Friday, May 30, 2008

A feminist response to the new "feminist" anti-porn theory

It's official! The anti-porn feminists (remember "Porn is the theory, rape is the practice"?) have finally realized that their "porn causes rape" theory was wrong. Dead wrong. Not even close. Unfortunately, without skipping a beat they've invented a brand new theory for why porn is still evil.

Now, I hate to call attention to this essay by Naomi Wolf (or even read it for that matter), but it's sadly been popping up around the Internet lately as a feminist theory, and I've had some requests for a feminist response to it.

So here goes:

1. If stopping rape had been their goal, then upon learning about the inverse correlation between porn and rape they'd have responded by saying "Wow, that's not what I expected. Let's analyze this to see if we can understand better what factors lead to rape." Instead they respond by saying "Damn, now we have to find a new excuse for hating porn!" They've made it quite clear which issue was their top priority.

2. In the past few decades, real sociological research has been performed regarding the effects of porn, yielding real data -- lots of it. Yet Wolf doesn't cite any of it. She hardly seems aware of its existence. Just like their earlier theory (porn causes rape), the Meese commission feminists have pulled this new and opposite theory straight out of the air with only anecdotal evidence to back it up. Why is anyone still listening to these clowns???

(Answer: Because there are a whole lot of people out there who passionately hate porn and desperately want to believe their bile is inspired by feminism.)

3. The thesis of Wolf's essay is that when men don't ever get to see naked women (in real life or pictures) they're just that much more desperate for the real thing.

My response: Probably true. Hell, it works in Iran and Afghanistan! I'm still trying to figure out what this has to do with feminism though...

For some real feminist analysis of porn, see Yes means yes, a feminist in favor of porn?, and Porn and me, and for some light related discussion, see Topless on the beach and An Immodest Proposal: sex on the first date?.

35 comments:

Ampersand said...

"The anti-porn feminists (remember "Porn is the theory, rape is the practice"?) have finally realized that their "porn causes rape" theory was wrong. Dead wrong. Not even close. Unfortunately, without skipping a beat they've invented a brand new theory for why porn is still evil."

Did Wolf ever agree with "porn is the theory, rape is the practice"? Did she ever argue that "porn causes rape"? I read her first two books, and I don't remember her being anti-porn.

If Wolf never agreed with the "porn causes rape" theory, then it's unfair to use her as an example of how anti-porn feminists have changed their tune. Wolf hasn't changed her tune, because she was never singing the "porn causes rape" tune in the first place. (As far as I know.)

Second of all, it's true that there is a lot of data about the effects of porn on men's attitude towards violence against women. But is there really much empirical data relating to Wolf's thesis? If there isn't -- and I suspect there isn't -- then it's not fair to criticize Wolf for not citing the nonexistent data.

(For the record, I'm not anti-porn. I'm more or less "porn neutral.")

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Ampersand!!!

Wolf indicates in the beginning of her article that she's part of the same school of feminism as Dworkin. Come to think of it, I'd be very curious to hear Dworkin's reaction to this essay. Is she planning to publically announce that she was wrong? Or perhaps silently fade into the background, passing the anti-porn baton to friends like Wolf who (as far as I know...) didn't explicity claim the porn rape connection.

Regarding the data on how porn affects people's attitudes, our socioligist friend ProfXM says:

Let’s stop pretending we all have answers and actually go to where there are answers. There are literally thousands of researchers working on these issues. And, the evidence that is available says: pornography does not make men look at women as objects or denigrate women.

and

There is a lot of bloviating going on here, but these are empirical questions. If the data doesn’t exist, fine (let me know and I’ll do the research myself). But if it does, let’s bring it to the discussion!

I'll email him and see if he can swing by and give some more extensive explanation of the evidence.

Ampersand said...

Thanks for your response. :-)

"Wolf indicates in the beginning of her article that she's part of the same school of feminism as Dworkin."

No, Wolf doesn't indicate that. She indicates that she saw Dworkin speak, not that she agrees with Dworkin about the issues.

