Pornography, Patriarchy and Liberalism: Re-reading Andrea Dworkin

by Bob Brecher

Part of our Patriarchy 2013 series: Why we should re-read Andrea Dworkin's "Pornography: Men Possessing Women".

First published: 21 October, 2013 | Category: Culture, Gender equality, Inequality, Philosophy and Theory

Over thirty years ago, Andrea Dworkin argued in Pornography: Men Possessing Women that pornography – as well as expressing the attitudes on which patriarchy is historically, intellectually and emotionally founded – has played, and continues to play, a pivotal role in engendering such attitudes. In the intervening years, pornography has become ubiquitous and society is considerably more sexualized than in the 1980s. So if she was right, her arguments are even more important now than then. I shall argue that Dworkin was indeed right: not because pornography directly causes rape (if it does, a complex question she does not address in this text) but on account of what it is, what it means and what it makes possible. That’s why we need urgently to (re-)read her in these neo-liberal times.

The argument

She begins: 

This is a book about the meaning of pornography and the system of power in which pornography exists. Its particular theme is the power of men in pornography …  this is not a book about what should or should not be shown … [1]. 

The distinction’s important: it’s one thing to argue what something is and what it means; quite another that it should, or shouldn’t, be banned. Think of alcohol or tobacco: you don’t have to think something should be banned to think it’s wrong, bad or harmful (though of course you might). In Pornography, Dworkin doesn’t discuss whether or not pornography should be censored or banned (as she does in, for example, ‘Against the male flood’ [2]) but she looks at what pornography is and what it means.

The function of pornography, Dworkin argues, is ideological.  Just as schools and universities shape what knowledge is, so pornography shapes what sexuality is. For instance, she writes: 

Pornography does not, as some claim, refute the idea that female sexuality is dirty: instead, pornography embodies and exploits this idea; pornography sells and promotes it [3] 

That’s how we should understand Dworkin’s insistence that pornography ‘is objective and real and central to the male sexual system,’ [4] because it generates certain attitudes towards sexuality, and that ‘[T]he debasing of women depicted in pornography is objective and real because women are so used.’ [5] Pornography, she argues, at once exemplifies patriarchy and helps keep it in place. It reflects and requires sex as transgressive; and transgressive in a particular way, namely as making use of women merely as means to an end. So while ‘[R]eal women are tied up, stretched, hanged, fucked, gang-banged, whipped, beaten …’ [6] pornography’s meaning and function are to be found not in that fact but in patriarchy; these and other realities are side-effects. Her claim is that pornography’s ideological role is to construct male sexual desire, which in turn plays a pivotal patriarchal function by maintaining the real-world oppression of women. In short, as Liz Cameron and Debbie Frazer argue in their shamefully overlooked 1992 analysis, ‘[E]ven if … [pornography] does not cause sexual violence it may be criticized for its role in shaping certain forms of desire (and not others)’ [7]. Pornography at once reflects, maintains and promotes an understanding of women’s – and, I would add, men’s – sexuality and sexual desire. This in turn itself reflects, maintains and promotes the varieties of violence against women that patriarchy consists in.

The difficulty about how to assess her arguments is that they’re profoundly anti-liberal. Whereas liberalism – the dominant intellectual, social, political and cultural force in today’s western world -- takes a simplistically direct view of cause and effect, and thus of harm, that’s just what Dworkin denies (even though she often expresses that denial in liberal language). So I’ll start by discussing harm and liberalism’s understanding of it, and then go on to Dworkin’s challenge to that understanding.


The classical liberal view of harm is encapsulated in Mill’s view that if an action doesn’t cause ‘perceptible hurt to any assignable individual except himself’ then it is not to be prohibited: the harm has to be ‘perceptible’ [8] and done to an identifiable person. So harm is direct and measurable, and what causes it is straightforward: John hits Jane; Jane hurts. The movement’s one-way. But that’s not the only way the world works. Interestingly, Mill himself sees the difficulty, though he misses its importance:

[H]ow (it may be asked) can any part of the conduct of a member of society be a matter of indifference to the other members? No person is an entirely isolated being; it is impossible for a person to do anything seriously or permanently hurtful to himself, without mischief reaching at least to his near connections, and often far beyond them. [9]

What liberalism overlooks is that some actions and practices, whatever their direct and identifiable consequences, affect also the attitudes (moral, political and otherwise) of people neither directly affected nor readily individuated. Consider for example the UK Sexual Offences Reform Act of 1967, which led, however indirectly, to increasing acceptance of gay and lesbian sex and so to more gay and lesbian sex; or the UK Abortion Act, also of 1967, which led to far more and far more easily obtained abortions than those specifically sanctioned by the legislation; or mobile phones, which have led to changes in public etiquette, the structures of social arrangements and more. It’s not a matter just of unintended consequences (though it’s also that) but rather of effects on attitudes: these make other actions and practices feasible; and that in turn leads to the presence of such actions and practices in society (see Brecher, Getting What You Want?, pp. 151-154).        

