Feminism and Pornography: Sex and Censors
Porn and the Sex Censors
A Review of: "Defending Pornography: Free Speech, Sex, and the Fight for Women's Rights," by Nadine Strossen (Scribner, 1995), $22.
FOR THE PAST decade and a half, American feminism has been mired in its divisive "sex wars" over the pornography issue. In reporting that essentially sterile but politically important debate, the mainstream media have often advanced the censorship agenda of Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin as "the" feminist position. For reasons that are hardly enigmatic, the anti-porn crusaders have become darling ideologues: they espouse a deeply conservative analysis of gender politics, and they pose authoritarian "solutions" to the problems women face. The gender-hatred and anti-sexuality pervading their work have repelled many who therefore misguidedly reject feminism entirely; the censorial climate they have fostered has caused untold harm. In short, "MacDworkinism" (as some like to call it) has proved eminently useful to the powers-that-be, destructive and discrediting to feminism.
It is of course doubtful that this position has ever really predominated among feminists. Underplayed in the press, groups like the Feminist Anti-Censorship Taskforce and Feminists for Free Expression have always posed a strong counterpoint. And there has recently emerged a highly visible renaissance of careful feminist thinking about pornography and censorship.
Nadine Strossen's "Defending Pornography", a lucid and entertaining polemic which by all rights should leave no one floundering in the swamp of censorship politics, argues compellingly that the Mac- Dworkinite road to censorship is a disastrous one, particularly for women. "Defending Pornography" performs two essential tasks-it brilliantly exposes MacDworkinism as the reactionary doctrine it is, and articulates the reasons why feminists and socialists should pay close attention to these issues.
Herstory Repeats Itself
The one shortcoming of this otherwise comprehensive treatment of the pornography debate is its failure to explain the historical and political context, to which Strossen alludes only in passing. In the late 1970s and early `80s, feminism along with other progressive movements hit a wall. Having previously held out great promises of reform, capitalism was no longer willing or able to accommodate women's demands for progress toward equality. Defeat followed defeat: federal funds for abortion were axed; the ERA died on the vine; women who had made it into good jobs fast discovered the glass ceilings and the "mommy track;" those who didn't became statistics in studies decrying the "feminization of poverty."
The hopeful women activists of the `60s and early `70s began to retreat, perhaps finding professional niches in women's studies programs or abused women's shelters, but constantly facing conservatizing pressures to limit their demands. In the resulting vacuum of despair, MacDworkinism surfaced, with its retrograde analysis of women's oppression and its purportedly "radical" prescriptions for change. Indeed, one of the worst effects of the anti-sex brigade is that it has successfully sold itself as "radical." In fact, as Strossen concludes, "the procensorship feminist philosophy is a carbon copy of the right-wing view of sexuality and gender roles."
Strossen observes cogently that the very familiarity of MacDworkinism's underlying assumptions, with their roots in religious and other conservative ideologies, subliminally enhances what film critic Marcia Pally in her book "Sex and Sensibility" calls "the great soothing appeal of censorship." MacDworkinism evokes not only the Anti-Sex League of Orwell's prescient "1984", but also Puritanism and, of greatest historical relevance, the conservative wing of Victorian feminism.
The current tempest over pornography mirrors a similar schism in the "first wave" of feminism. The "Redstockings" included such trailblazing pro-sex feminists as Victoria Woodhull, the early Margaret Sanger, and Emma Goldman, who defied, resisted, and on a good day aspired to overthrow the state. The "Bluestockings," in contrast, variously sought succor from a state they presumed to be beneficent, and in a bolder mood, aspired to become its agents. Their politics were elitist and centered on the right to vote, for which they often appealed on anti-immigrant grounds.
The reforms they sought through the existing state predominantly took the form of protective morals legislation. "Bluestockings" campaigned for essentially repressive anti-vice measures regarding prostitution, alcohol, and the like, helping to create a climate of opinion that facilitated passage of the Comstock laws, criminalizing both "obscenity" and the distribution of contraceptives and information about abortion-laws which were then used to haul Redstocking sisters Sanger and Goldman off to jail. (Today the pro-censorship climate MacDworkinism has nurtured has helped to reincarnate the Comstock laws in the Communications Decency Act, criminalizing internet discussions of abortion and other such "indecency.")
