Feminism and Pornography

The following paper concerns itself with feminism and pornography. An aspect of erotica that I studies for my dissertation.

Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality, Volume 12, May 11,



Feminism and Pornography:

Building Sensitive Research and Analytic Approaches

Natalie Purcell

A few years ago, an interdisciplinary group of graduate students and faculty formed the Feminism and

Pornography Research Cluster at UC Santa Cruz. Since then, we’ve investigated the relationship of

pornography to feminism through intense research and collective reading practices. In this essay, I will

use the experience of the Research Cluster to reflect on existing literature about pornography and

controversial sexual expression. With an eye toward building critical yet sensitive research agendas, I

will interrogate how feminists have examined and talked about pornography. Specifically, I’ll look at

how their personal stakes and emotional investments have shaped what gets studied and ignored, how

findings are interpreted and reported, and how pornography researchers communicate and fail to

communicate with one another.

I’m going to start with a review of existing literature on the psychosocial impacts of pornography and

of its repression. This literature is a highly charged, politically oriented literature. Often,

disagreements among those who study pornography are not only scholarly disagreements. They are

political and they are personal. Most feminists working on pornography experience pressure to “take a

side.” A researcher, whether she intends it or not, will probably be classified by her fellow feminists as

either a defender or a critic of pornography. Efforts at etching a middle ground and efforts to achieve

some form of “neutrality” have been few and far between, and they have been mostly unsuccessful in

breaking the discursive norms of what is a largely bifurcated debate.

After I summarize the findings of this literature and note some of the trends I’ve observed in both

camps, I will try to answer a few related questions about the legacy of feminist research on


Why has this literature been so roundly criticized as too emotional, too biased, and not very

scholarly? Are these criticisms fair?

Why has the debate about pornography been such a polarizing debate for feminists? How and

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why did we end up with two opposed factions?

What does this legacy suggest about the prospects of contemporary feminist research on


I will close my presentation by stressing the continuing importance of research on pornography, and by

suggesting how we might engage in this research in more sensitive and responsive ways. These

strategies, I will argue, have the potential to take us beyond the dichotomous terms of the existing


If you’ve read any sex wars literature—from personal manifestos to standard quantitative

analyses—you probably know that investigations of pornography are seldom divorced from strong

feelings. When reading, for instance, Diana Russell’s Against Pornography (1993a), you learn about

more than the percentages of women who are victimized in sexual assaults, or the statistical correlation

between exposure to violent pornography and attitudes toward sexual aggression. You learn also,

whether Dr. Russell intends it or not, about her personal readings of pornographic texts and her

visceral reactions to them. You learn whether this material provokes similar feelings for you. You learn

whether Dr. Russell’s analysis makes you want to protest in front of the Hustler Club, sign up with the

ACLU, or subscribe to Playboy. Because this literature is so unfailingly provocative and affectively-

charged, it hasn’t always been taken seriously. It has been easy to dismiss findings with which one

disagrees by charging that they are the product of the researcher’s personal bias or are a mere

reflection of her own emotional reactions to pornographic texts.

I would not deny, on the basis of my own review of the literature, that affective orientations and

emotional reactions have played a large part in the choice of research objects and subjects, the design

of research methodologies, the interpretation of conflicting data, and the development of theory around

pornography. I would deny, however, that this indicates excessively biased, unscholarly work worthy

of dismissal. There are three reasons for this: First, feminists’ affective orientations and emotional

reactions around pornography are not mere epiphenomena when it comes to pornography; they are

among the significant psychosocial impacts of pornography that warrant serious analysis (cf. Ahmed

2004 on the materiality of affect). Second, emotional reactions to pornography and to research about

pornography are rooted in the actual and perceived stakes of the debate. They are tied to identified

consequences of pornography and of its repression (cf. Barad 2007 on tracing the material stakes of

discursive phenomena). Third, feminists have made many substantive and analytically rigorous

contributions to the study of the production, dissemination, and consumption of pornography, and they

have traced many apparent and less apparent, direct and indirect, psychological and social

consequences of pornography and of its repression.

