Thursday, August 7, 2008

Against Intolerance: A critique of Diana Russell's Against Pornography

By sheer coincidence with the post about Against Pornography the other day, I was going through some of my very old files I had archived and came across this article Avedon Carol of Feminists Against Censorship had sent me in 1997.

It was a review and critique by Jen Durbin (a sex-poz Bay Area academic who was a correspondent of FAC at the time) of Against Pornography, and was a good overview of the weaknesses of that work. The article was published in Spectator, a winning mix of softcore photography, hardcore fiction, and insightful sex-positive/pro-porn writing. Spectator was the sexy offshoot of the perhaps better known underground tabloid The Berkeley Barb, though Spectator outlasted the Barb by some 25 years. The magazine was headed by Kat Sunlove, who is probably better known for her lobbying as part of the Free Speech Coalition.

The Spectator folded in 2005 and went under soon after, but thanks to the miracle of the Wayback Machine, its archive of articles (also here), spanning from the late 90s to mid-2000s, is still viewable and well worth checking out.

Anyway, without further ado:

"When a Scientist Stacks the Deck: A Review of Diana E. H. Russell's Against Pornography: The Evidence of Harm"
by Jen Durbin
Spectator Magazine #835 (Sept 30-Oct 6, 1994)

Imagine a literary scholar writing a book about the sonnet in order to give the general public, many of whom have never read a sonnet, an opportunity to make up their own minds about this verse form. This hypothetical scholar first defines "sonnet" as a poem about a horse. He and a dozen research assistants spend eighteen years sifting the canon of English literature for poems about horses. Some of these poems may have fourteen lines; others may not. The number of lines is irrelevant to his study. At the end of this period of extensive research, he publishes his findings: his long-awaited scholarly book proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that sonnets are about horses. He even includes over a hundred poems as evidence.

As farfetched as this hypothetical anecdote might seem, it provides a frightfully accurate analogy for Diana Russell's new book, Against Pornography: The Evidence of Harm (Russell Publications, 1993). She calls her book a "scholarly work" (p. xii), but it breaks every rule of good scholarship, which, if it can't be original and well written, should at the very least be unbiased and logical. As a teacher of pornography, I can sympathize with Russell's opening statement: "I have come to dislike talking about the effects of pornography with people who have not seen it for themselves" (p.vii). If there's one thing I dislike even more, however, it's talking about pornography with people whose only exposure to porn has been a narrow band within the broad spectrum of pornographic material, carefully pre-selected by the anti-porn feminists.

Just like the fraudulent scholar who looked for horses everywhere, Russell begins by re-defining pornography so that she can pre-determine the results of her search. She sets out to look for "material that combines sex and/or the exposure of genitals with abuse or degradation in a manner that appears to endorse, condone, or encourage such behavior" (p. 3). Not surprisingly, that's exactly what she finds.

The 108 images she reproduces in her book come from the porn collections of such groups as OAP (Organizing Against Pornography) SVAW (Stopping Violence Against Women), WAP (Women Against Pornography), SOAP (Students Organizing Against Pornography), and of course WAVPM (Women Against Violence in Media and Pornography). The last-named group, which Russell helped to found, was established in 1976. It has taken her and her comrades in arms nearly twenty years to collect the violent images she reprints in her book. A serious academic study would have attempted to provide a more even-handed survey of the field. If it took dozens of women this long to collect a handful of violent images, just imagine all the benign or neutral images they must have viewed and then discarded in the course of their search.

Russell does attempt to contextualize her sample of pornographic visuals by introducing some statistics, but none of them are too impressive. For instance, in Penthouse and Playboy in 1977, "5 of the cartoons and 10 of the pictorials were sexually violent" (p. 9). Of course, it doesn't take a scientific study to estimate that by far the bulk of the images in both magazines were just plain sexual, but who wants to analyze the most representative kinds of porn images anyway? Since no one has been able to prove that pornographic images are predominantly violent, Russell has decided to modify the findings of some existing studies to suit her purposes. She draws on the Canadian Criminologist T.S. Palys for some fairly significant percentages of sexually aggressive scenes in sexually-oriented videos. What she doesn't say is that out of the 150 videos sampled by Palys, 58 were not x-rated, and 25 were specifically (not randomly) chosen for their violent content. It's as if our literary scholar, finding that epics were far more likely to feature horses, decided to beef up his case by throwing statistics about epics in with his statistics about sonnets. Even worse, Russell barely mentions Palys' main point --"the unexpected finding that 'adult' videos have significantly greater absolute number of depictions of sexual aggression per movie than triple-X videos" --a point that probably will not surprise regular viewers of R-rated and X-rated videos.