In the most striking aspect of this historical parallel, the Bluestockings cut their political teeth in the Temperance movement, locating in "demon rum" a male vice they deemed a central factor in women's oppression. Drink was the ruin of the lower classes, the bane of women whose husbands beat them and drank up the family's wages. Precisely as MacDworkinism sees pornography as a central institution of women's oppression, the Bluestockings seized upon this "male vice" of alcoholism. Just why was it that working class men drank, after twelve-hour days in the mines and factories? Such questions were too threatening, so instead the elite reformers blamed the oppressed.
The "second wave" of feminism, from the late 1960s to the present, has replicated this ideological division almost exactly. It came in like a lioness of radical opposition to gender and other hierarchies, took on a vital popular character in the living rooms where we brainstormed liberation in "consciousness raising" sessions, demonstrated endlessly and militantly for abortion rights, and spawned a radical autonomous women's health movement. The pro-sex faction was prominent if not predominant, with feminist writers meditating on the importance of sexual liberation under titles such as "The Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm" that today sound oddly anachronistic. (And even if one were not afraid of seeming hopelessly dated, MacKinnon's sexual harassment hydra has made it dangerous to discuss such matters in university classrooms.)
Under the sway of contemporary Bluestockings, mainstream feminism has become a nonthreatening lamb. Rather than asking the hard questions, and challenging the structural causes of sexism in the gender division of labor and profoundly hierarchal social relations, the MacDworkinites again locate women's oppression in a noxious male vice, and offer us the panacea of repression. Once pornography is defined as "the problem," the solution is easy: repression through the authority of the state. Of course, that solution is most convivial to those who would preserve the existing social order.
MacDworkinism and Its Discontents
Catharine MacKinnon began her career as a legal theorist of sexual harassment in the workplace. That theory started off helpfully enough, identifying sexual demands at work as a form of gender discrimination. Unfortunately, MacKinnon was quick to capitalize on the responsive chord she had struck as a crusader against male sexual aggression and as champion of women-as-victims. She was soon running amok with sidekick Dworkin, who writes prolific nonfiction and tendentious novels which are themselves grotesquely pornographic in their rabid anti-sexuality.
One valuable contribution of "Defending Pornography" is Strossen's compendium of MacDworkin's repellant views in their own words, which reveal not only a deep-seated anti- sexuality but also the gender-hatred that closely follows. In her recent book "Only Words", for example, MacKinnon compares men to attack dogs, arguing that exposing men to pornography is "like saying `kill' to a trained guard dog." Dworkin exudes hatred of men at every turn: "every woman's son is her potential betrayer and also the inevitable rapist or exploiter of another woman."
Heterosexual intercourse, Dworkin maintains, is "a bitter personal death. It means remaining the victim, forever annihilating all self-respect." Her book "Pornography", maintains that "fucking is inherently sadistic," and decries the "pornography of pregnancy": "Pregnancy is the confirmation that the woman has been fucked . . . punishment for her participation in sex."
MacKinnon postures as the "good cop" of the two, the more respectable, well-dressed law professor, but she too consistently equates consensual intercourse with rape. "Compare victim's reports of rape with women's reports of sex," she admonishes. "They look a lot alike. . . . [T]he major distinction between intercourse (normal) and rape (abnormal) is that the normal happens so often that one cannot get anyone to see anything wrong with it."
Poor Andrea and Catharine, frustrated to madness by women's opacity on this count, heap scorn on the benighted women who actually believe they enjoy sex with men. According to Dworkin, such women are "collaborators, more base in their collaboration than other collaborators have ever been, experiencing pleasure in their own inferiority." MacKinnon likewise compares feminists who oppose censorship with "house niggers who sided with the masters." She insists that women who believe they exercise sexual agency are manifesting "false consciousness"-they are merely denying the "unspeakable humiliation" of having been "cajoled, pressured, tricked, blackmailed, or outright forced into sex."
Apparently deeming it imprudent to agitate for the criminalization of sex itself, Dworkin and MacKinnon have concentrated their efforts on censoring pornography, which they expressly define as the central institution of women's oppression. Their activism has consisted largely of sponsoring their infamous anti-porn ordinances, which have been roundly defeated, primarily because of feminist opposition.
In a smokescreen of verbiage, they have tried to suggest that they advocate censoring only materials that "subordinate" or "degrade" women. But because they view sex itself as inherently degrading to women, they essentially mean all sexual materials, even feminist erotica. MacKinnon has explicitly stated that she would suppress all materials suggesting that women "desire to be fucked," a criterion that as Strossen points out unquestionably mandates the censorship of many feminist novels and other frequent targets of right-wing censorship campaigns, such as "The Joy of Sex" and "Our Bodies, Ourselves."
