International Women’s Day: Q&A with Carolyn Bronstein, Author of Battling Pornography
As March 8th is International Women’s Day, we sat down to chat with Carolyn Bronstein, author of Battling Pornography: The American Feminist Anti-Pornography Movement, 1976–1986.
Battling Pornography is a natural reading selection for Women’s History Month. Did you write the book primarily for women’s historians and others with interest in the field of women’s studies? Who is the ideal audience for this book?
I hope that Battling Pornography will appeal to both academic and popular audiences. Among academics, I think that American historians and sociologists, especially those specializing in women’s history, the history of gender and sexuality, social movements and popular culture will find the book useful and insightful, and will provide a new context for understanding anti-pornography organizing. Media studies scholars are also a primary audience for the book, as it emphasizes the representation of women in advertising, television and film, and examines how radical feminists in the 1970s and 1980s tried to challenge the dominant constructions of femininity and masculinity created and reinforced by popular media. Pornography is of interest to most academic disciplines: psychologists try to elucidate the potential for harmful effects on users; political scientists and legal scholars are interested in citizen and government attempts to restrict its free flow and the scope of the First Amendment in terms of protecting this type of expression; philosophers debate the moral and ethical questions surrounding exploitation and consent among sex workers, which includes the live actors who appear in adult films and magazines, and on adult websites. To the extent that pornography has implications for many academic disciplines, I hope that a wide range of scholars will find Battling Pornography to be an informative and engaging resource.
In terms of a general audience, I expect that the book will draw readership from people with interests in feminism, sexuality, popular media and American history. I hope that today’s young feminists—the third wavers—will pick up Battling Pornography and will come away with a deeper understanding of the unflagging campaign against sexism in media that the anti-pornography feminists led, and how hard they worked to illuminate and contest a culture of male violence against women, especially rape and battering. Too many young women have been exposed to caricatures of anti-pornography feminists as anti-sexual manhaters who sought to eradicate all forms of sexual expression, and this stereotype has helped create barriers between older and younger feminists, with the latter coming to perceive themselves as rejecting and overthrowing the sexual puritanism of their foremothers. One lesson that I hope that readers of Battling Pornography will learn is that the vast majority of anti-pornography feminists opposed violence, not sex. They saw their work against sexualized media violence as a means of reducing women’s vulnerability to assault by eradicating gender stereotypes of woman as passive victim and man as lustful brute. They did so in hopes that women might achieve the authentic sexual liberation that the sexual revolution had promised, but had failed to deliver.
[T]he vast majority of anti-pornography feminists opposed violence, not sex
I also hope that feminists who were active in the debate, in either the anti-pornography or pro-sex camp, will read the book and perhaps come away with a better understanding of how those on the other side of the fence interpreted the pornography problem. Some 30 years after the famous 1982 Barnard Conference that I discuss in the book, the mention of this event (famous for its bitter and public clash between anti-pornography and pro-sex feminists) continues to ignite passion, anger and resentment. The writer Dorothy Allison has identified Barnard as the place where many feminists “lost our religion,” meaning that the women’s movement ceased to be a safe space where diverse voices and opinions could be heard and respected. I suppose it’s too much to even hope that Battling Pornography could help heal some of those divisions by giving readers greater insight and context for understanding both sides of the movement, but somehow I do still wish that could happen.
Finally, I think that the book covers significant ground for anyone who is interested in understanding the contemporary pornography scene, and how and why pornography has become a ubiquitous feature of modern life. When attempts to control its spread through public education and consciousness raising and new legal approaches failed in the mid-1980s, at the same moment that changes in technology made it possible to pipe unlimited adult material into American homes through video and cable television, the stage was set for a seemingly unstoppable proliferation of pornography in American life.
In the book, you use the terms “anti-pornography” and “pro-sex” to distinguish the two dominant schools of thought around pornography in the 1970s and 1980s. To a great extent, those labels are still used today. Why do they have such staying power?
Binary categories are appealing. They provide a mental shortcut that enables us to organize our thoughts about the social world in predictable and easily accessible ways: Male or female. Democrat or Republican. Anti-porn or pro-sex. A fellow academic demanded just the other day that I identify myself as one or the other: stand and shoot! This made me realize how badly we need some new terminology to describe feminists like me who see value in both sets of arguments, and would prefer to weave the positions together in ways that encourage and embrace sexual freedom and pleasure while recognizing that not every sexual act or exchange is transgressive or liberatory just because someone insists that it is. There is always potential for exploitation in human relationships, and the feminist anti-pornography analysis has much to offer in terms of thinking through global problems like sex trafficking. I do believe that new histories of anti-pornography and pro-sex organizing like Battling Pornography will reveal the existence of more complex issue positions among feminists, and will point us toward new ways of critiquing sexual harm without abandoning the right of individuals to pursue a diverse, satisfying and unfettered sexual life.
To what extent did you intend to offer your opinion on the accomplishments of the anti-pornography movement versus providing an objective account of how the movement unfolded?