Among Palys' actual findings, those ignored by Russell, were the following: "the triple X videos had a higher frequency of mutual (i.e. egalitarian) sexual depictions than the adult videos (72 versus 12.9)," sexual aggression was more prevalent in adult than in X-rated videos, and the aggressive depictions were significantly more severe in the adult videos.1 Palys critiques previous studies for leaving "concerned individuals with the potentially misleading impression that those who produce 'pornography' hold the monopoly on violent and sexually violent materials" (Palys, p. 33). One can only speculate about the reasons Russell chose to ignore his warnings about creating a "misleading impression."

How does Diana Russell create the misleading impression that pornography is predominantly violent and degrading towards women? Let me count the ways. In the interests of brevity, I will cite only one instance of each tactic (or two if they are impossible to resist).

Faulty logic: On page 114 she writes, "Because it is important to know the proclivities and the state of mind of those who read and view pornography, I will start by discussing some of the data on males' propensity to rape." Spectator readers will be interested to know that as a group they are indistinguishable, in Russell's mind in any case, from rapists. Wouldn't it be a little more scientific/scholarly to start with a group of consumers of porn (using a group of people who don't consume porn as a control group) if one were interested in analyzing the "proclivities and state of mind of those who read and view porn"?

Misleading rhetorical strategies: On page 20 she writes that there is "reason for great concern when those who feel aroused by pornography (or racism) become advocates or defenders of it." Here she implies that defending one's right to view or read arousing material is the same as joining the Ku Klux Klan.

Baseless claims: Russell cites a study by Malamuth, in which subjects were "randomly assigned to view either a rape version or a mutually consenting version of a slide-audio presentation." She justifies using this study to pillory pornography because "the rape version of the slide-audio presentation is typical of what is seen in pornography" (p. 124). Of course, anyone who has viewed much pornography knows that the most common scenario features the willing, even nymphomaniacal woman, not the female victim of forced sex. Russell's flawed premise allows her to pretend that rape is a typical feature of porn.

Misleading categories: Throughout the book, she lumps bondage in with violence. For instance, she reprints a cartoon featuring a smiling woman in a dog collar and leash (p. 23). How does Russell know the woman did not choose bondage? Another cartoon shows a woman tied spread eagle on the bed. The man who has tied her up asks, "Comfy?" Here's Russell's interpretation: "This cartoon perpetuates the idea that women enjoy bondage" (p. 36). Of course, many do. Need I add that throughout the book she makes no distinction between consensual and non-consensual acts?

Faulty assumptions: And who's to say that a man looking at the cartoons above or watching video sex scenes always identifies with the aggressor? Carol Clover, in her book about slasher films, Men Women and Chainsaws, has shown that males in the audience often identify with on-screen females, and vice versa. Indeed, in one of the studies Russell cites, researchers found that male college students and men living in inner-city housing projects found four categories of violence arousing. One of the arousing categories was "a female killing a male" (p. 146).

Lip service: At various points throughout the book, Russell will make a reasonable statement. For instance, she writes "What is objectionable about pornography, then, is its abusive and degrading portrayal of females and female sexuality, not its sexual content or explicitness" (p. 5). Elsewhere she admits that by the definition of simple causation, "pornography clearly does not cause rape, as it seems safe to assume that some pornography consumers do not rape women, and that many rapes are unrelated to pornography" (p. 119). However, since she does not provide any examples of sexual content that is not abusive or degrading, and since her purpose is to implicate pornography as one of the primary causes of rape, these brief admissions can be seen as mere lip service.