Unhappily, MacDworkinism has not entirely failed to implement its program. In 1991, MacKinnon and her Canadian followers entered a censorship case to urge the Canadian Supreme Court to adopt their expansive, amorphous definition of "obscenity" as sexual material "degrading to women." The results of the ensuing decision in "Butler v. The Queen" were swift: obscenity raids immediately and exclusively targeted gay and lesbian bookstores across Canada, seizing materials like the radical lesbian journals "On Our Backs" and "Bad Attitude". Customs officials launched a censorship spree, and eventually seized Dworkin's own books "Pornography" and "Woman Hating", along with works by bell hooks, Marguerite Duras, Langston Hughes, Oscar Wilde, and numerous other acclaimed authors.
This outcome was entirely predictable, if not intended. Confronted with the practical effects of her doctrine in Canada, MacKinnon responded, "Big surprise." Dworkin actually applauded the criminal conviction of the Glad Day Bookstore, because "Lesbian porn is an expression of self- hatred." As Strossen reports in chilling detail, it is hardly surprising that MacDworkin would endorse such censorship; they themselves have often acted directly to suppress pro-sex feminist works.
When pressed to define her "political program," MacKinnon responds that it consists simply of "stopping rape." Other than censoring pornography, she has little to offer by way of analysis of the preconditions for doing so, or for women's freedom and equality more generally. She pays lip service to abortion rights, but in the same breath criticizes the availability of abortion as "facilitating women's heterosexual availability" and "freeing male aggression" by removing one of the few "legitimized reasons women had for refusing sex."
These views are of course far from progressive or liberating-and one should question whether they deserve to be described as "feminist," if that term is defined simply as advancing gender equality and solidarity. Instead these born-again Victorians perpetuate damaging essentialist stereotypes, both of men as innately violent and sexually predatory, and of women as delicate, passive victims of male sexual aggression.
What Strossen correctly identifies as the central tenet of anti-porn feminism, that sex is inherently degrading to women, fortunately lacks mass appeal. It would seem unlikely to gain widespread acceptance among women as the basis for either political activity or lifestyle.
In these days of bleak political prospects, however, MacDworkin's victim-talk, playing to women's fears and pessimism, has found some currency. Repeated often enough, it has accustomed many women to conceive of solutions to the problems women face very narrowly, to focus exclusively on demands for governmental protections from rape, spousal abuse, and the vaunted evils of pornography.
Of course, this worldview is one in which women are not agents of our own liberation, but rather depend on a few elite crusaders like MacKinnon, and on the existing state. Given the increasingly reactionary nature of that state with its undisguised offensive against poor women especially, the extent to which mainstream feminism still looks to the likes of MacKinnon and Hillary as saviors is a sad commentary.
In short, the authoritarian MacDworkins would prescribe for women what our sexual attitudes and behavior should be, and would herd us into the treacherous arms of the state for the protection we supposedly need. Strossen, as a spokesperson for anti-censorship feminism, undertakes a more modest but crucially important project. She does not presume to outline the path to a feminist transformation; she merely defends the conditions under which we have some reasonable hope of progress toward that goal.
Why Socialists Should Defend Pornography
To socialists, MacDworkinism at first blush may seem trivial and patently absurd in its claims that pornography is the central institution oppressing women. How could anyone take seriously the notion that this remote corner of ideology fundamentally, or even significantly, causes sexism and inequality? Who could possibly believe that eradicating all pornography tomorrow would protect women from violence and discrimination?
As well taken as these points are, the anti-sex camp continues to exert a disproportionate influence, especially given its media sponsorship. The same arguments Strossen adduces to demonstrate the folly of MacDworkinism also make a compelling case that as feminists and socialists we need to be attuned to these issues.
First, the argument that should most naturally occur to anyone who has even the most rudimentary understanding of state power: there is simply no way to advocate the censorship of pornography without endangering sexual expression that is valuable to women and to feminists. As the Canadian experiment with MacDworkinism vividly illustrates, the inevitable result of unleashing the patriarchal state to censor is the suppression of lesbian, gay, and other subversive sexual materials.
