Pornography Makes For Strange Bedfellows

The feminist/right-wing union against pornography

by Edward H. Hurley

The debate over pornography has taken a twist in recent years. What used to a battle between conservatives, who favored the suppression of pornography for its immoral nature, and liberals, who supported the legality of pornography on free expression grounds is now more complex.

Now the people that seek to suppress pornography are not necessarily conservatives but some are leftist radicals. But unlike conservatives who see pornography as obscene, these radical feminists view pornography as a way of sustaining the unequal status of women in society. Hence they call for its suppression as a way of helping women achieve equal rights.

One would think that anti-obscenity conservatives and feminists would have nothing in common but being against pornography is their unifying issue. The two anti- pornography factions have forged an unlikely alliance that seeks to suppress pornography. Their collaboration has included trying to pass civil rights ordinances in cities that would allow people who claim to be harmed by pornography to sue the distributors and makers of it for civil rights damages.

Probably the most visible sign of their collaboration has been Attorney General Edwin Meese's Commission of Pornography in 1986. The commission, which has been criticized for being a political favor for far-right conservatives, was greatly influenced by the radical feminists. They used the radical feminists' definition of pornography as well as using their resources to find "victims" of pornography to testify to its hazardous nature.

The Rise of the Feminist Critique of Pornography

In the 1970's the same wave that brought the ERA to the forefront of the political scene in American also brought a new interpretation of pornography. The first wave of feminist critiques of pornography, the "mainstream feminist critique", was forwarded by people such as Gloria Steinem who saw pornography as a means of objectifying women and sex. Others such as Helen Longini started to develop a critique of pornography for its degrading nature to women. They drew a distinction between erotica and pornography based on the portrayal of the women in the works.

But in the late 70's, some radical feminists, lead by writer Andrea Dworkin and law professor Catherine MacKinnon, began to see pornography not as obscene or immoral but as a means of subordinating women and keeping gender inequality intact. This shall be referred to as the second wave of feminist critiques or the "radical feminist" critique. Moreover, they view pornography as a form of sexual violence, not just the cause of it. They do not make a distinction between erotica and pornography or even art for that matter. They accordingly support the suppression of these works as a way of dissolving gender inequality in society.

The third wave of feminist critiques are a defense of pornography on free speech grounds in response to the preceding two waves of criticism. This diverse group of women contains every one from pioneering feminist Betty Friedan to ACLU president Nadine Strossen to syndicated columnist Molly Ivins to former porn star Annie Sprinkle. What they have in common is their support of pornography as protected speech. These "free expression" feminists don't all agree on the value or harm of pornography to society but they do agree on the harm to free expression that the suppression of pornography would cause. Molly Ivins in her colorful way encapsulated the third wave's stance on pornography:

I do not like pornography. In fact, I think it probably does harm to people...What should be done about it? Well, my answer is: not a god damn thing. The cure for every excess of freedom of speech is more speech ... I need the First Amendment so that I'll be able to say to people who say things I do not agree with, 'Look, you yellow-bellied son of a bitch ..." (Strossen 67)

Is the Feminist Anti-Pornography Critique of Pornography New?

Do the feminist anti-pornography critiques offer something new to the discussion of pornography as protected speech? Or are their arguments a reworking of previous arguments but with feminist terminology? The answer to both of these questions is "yes."

First, let us examine the first question: do the feminist anti-pornography critiques offer something new to the discussion of pornography as protected speech? The advent of the feminist voice to all discussion has been very healthy to the exchange of ideas in this country. The first and second wave anti-pornography feminists have brought a fresh critical eye to the examination of pornography as a social phenomenon. They ask who does the First Amendment protect? Pornographers? But what about the climate pornography fosters for women in our country? Isn't pornography a form of group defamation towards women? Does it not teach men that women are sexual objects who enjoy being the object through which men get their sexual satisfaction.