Ignoring the obvious interpretation of others' findings: In making a case that viewers imitate what they see on screen, she cites the seemingly shocking statistic that "Among the junior high school students [in Jennings Bryant's study] 72 of the males reported that 'they wanted to try some sexual experiment or sexual behavior that they had seen in their initial exposure to X-rated material'" (p. 126). This finding will assuredly be shocking to any reader who has taken Russell's word about what "typical porn" is like, but anyone who has viewed porn for him- or herself might have a different interpretation: most 7th and 8th graders have not experienced sex, and it is not surprising that they would some day like to try intercourse (or, God forbid!, fellatio or cunnilingus), the real staple of heterosexual porn.

Failure to critique the studies she cites: She quotes from a study that confirms "that exposure to non-violent pornography causes masculine sex-typed males, in contrast to androgynous males, to view and treat women as a sex object" (p.132). The flaw in this study lies in the initial classification of the participants. The term "masculine sex-typed males" was defined as men who "encode all cross-sex interactions in sexual terms and all members of the opposite sex in terms of sexual attractiveness." An astute reader--one who can translate jargon into plain English--will have noticed that by definition this group of men viewed women as sex objects before they even participated in the study.

Ignoring the findings or premises of others' studies: Russell makes use of Dietz and Evans' statistics about the increase in bondage and domination imagery on the cover of heterosexual porn magazines. She neglects to mention, however, that the authors of this study saw it as an "unobtrusive measure of the prevalence of the corresponding fantasy among consumers," since "the imagery of pornography tends to correspond to the preexisting fantasy images of the consumer."2 In other words, they posit that pornography is an effect, whereas Russell takes the opposite stance, arguing that it is a cause.

Citing irrelevant studies: She cites a study by Malamuth and Check, in which students viewed a "feature-length film that portrayed violence against women as being justifiable and having positive consequences (Swept Away or The Getaway)" (p.134). Their findings are of course irrelevant in a book called Against Pornography, since the films they used are rated R, and any actions taken by fired-up readers of Russell's book are unlikely to be directed against The UA or Landmark cinemas.

Ignoring or glossing over points that run counter to her theories: She admits that "Psychologists James Check and Neil Malamuth have provided experimental evidence that pornography that is supplemented with sound educational information does not induce the negative effects that would otherwise occur" (p. 17). However, she ignores the ramifications of this finding: it is important to make porn more accessible, not less. Families who will not freak out if little Johnny or Jenny is watching porn will be more likely to have a chance to discuss the videos with their kids, and to use them as an opportunity to educate.

As a teacher, I of course believe in the power of education. And I believe that the best education succeeds not in transmitting the biases of the teacher into the minds of the students, but rather in teaching the students to ferret out faulty logic wherever it resides, and to open their minds to truth wherever it may be found. And the best education of all succeeds in opening the teacher's mind too. In that spirit, I turn from my point-by-point critique of Russell's methods in order to attempt to reach an unbiased perspective on the issues she raises. I don't want readers to come away from this review article with the impression that I am just as biased, and just as likely to ignore evidence that runs counter to my pet theory, as Russell is.

There's a little gold sticker on the cover of Russell's book that reads "WARNING: Some of the visuals in this book may cause distress." It turns out that I am not so desensitized to sexual violence that I was completely immune to that distress. Certainly the album cover depicting a just-raped woman next to the graffiti "Guns N Roses Was Here" disturbed me: I couldn't help but think of the young fans of that group, who are being taught a less-than-subtle lesson about rape. Given my own personal history, I also was disturbed by the ad in Playboy (for Oui magazine) depicting an adolescent-looking nude girl in handcuffs above the caption "How one family solved its discipline problem." I don't think it's possible to argue that Playboy caused the national epidemic of child sexual abuse, partly because incest existed for centuries before Playboy came on the market. But I do think it would be naive to argue that the media plays no role in the overall climate of misogyny in the United States today.

Given the fact that pornography is far less prevalent and accessible than television, advertising, mainstream movies, and billboards, why do radical feminists such as Russell focus their attacks on pornography? One argument is that the conjunction between sex and violence is especially compelling. To put it crudely, one might compare male viewers of video porn to Pavlov's dogs: they are trained to ejaculate at the sight of sexual violence towards women. Russell cites a 1985 study by Donnerstein, in which participants were divided into three groups: one saw X-rated movies depicting sexual assault; the second saw X-rated movies showing only consenting sex; the third saw R-rated sexually violent movies. Then they all saw a reenactment of a real rape trial. "Subjects who had seen the R-rated movies: (1) rated the rape victim as significantly more worthless, (2) rated her injury as significantly less severe, and (3) assigned greater blame to her for being raped than did the subjects who had not seen the films [i.e. the control group]. In contrast, these results were not seen for the X-rated non-violent films. However, the results were much the same for violent X-rated films, despite the fact that the R-rated material was 'much more graphically violent'" (p. 137). There is no question in my mind that if I had my druthers, the media would not pre-dispose potential jurors to underestimate a rape victim's worth or her injuries.

