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On the Triumph of the Pornographic Imagination

Andrea Dworkin, Emma Goldman, and Lynndie England.

"Wearing Nothing but Attitude"
--New York Times, May 1, 2005

Was this trite phrase part of an ad campaign for a new Calvin Klein perfume or was it a headline for an article in the "Sunday Styles" section? It turned out to be a headline for an article about a new and supposedly hip genre of online pornography called "alt-porn," which, as far as I can tell, is distinguished from the old-fashioned, square type in that it features nude photographs and "hard-core" videos in between interviews with members of "hard-core punk and indie bands." To me, this sounded like an unimaginative reworking of the tired-out Playboy formula (did they have cartoons, too?), but as I read on, I learned that Joanna Angel, a founder of and star of many of its XXX-rated videos, thought of herself as a vanguard artist. The reporter, Robert Lanham, pointed out that not only had Angel ("her stage name") been an English major at Rutgers, but that she has "a year-book's worth of quotations tattooed across her 4-foot-11 frame, from Kurt Vonnegut ('So it goes') to a paraphrase of Margaret Atwood ('Touch me and you will burn')." As further proof of her vanguard credentials, she is quoted as saying such edgy things as "Porn is more punk than most punk music," and "Some people make music, others paint, I make porn."

This petite, "literature"-inspired young woman apparently has even greater ambitions than making transgressive art. She tells the reporter that "millions of dollars are being made in L.A. every year on porn" and she wants "to start an empire here." Angel even fancies herself a bit of the feminist. She "takes pride," according to Lanham, "in being a female executive in an industry dominated by men." And she takes care of her "girls," none of whom "ever feels exploited." "We treat everyone with respect, like friends," she said. "It's hard work but everyone has fun." Lanham knows a good story when he sees one so he gives plenty of attention to the liberationist angle. Not only does he quote other young, hip, porn entrepreneurs who run similar websites (like Missy Suicide, the founder of, who sees "nudity as self-expression"), he also appeals to more conventional authorities, like Katie Roiphe, identified for readers as "an author who often writes about women's issues": "Younger women today are growing more comfortable with their sexuality," she said, "and it makes perfect sense that they'd want to create a hip corner of the pornographic universe where they can express themselves."

A hip corner of the pornographic universe where younger women, who are more comfortable with their sexuality, can express themselves. ... So it has come to this, I thought. Pornography, which only a generation ago had been assailed by feminists as the ultimate act of objectification, subordination, and dehumanization of women in a capitalist, patriarchal society was now being offered as an entertaining tidbit in the "Sunday Styles" section of the Times, surrounded on the same page by ads for Prada luxury goods and followed by photographs of the social elite at their charity functions on the next. As is so often the case these days, the world appeared upside down to me and I almost felt like laughing, so absurd was the spectacle of na?vete being paraded around as the last word in sophistication.

But, before I knew it, I was feeling something more like nausea as I remembered that Andrea Dworkin, the radical feminist who dedicated her life to fighting "violence against women"--the stark phrase that used to conjure up prostitution, incest, wife-beating, rape, and pornography as component parts of the same system of male power, as dangerous for girls and women as it was filled with hatred for them--had died just a few weeks before, at the miserably young age of 58. It had been a while since I had thought of Dworkin or her comrade in arms, Catharine MacKinnon, both of whom I long admired for the courageous legal battle they waged to ban pornography that brutalizes women. What, I wondered, has happened to those 1970s feminist "Take-Back-the-Night" rallies, where defiant young women marched through city streets to reclaim their right to walk unescorted and unmolested after dark? Had any of those college-educated, alt-porn promoters ever heard of them or of the radical feminist slogan, "Pornography is the theory, rape the practice"? Samuel Johnson's observation that "a few years make such havoc in human generations" rushed into my thoughts. And then, just as suddenly, I found myself thinking, even as a voice inside accused me of vulgar Marxism, that Herbert Marcuse was right: We live in a "one-dimensional" society that effectively de-fangs as it accommodates and absorbs all forms of criticism, dissent, and vanguardism. So it was no wonder that my usually robust sense of the absurd was overwhelmed by the many grotesqueries of the "Styles" article that, in the end, meretriciously recast the humiliation and degradation of women, even if it is self-inflicted, as forms of self-expression.

Here was further proof, as if I needed it, of the triumph of "the pornographic imagination." The phrase, of course, comes from the title of a celebrated essay of Susan Sontag's from the mid-'60s. Where Sontag (perhaps naively, in retrospect) had argued that pornography of the Sade-Bataille-Apollinaire "art" variety expanded the boundaries of consciousness, the pornographic imagination in our own time has instead proved to be monopolistic. "Naughty" lingerie displays in the windows of upscale department stores; "cardio striptease" classes at health clubs; revealing fashions on the street--I wondered if Katie Roiphe had any of these hackneyed, stereotypical images of dominatrixes and porn stars and hookers in mind when she spoke with enthusiasm of how younger, more liberated women were "expressing themselves" in pornography. From what I could see, the erotic imagination of women had never been more flat.

