6. Fetishizing Pornography

      Freedom of Expression vs. Obscenity





“A woman who has Playboy in the house is like a Jew who has Mein Kampf on the table." (Gloria Steinham, qtd. in Abel 7)


The history of pornography – beginning with the history of fetishism in 17th and 18th century Europe – and its acceptance and persistence in society is muddled. However, debates centred on pornography (herein referred to both as “porn” and “erotica”) exploded in the mid 1980’s when American, Canadian and British feminist groups declared that sexual violence was the “key moment in women’s oppression” (Rodgerson and Wilson 11). However, the debate within feminist organizations over porn’s role as an oppressive medium and American Conservatives’ efforts to restrict it on the grounds of obscenity illuminate the key point raised in this essay: porn must be declared to be pornographic. This observation may seem redundant but it brings to light that the classification of “pornographic content” is subject to social stigma, taboo and most importantly, the ever-shifting vagaries of taste. Touching upon the history of social taste, fetish and taboo in Canada, the U.S. and Britain, this essay will outline the changing social classification of what can be considered “erotic.” This will lead to an analysis of the contemporary legal-political debate surrounding porn, particularly in relation to events which led to the decisions made by the Supreme Court of Canada (1) and the U.S. Attorney General's Meese Commission (2) advocating the censorship of erotica. To critique the validity of those decisions, I will turn to John Stuart Mill for philosophical guidance and his linkage of the notion of women's liberty to his conception of free expression and hateful speech. It will be argued that the contemporary feminist claim that all pornographic content is harmful to women presupposes a singular definition of porn as well as a singular conception of “woman” (her sexuality and experience of violence) and so cannot support the censorship of all erotic material.

Typically, the mystique of fetishism is seen only through the lens of the doctor's judgmental eye, as opposed to that of an intrigued voyeur: Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (after whom the term “masochism” was coined) was “very annoyed to find himself in a textbook on psychopathic sex,” (Steele 5) as the acts long predate medical interpretation. As Valerie Steele noted in her history of fetish fashion, “porn” (and more accurately, fetish) can be seen more clearly through the experiences of the tight-lacing (3) enthusiasts of the late 19th century as illustrated in European publications such as Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine. Steele points out that it was common for correspondents to write of men and boys being forcibly tight-laced “at the hands of dominant women” (Steele 65). She also writes of the emergence of shoe fetishism in 18th century Europe – a fetish which has remained commercially viable in mainstream Europe and North America (Steele 97). Despite this commercialization (i.e. selling of shoes, PVC garments, lingerie, etc.) the eye of judgment remains; the very word fetish traces back to idolatry, a great sin in Christian sects and is – within the context of the sexual – seen as perversion or deviancy even to those who are fetishists (Steele 5). To understand the nature of fetish, we should first understand its historical significance as well as how it has changed – or remained static – over time. From the 17th century onward, Christian missionaries referred to fetishists as people who were otherwise viewed as pagans: groups or individuals who “worshipped ‘idols of wood or clay’” (Ibid.). The Judeo-Christian meaning of fetishism still contained connotations of the sexual, emblematic in its assumptions that “barbarous” people lacked decency and chastity (Steele 5). The perception that the fetishist is unholy and so is unusual, perverted and ultimately different has carried into the contemporary secular West despite shifts in what is culturally defined as “normal,” “usual” and “sane.”

In the early 19th century, the classification of “perverse” and the sexual deviant became central to the definition of the fetishist (Steele 6). However, by the late 19th century fetishism took on an added meaning when Karl Marx outlined “commodity fetishism,” (Steele 5) thrusting the term into the realm of social and economic power. Marx’s concept of commodity fetishism accorded special power to the object being fetishized, as the individual producing the object projects onto it a hieroglyphic mystery. Feminist theorist Anne McClintock relates this process to the demonization of porn, stating, “[f]etishizing pornography projects onto it a spurious power” (Steele 6). McClintock argues that anti-porn feminists oversimplify violence against women and idealize porn when they argue that it is the “primal cause of all male violence and all women’s subjection” (Ibid.).

