Why has the anti-porn movement been so popular with the dominant media? My suspicions are not benign. For one thing, in a society that has failed to distinguish between sexuality and pornography, the anti-porn movement is a perfect vehicle for lumping all feminists together into one posse, a bunch of sex cops out to handcuff the body politic’s cock. The ensuing ridicule can always offset any serious statements. Second, the subject offers the chance to talk about sex—something the mainstream media are never loath to take up. Third, the anti-porn movement is probably seen, and rightly so, as profoundly ineffectual, unlikely ever to make a dent in the massive commercial sex industry it would seek to topple. The porn companies don’t have to worry about any consumer boycott by women; we’re not their customers. It is even possible that the anti-porn forces get press because they represent no threat. Not a Love Story—portentously subtitled “a motion picture about pornography”—can open at the 57th Street Playhouse in a gala premiere, emblazon The Village Voice and the Times as well with ads, boast a prestige distributor and a first-class PR firm, and even make it onto the evening news. Just in case there’s any lingering doubt about its moral fiber, keep in mind that it’s showing at the same theater where Genocide just ran.
Documentary films, like fiction, have a script. The script may not be written before the shooting, as with fiction, but in that case it gets written in the editing room. Not a Love Story is no exception. Director Bonnie Klein, producer Dorothy Todd Henaut, and associate director and editor Anne Henderson seem to have scripted a religious parable.
In this moral tale, each character has a clearly prescribed role. Klein, who appears on-screen to supply an identification figure for the audience, plays the missionary in a heathen land. Seeking out the purveyors of porn, she is seen unearthing the sins of the world in order to combat them and save our souls. “Blue Sky,” “Raven,” and other peep-show workers and strippers all play the collective role of victim. Porn photographer Suze Randall, who photographs hard-core spreads in her studio, plays the classic madame: she who sells her own kind but probably, deep inside, is a true believer. The porn moguls interviewed are surely the forces of evil, whether represented by the sleezy panache of publisher David Wells or by the endearing just-like-your-Uncle-Henry spirit of one sex emporium manager. The male customers constitute the legions of rank sinners. A San Francisco-based group of men against male violence assumes the guise of penitentes; matching a 60s wire-rim style to an 80s sensitivity, they take the sins of their kind upon their shoulders and expiate them. There is, of course, a roster of saints: Susan Griffin, Kate Millett, Margaret At-wood, Kathleen Barry, and topping them all, Robin Morgan, who, with husband Kenneth Pitchford and young son, presents her own version of the Holy Family. Addressing the camera with a philosophical fervor (except for the more casual Millett), the saints embody the forces of righteousness arrayed against the sinful.
The pivotal figure in the parable is Linda Lee Tracey, a stripper with a comedic “Little Red Riding Hood” act. She performs the role of the reformed sinner, without whom no religious faith could be complete. Her redemption seals the film’s theme, binds the audience to it, and provides the necessary narrative closure. Not a Love Story opens with a series of valentines, ranging from soft-core 40s style to an up-to-date hard-core Hustler version, but clearly it is the Sacred Heart that takes over by the end.
Linda Lee is the real star of the film. A Montreal media personality famous for her annual “Tits for Tots” charity-strips, she was a find for the filmmakers. It is she who accompanied director Klein on all the interview sessions, frequently asking the questions herself, challenging the hucksters, haranguing customers from a soapbox on the street. If Klein empathizes on screen, emoting outrage and concern, it is Tracey who acts, reacts, and takes the risks. Just how much of a risk is made clear toward the end of the film. The audience has already been buffeted by pornographic images and film clips, appalled by the attitudes of the porn kings, overwhelmed by the statistics, and alternately inspired and outraged by what has been shown and said. As the culmination of its guided tour, the audience gets to be present at a photo session set up between porn photographer Suze Randall and our by-now heroine, Linda Lee, who has decided “to find out what it feels like to be an object.” In her willingness to embrace this risk, Linda Lee becomes the film’s dramatis persona, the one character who is transformed, within the film, by the very experience of making the film. As if Christ had come back as a latter-day Mary Magdalene, she literally offers up her body for our, and her, salvation.
