From a Sexually Incorrect Feminist

from Penthouse magazine, July 1995.

By Wendy McElroy

Heretics are hated more than infidels. Maybe that's why anti-pornography feminists contemptuously dismiss women who enjoy pornography -- women like me -- either as pathetic victims or as distasteful traitors. After all, if they took me seriously, it would mean that at least one woman in the world, and an active feminist to boot, was not oppressed or humiliated by the graphic depiction of sex. They could no longer claim that pornography is an act of violence against all women and, so, should be illegal. My pleasure would become a crack in their orthodoxy. To counter the threat posed by my enjoyment, anti-pornography feminists have developed a standard tactic by which they silence the voices of women who are "sexually incorrect."

To us, they explain, "If you enjoy pornography, it is not because you are a unique individual with a wide, complex range of desires and curiosity, or that you come from a different background. No. It is because you have been so indoctrinated by white male society (patriarchy) that you have fallen in love with your own oppression. Your pleasure is shining evidence of your victimization. The fact that you believe you are consenting to view pornography only demonstrates how thoroughly you have been brainwashed."

Then anti-pornography feminists make a magnanimous offer. They offer to save us from ourselves -- whether or not we want salvation. In the precedent-setting (though ultimately unsuccessful) Indianapolis Anti-Pornography Ordinance of 1983, feminist Catharine MacKinnon drafted a statute that defined pornography as "the explicit subordination of women, graphically depicted, whether in pictures or words." In 1992 the Canadian Supreme Court embodied MacKinnon's general perspective into law by prohibiting material that "degrades" or "dehumanizes" women, regardless of whether or not the women involved agree.

To their credit, some anti-pornography feminists have a hard time looking me in the eye and calling me "mentally incompetent" simply because I disagree with them. Some are taken aback by the genuine rage I direct toward anyone who tells me that I don't know my own mind, or that I can't render informed consent. Other anti-pornography feminists, the ones who are painfully aware of how for centuries men have dictated sex to women, feel uncomfortable about assuming this traditionally male role. Unfortunately, their hesitation is fleeting. They quickly return to a dogmatic insistence that pornography is violence against all women; any woman who disagrees is psychologically crippled and unable to consent.

My first reaction to this ad hominem insult is a blast of emotions. It is important to sort them out, however, because anti-pornography feminists must be forced to confront the emotional harm they are inflicting upon women.

Perhaps my strongest reaction is a sense of personal betrayal. I was born and raised in rural Canada -- the sort of tight-knit agricultural community in which children get slapped for saying "hell" or for innocently asking the wrong question. I was taught to be ashamed of my body and to be horrified by my sexual urges. I was in my twenties before I could bring myself to examine my own breasts for cancer.

Three things rescued me from what could have easily become a real hell of sexual repression. One was a man who happened to be a white male. The second was feminism, which infused me with the confidence and anger I needed to demand decent treatment from men.

The third factor was information, which I grabbed. This included pornography, which presented an almost unimaginable kaleidoscope of sexual possibilities -- sex as pleasure, with a stranger, as self-exploration, as power, with another woman, or in a group. This was the period of time when pornography was democratized and every woman was able to privately explore her own sexuality.

Feminism was different then. I became sexually active during the early seventies, when feminists still applauded the sexual liberation that allowed them to escape from pregnancy and kitchen duty. There was a new respect for all the choices of women, for their sexual power. Germaine Greer posed with a banana to drive her point home to men: Satisfy me, or I'll do it myself. Ti-Grace Atkinson saluted prostitutes as the women who truly controlled sex. Lesbians came out into the sunlight. Women's support groups conducted classes on how to masturbate. An entire generation of women had the chance to grasp one of the most elusive elements of human happiness: sexual fulfillment. I was lucky to be one of them. I worry about the new generation of women struggling to discover themselves.

What courage can they draw from the current movement? Nineties feminism has turned from sexual liberation to sexual rage. Women no longer fight for their own power; they rush to identify themselves as victims. Feminism has become the ideology of that victimization. Such women as Andrea Dworkin explain sex in politically and sexually correct terms that inspire only anger and paranoia. A new and struggling generation of women is told, "The sixties liberation was just another form of male oppression; heterosexual sex is rape; pornography is violence; dissenting women are ill."

Sexual liberation allowed me to break through a brick wall of embarrassment to ask for what I wanted in sex. It gave me the courage to discover -- finally! -- what forms of graphic sex I enjoy. Now, from the depths of her presumptuous coveralls, Andrea Dworkin condemns men for giving me the pleasure I've requested. She announces her intention to protect me from the pornography I want to enjoy. All the while, I'm trying to protect myself against her.

Underlying my sense of betrayal is a solid layer of cold anger. Feminism used to mean "a woman's body, a woman's right." It used to mean that women should control their own bodies and people should take them seriously. Now enlightened feminists presume to decide what sexual preferences are permissible and which women should be taken seriously. Because I disagree, I am not among the voices counted. My wishes and consent are to be treated like legal trivialities, on the same level as those of a child or of a mental patient.

Consider the hypocrisy and arrogance of this. I have been brainwashed by my exposure to patriarchy. Yet somehow anti-pornography feminists who have been exposed to the same culture possess the brains or spunk I obviously lack; they have risen above their indoctrination to become an enlightened elite among women. They have climbed above patriarchy onto an ideological mountaintop from which they look down and see my errors. Their attitude toward women who enjoy pornography is as condescending, presumptuous, and intolerant as that of any fire-and-brimstone preacher bent on saving souls for God.

Why? I keep asking myself the same question. Why do these feminists focus with such single-minded passion on pornography as the symbol and cause of women's oppression? The facile answer is that they are anti-man and anti-sex -- a statement that may contain a great deal of truth. But I know that some anti-pornography feminists are good people who are motivated by concern for women's rights. Why, then, do they march down streets in an attempt to limit my sexual choices?

Some are simply reacting to a dilemma that confronts modern feminism. The feminist movement of the sixties is now considered to have been a failure.

Radical feminists had a ready explanation for the failure. Sexuality, they insisted, is a social construct that is formed by society rather than by nature. There can be no substantial change in the plight of women until the old system of sexuality (patriarchy) is swept away in a gender revolution.

Pornography provides these revolutionaries with a clear target and well-defined moral categories: Women are victims; men are oppressors. To a weary movement, pornography offers a straw man at which they can express their frustration, anger, and fear. It is held up as the beating heart of patriarchy, which must be silenced. And if this means silencing dissenting women, so be it.

I could explain the personal benefits I have derived from pornography. Using history, I could demonstrate the natural alliance between pornography and feminism.

But the feminist movement will not tolerate such discussion. At the mere suggestion of it, feminists like Wendy Stock rush to psychoanalyze the dissenting woman as a victim who identifies with her master, "much like ... concentration-camp prisoners with their oppressors."

There is an important choice to be made here, and it is not primarily a decision for or against pornography. The choice is whether or not women have the right to pursue their sexuality, wherever it may lead them. Or are they once again to be told "don't touch, don't want, don't be."

Because I stand up for the rights of women, I also defend the rights of pornographers. It is time for every woman who benefited from sexual liberation to loudly declare (in the paraphrased words of Emma Goldman), "If I can't enjoy sex, I won't be part of the revolution."