Erotica vs. Pornography

Gloria Steinem. Rpt. in Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions. NY: Holt, Reinhart, and Winston, 1983.

Look at or imagine images of people making love; really making love. Those images may be very diverse. but there is likely to be a mutual pleasure and touch and warmth, an empathy for each other's bodies and nerve endings, a shared sensuality and a spontaneous sense of two people who are there because they want to be.

Now look at or imagine images of sex in which there is force, violence, or symbols of unequal power. They may be very blatant: whips and chains of bondage, even torture and murder presented as sexually titillating, the clear evidence of wounds and bruises, or an adult's power being used sexually over a child. They may be more subtle: the use of class, race, authority, or just body poses to convey conqueror and victim; unequal nudity, with one person's body exposed and vulnerable while the other is annored with clothes; or even a woman by herself, exposed for an unseen but powerful viewer whom she clearly is trying to please. (It's interesting that, even when only the woman is seen, we often know whether she is there for her own pleasure or being displayed. for someone else's.) But blatant or subtle, there is no equal power or mutuality. In fact, much of the tension and drama comes from the clear idea that one person is dominating another.

These two sorts of images arc as different as love is from rape, as dignity is from humiliation, as partnership is from slavery, as pleasure is from pain. Yet they are confused and lumped together as "pornography" or "obscenity," "erotica" or "explicit sex," because sex and violence are so dangerously intertwined and confused. After all, it takes violence or the threat of it to maintain the unearned dominance of any group of human beings oyer another. Moreover, the threat must be the most persuasive wherever men and women come together intimately and are most in danger of recognizing each' other's humanity.

The confusion of sex with violence is most obvious in any form of sadomasochism. The gender-based barrier to empathy has become so great that a torturer or even murderer may actually believe pain or loss of life to be the natural fate of the victim; and the victim may have been so deprived of self-respect or of empathetic human contact that she expects pain or loss of freedom as the price of any intimacy or attention at all. It's unlikely that even a masochist expects death. Nonetheless, "snuff movies and much current pornographic literature insist that a slow death from sexual torture is the final orgasm and ultimate pleasure. It's a form of "suicide" reserved for women. Though men. in fact are far more likely to kill themselves, male suicide is almost never presented as sexually pleasurable. But sex is also confused with violence and aggression in all forms of popular culture, and in respectable theories of psychology an~ sexual behavior as well. The idea that aggression is a. "normal" part of male sexuality, and that passivity or even the need for male aggression is a "normal" Pi\rt of female sexuality, are part of the male-dominant culture we live in, the books we learn from, and the air we breathe.

Even the words we are given to express our feelings are suffused with the same assumptions. Sexual phrases are the most common synonyms for conquering and humiliation (being had, being screwed, gelling fucked); the sexually aggressive woman is a slut or a nymphomaniac, but the sexually aggressive man is just normal; and real or scientific descriptions of sex may perpetuate the same roles, for instance, a woman is always penetrated by a man though she might also be said to have enveloped him.

Obviously, untangling sex from aggression and violence or the threat of it is going to take a very long time. And the process is going to be greatly resisted as a challenge to the very heart of male dominance and male centrality.

But we do have the common sense of our bodies to guide us. Pain is a warning of damage and danger. If that sensation is not mixed with all the intimacy we know as children, we are unlikely to confuse pain with pleasure and love. As we discover our free will and strength, we are also more likely to discover our own initiative and pleasure in sex. As men no longer can dominate and have to find an identity that doesn't depend on superiority, they also discover that cooperation is more interesting than submission) that empathy with their sex partner increases their own pleasure, and that anxieties about their own ability to "perform" tend to disappear along with stereotyped ideas about masculinity.

But women will be the main fighters of this new sexual revolution. It is our freedom, our safety, our lives, and our pleasure that are mostly at stake.

We begun by trying to separate sex and violence in those areas where the physical danger was and is the most immediate: challenging rape as the one crime that was considered biologically irresistible for the criminal and perhaps invited by the victim; refusing to allow male-female beatings to be classified as "domestic violencc't and ignored by the law; exposing forced prostitution and sexual slavery as national and international crimes. With' the exception of wife beating, those challenges were made somewhat easier by men who wanted to punish other men for taking their female property. Women still rarely have the power to protect each other.

Such instances of real antiwoman warfare led us directly to the propaganda that teaches and legitimizes thempornography. Just as we had begun to separale rape from sex, we realized that we mllst find some way of separating pornographic depictions of sex as an antiwoman weapun from tho~c images of freely chosen, mutual sexuality.