Halfway through the film, Linda Lee comments that “it’s starting to get to me at an emotional level.” She meant: pornography. But I mean: the movie. Not a Love Story is, for me, more depressing than inspiring, more irritating than enlightening. The film hits its emotional stride early on and stays there, never straying into detours of social analysis, historical perspective, or questions of representation. Klein sets the tone with her pose of womanly empathy, polite outrage, and respectability. She recounts her decision to make the film after her eight-year-old daughter’s exposure to porn magazines at the local bus counter. I suspect many viewers’ response to the movie will rise or fall on the issue of identification with Klein. Mine fell. An aura of religiosity began to permeate the proceedings. Method and message began to blur as the film gained in momentum, upping the emotional ante into a cathartic finale.
Not a Love Story is no call to arms, but rather an exercise in show-and-tell. Gaze at the forbidden, react with your choice of anger or outrage or grief (or the male option: guilt), and leave a changed person. When Linda Lee undergoes her debasement at the lens of Suze Randall and subsequently emerges transformed and cleansed—running on the beach in the film’s last frames—she is enacting a ceremony that the audience communally shares. A change in consciousness, a change of heart. Look here and weep. Post-screening goings-on, both at the New York premieres and in Canada, fortify the scenario. After-film discussions have turned the theater into a secular confessional, eliciting testimonials, women’s resolutions to confront their mates’ porn collections, teenage boys swearing to forgo the porn culture that awaits them, male viewers alternately abashed or exploding in anger, etc. According to polls of the film’s audiences, people are moved from seeing pornography as harmless to viewing it as harmful by the end of the film. Conversion cinema in action.
Is the appeal of the film, then, a religious one? A desire to pass through the flames, be washed in the blood of the lamb, and come out a new person? I think not. Instead, the anti-porn film is an acceptable replacement for porn itself, a kind of snuff movie for an anti-snuff crowd. In this version, outrage-against replaces pleasure-in, but the object of the preposition remains the same. Cries of outrage and averted eyes replace the former clientele’s silent pleasure and inverted hats; the gaze of horror substitutes for the glaze of satiation. The question, though, is whether this outcry becomes itself a handmaiden to titillation, whether this alleged look of horror is not perhaps a most sophisticated form of voyeurism. The ad campaign reinforces the suspicion, with its prominent surgeon-general-style warning about the “graphic subject matter” that viewers might want to avoid . . . if avoidance is indeed the desired goal.
The film’s own methods compound the problem. While it would be unrealistic to ask Not a Love Story to solve problems the political movement it addresses has so far ignored, it’s reasonable to expect the film to take up those problems relevant to its own medium. A host of issues raised by pornography are applicable to cinema, ranging from voyeurism or objectification to simple questions of point of view. Instead of facing these challenges, though, the filmmakers seem unquestioningly to accept and deploy traditional cinematic practices. Given their subject matter, this decision creates a subtext of contradiction throughout the film.
For example, the early scenes of strippers performing their act are shot from the audience, a traditional enough technique for a rock concert movie, but problematic here. Doesn’t such a shot turn the viewer into the male customer normally occupying that vantage point? Doesn’t the camera’s privileged gaze, able to zoom in and out at will, further objectify the woman on stage? Worse yet is the scene shot in a club equipped with isolation-masturbation booths, wherein the women on display communicate with the male customers via a glass window and telephone, with the duration determined by a descending black-out shutter timed to the deposit of money. The cinematographer lines the camera up with this same shutter, positioning us behind the shoulder of a male customer in the booth, protected by shadows even as the woman called “Blue Sky” is exposed to our view. The cinematographer takes this alignment with the male customer one step further by zooming in for a close-up on “Blue Sky”—thereby presenting us with an intimate view not even available to the real-life customer. (At such moments, Klein’s use of a male cameraman becomes an issue.) Why visually exploit this woman to a greater degree than her job already does? Why make the male customer our stand-in and then let him off the hook, without either visual exposure or verbal confrontation? Why not let us see what “Blue Sky” sees? Instead, the filmmaker proceeds to interview two of the women from within this same booth and from the customer’s seat. Now the man has departed and we remain, sophisticated consumers, out for the show and the facts, coyly paying money when the inevitable shutter descends.