The history of obscenity prosecutions is overwhelmingly a cautionary tale in this regard. For example, among the most prominent obscenity cases of the last decade were criminal prosecutions targeting the satirical homoerotic photography of Robert Mapplethorpe and the recordings of 2 Live Crew. And any state one can possibly imagine under existing capitalist conditions would surely continue the historical pattern of censoring materials of critical importance to women, including abortion and contraceptive information, feminist works on sexuality, and sex/AIDS education, rather than misogynist pornography.
For feminists to promote a censorship agenda is therefore criminally na<139>ve at best. As one Canadian artist remonstrated with the MacDworkinites: "[Y]ou handed them [the] post-modern language they had been looking for to come back after us, and now they are busting our bookstores."
Strossen also notes that advocating censorship has endowed the right wing as well as the state with additional repressive power. However they may try to distance themselves, she observes, the MacDworkinites have joined in a misbegotten "feminist-fundamentalist axis," united by demogogic claims that pornography "degrades women," and reinforcing each other's goals of eradicating sexual speech. The net result can only be to strengthen the right wing, with its anti-feminist agenda.
The preoccupation with pornography has also diverted feminist activism and public discourse from the real causes of violence and inequality. Strossen emphasizes that blaming pornographic images diverts attention from the actual perpetrators of violence. That may be true, but more importantly, the censorship strategy has diverted the women's movement from constructive struggles for reproductive freedom, welfare rights, etc.
The pornography debacle has driven deep wedges among feminists, and has weakened the women's movement by alienating many women who cannot relate to a perceived ethos of anti-sexuality, gender antagonism, and victimhood. To the extent that it has convinced women to conceive of themselves as victims, to live in constant dread of male violence and aggression, rather than thinking of ourselves as the agents of our own liberation, it has been profoundly disempowering.
Finally, the politics of censorship works all this harm without achieving any positive good, because it is empirically false that sexual materials cause violence and sexism in any important sense. No reputable scientific evidence supports such a causal link. The cross-cultural evidence against the notion that pornography causes violence and discrimination is particularly compelling. Strossen cites numerous studies indicating that if anything, censorship of sexual expression correlates negatively with gender equality. Saudi Arabia strictly bans pornography, and China, where death sentences are imposed for trafficking in pornography and women are subjected to forced abortions, is hardly a model of women's liberation. On the other hand, the cultures most tolerant of erotic materials-such as Denmark and Sweden-have achieved greater gender equality than any of the more sexually repressive societies in the West.
Naturally, pornography reflects the larger culture, and some of it projects images that are troubling in their often very sexist and racist overtones. Other pornographic materials, especially gay and lesbian erotica, are consciously iconoclastic and subversive (and of course these are the materials the state will target for censorship). As Noam Chomsky has pointed out (see "ATC" 56, 25), whatever "harm" some pornography may be charged with, its effects (on women in particular) are surely insignificant compared with the effects of the continual barrage of sexist, racist, imperialist propaganda that spews forth from the mainstream, non-sexual media.
For socialists, whatever one's personal reaction to the Rorschach of "pornography," it just shouldn't matter much. The real question is the state's power to censor images and ideas, always a dangerous proposition.
In large part, our response to the problems MacDworkinism poses for feminism should be to participate in and build the currents of feminism that work in more constructive directions. But many women are influenced by these ideas put to them as "the" feminist position, and we need to be able to articulate to them why MacDworkinism is reactionary. (In my experience, MacDworkinism tends to have a loose grip among young feminists, who often abandon those views quickly when confronted with the historical record and the other logical and normative arguments, especially these feminist arguments, against censorship.)
In a more rational world, Strossen's lucid case against censorship would bring a swift end to this sterile debate over pornography. But just as Hal Draper notes in "The Two Souls of Socialism" that the socialist movement will long be plagued with elitist, authoritarian impulses as the baggage of class society, the history of modern feminism illustrates that the Bluestocking perspective will continue to plague our efforts, until the working class, feminist, and other social movements are strong enough to pose an alternative to the patriarchal capitalist state.
Meanwhile, Strossen's clear-sighted analysis provides a welcome arsenal of arguments in favor of a more democratic, liberatory feminism.
Feminism and Pornography
IT WAS MOST unfortunate that Cathy Crosson in her review of Nadine Strossen's book "Defending Pornography" ("ATC" 63) chose to resort to anti-feminist stereotypes and name- calling to discredit anti-pornography activists with whom she disagrees. Such methods discourage real debate within the women's and progressive movements on a complex topic and, in a period of anti-feminist backlash, risk playing into the hands of the right wing far more than Dworkin- MacKinnon's mistaken approach to pornography.
