Carolyn Bronstein


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

Cover Interview of September 25, 2011


Where are we on the pornography question?  Should Americans reopen a national conversation about the proper place of pornography in our society, and how we think such material might affect human sexuality?

Will the creation of the new .xxx adult content internet domain (which is designed to bar images of child pornography and make it easier for people who seek sexually explicit material to find it and keep those who do not at a comfortable distance) do enough to reduce the feeling that we are wallowing in an endless sea of mechanistic, silicone-enhanced images?

The vast dissemination of pornography through the internet is said to be liberating for sexual minorities who might otherwise have trouble finding one another as well as erotic materials that feature their preferred practices.  But, for many others, the prevalence of pornography contributes to a gloomy and dehumanized view of sexuality.

In Battling Pornography, I trace the efforts of American women in the 1970s and 1980s to call national attention to the dangers of media images that conflated violence and sexuality.  Over time, they shifted their attention to pornography and argued that the constant depiction of women as sexual objects robbed them of their humanity and denied them full civil rights.  The conflicts and debates among feminists in this period, who were split between anti-porn and pro-sex positions, as well as between feminists and civil libertarians, were intensely personal and bitter.

In the 1980s, the feminist effort to do something concrete about the pornography problem brought up widespread fears of government censorship and restrictions on sexual freedom.  Opponents of anti-pornography feminism argued that labeling a certain class of sexual images as exploitative endorsed a conservative sexual worldview that privileged some forms of sex, especially heterosexual and procreative, over others.  Since that time, many social critics have been loathe to raise the pornography question, rightly fearing that its mere mention brings the taint of these charges.

A hope that I have with regard to Battling Pornography is the possibility of reinvigorating these debates without raising the specter of censorship or sexual conservatism.

We have not solved the initial problem that feminists identified regarding sexually violent media depictions, and the role that media play in teaching young women and men about their sexuality and gender norms.  And, pornography in the internet age is a reality of social life—not one that can or should be eradicated, certainly, but one that can be discussed rationally.

The book offers a critical evaluation of the feminist pornography debates and shows how the turn toward legal solutions distracted attention from the core questions—still relevant today—about media effects and gender.  Perhaps reading it will help steer those debates back on track and allow us to reconsider the fundamental question of whether pornography disseminates at least some messages that are harmful for both women and men.