With all due respect, they're not from the same school of feminism. Wolf is a liberal feminist who in recent years has become a bit more conservative politically (especially on sexual issues), and is comfortable working in mainstream Democratic circles.

Dworkin was a radical feminist and a radical leftist. The differences between the two are stark enough so that in the Guardian's obit for Dworkin, they used Wolf as an example of a feminist that Dworkin disagreed with. Similarly, when (many years ago) Ms Magazine did a cover article on feminists disagreeing about issues, two of the women on the cover were Wolf and Dworkin. (iirc)

If there is any evidence about Wolf's thesis, I'd certainly like to see it. For the record, though, I think your post mis-stated Wolf's thesis. Wolf stated her thesis quite clearly in the article:

"The onslaught of porn is responsible for deadening male libido in relation to real women, and leading men to see fewer and fewer women as “porn-worthy.” Far from having to fend off porn-crazed young men, young women are worrying that as mere flesh and blood, they can scarcely get, let alone hold, their attention."

So her thesis is: 1) The porn explosion makes some young men less attracted to real-life women, and 2) Some young women are worried that they cannot compete with porn.

C. L. Hanson said...

Look, she frames her argument in terms of Dworkin's movement: "She was right about the warning, wrong about the outcome."

Considering that she went to see Dworkin in person and was writing this article for a major publication, it would have been quite relevant for her to get a quote or opinion from Dworkin. But she didn't. Why?

MoJo said...

Chanson, Andrea Dworkin died 3 years ago.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey MoJo!!!

OK, well that would be a reasonable explanation for not getting a quote. Still, when was this essay first written? I recall having read it at least a year ago...

Mojo said...

I read that Naomi Wolf article a while ago and I read the same premise ampersand did: That real women can't compete and real life sex just isn't as interesting. I also think it's a valid argument.

And it's not like women don't have their own fantasy-escapist medium...

Mojo said...

Ah, yes, I see your point. It was written in 2003.

I read a lot about her because I referenced her book Intercourse in mine as a counterpoint to religion's stranglehold on sex, but I didn't realize that Naomi COULD have gotten Dworkin's opinion if she'd been inclined to give it.

Wolf and Dworkin are of two different chronological generations and of two different incarnations of feminism. I would think that Wolf's ideaological counterpart would be more Camille Paglia than Andrea Dworkin who, IMO, is a marginalized voice.

C. L. Hanson said...

I'm not saying her conclusion is necessarily false (see point #3). I question whether this is feminism. What is this golden age she's pining for when college women could expect to have sex with multiple partners and could expect XYZ reaction from men for it? (see this rather interesting article on feminine sexual entitlement).

This strikes me as a rather myopic focus on maintainting the privileges of some of the most privileged women in the world with little regard for the big picture. Women are more than half the population, and they have diverse interests, some of which conflict with the interests of other women. Feminists need to remember that.

Mojo said...

And sorry for the comment dump, but things keep occurring to me.

It will probably come as no surprise to you that I love Camille Paglia even if I don't always agree with what she says. ;)

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey MoJo!!!

You're right, that doesn't surprise me. ;^)

I have kind of mixed feelings towards Paglia. I disagree with some (not all) of what she says. At the same time, she puts a lot of taboo ideas on the table which -- whether they're ultimately right or wrong -- should at least be on the table of discussion.

ProfXM said...

I really can't speak to the feminism debate (whether Dworkin and Wolf agree, disagree, etc.), but the claim about pornography is one that should be subjected to empirical investigation.

As Wolf admits (seemingly reluctantly), the empirical evidence does not support a connection between viewing pornography and sexual aggression or debasing of women - the original claim of some feminists.

Wolf's new claim is actually almost the complete opposite: viewing pornography reduces sexual interest (not quite aggression, but related), particularly sexual interest in having sex with real people. A brief literature review does not result in any empirical articles specifically addressing this issue, at least that I can find.

