The first wave of feminism in the late nineteenth century was concentrated in the western world and consequently framed its argument for women’s rights as an inherent issue for any liberal society. The feminist struggle was inextricably linked to the pillars of liberal democracy, emphasizing equality and individuals freedoms for women politically, economically, and socially. Today, the feminist movement is still very much alive; it has become a reoccurring feature in pop culture as feminist critiques touch everything from Beyoncé’s song lyrics to the reality that women everywhere continue to be underpaid in comparison to their male counterparts. For the most part, feminist issues can clearly be championed within the liberal argument for equality. However, issues regarding female sexuality can be more difficult to tackle for feminists, given that some groups, in some aspects, directly oppose the virtues of an open and liberal society. Attempts to regulate pornography and prostitution remain a contentious issue for European states, who are notably liberal in their social views, as restrictive regulations or bans challenge individual freedoms.
So is the modern-day feminist movement incompatible with the merits of liberal European democracies? In early 2013, Iceland, a country known for ranking first in various reports evaluating sexual equality, made headlines for proposing a ban on online pornography. Paradoxically, this ban is a result of Iceland’s progressive liberalism, which could boast an openly lesbian prime minister in power at the time of the proposed ban and one of the smallest salary gaps between men and women in the world. The strong feminist presence in Iceland has prioritized this proposed ban as means of reducing violence towards women. This proposal gained momentum across Europe with a EU-wide vote also held in March 2013 calling for ‘the EU and its member states to take concrete action on discrimination against women in advertising… [by] a ban on all forms of pornography in the media.’ This was rejected by MEPs, and elections in Iceland caused the proposal to lose momentum. The feminist arguments for such a ban and the tension this causes in a liberal society, however, is not going to simply disappear, as the political feminist voice remains loud throughout Europe.
Some radical feminists claim the sexualisation of women has become a conditioned practice in society, as men ‘believe their sexual inclinations are inherited traits, and therefore a birth right’ (Bromberg, 1997). This mind-set has led to an attitude of entitlement to prostitution and pornography that is justified by an allegedly natural or biological desire, which has become more highly valued than the fact that these practices oppress women. Prostitution and pornography perpetuate the sexual objectification of women and are thus damaging to the pursuit of equality between the sexes. In Iceland, the argument to ban online pornography stems from the reality that it sometimes depicts women as victims of violence. It is then ‘the marketing of images of women by men for men’ (Hoffman, 1985) and therefore claimed to be an industry that, on the whole, satisfies men at the expense of female dignity. While some argue pornography depicts the sexual gratification of women as well, images of women treated in a degrading, violent or brutal manner are all too frequent to ignore. Further, some feminists would point out participation in the pornography industry, though voluntary, is often the result of social forces such as poverty and the socialization of femininity in the media; some would go as far to say that pornography is a form of propaganda or even hate literature that conditions the acceptance of the woman’s submissive role in satisfying the sexual desires of men. However, the strongest argument for these feminists advocating the ban of pornography is that by depicting violence towards women, it is a real danger to maintaining a peaceful society and should thus be subject to regulation.
On the other side, some Europeans espouse the claim that such bans on pornography and even prostitution violate their individual freedoms that are essential to the institution of a liberal society. In many democracies, obscenity is the exception to free speech, though there are challenges to defining what qualifies as ‘obscene.’ Liberals opposing the banning of online pornography in the EU assert that the banning of Internet material would put their governments on par with China, or more accurately Saudi Arabia, which strictly bans pornography, in terms of wrongly limiting their citizens to online information. The limits to regulating sexual activity should stop at ensuring it is consensual by both parties and if some are offended by pornography, that is a matter of taste rather than morality, which the government should have no say in.
However, the pervasiveness pornography does not mean society should necessarily tolerate it. There are instances in European liberal democracies in which in individual liberty is sacrificed for the greater good of society. Just as guns have the potential to endanger the rest of society and are thus restricted in many European states thereby sacrificing the individual right to bear arms, pornography has the potential to encourage and socialise violence towards women and should likewise be banned for the greater good and safety of society. By not banning pornography, European governments are indirectly prioritising the rights of men to have access pornography to the rights of women to be portrayed as social equals. Thus, ‘the compatibility between liberals and feminists breaks down… with the liberals’ willingness to subordinate women’s sexual equality to the pornographer’s individual liberty’ (Hoffman, 1985, p.516). Therefore, perhaps restrictive law does have value in liberal societies, at least in its ability to reshape social perceptions that would breed new generations that do not accept the sexualisation of women as a result of some natural male desire and is therefore acceptable. By refusing to act, European societies are perhaps not protecting the virtues of liberalism, but perhaps simply endorsing the status quo through the non-interference of individual liberties that are really not so black or white.
Bromberg, S. (1997) “Feminist Issues in Prostitution” Available from: http://www.policeprostitutionandpolitics.com/pdfs_all/PDFS%20for%20Maxine%20Prop%2035/Judge%20Jack%20Camp%20arrest%20info/Prostitution%20and%20feminism/Feminist%20Issues%20in%20Prostitution.pdf.
Hoffman, E. (1985) “Feminism, Pornography, and Law” Available from: http://scholarship.law.upenn.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=4030&context=penn_law_review.
Shrage, L., “Should Feminists Oppose Prostitution?” Ethics [Online] 99(20) pp347-361. Available from: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2381438.
Walters, L. (2013) “Feminism or Fascism: Iceland’s stunning Ban on Pornography May Be Spreading” Available from: http://www.woodhullalliance.org/2013/sex-and-the-law/feminism-or-fascism-icelands-stunning-ban-on-pornography-may-be-spreading/