Fortunately, there is truth in the origin of words. , Pornography comes from the Greek root porne {harlot, prostitute, or female captive) and graphos (writing about or description of). Thus, it means a description of either the purchase of sex, which implies an imbalance of power in itself, or sexual slavery.

This definition includes, and should include, all such ~egradation, regardless of whether it is .females who are the slaves and males who are the captors. or vice versa. There is certainly .homosexual pornography, for instance, with a man in the "feminine" role of victim. There is also role-reversal pornography, with a woman whipping or punishing a man, though it's significant that this genre is created by. men for their own plea!iure, not by or for women, and allows men to pretend to be victims--but without real danger. There could also be lesbian pornography, with a woman assuming the "masculine" role of victimizing another woman. That women rarely choose this role of victimizer is due to no biological superiority, but a culture that doesn't addict WOmen to violence. But whatever the gender of the participants, all pornography is an imitation of the male-female, conqueror-victim paradigm, and almost all of it actually portrays or implies enslaved woman and master.

Even the 1970 Presidential Commission on Obscenity and Pornography, whose report is often accused of suppre!ising or ignoring evidence of the causal link between pornography and violence against women, defined the subject of their study as pictorial or verbal descriptions of sexual behavior characterized by "the degrading and demeaning portrayal of the role and status of the human female.

In short, pornography is not about sex. It's about an imbalance of male-female power that allows and even requires sex to be used as a form of aggression.

Erotica may be the word that can differentiate sex from violence and rescue sexual pleasure. It comes from the Greek root eros (sexual desire or passionate love, named for Eros, the son of Aphrodite), and so contains the idea of love, positive choice, and the yearning for a particular person. Unlike pornography's reference to a harlo, or prostitute, erotica ka\'cs entirely opcn thc qucstion of ge:H.Jcr. (In fact, we may owe its sense of shared power to the Greek idea that a man's love for another man was more worthy than love for a woman, bur at least that bias isn't present in the word.) Though both erotica and pornography refer to verbal or pictorial representations of sexual behavior, they are as different as a room with doors. open and one with doors locked. The first might be a home, but the second could only be a prison.

The problem is that t.here is so little erotica. Women have rarely been free enough to pursue erotic pleasure in our own lives, much less to create it in the worlds of film, magazines, art, books, television, and popular culture-all the areas of communication we rarely control. Very few male authors and filmmakers have been able to escape society's message of what a man should do, much less to imagine their way into the identity of a woman. Some women and men are trying to portray equal and erotic sex, but it is still not a part of popular culture. ,

And the problem is there is so much pornography. This underground stream of antiwoman propaganda that exists in all male-dominant societies has now become a flood in our streets and thealers and even our homes. Perhaps thaI's better in the long run. Women can no longer pretend pornography does nO( exist. We must either face our own humiliation and torture every day on magazine covers and television screens or fight back. There is hardly a newsstand without women's bodies in chains and bondage, in full labial display for the conquering male viewer, bruised, or on our knees, screaming in real or pretended pain, pretending to enjoy what we don't enjoy. The same images are in mainstream movie theaters and res~ctable hotel rooms via closed-circuit TV for the traveling businessman. They are brought into our own homes not only in magazines, but in the new form of video cassettes. Even video games otTer such features as a smiling, rope-bound woman and a male figure with an erection, the game's object being to rape Ihe woman as many times as possible. (Like much of pornography, that game is fascist on racial grounds as well as sexual ones. The smiling woman is an Indian maiden, the rapist is General Custer, and the game is called ."Custer's Revenge.") Though "snuff' movies in which real women were eviscerated and finally killed have been driven undergrpund (in part because the graves of many murdered women were discovered around the shack of just one filmmaker in California). movies that simulate the torture murders of women are still going strong. (Snuff is the porn tenn for killing a woman for sexual pleasure. There is not even the seriousness of a word like murder.) So are the "kiddie porn" or "chicken porn" movies and magazines that show adult men ~ndressing, fondling, and sexually using children; often with the titillating theme that "fathers" are raping "daughters." Some "chicken porn" magazines offer explicit tips on how to use a child sexually without leaving physical evidence of rape, the premise being that children! s testimony is even less likely to be believed than that of adult women.

