Take Back the Night: Women on Pornography (1982)
“Pornography is not about sex any longer, it it ever was. It is about violence and subjugation. It incites violence by showing men hurting women and getting away with it, and slanders women by depicting them enjoying and deserving abuse.”
Take Back the Night: Women on Pornography was published in 1982 by Morrow Quill Paperbacks in New York. The edition is edited by Laura Lederer, with an afterword by Adrienne Rich. All of the other contributors are also women, including Kathleen Barry, Pauline Bart, Robin Morgan, Gloria Steinem and Andrea Dworkin. Dworkin is considered one of the leading figures in feminist analysis of pornography; her Against The Male Flood: Censorship, Pornography, and Equality (1985) argued that pornography turned women into ‘subhumans’.
The aim of the book was to raise awareness of the harm caused by pornography, particularly due to the violence it often depicts. They hoped to educate the public on this harmful relationship, confront those responsible for maintaining it, and rid the existence of this kind of objectification of women’s bodies. The book’s sections cover: what is pornography, who it hurts, who it benefits, research on its effects, its relationship with the first amendment, taking action and looking ahead. The contributors’ address these topics through articles, interviews and research.
The introduction of the book highlights key events for the anti-pornography movement. These include the feminists from Southern California who hosted demonstrations and a national press conference in response to the ‘I’m black and blue from the Rolling Stones and I love it’ billboard which depicted a bound and beaten woman. Also, on 17th-19th November 1978, the Feminist Perspectives on Pornography conference was organised by the Women Against Violence in Pornography and Media (WAVPM) organization, which had a membership of over 1000 women. The conference intended to discuss ‘the destructive consequences of pornography’, because for the WAVPM, “pornography is the theory, and rape the practice”.
One theme discussed by the collection is Gloria Steinem’s ‘Erotica and Pornography: A Clear and Present Difference’ which highlights the difference between pornography and erotica, right down to the words themselves; erotica is rooted in passionate love, while ‘porno’ means ‘prostitution’ or ‘female captives’, suggesting domination rather than mutual love. Erotica concerns mutual pleasure and sexual expression but pornography concerns dominance and conquest. She argues for women’s right to a sexuality, rather than the use of sex to reinforce inequality.
Diana E. H. Russell’s ‘Pornography and the Women’s Liberation Movement’ calls for the recognition of pornography as a woman’s issue, arguing the reasons it hadn’t been labelled as such was because the anti-pornography movement was perceived to have a conservative, anti-sex and pro-tradition stance, which liberation is wired to oppose. However, crimes against women are linked; women should take action together to stop this ‘anti-women propaganda’. This is likely a response to the argument by pro-sex feminists in the 1980s, highlighted by Carolyn Bronstein, that a campaign against pornography may threaten freedom of expression and eventually align with religious conservatives whose opinions on sexuality were seen to be anti-feminist; however, pro-sex feminists were aware of the dangers of mass-market pornography.
It is difficult to know how widely this book was consumed, and whether the arguments in this text changed or reinforced the views of its readers. However, it provides us with a useful insight into the arguments in regards to the impact of violence in pornography on real-world situations, as well as attitudes towards women and sex in the late twentieth-century. It also highlights the fierce debate over pornography within the feminist movement itself, as discussed by Sara M. Evans.
Looking for more sources?
The Hypatia collection includes a number of sources on feminism, including material related to the Women’s Liberation Movement.
A pamphlet by Margaret Benston titled The Political Economy of Women’s Liberation (1969) looks at sex, inequality, and women’s position in relation to men. On the topic of female solidarity, Women United, Women Divided: Cross-cultural Perspectives on Female Solidarity, edited by Patricia Caplan and Janet M. Bujra (1978), is a collection of essays by women from different backgrounds and societies, who have written about how women can exhibit solidarity with other women.
Pioneers of Women’s Liberation by Joyce Cowley (1969) studies women and feminism in the United States. Christine Delphy The Main Enemy: a Materialist Analysis of Women’s Oppression (1977), a pamphlet translated from French, looks at the restrictive social conditions in which women exist within.
Alternatively, Midge Decter’s The New Chastity, and Other Arguments Against Women’s Liberation (1973) criticises women’s liberation and feminism; Decter has been described as a neoconservative journalist. Kenneth Hudson also explores both sides of the feminist debate with Men and Women: Feminism and Anti-feminism Today (1968). This book examines the arguments surrounding feminism in Great Britain with chapters such as ‘The Roots of Anti-feminism’, ‘Women and Public Life’ and ‘The Femininity Problem’.
Outside of the catalogue, more on the Women’s Liberation Movement can be found in the British Library’s Sisterhood and After oral history project. This provides a wealth of information on what it was like to be a feminist at the forefront of the movement in the 1970s and 80s.
Written by Connie Adams