The power that has been projected onto porn is rooted in the assumption that all porn and fetish are not only products of violence against women but also producers of it. The former U.S. Attorney General, Republican Edwin Meese III, was ordered by Reagan in the late 1980s to lead a Commission on Pornography designed to “find ‘new ways to control the problem of pornography’” (Vance 441). Between 1985 and 1986 the Commission held public hearings and conferences, culminating in nearly 2,000 pages detailing people’s experiences with sexual imagery (Ibid.). Among the testimony heard at the Meese Commission hearings was the experience of Larry Madigan. His testimony outlined the appetite he had developed for porn at a young age, stimulated by Playboy and Penthouse magazines and ended with his declaration: “I am a victim of pornography” (Vance 440). Madigan feared that had he not found Christ and had instead continued relying on porn and promiscuous sex, he would have ended up a “pervert, an alcoholic, or dead” (Ibid.). Madigan’s account was one of many detailing social disintegration, as well as female sexual vulnerability, at the hands of male desire – and so the Meese Commission elaborated upon already-standing obscenity laws. While the Commission has since been accused of misusing feminist claims against porn and its findings have since been ridiculed for obvious bias – Meese’s commission was comprised mostly of Neo-Conservatives and was very particular with regard to the witness selection process – it gained support for legislative changes to obscenity laws. The Commission was also quickly accused of legislating sexual shame, which many feminists groups believe was likely the aim of the Commission, whose board was strongly against sex-education and financial or psychological services for female prostitutes (Vance 441-2).

Social and political anthropologist Jack McIver Weatherford published the findings of his own experiment the same year the Meese Commission published its report. In Weatherford’s book, Porn Row, he details his investigation of Washington, D.C.’s Fourteenth Street, in which he actively participated by working at a porn shop. His colloquial imagery of the strip – then dubbed “red light” or, more commonly, “Sex Strip” – is compelling. He juxtaposes the flashing lights of the many sex emporiums, strip clubs and bathhouses with the flashing lights of the McDonald’s, Burger King and Dairy Queen fast-food restaurants, among others. In his chapter entitled “Junk-Food Sex,” Weatherford summarizes the Washington Strip in this observation: “Twenty-four hours a day, the Strip offered every available pleasure of contemporary sexuality and appetite. The visitor could have a Big Mac with one of Kim’s great blow jobs… or a simple chocolate-dipped ice cream cone and a fast fuck” (3-4).

Weatherford’s account of the Strip immediately stirs emotions, comparable to Marx’s description of feelings of alienation, from oneself and others, as a result of commoditization.(4) Throughout his book Weatherford draws our attention to the parallels between fast-food and what can be dubbed “fast-sex” making abundantly clear how the emotional, romantic intensity of sex can be desensitized and indeed abusive on this lonely Washington strip. However, it is important to step back from the emotional response we may have toward one location, or one sub-culture, to avoid assuming that all sexual subcultures are alike. While Steele draws similar parallels between fetishization and commercialism in her discussion of popular French fashion, she is quick to draw attention to the fact that the fetish predates its fashion-commodity, saying: “The commercialization of fetishistic sexuality may have popularized neosexualities but it did not create them” (53). Though the religious, reserved, or Neo-Conservative may argue that porn is immoral due to its “promotion” of lust and the feminist may argue that porn is sexist, it is important to note that lust and sexism predate porn; it is even more important to observe how contemporary obscenity laws translate anti-porn sentiment into practice.

The Meese Commission articulated an intersection of feminist and conservative arguments against porn. However, those disparate perspectives often conflicted. Members of the panel proposed a “vibrator bill,” which was quickly withdrawn after several (female) panelists discovered that it would ban all sale and use of vibrators. Initially, many feminist groups were quick to support the Commission but after many public addresses they discovered that the Commission was entirely uninterested in discussing the rights of female prostitutes and was instead in favour of increasing arrest and punishment of such women (Vance 443). Because the panel favoured banning porn/erotica, it did not make sense to them to improve education and awareness about sexually transmitted infections, or to decriminalize or regulate prostitution, since such measures would require the publication of erotic images (i.e. safe-sex handbooks) and could encourage men to continue to solicit prostitution. Many Meese Commission panellists later became members of the National Coalition Against Pornography, which in 1992 made public service announcements showing a high-school yearbook photo of three girls with the caption: “1 in 3 American girls will be sexually molested by age 18. Isn't time we got rid of the instruction manual?” (qtd. in Abel 14). To the panellists, banning porn meant an end to discussions not only about porn but about sex in general.