And that’s exactly what Dworkin claims about pornography’s relation to patriarchy: it helps enable patriarchy to function, she insists, by constructing relations between women and men in specifically violent and sexist terms. In particular, pornography constructs sexual desire in our culture at least as much as pornography itself is constructed in response to that constructed sexual desire; the relation between pornography and sexual desire is thus dialectical. Pornography’s role in respect of sexual desire is similar to that of the advertising of consumer goods in relation to the desire for such goods. Just as the car advert offers a model – in an active sense – of driving cars, so pornography offers ‘a model of how to do sex’ [10]. There are two important features of this view. First, the appeal of such a model depends partly on, respectively, how cars are driven and how sex is done in our culture; and at the same time it affects precisely those practices. Second, ‘how cars are driven’ and ‘how sex is done’ includes also how they’re not driven and how it’s not done.

This second point is central. Consider not speeding because you might hurt someone; consider not doing sex violently for the same reason. Or consider President Obama’s commitment to the so-called war on terror blinding him to his capacity to not order the assassination of Osama bin Laden. A practice exists; it’s “normal”; in light of the nature of that “normality” another practice is introduced; in turn, this new practice further entrenches that “normality” … and so on. This is exactly what Dworkin tells us about pornography: it blinds men (and, I’d add, women) to things they can not do, to things they have the capacity to not do (see Agamben, ’On what we can not do’).

Dworkin’s anti-liberal text

With all that in place, let’s return to Dworkin’s book. Certainly some of her fire is directed at the fact (then) that ‘real women are required for the depiction’ [11] of women as ‘whores’ [12] But although she insists on the centrality of ‘women in makeup and costumes under hot lights…’ [13] -- on the real women used to make visual pornography -- Dworkin immediately quotes Suzanne Brøgger’s comment that the ‘essence of rape … lies not in the degree of psychological and physical force …. but in the very attitude toward women that makes disguised or undisguised rape possible’. [14] What Dworkin does is to make explicit what Mill notices but without realizing how it undermines his liberalism:

Everything in life is part of it. Nothing is off in its own corner, isolated from the rest. While on the surface this may seem self-evident, the favorite conceit of male culture is that experience can be fractured, literally its bones split, and that one can examine the splinters as if they were not part of the bone, or the bone as if it were not part of the body. This conceit replicates in its values and methodology the sexual reductionism of the male and is derived from it. [15]

On this account, as we’ve seen, neither harm nor good attach solely to identifiable individuals. To go back to the impact of the Sexual Offences and Abortion Acts of 1967: one way of generalizing from these is to suggest that harm and good can be brought about not just directly, but also indirectly, through the effect of something (an action; a practice; a belief; a law) on the range of what comes to enter the moral, political and other contexts, on what comes to be regarded as within or beyond what is acceptable. In fact, that’s how moral change often comes about: think of women’s liberation or slavery. The moral climate sets the parameters of moral possibility (see Brecher, op. cit., pp. 147-159). That’s what Dworkin has in mind when she says things like these:


(Quoting Kate Millett): Our self-contempt originates in this: in knowing we are cunt. [16]


He comes to the pornography a believer; he goes away from it a missionary. [17]


The metaphysics of male domination is that women are whores. [18]

So when she ends the book by saying that ‘We will know that we are free when the pornography no longer exists’ [19] she’s not making the causal claim that getting rid of pornography will liberate women; rather, she says that we shall know that women have been liberated only when pornography has disappeared. For pornography is a symptom of oppression as well as one of its vehicles.


Dworkin’s argument shows that we can be indirectly harmed, and that pornography functions in just that way. Compare seeing and hearing someone insulting the toilet attendant in a nightclub: although the insult is not aimed at me, I’m nonetheless insulted by it, because it’s aimed at someone not in a position to answer back. Similarly, their having to take a menial job because they have no choice is an offence to me – whether or not they themselves see it as offensive. Or think of marriage, the family, charity; or the experience of shame at someone else’s act, as when British soldiers torture Baha Moussa to death in Iraq. Nor is consent relevant: for, far from people’s wants justifying their acts, the issue is the moral justification of their wants and – therefore – the moral climate within which such wants come to be had. Nor will it do to claim that pornography is (just) a game: for while as a genre it has similarities to a game (rules, moves and the like) it’s closely connected with “real life”: it’s not just a game. People who deny the seriousness of pornography in maintaining patriarchy cannot rely on the figure of pornography as “playful sex” to do so: for what “playful sex” might be in another world and what this “playful” sex is here, now, are quite different things.