The debate concerning what pornography is, and whether and how to oppose it has never been a question of being for or against "sex." Those who have read the primary sources with an open mind should be able to recognize that women like Dworkin, MacKinnon, Diana Russell and Kathleen Barry are no more "anti-sex" or "man-hating" than was Kate Millet, twenty- five years ago in "Sexual Politics," exposing the misogyny in the sexual descriptions contained in Henry Miller's and D.H. Lawrence's novels. (Millet was called similar names at that time in an effort to discredit her.)
What Dworkin "et al." oppose is the same thing that Millet opposed in the heyday of the Second Wave, "the sexualized inequality of women." Says Dworkin:
I see nothing to preclude that erotica could exist . . . The fact of the matter is right now there is not an `erotica' market. The pornography business is a $10 billion a year business and it is growing . . . You couldn't sell didly-squat of anything that had to do with equality... The way that you tell what pornography is, frankly, you look at the status of women in the material. Is it filled with hatred of women or isn't it? Does it use and violate women or doesn't it?
Anti-pornography feminists see pornography as a form of hate speech, not unlike racist or anti-semitic propaganda or sexist advertising.
Unlike the right, none of the opponents of pornography see sex and nudity itself as sinful, dirty or immoral. Neither do they hold traditional views of sexuality and gender roles; the exact opposite is the case. And none of them that I have read are biological essentialists about male violence, but neither do they deny its epidemic proportions in this society, as unfortunately Crosson seems to do.
Rather, anti-pornography feminists believe that when violence and female subordination is presented as erotic, it encourages rape, wife abuse, incest, sexual harassment, femicide, and the view of women as non-persons.
Crosson has confused the radical feminist critique of the heterosexual institution (particularly the compulsion, inequality, and violence within that institution under socially created-not biologically ordained-conditions of male supremacy), with Victorian attitudes against sex. These are simply not the same things, as any serious study of feminist writings over the last three decades would reveal. Taking quotes out of context, as Crosson does, does not prove otherwise.
One may disagree on how big an impact any particular form of hate speech has in encouraging bigotry and violence (Dworkin- MacKinnon seem to exaggerate the impact of pornography on women's status); however, it is hard to argue that such speech is completely harmless.
Speech (both the written and spoken word, pictures, etc.) does have the power to effect hearts and minds; otherwise, no one would ever bother writing anything. (If speech had no power, the putting out "Against the Current" would be a futile exercise.) A number of examples of the impact of hate speech come to mind: The fascistic book about race war and white supremacist "revolution," "The Turner Diaries", probably helped inspire the Oklahoma City bombing.
Racist political ads aimed at immigrants from Mexico appears to contribute to violence against Latinos. Homophobia in the media or in campaign literature favoring anti-gay ballot initiatives can and does lead to gay-bashing. References to abortion as "murder" in anti-abortion publications or in the statements of the Catholic Church have most likely played a role in the recent murder of abortion doctors.
Certainly, presenting women and girls as mindless sexual objects who enjoy rape and violence might, in a similar fashion, encourage sexist violence. Moreover, if pornography were merely about "sex" and not about sexism, it is hard to imagine why pornography displayed at the workplace (pin-ups, etc.) has been held to be a form of sex discrimination against women workers.
That pornography is a particularly insidious form of sexist hate speech is illustrated by the fact that men who wish to force women out of the workplace utilize pornography, rather than, let's say, sexist advertising for laundry detergent. In truth, there are few things as effective as pornography to remind women of their "place."
The other problem with pornography pointed out by its opponents is that, unlike most other forms of hate speech, the production of pornography frequently involves the use of women and children in prostitution. Historically, neither socialists nor feminists have seen the selling of women's bodies as a free and liberating "choice" nor looked favorably upon pimps and capitalists that profit from this exploitation.
The pornography industry offers women some of the worst working conditions available, where sexual harassment is literally "part of the job." As the economy worsens and the social safety net is eliminated, more women and girls may be forced to turn to such "sex work" for their survival and the survival of their families.
In my opinion, the Dworkin-MacKinnon approach to fighting pornography is more problematic, but Crosson's misrepresentation of their views does nothing to enhance the debate. Dworkin and MacKinnon actually are opposed to all criminal obscenity laws. During the arguing of the Butler case in Canada, Dworkin actively opposed the position of the Women's Legal Education and Action Fund, which urged the Canadian Supreme Court to reinterpret existing obscenity law in "sex equality" terms.
