Representing Women: Pornography

Tania Allen

BLS 340 – Representing Women

Ann Millett-Gallant

February 16, 2010

Critical Essay: Being Pornography?

In her essay Pornography Andrea Dworkin takes a rather aggressive stance against the entire medium of pornography whether it be photography, film or written. It is quite clear in just this very short essay that Dworkin has a distinct dislike for the medium. From the very beginning where she likens the imagery of women in sexual poses to the denigration and even slavery of women, to the end where she makes the statement that “[b]eing [the whore] means being pornography” (Dworkin 389), the author’s own beliefs are made painfully clear. Throughout her essay, Dworkin makes it very plain that she feels that pornography in all forms is vile, loathsome and contemptible. In making her rather aggressive statement however the author uses coarse, crude terminology and an aggressive tone, and in doing so demands that the reader agree with her rather than seeking to convince them of her point.

The first argument Dworkin makes is that the origin of the word pornography stems from Greek roots (“graphos” meaning “writing” and “pornē” meaning “whore” specifically the lowest class of whore), further asserting that the meaning of the word itself is not “depictions of the erotic” which has become the commonly accepted meaning, but that it means simply “writing about whores” (Dworkin 387). The given definition from the Merriam-Webster dictionary however is indeed “the depiction of erotic behavior (as in pictures or writing) intended to cause sexual excitement” (pornography). Dworkin in her essay does not acknowledge the reality or even the possibility that words may change meaning as their use changes, and by reinforcing the etymological meaning of the word she attempts to appeal to the emotional side of the reader by painting all pornography as slavery. In making her assertion, especially with the caustic and acerbic tone of her writing, the author makes her stance clear regarding the genre of erotica being called pornography, even though one of the individuals she quoted at the start of the essay makes a distinct differentiation between pornography of a demeaning sort and that which is simply erotica. Gloria Steinem, another well known feminist, separates erotica from pornography in a way that Dworkin does not, referring to “nonviolent sexual material” (Gloria Steinem) as an acceptable medium of expression, but that pornography (which Steinem classifies as imagery or writing which depicts women as victims) is the truly offensive genre.

Dworkin’s language throughout the essay is decidedly shocking, something I wouldn’t expect in such a supposedly scholarly approach. Certainly, the author intends to make her point by shocking the reader, but it is quite possible that in using words like “cunt”, “slut” and “fuck” she takes away from the efficacy of her argument. True, it does catch the reader’s attention very easily to be struck in the face with such harsh language, such as when Dworkin describes pornography as “real women .. tied up, stretched, hanged, fucked, gang-banged, whipped, beaten and begging for more.” (Dworkin 390), but perhaps it’s a little too coarse to make the message sound like anything more than a complaint against the medium rather than a logical argument. Dworkin also makes the assertion that pornography portrays women’s sexuality as “dirty”, though she doesn’t necessarily back up that argument with anything but her own opinion. It’s hard to accept her argument for the foulness of pornography when she consistently speaks about perception and appearance. She does not make a solid case for her own argument by using such hesitant language, and in fact gives the reader doubt as to whether to take her essay as a serious argument against the existence of pornography.

Dworkin’s other argument against the field and genre of pornography is that is exists simply as a part of the “system of male sexual domination” (Dworkin 388). Again she likens the women in pornorgraphy in any form as whores who exist only to serve men sexually.  She refers frequently to “real” and “objective” in referring to the women, to the “force” – by which I imagine she means the violence evidenced in some pornography – and to the debasement of women (Dworkin 388), using her word choices once more as a tool to appeal to the reader’s emotions in much the same way that radical PETA activists do when they wear fur coats drowned in red paint. She encourages the reader to view the subjects of pornographic or erotic photographs, films, paintings or written works as real individuals. By making that association, and then asserting that those women’s only value is to serve as porneia, as whores to men, she inflicts upon the reader a sense that all women are without value because of pornography.

Looking to her biographical pages, it perhaps isn’t surprising that Dworkin’s essay is filled with such vitriol; she is known in the feminist movement as a radical after all. After reading this harsh argument against the field and genre of pornography, it is perhaps not surprising to learn that Dworkin was in her younger years a victim of molestation and rape, that she was forced into pornography and eventually prostitution. Taking this into consideration it is not a surprise that her personal beliefs on the matter are so distinctly polarized to an extreme view of the subject. Not a surprise, but it certainly lessens the impact of the essay as a persuasive appeal to the reader.

In talking about pornography, Dworkin focuses on imagery that portrays women as objects of sexual gratification, likening the women in pornography – whether it be film, photography or written – to the “lowest class of whore” in Ancient Greece (Dworkin 389). What Dworkin fails to comment about is that not all pornography is about demeaning women. There is plenty of erotica that doesn’t portray women in a demeaning and insulting manner. One need only look at the pin-up models of the 1950’s – Bettie Page and Betty Grable being two of the most well known – to find images of women in erotic poses that are not demeaning. The same imagery is recreated today also: Jenna Jameson is an example of a modern-day pin-up girl.  These women and their contemporaries have indeed served as the subjects of fantasies for men, but were not portrayed, as Dworkin might suggest, as common whores or slaves to dominating males. Artists such as Antonia Vargas, Boris Vallejo, Julie Bell and others depict women in hyper-sexualized imagery, but that imagery is fantastical, and the intelligent viewer realizes the difference between such images and reality. Photographer Cindy Sherman’s works have a distinctly sexual bent to them, but there is nothing demeaning or degrading about the woman’s works. One imagines however that all of these examples would simply be, to Dworkin, further examples of the male need to dominate women, and of weak women’s submission to the patriarchal systems which they are forced to exist within.

My own personal opinion is vastly different from Dworkin’s. I find much beauty in erotic imagery and writing, except for the most perverted themes. I love the imagery of the pin-up girls, for example, and have always seen them as strong women, certainly not the slaves or whores that Dworkin would make them out to be. Similarly, I will admit to enjoying pornography in many forms, including film and written, as substance for my own sexual gratification, a fact which I feel certain the author would discount as my being already a slave to the male expectations put upon me. As a survivor of sexual abuse myself, I can certainly understand the author’s reaction to the reminder of her experiences, and can even see the essay Pornography as a sort of catharsis, not unlike the poetry I used to write as a young adult. But if her intention for the essay was to influence the reader to believe the same as she does about pornography as a broad genre, I think that she fails in her efforts mainly because of the approach she takes.

Andrea Dworkin likens pornographers to the puritans who punished women openly for being sexual. In coarse language and crude imagery, she paints a horrifying picture of the women who are portrayed in prose, in still photography, in paintings and on film. But while that image she paints is purposefully shocking, using the imagery of rape and abuse, it fails to be an effective argument against the medium. Rather, her essay reads like a personal tirade, the work of an admittedly and famously radical feminist venting her personal opinions of pornography, effectively battering the reader with her zealous beliefs. Her essay would be more effective without the vulgarity she makes liberal use of, as well as if she made a distinction between erotica and what she considers pornography, though it is very likely that the author does not see a difference.

Works Cited

“Andrea Dworkin” Andrea Dworkin Autobiography. 19 February 2010. <;

Dworkin, Andrea. “Pornography.” The Femininism and Visual Culture Reader. Ed. Amelia Jones. Routledge. 2003. 387-389.

“Gloria Steinem” Law Library – American Law and Legal Information. 19 February 2010. <;

“pornography.” Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. 2010. Merriam-Webster Online. 19 February 2010 <;


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