If there ever was a quintessential postfeminist issue, pornography is it.

(Modleski 1991:135)

Modleski’s comment is an interesting one in reflecting on the debates around pornography that preoccupied feminism in the 1970s and early 1980s. It is insightful, if by it she means that the issue of pornography encapsulated debates around sexuality, identity and representation, which have (at least, in part) defined the postfeminist agenda.

Second wave feminist debates on pornography can broadly be divided into two ‘camps’: the ‘anti-pornography’ camp, a position held by writers such as Catherine MacKinnon, Andrea Dworkin and Adrienne Rich; and the ‘anti­antipornography’ camp which tended, at least in the 1970s and 1980s, to be associated with ‘sex radical’ Gayle Rubin. Perhaps more interesting than the assumptions behind these positions were the implications of these debates for issues of sexuality and identity.

The anti-pornography position which occupied a prominent space in second wave feminist debates around the issue of representation, became part of a feminist orthodoxy in the 1970s and early 1980s and is still represented in feminist debates in the 1990s.13 The anti-pornography position is based on a model which sees pornography as an expression of male power and oppression within patriarchy. It is a model which understands pornography as a representation of oppressive fantasies, that objectifies women and leads to violence. Catherine MacKinnon (1987:172) claims that pornography ‘institutionalizes the sexuality of male supremacy, fusing the eroticization of dominance and submission with the social construction of male and female’. In fact both Andrea Dworkin (1981-1987) and Catherine MacKinnon (1987, 1989) understand pornography as itself a form of violence against women.

Elsewhere MacKinnon, in an article entitled ‘Sexuality, Pornography and Method: Pleasure under Patriarchy’ (1989), outlines a model of pornography which implies a direct link between pornography as a representational form and violence against women, particularly rape. Thus for MacKinnon pornography is directly linked to male sexuality and is ‘inextricably linked to victimizing, hurting, exploiting’ (MacKinnon 1989:328, citing Dworkin). Other advocates of the anti-pornography position, such as Suzanne Kappeler (1986), claim that all representations of women within a framework of patriarchal commodity capitalism are degrading and violent and by definition pornographic.

The anti-pornography model can be characterised as follows: it assumes a unitary, undifferentiated concept of pornography, making no distinction between different forms; it is based on a simple binary model which understands all pornography as a reflection of male sexuality; it assumes a single transparent, undifferentiated meaning regardless of gender, race/ethnicity, sexuality or class; it assumes a simple cause/effect model which implies that pornography as representation will lead to violence; finally it makes assumptions about women’s sexuality, seeing women as passive victims, while at the same time denying opportunities for resistance.

The anti-pornography movement is a pro-censorship movement, with groups like Women Against Pornography (WAP) demanding censorship legislation. One of the unintended consequences of such demands is the casting of women as ‘victims’ and the ‘authorizing’ of the State to intervene further in issues of sexuality and identity. In both the UK and the US such debates have been appropriated by ‘the Moral Majority’ to restrict and control a range of services and art forms seen as ‘morally corrupting’. Examples include the work of Robert Mapplethorpe, lesbian feminist art, abortion information, etc.

The anti-antipornography position or the anti-censorship position is represented in the work of Vance (1984) and Burstyn, among others.14 This position can be characterised in the following way: it makes a distinction between pornography and erotica; it attempts to counter the representations of women in pornography by working ‘within’; it challenges the uniformity of sexual representations of women by advocating a proliferation of sexual representations; it establishes cultural spaces within the context of representational forms and identity. The proliferation of sexual representations of women has produced what Gayle Rubin (1984:303) calls an ‘appreciation of erotic diversity and more open discussion of sexuality’.