By Samantha Greenfield || Senior Staff Writer
At last Thursday’s Common Hour, Professor Claire Potter gave a talk entitled “Beyond the Sex Wars: Histories of Anti-Pornography Feminism.” A professor of history at The New School for Public Engagement, Potter is the co-director of the Humanities Action Lab and chair of the Humanities Action Lab Curriculum. She is also the co-director of OutHistory.org, which is an LGBT digital history project.
Potter has written numerous books including War on Crime: Bandits, G-Men, and the Politics of Mass Culture and is currently writing a political history of anti-pornography campaigns, Beyond Pornography: How Feminism Survived the Age of Reagan; which is the topic she spoke about at Common Hour.
Potter started by giving a brief example of “why the history of pornography and anti-pornography movements should matter to everybody.” She explains that she hopes to tell and persuade the audience that politics have unexpected consequences and that the history of feminism is “full of outcomes that nobody could have predicted at the time.”
During the 1980s there was a conflict between two groups radical feminists and a conservative movement over the question of “whether pornography harmed women and what kind of harm it did.” Potter explains that her own feelings towards porn are shaped from this period; during which she became a feminist first in college and then in graduate school in New York where the “sex wars” were raging most fiercely.
Potter explains that from the early 1970s a heightened awareness about incest and sexual abuse developed that then grew into a movement against violence towards women and children. These resulted in a movement to end pornography, which many feminists regarded as “anti-woman propaganda” as well as a source of sexual violence. The politics collides with these movements in that the growing conservative movement at the time also latched onto these initiatives.
There was then a growing group of radical feminists and gay men on the left that wanted a return of government censorship. This struggle of the feminist left during the 1980’s is what is called “the sex wars.” It sparked a “rich period of activism, scholarship, and popular writing.” This period also spurred, what Potter calls, a “moral panic” about child pornography and child abuse.
Sexual offender laws were enacted locally, federally, and nationally which have been enhanced decade by decade. Until child pornography became a major concern in 1981, taking pictures of your own naked children, in settings such as the beach or bathtub, was understood as a “thoroughly benign practice.” Anti-pornography feminists did not predict that parents, artists, film makers would be questioned by police more often.
For example, Potter tells the story of two parents whom the police visited because a Wal-Mart clerk had developed a photo of one of their children naked in the bath and reported it to the police. Groups such as the Feminists Anti-Censorship Taskforce, otherwise known as FACT, anticipated outcomes like these. People say that these pro-porn feminists “won the sex wars;” however Potter points out that they did not. They paid little attention to child pornography or to the laws that were being created to police pornography and sex. These laws “stripped suspects of their civil rights and laid the groundwork for The Patriot Act.”
FACT also never predicted “the Internet, revenge porn, the circulation of rape videos via mobile devices, or the movement of fetish pornography offshore where women and children of color” are often forced into sexual slavery.
Potter points out that neither the pro or anti-pornography feminists anticipated that “at the same time adult pornography has proliferated and become integrated into the mainstream media, Americans would come to accept that the possession of child pornography was the moral equivalent to actually having sex with children.”
Although the moral panic of the 1980s and 1990s is over, we still live in a society that is observed critically by the state even more intensely than back then. So our prisons are filled people who possessed child pornography, but never actually touched a child. And also young men, who as high school seniors had consensual sex with girls who were younger than the age of consent, that have been put in jail for statutory rape.
Under the current laws, Potter points out, these people will have to register as sex offenders for the rest of their lives and will often leave prison only to become jobless and homeless. So while expanded sexual freedom is seen as characteristic of the United States in the twenty-first century, “the acceleration of sexual surveillance and the creation of new sexual crimes may be just as important to understanding this recent past.”
Samantha Greenfield is a Senior staff writer. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.