Feminist Debates: Pornography

4495532947_ffed4358a2_oThe women’s movement is a diverse, complex, multifaceted one with many differences of opinion and ways of thinking. Although most mainstream feminists generally agree about issues—such as being pro-choice or against genital cutting—there are several controversial issues about which no one general consensus has formed. This article on feminist debates is half explanatory, half experiment: After giving each side of an issue equal fair time, there will be a poll to ask you, dear readers, what you think.

While almost all mainstream feminists agree that the pornography industry is problematic in the way it is currently produced, some feminists are against porn in principle, some are critical of the industry’s current state but not against pornography’s existence and other feminists’ opinions lie on a spectrum in between. What follows is meant to spark discussion about mainstream pornography; illegal and undeniably horrific pornography (such as child porn or rape videos) will not be addressed.

The anti-porn argument:

The pornography industry is a complex machine that turns sex into a commodity that is more about power and profit than pleasure (read more about the relationship between porn and capitalism here). By turning sex into a product, the industry contributes to the commodification and objectification of bodies, particularly women’s bodies. Providing sexual pleasure for consumers is not inherently wrong, but there are problems with the ways porn is created, packaged and sold.

The effects of porn stretch beyond whatever actors do or say and have a far broader impact than simple titillation. This is especially true when parents and schools are not properly educating children and young adults about sex, which can lead youth to porn for answers. This trend is indicative of a larger problem regarding sex education, but let’s focus on what porn inadvertently teaches its viewers: It’s not depicting safe and consensual sex when there are hundreds of revenge porn sites (a genre that involves posting sex tapes made with former partners without those partners’ permission) and when no condoms are required during the filming of porn (although a controversial bill recently passed the state assembly in California that would require performers to wear condoms). Although it is not porn’s responsibility to teach its viewers about sex, it unfortunately contributes to misconceptions about sex.

Porn also contributes to already dangerous ideas about the role of women during heterosexual sex. While BDSM and other forms of kink can be practiced safely and consensually in private, displaying these forms of sex as the norm online can be harmful. Without scenes that depict performers choosing a safe word and discussing what they are comfortable with, porn depicting rough sex shows viewers that potentially degrading acts can be done at any point during sex without proper communication. Even porn without the kink label generally depicts heterosexual sex as a violent act against women. Women are slapped, spit on, choked and used for male pleasure with little or no effort given to provide their own. Even lesbian porn is generally made with male viewers in mind, with women fingering each other while wearing long, fake nails that are dangerous for sex.

Anti-porn feminist Robert Jensen has written extensively on the topic. In his book, Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity, he says,

People routinely assume that pornography is such a difficult and divisive issue because it’s about sex. In fact, this culture struggles unsuccessfully with pornography because it is about men’s cruelty to women, and the pleasure men sometimes take in that cruelty. And that is much more difficult for people—men and women—to face.

Porn also sexualizes young women, calling them “teens” or “barely legal” and frequently dressing them in schoolgirl or cheerleader outfits. While acting out a fantasy can be fun and fulfilling, these repeated tropes can lead to the sexualization and exploitation of underage girls. Countless sites also separate videos by race, which contributes to the fetishization of racial minorities (more on the porn-is-racist debate here). Intersex and trans* individuals are also fetishized and degraded in so-called “tranny” or “hermaphrodite” porn that perpetuates stereotypes and uses harmful and stigmatizing language.

Pornography is an apparatus of the patriarchy because of the way it is aimed at male consumers. The women who participate in pornography deserve dignity and respect, but are still engaging in acts that perpetuate ideas about male domination over women and place an emphasis on male pleasure over female pleasure, even in non-heterosexual videos. Performing in pornography turns women into sex objects and is simply an example of how deeply ingrained and coercive patriarchal oppression is today. As feminist and law professor Catharine MacKinnon says, “Pornography is a harm of male supremacy made difficult to see because of its pervasiveness, potency and, principally, because of its success in making the world a pornographic place.”

The pro-porn argument:

Why should we completely censor the fantasies that allow people to explore their desires and interests from a safe distance? Why not allow porn to be an opportunity for minority directors and actors to create media that does not stereotype or degrade them? In a previous Ms. Blog article, pornography scholar Mireille Miller-Young says,

Surely there’s racism in the porn industry. It affects how people of color are represented and treated, but there are counter-stories–especially among women of color who are creating and managing their own product. This doesn’t get enough attention.

While acknowledging that porn the way it is now can sometimes perpetuate harmful ideas about sex and further objectify the bodies of women and minorities, many do not believe that this means that porn is inherently wrong. There is an upswing of “female-friendly” videos that depict sex as a shared and mutually enjoyable experience rather than purely a male pleasure-focused activity, as well as instructional pornography videos that show viewers how to safely participate in fun and consensual sex. A quick Google search can lead pornography consumers to safe and informative websites, and there are many books written on the topic of feminist porn.