The filmmakers efface their own presence whenever the movie enters the sex emporiums. While Klein is prominent in the other interview sessions, she does not appear at all in the clubs. Furthermore, no second camera ever shows us the steady gaze of this one filming the scene for us, the performer’s “other” audience. True, we see the male audience—but only from the vantage point of another member of that audience. The camera is protected in its invisibility by the filmmaker, just as the male customers are in turn protected in their anonymity by the camera.
This is a serious mistake, but it’s a clue to the film’s attitude. At no point does the camera offer a shot from the point of view of the women up on the stage. We’re never permitted to share their experience while they’re working—to inhabit their perspective when they’re supposedly being most exploited and objectified. The result is a backfire: we remain voyeurs, and they remain objects—whether of our pity, lust, respect, or shock makes little difference.
Not all the problems arise out of shooting; others occur in the editing room, particularly in the choices of sound/image combination. The key scene is Linda Lee’s porn photo session with Suze Randall, whose presence overwhelms us with frequent calls for such props as “the pussy light,” and “the pussy juice.” Although the scene has Linda Lee speaking as she starts to pose, her voice gives way to a voice-over of Susan Griffin explaining eros. Only later do we get to hear Linda Lee’s comments. Why use Griffin’s words when the film could have reinforced Tracey’s image with her own explanation? Instead, the considerable power she wields elsewhere in the film simply evaporates.
The power of the pornography included as exhibits throughout the movie does no such evaporation act. Why does the film present us with the porn materials intact? Any number of methods could have been used either to intensify their impact or to diminish it. Some kind of manipulation of the image is standard practice in films incorporating preexisting footage. The filmmakers chose not to, with two possible results: either we’re made to undergo the degradation of porn, or we’re offered its traditional turn-on. Klein wants the audience to eat its cake and have it, too.
In sum, Not a Love Story is very much a National Film Board of Canada product: concerned, engaged, up to the minute on social questions, but slick, manipulative, avoiding all the hard questions to capture the ready success of answering the easy ones. It may have a different subject from other NFB films, but its methods are inherited. These methods have been developed for decades, and they work. If Not a Love Story is successful, that will be because of its emphasis on emotion, the presence of Linda Lee Tracey as a genuinely appealing star, the shock of the porn characters, and the sympathy of Bonnie Klein as our Alice in Pornoland. Not incidentally, the film offers some of the porn its audience wants to see but wouldn’t be caught dead seeking out in Times Square.
Most fundamentally, though, the film’s fate will signal the prospects of the anti-pornography campaign itself. The basic questions are not, finally, about Not a Love Story at all. They concern the past and future of anti-porn politics, the reasons for its appeal, and the questions of priority it raises.
Displacement, Confusion, and What’s Left Out
There are many unanswered questions in Not a Love Story, the title itself not the least of them. Assuming that pornography is not about love, what is it? The film privileges the words of Susan Griffin, who defines one of the central tenets of the anti-porn movement: pornography is different from eroticism. Kate Millett says the same thing, as have countless others. But, what is pornography and what is eroticism? One is bad, the other is good (guess which). Fixing the dividing line is rather like redlining a neighborhood: the “bad” neighborhood is always the place where someone else lives. Porn is the same. If I like it, it’s erotic; if you like it, it’s pornographic. The rules don’t seem much clearer than that, so the game gets murkier by the minute. Ready?
Two stories. Back in 1969, when I first started thinking about this distinction, my best friend worked as an artist’s model; so, eventually, did I. She would model for painters but never for photographers, since with them you’d have no control over who saw your body. Once she broke the rule and modelled for a mutual friend, a photographer who did a series of nude photographs of her that we all loved. He had a show in a local gallery. One photograph of my friend was stolen out of the show. She went into a terrible depression. She was tormented by the image of an unknown man jerking off to her picture. Test: was that photograph erotic or pornographic?
Back in 1980, a woman I know went to spend the day with a friend’s family. Looking around the house, what should she discover but the father’s personal copy of the Tee Corrine cunt coloring book. Made for the women’s community, the book usually was found only in feminist bookstores. Test: is the book erotic or pornographic?