But you can critique Wolf's assertion on a number of points. First, considering some feminists originally claimed pornography increased sexual aggression, I find it absolutely hilarious that they are now claiming the opposite, or at least something mostly opposite to what they originally claimed. This, to me, is a major indicator that these feminists are 100% removed from empirical reality: they don't actually gather data to test their theories, they just spout off their theories. Until Wolf has empirical data - beyond her few anecdotes - I am not at all inclined to believe her.

What's more, the studies that indicate pornography use does not increase aggression actually do address this claim indirectly: In many of these studies there is no significant increase OR DECREASE in sexual aggression/sexual interest as a result of watching pornography. While that does not specifically address the claim of sexual interest in "live" sexual partners, it does indicate that pornography use doesn't decrease libido.

Finally, there is evidence that introducing pornography into a relationship can actually improve the quality of sex and the frequency. Many therapists actually recommend pornography for couples experiencing a decreased sexual interest (e.g., Lust, Impotence, Porn. Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies, 2006, Vol. 27 Issue 1, p21-31, 11p)

In short, Wolf is bloviating without data. That's unwarranted! If she wants to make a claim like this she should put together the data then make her claim. Here are the possible studies:
(1) Correlational study between rate of pornography consumption and frequency of actual intercourse. If Wolf is right, then the more often someone views pornography, the less frequently they will have sexual intercourse. However, this is only correlational and does not support her claim that it is causational as there is a better alternative explanation: Guys and girls who can't get laid are more likely to use pornography to gratify themselves. Ergo, the true cause is most likely lack of sexual intercourse and not vice versa. However, if there is no correlation here at all, then there is no reason to do the second study.
(2) Second study: Recruit sexually active couples. Track their frequency of sexual intercourse over several months, but restrict them from watching any pornography. You could also ask them to rate how good the sex is - it's subjective, but why not? Then provide them with independent sources of pornography (some for him, some for her) that they are to watch X times per week separately. Then track their frequency of intercourse while watching porn and rate their quality of sex. If the frequency and/or quality declines as a result of the pornography use, Wolf is right.

My hypothesis: Frequency and quality go up with the introduction of pornography. As I said above, Wolf has no business spouting theories without evidence to back them up. If you have a theory, test it. Otherwise, it's just an opinion, and one not based on the existing evidence to boot!

Mojo said...

This:

Guys and girls who can't get laid are more likely to use pornography to gratify themselves. Ergo, the true cause is most likely lack of sexual intercourse and not vice versa.

IMO, this hits the nail on the head.

Now, as to the argument that porn creates (or exacerbates) within the minds of real women a problem with body image and the feeling that they can't compete, I will never NOT believe that to be true.

Chanson, I read that article you linked on female sexual entitlement and found it interesting. I was a little kid in the 70s, so I can't speak from direct observation.

C. L. Hanson said...

Thanks ProfXM!!!

Even if she was just throwing this out as an idea, it's apparently been circulating for five years -- plenty long enough to start gathering evidence as to whether there's something to this.

C. L. Hanson said...

Re: Now, as to the argument that porn creates (or exacerbates) within the minds of real women a problem with body image and the feeling that they can't compete, I will never NOT believe that to be true.

I essentially agree about women getting this impression, but that's not the same as saying that in men's minds live women can't compete. (Guys can weigh in on this...)

OTOH, I think it's likely that there really are men who are stupid and inconsiderate (potentially emotionally abusive) enough to tell their mates directly that they can't compete with porn (or that they can't compete with models, starlets, his sainted previous girlfriend, etc.).

As a crazy feminist purist, though, I just want to say: don't base your whole self-worth on what some idiot thinks of you!!! I know it's not that simple, but I'm serious. Feminism should ideally be about convincing women that they have bigger dreams than snagging a man; that if you have a man, your opinion of him is at least as important as his opinion of you; if he treats you like crap, then grow a feminist spine and DTMFA.

C. L. Hanson said...

p.s. to MoJo:

I really liked the fact that in your book you had (at least) one of the male characters appreciate a female character's "love goddess" (far from anorexic) form, finding her incredibly sexy (even though her assessment of her own body was more negative). And you had her be confident and powerful overall. IMHO very realistic and positive.

Mojo said...

