I was quite delighted to hear about the recent publication of The Feminist Porn Book, edited by Tristan Taormino, Celine Parreñas Shimizu, Constance Penley and Mireille Miller-Young, and chock full of authors I know and whose work I treasure.
A Letter to The Feminist Porn Book's Editors, by Gayle Rubin
So I was startled to see the headline for an article by Tracy Clark-Flory about the book on Salon titled “The Feminist Pornographer: Tristan Taormino, Editor of a New Book on X-rated Activism, Says It's Time to Find a Middle Ground in the Porn Wars.”
This story consisted of an interview with Tristan Taormino, one of the editors of the book, accompanied by some introductory remarks.
My surprise turned to dismay as I read the following passages from the Clark-Flory’s comments:
Not that feminism— which, like porn, is not a monolithic entity— is entirely resolved on the issue: That’s why this book, which is filled with compelling essays by porn performers, directors and academics, has appeared now, decades after the “porn wars” began.
These are testimonials about attempts to challenge those familiar foes of any Women’s Studies 101 class— from basic gender binaries to every “-ism” out there— but from inside the adult business.
What the book does most beautifully is carve out a middle ground: The unfortunate result of the “porn wars” was “the fixing of an antiporn camp versus a sex-positive/pro-porn camp,” argue the editors, Tristan Taormino, Celine Parreñas Shimizu, Constance Penley and Mireille Miller-Young, in the book’s introduction.
“On one side, a capital P ‘Pornography’ was a visual embodiment of the patriarchy and violence against women. On the other, Porn was defended as ‘speech,’ or as a form that should not be foreclosed because it might someday be transformed into a vehicle for women’s erotic expression.” Meanwhile, they say, the “nuances and complexities of lowercase ‘pornographies’ were lost in the middle” — and this book is an attempt to elevate that reasonable center.
This way of framing the history of debate over pornography within feminism is not uncommon, but it is dead wrong.
It is an erroneous narrative that distorts history and is unfair to many of the participants in those often bitter disputes. It badly misrepresents the contributions of countless individuals who have engaged with the antiporn movement since its inception. And unfortunately, despite its many laudable aspects, The Feminist Porn Book contributes to this mythology of the “missing middle.” Passages from its text framed the Salon reporter’s commentary.
The mythology to which I refer suggests that the porn/sex wars consisted of two extremes, equally in error, and that what was missing was a reasonable middle ground, a ground which the speaker or speakers du jour -- in this case editors and authors of The Feminist Porn Book -- are going to provide at long last.
This version of the story requires mischaracterizing most of us who were involved in the early arguments by casting us as unreasonable extremists who celebrated pornography without qualifications. It fails to recognize that we– essentially the first generation of feminist critics of the antiporn movement– made most of these so-called "reasonable middle" points in the late 1970s and early 1980s, back at the time when the porn debates first ignited.
This distorted narrative is recapitulated in the Salon piece, and positions The Feminist Porn Book as an intervention that redresses a mistake that “we” are supposed to have made, rather than as a current contribution to an ongoing struggle.
To be fair, the introduction to The Feminist Porn Book presents two distinct stories of the history of feminist conflict over pornography. The introduction generously credits the work of early critics such as Lisa Duggan, Nan Hunter, Kate Ellis, and Carole Vance, and it similarly acknowledges a good chunk of the earlier work, such as FACT and Caught Looking, Linda Williams, Jump Cut, etc.
The introduction situates the book into a "forty-year-long movement." But then a long passage resurrects the alternative narrative of two equally benighted factions, whose extremes can now be redressed by an ostensibly novel and rational middle ground.
Tracy Clark-Flory recapitulated the gist of this passage in the way she framed the Salon interview. Her comments closely mirrored the book’s text, which posits that an "unfortunate result of the porn wars" was "the fixing of an antiporn camp versus a sex-positive/pro-porn camp...The nuances and complexities of actual pornographies were lost in the middle.
"For example, sex-positive thinking does not always accommodate the ways in which women are constrained by sexuality." To whose alleged "sex-positive thinking" is this supposed to refer? Since there are no footnotes to this section, it is hard to know.
The introduction goes on to say that, "for us, sex-positive feminist porn does not mean that sex is always a ribbon tied box of happiness and joy." Who among the early critics of the antiporn movement is supposed to have said that it was?
I could cite chapter and verse from the crowd of those early feminist critics of the antiporn movement who noted that much, if not most, of the then existing porn ranged from boring and ill produced to sexist and loathsome, and who, circa 1980, were already calling for more woman-made, feminist, and generally better and more interesting porn.
Moreover, most of us spoke at length about the ways women are constrained sexually, and about the various social arrangements and inequalities that affect sexual practice and persons. A prime example is the explicit theme of the Barnard conference (1982) and the title of the subsequent book (1984): it was Pleasure AND Danger, not "All Pleasure All the Time." Ironically, I suspect that if anyone was unreservedly cheering for porn, it is more likely to have been some of the contributors to The Feminist Porn Book, many of whom operate in areas that allow for more unrestrained enthusiasms than do the conventions of cautious understatement that prevail in academic feminism.
