Introduction: Pornography in our Lives

Aside from the fact it is not mentioned in the Constitution, pornography is very like guns as a subject of political debate in this country. To some, it is an instrumentality of absolute evil, destroying individuals and families, while to others, pornography is not only neutral but benign, an instrument of growth and self-expression and a Constitutionally- protected right.

Professor Catharine Mackinnon, in her thought-provoking book Only Words, made the point that it is hard to get an objective adjudication on pornography in a world where doubtless at least some judges are pornography users. In Edward deGrazia's Girls Lean Back Everywhere, a history of the law of obscenity, an anecdote about the Samuel Roth case supports Mackinnon's accusation.

Roth was a chaotic fringe figure in publishing. Sometimes he published works of literary value, like Joyce's Ulysses, and sometimes he published admitted pornographic works, indiscriminately. He mailed flyers to a mailing list of millions of people, including minors; the postal service prosecuted him as much for the unwelcome sexual junk mail as for the contents of the books and magazines he shipped through the mails. He was convicted of obscenity in New York State and the Supreme Court accepted an appeal on the sole issue of whethr the postal obscenity law was unconstitutional. (Roth was precluded from arguing that the law, though constitutional, had been incorrectly applied to him.)

Roger Fisher of the Justice Department--later a Harvard professor and authority on negotiation--was charged with arguing the case in favor of the obscenity law. He resorted to a time dishonored tactic: he carried a box of obscene materials into court, all of which had nothing to do with Roth, and offered them to the justices as samples of the pollution that would flood the U.S. mails if the postal obscenity law were invalidated. By doing so, he violated (and encouraged the Court to disregard) the tradition that the Supreme Court, an appeals court, does not look at evidence (especially evidence that was not introduced--and could not have been introduced, because irrelevant--at Roth's trial).

By bringing his box of pornography to Court, Fisher declared himself the spiritual descendant of Anthony Comstock, the 19th century anti-vice crusader who lobbied Congress with a sack of pornography, and the spiritual ancestor of Senator James Exon, who waved his "Blue Book" of pornography in the Senate last June to win passage of his Communications Decency Act (the "CDA").

Fisher won his case--the postal law stood-- and (here's the punchline) when the Supreme Court sent back his box, half the stuff in it was missing.

We can't proceed without some definitions. I define pornography broadly, as any text or image (still or moving) explicitly portraying sexual acts, including masturbation. This simple definition excludes solo nudity, unless the individual portrayed is touching his or her own genitals.

At this point, some civil libertarians will protest that I have used far too sweeping a definition. I respond that it really doesn't matter. Pornography has no legal meaning; what is forbidden as a crime is not pornography but obscenity, which is defined by the law (since the 1973 Supreme Court case of Miller v. California) as prurient, patently offensive expression, lacking serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value. Since anything that is not obscenity is First Amendment-protected, including any pornography not meeting the Miller definition, it really doesn't matter if I set the definition of pornography broadly or narrowly. My approach also has the merit of avoiding debate with the anti-pornography forces over the definition (thereby restricting the debate to the conclusions that I draw).

Wendy McElroy, author of XXX: A Woman's Right to Pornography, struggles with a definition similar to mine. She limits the scope a little more by insisting that pornography involves artistic portrayal-- a modifier that gets her into trouble. Her reasoning: let's exclude serious and scholarly works about sex right off the bat. My definition would not.

There's an easy way to solve this problem: let's go one step further and eliminate the term we are trying to define. There is really no such thing as pornography. There are only explicit descriptions and depictions of sex. Some of these are scientific, literary or artistic, and some are not. "Pornography" is a pejorative term we use to single out some category: for some, "pornography" means the most salacious and immoral material; for others it may mean the most arousing and enjoyable. The real issue is whether the explicit description or depiction of sex should ever be illegal.

But, responds the civil libertarian, you haven't been compeletely honest; you haven't revealed that there is a third category, a middle category between the obscene and the fully First Amendment-protected, and that is the indecent. Indecent speech is not a crime, but (unlike fully protected speech) it can be regulated, for example, by F.C.C. rules barring the "seven dirty words" from the radio.

If the CDA becomes law, the category of "indecent" speech becomes very important, because it will be criminal again, as it was earlier in this century, and people will go to prison for two years for uttering "indecent" speech. But assuming that the CDA does not pass, I don't really care very much about indecent speech, and regard it as fully First Amendment protected for my purposes, if published in books or on the Internet; it is not my intent to fight radio and TV's battles all over again.

I grew up in a secular, rather prudish and moralistic household in which pornography was never used and never even, so far as I remember, an issue of discussion. While friends of mine might find a father's issue of Playboy at the bottom of a closet, this would have been unimaginable in my house. I never tried to buy a sex magazine, and my friends, almost as innocent as I was, never had the stuff either, or at least never showed it to me if they did.

When I was twelve or thirteen, we bought a summer house on Cape Cod from the widow of a Coast Guard commander; she left much of his personal stuff behind, including materials he had confiscated from sailors under his command. I found a film which baffled and upset me; to this day, I do not know if it was pornography or sex education, a line it is often very hard to draw anyway. A sailor and a woman had sex; there was a closeup of his penis approaching and entering her vagina. Immediately, there was a title "NINE MONTHS LATER," and a graphic sequence followed of the woman giving birth to a baby!

