' the dominant meanings of these pornographic texts. As Bensinger (1992: 82) describes the appeal of this subversion,

...there is the titillation of transgression that accompanies the replacement of the assumed male viewer of these videos, yet the inadequate quality of the productions themselves made this a short-lived thrill. These videos were produced by male directors, they starred straight actresses, and they were constructed around mostly repetitive and unimaginative plot structures addressed to the 'ideal' heterosexual male consumer.

When lesbians began to create erotic images of their own, publishing and distributing this material among lesbian communities, their efforts were met with mixed responses. On the one hand, there was fierce opposition to their publication, and even some attempts (by anti-pornography feminists and supporters of state censorship) to have the material removed from book stores (Smith, 1993). On the other hand, there was welcome acceptance by those who recognised the significance of the new imagery. For example, Chris Bearchell, a (pro-lesbian porn) Canadian feminist writer, claims that this material played an important educative role, providing lesbians who were 'coming out' in the 1960s with new possibilities for self-affirmation:

... it was hard admitting that I was sexually attracted to other women, but it got a lot easier when I saw pictures of women having sex. I squirreled away copies of soft-core men's magazines...I was vaguely disappointed by the lack of authenticity in much of what I saw, and by the meagreness of my collection, but I never gave up hope of finding more and better (juicier) images [...]. Then, what seemed to be a miracle happened... [L]esbians began to make and distribute sexual imagery of our own (in Strossen, 1995: 168).

Generally, support for the continued publishing of lesbian pornography has been articulated along two lines. Firstly, the argument has been posed that lesbian pornography is no different from heterosexual pornography, and thus efforts to protect heterosexual pornography from censorship should be extended to include lesbian porn (Strossen, 1995). This is the standard libertarian position, which prioritises the rights of the individual to freedom of speech and expression, rejecting any suggestion of state intervention in these rights. Secondly, (also in support of lesbian porn) there have been those who regard lesbian pornography as fundamentally different from heterosexual pornography, and therefore the arguments in support of the former necessarily rest on different premises. This argument is advanced by writers such as Califia (1981), Rubin (1995), Smyth (1990) and Grace (1993). It is also a position held by the lesbian feminist anti-censorship group, "PUSSY" (Perverts Undermining State ScrutinY), which formed in Britain in 1991, in response to the banning of the work of Della Grace. This group justified their defence of her work on the grounds that such material constituted a 'space' for the autonomous expression of lesbian sexuality (Smith, 1992) - a powerful claim, given the history of oppression and marginalisation of the gay and lesbian community as a whole. Lesbian pornography was thus conceptualised as something to be protected along with other hard-won rights to sexual equality (Salaman, 1992). When lesbian porn is understood as emerging out of a distinct set of historical circumstances(6), and as being produced with specific intentions, it follows that the range of meanings which it produces cannot simply be 'read off' from those yielded by mainstream heterosexual pornography.

Later supporters of lesbian pornography have tended to move away from the thorny issue of censorship (what should be censored, how, and why), and have turned their criticism to the anti-pornography claim that (all) pornography inevitably objectifies and oppresses women. They have asked whether, by producing an image of another human being, one is necessarily 'objectifying' that person (Myers, 1995; Creith, 1996), and have questioned whether any possibilities exist for the representation of women's sexuality, if there is no way of representing women's bodies without objectifying them. As some have argued, "...a spectator (male or female) has the option of identifying with, rather than objectifying, the woman in the picture" (Kuhn, 1995: 273).

The possibility for the creation of a 'female gaze' within pornography is thus implied in this criticism of 'perceptual essentialism'. Thus if one denies that "the boundaries of subject-object are fluid" (Creith, 1996: 65) then one may ultimately be closing off routes of alternative expression for women. Yet if media representations of women (of which porn may be seen as one form) can be seen as crucial sites for the contesting of gender discourse, then lesbian pornography becomes a form of representation which offers up the space for a resistant discourse to emerge. As Lewallen (1988: 100) argues, "part of feminism's problem in dealing with issues of pornography and erotica, is that on the one hand we see ourselves bound by patriarchal discourse, and on the other we are actively desiring within them". It seems that the unspoken question implied here is whether this desire may motivate the forming of an alternative discourse of sexual pleasure.