Dworkin-MacKinnon certainly had nothing to do with restrictions in the Communications Decency Act. Instead, they advocate civil remedies against the pornography industry, including a cause of action for group defamation. The problem with this is that, in response to such private lawsuits for group defamation, courts would be empowered to issue injunctions against materials deemed pornographic.
Here I would agree with other civil libertarians that, in general, the danger of putting such power in the hands of the courts or other arm of the state in an attempt to suppress hate speech of any variety (whether racist, sexist, anti-semitic, or homophobic), outweighs the danger of allowing such speech to be published and limiting oneself to fighting against it in other ways.
Crosson is correct that state censorship of pornography (as well as other hate speech) would backfire on the progressive movement and endanger positive sexual, artistic and political expression. (Of course, there are situations in which speech becomes something else-sexual harassment, threats to personal safety, etc.-and can, in my view, be legitimately suppressed. There may also be privacy rights of individuals whose bodies are displayed in pornography and who no longer want this public exposure.)
It should be noted that other anti-pornography activists, such as Diana Russell, are for the suppression of both racist and sexist speech, showing a consistency that would hardly be the case if they were motivated by "Victorian" or "fundamentalist religious" impulses.
Finally, Crosson is probably unaware of the right-wing origins of attempting to discredit feminists by calling them "manhaters" and accusing them of viewing women as "passive victims." Right-wing thinker Christine Hoff Sommers, in her anti-feminist diatribe "Who Stole Feminism," accuses what she calls "gender feminists" of hating men and jeering at most American women:
It is just not possible to incriminate men without implying that large numbers of women are fools or worse . . . Since women today can no longer be regarded as the victims of an undemocratic indoctrination, we must regard their preferences as `authentic.' Any other attitude toward American women is unacceptably patronizing and profoundly illiberal.
According to Summers, patriarchy or male domination is no longer a problem since women are already free. Likewise, in Naomi Wolf's profoundly conservative book" Fire with Fire: the New Female Power and How It Will Change the 21st Century", Wolf proclaims that as of the 1992 election of Clinton, women were at the brink of liberation, with only their bad self-images and a tendency to engage in "male- bashing" getting in the way of final victory.
Wolf posits two types of feminism: "victim feminism" which is "anti-sex," "anti-male" and portrays women as helpless victims, and "power feminism" which embraces women's "power" and "success" in the capitalist world. Like Crosson, Wolf states that "victim feminism" has turned off most women who can't relate to its negativity toward men and (hetero)sexuality.
By pointing out these connections, I do not mean to imply that Crosson herself is right wing, or to cast doubt on the sincerity of here feminist and socialist views. Rather, I hope to convince her (and others who agree with her) to reconsider the advisability of engaging in such methods of debate with other feminists and of dismissing outright the radical feminist contribution to understanding sexuality. Socialists have a lot to learn from radical feminists; it is simply not a one-way street.
From a more even-handed and respectful exchange, a more enlightened socialist-feminism might emerge: one that would take seriously all the ways women have been denied equal dignity and personhood in this society, not merely the economic aspects of female oppression, but the ideological, inter-personal and sexual aspects as well; that would not apologize for or minimize the problems of male sexism and violence, any more than we would deny the dangers posed by white racism or accuse those who expose the persistence of racist violence and discrimination of creating an "ethos of victimhood;" a socialist-feminism that would recognize that by women naming our oppression, we are not engaging in "victimtalk" or "hating men" but creating the basis of a movement for change; and that presents a vision of socialism where male domination, sexual violence and abuse-"the eroticization of women's subordination"-would be a thing of the past.
In struggling to achieve such a vision, we may be called upon to defend pornography on free speech grounds, but we would never glorify it.
Revisiting the Pornography Debate
WHAT WE HAVE here is a failure to communicate. Ann Menasche complains that my criticisms of MacDworkinism act to "discourage real debate" about pornography-precisely my announced intention. Enough ink and feminist energy have been squandered on this relatively insignificant topic to last us the next century. If it was ever a debate worth having, it has long ago exhausted its usefulness and has become an ever-weightier albatross for the women's movement.
Hopefully none of us disagree regarding the need for an all- sided struggle against gender oppression, or would minimize the violence of this society, particularly against women. The real questions concern how to conduct our struggle effectively; doing so requires that we both understand the world properly and build the solidarity necessary to change it. In that regard, Menasche's riposte reveals political and methodological differences that are worth pondering.
