Last month Amy Schumer declared that women are "entitled" to orgasm. This month the FDA sanctioned "female Viagra." And this year the Feminist Porn Awards celebrated its tenth anniversary. Feminist porn, according to filmmaker Tristan Taormino, "prioritizes female pleasure."
But in the late 1970s, when the notion of female sexual pleasure was first becoming a topic of dinner party conversation, not everyone was so optimistic about the possibilities of porn. In fact, hundreds of feminists across the nation—including the queen bee herself, Gloria Steinem—believed that rather than nurturing erotic fantasies, pornography amounted to violence against women.
"There can be no ‘equality’ in porn, no female equivalent, no turning of the tables in the name of bawdy fun," wrote feminist author Susan Brownmiller in her 1975 book Against Our Will, a groundbreaking treatise on sexual violence. "Pornography, like rape, is a male invention, designed to dehumanize women, to reduce the female to an object of sexual access."
Like today's feminist pornographers, anti-porn feminists wanted nothing more than to challenge what sex looked like on screen. They wanted an authentic experience of their own sexualities, free from fear of exploitation or abuse, without the specter of violence.
But unlike today's feminist pornographers, a handful of these feminists believed that porn was and always would be an essentially irredeemable form. And if they had succeeded back in the 1980s, there wouldn't be any feminist porn today—or any porn at all.
The early 1970s saw the dawn of the so-called "Golden Age of Porn." Think Deep Throat, in which fellatio helps Linda Lovelace finally locate her clitoris (it's in her throat), and Behind the Green Door. Both films were ridiculously successful at the box office—but perhaps more notably, they were embraced by the mainstream. A film critic for The New York Times called Deep Throat "the one porno film in New York chic to see and be seen at."
And porn didn't stop in theaters. "Girlie" magazines like Playboy, which didn't feature full-frontal nudity until 1972, spawned raunchier fare like Penthouse in 1969 and Hustler in 1974. Hustler's hard-core porn proved incredibly popular, selling 2.76 million copies a month by 1976.
As the era progressed, the Golden Age lost its shine as porn grew increasingly violent. While Deep Throat and its ilk had annoyed, bored, or angered feminists—feminist cultural critic Ellen Willis called it a "sexual depressant"—it was nothing compared to the 1976 film Snuff. The sexploitation film about bikers on a killing spree culminated in the supposedly "real" murder and dismemberment of its main actress. (In fact, the producer of the film started these rumors himself as a PR scheme.) It was marketed under the tagline "Made in South America, where life is cheap."
Despite later assurances that the actress' death had been staged, feminists in New York City picketed Snuff at the National Theater in Times Square in February 1976, even suggesting the city ban it. The film ultimately inspired women across the country to form a coalition called Women Against Violence Against Women to fight it, protesting in theaters across the nation.
This was just the first of many feminist battles against violent and exploitative media. Months after Snuff premiered, the Rolling Stones advertised their new album with an image of a bruised woman, legs spread, hands tied above her head and the tagline, "I'm Black and Blue from the Rolling Stones and I Love It!"
Feminists were livid. (Imagine the furor over Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines," times a hundred.) After successfully getting the poster taken down from the Sunset Strip, Women Against Violence Against Women began to organize boycotts of record companies that used violent, misogynistic artwork or copy to sell music, hoping to prevent similar advertising campaigns in the future. Movies, songs, or other media that showed women as the natural and willing victims of abuse were not to be tolerated, these feminists argued, since they taught men that such brutality was not only permissible, but erotic. Through stopping images of violence, Women Against Violence Against Women reasoned, violence itself might be ceased.
Though Women Against Violence Against Women initially focused on sexualized violence in all media, pornography rapidly rose as a primary target for other feminist organizations.
By 1977, feminists in California had formed Women Against Violence in Pornography and Media, which organized the first feminist conference on porn. The event took place in San Francisco in November of 1978. Afterward, thousands of women hit the streets in a Take Back the Night march through the city's North Beach "porn district," behind a large float meant to symbolize women's sexual oppression.
While some at the San Francisco conference spoke of "the need for pornography that speaks to women's fantasies and needs," according to the feminist newspaper off our backs, most condemned porn as a form of misogyny, something to be fiercely fought, even annihilated. Pornography, according to its critics, did nothing to liberate women sexually, since it wasn't about sex but power and control. As Susan Brownmiller later wrote in a 1979 editorial, "the feminist objection to pornography is based on our belief that pornography represents hatred of women."
(One particularly egregious example came in the form of the infamous June 1978 issue of Hustler—the "all meat" issue. The cover shows a pair of women's legs being fed into a meat grinder and turned into hamburger, accompanied by a quote from the magazine's publisher, Larry Flynt: "We will no longer hang women up like pieces of meat." Feminists were horrified, organizing boycotts across the country. But the magazine had simply made clear what many already knew: in porn, women were bodies to be exploited for men's pleasure.)