Let’s begin, then, with a brief review of these findings and with the divergent claims made by the

opponents and the supporters of pornography. Note 1

Anti-pornography feminists and other researchers have outlined the following psychosocial effects of


Mainstream pornography consistently utilizes gender-based stereotypes of male dominance and

female submission (Cornell 2000b; Dworkin 2000; Jensen 2007; MacKinnon 2000b; Russell

1993a) . It makes frequent use of language and behaviors widely considered abusive and

directed almost exclusively toward women (Jensen 2007) . The most popular material is replete

with practices that would be deemed violent, degrading, humiliating, and expressive of contempt

or hostility in any other context.

Controversial research suggests that there is a relationship between men’s exposure to violent or

degrading pornography and their attitudes toward and propensity to commit acts of sexual

violence against women (Russell 1993a; Russell 1993b; Russell 1998; Russell 2000; Silbert and

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Pines 1993) . There is some evidence that regular exposure to violent or degrading pornography

is one of a multitude of factors that contribute to feelings of hostility or contempt toward

women, normalize sexual violence, and may thereby reduce psychosocial barriers to committing

sexual violence.

Regardless of whether there is a demonstrated relationship between pornography and sexual

violence, the prevalence of this material is inseparable from a broader culture of misogyny and

sexism; it both relies on and reinforces this culture (Cameron and Frazer 2000; Dworkin 2000b;

MacKinnon 2000b) . Pornography and the gender norms and sexual practices it represents are

not insignificant factors in socializing attitudes and identities, and the prevalence of misogynistic

attitudes is something that affects the security, happiness, self-esteem, and relationships of all

women in misogynistic cultures.

Historically, sex-work industries include high levels of coercion and often-dangerous working

conditions (Levy 2005; McNeil and Osborne 2005). Some scholars also report a high incidence

of drug and alcohol abuse among pornography performers and other sex workers; high rates of

prior rape, sexual abuse, and/or incest; and a trend of prior underage careers in illicit sex work.

These, as you can see, are very serious charges, most of which are backed up by empirical research

and controversial theoretical defenses. Most anti-pornography feminists believe that the risks involved

in the production, consumption, and dissemination of mainstream pornography far outweigh the risks

posed by regulating and publicly criticizing it. Thus, their (much analyzed and often criticized)

outrage, disgust, fear, and despair in relation to pornography are not only orientations toward

pornography; they are also substantive reflections of and responses to what they believe pornography

is and does—to the woman who encounters it, to those who use it, and to those who live in a culture

where it is prevalent. Taking seriously divergent claims about what pornography is and does must be a

part of analyzing the emotional charge and the rhetorical tactics of anti-pornography literature and


The same should be said of work by feminists who criticize the anti-pornography position.

“Sex-positive” or “sex-radical” feminists argue that far greater harm is done in restricting production

of or access to pornography and in publicly criticizing the sexual practices of others. They identify the

following risks associated with the public criticism of pornography:

Criticizing pornography perpetuates a sense of shame around sex and around women’s own

sexual fantasies or practices (Hollibaugh 2000; Ross 2000; Royalle 2000) . To label

pornographic media misogynistic is to ignore the fact that many women enjoy pornography that

other women find degrading or sexist. By objecting to the sexual practices portrayed in

pornography or agreeing with an analysis that labels them degrading, we are perpetuating the

idea that women’s bodies and sexual encounters are dirty, disgusting, or shameful.

Inviting the state to regulate sexual representations in the name of a greater good is dangerous

for several reasons (Hollibaugh 2000; Ross 2000; Strossen 2000) . First, it perpetuates the idea

that women are victims in their relationships with men and need the protection of the state.

Second, state intervention in such matters has consistently resulted in discrimination against

non-normative sexualities. Third, state intervention could result in the repression of the

pornographic materials that women produce or want to see.

Criticism of pornography or of any consensual sexual practice could result in the judgment,

marginalization, or even criminalization of sexual subcultures (Hollibaugh 2000; Ross 2000;

Sprinkle 2006) .

Criticisms of pornography—and especially feminist efforts to regulate or eliminate

representations of violent sex or sex that reiterates male/female stereotypes—only ensure that

such fantasies will remain forbidden and all the more tempting (Brown 2000; Butler 2000) .

Listening to and evaluating these arguments should be a part of the feminist conversation on

pornography. Listening reveals, at the very least, that women on different sides of the issue have real

stakes in the outcomes and consequences of the pornography debates. It reveals also that how we feel

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about pornography—the emotions and affective orientations it generates for us—are tied to our

perceptions of what pornography actually does or what the repression of pornography does.

