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Anti-Porn: The Resurgence of Anti-pornography Feminism - Julia Long

Anti-Porn-cover
Julia Long makes a ‘radical feminist’ zero-tolerance attack on pornography. She contends that ‘pornification’ pervades all aspects of modern society, meaning that nobody is immune to its effects. For the benefit of international readers of this journal, it is important to note that the book focuses mainly on the UK. While some of the more general discussion may apply to other contexts, the author assumes current knowledge of contemporary British culture.
 
Julia Long does not suggest a simplistic relationship between pornography and real-world male violence against women.

Rather, she argues that just as ‘racist language and imagery within the culture helps to create a context’ in which racist violence is ‘imaginable and contributes to its legitimisation or justification’ (p. 76), so pornography is not a ‘distraction from issues of ‘‘real’’ violence against women’ but ‘is inextricably bound up with the struggle to end the reality of male violence in women’s lives, not least the lives of those abused in the production of pornography itself’ (p. 77). In other words, pornography invades and violates women’s (and presumably men’s) core identity. In an interview the author conducted as part of her ethnographic research, Belinda describes an ex-boyfriend ‘putting porn on, like with me there, for obviously what was planned to be an erotic experience for us both, and it was like one of the most grotesque experiences of my life... these men’s magazines ... it just makes me feel disgusting, it makes me feel like a nothing... It is just page after page of hatred’ (p. 139). Well quite.
 
‘Pro-porn’ feminists, who, we are told, ‘embrace the left-liberal idea of sex, and
therefore sexual fantasy, as an inherently good impulse that must be liberated’
(p. 96), hold that such fantasies are seldom acted out in ‘real life’. Belinda Long has
no time for this: ‘pornography is part of social reality: produced within specific
situations and economic relationships; distributed, sold, circulated and consumed’
(p. 97). Producers compete to create increasingly extreme images, smashing taboos
as consumers become progressively inured to ‘soft’ porn (p. 113). ‘Anti-censorship
feminists, coming from a Marxist or socialist perspective’, on the other hand, are
more likely to focus on ‘porn as a capitalist industry’ and ‘on the labour aspects of
participation in pornography’ (p. 64).
 
The book is based on Julia Long’s doctoral thesis, and comprises four main chapters plus an introduction, conclusion, and 22-page bibliography. The first describes ‘antiporn feminism’ and the 1970s Women’s Liberation Movement in the USA and the UK. I hadn’t appreciated until now that I am a ‘second wave’ feminist, having spent much of the 1970s (and ever since) devouring new feminist (and female) literature that now fills my bookshelves, and discussing in various women’s groups whether feminism was the route to socialism or vice versa, whether having sex with a man in a patriarchal society in which ‘every man is a potential rapist’ was a ‘bourgeois feminist sell-out’, or whether ‘the personal is political’ inevitably meant embracing ‘political lesbianism’. We’d have signed up to the views of Andrea Dworkin (from whom Julia Long takes much of her inspiration) that ‘the production and existence of pornography in itself constitutes violence against women’(p. 21). But at the time, much outrage was directed against issues such as senior British judges ruling that young women (‘girls’) bring rape upon themselves by not being virgins or behaving in a ‘ladylike’ manner - in other words, getting drunk. Remember, the ink wasn’t yet dry on the 1975 Sex Discrimination Act.
 
Julia Long highlights the difficult balancing act for British anti-porn feminists in
distancing their agenda from the ‘moral bloc’ (p. 59) dyed-in-the-wool conservatism
that lumps pornography together with abortion, drugs, homosexuality, blasphemy,
and general decadence and mayhem. I recall that in 1979, when a Monty Python skit on religion was showing at a nearby cinema, the ‘moral bloc’ gathered to pray for a
tsunami to sweep away such filth. They might also have prayed for the audience to be
smitten with boils. But we will never know for sure, since their prayers were not
answered.
 
The following chapter explores ‘the feminist divide’ (in fact, ‘divides’) between
different ‘ideological frameworks’ concerning different feminist perspectives on
pornography. At last, after several references to her ‘radical feminism’, Julia Long
defines it. Among other things, radical feminists argue ‘that the liberal human subject
is in fact a male subject, constructed by male-dominated social institutions in a context in where men have social and economic power over women’ (p. 66) and that within ‘patriarchal power relations male sexuality and its associated institutions such as marriage and the nuclear family, pornography and prostitution function as key
instruments of women’s oppression (ibid.). For‘second wavers’ this may not sound so radical - but times have changed, and the space for any radical politics is far, far more fragile than it was 40 years ago.
 
Julia Long moves on to examine the mainstreaming of pornography, which means
it is not confined to smutty magazines, ‘adult’ movie channels, sex shops, or lapdancing clubs, all of which depend on having someone to buy the product. Rather, it is omnipresent and omnivorous, permeating our lives via the fashion and music
industries, innuendo-charged advertising for everything from coffee machines to cat
food to underarm deodorant, our choice of underwear and attitudes to body hair and
body parts; it shapes the sexualised vocabulary in everyday use, and how we
experience intimacy. Julia Long then presents her account of two anti-porn organisations (OBJECT and Anti-Porn London), based on empirical research, and informed by her own activism. In fact, the book opens with what turns out to be a fairly typical OBJECT ‘stunt’. In response to a branch of a major British supermarket chain banning customers arriving in their pyjamas / if anyone tried that where I live they’d get frostbite - ‘the activists had donned nightwear and congregated for a protest against the sale of lads’ mags with brown paper bags on which had been written feminist messages, such as ‘‘This is hate speech’’ and ‘‘This promotes hate culture’’’ (p. 1). Then a whistle was blown and ‘all 30 activists formed a human chain, whipped out some tambourines, and proceeded to dance a conga in and out of the aisles ...’ (ibid.). Humour, as satirists well know, can often do more than rational argument to overcome resistance. But I have a nagging fear that such clowning around risks diluting if not almost losing the message.
 
It worries me that gimmicks and ‘fun’ campaigns seem to be the only way to raise
public issues in the UK, but that’s beside the point. I am sympathetic to the anti-porn
strand of feminism of which Julia Long is an impassioned, almost evangelical,
proponent - although she is probably preaching to the converted rather than winning
over agnostics. But that’s also beside the point. What does trouble me is that Julia
Long’s zero tolerance appears to extend to feminists whose views she doesn’t share.
Anti-porn is a polemic and polemicists take no prisoners. But politics is the art of the
possible. Achieving strategic change in favour of all women means engaging with
diverse viewpoints and tactics - and knowing when and how to make principled
compromises in pursuit of a shared feminist cause.

Review ©2013 Deborah Eade, France

Anti-porn: The Resurgence of Anti-pornography Feminism is published by Zed Books

Review originally published in Gender & Development 21.1 (2013)

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