We have a decade and a half of experience with the ideological current best known through MacDworkin. As revolutionary feminists, we need to objectively and critically evaluate it, theoretically and in terms of its practical effects. Menasche hails MacDworkin as having developed a "radical feminist critique of heterosexuality," and finds it shocking that a socialist would trash their "radical feminism." But people are not "radical" in any helpful sense just because they say they are.
In defense of MacDworkin's supposed progressiveness, Menasche also accuses me of misrepresenting their views, presumably by characterizing them as anti-sexual gender- sectarians. Yet, as Nadine Strossen does in "Defending Pornography," I have amply supported that conclusion with their own exceptionally plain words.
Menasche has neither demonstrated that MacKinnon and Dworkin mean something other than what they so vividly say, nor has she addressed the fact that feminism lies in ruin following this period of their ideological "leadership." Both in its demoralizing effects on the troops and in providing the right wing with ammunition to assassinate feminism, MacDworkinism has essentially done for feminism what Stalin did for socialism.
"Name-calling" is one thing; calling a thing by its right name is quite another. MacDworkin and their adherents consistently paint a scorched-earth landscape in which sexuality is nothing but perilous and humiliating for women, a universe in which gender relations are at least as hopeless as Northern Ireland and Palestine combined.
Amid their many profound observations that men are Pavlovian attack dogs, that we should regard our sons as our enemies, etc., I have yet to see a kind word for either men or sexuality. If there is some metaphysical sense in which MacDworkin and their ilk are attempting to reclaim our sexuality, their approach is the ideological equivalent of burning the village to save it.
Others more deserving of the badge of radical feminism, such as Adrienne Rich, have developed thoughtful and constructive critiques of heterosexuality as a compulsory institution. Such contributions have an important place in our evolving socialist/feminist theory and practice; they enrich our understanding and provoke critical questioning.
In contrast, MacDworkinism offers us nothing liberating; its emotion-laden screed comes down to nothing more sophisticated than "pornography is bad, sex is dangerous, and men are violent." Positing that words and pictures cause violence and oppression, it scrupulously avoids any meaningful discussion of the root causes of these social problems.
In the real world, this version of "feminism" has disaffected countless women who do not experience male violence as the defining characteristic of their lives, and has distracted countless others from the economic and political battles we should have been fighting while we have been squabbling about "pornography."
This idealism-attributing to ideas and images a significant or even decisive causal role in social phenomena-is the central conceptual flaw of anti-pron feminism. With no totalizing view of the social and economic system we live in, MacDworkinism is incapable of getting to the material baes of gender oppression. It thus makes impossible the gender solidarity we will desperately need even to defend or improve our lot under capitalism, not to mention creating a new world.
A few points are worth making here about the pornography issue itself, although again, the more important disagreements Menasche raises concern the relative strategic importance/advisability of making it an issue at all.
First, neither Menasche nor her "radical feminists" meaningfully define the term "pornography," as distinct from sexual expression they would defend (assuming the latter category exists at all for MacKinnon and Dworkin, which one has good reason to doubt, but softer MacDworkinites want to distinguish "erotica"). They necessarily fail to do so, because that judgment is far too subjective and contextual to delineate in the abstract.
Even the Supreme Court, at the high water mark of its dedication to free speech (in Cohen v. California, the "Fuck the Draft" case), was sophisticated enough to understand that "one [person's] vulgarity is another's lyric."
MacKinnon and Dworkin have tried variously to define what they consider proscribable pornography in unavoidably amorphous terms such as "degrading to women," "presenting women as sexual objects ... or commodities," or "exhibiting women's body parts...such that women are reduced to those parts."
These criteria may sound at first like nice feminist rhetoric, but they are extremely problematic in any number of ways. Are depictions of sex "degrading to women," but not to men? Is it alright to present men as sexual objects, or reduce them to their body parts?
MacKinnon and Dworkin are doing one of two things here. Perhaps they really mean to limit these concepts, in which case they are making the classic mistake of the politically naive-assuming that those in power who will end up using these tools of censorship will do so in accordance with their "feminist" understanding of what is "degrading," etc. Or, a theory more consistent with the evidence, they essentially want to suppress all pornography because they understand sex itself to be "degrading," at least to women.