In evaluating these claims, did you find yourself sympathetic to arguments on both sides of the debate?

Did you feel that the side you tend not to identify with makes some important points? If so, then you’d

probably agree that those points ought to be taken into consideration in your own research or the

research of those on both sides. Unfortunately, this kind of listening is exactly what’s missing in

research on pornography. A review of the literature suggests that most outspoken researchers and

activists take the substantive points and claims of their opponents seriously only when they don’t feel

that their own cause is excessively threatened. Here are some of the trends I’ve noticed in literature on


Defining or operationalizing pornography in a manner that ignores the claims of one’s


Collapsing the positions of the opposition into single extremist stance and pretending that stance

is representative.

Completely ignoring the claims of harm articulated by the other side or dismissing the evidence

for those claims outright.

Attributing the positions of the other side exclusively to emotional reactions on the part of

individual researchers or theorists.

I want to go into a little more depth on each of these, beginning with the first:

(1) Defining and/or operationalizing pornography in a manner that ignores the claims of one’s


Pornography is not a static or singular cultural object. Yet, since the dawn of the sex wars, many

anti-pornography feminists have tried to circumscribe the definition of pornography and to cast it as

something diametrically opposed to non-degrading “erotica.” Consider Diana Russell’s definition of

pornography as “material that combines sex and/or the exposure of genitals with abuse or degradation

in a manner that appears to endorse, condone, or encourage such behavior” (Russell 1993a: 48) .

Dworkin’s and MacKinnon’s definition is even more succinct: for them, pornography is “the graphic,

sexually explicit subordination of women” (Dworkin 2000a: 29) . But to create such a strict ahistorical

definition of pornography is to turn a blind eye to non-heterosexual pornographies and to the efforts of

feminists like Candida Royalle who have appropriated the term and worked to change the meaning and

substance of the pornographic. Moreover, because so many anti-pornography feminists built their

critiques into their definitions of pornography, any challenge to those definitions could (and did)

become a near-devastating blow to their critiques.

By the same token, sex-positive feminists’ attacks on others’ efforts to define pornography are

dangerous when they become refusals to acknowledge that anti-pornography feminists really are

talking about something: the representational forms and practices they criticize and perhaps too hastily

and stubbornly define have a substantive presence and, as such, have real and by no means singular

impacts on women. Rejecting any operational definition by default is no less stubborn and no more

open to the opposition than is the imposition of a strict, ahistorical definition.

I say this to emphasize the complex issues surrounding the operationalization of variables in

controversial sexuality research. Sometimes, our definitions can determine in advance what we will

find and what we’ll ignore. This, in turn, affects the political orientation of our research and determines

the constituencies to whom we make ourselves intelligible and accountable.

(2) Collapsing the positions of the opposition into single extremist stance

In both camps, I’ve observed the oversimplification of the other side’s position, and the move to

characterize all members of the opposing camp in terms that really represent only the most extreme

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voices (and sometimes not even those voices). For instance, many sex-positive texts label

anti-pornography feminists as “gender-essentialist.” The latter are accused of positing an idealized,

innocent, and victimized femininity, which they place in binary opposition to a demonized, aggressive

masculinity. While I am certain that some of the feminists who oppose or criticize pornography take

essentialist positions, this is by no means the mantra of the movement, and the establishment of these

binary gender roles is generally what they criticize pornography for doing. Strong social-constructivist

positions are much more common than essentialist positions among anti-pornography feminists, but

you would never know this if you’ve read only how sex-positive literatures characterize the

anti-pornography position (Dworkin 1991; MacKinnon 2000a: 172) . Sex-positive literatures also tend

to label anti-pornography feminists as “pro-censorship” (cf. Williams 1999) . But some are opposed to

censorship in all its forms and are instead interested in working to reshape demand by promoting

media literacy and fostering greater sensitivity to violent or misogynistic representations of women

(Simonton 2008a; Simonton 2008b) .