Add this pornography industry up. from magazines like Playboy.and Hustler,. to movies like Love Gesrapo Slyle, Deep Throat, or Angels in Pain, and the total sales come to a staggering eight billion dollars a year-more than all the sales of the conventional film and record industry combined. And thlit doesn't count the fact that many "conventional" film and music images are also pornographic, from gynocidal record jackets like the famous I'm "Black and Blue" from the Rolling Stones-and I Love It! (which showed a seminude black woman bound to a chair) to the hundreds of teenage sex-and-horror movies in which young women die sadistic deaths and rape is presented not as a crime but as sexual excitement. Nor do those industries include the sales of the supposedly "literary" forms of pornography, from The Story of 0 to the works of the Marquis de Sade.

If Nazi propaganda that justified the torture and killing of Jews were the theme of half of our most popular movies aod magazines, would we not be outraged'! If Ku Klux Klan propaganda that preached and even glamorized the enslavement of blacks were the subject of much-praised "classic" novels, would we not protest? We know that sllch racist propaganda precedes and justi lies the racist acts of pogroms and lynchings. We know that watching a violent film causes test subjects to both condone more violence afterward and to be willing to perpetuate it themselves. Why is the propaganda of sexual aggression against women of all races the one fonn in which the "conventional wisdom" sees no danger? Why is pornography the only media violence that is supposed to be a "safety valve" to satisfy men's "natural" aggressiveness somewhere short .of acting it out? .

The first reason is the confusion of all nonprocreative . sex with pornography. Any description of sexual behavior, or even nudity, may be called pornographic or obscene (a word whose Latin derivative means dirty or cotltuini"g filth) by those who insist that the only moral purpose of sex is procreative, or even that any portrayal of sexuality or nudity is against the will of God.

In fact, human beings seem to be the only animals that experience the same sex drive and pleasure at times when we can and cannot conceive. Other animals experience periods of heat or estrus. Humans do not. .

Just as we developed uniquely human capacities for language, planning, memory. and invention along our evo lutionary path, we also developed sexuality as a form of expression, a way of communicating that is separable from our reproductive need. For human beings, sexuality can be and often is a way of bonding, of giving and receiving pleasure. bridging differentness. discovering samcncss, and communicating emotion.

We developed this and other human gifts through our ability to change our environment, adapt to it physically, and so in the very long run to affect our own evolution. But as an emotional result of this spiraling path away from other animals, we seem to alternate between periods of exploring our unique abilities and feelings of loneliness in the unknown that we ourselves have created, a fear that sometimes sends us back to the comfort of the animal world by e,ncouraging liS to look for a sameness that is 110t there.

For insUlncc, the separation of "play" from ."work" is a feature of the human world. So is the differdlcc hetween art and .nature, or an intellecrual accomplishment and a physic;:aJ one. As a result, we celebrate play, art, and invention as pleasurable and important leaps into the unknown; . yet any temporary trouble can send us back to a nostalgia for our primate past and a conviction that the basics of.survival, nature, and physical labor are somehow more worthwhile or even more moral.

In the same way, we have explored our sexuality as separable from conception: a pleasurable, empathetic, important bridge to. others of our species. We have even invented contraception, a skill that has probably existed in some fonn since our ancestors figured out the process of conception and birth, in order to extend and protect this uniquely human gift. Yet we also have times of atavistic suspicion that sex .is not complete, or even legal or intended by God, if it does not or could not end in conception.

, No.wonder the very different concepts of "erotica" and Upornography" can be so confused. Both assume that sex can be separated from conception; that human sexuality has additional Uses' and goals. This is the major reason why, even. in our .current culture, both may still be condemned as equaJly obscene and immoral. Such gross condemnation of all sexuality that isn't

harnessed to childbirth (and to patriarchal marriage so that children are properly "owned" .by men) has been increased by the current backlash against women's independence. Out of fear that the whole patriarchal. structure will be eventually. upset if we as WOtr\en really have the autonomous power to decide our sexual and reproductive futures (that is, if we can control o\lr own bodies, and thus the means of reproduction), anti-equality groups are not only denouncing sex education and family planning as "pornographic," but are trying to use obscenity laws to stop the sending of all contraceptive information through the mails. Any sex or nudity outside the conte~t of patriarchal marriage and forced childbirth is their target. In fact, Phyllis Schlatly has denounced the entire women's movement. as "obscene."

