Carolyn Bronstein

 

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

Cover Interview of September 26, 2011

A close-up

Some readers will be familiar with the better-known aspects of the feminist anti-pornography movement, particularly efforts led by Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon in the mid-1980s to pass new legislation.  This duo sought to introduce ordinances, first in Minneapolis and then in Indianapolis, that defined pornography as a violation of women’s civil rights and made it actionable under the law.

Fewer readers, however, will know about the earliest years of movement activity, especially the efforts of grassroots groups like Women Against Violence Against Women (WAVAW) to combat violent and sexist media content, especially advertising.

If a prospective reader were to pick up Battling Pornography in a bookstore, I hope that the book would fall open to page 93.  This is where I begin to tell the story of feminists’ encounter with the 1976 advertising campaign for the Rolling Stones’ album, Black and Blue.  The campaign centerpiece was a billboard that featured a bound and bruised woman.

rorotoko.com Photo courtesy of Northeastern University Libraries, Archives and Special Collections

At 14 by 48 feet, high above Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles, the billboard dominated the skyline.  The woman wore a lacy white bodice, artfully ripped to display her breasts.  Her hands were tied with ropes, immobilized above her head, and her bruised legs were spread apart.  She straddled an image of the Stones, with her pubic bone positioned just above Mick Jagger’s head.  Her head was thrown back, eyes closed, and her mouth hung open in an expression of pure sexual arousal, as if the rough treatment had wakened her desire and now she wanted more.  The ad copy celebrated the mythic connection between sex and violence, reinforcing the dangerous idea that women get excited when things get a little rough: “I’m Black and Blue from the Rolling Stones and I Love It!”

To anyone familiar with the music of the Stones, this blatant sexism was not surprising.  On tour in 1975, Jagger rode a twenty-foot-long inflatable stage prop shaped like a penis while singing Starfucker, a song about the pleasure he derived from sex with girl groupies.  (Note to Maroon 5’s Adam Levine:  Try that move like Jagger.)  Karen Durbin, editor-in-chief of the Village Voice in the mid-1970s, went on the road with the band and found herself isolated and “engulfed by an all-male world” where women were regarded primarily as eye candy and one-night stands.

The Los Angeles-area feminists who formed WAVAW were outraged by the Black and Blue promotion.  They thought that the campaign made light of male violence, especially battering.  They feared that linking such violence with a chic rock-and-roll band like the Rolling Stones gave battering a stamp of social approval.  In a news release, the activists explained how the billboard made women feel.  “We carry in ourselves a deep fear of rape.  When we would drive down the Sunset Strip and see the myth about our lust for sexual abuse advertised, our fear and outrage was deepened,” the group warned.  “We are not Black and Blue and we do not love it when we are.”

Anyone who opens to page 93 and keeps reading will find out how this story turns out.  I can promise that the efforts of WAVAW to call attention to sexist violence in media will surprise you—and quite likely inspire you.