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The endless in and out

Iris Radisch on the necessity and futility of Alice Schwarzer's current anti-porn campaign

Even Alice Schwarzer wore a mini-skirt once. But that was a long time ago. It was when as a young journalist she paid a visit to Jean-Paul Satre in Paris. Mid-way through the conversation Simone de Beauvoir burst into the room, looked daggers at the visitor's exposed thighs and disappeared. Never again, Alice Schwarzer once said, would she wear a mini-skirt after this experience. The first meeting of the famous French woman and the as yet unknown German feminist had a concrete consequence: the mini-skirt taboo.

Like a strict father of yesteryear, Alice Schwarzer still measures the hemlines of daughters and granddaughters, suspecting collaboration with patriarchy in every uncovered knee. She has my sympathies. In a time when you can't even buy a bread roll without being being told how "geil" (German slang for "cool" which actually means horny -ed) it tastes, you feel the odd twinge of nostalgia for the fatherly or motherly ruler ever vigilant of the hemline. The question however of whether Alice Schwarzer is right or not is a different one altogether, and leads almost seamlessly from the short skirt into pornography.

Because this is what the PorNo! Emma campaign is about – the complete poisoning of society by pornography. (Emma is a feminist magazine founded by Alice Schwarzer in the 70s-ed.) This ranges, according to the diagnosis of Emma writers, from the stiletto to the thong, to the most brutal gonzo porn, and varies only in degrees of hardness, but not in essence. Raise your hemline in today's world and you could end up topless in Bild newspaper tomorrow, that central organ of male sexism, for which Alice Schwarzer is now doing a double moral somersault in an ad campaign on every street corner.

The therapy prescribed by the feminist anti-porn movement is radical. To effectively fight the breach of human rights that violent porn represents, you cannot sit back and twiddle your thumbs after putting an end to one or two particularly sadistic videos. You have to start with the pornographication of everyday life. Because both the mini skirt and the rape video – so the thesis of the anti-porn campaign goes – are manifestations of the as yet unbroken violent rule of men over women. The mini skirt worn as a sign of female self-determination, peroxide hair as a sign of female self-confidence, and female lust for sex and pornography are, according to this reading, more than just contradictions in terms. They are lies, self-delusions of the woman who has yet to find a way out of the immaturity for which men are to blame.

Many women see this extension of the pornography debate as passé and patronising. The repugnant hardcore videos which show the woman as unprotected even by animal rights, are an insult to every woman. But does this make it legitimate for Emma feminism to lay down the law on right and wrong expressions of sexuality? In the thirtieth year of the anti-porn movement, do women still have to be lectured by Alice Schwarzer that "purely genital sexuality" is unwomanly, that a "vaginal organism" is impossible and that "penetration" can often "impede female lust"? Women today trust these sort of views on the nature of femaleness about as much as the biological abracadabra of Eva Herman (who released a book last year encouraging women to get back to the stove, more here).

Yet the current campaign starts again with the long white painted fingernails and wet-look lip gloss worn by young women, before making a bee-line for the sex portals filled with naked housewives and sperm-drenched porn actresses. But the therapy has little new to offer. Whistle blowing in the porn cinemas has ceded its place to the Emma PorNo! sticker which women are encouraged to "plaster over pornography everywhere." All that remains of the failed legislative proposal draughted back then to enable civil rights lawsuits against pornography is the demand for a "law against pornography as a breach of human dignity and against misogyny as sedition."

And yet with the radicalisation of pornography, there is no denying the urgency of the need to reopen the debate. It goes much further than the venial feminist question-of-questions about whether penetration would only arise in a male society where it could be spread through male violence. What started out with coy articles about marital hygiene outbid itself continuously at breakneck speeds to become the gangbang videos showing mass rapes of women that end up even in the hands of school children – which are beyond the of reach of national youth protection laws on the world wide web.

The under-researched connection between violence in the media and real-life violence is a ticking time bomb. But one thing is certain: the power of horror images which people liked to believe was cathartic and unburdening has now arrived in social reality where it is causing copy-cat behaviour and emotional deadening. The idea of the violent porn consumer who gets his pleasure at night watching women being raped and emerges purified the next day as the philanthropic boss is history. It is impossible today to imagine things that were still considered right, back in the eighties, such as arguing the case against legal restrictions on the porn market in the name of human freedom.

In retrospect, those final years before the dawn of the multimedia age seem incredibly naive - when people still believed in progressive pornography where gender roles could be shaped anew. This dream has given way to a sobering reality in the Internet portals of amateur porn. Not as a subversive counter movement to commercial porn, but as a sad mockery of it en masse.

The stereotypes of commercial porn are multiplying themselves ad nauseum in the real and mediated poses and home-movies of amateurs. School children are imitating gangbang rapes and the carers of neglected teenagers have to worry about their charges playing out collective oral sex scenarios as soon as their backs are turned. Half the children see porn films on their mobile phones before they exchange their first kisses. And before long they take it as the norm that this eternal in and out on the screen has nothing to do with traditional conflict-ridden content such as love and understanding. It is no longer possible to explain this as an unfortunate but unavoidable consequence of liberalisation in a free society. But the same goes for fighting it effectively.

And blowing a whistle at this enemy will not make the least impression. The business spirit of neo-liberalism which makes and distributes anything that sells, is different from old-school sexism, because it is beyond the reach of moral appeal. Sexism was serious about misogyny. Moralising could not turn it around but it could at least reach it. Today's cynicism will have its fun with misogyny as long as there are buyers out there.

Porn rappers, for example, will sell you any old provocation. Bushido, Sido, Frauenarzt (meaning "gynocologist" - ed.) Orgi and whatever else they call themselves who have women bleeding and being beaten in their songs supposedly don't mean what they are singing. They only want, they assure us, to have some stupid fun so that they can buy themselves expensive villas in Berlin and trim their hedges like Heinz Ruhmann (a very straight-laced and unamusing German comedian from the 50s - ed.) They sing "Shut your mouth and listen you / Your silicon belongs to me and my crew." Or "The ass was so sexy I had to fuck it / five minutes later the bitch is screaming / to stop her screaming / I stick my dick in her mouth" and then complain in interviews that teenagers don't say please and thank you any more. They are helping themselves in the antique shops of racism, sexism and homophobia, taking a little bit of everything, mixing the discourse of hatred and sampling the prejudices. Beatings are answered with more beatings, disgust with more disgust.

These children of the porn era have discovered emptiness and cold-heartedness as a sales niche. If luck is on their side they will be successful. Like Michel Houellebecq. Like Bushido. If not, they still have pornography and sadness.

Who should we blame? Who should we plaster with Emma stickers? Of course we can name a few films and a couple of song lines. We can also demand that the state get tougher on misogyny. We can call Houellebecq a misogynist sexist and warn children about Bushido. We should do all this as well. But this will not warm the coldness that issued them, a coldness that cannot be fought with weapons left over from the war of the sexes.


This article orginally appeared in German in Die Zeit on September 6, 2007.

Iris Radisch is a literary editor at Die Zeit.

See our feature "So long, Marianne" by Alice Schwarzer on the 2005 riots in the French suburbs.

Translation: lp. - let's talk european