Still, Donnerstein's study also suggests that the degree of explicitness of the sex scenes in the movies was not a factor in the participants' responses to the rape trial. Since the ratio of sexual assault scenes to consensual sex scenes is much higher in Hollywood films than it is in porn videos (for evidence, see the study by Palys above, or just pay attention when you go to the movies), the unavoidable conclusion seems to be that despite their protestations, writers such as Russell actually are attacking sexuality.

Intentionally or not, Russell is adding to the climate of misogyny. She notes for instance that "Negative consequences to males who exploit women in this situation [i.e. in bondage] are improbable since women who are violated while in bondage are unlikely to report such abuses to the police." She is right: most sex workers know they will automatically be assumed guilty by the judicial system. But the more Russell contributes to a climate of sexual repression, the harder it will be to obtain legal redress for crimes against women who work in the sex industry.

It's hard to object to her recommendations, since she provides none. She does not seem to be recommending that pornography be fought via the courts; in fact, she goes to some lengths to distinguish herself from MacKinnon and Dworkin, who needed to use a legal definition of pornography in order to write their legislation. She repeatedly claims to be against censorship, although it is true that she does so only in the context of defending her own right to free speech. A rave review just inside the cover, in which Nikki Craft writes that she was "moved to tear up several hundred Hustler magazines in convenience stores and throughout Santa Cruz," might be interpreted as an implied recommendation. Anyone who reads this book out of context (of the feminist debate about pornography or the full spectrum of pornographic materials) is likely to take matters into their own hands, and the target will be a symptom (for instance Hustler magazine) of our social ills rather than an underlying cause (such as economic inequality between the genders).

In lieu of author's recommendations, I will make a suggestion of my own. On the copyright page Russell prohibits reproduction of any part of the book, specifying that "the only exception to these rules applies to feminists dedicated to the fight against pornography, who are welcome to copy this material free of charge in pursuit of their anti-pornography work." This is especially ironic in light of the fact that, by her own admission, she stole these images from the pornographers who held the copyrights in the first place. In her preface she admits to the following violation: "I did not attempt to obtain permission from the pornographers for several reasons. I didn't want to support the pornography industry by giving them money. . . " In light of the fact that one of the most popular tactics used against the porn industry is to tie up all its resources in legal battles in the hopes that the production companies will go bankrupt, I have a fitting response to Russell's book to suggest: the pornographers whose images she has stolen should consider suing her for copyright violations. It would be interesting to see if the courts agreed that her "right to free speech" (which, according to Russell, "includes the right to publish the material necessary to show that pornography is harmful to women" p. x) overrides publishers' and photographers' and artists' rights to fair payment for the reproduction of their work.

On a more serious note, I would like to say that a feminist writer who has done such important work in the areas of rape and child sexual abuse might have been expected to have chosen her target more carefully. Pornography is not the culprit here. If feminists are to make real strides towards stopping violence against women, we will need a more realistic assessment of the root causes of the problem, and a more effective plan for bringing about true social change.

1 Palys T. (1986). Testing the common wisdom: the social content of video pornography. Canadian Psychology, 27(1):27–35. (p 27–29)

2 Dietz P, Evans B. (1982). Pornographic imagery and prevalence of paraphilia. American Journal of Psychiatry 139:1493–1495. (p 1423; italics mine.)


  1. it's depressing that NONE of this shocks me.

  2. Diana E. H. Russell: cooking books and distorting the facts to justify her sexual fascism since 1980.

    Small wonder she won't debate "pro-porn" women on an independent venue.


  3. more absurd hoopla much ado about nothing...just OUR civil liberties, bodies, and health! Ha!

  4. p.s. please add me to the "Us" side of your blog! thank you!
    jayne doe
    the BiztheBlog