I have other friends and other stories. Surely it is not merely an image which is one thing or the other, but equally (if not foremost) the imagination that employs the image in the service of its fantasy. It is time that anti-porn activists stopped kidding themselves about the fine distinctions between eroticism and pornography. If any extra test is needed, the film offers us one in its final freeze-frame shot of a bikini-clad Linda Lee, snapped in midair, seaweed in hand. It is meant as an image of “wholeness, sanity, life-loving-ness” according to the filmmakers, but it comes out looking more like a soft-core Tampax ad. Is this image, perchance, pornographic as well?
There is no end of definitions as to what pornography is or isn’t. For me, that’s no longer the point. I have read the statistics, thank you, on whether porn causes violence or violence causes porn, taken part in the chicken-or-the-egg fights, steered clear of the currently chic analyses of porn in academic circles. I’m as fed up with pornography being identified as sexuality (in some circles) as with anti-pornography being identified as feminism (in other circles). The books, the articles, and now the films have been rolling out.1 Such widespread acceptance is always a clue that the problem has moved elsewhere. Why is pornography so important, finally? Is it important enough to be consuming all our political energy as feminists? Certainly it is seductive. It offers no end of discourse, arguments, connotations, and denotations in which we can immerse ourselves, no end of soul searching and pavement pounding which we can enact if so moved. But whence comes its assumed political priority, and does the issue deserve it?
The film, like much Women Against Pornography campaign rhetoric, tends to identify porn both by what it is not (a love story) and by what it is at its most extreme (sadism, torture dramas). The film, like the anti-porn movement lately, emphasizes the extent to which sex-and-violence is the contemporary face of porn. But such a focus dodges the dilemma. If violence were the only problem, then why would the film include extensive footage of the strip shows and peep booths? If only violent sex were the object of wrath, then why would any Women Against Pornography group picket a non-violent live sex show, or girlie line-up? In fact, the reliance on violence-condemnation in the rhetoric is a clue to the appeal of the anti-porn movement. Women today are terrified at the levels of violence being directed at us in society—and, to take it further, at powerless people everywhere. As one porn actress in the movie eloquently put it, we’re “the fucked.” Women are terrified at the crazy spiral of rape, assaults on abortion rights, sterilization expansion, domestic battering, and anonymous bashing.
Terror is not an effective emotion, though. It paralyzes. The fear of escalating violence, accompanied by the larger social backlash, has resulted not in massive political action by feminists but rather in a reaction of denial, a will not to see the dangers . . . a desperate desire to see, instead, their disguises. Turning away from a phalanx of assaults too overwhelming to confront, the Women Against Pornography groups turn instead to its entertainment division, pornography. But whether symptom or cause, pornography presents an incomplete target for feminist attack. The campaign against pornography is a massive displacement of outrage that ought to be directed at a far wider sphere of oppression. Just as the film narrows the hunt down to sinners, villains, and victims so too does the anti-pornography movement leave out too much in its quasi-religious attack on the Antichrist.
The hunt for archetypes, darkly submerged drives, and other assorted ghouls of the pornography industry and the pornographic imagination has left livelier culprits out in the cold. So long as the conversion experience is the primary method, then the social, economic, historical, and political determinants get short shrift. As long as they continue, of course, it is unlikely that Dorothy Henaut will get her dream—announced opening night—of seeing the porn industry up and “wither away.”
The emphasis on violence has masked the central issue of male/female power relations which we see reflected and accentuated in pornography. Any woman is still fair game for any man in our society. Without an understanding of these power relations, no analysis of porn will get very far. It certainly won’t be able to account for the prevalence of fake lesbianism as a staple of pornographic imagery (without violence). It certainly won’t be able to account for the difference between straight porn and gay male porn, which lacks any debasement of women and must raise complex issues regarding sexual objectification. If an analysis of porn were to confront its basic origin in the power relations between men and women, then it would have to drop the whole eroticism-versus-pornography debate and take on a far more complex and threatening target: the institution of heterosexuality. Here, again, is a clue to the anti-porn movement’s appeal for some battle-scarred feminists. Is it, perhaps, more tolerable for the woman who might attend Not a Love Story to come to terms with how her male lover’s pornographic fantasy is oppressing her in bed than to confront, yet again, how his actual behavior is oppressing her in the living room . . . or out in the world?
