Sunday, October 25, 2009

Andrea Dworkin and Martha Nussbaum

I'm delivering a lecture on pornography to my intro ethics class this week. Though I intend to be as "devil's advocate" as possible with regard to competing positions on the topic, I'm currently brushing up on my abolitionist, anti-porn feminism. Scoping Andrea Dworkin's Pornography: Men Possessing Women (1981) in particular. The arguments are well-worn, but not for all that irrelevant or necessarily "extremist" in our always intensifying climate of pornographic "tube" websites, sexism/infantilization in advertising, etc.

Dworkin, "the Malcolm X of feminism", died in 2005, after a difficult life and an intellectual career as a radical in the second wave of American feminism. She is often derided for being a shrill, man-hating, sex-hating harpy; certain critics, moreover, can't resist making snide remarks about her weight, her appearance, the fact that she was Jewish. More sober responses to Dworkin's controversial theses - notable among which is the idea that consensual vaginal intercourse between a man and a woman counts as rape or at least some form of coercion to the extent that it occurs in a culture of patriarchy - usually suggest that she had a difficult time tempering the understandably extreme emotional aspect of her subject matter with a more desirable cool, rational approach. Those who continue to hold Dworkin in high regard are generally radical abolitionist feminists and, paradoxically on first glance, anti-porn crusaders on the religious/patriarchal Right.

I think that Dworkin shouldn't be ignored; she should continue to be read and discussed, and the arguments she advanced should be respected as worthy contenders in a controversial field. That having been said, her analysis of pornography closes itself off to some radical alternative models of feminist organizing which, while recognizing the harmful state of the current porn industry, fight for female and worker control of porn, rather than its legal abolition. A critique of porn divorced from a critique of capitalism (and to be fair, Dworkin does proffer an embryonic anti-capitalist critique) risks largely ignoring some of the most directly feasible ways of protecting pornographic workers - namely, unionization with a view to collective worker control.

The best engagement with Dworkin that I have read to date is by Martha Nussbaum in her stellar collection Sex and Social Justice. What makes Nussbaum's engagement with Dworkin so compelling is that, first of all, she takes her seriously where scores of others do not. Secondly, Nussbaum reads Dworkin as a philosopher rather than a propagandist, which is both fair and refreshing. She reconstructs Dworkin's ethical philosophy as an extreme (if sometimes inconsistent) moral Kantianism, especially as regards the means/end distinction. As regards Dworkin's thoroughgoing critique of the objectification of women in pornography, Nussbaum argues that Dworkin fails to provide a sufficiently nuanced account of objectification; she doesn't, for instance, take into account legitimate cases of objectification that occur on a daily basis between equals (if I rest my head in my partner's lap, I am objectifying her, but not in the sense that I would objectify a throw pillow). Nussbaum suggests, moreover, that Dworkin's concept of sexual/social justice needs to be tempered by mercy, and that her abolitionism risks narrowing the already narrow scope of employment options open to poor women. In short, Nussbaum takes a more careful approach to a field she admits is problematic for many of the reasons cited by Dworkin.

Ultimately, Dworkin conflates "pornography", which she defines as intrinsically violent, with any graphic depiction of sexuality under patriarchy. This rules out the possibility of feminist pornography and erotica; in our climate, they are all violent. The fact that half-measures can often do some good where full measures are not yet possible is lost here; so is the possibility that porn, which currently trains young men to view women as disposable sex objects, could perhaps be used to teach them sexual equality and openness.

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