Carolyn Bronstein


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

Cover Interview of September 25, 2011

The wide angle

In Battling Pornography, I locate the roots of anti-pornography sentiment in a series of interrelated social and political conditions that shaped women’s lives during the late 1960s and early 1970s.  As a media scholar, I wanted to make sense of the factors that motivated women to identify sexually violent media as a major cause of female oppression.  I sought environmental triggers.

My answer to that question rests on women’s shared interpretations of several significant social phenomena.

First, I link the movement to the failed promise of the sexual revolution to provide true liberation for women.  The sexual revolution did enlarge women’s right to engage more freely in sexual behavior, but it provided little support for women to define their sexuality free of male standards and expectations.  This led to feelings of exploitation; women were angry about a revolution that privileged male desire and access.

Next, I examined related ideological changes in the Women’s Liberation movement in the years prior to the rise of anti-pornography organizations.  Within the consciousness raising groups popularized by radical feminists, women opened up to one another about experiences of male sexual violence, especially rape and battering.  New knowledge about the prevalence of these acts exacerbated women’s anger at the oppressive aspects of sexuality.  They began to view sexual violence—including mediated depictions—as part of the system of power that men had created to ensure female subordination.

Radical feminism also inspired women to evaluate the institution of heterosexuality critically.  Radical feminist theory held that the everyday structures of heterosexuality, such as the family, were organized in ways that encouraged male supremacy.  Mass market pornography in this period was predicated on heterosexual male enjoyment, a reality that led women to regard the proliferation of pornography in the 1970s with suspicion and anger.

Once pornography moved into the mainstream of American life, as evidenced in the early 1970s by the unprecedented success of Deep Throat, thriving adult magazines like Playboy, Hustler, and Penthouse, and liberalized U.S. obscenity laws, the stage was set for the rise of a feminist protest movement.