Thanks. Actually, though I didn't emphasize it too much, female #1 struggled with her weight (picky eating habits) had always struggled and yet she had her lifelong on-again-off-again relationship with the male #3, who A) didn't notice and B) didn't care.

It was really important to me that female #1 struggle and to emphasize her struggle; that female #2 know how to fake it regardless how she felt about herself; and that female #3 not have any issues at all because, well, she didn't think it was important. I tried to present a variety there.

I don't mean to hijack the purpose of this post for that, but yes, female body issues are very important to me. IMO, porn hasn't been the major contributor to that; Madison Avenue, Seventeen magazine, and music videos, et al, have been. However, with the increasing pervasiveness of porn, I do believe it will become MORE of an issue than it has been in the past.

The other problem is that these attitudes filter down and infect girls at earlier and earlier ages, which is maddening and just really...sad. Can't think of any other word. They grow normally, but they think they're fat or somehow inferior/ugly because of it. They grow breasts and hips and bam...there goes their self-esteem for good.

I have TWO friends who are ex-strippers and the tales they tell of what they had to do to look like that in real life are horrifying. Looking like that is a full-time job in itself.

/ramble

Joe said...

proxfm, you mixed several items into the "decrease" category. In fact, dozens of studies have found a statistically significant decrease in sexual aggression as the result of viewing erotica.

C. L. Hanson said...

MoJo -- it's not a thread-jack, the effect of the media on sexual attitudes is one of the main subjects here.

Again, I'm a bit of an idealist, but I like to respond to negative speech with more/better speech. Stories like you've written are part of the solution. Even if I don't agree 100% with some of your characters' sexual attitudes, I find it very feminist on a (more important) meta level: Women vary widely, and when it comes to sexuality, there's more than one way to go about it. Your characters' attitudes seem plausible and real, and I like to see a range of portraits of interesting women. :D

Hey Joe!!!

That sounds interesting -- do you have links to these studies or a synopsis?

ProfXM said...

Joe, good point. I did mix "decrease sexual aggression" with "decrease sexual interest." That wasn't my intention. From your cursory comment I think what you are saying is that some of the studies do actually suggest that watching porn reduces sexual aggression. If that is true, and it appears to be, then encouraging the consumption of non-violent porn may actually be a good treatment for sexual aggression. Of course, encouraging porn consumption opens a whole new can of worms...

On a different issue - body image. I'm not an expert on this, so don't take this as an expert/academic position, but I agree with Penn Jillette (of all people) on this: I don't care if you're thin (not too thin - yuck) or have some curves (not obese - yuck); what I want is someone who is confident enough with her body to feel sexy. There is no bigger turn off to me (even with the super-thin or the super-fat) than someone who is insecure with her body. I can't extrapolate from a sample of 2 (me and Penn Jillette) to all men, but I think most heterosexual men (and probably homosexual men) would probably agree: If I have a partner who really believes I want to have sex with her because she is as hot as she is, then I'll want to have sex with her. Inversely, if I have the most amazing super-model as a partner and all she talks about is how terrible her body is, I won't be interested at all. The last thing I want during sex is to play the role of self-confidence boosting therapist! My non-expert, personal opinion.

Ampersand said...

First, considering some feminists originally claimed pornography increased sexual aggression, I find it absolutely hilarious that they are now claiming the opposite, or at least something mostly opposite to what they originally claimed. This, to me, is a major indicator that these feminists are 100% removed from empirical reality...

It's ironic that you're criticizing others for not basing their points on empirical reality, when as far as I can tell, your first few paragraphs are based on fiction.

Who are these feminists you're talking about? The ones who "originally claimed pornography increased sexual aggression" but "are now claiming the opposite"? Can you name even one major feminist writer who at one time argued that porn use increases rape prevalence, but at a later time changed his or her position ato Wolf's?

Wolf, as far as I know, never argued that porn use is correlated with rape. Nor has any other significant feminist writer, that I'm aware of.

It's disturbing how a few of the people here on this forum feel free to make accusations and claims without backing them up with facts.

Ampersand said...

