Since the sexual revolution of the 1960s, the feminist movement has sought to condemn traditional sexual ethics as repressive, misogynistic, and intolerant. As the 2010s come to a close, it might be fair to say that mainstream culture has reached the logical endpoint of this philosophy. Whereas older Americans perhaps still remember a time when our society promoted mutual self-sacrifice over hedonism, we live in an age when even children have access to limitless online pornography.
There’s an irony here. The behaviors featured and sometimes encouraged by porn are the same behaviors third-wave feminists love to hate. While activists on the left accuse college campuses of turning a blind eye on “rape culture,” one study suggests that men who view pornography are significantly less likely to intervene as a bystander in situations leading to sexual assault and report increased behavioral intent to rape.
Conservatives have long argued that treating consent as the only boundary in sexual matters overlooks matters of character, but modern-day feminism has ignored this conversation. That wasn’t always the case. The late radical feminist Andrea Dworkin was the last major intellectual of a left-wing bent to engage the public on the immorality of porn consumption and its nexus with sexual violence. Pleading with Americans to stop turning a blind eye, Dworkin said in a 1993 speech:
Today there is a community of people who have articulated the experience of what it means to be a woman, what it means to be turned into pornography, what it means to be bought and sold . . . call it what you want, call it speech . . . [but] it happens in real life, women’s lives are made two-dimensional and dead . . . this is the crime of dehumanization; we’re not talking about violence yet, we’re nowhere near violence; this is what it means to be dehumanized.
Now many feminists have a selective memory when it comes to Dworkin’s work. Johanna Fateman, who recently co-authored an anthology of Dworkin’s work, told the New York Times that “Dworkin lost the sex wars so decisively that we can now see beyond her most extreme rhetoric. . . . You don’t have to be afraid that Andrea Dworkin is going to take your pornography away.”
Instead, the “sex positivity” movement has won. Since at least 2013, colleges across the U.S. have hosted hundreds of “sex-week” seminars. While individual feminists’ views on pornography may vary, a 2015 study of data from the U.S. General Social Survey from 1975 to 2010 showed that both men and women with pro-feminist attitudes are more likely to watch porn.
Suffice it to say that Dworkin would be horrified by this development. She was especially scathing of “progressive men who linked sexual libertinism with women’s emancipation, seeing them as no better than conquistadors in hipster attire,” Jennifer Szalai wrote in a New York Times retrospective of her work. “For all their critiques of capitalism, these men seemed remarkably untroubled when the commodity was women,” Szalai added.
Far from boycotting the industry, however, the more progressive corners of the feminist movement encourage watching pornography. “Viewership is notably growing among women, some of whom are giving porn a second look through a sex-positive lens,” Lucia Graves wrote in the Guardian. (To be sure, some lonely feminists are still challenging the porn industry.)
Academics such as Madita Oeming, a self-proclaimed “public porn scholar” and “sex-work-inclusive feminist,” go so far as to claim that the notion of porn addiction is a fallacy invented by “the media, church and self-help industry.” As Oeming wrote in Vice, “To pathologize certain sexual identities or practices is almost a tradition for us. Porn addiction continues this tradition.”
But the numbers paint a more sobering picture. A 2014 study showed 79 percent of men in the U.S. ages 18 to 30 reported viewing pornography at least monthly. By age 14, 94 percent of kids will have seen pornography. What’s more alarming is that, according to Peter Kleponis, a clinical therapist treating porn addiction in Pennsylvania, “By the age of 15, 80 percent of teenagers will have had multiple exposures to violent pornography.” The younger a man was “when he first viewed pornography,” the American Psychological Association has noted, “the more likely he was to want power over women.”
Yet perhaps some progressives are beginning to rethink their no-judgment attitude toward the porn industry. New York Times columnist and staunch liberal Michelle Goldberg wrote recently about renewed interest in Andrea Dworkin’s work — “a sign,” she said, “that for many women, our libidinous culture feels neither pleasurable nor liberating.” The next step is investigating the roots of our pornified culture, which enslaves men and women to their basest appetites.