cover art for Battling Pornography bookCarolyn Bronstein’s new book — Battling Pornography: The American Feminist Anti-Pornography Movement, 1976-1986 — won the 2012 Emily Toth Award for “Best Single Work in Women’s Studies” from the Popular Culture Association. Criteria for the award include quality of research, originality, and contribution to popular and American studies scholarship. Bronstein, an associate professor in the College of Communication, also received DePaul’s 2012 Spirit of Inquiry Award, which recognizes substantive work that makes important contributions to a field of study. 

"In my research, I explore two interests: the ways that activist groups, especially feminist groups, are represented in the media and the ways that group members actively contest and reframe some of these representations. The anti-pornography movement was an amazing grassroots campaign by small groups of women, all over the country, who stood up against powerful media corporations and said, 'We won’t be treated this way.' Battling Pornography chronicles the rise and fall of this dynamic feminist movement, which started as a protest against the conflation of sexuality and violence and ended up raising issues of free speech and women’s rights. 

"Popular wisdom suggests that the anti-pornography movement erupted in 1986 when feminist activists, under the leadership of Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon, sought legal reform. But the movement really started a decade before that. In 1976, Women Against Violence Against Women (WAVAW) was founded in response to a cheap horror movie, Snuff, which linked sex and violence. Then, when the cover of the Rolling Stones’ album, Black and Blue, showed a battered woman with an expression of sexual excitement, WAVAW staged a protest against Warner Communications, the parent company of Atlantic Records. As other groups formed — notably Women Against Violence in Pornography and Media and Women Against Pornography — the movement coalesced, with members and sympathizers speaking out against the proliferation of images of sexual violence in advertisements, films, and other popular media, arguing that they reinforced gender stereotypes and fostered inequality.

DePaul Professor Carolyn Bronstein with her Spirit of Inquiry Award"Battling Pornography represents the fullest expression of my drive to discover and interpret how and why the issue of pornography rose to the forefront of the American women’s movement and to understand why the movement unfolded in complex and politically charged ways. The book is based on 10 years of original research: I read the unpublished papers of dozens of feminist anti-pornography action groups, studied hundreds of “second wave” feminist and New Left periodicals, and interviewed activists from the ‘70s and ‘80s. The work took me to major research libraries, mid-sized regional historical centers, tiny volunteer-run community archives, and private homes all across the United States.

"In the first part of the book, I argue that anti-pornography sentiment emerged from social and political developments in the early 1970s, including the failed promise of the sexual revolution, an increase in awareness of male violence against women, a political critique of heterosexuality, and the spread of sexually explicit media into mainstream American life. In the next part of the book, I document successful campaigns against leading media corporations, as well as the nascent movement’s struggle to attract news coverage, funding, and political support. In the final chapters, I show that organization leaders made a strategic decision to reorient the movement away from media violence to focus on pornography, hoping to leverage this term’s rhetorical and symbolic power.

"The shift did bring the desired media attention and a host of new supporters, many coming from the energized Reagan-era New Right, but it also inaugurated a new emphasis on legislative strategy that replaced the public education and consumer action tactics that had defined the movement in its first years. The specter of new anti-pornography laws ignited a counter-movement led by alarmed feminists and free speech advocates who opposed restrictions on sexual speech as a dangerous attack on First Amendment rights. In 1986, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that an ordinance defining pornography as a violation of women’s civil rights was unconstitutional. After that, the conversation moved to academia, as a generation of scholars were inspired to examine the representation of men and women (and boys and girls) in the media, the gendered nature of communication, the ways media content and consumption reify or challenge social expectations about gender, and the relationship between sexually explicit media and violence.

"Understanding the anti-pornography movement gives us insights about mass media and social responsibility and about the role that citizens can and should play in determining their symbolic environment. Although I do not believe in the legal restriction of pornography, I am an enormous admirer of social action groups who use creative tactics (such as boycotting, letter writing campaigns, consciousness raising, and marching in the streets) to communicate their dissatisfaction with the status quo. We should always celebrate that."

Read Bronstein’s essays on Cambridge University Press blog (“This Side of the Pond”):​​