Dating back to 1983, during the drive for the first U.S. anti-porn legislation, anti-porn feminist groups rallied en masse to declare that porn was a direct threat from men against women because it “socialized men to be dominating and women to be victimized… [leading to] actual sexual violence” (Vance 443). A substantial quantity of pornographic content exists to substantiate such claims: videos of groups of men raping a screaming woman, or of one man beating a woman who is screaming “NO!” and other such imagery of an overwhelmingly dominant, abusive male having sex with a helpless woman – or, most abhorrently, a child or child-like woman (Vance 443-4). Such images of brutality serve to uphold the stature of male power and enforce female subordination. Moreover, such images can inspire male fantasy into action, as evidenced by some cases where men have forced their female partners to watch and even act out those scenarios (Vance 444). Such images deserve to be condemned, but one must ask whether or not they represent all erotic content and whether or not they necessarily incite the dominant behaviour of men and the victimization of women.

In 1992, the Canadian Supreme Court ruled affirmatively that all pornographic images were deplorable and ruled in favour of tightening obscenity laws, further restricting both porn and “obscene expression” (Pitchford 3). The ruling resulted from the Butler case (5) (named after the porn-dealing defendant) and its restrictions on what published materials storeowners can buy and sell have had drastic effects on Canadians and Americans alike. The ruling was based in part on the testimony of feminist and anti-porn activist Andrea Dworkin and legal scholar Catharine McKinnon, both of whom affirmed that porn could and should be classified as “‘sexually explicit material that involves violence or degradation [which] violates women’s rights by creating an environment hostile to them” (Pitchford 4). To Dworkin and McKinnon, the mere existence of porn is a danger to all women everywhere, because it reasserts and embodies male dominance (Strossen 11).

Dworkin’s testimony is overshadowed by the fact that many of her books have since been seized and confiscated at the U.S.-Canada border as a direct result of the rulings of the Butler case and have therefore failed to make it into bookstores (Pitchford 3-4). The Canadian Supreme Court’s ruling decreed that such materials deemed to fall under the category of porn were without “redeeming social value” (Pitchford 12). While Dworkin has argued in favour of pastiche (ironic parody), art, photography and other bold visual political statements as a means of helping women to understand and appreciate their bodies, safe-sex guides for straight and gay people alike, women’s erotic literature (written by women for women), queer erotica and more have been seized at border crossings before reaching the bookstores, emporiums and galleries awaiting them (Pitchford 14-5). The results of the Butler case complicate the feminist goals of expanding sexual freedom, liberty and education because subsequent obscenity laws view them as pornographic and therefore outside the ambit of free expression deserving of legal protection.

It should be noted that not all feminists agree with Dworkin or McKinnon. As stated above, there are many texts, videos and other visual media used by women – many of whom are part of feminist organizations – that fall under the category of erotica. The homoerotic photographs by Vogue artist Carl Van Vechten invoked hatred from conservative groups while publicizing and inspiring black and/or gay men throughout Harlem and the rest of the United States (Smalls 144, 149). Conversely, French surrealist painter René Magritte's Le Viol (The Rape) was damned by anti-porn crusaders for its portrayal of a neck, a head of hair and, in place of a face, the breasts, abdomen and vagina of a woman (Strossen 160). McKinnon has been quoted as saying that “if pornography is part of your sexuality, you have no right to your sexuality” (Strossen 161), a statement with which Veronica Vera, a porn and female-oriented erotica actress and producer, took great offence (Strossen 160). Nadine Strossen, in response to McKinnon and her contemporaries, reminds her readers of U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan and his infamous quote: “One man's vulgarity is another man's lyric,” reinterpreting it in her declaration that: “One woman's subordinating scene is another woman's liberating scene” (Ibid.).