And at what point do we stop holding the media accountable for how people interpret pornography? Following the same logic about how porn should be banned because of the potentially harmful and misleading information that it presents, shows like SpongeBob SquarePants would have been cancelled because of children who drown looking for the characters. Mary Poppins would have been banned because she encouraged me to try flying with an umbrella when I was eight years old. Why, then, is porn held so accountable for the way people think about and act out sex? Why are the squeamish school systems and parents not held responsible for teaching children and young adults to respect each other’s and their own bodies? Why does the responsibility for teaching the nation’s youth about sex fall to strangers on the Internet?

Many anti-pornography feminists believe that porn is an apparatus of the patriarchy that reduces women to sex objects and is a part of the systematic oppression and degradation of women, but this claim robs the performers of control over their bodies and shames them for participating in an industry that provides them with financial stability and the opportunity to explore their sexuality. As feminist writer Ellen Willis once said, “The claim that ‘pornography is violence against women’ was code for the neo-Victorian idea that men want sex and women endure it.”

Why do people assume that the women performing in porn are not enjoying it themselves? Claims that the women who perform in porn are being coerced or indoctrinated into the patriarchy simply belittle women and question their right to bodily autonomy. By hating porn and considering it to be a shameful pastime, profession or method of achieving sexual pleasure (both as performers or consumers), we force performers into the role of being lesser humans and hurt efforts to empower or legally protect performers.

The problems within pornography stem from larger patriarchal frameworks, so while the industry may require drastic improvement, pornography cannot be blamed for sexism and violence—particularly when there are institutionalized policies that repeatedly shame and debase the female body. Rather than blame pornography or attempt to censor it, we can think critically about the way it is packaged and sold as a commodity for men rather than as a universally enjoyable and empowering method of exploring sexuality. In order to reform the pornography industry, we must first work to destigmatize it, starting with accepting it as a legitimate method of employment and sexual enjoyment for women.

So where on the feminist spectrum do you fall in terms of pornography? Do you identify as anti-porn, pro-porn or somewhere in between? Leave your comments and take our survey to choose the opinion with which you most identify.


How do you feel about pornography?1) I am against pornography.
2) I am against pornography that is currently being produced but not against pornography in principle.
3) I am completely fine with the current state of pornography.
4) I am not for or against pornography. 

View Results


Photo courtesy of B.D via CreativeCommons 2.0





Simone Lieban Levine is a rising junior at St. Mary’s College of Maryland and an intern for Ms. Follow her on Twitter: @though_she_be.


  1. susan preich says:

    Saying that we should make porn that’s women friendly is like saying we should make guns that are human flesh friendly: a nice idea that’s not realistic. By its nature, porn objectifies women. That’s the point of it: thrills without the messy humanity. If anything, the flood of amateur porn is going to make conditions worse for the people involved because there will only be money in the harder core stuff.

    • Well said.

    • Clarissa says:

      Pornography by definition is commercially available sexual media. Everything else about it depends on the people who make it and interpret it, which is itself dependent on the culture it exists in. The objectification of women in porn is not unavoidable or inherent. It exists due to the misogyny in the industry itself. Equating any kind of sexual thrill with objectification and sexism says more about the audience than the medium.

    • You don’t think there are forms of porn that are empowering to women or that women enjoy? Many women watch porn, and I think making porn that is geared toward that audience is not only attainable but currently exists.

  2. #2 I am against a lot of the porn produced (but there is a minority of good stuff) I want there to be more sex positive women positive porn. Many women like some porn I think the problem is in its current state and to me a less polarized stance seems it would do more good to promote positive change.

  3. Andrea S says:

    I think this poll on porn should have a 5th answer: I am not against porn within which all actors are consensual, fully aware of their actions and consequences, and don’t perpetuate misogyny, but against porn within which actors aren’t consensual or fully aware of their actions and consequences as well as porn that perpetuates misogynous views of sex.

  4. Emmanuelle Fabre says:

    I would like to retire me to the newleter of Ms magazine . The problem comes with the subject of pornography which with I am completly against and I can not be agree with the diversity of opinions.

    • I totally agree, but you have to remember that a large section of the readership of Ms Magazine is opposed to sexual exploitation and porn. Also, I am glad NOW still has an anti-sexual exploitation position.

  5. I think that *legal* pornography, only including consenting adults is fine. Even if misogynistic, I hate misogyny in my day to day life, but I can admit that I am a feminist who enjoys rougher sex that might be considered misogynistic when I having sex with a man (I seem to get a pass from other feminists when it comes to fulfilling my desires with women, even if I request the same stuff). I would hate for a man to treat me that way without my permission, obviously, but once they know what I am into and they are as well then it is great (for me). I watch porn occasionally, and sometimes seek out videos that would make most feminists. I have a healthy sexual appetite. I don’t think censoring legal pornography is the way to go. It will still exist, just not in the mainstream culture. Fantasy is ok if all parties agree and are mature enough to understand that it is just that-fantasy.