Fighting porn was key to preventing sexual assault and rape, anti-porn feminists argued. While social scientists did not agree on whether or how porn contributed to rape at the time, anti-porn feminists thought the link was obvious. At the San Francisco conference, for example, sociologist Kathy Barry urged attendees not to wait for expert testimony on the effects of pornography but to rely on their common sense and personal experience.
Many anti-porn feminists were also concerned that women were being actively harmed in the production of pornography. For instance, Andrea Dworkin, who also spoke at the conference, opened her 1979 book Pornography: Men Possessing Women with the story of a woman who was forced into pornography against her will then "drugged, raped, gang-raped, imprisoned, beaten, sold from one pimp to another, photographed by pimps, photographed by tricks."
Feminists felt a moral obligation to take the industry down—and they intended to do so.
Just a few weeks after the San Francisco event, the battle returned to New York—with an even higher profile gathering.
The event was organized by a group dedicated solely to anti-pornography activism: Women Against Pornography. The New York Times described the conference as a passionate, emotional affair. Anti-porn feminists showed pornographic images of women being bound, chained, gagged, or tortured. Speaker Andrea Dworkin concluded that "fascist propaganda celebrating the sexual degradation of women is sweeping this land."
Women Against Pornography's goal was simple: to end pornography. The organization, which had grown out of earlier feminist anti-media violence campaigns, attracted some major players—including Gloria Steinem, Susan Brownmiller, Sisterhood is Powerful editor Robin Morgan, sexologist Shere Hite, and well-known lesbian-feminist poet Adrienne Rich.
In June of 1979, the organization took up shop in Times Square—which it called "the capitol of the pornography industry" in its marketing materials. There, Women Against Pornography offered a tour of the area's porn shops and sex shows, billing them as "a real eye-opener for women who have never been inside these places."
Once settled in, Women Against Pornography began organizing another event, the "It's About Time" conference. It was to be held in September, followed by a march on Times Square on October 20, 1979. It was time, Women Against Pornography exhorted, to abolish pornography. "Can we really continue to let pictures and stories of rape, incest, and brutality flourish and pretend they have no connection to real crimes of violence?" asked one flyer.
Around 700 women attended the conference, according to The New York Times, taking the opportunity to tell "harrowing stories" about pornography's influence on their lives. A few weeks later, thousands marched with Gloria Steinem, Robin Morgan, Susan Brownmiller, and other well-known feminist figures. Many carried signs that read "Porn Hurts Women," and "Porn is Rape on Paper." During the speak-out after the march, outspoken politician Bella Abzug "told the crowd that pornography caused violence and should be outlawed," Carolyn Bronstein reports in her book.
Over the next four years, the activism spurred political action, and in 1983, feminist lawyer Catherine MacKinnon and fellow anti-porn activist Andrea Dworkin introduced model civil rights legislation to prohibit porn at the local level. The bill was developed after Linda Lovelace, the erstwhile star of Deep Throat, announced that she had been coerced into making the film and raped during its production. Dworkin and MacKinnon became interested in helping Lovelace find legal redress.
Concluding that pornography itself constituted a violent crime against women, this initial bill was meant to serve as a model for activists in other states with the same mission. Dworkin and MacKinnon argued that pornography wasn't hate speech, which is protected by the First Amendment, but a form of sex discrimination. The ordinance would mitigate the harm of pornography without resorting to obscenity law, which had historically been used to suppress sexually explicit feminist books like Our Bodies, Ourselves.
The legislation was radical and controversial from the start, with as many feminist detractors as supporters. Many women concerned about the effects of sexually explicit and violent media did not want to use legal measures to suppress porn. The rifts between anti-porn feminists who wanted to stop pornography at all costs and those who didn't widened and grew bitter, leading to what is now called the "feminist sex wars." In a 1985 article in the Washington Post, Feminist Anti-Censorship Taskforce member Lisa Duggins accused anti-porn feminists of having sided with the "organized irrationality" of "traditional moral conservatives."
Despite an initial victory—the City Council of Indianapolis approved a version of the Mackinnon-Dworkin ordinance in 1984—the attempt to legally define pornography as a form of "sex discrimination" ultimately failed. In 1986, the Indianapolis ordinance was overturned by the Supreme Court on First Amendment grounds. (A lower appeals court had previously ruled that the ordinance was "thought control.") The failure of the Indianapolis ordinance effectively ended the anti-porn movement. Bronstein writes, "Anti-pornography feminists saw their rhetoric and strategies co-opted and redirected to serve the interests of conservative moralists who hoped to suppress sexually explicit materials."
In the end, the failure of anti-porn feminism may have spurred the development of what we now call feminist porn. As 2013’s The Feminist Porn Book notes, the feminist campaign against pornography helped sex workers, sex radicals, sex positive, and anticensorship feminists find their common ground. Today's feminist pornographers owe their politics to a group of women who, forty years ago, might have profoundly disagreed with them.
Some still do. Just last year, Gloria Steinem said that "pornography is to women what Fascist literature was to Jews."
Samantha Meier is a freelance writer, researcher, and editor. She is currently at work on a history of the underground 1972 comix anthology Tits & Clits.