Carolyn Bronstein


On her book Battling Pornography: The American Feminist Anti-Pornography Movement, 1976-1986

Cover Interview of September 25, 2011

In a nutshell

Battling Pornography chronicles the formation and development of an American feminist anti-pornography movement from 1976 to 1986.  The book emphasizes the internal movement dynamics and external structural factors that supported a progression from a campaign against images of sexual violence in mainstream media, especially advertising, to a focus on pornography, including nonviolent, sexually explicit expression.

The majority of what has been written about the anti-pornography movement concentrates on the mid-1980s efforts of the legal scholar Catharine MacKinnon and the radical feminist author Andrea Dworkin to introduce anti-pornography ordinances that classified pornography as a legally actionable form of sex discrimination.

My book has a different emphasis.  I focus on the pre-MacKinnon and Dworkin years, tracing the emergence and development of the three most influential feminist media reform groups that led the movement in the 1970s and early 1980s: Women Against Violence Against Women (WAVAW), Women Against Violence in Pornography and Media (WAVPM), and Women Against Pornography (WAP).  This history sheds new light onto the gradual evolution of a full-fledged feminist anti-pornography movement.

In restoring the history of these groups, I intended to locate the origins of anti-pornography activity in grassroots campaigns against sexually violent and sexist mainstream media content.  For example, WAVAW led a national boycott of the record companies owned by Warner Communications from 1976-1979 to protest the use of images of violence against women on album covers and in related promotional material.

They objected to albums like Love Gun, by the rock band Kiss, whose title fused sex and violence.  The album cover showed dozens of women fawning at the band members’ feet.  This kind of message, they argued, imposed corrupt and artificial gender roles on both sexes, teaching women to be passive and subordinate and men to be brutish and controlling.

These feminist groups tried to disrupt and subsequently improve mainstream media images.  They shared a goal of ending rape, battering, sexual harassment and other forms of sexual violence.  Using national consumer action and public education techniques, as well as conferences, marches, and demonstrations, these organizations led a creative and innovative battle to improve the media, reduce violence against women, and create optimal conditions for true sexual liberation.

But, at the same time that advertising and other mainstream media captured activists’ attention, the question of pornography always hung in the air.  Over time, movement leaders began emphasizing pornography—downplaying the broader issue of sexualized media violence—because they believed that this strategic rhetorical shift would bring media attention and public support.

The book captures the gradual transformation of the anti-media violence campaign into an anti-pornography movement, complete with rising tensions over the potential for censorship and threats to sexual freedom and speech rights.

I show that anti-pornography was a complex and multifaceted movement made up of diverse and overlapping feminist groups who articulated different opinions on pornography.  Feminists who opposed violence did not uniformly oppose pornography, and they did not simply fall in line behind MacKinnon and Dworkin as the movement progressed.