Not surprisingly, this religious, visceral backlash has a secular, intellectual counterpart that relies heavily on applying the" natural" behavior of some selected pal1 of Ihe animal world to humans. This is questionable in itself, but such Lionel Tiger-ish studies make their political purpose even more clear by the animals they choose and the habits they emphasize. For example, some male primates carry and generally "mother" their infanrs, male' lions care for their young, female elephants often lead the clan, and male penguins literally do everything except give birth. from hatching the eggs to sacrificing their own membranes to feed the new arrivals. Perhaps that's why many male supremacists prefer to discuss chimps and baboons (many of whom are studied in atypical conditions of' captivity) whose behavior is suitably male-dominant. The message is that human females should accept their animal "destiny" of being sexually dependent and devote themselves to bearing and rearing their young.

Defending against such repression and reaction leads to the temptation to merely reverse the tenns and declare that all nonprocreative sex is good. In fact, however, this human activity can be as constructive or destructive, moral or immoral, as any other. Sex as communication can send messages as different as mutual pleasure and dominance, life and death, "erotica" and "pornography."

The second kind of problem comes not from those who oppose women's equality in nonsexual areas, whether on grounds of God or nature, but from men (and some women, too) who present themselves as friends of civil liberties and progress. Their opposition may take the fonn of a concern about privacy, on the grounds that a challenge to pornography invades private sexual behavior and the philosophy of "whatever turns you on." It may be a concern about class bias, on the premise that pornography is just "workingmen's erotica. It Sometimes, it's the simple argument that they themselves like pornography and therefore it must be okay. Most often, however, this resistance attaches itself to or hides behind an expressed concern about censorship, freedom of the press, and the First Amendment.

In each case, such liheral ohjections are more easily countered than the anti-equality ones because they arc less based on fact. It's true, for instance, that women's independence and autonomy would upset the whole patriarchaJ apple cart: the conservatives are right to be worried. It's not true, however, that pornography is a private concern. If it were just a matter of me" making male:.supremacist literature in their own basements to assuage their own sexual hang-ups, there would be sorrow and avoidance among women, but not the anger, outrage, and fear produced by being confronted with the preaching of sexual fascism on our newsstands, movie screens, television sets, and public streets. It is a multi-billion-dollar industry, which involves the making of public policy I if only to decide whether, as is now the case, crimes committed in the manufacture and sale of pornography will continue to go largely', unprosecuted. Zoning regulations on the public display of pornography are not enforced, the sexual slavery and exploitation of children goes unpunished, the forcible use of teenage runaways is ignored by police, and even the torture and murder of prostitutes for men's sexual titillation is obscured by some mitigating notion that the women asked for it. .

In all other areas of privacy, the limitation is infringement on the rights ana lives and. safety of others. That must become true for pornography. Right now, it is exempt: alrnost "below the'law."

As for class bias, it's simply not accurate to say that pornography is ef(~tica with less education. From the origins of the words,' as well as the careful way that feminists working against pornography are trying to use them, it's clear there is a, substantive difference, not an artistic or economic one. Pornography is about dominance. Erotica is pbout mutuality. (Any man able to empathize with women can easily tell the difference by looking at a photograph or film and putting himself in the woman's skin. There is some evidence that poor or discriminated-against men are better able to do this than rich ones.) Perhaps the most revealing thing is thut this argument is generally made 011 behalf of the working class by propornography liberals, but not by working-class spokespeople themselves.

Of course, the idea that enjoying pornography makes it okay is an overwhelmingly male one. From Kinsey forward, research has confirmed that men are the purchasers of pornography, and that the majority of men are turned on by it, while the majority of women find it angering, humiliating, and not a turn-on at all. This was true even though . women were shown sexually explicit material that may have included erotica, since Kinsey and others did not make that distinction. If such rare examples of equal sex were entirely deleted, pornography itself could probably serve as sex aversion-therapy for most women; yet many men and some psychologists continue to call women prudish, frigid, or generally unhealthy if they are not turned on by their own domination. The same men might be less likely to argue that anti-Semitic and racist literature was equally okay because it gave them pleasure, or that they wanted their children to grow up with the same feelings about people of other races, other classes, that had been intlicted on them. The problem is that the degradation of women of all races is still thought to be normal.