On the other side, anti-pornography activists accuse sex-positive or sex-radical feminists of supporting

all forms of sexual expression regardless of their impact on the individuals involved. In fact,

sex-radical feminists draw their own lines and many support freedom of sexual expression only among

consenting adults. What these examples illustrate is a tendency to consolidate the views of the

opposing camp into a single extremist position, which can then be dismissed as unserious at best or

outrageous at worst.

(3) Completely ignoring the claims of harm articulated by the other side.

As we saw, feminist critics and defenders of pornography do not simply make sweeping

condemnations or offer uncritical celebrations. Instead, each side makes empirically-supported and

theoretically persuasive arguments based on harms that they have identified as consequences of

pornography on the one hand, and the repression of pornography on the other hand. The evidence that

supports these claims of harm tends, however, to be completely ignored or dismissed by those on the

other side of the fence.

A review of the literature turns up countless examples. In an effort to establish a solid political

platform and to name (what they see as) the overwhelming harms associated with mainstream

pornography, feminist critics of pornography consistently fail to acknowledge the threats of sexual

repression and shaming associated with the regulation of pornography. When they do acknowledge

them, it is from a defensive stance and with the intent to minimize them or deny their veracity. In

seminal works, both MacKinnon and Dworkin tend to write as though there is no opposition, no

conflict within feminism. Both claim to speak about and for “women as a class” (Dworkin 2000a:

26,32,29). Ignoring the claims of many sex workers and their advocates, Dworkin assumes that a

woman’s self-expression or speech in pornography is always her “pimp’s” speech (Dworkin 2000a:

32). Likewise, in comparing the production of all pornography to child pornography and in labeling all

filmed depictions of rape as cases of actual rape, MacKinnon neatly sidesteps questions of consent and

will (MacKinnon 2000b: 111). As such, she ironically ignores the protests of the women whose

speech, she argues, was ignored in the making of pornography.

The other side hasn’t done much better. Instead of, for instance, admitting the challenges posed by data

correlating exposure to violent pornography with propensity toward sexual violence, most have simply

dismissed the data as the bogus product of biased research. Personal testimonies in particular are

ignored or scoffed at, when they are some of the best data we have yet on the psychosocial effects of


(4) Attributing the positions of the other side exclusively to emotional reactions on the part of

individual researchers.

They’re not called the “sex wars” for nothing. Ad hominem charges and outright dismissals of “the

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other side” have been common. Drucilla Cornell has noted the regular use of sexual shaming and

ridicule to dismiss or vilify the opposition (Cornell 2000a) . Just as MacKinnon accused women who

opposed her efforts of collaborating with the oppressors, so critics of anti-pornography feminism have

repeatedly claimed that Dworkin, MacKinnon, and their supporters merely reproduce the pornography

they criticize or are “obsessed” with violent pornography because it really turns them on (Bright 1995;

Brown 2000: 210; Hollibaugh 2000: 456) . This discursive violence has produced a conversation of

offense and defense, of attack and counter-attack, where openness to the opposition is almost


So what do we make of these trends in feminist conversations about pornography? Is this simply

evidence of feminists behaving badly? Not exactly. I’m going to argue that what seems like bad

behavior is often rooted in real cognizance of what is at stake for at least some of the players in these

debates. And I’m going to make that argument by way of a short anecdote.

Let’s transport ourselves for a moment back to 1981, when these debates were just taking form. This

year, anti-pornography feminists made a roundly-criticized documentary about the effects of

pornography. This documentary was called Not a Love Story, and it included feminists’ personal

testimonials about the impact of pornography on their own lives. For instance, the film shows

anti-pornography activist Robin Morgan breaking down in tears as she describes her feelings about

pornography and mourns the absence of a more gentle, sensitive mode of sexual expression. Upon its

release, many sex-positive feminists attacked Not a Love Story as absurd and pathetic. Laura Kipnis,

for instance, characterized its anti-pornography sentiment as a classist and puritanical effort to

“remove the distasteful from the sight of society” (Kipnis 1996: 139 in Paasonen 2007: 54) . Kipnis

mocked the feminist testimonials in the documentary film, and she saved some of her harshest words

for Robin Morgan. Scoffing dismissively at Morgan’s tears, Kipnis calls them “the only publicly

permissible display of body fluids” (Kipnis 1996: 137-40). Here, Kipnis reads Morgan’s tears as

expressions of bourgeois disgust, signifiers of her compulsion to regulate the sexual expression of

others. In this reading, the harm that Morgan names—the hurt that she struggles to articulate—is

defensively ignored by a feminist who rejects her agenda.