The emotional and psychological damage derived from the subordinating scene versus the immense pleasure and possibilities of the liberating scene are important to weigh when considering current obscenity laws. In this debate we can productively turn to John Stuart Mill, a father of the modern Western conception of civil rights, a liberal and (in contemporary terms) a feminist. To preface Mill’s stance, it should be noted that he did not deem one sex to be inherently superior to the other, which is exemplified by his statement: “I deny that any one knows, or can know, the nature of the two sexes, as long as they have only been seen in their present relation to one another” (Mill 155). Mill did not propose that there was something essential about womanhood but rather argued that the dominant, self-proclaimed “masters” (men) projected the female identity onto women. Particularly, he characterized women’s enforced dependence upon men as an outgrowth of the constructed perception of women's “delicate” nature (Mill 155). He further questioned the essentialist thinking of his time by suggesting the absence of a singular female identity:

[T]o understand one woman is not necessarily to understand any other woman; that even if he could study many women of one rank, or of one country, he would not thereby understand women of other ranks or countries; and even if he did they are still only the women of a single period of history... until women themselves have told all that they have to tell. (Mill 159)

His statement of the need for a female voice can be found not only within the Subjection of Women (1869), as quoted above but also within On Liberty (1859) where he more generally states the need for many voices.

Mill believed that in a liberal state, free speech was of the utmost importance to ensure both the protection of people's fundamental liberties and the progression of thought itself (Mill 42-3).(6) Free speech and expression ensure that opinion is not stated or misrepresented as truth, but also, somewhat paradoxically, present the seeming paradox that this does indeed propel us toward the search for truth itself. The crux of Mill's argument for free speech – and thus his argument against censorship – is that there must be a forum for discussion and, within it, all sides of the argument must be presented. He emphasized the unequivocal importance of thoughtful, even daring, rebuttals, stating: “Mankind ought to have rational assurance that all objections have been satisfactorily answered; and how are they to be answered if that which requires to be answered is not spoken?” (Mill 45). His argument has a double meaning: one must voice objections to statements, opinions, or facts on behalf of one's fellow people who may not possess the same knowledge but one must also be given the forum to publicly articulate such objections.

Mill's view is incredibly cognizant of the value of community and the responsibilities one has to their fellow beings. Accordingly, he does address restrictions that should be imposed upon free speech, namely, upon such speech that incites negative action toward a fellow person. He states that one may be justified in limiting the actions of another when – and only when – “the conduct from which it is desired to deter him, must be calculated to produce evil to someone else” (Mill 16). When expression and act become so intertwined, there are clear outlines in Mill's work that can guide us in our response. These norms play a particularly important role in protecting those who do not have sovereignty over themselves, such as children. Child pornography, both as a form of expression and as an act, cannot be seen as acceptable because the child does not yet have the capacity to make a sound decision regarding their body or their sexuality.(7)

Prolific feminist Gloria Steinem declared: “A woman who has Playboy in the house is like a Jew who has Mein Kampf on the table” (qtd. in Abel 7). However, by Mill's understanding, even if Playboy does not do justice to the experience of women, it should be the woman's task to understand what is being written, displayed and interpreted and provide a counter to it. If she does not, or proclaims only that it be censored, then she herself cannot speak to it, thereby giving it greater power. As Mill stated, there is not only one singular female experience and so there is no one ultimate understanding of what it means to be a woman. By that same reasoning, there is not one essential female understanding, conception or representation of female sexuality. Mill also addresses that there have been, throughout political, social and scientific history, male attempts to categorize female sexuality and identity. In Mill's Britain it was a common belief that true women simply did not have erotic desires (Steele 47). This idealized form of female sexuality is really an asexual vision divorced of any diversity, leaving no place for lesbians, bisexuals, sadomasochists, trans or curious women. Some who identify with some or all of these categories believe that anti-porn feminists re-articulate that traditional, oppressive vision of feminine sexuality (Abel 8).