I wrote:

"Wolf, as far as I know, never argued that porn use is correlated with rape. Nor has any other significant feminist writer, that I'm aware of."

Whoops!

Of course, several major feminist writers, such as Dworkin, have argued that porn use increases rape prevalence. What I intended to say was that I'm unaware of any major feminist writer who used to argue that porn increases rape, but later on switched to Wolf's position.

Joe said...

The studies finding an inverse relationship between porn and rape go back decades. Several recent studies have reinforced these. Doing a cursory search on Google, you can start with:

http://www.slate.com/id/2152487/

Several years ago, I read a very good overview of these studies by a female professor. Unfortunately, I don't remember who it was nor do I have a link.

Joe said...

profxm, you can raise your sampling to three since I feel the same way. The single biggest romantic killer is when my wife starts complaining about how she looks. (Hearing women whine about their looks is one of the great annoyances of life.)

Aerin said...

I'm a little disappointed by Wolf's essay, I read Misconceptions before I got pregnant. Throughout that work, she cited study after study as well as shared experiences from herself and many women. I don't agree with all of her points in that book, but I felt it was an important work and important subject matter.

So it's hard to believe she would write something with just a "it feels to me, from talking with a handful of college age women..." -

On the other hand, this reminds me a lot of her book "Promescuities" (I think I've misspelled that) - I'm not sure if I have it around my house anymore, I'll look for it. In that book, she talks about the hyper-sexualization of teenage girls. Some of what she says makes sense - I think she made a point about leather pants for a 11 year old...is that really necessary?

In other words, I don't really understand her argument in this piece. It doesn't fit (to me) with her other work.

ProfXM said...

Ampersand, let me quote from a recently published article, "More recent feminist theorizing (e.g., Dworkin, 1988; Hill, 1987; MacKinnon, 1986; Millett, 1970; Morgan, 1980; Russell, 1998) argued that virtually all sexually explicit material has detrimental effects on women. In contrast, other feminists (e.g., Steinem, 1998; Tong, 1989) distinguished between pornography that is erotic and sexually stimulating for both men and women, and pornography that contains images of women that are degrading and objectifying.
Although certain feminist perspectives (e.g., Boyle, 2000; Brownmiller, 1975; Dworkin, 1988; Hill, 1987; MacKinnon, 1986) argue that exposure to pornography leads men to develop hostile beliefs about and behavior toward women, empirical analyses of the relationship between pornography use and men’s attitudes toward women convey an equivocal picture. There appears to be little evidence that men’s exposure to nonviolent sexually explicit material is related to their attitudes toward women (Demare, Lips, & Briere, 1993; Gray, 1982; Linz, 1989). In fact, a few studies (e.g., Baron, 1990; Davies, 1997) have found that increased pornography use was associated with more favorable attitudes toward women."

The above comes from: Garos, Sheila, James K. Beggan, Annette Kluck, and Amanda Easton. 2004. “Sexism and Pornography Use: Toward Explaining Past (Null) Results.” Journal of Psychology & Human Sexuality 16:69-97.

I can't really say that the feminists advocating the initial position (porn leads to rape and debasement of women) are now changing THEIR position to Wolf's. Frankly, I think that's a tangential argument. What it seems like to me is that the feminists who oppose porn are changing their rationale for opposing it. If all those feminists don't deserve to be painted with one very broad brush, my bad. But considering they have the same goal, I don't think it's unreasonable to group them together.

C. L. Hanson said...

More to the point: Can you find me an example of a prominent feminist who opposed porn (on the basis that it caused hostile beliefs/behavoir towards women) and who -- as the contrary evidence began pouring in -- urged her followers to reconsider their position on porn?

As far as I can see, the base of the feminist anti-porn movement is still marching in the same direction even if there's some shuffling at the head to make it easier to say "we don't teach that -- that was more a couplet than anything else..." when confronted with evidence that their earlier rationale was wrong.

Mojo said...

"we don't teach that -- that was more a couplet than anything else..."

Spew alert, please!

Barry Deutsch said...

(This is Ampersand again, using a different account.)