Opposition to the emerging collection of lesbian pornography in the late eighties has generally come from radical feminists who have interpreted this lesbian imagery as a mimicry of the eroticised relations of domination and submission characterising heterosexual pornography (Raymond, 1992; Jeffreys, 1990; Dworkin, 1995). They have launched a similar attack on this material, arguing that the content, and even the intentions of the producers do not change its exploitative nature:

There's no distinction between what lesbian pornographers are doing and what these women who are fronting for the [mainstream] pornography industry are doing...They may package it as art, or say that they are introducing a new vision. But its sexual exploitation." (Ramos, cited in Strossen, 1995: 169).

Raymond (1992) labels those who produce lesbian pornography "sexual libertarians and lesbian lifestylers" (p. 168), who erroneously claim to be 'releasing' women's repressed sexuality(7). Instead, argues Raymond, despite their claims, "nowhere do we see the forms that this vital, vigorous and robust female sexuality would take articulated as anything different from the forms of the male-power sexuality model" (ibid.).

Taking this criticism even further, Dworkin (1995) has contended that what lesbian pornographers are doing is worse than their heterosexual male counterparts, because "lesbian porn is an expression of self-hatred...when it is trafficked in the world, it becomes a social reality, and the hatred that it spreads then is no longer a hatred only of self, but becomes a hatred of the group" (cited in Strossen, 1995: 242).

But it is the notion of inflexible boundaries of subject and object in pornography which these theorists have so effectively employed in their opposition to lesbian pornography. They have questioned, for example, whether the objectification of women in pornography can ever be subverted through the replacement of the male spectator with a female one. By drawing on media theories to demonstrate that the harm in pornography lies in the nature of the gaze which it inevitably invokes, Susan Kappeler (1986), for one, holds that in a patriarchal society, it is difficult - if not impossible - to move beyond the parameters of the masculine gaze. By changing the biological sex of either the pornographer or of the model (as lesbian pornography does), this fundamental dynamic of objectification which underlies and defines pornography remains intact. It is therefore argued that lesbian pornography can never be any different from heterosexual pornography in this regard - and so it must be judged as equally responsible for perpetuating women's oppression.

How may we begin to understand the sources of these conflicting responses to lesbian pornography? Significantly, most writers attempting to theorise the dilemma posed by lesbian pornography for feminism, have contextualised their inquiry within broader historical tensions characterising the second wave women's movement over the last two decades. In this period, both the status and political significance of lesbianism in the movement shifted profoundly. In the early 1970s, lesbians were regarded by many mainstream (heterosexual) feminists in the prominent National Organisation of Women (NOW) as the 'lavender menace' (Bensinger, 1992). They were discouraged from being too 'visible' in the movement, out of fear that the public would begin to associate the notion of feminism with what was then still regarded as a 'deviant' subculture. It was thus out of a desire to challenge the marginalisation of lesbians in the movement that lesbian feminists began to theorise their position as politically significant (Bensinger, 1992). This coincided with the growing influence of the ideas of radical feminism, which challenged the perception of distinct and separate 'political' and 'personal' spheres, stressing instead the need to see these spheres as profoundly inter-connected. Their emphasis on patriarchy as the primary source of women's oppression meant that lesbianism, rather than being seen as an erotic 'alternative' to heterosexuality, became (for some) a conscious political choice: to be a lesbian was to be the 'quintessential feminist'. This idea is most clearly expressed in the work of Charlotte Bunch (1975):

Woman-identified lesbianism is...more than sexual preference; it is a political choice. It is political because relations between men and women are essentially political; they involve power and dominance. Since the Lesbian actively rejects that relationship and chooses women, she defies the established political system (Bunch, 1975; cited in Bar-On, 1992: 48).

The result of this shifting significance of lesbianism was that lesbianism became 'sanitised' through the foregrounding of its supposed 'revolutionary' potential (Bensinger, 1992; Grace, 1993). This 'de-eroticisation' of lesbianism was further reinforced by the growing influence of cultural feminism (exemplified in the writings of Adrienne Rich (1997) and Mary Daly (1978)), which posited an essential, biologically based femininity (gentle, spiritual, nurturing, peaceful) in opposition to a violent, essentially aggressive masculinity. If sex was theorised at all, then it was spoken of mainly in these terms; the only appropriate sex was politically correct sex, and this meant: gentleness, an absence of role playing and expressions of power(8).

