and Female Sexual Agency
Professor and Coordinator
Center for the Study of Sexualities
National Central University, Chungli, Taiwan
come to Japan and talk about pornography carries a special significance
for me, because Japan is probably the biggest producer and exporter of
pornographic materials in East Asia. Millions of youths in the region have found affirmation and
satisfaction since their initial sexual impulses with the help of
Japanese comic books or AV films. What’s
more, it is not only the boys who make use of such materials; lots of
girls also benefit too. The
other day, one of my colleagues was telling me how one of the prominent
lesbian writers in Taiwan nurtured her queerness with all the manifest
and latent perversions in Japanese comic books, not to mention the many
Taiwanese gays who have found their identity, mediated through the many
gay erotic comic books produced here in Japan.
Still, as important as these erotic/pornographic productions are
for the development of sexual selves of today’s youths, there is a
persistent antagonism against sexually insinuating or sexually explicit
materials “in the name of” the youths themselves in most countries
and regions. In tonight’s
lecture, I would like to first address how anti-pornography discourses
drew upon gender and generation assumptions, and then go on to point out
how a new female sexual agency, most visible among the young women of
East Asia, is now progressively complicating the gender/sexuality system
that the anti-pornography stance relies upon.
researchers have shown that the modern sense of “pornography”
(literally “writing about whores”) in fact began with a concern to
regulate social life through, among other things, regulating and
studying prostitutes. What
we now refer to as “pornography”--pictures, writing, or other
material that is sexually explicit--did not call for social concern
until dramatic social changes in the 19th century brought on
a general trend of the “democratization of culture,” to which the
culturally and politically powerful responded by limiting the
circulation of certain questionable texts. The
first anti-pornography discourse was thus mostly framed in a
protectionist language that carried strong class, gender, age
assumptions against the so-called obscenities.
It was believed that only adult (esp. middle-class and educated)
males had enough intellect and moral fiber to keep themselves safe from
the harm of pornographic materials, while the pure and feeble-minded
sexless young women and children must be shielded from ever coming into
contact with such material. Significantly,
other contemporary measures in the 19th century, such as
penile rings for boys who got involuntary erections at night and
thorough clitoridectomy for girls with strong masturbatory impulses,
painted a completely different picture about their seemingly
uncontrollable sexual desire.
anti-pornography discourses in the 1970s gave up on vague moralistic
labels such as “obscenity” and instead conducted gender/power
analyses of both the nature and presentation of pornographic materials
and the oppressive industry that produced and disseminated them, thus
moving pornography from the realm of morality and representation to the
realm of politics and inequality.
The move, while creating powerful and insightful critiques of
gender stereotypes in sexually explicit materials, also affected the
grounds for discussions of female sexual agency.
For if the concept of obscenity allowed some room for debate due
to differences in meaning interpretation, the feminist critique of
pornography often carries such a resolute political imperative that
little room is left for alternative views.
Formulated mostly in a formalistic and essentialist framework,
the critical strategy lent itself easily to gender-only analyses of
unfamiliar sexual images as simply exemplifying gender inequality and
male domination, even having the power to spark fantasy, to incite lust,
and to provoke action. As
concrete acts of male violence against women, as male supremacy in its
most graphic embodiment, pornography thus affords no room for female
sexual agency at all. As
Andrea Dworkin puts it, “The pleasure of the male requires the
annihilation of women’s sexual integrity.”
According to this logic, only the elimination of pornography
could increase women’s erotic self-determination.
female sexual agency can only be expressed, according to
anti-pornography feminists, as a loud “no” to sexual images and
sexual expression, pro-sex feminists, on the other hand, point to an
extremely complex relationship between female sexual agency and
pornography does not always meet the needs of women and its content is
often sexist and degrading for women, its existence at least provides a
fantasy space for the ineffable sexual feelings and impulses in women.
Admittedly, such a fantasy space is filled with contradictory
impulses of unconscious anticipation, gratification, even aggression,
mixed in with the undercurrents of nightmares, fear, and disgust, but
these entangled forces are by no means distributed neatly along clear
What is more, there are numerous women who enjoy pornography, who
enjoy their own feelings of sexual potency, who enjoy taking the
initiative as well as taking charge of the sexual act.