Profxm, you don't have to convince me. I researched the academic literature on this question years ago, and came away convinced that there is no convincing empirical evidence supporting the "porn leads to rape" position.

"I can't really say that the feminists advocating the initial position (porn leads to rape and debasement of women) are now changing THEIR position to Wolf's. Frankly, I think that's a tangential argument."

It wasn't tangental to the original post; in fact, the original post was far more about this fiction shift in feminists' positions, than it was about whether or not Dworkin's position was supported by empirical evidence. But thank you for admitting that you can't name a feminist who switched positions.

"What it seems like to me is that the feminists who oppose porn are changing their rationale for opposing it."

I know I'm sounding like a broken record, but what "it seems like to" you isn't meaningful unless you actually can cite some evidence. As far as I can tell, you just don't see anything wrong with making up stuff that just isn't true about feminists, even though you just admitted that you can't actually support your claim with a single fact.

And you're wrong. MacKinnon hasn't changed her rationale; neither has Diane Russel. Neither did Dworkin, before she passed away. They've all stuck to their guns.

You're assuming that because the empirical evidence is against these folks, they've changed their positions. But the evidence has been against them for decades, and they haven't changed their positions; why would they start now?

"If all those feminists don't deserve to be painted with one very broad brush, my bad. But considering they have the same goal, I don't think it's unreasonable to group them together."

They have hugely different goals. MacKinnon and Dworkins' goal was to use the law to fight porn (through the antiporn tort they tried to get passed). That's a form of censorship, in my opinion.

While Wolf argues that porn has negative effects, she doesn't support laws designed to reduce porn's availability.

You can be critical of porn, or believe that it has bad effects, without being in favor of censorship. To imply there's no notable difference between a pro-censorship position, and a position that isn't pro-censorship, isn't reasonable.

Barry Deutsch said...

"Can you find me an example of a prominent feminist who opposed porn (on the basis that it caused hostile beliefs/behavoir towards women) and who -- as the contrary evidence began pouring in -- urged her followers to reconsider their position on porn?"

I don't know of any. As I just said (we cross-posted), as far as I can tell most of the feminists from the MacKinnon/Dworkin school are absolutely committed to those beliefs.

But you're shifting the goal-posts (exactly what you accuse feminists of doing!). Your original post didn't claim that anti-porn feminists have stuck to their positions despite the evidence; it said that they're shifted to a new position in response to the evidence, and that Wolf was an example of such a feminist.

But Wolf is not, and never was, in the same camp of feminism as Dworkin. And as far as I know, she never supported the Dworkin/MacKinnon arguments about porn; or if she did, she was never particularly vocal about it.

In particular, I think that the policy differences -- between calling for a form of censorship, versus not calling for censorship -- are important enough so that they shouldn't be overlooked or grouped together.

C. L. Hanson said...

Read the article. It starts with In the beginning of feminist analysis of porn, there was Dworkin. Her theories were in some ways wrong in substance, but right on in spirit...

Then Wolf skips straight to her new theory. Not a whisper of a hint of "Hey, this is an empirical question, so let's look at what the evidence has to say," or any reference to any other theories or schools of thought on the matter. Thus she implies some sort of continuity of the movement or of the school of thought or both.

mxracer652 said...

That Wolf essay made me throw up in my mouth a little.

Does vividly recalling a sexual encounter in my imagination count as porn? Watching others while engaged in group sex? Why/why not?

It appears to me that she's got a thing for controlling male sexuality.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey MXRacer!!!

Yeah, I have kind of the same reaction...

cdavis said...

You said dredging up old posts was OK…

Just thought you might - a propos your musings on correlations between repressive societies and rape - be interested in this paper: http://moses.creighton.edu/JRS/2005/2005-11.html

The paper's title is 'Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies'. It doesn't deal with rape specifically, but I think you might infer some correlates from the data on teenage pregnancy, abortion and STDs - in the same vein as inferring some kinds of repression with religiosity. I leave it to you.

With best wishes for your continuing good works.

CD

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey CDavis!!!

Thanks for the link! I've seen this paper around -- it's quite an interesting study! :D