Why react that way? Is Kipnis just being gratuitously mean? Is she incapable of seeing that maybe

Robin Morgan has a point? That maybe there are sexual possibilities foreclosed by the prevalence of

mainstream pornography? I don’t think we can simply attribute Kipnis’s reaction to nastiness or

ignorance. To understand Kipnis’s reaction, we need to understand what she believes is at stake in the

aftermath of the documentary. In truth, the anti-pornography activist and her public tears represent, in

the eyes of many sex radicals, a concrete and ominous threat. For many lesbians, gay men, queer

people, and others, anti-pornography feminists’ criticism of other people’s sexual practices is narrow-

minded and irresponsible (Hollibaugh 2000; Ross 2000) . In particular, their attempts to use state

intervention and coalition-building with the right-wing in the name of protecting women from

pornography could be a profoundly dangerous strategy (Ross 2000: 293) . State legislation restricting

and repressing the sexual expressions and representations of women, and lesbian women in particular,

has a long and violent history. In this context, Robin Morgan and her collaborators look more like

aggressors than victims. Kipnis’s reactions starts to look less like a nasty attack and more like a smart


Refusing to respond openly to Morgan’s pain is a reasonable reaction to the threats she poses, but it

clearly forecloses other interpretive possibilities. Morgan’s tears, after all, are notonly a manipulative

political strategy or an expression of false bourgeois consciousness. What if we read Morgan’s tears as

expressive of real hurt, rooted not only in the shame of a middle-class morality but also in the repeated

depiction and performance of misogyny and sexual aggression that Morgan herself names as the

culprit? Even if we disagree on the multidimensional sources of Morgan’s pain, can we read her tears

as a display of her hurt and vulnerability, as a sign of her courage in publicly confessing these feelings,

and as an indication of the substantial stakes of the pornography debates? For sex-positive feminists,

what are the risks of reading Morgan’s confession with compassion?

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The words and actions of feminists on both sides of the sex wars cannot be viewed in isolation from

the material stakes of the debate in which they are engaged. Likewise, existing feminist theory and

research on pornography must be read in the context of its authors’ multidimensional political aims.

Feminists who researched and wrote about pornography usually did so because they were aware of and

concerned about the potential outcomes of the sex wars. Their own personal stakes in the debates and

their often savvy awareness of the exigencies of effective political mobilization are reflected in the

diverse literatures that they produced. For instance, anti-pornography feminists like MacKinnon and

Dworkin wrote as they did in a powerful and important effort to articulate how a culture of pervasive

sexual violence and gendered hierarchy is reproduced. They hoped to expose and perhaps one day

break the cycle of violence and oppression. This is neither apology nor excuse for their tactics, but an

acknowledgement of the complex sociopolitical and legal frameworks within which feminists must do

their work—frameworks that, for the most part, are not of their own making and are often inadequate

or hostile to their ends. This required, at times, building coalitions across political difference that made

others feminists, like Kipnis, cringe. With this in mind, it becomes a little clearer why feminist

literature on pornography has taken the polarized form that it has. It also becomes clear why this

debate has been so emotional, personal, and frequently antagonistic.

This, I want to reiterate, is not an indication that the literature is too biased to be valuable or that it

lacks scholarly adequacy. Unfortunately, it’s often taken as an indication of precisely that. The history

of feminist work on pornography has made it very difficult to be taken seriously as a feminist scholar

on the topic. This, paired with the plain acrimony of the debates themselves, is one of the reasons that

feminist scholars today avoid researching pornography. Above all, they are wary of reiterating the

same old debates, of being forced to occupy one defined stance or the other. This, I think, is regrettable

because pornography is more prevalent than ever and arguably more misogynistic and violent than

ever (Jensen 2007; Lane III 2001). More women are also involved in the production of pornography

than have ever been in the past (Lane III 2001).

Knowing that the material stakes of the debate haven’t changed much over the years, is it possible for

the conversation to unfold in different—and dare I say, kinder and more responsive—directions? I

want to argue that there is, in fact, some common ground to work on. Feminists have different and

conflicting stakes in the outcomes of the pornography debates, but they also have shared stakes.