Also left out of the picture are all questions of class and race, subsumed under the religious halo of good versus evil. Does it do any good, however, to view the women employed in the porn empire as victims? Linda Lee herself, in the movie, describes having gone to a Women Against Pornography demonstration in New York and feeling the other women’s condescension. Or, as “Jane Jones” told Laura Lederer in the Take Back the Night anthology, “I’ve never had anybody from a poor or working-class background give me the ‘How could you have done anything like that?’ question, but middle-class feminists have no consciousness about what it is like out there.”2 As long as the economic forces and social choices that move these women into the commercial-sex world remain invisible, they themselves will continue to be objectified, mystified, and misunderstood by the very feminist theorists who, wine glass in hand or flowers nearby, claim to have all the answers. The film equally ignores questions of race, even though the porn industry, in its immense codification, has always divided the female population up into racial segments keyed to specific fetishes.
Issues of race and class, here, are particularly troubling in that they divide so clearly the filmmakers from their subjects. One friend of mine, herself a Puerto Rican activist, pinpointed the cause of her outrage at the film: “All these years, she (Klein) was never bothered by my exploitation. Now, suddenly, she feels exploited by my exploitation, and it’s this feeling that really upsets her.” The film never acknowledges that there might be a difference between the physical debasement of the women who earn their living in the sex industry and the ideological debasement of all women caused by the very existence of that industry. On the contrary, the anti-pornography movement has never taken up the issue of class. If it had addressed questions of class with attention or seriousness, then it might have avoided the seeming complicity with the State (like its notorious participation in the Times Square clean-up campaign, evidenced by its acceptance of office space by the forces advancing the street-sweep) that has made so many feminists wary of the anti-porn movement’s real politics. Instead, the total and very apparent isolation of the filmmakers from the women who populate the various sex establishments in their film cannot help but make the viewer uneasy. Empathy? Forget it. To put it bluntly, the anti-porn campaigners seem to view the women working in the commercial sex industry much the same way that the Moral Majority seems to view pregnant teenagers. The powerful sense of identification that has been such a keystone of feminist politics is absent; in its place is a self-righteous sense of otherness that condemns the sex workers eternally to the position of Bad Object (pending, of course, any Linda-Lee-like transubstantiation).
Also overlooked is the aboveground face of porn, its front-parlor guise as legitimate advertising. This was the first target of WAVAW (Women Against Violence Against Women) in such actions as the attack on the Rolling Stones’ infamous Black and Blue billboard. The Hustler cover image that made the movie audience gasp (a woman churned into a meat grinder) made its feminist debut in the early WAVAW slide shows. Such actions have faded in recent years, as debate, theory, and red light district pressure tactics took over. Not a Love Story alludes to the intersection of pornography and advertising, even illustrates it at points, but never explicates the connections. The anti-porn literature does the same, condemning the continuum without analyzing the linkage. Hasn’t anyone heard of capitalism lately? In order to use women to sell products, in order to use pornography to sell genital arousal, there has to be an economic system that makes the use profitable. Porn is just one product in the big social supermarket. Without an analysis of consumer culture, our understanding of pornography is pathetically limited, bogged down in the undifferentiated swamp of morality and womanly purity.
Significantly in these cold war times, the differing attitudes of Nazi and Communist societies are not cited equally. The historical usage of pornography by the Nazis (who flooded Poland with porn at the time of the invasion to render the population . . . impotent?) is mentioned by Robin Morgan in the film and has been cited by others in articles and talks. No one ever mentions (with whatever reservations) the contemporary abolition of pornography in Cuba or in Nicaragua. There, it is one part of an overall social program; here, it must be the same if it is ever to succeed in transforming our systems of sexual exchange.
The single-issue nature of the anti-porn movement is one of its most disturbing aspects. Once the “final solution” has been identified, there is no need to flail away at other social inequities. I’d guess that its avoidance of social context is another of anti-porn’s attractions. Racism, reproductive rights, homophobia, all pale beside the ultimate enemy, the pornographer. How politically convenient for a right-leaning decade. It is precisely this avoidance of context, this fetishizing of one sector or one crime, that is the distinguishing feature of life under capitalism. It is also, of course, the same fetishism and fragmentation that characterize the pornographic imagination.