To deny such female sexual agency as pure fabrication or false
consciousness, to denounce such sexual activity as a mere imitation or
duplication of male sexuality, is to flatly deny the power that these
women have forged out of their own experimentations and struggles in the
the feminist anti-pornography position generated a wealth of arguments
and critical vocabulary that have not only sedimented into common
knowledge in the West,
but also are quite frequently adopted and cited to strengthen the
fumbling protectionist stance in East Asia regarding state policies on
what began as a debate on the meaning and effect of cultural artifacts
would now be increasingly dealt with in juridical terms, as exemplified
by Dworkin and Mackinnon’s proposed ordinance for the city of
Minneapolis in 1984 that would have allowed women to take civil action
against anyone involved in producing and selling pornography, on the
general grounds that they had been harmed by it.
In practical sense, treating gender issues as nothing but issues
of political inequality,
mainstreaming women’s groups in Taiwan choose to consolidate around
specific statist themes and issues, with a clear priority scale that
cedes the terrain of female sexuality to outdated anti-porn rhetoric, or
to a demonized capitalistic market said to be closely linked to
is probably unique in East Asia in that feminist sex-radicals have since
1994 actively intervened in the general trend of a
commodity/consumption-driven liberalization of sexual attitudes and
practices, as well as resisted the backlash launched by conservative
religious and women’s groups in regard to new expressions of sexual
agency. The much-disputed
publication of Josephine Ho’s The Gallant Woman: Feminism and
Sexual Emancipation (1994) created a dissenting voice beyond
seemingly unified anti-pornography, anti-sex feminism.
And feminist sex radicalism has since become the only voice that
addresses and resists increasing state control of erotic/sexual matters. In fact, it is through this radical stance that we are able
to recognize the sexual agency of a new
generation of young women actively exploring their relationships with
erotic/pornographic materials as they construct their sexual selves.
the arrival of cable television in Taiwan at the end of the 1980s that
made x-rated images accessible to all, feminism-informed women were not
content with such private gratifications and felt they needed to break
through the silence, isolation, and shame surrounding sexual matters.
Isle Margin, a left-wing cultural journal, published its
March 1994 issue with two ground-breaking moves.
It, for the first time, collected women’s own erotic and
sexually explicit stories written with clear feminist intentions into a
section titled “Medusa’s Voice” to sound off women’s right and
need for a sexual voice. Many
of those pieces were considered outright pornographic and blatantly
irreverent to standing moral values.
The Journal also for the first time incorporated a lesbian
publication to complicate the usual heterosexual assumption.
Such discursive productions of feminist pornography had profound
implications for younger women. In
1996, women students in Taiwan University congregated “to explore
their own erotic feelings and sexual agency” by showing a selection of
adult films at the women’s dormitory.
Adopting the same vocabulary as that of “Medusa’s Voice”
and The Gallant Woman, the film-showing was a move well-informed
by the feminist ideals of collective action and “our bodies-our
younger Taiwanese girls who are not yet comfortable with graphically
explicit materials but are already feeling the pull of erotic impulses,
they have their outlets too. Imported
and translated Japanese comic books have been providing numerous
easy-reading romantic/erotic tales in which readers could rehearse for
future entanglements. The
good taste demonstrated by such Japanese comic books in handling the
many steamy erotic scenes
(showing only clothes on the floor, clenched fingers, and painfully
ecstatic faces) is contrasted only with the numerous fu-rin (不倫,
extra-marital affairs) relationships and other “perversions”
(ranging from homosexuality to various brands of incest) depicted in the
story lines. As such
erotically potent but at the same time morally questionable elements are
regularly present even in comic books geared toward elementary school
children, it is hard to see how they would contribute to “solidifying
patriarchal gender and sexual stereotypes,” as orthodox feminist
anti-pornography discourses contend.
Of course, “traditional” romance novels are still in favor
among teenage girls, yet today’s Harlequin romances or Taiwanese local
romance novels are already of quite a different breed.
In fact, they include so many scenes of steamy sex that they have
already been labeled as “pornographic” by state-oriented women’s
groups and women politicians who demand that the romance novels be
subjected to some kind of rating system in the future.
At the urge of the women’s groups, Taipei city government is
now reviewing new ordinances that would mandate that all comic books and
body image publications be subjected to a rating system and
conspicuously display the rating on the cover of each publication.
Resistance movement by comic fans is now under way too.
more and more young women are no longer hesitant about coming into
contact with commercially produced erotic/pornographic material, they
are all the more happy to take advantage of new advances in
communications technology and assume an even more active role in sexual
self-expression. Many young
women in Taiwan are using versatile digital cameras to create and
are then stored and displayed in personal web photo albums for anybody
who cared to click the “enter” button.
