Feminism and pornography

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


Feminist debates about pornography have long cut across disciplines and often thrown into crisis the relationship between the academy and activism. At the same time, debates about pornography have mirrored broader shifts in feminist approaches to popular culture: from anger to more sympathetic defences of women’s pleasures. This chapter explores the shifts which occurred in the misleadingly-labelled ‘sex wars’ of the 1980s, providing a historical account of feminist approaches to porn (particularly in Europe, North America and Australasia) and considering the legacy of this work. It examines the methodologies which have shaped ‘porn studies’ and considers the questions about the form which have dominated debate in the early years of the 21st century: questions about audience, pleasure, and agency – alongside, but often in opposition to, a resurgence in feminist anti-porn theory and activism. In particular, it seeks to address the complicated relationship between feminist theory and the social world. On one hand, anti-pornography feminism (both in theory and practice) remains wedded to a structural analysis of porn as an industry operating within and in the interests of patriarchal capitalism. Anti-porn feminists understand pornography in relation to other forms of commercial sexual exploitation and as a form of violence against women. On the other hand, following the ‘cultural turn’ in academic approaches to pornography, textual analyses of porn have often become divorced from the social conditions which give rise to them. More recently, within cultural and media studies, there has been an emphasis on locating porn relative to the sexualisation of culture more generally. This chapter maps these trends, identifies the gaps that remain in our understanding of pornography, and questions whether the two ‘sides’ in the porn debates need remain diametrically opposed.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Sage Handbook of Feminist Theory
EditorsMary Evans, Clare Hemmings, Marsha Henry, Sumi Madhok, Ania Plomien, Sadie Wearing
Place of PublicationThousand Oaks
Number of pages16
Publication statusPublished - 12 Aug 2014


  • feminism
  • pornography
  • popular culture

Cite this

Boyle, K. (2014). Feminism and pornography. In M. Evans, C. Hemmings, M. Henry, S. Madhok, A. Plomien, & S. Wearing (Eds.), The Sage Handbook of Feminist Theory (pp. 215-231).