How can it be that I, as a feminist, even one who objects to pornography and subscribes to many of the arguments against it, can at the same time object just as strenously to the anti-pornography movement and to the method, style, perhaps even the goals, of Not a Love Story? Or that many other feminists share my objections? The answer, predictably enough, is political. It has to do with the conviction that, in the fight against pornography, what gets lost is as serious as what gets won.
Behind the banner of pornography is the displaced discourse on sexuality itself. Indeed, if the anti-porn campaign offers a safety zone within which the larger anti-feminist forces abroad in 80s America need not be viewed, it also offers a corresponding zone that excludes personal sexuality. This depersonalizing of sexuality is the common effect both of pornography and of the anti-pornography forces. It is a depersonalization that is all too apparent in the film.
Only Kate Millett speaks with ease, in her own voice, and from her own experience, lounging on the floor with one of her “erotic drawings.” It is impossible to connect the other spokeswomen personally to the texts that they talk at us. Both Susan Griffin (with, unfortunately, nature blowing in the wind behind her head) and Kathleen Barry (framed by drapes and flowers) speak abstractly, rely on the third person, and bask in an aura of solemnity that punches all of the film’s religioso buttons. When Robin Morgan hits the screen, an even greater problem appears.
It is here that we realize just how much space the film has preserved for men. Not only has its debate been framed entirely in terms of heterosexuality; not only have we been forced to watch always from the seat of a male buyer; but now we are made to accept feminist wisdom from a woman in tears, reduced to crying by the contemplation of the great pain awaiting us all, and capable of consolation only by the constant massaging of a sensitive husband (in a supporting penitente role) and a prematurely supportive son, who flank her on the sofa as she tells of women’s suffering, boyhood’s innocence, and men’s innate desire to do right. Isn’t this going too far? Middle-class respectability, appeals to motherhood, and now, elaborate detours aimed at making men feel comfortable within the cosy sphere of the enlightened. Any minute, and the film will go all “humanistic” before our very eyes. Men didn’t used to play such a central role in the feminist movement. Nor used the women to put quite such a premium on respectability and sexual politesse.
What has happened here? It has been an unsettling evolution, this switch from a movement of self-determination, that trashed billboards and attacked the legitimacy of soft-core advertising, to a movement of social determination, that urges legal restrictions and social hygiene. When the anti-pornography movement traded in its guerrilla actions for the more recent route of petitioning a higher authority to enact moral codes, the political trajectory went haywire. I do not agree with those who go no further than a pious citing of the First Amendment in their pornography discussions; while the vision of free speech is a benevolent one, even at times a practicable ideal, I am cynically aware of its purchase power in this society, especially in a backlash era. While I do not, therefore, agree that WAP can simply be conflated with the Moral Majority, and that’s that, I do think the notion that a feminist agenda can be legislated in our society is a naive, and ultimately dangerous, one.
Judith Walkowitz, in her essay on “The Politics of Prostitution,” traced the political ramifications of the British 19th century anti-prostitution campaigns, cautioning that “the feminists lacked the cultural and political power to reshape the world according to their own image. Although they tried to set the standards for sexual conduct, they did not control the instruments of state that would ultimately enforce these norms.”3 Nor do we today. Nor are feminists likely to countenance any such movement to set, let alone enforce, some notion of sexual “norms.” This proscriptive tendency in the anti-porn movement is not offset by any counterbalancing emphasis on an alternative sexual tradition (except for the elusive eroticism). Is it a coincidence that one of the film’s anti-porn demonstrators could be a stand-in for Mercedes McCambridge in Johnny Guitar? The anti-porn movement has a tendency to promote a premature codification of sexuality, and Not a Love Story may suffer for that emphasis.
Perhaps the film actually arrived just one season too late in New York. The questions of sexual norms and sexual codification exploded at the 1982 Barnard conference on “the politics of sexuality” with a coalition of WAP and others pitted against women espousing “politically incorrect sexualities.” The conference has trailed in its wake a series of attacks and counter-attacks, a sensationalizing of the proceedings, and one of the worst movement splits of recent times. Again, my perennial question surfaces: Why pornography? Why this debate? It seems that after a long hiatus, following Ti-Grace Atkinson’s polemical assertion that “the women’s movement is not a movement for sexual liberation,” feminists have come back to sexuality as an issue to discuss, argue, and analyze. It is not, however, clear why this debate should focus either on pornography or on sadomasochism (the two extremes at the conference), why it should short-circuit its own momentum by immediate codification.