Although the philosophy of cultural feminism probably has less credibility in feminist circles today than it did in the seventies, it could be argued that there remains a residual tendency (within feminism) for sexual practices to be assessed (particularly by anti-pornography feminists) according to the norms of 'politically correct' sexuality, which have been outlined above. In response to this tendency towards political correctness, feminist supporters of (both lesbian and heterosexual) porn have expressed discomfort with the way that the term 'pornography' has become stigmatised as morally unacceptable, within the terms and ideological boundaries of feminism (Salaman, 1992). Speaking in the wake of the 1987 Minneapolis anti-pornography legislation, writer Sallie Tisdale reflects on how this stigmatisation is manifested:

Catherine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin...are themselves prurient, scurrying after sex in every corner. They look down on me and shake a finger. 'Bad Girl. Mustn't touch'. That brand of feminism tells me my thoughts are bad. Pornography tells me the opposite: that none of my thoughts are bad, that anything goes...The message of pornography is that our sexual selves are real" (cited in Strossen, 1995: 161).

For feminists who enjoy pornography, it seems that there has developed an ambivalent and conflictual tension between their personal desires and their political commitments(9). When women "confess" to enjoying pornography, they are transgressing both the norms set up by traditional conventions of 'femininity', and (ironically) the norms which have been established by the radical ideas in modern feminism (Salaman, 1990). "Just as it has been taboo for women to express an interest in sex and sexual satisfaction, so feminism has prescribed further taboos declaring 'politically correct' ways of having sex and seeking arousal" (Smyth, 1990: 23).

The Impasse

From this rather brief outline of the conflicting responses to the issue of lesbian pornography, it is already evident that the way that 'pornography' is defined is, of course, pivotal to one's choice of support for, or opposition to its existence. If pornography is defined in the terms set out by MacKinnon and Dworkin, for example, then by implication, pornography can never be defended from a feminist(10)

standpoint - regardless of the content, gender or sexual preference of the consumers, or the intentions of the producers. From a radical feminist perspective, lesbian pornography can never be anything but oppressive to women. By contrast, the emphasis which (mainly libertarian) feminists place on individual freedom and self-determination means that their philosophical commitments are compatible with an acceptance of lesbian pornography as potentially 'empowering'. The appraisal of lesbian pornography thus returns again to the same impasse outlined at the start of this paper.

In trying to dismantle this impasse, some have argued that while on the surface, feminists are divided along the more obvious anti-pornography/ anti-censorship split, what underlies this division are theoretical assumptions about the nature of sexuality. Bar-On (1992) has detailed the way that these assumptions have diverged along the axis of sexuality as 'danger' versus sexuality as 'pleasure'. On the one hand, there are those who regard sexuality in a patriarchal society as predominantly shaped by the dictates of male domination (mainly through the process of sexual objectification), and who believe that feminists should therefore reject practices which act to 'normalise' this objectification and dominance. At the heart of this position is the assumption that male sexuality is fundamentally dangerous. Pornography is therefore regarded as a medium which institutionalises the sexual control of women, functioning to service male desire and to define women's sexuality for them. As Assiter and Carol (1993: 16) put it: "sex for pleasure is treated as a male vice". One needs to ask, then, whether at the heart of this position is the assumption that women are somehow 'purer' than men, and that they do not (or should not) desire... a sentiment which seems dangerously close to traditional beliefs about the "nature" of women.

On the other side of the 'danger' versus 'pleasure' axis, argues Bar-On, there are those who value the notion of 'sexual freedom', and believe that it is the task of all feminists to reject the stigmatisation of sexual minorities, as this has implications for the sexual freedom of all. The rights of women to practice whatever they find to be (sexually) pleasurable should therefore be protected - providing, of course, that this does not limit the freedom of any other person. Thus, the 'pleasure' of sexuality is emphasised over the aspect of 'danger' suggested above. Gayle Rubin (1984) has also detected this binary in feminist theoretical approaches to sexuality, phrasing it in terms of an opposition between 'anti-sex' and 'pro-sex' perspectives. While the former is said to be spearheaded by radical feminists for whom sexuality is a key domain of male supremacy, and must therefore be 'policed', the latter is a position occupied mainly by lesbians whose sexuality does not conform to standards of purity set up by elements within the feminist movement as a whole. (These are primarily lesbian sadomasochists, and butch/ femme dykes). This 'pro-sex' feminist position claims that it is time for feminists to acknowledge and encourage women's pleasure - rather than to continually turn away from the possibility that women may actually enjoy alternative forms of sexual expression - even those which may be seen as 'violent' or 'obscene'. Rubin's categories of 'pro-' and 'anti-sex' correlate quite neatly with the 'pleasure' versus 'danger' axis detailed above. Together these two models may provide a useful framework for contextualising the range of responses offered by feminists on the subject of lesbian pornography.


