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2003-05-28 IGS Evening Seminar, Ochanomizu University, Tokyo, Japan
「Gender/Sexuality Troubles」--

Pornography and Female Sexual Agency

Josephine Ho
Professor and Coordinator
Center for the Study of Sexualities
National Central University, Chungli, Taiwan

To 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.

Western 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.[1]  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.

Feminist 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.[2]  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.」[3]  According to this logic, only the elimination of pornography could increase women』s erotic self-determination.[4]

While 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.  Although 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.[5]  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 gender demarcations.[6]  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 sexual realm.[7]

Still, the feminist anti-pornography position generated a wealth of arguments and critical vocabulary that have not only sedimented into common knowledge in the West,[8] but also are quite frequently adopted and cited to strengthen the fumbling protectionist stance in East Asia regarding state policies on pornography.  Furthermore, 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.[9]  In practical sense, treating gender issues as nothing but issues of political inequality,[10] 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 patriarchy.[11]

Taiwan 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.[12]

Despite 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 selves.」[13]

For 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[14] (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.[15]  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.

If 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 stylize self-portraits(素人自拍)which 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.[16]  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 Asia.

As 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),[17] 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, reproductive model.

Here, 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[18] and other criminals of violent acts against women,[19] 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.

If 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.

When 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.


[1] Walter Kendrick, The Secret Museum: Pornography in Modern Culture (New York: Penguin, 1987, 1988), pp. 18-28, 84-92; and Lynn Hunt, 「Introduction,」 The Invention of Pornography: Obscenity and the Origins of Modernity, 1500-1800, ed. by Lynn Hunt (New York: Zone Books, 1993), pp. 12-13.

[2] Gayle Rubin, 「Misguided, Dangerous, and Wrong: An Analysis of Anti-Pornography Politics,」 in Bad Girls & Dirty Pictures: The Challenge to Reclaim Feminism, eds. by Alison Assiter & Avedon Carol (London: Pluto, 1993), pp. 36-38.

[3] Dworkin, op. cit., 47.  For Dworkin, even lesbian porn needs to be dismissed for it affords men the opportunity to colonialize the lesbian through invading 「the private sanctuary of women with each other.」

[4] MacKinnon, Feminism Unmodified, p. 140.

[5] Eileen O『Neill, 「(Re)presentations of Eros: Exploring Female Sexual Agency,」 in Gender/Body/Knowledge: Feminist Reconstructions of Being and Knowing, eds. by Alison M. Jaggar & Susan R. Bordo (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 1989, 1992), p. 70.

[6] Elizabeth Cowie, 「Pornography and Fantasy: Psychoanalytic Perspectives,」 p. 152; and Lynne Segal, 「Sweet Sorrows, Painful Pleasures: Pornography and the Perils of Heterosexual Desire,」 pp. 65-72, both in Sex Exposed: Sexuality and the Pornography Debate, eds. by Lynne Segal & Mary McIntosh (London: Virago, 1992).

[7] It is important to observe exactly what other kinds of female agency are affirmed, if sexual agency is excluded.  For the preference signals not only the priority of certain social realms for feminist struggles but also the priority of certain types of feminists who should set the agenda for the whole movement.

[8] The American Heritage Dictionary offers the following definition for the word 「pornography」: 「Pictures, writing, or other material that is sexually explicit and sometimes equates sex with power and violence」 (italics added).  The last part of the definition obviously reflects the influence of the feminist anti-pornography stance.

[9] The civil-rights ordinance was vetoed twice by the mayor of Minneapolis, and a similar ordinance enacted in Indianapolis was struck down as unconstitutional by the district court and then by the Seventh US Circuit Court of Appeals.  Still, the strategy is now further broadened, at lease in the Taiwanese context, to include many more collateral but liable parties for making sexual information available and accessible, especially through the wide-ranging internet.  They may include internet service providers, webpage design programmers, bulletin board operators, search engine portal companies, and even academic researchers of sexuality.

[10] 「The personal is political」 is now more often than not understood mostly in civil and judicial terms.  Tani E. Barlow has also noted the same tendency in her essay 「Asian, Gender and Scholarship Under Process of Re-regionalization,」 Journal of Gender Studies, Ochanomizu University, Tokyo, Japan5 (2002): p. 8.

[11] This observation is made by my colleague Naifei Ding in our on-going discussion about Taiwanese feminisms.

[12] This is true for other regions of East Asia where economic prosperity has brought on a commodity culture that affords many opportunities for self-fashioning and self-expression, as well as an internet and communications network that greatly facilitates the circulation and dissemination of information, not to mention facilitating frequent and multiple erotic interactions among previously unlikely parties.

[13] Although they eventually capitulated under fierce public outcry and framed the activity as a critique of pornography, the film-viewing itself marked a collective show of sexual self-determination.  Similar activities have since become a very important gesture of asserting marginal sexual identities in Taiwan.  Gay, lesbian, and queer groups on and off college campuses have all included such collective activities as a means of self-affirmation and protest against the sex-negative social context.

[14] The very explicitly sexual Japanese comic books circulate along a very different path.  They are rarely available in the popular bookstores where long lines of girls stand around indulged in romance-oriented reading materials.  Instead, the real graphic presentations are sold mainly at newspaper stands or stationary stores where more young men can purchase them in an inconspicuous manner.

[15] Like Dworkin, mainstream women』s groups and women politicians believe sexual insinuations and sexual explicitness are one and the same thing since they both incite sexual images, and thus they are all pornography.  See Dworkin, op. cit., 9-10.

[16] Tokyo-based J-Phone announced in Nov. 2002 that at least one million of its subscribers have signed up for its Sha-mail photo messaging service.  So long as there are capable networks and handsets, and amenable data pricing, the compelling functionality of such handsets will provide an added reason for consumers to make use of images (sexual images included).  See

[17] Although Taiwanese feminist sex radicalism has done a lot to complicate the erotic/sexual scene, its efforts are often circumscribed if not negated by the state-feminists who would use state regulations against pornography to discredit alternative views on sexually explicit images and discourses.

[18] One convicted serial rapist had demonstrated good behavior, studied in prison, and managed to pass the entrance examination to the best university in Taiwan in 2001.  However, he has not been able to enter the university because his parole application has been repeatedly denied by the parole board under pressure from mainstream women』s groups who believe 「once a rapist, always a rapist.」

[19] The brutal murder of a Democratic Progressive Party feminist, Peng Wan-Ru, in 1996 and the kidnap/killing of the daughter of a famous TV personality, Bai Xiao-Yan, in the following year sparked national fear and anger to such a degree that the Taiwanese government was faced with a real legitimation crisis which could only be alleviated by gestures of establishing more stringent laws.  Peng』s case was never solved, but the kidnappers/killers of Bai had confessed to the consumption of pornographic materials before their execution.

★☆ 特典:Discussions講座現場實錄 ★☆