As a college student, I bought Playboy a few times. I have seen X-rated commercial films, such as Last Tango in Paris, but have never gone to a porno theater. I have read "literary" pornography, such as Histoire d'O, but never one of those cheap paperbacks people pass around.

Earlier this year, I bought "Debbie Does Dallas II" as an experiment. I began watching the film and here is what I saw.

Debbie, broke, is hitchhiking to her aunt's hometown, where she hopes to find a job. She is molested by some men who pick her up, then rescued by a sheriff who locks her up, rapes and sodomizes her. Debbie, played by a actress who seems to be on Thorazine, protests a bit, but not very much; released from prison, she kisses the sheriff goodbye cheerfully, and goes to her aunt's house, which proves to be a brothel. The prostitutes invade Debbie's room and molest her sexually, again without either great protest or great passion on her part.

I noticed a dark spot on Debbie's cheek; I wondered at first if she had gotten dirty in an earlier outdoors scene, and what the point was in allowing the dirt to remain even during the molestation scene in the bath. Then I realized the spot wasn't make up; the actress playing Debbie had a dark bruise on her cheek. At this point I couldn't watch any more; I turned the movie off and the next day, I threw it in the garbage.

Since the 1970's, explicit sexual sequences that would have certainly been considered pornographic before, have invaded mainstream R-rated films; simulations of sex, with breasts and buttocks visible and actors and actresses feigning orgasm appear in movies where they don't really advance the plot. I typically have found these enjoyable but troubling. These scenes in mainstream movies are well-lit, artisticly filmed, show appealing people; but all of this does not shield what for me is a key question: how the people involved, especially the women, feel about what they are doing. Aren't they collaborating in their own objectification? Why agree to star in movies you would never want your children to see? In past years, these scenes were edited from movies before they were shown on TV; now they are shown unexpurgated on cable, and in fact a whole genre has sprung up, the "erotic thriller", to accomodate a taste for this kind of thing.

This year, after many years of resistance, we finally ordered cable television, and I noticed that Showtime Cable in particular seemed to specialize in erotic thrillers and in the half hour sex story. Both are soft-core programming in which sex is explicitly simulated, with beautiful lighting and cinematography, sophisticated production values, and appealing performers. Please note that under my definition-- to avoid wasting time and getting bogged down in double standards--this too is pornography.

Here are the plots of three erotic thrillers I watched on cable:

A half hour sex show I watched appeared to be an example of European soft-core pornography. A pair of lesbian lovers cuddle while one tells the other about her initiation into the harsh world of sex with men. She was brought to a city to be the bride of a man whose young relative seduced her, then black-mailed her into having sex with his aging, repulsive tutor by threatening to tell her intended. Her attitude, consistent with Debbie's and with both the actresses and their characters in the other films was, its disgusting, but its life, and I go along with it.

Supporting the views of Catharine Mackinnon and her colleagues, all of these stories have a strong undercurrent of sadomasochism and exploitation running through them. In four of the five, it is explicit; women are raped by men in manipulative circumstances where they must pretend to enjoy it or passively play along, as if it is a necessary part of life to be endured. In the fifth story, regarding the Mexican hotel, the woman tells the hotel owner she is just sleeping with the gangster to buy him time, setting up another quasi-rape scenario; later on she proves to be betraying him and really involved with the gangster. His casual execution of her with a bullet in the back--lots of squib blood blowing out the front-- restores the story to the sadistic zone inhabited by the others.

Mackinnon says that there is no difference between the act occurring in front of the cameras and the act it purports to be on film. A filmed rape is a real rape. Although this point of view is exaggerated--it is not true for the "erotic thrillers"--she seems to have a point where Debbie is concerned. The actress never appears to be acting. When the sheriff tells her that she can go if she performs fellatio on him, she shrugs as if she is being asked to perform an unpleasant but unavoidable task, and says, "Oh, okay". I had the impression that I was seeing the reaction of the actress herself when the scene was blocked out for her-- perhaps it was her reaction, after things calmed down, to the man who put the bruise on her cheek. Both actress and character are spaced out, apparently unconcerned with their long term prospects, resignedly willing to be an object at the disposal of any one in the vicinity with a stronger personality.

The actresses in the erotic thrillers couldn't be more different: unlike the emaciated, bruised Debbie, they all are in good physical condition, and they project intelligence and ambition in the energy they bring to their roles. For each of them, presumably, nudity and humiliation is seen as a steppingstone to something better later on.

By these examples, I have already embarked on an answer to the question which I will discuss at length in the next essay: Is pornography bad?. If so, why? Is it absolutely bad, or bad only because it harms someone?

If it harms someone, who? Who is the victim of pornography?

What is to be done about pornography? I will examine the views of the anti-pornography feminists led by Mackinnon, and the pro-pornography feminists exemplified by Nadine Strossen and Wendy McElroy.