To her credit, Tristan Taormino pushed back against the Salon reporter’s framework in her comments. She said "I think that for better or for worse, pro-sex or pro-porn feminists have this reputation for being like, “Hey, man, it’s all good!” First of all, I don’t think anyone ever said that, but it somehow has been repeated enough that it’s part of our popular cultural sense, that pro-porn feminists are “down with everything, man" (my italics).
I completely concur: that belief circulates, and it is erroneous. Hence it should be characterized as such and not be reiterated or recirculated.
Unfortunately, it is reiterated – quite explicitly – in the introduction to the book. The reporter simply rephrased the points she got from the passage noted above. So while I very much appreciate Tristan’s observation in Salon that she doesn’t “think anyone ever said that," the introduction to the book reinforces the assumption that someone did. Moreover, since there are no citations, it leaves the impression to most readers that it was, well, some of "us."
This particular narrative about the first generation of opponents of the antiporn movement has been articulated with considerable frequency since the late 1970s. Again, I could cite chapter and verse of people who have used that same rhetorical tactic to position their contributions as a reasonable and entirely original middle ground, while I and others are treated as if we were arguing that all porn was completely fabulous and politically unobjectionable. I get particularly annoyed when, while “we” are said to have had some kind of “extreme” position we never took, the same points we made almost four decades ago are presented as if they are fresh insights being stated for the first time.
It would have been more accurate to unequivocally affirm that many of the arguments and points made in the book have been expressed repeatedly by opponents of the antiporn movement since its genesis, and to be more clear about what is truly original about the Feminist Porn Book. There is much of value in this wonderful book, but it certainly is not the first occasion on which the complexities of porn and sexuality for women have been pointed out. I welcome the Feminist Porn Book as an exciting intervention in this decades long conflict, but I would welcome it more if it did not include language that encourages readings such as that of the Salon reporter.
This narrative would not be as aggravating if I had not experienced and seen firsthand the kind of abuse heaped on those who said, circa 1980, that the antiporn position was conceptually incoherent, empirically challenged, politically retrograde, and likely to be captured by right wing social conservatives in the service of antifeminist agendas.
We were treated as pariahs. We were called every name in the book, from antifeminists to Nazis. Critics of antiporn orthodoxy lost jobs and publishing opportunities. Groups and institutions were torn apart over invitations for us to speak. Our presence or participation in organizations and public events was relentlessly and viciously contested. Attempts were made to expel us from feminism, which was odd, since there were no criteria for membership. Nonetheless, various antiporn spokespeople acted as if they had Papal powers of excommunication and exorcism.
The harsh treatment scared a lot of people into silence. Others tried to avoid the same level of stigmatization and reputational damage by pioneering this tactic of what "we" even then called "mushy middlism." It consisted of characterizing the porn debates as being waged between two extremes, in which the early critics of antiporn were set up as straw dogs who were supposed to inhabit one of these ostensible extremes.
These characterizations of our alleged positions (such as total enthusiasm for all then existing porn) were usually and conveniently made without reference (or citations) to anything we actually wrote. Then the writer (and there were many who did this) said that she or he was going to express an original position that would provide a reasonable middle ground. The substantive content of this “reasonable middle” regularly consisted of exactly the same points that we had already made, and in print. While this tactic helped preserve the speaker’s credibility, it exacerbated the marginalization and demonization of those of us who first called out the antiporn arguments as pernicious bunk.
The first generation of anti-antiporn critics deserve better from subsequent ones. We are in this fight together and on the same side. Solidarity is the appropriate response, along with mutual appreciation for our respective efforts. It is too late to change that passage in the introduction, although I wish the editors had made their points more carefully, and with citations, so the targets of their criticisms were clear. I have asked them to be more cautious about future public pronouncements, and to do as much as possible to discredit rather than perpetuate this false narrative. Moreover, if anyone is going to make such claims about extremes in between which they are constructing a reasonable middle position, please footnote those claims so that I, Carole Vance, Kate Ellis, Ann Snitow, Ellen Willis, Dierdre English, Amber Hollibaugh, Alice Echols, Joan Nestle, Paula Webster, John D'Emilio, Lisa Duggan, Nan Hunter, Del Martin, Phyllis Lyon, Judy Walkowitz, and many others who bravely stood up to denounce antiporn politics are not confused with whoever these unreasonable, “pro-porn extremists" are supposed to have been.
Note: The Feminist Porn Book editors have replied to Gayle Rubin's letter, here.
Gayle Rubin’s most recent publication is Deviations: A Gayle Rubin Reader, Duke University Press.
Thanks to Gayle and The Feminist Porn Book's editors for allowing me to reprint their written correspondence. I'm one of the 29 contributors to the Book, with a story called "The Birth of a Blue Movie Critic." - SB