Mill advocated the importance of open expression of a plurality of thoughts and opinions as a means to advance thought as a whole and so lead Western society toward a greater understanding of itself and of other cultural groups. His view does not contain a justification for the majority to censor views that are counter to the personal tastes of some, or even many. Mill wrote, “an opinion of a point of conduct, not supported by reasons, can only count as one person's preference; and if the reasons, when given, are a mere appeal to a similar preference felt by other people, it is still only many people's likings instead of one” (Mill 12). Yet both the Meese Commission and the Supreme Court of Canada have broached this liberal tradition, ritualistically overturning testimonials and denying the claims given by anti-censorship feminists, female sex-trade workers and lesbians (Abel 10). While many feminists argued vehemently that porn silenced them, they in turn helped to silence millions more and continue to do so as bookstores close and
books remain in boxes at Canadian-U.S. border crossings.



Works Cited

Abel, Richard L. Speaking Respect, Respecting Speech. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998. Print.

Canada. Supreme Court of Canada. R. v. Butler [1992 ], 1 S.C.R. 452. Print.

Casavant, Lyne and James R. Robertson. The Evolution of Pornography Law in Canada. Law and Government Division, Library of Parliament, Ottawa. Web. 25 Oct. 2007. CIR 84-3E <www.parl.gc.ca/information/library/PRBpubs/

Feminists Against Censorship. Pornography and Feminism: The Case Against Censorship. Ed. Gillian Rodgerson and Elizabeth Wilson. London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1991. Print.

Mill, John Stuart. “On Liberty.” On Liberty and The Subjection of Women. Ed. Alan Ryan. London: Penguin Books, Ltd., 2006. 1-129. Print.

Pitchford, Nicola. “Reading Feminism's Pornography Conflict: Implications for Postmodernist Reading Strategies.” Sex Positives?: The Cultural Politics of Dissident Sexualities. Ed. Thomas Foster, et al. New York: New York University Press, 1997. 3-38. Print.

Small, James. “Public Face, Private Thoughts: Fetish, Interracialism, and the Homoerotic in Some Photographs by Carl Van Vechten.” Sex Positives?: The Cultural Politics of Dissident Sexualities. Ed. Thomas Foster, et al. New York: New York University Press, 1997. 144-193. Print.

Steel, Valerie. Fetish: Fashion, Sex and Power. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. Print.

Strossen, Nadine. Defending Pornography: Free Speech, Sex, and the Fight for Women's Rights. New York: New York University Press, 2000. Print.

United States. U.S. Department of Justice. Attorney General's Commission on Pornography. Final Report, Washington, D.C.: July 1986. Print.

Vance, Carole S. “Negotiating Sex and Gender in the Attorney General’s Commission on Pornography.” In The Gender/Sexuality Reader: Culture, History, Political Economy. Ed. Roger N. Lancaster and Micaela di Leonardo. New York: Routledge, 1997. 440-52. Print.

Weatherford, Jack McIver. Porn Row. New York: Arbor House, 1986. Print.



1. The Supreme Court of Canada upheld the constitutionality of the obscenity provisions in the Criminal Code, in R. v. Butler [1992 ], 1 S.C.R. 452.

2. United States. U.S. Department of Justice. Attorney General's Commission on Pornography. Final Report, Washington, D.C.: July 1986.

3. “Tight-lacing” refers not only to the use of the corset but its extreme use, day and night, to markedly reduce waist-size. Tight lacing is currently referred to as a fetish as it often brought sadomasochistic ‘delight’ to the women and men wearing them (Steele 59). For more information on tight-lacing, refer to Valerie Steel’s Fashion and Eroticism.

4. Refer to Marx and Engles’ writings both within the Communist Manifesto and The Birth of the Communist Manifesto, both to be found in Dirk J. Struik's edition (New York: International Publishers, 1971).

5. R vs. Butler, op.cit.

6. For Mill, within the liberal state, expression is that which both asserts the power of government but which can also be used to break tyrannical rule.

7. For a more detailed account of Mill's perspective of the mental faculties of children, refer to On Liberty, both his introductory chapter and his fourth chapter, Of the Limits to the Authority of Society Over the Individual.



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Jessica Surtees is a third year Honours Political Science Major, with a Minor in Gender, Sexuality and Culture. It is her goal to pursue the study of the politics of sexuality, desire and freedom of expression in graduate school. She is also a part of the budding drumming and visual arts community in Toronto's Kensington Market.