Antipornography Feminism: An Antithesis to Intersectionality

In an age where pornography has been labeled as a public health crisis, anti-pornography feminism has received a resurgence in popularity. Antipornography feminism sees pornography as another destructive element of the patriarchy, describing all pornography as degrading and dangerous to women.

Antipornography feminism, however, has a long history of compromising minority feminist interests in lieu of waging a ruthless war against sexual obscenity and objectification. Northwestern professor Jennifer Nash argues that antipornography feminists are quick to argue that racialized pornography depicts black women as racial and sexual “others,” supporting the anti-pornography argument “under the guise of racial progressivism,” often without considering input from women of color themselves. Additionally, antipornography feminism perpetuates the invisibility of heterosexuality within feminist discourse. In prominent anti-pornography feminist Gail Dines’ 2010 Pornland, the word “heterosexuality” isn’t even used once. By interpreting “heterosexuality” as a given element of sexuality, antipornography feminism labels homosexuality as an “other." The history of obscenity law and its relationship to antipornography feminism further illustrates this point.

Long before feminism waged its war against pornography, the battle against obscene media was fought in the courts. Unfortunately, these legal wars often waged direct attacks on lesbian women under the guise of Christian decency. The Supreme Court decision in Roth v. United States, for example, found that obscenity could be judged by whether the material “to the average person…appeals to prurient interest.” Buried in the footnotes of the Roth decision, Justice Brennan cited a darker purpose behind his obscenity definition. Noting that “prurience” depended on “morbid” longings Brennan made a clear anti-gay sentiment -- “morbidity” was often used to describe lesbian desire.

Other judicial action offered clearer evidence of a correlation between obscenity legislation and anti-gay sentiments. In 1927, a New York obscenity law was amended to include provisions against “sex degeneracy or perversion” – clear references, according to historian Andrea Friedman, to homosexuality.

By the 1970s, anti-pornography feminism, spearheading the obscenity crusade, linked arms with the rising conservative right. In 1984, prominent anti-pornography feminists Catharine McKinnon and Andrea Dworkin joined forces with an anti-ERA activist in Indianapolis to pass a law that defined pornography as a violation of women’s civil rights. The law, igniting First Amendment concerns, was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court within a year of its passage.  In a sharp departure from the women’s liberation movement, feminists like Dworkin and McKinnon were now sharing anti-pornography sentiments with conservative figures like Phyllis Schlafly (a prominent voice in the crusade against the Equal Rights Amendment) and Ronald Reagan.

Lesbian women expressed concerns in the face of the feminist fight against obscenity. Their concerns were justified by years of discriminatory obscenity laws that held lesbian media to a much higher standard of propriety than heterosexual media. Women Against Pornography (WAP), bolstering a claim that they were an organization for all feminists, dismissed lesbian concerns with a bold statement, assuring lesbian women that obscenity laws were really in their best interest because “‘rapists and murderers do not distinguish’ between gay and straight women.”

Between the women’s liberation movement in the 1970s and the rise of anti-pornography feminism a decade later, the country began to move away from a new doctrine of gender equality and move back towards a doctrine of gender difference. The efforts of groups like WAP, however, were attracting women from all shades of political opinion, rapidly gaining popularity with the rise of the conservative right (Echols, 2016).

Feminists supportive of the antipornography movement might find themselves wondering why a political alliance with the religious right might be have been a bad thing for women. After all, pornography has been linked to everything from perpetuating rape culture to sex trafficking. However, when anti-pornography feminists have united with the right in the past, an intersectional approach to the pornography problem is lost in lieu of political victory. Future solutions to issues related to pornography should be wary of anti-pornography feminism's tendency to disregard the concerns of minority feminisms and instead should seek a more intersectional approach. 


Sources: 1

Though other sources are linked above, the following academic sources contributed to this piece and are linked where they apply: 


Echols, A. (2016). Retrospective: Tangled Up in Pleasure and Danger. Signs: Journal of Women  

in Society and Culture, 11-22

Nash, J. C. (2008). Strange Bedfellows: Black Feminism and Antipornography Feminism. Social

Text,  51-76.

Strub, W. (2010). LAVENDER, MENACED: Lesbianism, Obscenity Law, and the Feminist

Antipornography Movement. Journal of Women's History, 22(2), 83-107.

Thompson, J. D. (2015). Invisible and everywhere: Heterosexuality in anti-pornography

feminism. Sexualities, 18, 750-764.