When I began researching the history of the grassroots feminist groups that the book discusses—WAVAW, WAVPM, and WAP—I was surprised at how little had been published about their origins, members and campaigns. The majority of what I found dealt with WAP from about 1982 onward, and with the MacKinnon-Dworkin anti-pornography ordinances. So, one purpose in writing Battling Pornography was to document the extraordinary work that these groups did around media violence in the late 1970s and early 1980s, to preserve their achievements and enrich the history of late twentieth century American feminism. But, in setting that goal for myself, I could not escape the reality of offering an opinion. The very nature of my reading and interpreting the groups’ unpublished manuscript collections created the basis for a subjective account. I had to make decisions about what events to describe, which activists to highlight, and which ideas to foreground. In so doing, I brought my own biases and beliefs to the table.
As one reads deeper into the book, I do let my position on the issues be known. I think that WAVAW had it right: focus on popular media; subsume pornography under violence, not the other way around; recognize that men and women are both victims of gender stereotypes that glamorize violence, and above all, stick with public education, consciousness raising and consumer action techniques rather than seeking protection from the state. I note that the movement only became controversial when feminists began emphasizing pornography as the target and started to look at creating new laws. Countering fierce opposition from free speech advocates, liberals and pro-sex feminists drained movement energy and resources, and hampered activists’ ability to achieve concrete goals.
Having said all of that about my opinion, I intentionally did not make it a central feature of the book. Most of what is published on the anti-pornography movement has been written by participants or their pro-sex challengers, and takes an explicit position with regard to the correctness (or not) of anti-pornography theory and politics. I thought the greatest contribution I could make at this time would be to use my critical distance as a non-participant to offer a factual, insightful and empathic account of the movement that shows how the grassroots groups formed and changed over time, why they made certain strategic decisions that led to the anti-pornography emphasis, and how external political, cultural and social factors affected their trajectories. There is no other book available at this time that gives you a thorough view of the development of the feminist anti-pornography movement. Given the movement’s lasting impact on American society and American feminism, I thought such a book needed to be written.
What was one of the most surprising discoveries you made while researching Battling Pornography?
One of the most surprising aspects of my research was the discovery that members of the earliest grassroots anti-media violence group, WAVAW, were critically concerned about the well-being of men. They argued that the glorified images of sexual violence presented in popular media taught men that women secretly liked to be raped, and instilled in them the dangerous idea that a real man was a brute. Instead of vilifying men, which is something that anti-pornography feminists are uniformly charged with, members of WAVAW believed that men were victims too, systematically warped by media images of maleness. They decried such images as “crippling” and “maiming” and insisted that they were devastating for both sexes. This belief in the artificial nature of gender was consistent with radical feminism and the belief that heterosexuality was an institution designed to ensure the continued subordination of women. Nonetheless, I was surprised by the empathy that members of WAVAW showed for men and the pressure they face even today to conform to social expectations for traditionally masculine behavior. I think that men who read Battling Pornography might realize that many of these feminists were not anti-male at all. They opposed depictions of men that normalized violent behavior as expected and desirable.
Do you have any fear that groups will use the material in your book to advance their own political agendas around pornography and sexuality, especially if their beliefs run contrary to your own?
Well, I expect that’s always a concern with a book published on a hotly contested topic, and pornography certainly qualifies as such. As an author, I think that you have to write a narrative that makes the best possible case for your point of view, present your evidence clearly, offer what you see as the most logical and persuasive conclusions…and then understand that no two people are going to interpret your text or use it for their own purposes in exactly the same way. I assume that some readers will come away from Battling Pornography thinking that I am a staunch anti-pornography feminist and that the book proves beyond the shadow of a doubt that we need to mobilize new efforts to pass legislation. Others will read it and determine that I am a card-carrying member of Samois, a Bay Area lesbian feminist S/M rights organization active in the late 1970s and early 1980s which was a major foe of anti-porn groups. Given how strongly people feel about the topic, it’s fair to predict that the evidence and arguments in the book may get misrepresented at times to serve other people’s academic or political purposes. But, if you choose to write a book about pornography, you have to be prepared to enter the fray and live with the consequences. It’s not a neutral issue.
What will your next book cover?
This question brings to mind an experience I had in 2004 when I heard John D’Emilio, an outstanding historian of sexuality, give a talk about his book Lost Prophet: Bayard Rustin and the Quest for Peace and Justice in America, which had been published the year prior. When he finished his talk, he opened the floor for Q&A, and as it was ending I asked him to tell us what his next book project might cover. He responded that he was still working on Lost Prophet. He was not ready to think beyond the book because there was still so much that remained to be done with it. It is only now, years later, having finished Battling Pornography, that I truly understand what he meant. Will I write a subsequent book that deals with the pornography problem from 1986 to the present? Maybe. First, I have to see where this book takes me. I won’t know for sure what is next until I see how Battling Pornography is received, how it factors into both academic and popular discussions of the pornography problem, and whether it raises a new set of questions about pornography and society that I had not previously considered. I can tell you that questions around media representation and women are an enduring intellectual interest for me, and the issue of pornography will remain central to that subject.