This paper has attempted to unpack the meanings behind the concept of 'lesbian pornography', through focusing on the way that its emergence in the late eighties was greeted by feminists involved more broadly in the pornography debates at the time. The complexity of these responses to its emergence is partially explained by the fact that there remains little agreement among feminists as to the nature and role of pornography in general. This is evident when one considers how the current debate on pornography remains locked in a stalemate, owing, in part, to the incommensurability of the terms and definitions employed by theorists who stand at opposite poles of the debate. While anti-pornography feminists see pornography as inevitably inter-linked with women's sexual, and broader social subordination, anti-censorship feminists detach their understanding of pornography from the analysis of this oppression, preferring to see pornography as a medium which holds the potential for individual sexual expression and autonomy. When viewed against the background of these conflicting viewpoints, it is not surprising that lesbian pornography has remained an issue which feminists are wary to examine. Although in many ways, its emergence as a distinct sub-genre of pornography has been greeted in much the same way as pornography in general, recent reflections upon historical and theoretical developments in feminist scholarship and activism have also given these responses a 'fresh angle'. For example, the appearance of lesbian pornography has raised unique questions about the nature of sexuality (and, in particular, about lesbian sexuality); it has raised questions about women's pleasure, and about the nature of the 'gaze' when constructing representations of sexuality. These are questions which demand a far more detailed analysis than that which has been provided here. I would argue that further inquiries into the meanings of lesbian pornography would do well to examine, in particular, assumptions about lesbian sexuality which may underpin the way that lesbian pornography is received, and should explore ways of dismantling the dichotomies and the 'either/or' positions in the debate, thereby transcending the limitations of the current impasse.


Assiter, A. & Carol, A. (1993). Bad Girls and Dirty Pictures: The Challenge to Reclaim Feminism. London: Pluto Press.

Avedon, C. (1993). 'Porn, Perversion and Sexual Ethics', in V. Harwood, D. Oswell, K. Parkinson & A. Ward (Eds.) Pleasure Principles: Politics, Sexuality and Ethics. London: Lawrence and Wishart.

Bar-On, B. A. (1992). The Feminist "Sexuality Debates" and the Transformation of the Political. Hypatia, Fall 1992.

Bensinger, T. (1992). Lesbian Pornography: The Re/Making of (a) Community. Discourse, 15, (1).

Brown, K. (1994). Lesbian Porn: Friend or Foe? Deneuve, July 1994.

Califia, P. (1981). Feminism and Sadomasochism. Heresies, 3 (4).

Creith, E. (1996). Undressing Lesbian Sex. London: Cassell Press.

Daly, M. (1978). Gyn/Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism. London: The Women's Press.

Dines, G. & Humez, J. M. (1995). 'Pornography: An Introduction' in Gender, Race and Class in Media. London: Sage.

Dines, G. (1995). '"I Buy it for the Articles': Playboy Magazine and the Sexualisation of Consumerism' in G. Dines and J. M. Humez, (Eds.) Gender, Race and Class in Media. London: Sage.

Dworkin, A. (1995). 'Pornography and Male Supremacy' in G. Dines and J. M. Humez, (Eds.) Gender, Race and Class in Media. London: Sage.

Dworkin, A. (1984). Pornography: Men Possessing Women. London: The Women's Press.

Easton, S. M. (1994). The Problem of Pornography. London: Routledge.

France, M. (1984). Sadomasochism and Feminism. Feminist Review, 16, April 1984.

Grace, D. (1993). 'Dynamics of Desire', in V. Harwood, D. Oswell, K. Parkinson & A. Ward (Eds.) Pleasure Principles: Politics, Sexuality And Ethics. London: Lawrence and Wishart.

Itzin, C. (Ed.) (1992). Pornography: Women, Violence and Civil Liberties. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Jeffreys, S. (1990). Anticlimax. London: The Women's Press.