Feminists on both sides were (and are) attempting to address the material and discursive violence done

to women and to create an environment where women and sexual minorities have greater freedoms

and fewer obstacles to living the lives they want to live. Feminists with divergent positions are

struggling to identify, articulate, and account for the pain that women have experienced as a

consequence of sexism, stereotypes, and other physical, social, and psychological violence.

If we acknowledge these shared stakes, then we might begin to open up to the stakes of our

opponents—of those we have felt compelled to defensively ignore or criticize. Breaking out of the

same discursive trap will require this shift. If we want to learn from the sex wars without staying at

war, we’ll have to listen better and more openly to those we perceive, sometimes for good reason, as

threats to the causes we care about. Relating more responsibly with fellow researchers, subjects, and

interested publics will demand taking the risk of attentive engagement with the multidimensional and

multidirectional suffering caused by the sex wars, by pornography, and by its repression. I’m calling

today for a mode of responsible relating grounded in better recognition of the complex stakes of all

those involved in and affected by research on pornography.

In addition to becoming better listeners, there are several ways that sexuality researchers can build

greater sensitivity into their own practice:

Know the sex wars history and how your own work fits or doesn’t fit into existing discursive


Recognize that theoretical framings and methodological approaches are political: For instance,

how you operationalize variables (i.e., how you define pornography) will have everything to do

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with the results you obtain and the impact those results will have.

Evaluate the stakes of the conversation you are entering and introducing:

Who are your intended constituents, and who are you excluding or ignoring? Why?

If your work and especially your policy recommendations are adopted, who gets helped,

who gets hurt, and how?

Is there a way to mitigate that harm without losing the potential benefits to the

communities or individuals you are trying to help?

I have offered this talk as an acknowledgement of the personal and collective risks facing feminists

and other researchers who talk about sex and pornography, and as a plea to continue the conversation

with greater sensitivity to those vulnerabilities. We can gain the freedom and the will to learn from one

another and to talk across our differences only if we acknowledge one another’s vulnerabilities and

recognize the potential cross-cutting harms involved in producing, consuming, repressing, and even

researching pornography today.


I would like to thank the Feminism and Pornography Research Cluster and our sponsoring

organization, the Center for Cultural Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Special

thanks to my colleagues Lydia Osolinsky, Marsh Leicester, Katie Kanagawa, Allison Day, and

Candace West for their comments on drafts of this presentation. Thanks to the Western Regional of the

Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality for the opportunity to deliver this presentation and to the

Institute for the Advanced Study of Human Sexuality for offering to publish it in the Electronic

Journal of Human Sexuality.

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by D. Cornell. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Silbert, Mimi H and Ayala M Pines. 1993. “Pornography and Sexual Abuse of Women.” Pp. 113-119

in Making Violence Sexy: Feminist Views on Pornography, edited by D. E. Russell. New York, NY:

Teachers College Press.

Simonton, Ann. 2008a. “Conversation with the UCSC Feminism and Pornography Research Cluster.”

in The Feminism and Pornography Spring Speaker Series. Santa Cruz, CA: University of California,

Santa Cruz.

Feminism and Pornography http://www.ejhs.org/Volume12/Feminism%20and%20Porn.htm

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—. 2008b. “Slow Sex: Moving Toward Informed Pleasure.” vol. 2008: Common Dreams News Center.

Sprinkle, Annie. 2006. Hardcore from the Heart: The Pleasures, Profits And Politics of Sex in

Performance. New York, NY: Continuum International Publishing.

Strossen, Nadine. 2000. Defending Pornography: Free Speech, Sex, and the Fight for Women’s Rights.

New York, NY: New York University Press.

Williams, Linda. 1999. Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the “Frenzy of the Visible”. Berkeley, CA:

University of California Press.

Note 1: As a disclaimer, I want to note that anti-pornography feminism and sex-radicalism, as they are

often labeled, represent diverse and occasionally overlapping positions, and there is significant

controversy within each camp. There has, however, definitely been a historical coalescence into two

opposed pro- and anti-pornography camps. Research findings and the development of theory around

pornography reflect this division, which I will in turn replicate here.

Feminism and Pornography http://www.ejhs.org/Volume12/Feminism%20and%20Porn.htm

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