Nor does pornography have directly to abuse those it depicts in order to be abusive. As Dworkin argues in a later discussion, 

Pornography, even when written, is sex because of the dynamism of the sexual hatred in it; and for pornographers, the sexual abuse of women as commonly understood and pornography are both acts of sexual predation, which is how they live. … The pornographers are the secret police of male supremacy: keeping women subordinate through intimidation and assault. [20] 

The form of her argument here is that of standard anti-liberal analyses of all sorts of everyday phenomena, from the buying and selling of body parts for transplants to working on the supermarket check-out. So, for instance, one might argue that “for free-market employers, the economic exploitation of people as commonly understood and standard employment contracts are both acts of (economic) predation (and more), which is how they live”; or that “for charities, the abuse of the poor as commonly understood and charitable work are both acts of exploitation, which is how they live”. And both “are the secret police of neo-liberal capitalism: keeping people subordinate through : intimidation and assault”. These practices appear normal and even beneficial, and yet they operate to maintain the dominance of a particular social group (the rich) over others (the poor). The same is true of Dworkin’s critique of pornography: it seems normal and harmless, a routine part of our lives, and yet if functions to maintain the dominance of men over women.       

Dworkin wrote about the world she lived in. What other forms of pornography -- like gay porn, lesbian porn, women’s porn or whatever porn -- might be like in some other world is beside the point in this world. For there’s no such thing as pornography “in theory”. What it is and what it does depends on the society in which it exists: again, its meaning is its use.

It’s only once we properly understand pornography’s meaning and function that we can attend to the question of what, if anything, we should do about it. That’s why we need to read Andrea Dworkin. [21]


Bob Brecher is Director of the Centre for Applied Philosophy, Politics & Ethics at the University of Brighton.

[1] A. Dworkin, Pornography: Men Possessing Women (London: The Women’s Press, 1981), p.9, my emphasis.

[2] A. Dworkin, ‘Against the male flood’ in C. Itzin (ed.) Pornography: Women, Violence and Civil Liberties: a Radical New View  (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992) pp. 515-535.

[3] A. Dworkin, Pornography, op.cit., p. 201.

[4] Ibid., p. 200.

[5], Ibid., p.201.

[6] Ibid.

[7] D. Cameron and E. Frazer, ‘On the question of pornography and sexual violence: moving beyond cause and effect’, in C. Itzin (ed.) Pornography: Women, Violence and Civil Liberties: a Radical New View  (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), pp. 359-383.

[8] J. S. Mill, On Liberty, S .Collini (ed.) (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989 [1869]), p. 13.

[9] Ibid., p.80.

[10] Cameron and Frazer, op. cit., p. 377.

[11] Dworkin, Pornography, op.cit., p. 200.

[12] Ibid., p. 10.

[13] Ibid., p.147; cf. p. 138ff.

[14] Ibid., p. 138.

[15] Ibid., p.67.

[16] Ibid., p. 199.

[17] Ibid., p. 202.

[18] Ibid., p. 203.

[19] Ibid., p. 204.

[20] Dworkin, ‘Against the male flood’, op. cit., p. 525.

[21] With many thanks to Maeve McKeown for her generous comments, thanks to which this piece is much clearer than it would otherwise have been.


G. Agamben, ‘On what we can not do’, in G. Agamben, Nudities (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2011), pp. 43-45.

B. Brecher, Getting What You Want? A Critique of Liberal Morality (London: Routledge, 1997).

D. Cameron and E. Frazer, ‘On the question of pornography and sexual violence: moving beyond cause and effect’, in C. Itzin (ed.) Pornography: Women, Violence and Civil Liberties: a Radical New View  (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), pp. 359-383.

A. Dworkin, ‘Against the male flood’ in C. Itzin (ed.) Pornography: Women, Violence and Civil Liberties: a Radical New View  (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992) pp. 515-535.

A. Dworkin, Men Possessing Women (London: The Women’s Press, 1981).

J. S. Mill, On Liberty, S .Collini (ed.) (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989 [1869]).

All comments are moderated, and should be respectful of other voices in the discussion. Comments may be edited or deleted at the moderator's discretion.

Remember my personal information

Notify me of follow-up comments?