It’s time that the women’s movement got back on track. While Robin Morgan weeps on the sofa, there are worse things happening in the world. It’s time to acknowledge the importance of analyzing pornography, assign it a priority in the overall picture, and get on with the fight. Pornography is an issue of importance. It is becoming much too fashionable to “study” pornography in academic circles to dubious effect. Unlike many of the theorists doing that work, I would agree instead with Monique Wittig in “The Straight Mind”4 when she stresses that, while pornography is indeed a “discourse,” it is also for women a real source of oppression. That said, however, I would suggest that women desist from putting ourselves through the study of it. Finally, here’s a proper subject for the legions of feminist men: let them undertake the analysis that can tell us why men like porn (not, piously, why this or that exceptional man does not), why stroke books work, how oedipal formations feed the drive, and how any of it can be changed.5 Would that the film had included any information from average customers, instead of stressing always the exceptional figure (Linda Lee herself, Suze Randall, etc.). And the anti-porn campaigners might begin to formulate what routes could be more effective than marching outside a porn emporium.
As for the rest of us, it is time to desist, stop indulging in false and harmful polarities, and look around. Outraged at the abuse of women in our society, there are any number of struggles that can be joined on a broad social front. Outraged at pornography’s being the only available discourse on sexuality, there is a great amount of visionary and ground-breaking work to do in the creation of a multitude of alternative sexual discourses, a veritable alternative culture of sexuality, that people can turn to for sexual excitement instead of porn. It’s about time we redefine our terms and move on, with the spirit of justice and visionary energy that always used to characterize feminism.
As the first mass-audience film to take up the subject of pornography, Not a Love Story is an important work. It opens up the issues, even if it closes them down again too soon. For the people whom the film makes think seriously, for the first time, about pornography, it is a landmark. It is fascinating to hear that the audience at a recent midweek daytime screening was all single men; is it encouraging that none of them walked out? or discouraging that they could stay? Perhaps the film sins, for all its righteousness, in being simply too little, too late, even though it’s the first of its kind.
Because it can help move the political debate on to the next stage, Not a Love Story deserves attention. Because it shows all too clearly the stage the debate is now in, it deserves criticism.
This essay owes its existence, in part, to the encouragement and editing of Karen Durbin, then my Village Voice editor. In addition, the article benefited from extended conversations with Fina Bathrick, Lillian Jimenez, and Sande Zeig.
1. See, for example, Irene Diamond, “Pornography and Repression: A Reconsideration,” Women: Sex and Sexuality, Chicago: University of Chicago Press (1980), pp. 129-44; Bertha Harris, “Sade Cases,” Village Voice, 18 May 1982, p. 46; Gina Marchetti, “Readings on Women and Pornography,” Jump Cut, no. 26, pp. 56-60; Lisa Steele, “Pornography and Eroticism” (an interview with Varda Burstyn), Fuse magazine, May/June 1982, pp. 19-24; Ellen Willis, “Feminism, Moralism, and Pornography,” Beginning to See the Light, New York: Knopf (1981), pp. 219-27.
2. Laura Lederer, “An Interview with a Former Pornography Model,” Take Back the Night, New York: Bantam (1982), pp. 45-59.
3. Judith Walkowitz, “The Politics of Prostitution,” Women: Sex and Sexuality, p. 145-57, or see the updated version, “Male Vice and Feminist Virtue: Feminism and the Politics of Prostitution in Nineteenth-Century Britain,” History Workshop Journal, no. 13, pp. 77-93, with an introduction by Jane Caplan.
4. Monique Wittig, “The Straight Mind,” Feminist Issues 1, no. 1 (Summer 1980), pp. 103-12.
5. For an extraordinary response to my “call to arms,” see the new anthology by Michael S. Kimmel, Men Confront Pornography, New York: Crown (1990). For an extension of the entire pornography debate into a work of analysis destined to be a classic, see Linda Williams, Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the “Frenzy of the Visible,” Berkeley: University of California Press (1989).