  6. I am glad Ms Magazine is addressing sexual exploitation (pornography/strip clubs/prostitution). I am not so sure if capitalism is the culprit – it would seem to be the patriarchal system itself. Pornography and prostitution did exist in the former Communist countries, suggesting it is not totally economic. (Although the capitalist mentality does promote selfishness and teaches that anything is for sale.) It’s like animal abuse – it existed in the former Communist countries because it is rooted in a patriarchal society, which is cruel in its nature. Just as animals often “appear” to be happy in abusive environments (circuses/parades), women can “appear” to be happy in exploitative situations. Although I consider myself a socialist, I would say sexual exploitation and capitalism are separate issues. As for the porn debate – what does it say about a society that allows sexual exploitation?

  7. I have no problem with porn–two consenting adults getting paid to produce a product protected by the First Amendment–love it. Have a good time.

    I would take up an effort to spread my opinion about porn (i.e., don’t like stereotyping or violence or any of the many images we could imagine), but I think it would be wrong to ban or limit the type of porn produced (so long as two adults). Porn like all movies feature these issues and need to be addressed, but I appreciate the freedom of expression demonstrated by these films and all movies in general

  8. lmao so many real problems on this planet, but fake (read radical) feminists are as usual obsessed with the sex lives of consenting adults. you want to protest against something. go to Uganda and protest against the corrective RAPE of lesbians. or fgm of three year old girls. or gang rape in india. oh, and by the way, im a straight man talking about this stuff.

    • obviously. It’s always straight men telling us how we have no room to speak up about anything because “at least we don’t treat you as badly as those women over there!”

      • I actually agree with lee…you should go protest against something that matters. And I’m a women. Or are you going to tell me that I don’t understand…because I side with a man..?

    • Jennifer Tidd says:

      The straight male man-splaining to all the ‘lil ladies how to properly be feminist but not getting the irony. Hey dude, maybe you’d not need porn and could actually get a date if you stopped telling women how to think or how to feel, just a thought.

  9. Obviously porn has its problems and unfortunately it is catered towards men. However this is because it has been taught that women shouldn’t express their sexuality as freely as men should, so as a feminist to say that women shouldn’t be open with and explore their sexuality is absurd as this is further proving the patriarchy to be in control. There’s countless studies which prove pretty much every anti porn argument wrong although I do agree that there are major issues with sexism, racism and transphobia etc in porn there are so many positive benefits porn gives to women exploring their sexualities. Porn stars are highly respectable women in a hard profession and should be treated with high respect and if any feminist thinks otherwise, you are not a feminist.

  10. marty klein says:

    So if porn simply depicts men having sex with men, and there are no women in it, I assume that everyone who objects to today’s porn with women is OK with it?

    • yes! I’d love for there to be only porn depicting men having sex with men….and i’d like to have a place called peckers in every city that sells foot schlong hot dogs and cock au vin and banana splits being brought to my table by men in tight speedos and a muscle shirt. And I’d like there to be a male underwear fashion show on prime time. And commercials with gorgeous men selling burgers and salads. After a decade straight of me and all women having attractive men every where we look, then my guess is that all of these industries will become safe, highly paid with health insurance with less violence and drugs. men might develop some eating disorders because they want to all be on the fashion shows but i’ll assume they are doing what they truly love to do.

  11. I am against porn because it misshapes the conception of sex and love relationships. It gives the “spectators” a wrong perception about couples’ relationships and sexual needs, especially for young people. They should find effective ways to stop the access of minors to pornography.

  12. White knight says:

    Money does not legitimate consent. In capitalism money is not a choice, working for money is not a choice, fucking for money is not a choice in capitalism, there is a degree of capitalist force in this. ‘explore your sexuality’ our End up working in a Factory every day, if you dont want to life under a Bridge. Capitalism is violence, No choice at all in capitalism. Social democratic feminists are not .critical about capitalism, which leads to them thinking that when money is involved, its full of consent.

    Yes feminist porn exist, i searched for it. Certain projects are ok and sexy , and not every porn is as shady and filthy, as the mainstream, but calling Ed Powers, our Max hardcore’s gonzo filth , ’empowering’ is like telling people eating shit is healthy.

    Im not a prude, i dont care about how, our how much People fuck, but consent within a capitalist paradime, isnt real consent. I mean you cant see if she likes it, you dont know why she did it, you dont know her story, you cant look in her mind, you dont know if she is on drugs, you dont know in what degree she acts etc, it makes it unpleasend, and nasty. Btw you dont even know if she isnt a victims of human trafficing

    So Yes, feminist porn can exist, but not within capitalism.our at least , capitalism does not provide a big Market for feminist porn. It exist like a needle in the hay.

  13. Nerf guns anyone? Take a look a look at some analytics there are lots of women who watch porn and even some women who produce it, why is it such a crazy notion that some porn produced might be women-friendly. If porn by its very nature objectifies women, then what do you think about gay porn? Does it still count as porn? Just because entries into a certain category media contain characteristics we don’t like doesn’t mean all that follow must also contain these same characteristics.

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