"What does woman want?" Freud's famous question suddenly accosted me, as did the answer offered by the feminist critique of pornography: Women no longer know what they want, so completely has their erotic desire been formed by men's pornographic images of them. But, then, I remembered another answer to Freud's question that still had currency when I was in graduate school in the mid-'80s--"radical lesbian separatism." This militant phrase, which used to evoke the utopian hope of making both personal and political life anew, now sounded impossibly foreign even to my ear. It was hard to resist the oppressive conclusion that, in our present-day atmosphere of habitual conformism and pseudo-vanguards of the alt-porn variety, visionary feminists like Andrea Dworkin have come to feel out of place. Dworkin had the imagination to picture a world where women would not have to fear for their safety, where they would be guaranteed dignity and justice, where they would be free to create their own never-before-imagined realms of eros. As I lamented Dworkin's premature death and the moribund quality of the erotic and political imaginations today, another radical idealist, even more alien to contemporary sensibility, came to my mind, this time from the turn of the last century--Emma Goldman.

Goldman's "beautiful ideal," as she called it, was anarchism. Anarchism, for her (I had gotten Anarchism and Other Essays from my bookshelf), meant "the freest possible expression of all the latent powers of the individual." And Goldman's vision of "free love"--"the strongest and deepest element in all life, the harbinger of hope, of joy, of ecstasy"--was at its core. I have never been able to fully grasp this vision, for it was highly spiritualized, verging on the miraculous. But it is clear that for Goldman only a radical transformation of the individual erotic imagination would make possible a radical transformation of the world: "Whether love last but one brief span of time or for eternity, it is the only creative, inspiring, elevating basis for a new race, a new world." Like the lesbian separatists of the '70s, nineteenth-century anarchists did not want merely to reform the status quo. Goldman angered the suffragettes of her time by rejecting their cause, for she, like all anarchists, believed the state was founded on violence and existed only to protect the rich. It is a testimony to her radicalism that she regarded voting or even accepting legal representation (which she often required) as colluding with a morally bankrupt system.

I soon found myself thinking about the cost of Goldman's commitment, the unrelenting hardness of her life--her repeated arrests for speaking in public about subjects that few in her day dared to mention even in private ("free love," "family limitation," prostitution); her imprisonment and deportation to Russia for agitating against conscription during World War I; her bitter disillusionment with the Bolshevik Revolution, about which she wrote, turning her into a pariah among the Left for the rest of her life; her lonely wanderings in Europe without legal papers during the '20s; her many passionate but all too frequently unhappy love affairs, often with younger men. ... Then, abruptly, my intellectual reveries ended as my eye came to rest on the headline from another story: "Plea Deal is Set for G.I. Pictured in Abuses in Iraq" (New York Times, April 30). Accompanying the story was a photo of Lynndie England, looking glum and boyish in her camouflage fatigues, a disturbing contrast to the notorious photograph of this same young woman holding a leash around the neck of a naked Iraqi man on his knees--a pornographic pose as common in Helmut Newton's stylish fashion shoots and Robert Mapplethorpe's high-toned S&M portraits as it apparently is in mainstream pornography.

England's trial for her part in the "Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal," as it is euphemistically called, has put this female soldier (the fruit of equal-opportunity feminism, I thought) in the news again these days. It was already well publicized that England, whom the Times describes as "a hell-raising young woman from West Virginia," was sexually involved with Charles Graner, a man 15 years her senior, who was the instigator and choreographer of the circus of cruelty and perversity at Abu Ghraib. But it has now been revealed in her trial that she has a history of mental-health afflictions and learning disabilities. Even if this is an extreme case, England's sadism, along with the fact that she and Graner not only made but circulated pornographic videos of themselves, speak to the coercive and brutalizing nature of the pornographic imagination so prevalent in our world today.

Pathetic Lynndie England, shown in another article awkwardly cradling her infant boy (her child with Graner, who is now married to another woman involved in Abu Ghraib)--here, I thought, was the Linda Lovelace of our times. I didn't imagine that England or the better educated, alt-porn entrepreneur, Joanna Angel, both of whom are in their early twenties, had ever heard of Linda Lovelace, the star of Deep Throat, or of her best-selling memoir about her vicious exploitation by pornographers that led to her becoming a feminist cause celebre and rallying point for Dworkin and MacKinnon's anti-pornography legislation. Now, I couldn't help wondering, with the death of Dworkin, was there anyone left to champion England's cause or, for that matter, any radical cause, feminist or otherwise?

Rochelle Gurstein is the author of The Repeal of Reticence (Hill and Wang).

By Rochelle Gurstein