Nonetheless, there are a few well. meaning women who are both turned on by pornography and angered that other women are not. Some of their anger is misunderstanding: objections to pornography are not condemnations of women who have been raised to believe sex and domination are synonymous, but objections to the idea that such domination is the only form that normal sexuality can take. Some times, this anger results from an underestimation of themselves: being turned on by a rape fantasy is not the same thing as wanting 'to be raped. As Robin Morgan has pointed out, the distinguishing feature of a fantasy is that the fantasizer herself is in control. Both men and women have "ravishment" fantasies in which we are passive while others act out our unspoken wishes-but they are still our wishes. And some anger, especially when it comes from women who consider themselves feminists, is a refusal to ditTerentiate between what may be true for them now ~nd what might be improved for all women in the future. To use a small but related example, a woman may now be attracted only to men who are taller, heavier, and older than she, but still understand that such superficial restrictions 011 the men she loves and enjoys going to bed with won't exist in a more free and less-stereotyped future. Similarly, some lesbians may find themselves following the masculine-feminine patterns that were our only model for intimate relationships, heterosexual or not, but still see these old patterns clearly and try to equalize them. It isn't that women attracted to pornography cannot also be feminists, but that pornography itself must be'recognized as an adversary of women's safety and equality. and therefore, in the long run. of feminism.

Finally, there is the First Amendment argument against feminist anti-pornography campaigns: the most respectable and public' opposition, but also the one with the least basis in fact. .

Feminist groups are not arguing for censorship of pornography, or for censorship of Nazi literature or racist propaganda of the Ku Klux Klan. For one thing, any societal definition of pornography in a male-dominant society (or of racist literature in a racist society) probably would punish the wrong people. Freely. chosen homosexual expression might be considered more "pornographic" than snuff movies, or contraceptive courses for teenagers more "obscene" than bondage, Furthennore, censorship in itself, even with the proper definitions, would only driv~ pornography into more underground activity and, were it to follow the pattern of drug traffic, into even more profitability; Most important, the First Amendment is part of . a. statement of' individual rights against government intervention that feminism seeks to expand, not contract: for instance, a woman's right to decide whether and when to have children. When we protest against pornography and educate' others about it, as I am doing now, we are strengthening the First Amendment by exercising it.

The only legal steps suggested by feminists thus far have been the prosecution of those pornography makers who are accused of murder or assault and ballery, prosecution of those who use children under the age of consent, enforcement of existing zoning and other codes that are breached because of payoffs to law-enforcement officials and enonnous rents paid to pornography's landlords, and use of public-nuisance statutes to require that pornography not be displayed in public places where its sight cannot reasonably be avoided. All of those measures involve enforcement of existing law, and none has been interpreted as a danger to the First Amendment.

Perhaps the reason for this controversy is less substance than smokescreen. Just as earlier feminist campaigns to combat rape were condemned by sorite civil libertarians as efforts that would end by putting only men of color or poor men in jail, or in perpetuating the death penalty, antipornography campaigns are now similarly opposed. In fact, the greater publicity given to rape exposed the fact that white psychiatrists, educators, and other professionals were just as likely to be rapists, and changes in the law reduced penalties to ones that were more appropriate and thus more likely to be administered. Feminist efforts also changed the definition to sexuaJ assault so that men were protected, too.

Though there are no statistics on the purchasers of pornography, clerks, movie-house owners, video-cassette dealers, mail-order houses, and others who serve this clientele usually remark on their respectability. their professional standing, suits, briefcases, white skins, and middle-class zip codes. For instance, the lasl screening of a snuff movie showing a real murder was traced to the monthly pornographic film showings of a senior partner in a respected law firm; an event regularly held by him for a group of friends including other lawyers and judges. One who was present reported that many were "embarrassed" and "didn't know what to say." But not one man was willing to object, much less offer this evidence of murder to the police. Though some concern about censorship is sincere-the result of false reports that feminist anti-pornography campaigns were really calling for censorship, or of confusion with right-wing groups who both misdefine pornography and want to censor ii-much of it seems to be a cover for the preservation of the pornographic status quo.

In fact, the obstacles to taking on pornography seem slispiciolisly like the virgin-whore divisions that have been women's only choices in the past. The right wing says all that is not virginal or motherly is pornographic, and thus they campaign against sexuality and nudity in general. The left wing says all sex is good as long as it's male-defined, and thus pornography must be protected. Women who feel endangered by being the victim, and men who feel demeaned by being the: victimizer, have a long struggle ahead. In fact, pornography will continue as long as boys are raised to believe they must control or conquer women as a measure of manhood, as long as society rewards men who .believe that success or even functioning-in sex as in other areas of life-depends on women's subservience.

But we now have words to describe our outrage and separate sex from, violence. We now have the courage to demonstrate publicly against pornography, to keep its magazines and films out of our houses, to boycott its purveyors, to treat even friends and family members who support it as seriously as we would treat someone who supported and enjoyed Nazi literature or the teachings of the Klan.

But until we finally untangle sexuality and aggression, . there will be more pornography and less erotica. There will be little murders in our beds-and very little love.

-1977 AND 1978