The albums will of course include some photos taken in the nude
or other seductive postures, as sexual selves have come to constitute a
very important part of individual identity in the vast ocean of net
citizens. Erotic uses of
the email, on-line chat rooms, interactive webcams, or the newest haptic
(sense of touch) technologies have created a kaleidoscope of choices and
channels through which women’s deepest wishes and darkest desires are
constantly negotiated and played out in virtual space, transcending
boundaries of gender, age, nation, physical form, etc.
And to the dismay of many women’s groups, the more adventurous
young women are also becoming entrepreneurs in the production and
distribution of sexually explicit images and discursive productions.
Many are filling BBS boards with numerous stories telling their
sexual encounters and adventures to the last detail. Others
have joined the line-up of “underwear anchorwomen”（內衣主播）in
combining on-line news reporting with strip-tease. Still others are using webcams to stage live shows（真人秀）where
paid viewers could watch the girls’ every move as they go through
their most intimate life routines (including taking showers, getting
dressed, and even going to the toilet).
Recently, the new generation of cell phones equipped with digital
cameras and photo messaging services are also helping young women
collaborate with cell phone operators to start their own business of
sending on-the-spot photos（自拍美人）,
some of which are obviously adult material, to their paid subscribers. In
fact, new technological creations are applied to entrepreneurial
endeavors in the production and transmission of sexual images as soon as
they become available, and this trend seems to be sweeping across East
this new female sexual agency inserts itself into an Asian context
generally without the benefit of the legacy of a wide-spread sex
revolution accompanied by feminist delineations of its positive meaning
for gender revolution (as is in the case of the West),
it has greatly alarmed state-oriented women’s groups which, out of
traditional gender and generational concerns, are taking it upon
themselves to rid the society of such demonstrations of confused social
values. To be more precise,
the term “pornography” and its well-established unlawful status is
now used by the women’s groups in Taiwan to label such expressions of
female sexual agency that obviously falls outside the marital,
Taiwanese state-feminists needed another transformation in the meaning
of pornography in order to mobilize the whole society against such
autonomous displays of female sexual agency.
Obscenity sweeps launched by opportunist politicians,
sensationalized by the smut-thirsty media, and cheered on by the morally
righteous have long solidified the disrepute of pornography in Taiwan. But in recent years, seizing upon the general fear and
resentment surrounding high-profiled serial rapists
and other criminals of violent acts against women,
mainstreaming women’s groups have successfully highlighted one
specific dimension of the possible ill effects of pornography: it is
said to “cause” violent crimes against women, as attested by many
rapists’ own confessions under interrogation.
While the causal relationship is still to be verified
empirically, the gravity of pornography’s social consequences has
however become consensus.
pornography is believed to lead to violent crimes against women, then
any girl who stubbornly insists on functioning in the world of
erotic-pornographic materials has proven herself to be in grave need of
re-education at halfway schools or other correctional facilities.
Under the rubric of pornography, police are now cracking down on
the non-commercial personal photo albums on the web, arresting innocent
young people who are simply trying to assert their sexual selves, and
sending them to prison for “disseminating obscene materials”
according to the criminal code. Interactive
webcam shows have ground to a halt because such shows are believed to
legitimize peeping-toms and could lead to greater danger for women in
general. Internet service
providers (ISPs) have been forced to turn over private information
concerning its users in exchange for not being prosecuted as helping
with the dissemination of pornographic materials.
Authorities are now even studying how to monitor and restrict
images sent through the cell phones, and the phone companies are
unlikely to put up too much of a fight, considering the terrible stigma
that may be piled on them for putting kids in touch with pornography.
mainstreaming women’s groups and state-feminists make their case
against “pornography” these days, they still describe it as this
monstrous product that is being churned out by a humongous and lucrative
industry. Yet the actual
measures that are being executed in Taiwan are often directed not at
some evil, male-dominated porn industry, if there is still such an
industry, but more at individuals who are asserting their own sexual
selves while actively changing the rules of the erotic game.
In other words, a new kind of porn struggle in East Asia may be
arising between anti-pornography women’s groups who—reverting back
to a (this time not patriarchal but) motherly position of “protecting
children and teenagers”—have the power to push for legislation and
to supervise police performance, and the many (young) women who insist
on constructing a different, positive relationship with their own
sexuality through erotic/pornographic images.
As a result, a new relationship has also emerged between
pornography and female sexual agency in Taiwan: it is no longer a
relation of opposition, where pornography necessarily violates or
negates female sexual agency; instead, pornography is now the label that
identifies, and thus may be used to indict, spontaneous demonstrations
of non-marital, non-reproductive female sexual agency.