Second, let us examine the other question: are their arguments a reworking of previous arguments but with feminist terminology? Their criticism of pornography is interesting and healthy for the exchange of ideas but their remedies for it in the case of the second wave, suppression of it, presents more harms than the ones they are seeking to just.

It seems contradictory that the same structures the radical feminists are trying to tear down are the same ones they are seeking to use to attack pornography. The Indianapolis Ordinance for example, a collaboration between conservatives and anti- pornography feminists, would have allowed people who are harmed by pornography to seek civil damages from the distributors and makers of it. But the American Booksellers Association filed a suit against it because its members feared that since they could not review every book they ordered they would have to not sell any books that relate to sexual matters (Strossen 79)for fee of violating the ordinance. The ordinance was found to be unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in a summary statement that agreed with lower court decisions.

The feminists who seek to suppress pornography are quick to forget the history of obscenity legislation. Historically obscenity statues have been used to suppress information important to women including contraception, abortion and sexually- transmitted disease information.

But obscenity standards being used against non-pornographic material is not just a thing of the past. If we look at Canada which adopted a similar obscenity standard as advocated by the anti-pornography feminists in 1992 we can see what can happen under such a measure. First, one of the first books seized at customs under the new definition was Dworkin's book Pornography: Men Possessing Women. It was subsequently let in the country but other authors without Dworkin's clout haven't been so fortunate. Another target of the new definition was gay and lesbian bookstores which saw much of their stock stopped at the border.

So What to Do With Pornography?

Canada is an example of how the anti-pornography feminists' desire to suppress pornography can actually harm women more than help them. But what should be done about pornography?

I think there is some credence to their claims that pornography is harmful to both the people who participate in its production and who buy it. But should the government suppress it to "protect" its citizens from materials that potentially harm them? What about tobacco or alcohol? What makes these three things different? They all have been criticized for potentially causing harm to people. They are all considered potential "vices" by society. I can even draw an analogy between the fight to suppress pornography today and the prohibition of alcohol in the twenties. A major driving force behind Prohibition were women who saw alcohol as harmful to society's moral fiber. Much like it is today women who are behind the push to "prohibit" pornography.

But pornography is different from other vices. First it is expression, not a substance. For this reason it falls under the Constitution though the anti-pornography feminists as already mentioned argue against this placement. Also there is the subjective nature of pornography. One can with a high degree of certainty test to see if something is alcoholic or not or tobacco or not but there is not such a test for pornography. What may be pornographic to one may be art or scientific material to another. So how could the government suppress something for being pornographic when it can not even define it.

It would be safe to say that if pornography was gone today that sexism and gender inequality would still be here in society tomorrow . Pornography is the "whipping boy" for sexism. Instead of making new laws to suppress pornography, and as discussed earlier non-pornographic works as a result, the government should enforce the current laws that forbid discrimination on the basis of gender, assault and battery, and the use of children in sexual situations. These would help women's status in society more than suppressing pornography.

The feminist anti-pornography critiques are in essence the same as conservative critiques. They both object to pornography, on different grounds however, and seek to suppress it. The strength of the First Amendment has been its neutrality to the content of the material protected. It protects both popular and more importantly unpopular expression. Much like conservatives try to argue pornography should be an exemption to First Amendment based on the fact they don't like it, the anti-pornography feminists do so for the same reason. It is not grounds for the narrowing of the First Amendment just because some feminists and some conservatives don't like or are offended by pornography.

As Molly Ivins so eloquently said (quoted earlier in this essay), the answer to any speech is not its suppression but more speech. The anti-pornography feminists should be lauded for their new criticisms of pornography which have added to the free discussion of ideas but not their conclusions which if implemented would hurt free discussion in this country.

Work Cited

Strossen, Nadine (a). 1995. Defending Pornography: Free Speech, Sex, and the Fight for Women's Rights. New York. Scribner.

For more coverage of this issue, see the November 1995 issue of The Ethical Spectacle.