Kappeler, S. (1986). The Pornography of Representation. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Kuhn, A. (1995). 'Lawless Seeing', in G. Dines and J. M. Humez, (Eds.) Gender, Race and Class in Media. London: Sage.

MacKinnon, C. (1993). Only Words. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Mayall, A. & Russell, D. (1995). 'Racism in Pornography'', in G. Dines and J. M. Humez, (Eds.) Gender, Race and Class in Media. London: Sage.

Myers, K. (1995). 'Towards a Feminist Erotica', in G. Dines and J. M. Humez, (Eds.) Gender, Race and Class in Media. London: Sage.

Norden, B. (1990). Campaign Against Pornography. Feminist Review, 35, Summer 1990.

Raymond, J. (1992). 'Pornography and the Politics of Lesbianism', in C. Itzin (Ed.) Pornography: Women, Violence and Civil Liberties. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Rich, A. (1977). Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution. London: Virago.

Rodgerson, G. And Semple, L. (1990). Who Watches The Watchwomen?: Feminists Against Censorship. Feminist Review, 36, Autumn, 1990.

Rubin, G. (1995). 'Misguided, Dangerous and Wrong: An Analysis of Anti-Pornography Politics', in G. Dines and J. M. Humez, (Eds.) Gender, Race and Class in Media. London: Sage.

Russell, D. (Ed.) (1995). Making Violence Sexy: Feminist Views on Pornography. Buckingham: Open University Press.

Salaman, N. (1993). 'Women's Art Practice/ Man's Sex...And Now For Something Completely Different', in V. Harwood, D. Oswell, K. Parkinson & A. Ward (Eds.) Pleasure Principles: Politics, Sexuality and Ethics. London: Lawrence and Wishart.

Smith, A. M. (1993). 'Outlaws as Legislators: Feminist Anti-Censorship Politics and Queer Activism', in V. Harwood, D. Oswell, K. Parkinson & A. Ward (Eds.) Pleasure Principles: Politics, Sexuality and Ethics. London: Lawrence and Wishart.

Smyth, C. (1990). The Pleasure Threshold: Looking at Lesbian Pornography on Film. Feminist Review, 34, Spring 1990.

Stoltenberg, J. (1995). 'Pornography and Freedom', in D. Russell (Ed.) Making Violence Sexy: Feminist Views on Pornography. Buckingham: Open University Press.

Strossen, N. (1995). Defending Pornography. London: Abacus.

Weeks, J. (1993). 'An Unfinished Revolution: Sexuality in the 20th Century', in V.Harwood, D. Oswell, K. Parkinson & A. Ward (Eds.) Pleasure Principles: Politics, Sexuality and Ethics. London: Lawrence and Wishart.

Fiona Scorgie is a Masters candidate in the Centre for Gender Studies at Natal University. Her interests lie in the areas of gender representations, symbolic images of the body, feminist theory, and qualitative research and epistemology. Her MA thesis explores the various transgressions of boundaries which are invoked in pubertal rites of passage, together with notions of gendered 'taboos', and the inter-generational transmission of knowledge about the female body during adolescence. When not involved in research, she works in various tutorial programmes in the Sociology Department at UND and is a lecturer in Sociology at Varsity College in Durban. Future projects are likely to continue research in the area of women's reproductive health in general, and on the 'bodily histories' of South African women in particular.


1. It is important to note that the feminist anti-pornography position is distinguishable from that which opposes pornography for 'moral' reasons. A moralist position would base its condemnation of this material on its alleged 'obscenity', assuming that most 'reasonable' persons would take offence at such material. From a moralist perspective, a possible definition of pornography would be: material which "...refers to any literature or film [...] that describes or depicts sexual organs, preludes to sexual activity, or sexual activity [...] in such a way as to produce sexual arousal in the user or the viewer..." (Soble, 1986; cited in Dines and Humez, 1995: 230).

2. Although not all anti-pornography feminists have accepted the validity of this distinction. Dworkin, for one, believes that "'erotica' is merely a high class, euphemistic way of saying the same thing [as pornography]" (Lewallen, 1988: 98).

3. In America in the mid eighties, attempts were made to restrict the production of pornography through legal means: for example, legislation was drafted in the state of Minneapolis by Catherine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin (two key figures in the development of a feminist anti-pornography position), which would enable women to take civil action against pornographers. This attempt to formulate legal policy on the issues necessitated the development of a rigorous definition of the subject matter at hand. The following extract from MacKinnon's Only Words (1993) - formulated primarily for the purposes of enacting this legislation - may be regarded as a 'standard' definition of pornography used by anti-pornography feminists: "[Pornography is] the graphic sexually explicit subordination of women through pictures and/ or words, that also includes one or more of the following: (a) women are presented dehumanized as sexual objects, things, or commodities; or (b) women are presented as sexual objects who enjoy humiliation or pain; or (c.) women are presented as sexual objects experiencing sexual pleasure in rape, incest, or other assault; or (d) women are presented as sexual objects tied up or cut up or mutilated or bruised or physically hurt; or (e) women are presented in postures or positions of sexual submission, servility or display; or (f) women's body parts - including but not limited to vaginas, breasts, or buttocks - are exhibited such that women are reduced to these parts; or (g) women are presented being penetrated by objects or animals; or (h) women are presented in scenarios of degradation, humiliation, injury, torture, shown as filthy or inferior, bleeding, bruised or hurt in a context that makes these conditions sexual..." (MacKinnon, 1993: 121). This definition (as with the definition formulated by the standard anti-censorship position) applies to mainstream pornographic material, which is aimed mainly at the male heterosexual market.

4. Indeed, as noted by both feminists and non-feminists alike, it is ironic that in the efforts of anti-pornography feminists to introduce legislation to restrict the distribution of pornography, an alliance has been struck (albeit unintentionally) between radical feminists opposing pornography on the one hand, for whom the patriarchal institutions of 'compulsory heterosexuality' and the nuclear family are central targets of activism, and the moral right on the other, for whom these same institutions are considered the bedrock of a stable society (Dines, 1995). This uneasy alliance has placed further strain on the already conflictual exchange of ideas between anti-pornography and anti-censorship feminists.

5. The photography of Della Grace, for example, is represented in many of these publications. A fairly well-known example of her work is an image entitled 'Ruff Sex', which depicts "... a woman draped over a leather jacket-covered stool, her mouth gasping in pleasure; another woman kneeling at her head, holding her hair and chin in a masterful grasp; and a third woman standing behind the exposed ass of the first, her hips firmly thrust forward, a glimpse of a leather harness around her, and a suggestion of a concealed dildo.." (Smith, 1993: 32).

6. The context being referred to here is that created both by specific conditions in the second wave feminist movement, and by the broad gay and lesbian liberation movements which impacted most strongly on the face of gender politics in the mid eighties. These issues are dealt with shortly.

7. In keeping with the general acceptance of the pornography/ erotica distinction, these anti-pornography feminists tend to accept and support the creation of lesbian erotica which involves celebrations of female sexuality as positive, assertive and autonomous (Easton, 1994).

8. It is from this viewpoint that lesbian sadomasochistic (SM) groups have been criticised. They have been challenged by feminists on the grounds that the former practice mimics - and therefore reproduces - heterosexual roles of dominance and submission. In response, proponents of SM have argued that it is mistaken to interpret SM practice in this way. Rather, it must be seen as "a type of ritual and contractual sex play whose aficionados go to great lengths in order to do it and to ensure the safety and enjoyment of one another" (Rubin: 246). SAMOIS, a support group for lesbian feminist sadomasochists in the USA, has spoken out against their marginalisation by feminists who regard their practices as a betrayal of the movement's politics, defending their actions by articulating them as a minority sexual practice, which remains consensual, and therefore non-exploitative (France, 1984). Although it is beyond the scope of this paper to fully explore the dilemmas which SM raises for feminism, it is acknowledged that lesbian pornography frequently involves elements of SM, and therefore cannot really be dealt with as a separate issue.

9. This point has been made by heterosexual as well as lesbian feminists. The loyalty felt by lesbian feminists derives from the fact that they share certain critiques of patriarchal culture with 'mainstream feminists', and on this issue, they are likely to part with non-feminist lesbians.

10. If one accepts that a defining characteristic of 'feminism' is its endorsement of gender equality and the elimination of discrimination and oppression on the grounds of sexual difference.

Paper presented at the 3rd Annual Qualitative Methods Conference: "Touch me I'm sick"
8 & 9 September 1997, University of South Africa Regional Office, Durban
critical methods society - -