The latter is certainly in keeping with the tenor of Dworkin's insistence that heterosex is "a bitter personal death" and "fucking is inherently sadistic" (a claim that is quite hard to interpret as other than essentialist). Lesbian erotica is "an expression of self-hatred," Dworkin tells us. Meanwhile MacKinnon would censor all materials suggesting that women "desire to be fucked" (and of course materials depicting women being fucked unwillingly are even worse).
Precious little would remain safe from censorship under a MacDworkinite regime. They have expressly rejected the limitations based on artistic, etc. value that qualify the Supreme Court's already intractable definition of obscenity. The best Menasche can do by way of asserting MacDworkin's open-mindedness is a quote from Dworkin that implies precisely the opposite: Dworkin admits only that "erotica "could" exist," but goes on to disclaim that there now exists any such category of sexual speech she would deem acceptable.
One can only conclude from this quote, consistent with Dworkin's positions repeatedly expressed elsewhere, that all (or virtually all) sexual expression is "filled with hatred of women." This litmus test for the stuff we should all dedicate our lives to eradicating is of course as accordion- like as any other.
Sadly, under the sway of such demagoguery, lots of supposedly intelligent members of our gender have been swept up in the silliness of this crusade in the name of "feminism." Menasche asserts that "none of the opponents of pornography see sex and nudity itself as sinful, dirty, or immoral." Why is it then that a fuss is now almost routinely made-usually in the name of a "feminist sensibility"-over any frank artistic display of sex or even nudity?
In "Defending Pornography", Strossen cites numerous such episodes, many of which would be laughable if they were not so discrediting and otherwise damaging to feminism. For example, when writer Ntozake Shange appeared on the cover of "Poets & Writers" magazine wearing a lace bodice and balancing a book on her head, readers raised a hue and cry over her bare shoulders, complaining that the publication was degenerating into a "flesh magazine."
In 1992, Penn State officials removed a reproduction of Goya's celebrated "Nude Maja" from a classroom, after a MacDworkinite art history professor evidently concluded it was "filled with hatred of women" and demanded its removal.
Apparently, Gauguin was a dreadful misogynist-is it therefore politically incorrect to admire his confident and unselfconscious female nudes? [I have his ""Aha Oe Feii"?" ("Are You Jealous?") on the wall of my office, which I would probably have to worry about if I were a man, or taught at the University of Michigan, where MacKinnon teaches law and has actively censored the work of pro-sex feminist artists on themes of sexuality and prostitution.]
This is the climate MacDworkinism has fostered, and it is an extremely dangerous one for all of us. As democratic socialists, we should understand as a bedrock principle that there are no thought crimes. We should recognize and strive for a realm of freedom including all ideological and imaginative expression, no matter how noxious one may find the particular ideas and images. Only oppressors are interested in such thought control, in policing culture and consciousness in the ways MacKinnon and Dworkin suggest.
At one level, perhaps we should be grateful to MacDworkin for making so crystal clear the political implications of this gender-divisive analysis of women's oppression. There are kinder and gentler versions of this idealistic retreat from grappling with the real-and admittedly daunting-structural sources of sexism, violence and discrimination, but all lead down the same blind alley.
The point has never been that sexist, racist, homophobic speech (which does not include all "pornography") is "completely harmless." But neither is it fundamentally causal, and because the fundamental causes reside elsewhere, to censor it will change nothing except to enhance the repressive authority of the state. And we know from experience that once they have that authority, our patriarchs will not suppress what we might consider "bad" pornography.
They could hardly care less about policing for misogyny, and have undoubtedly been laughing in their sleeves ever since this maelstrom over pornography arose. What could be more convenient than to have feminists at each others' throats, with a highly visible faction of them scapegoating pornography for the ills of capitalist society?
Menasche admits that censorship will backfire on us, and that MacDworkinism exaggerates the effects of pornography. Why then such fealty to those who so studiously ignore the deeper causes that one begins to suspect an intentional attempt to blind and divert us? And whose basic assumptions are so deeply pessimistic, usually in the form of an essentialism holding that sex and men are "inherently" violent and oppressive, that we are left with no strategy other than seeking protection from the repressive state?
The point that worsening economic conditions may well force many women and children (not just girls) into sex work is an instructive one. That sex work is much more likely to be prostitution than the production of pornography (which, contrary to Menasche's assertion, does not at least in its more mainstream sectors offer "some of the worst working conditions available;" adult film performers have organized themselves quite effectively to demand industry health and safety standards, insurance funds, etc.).
I hope that as feminists and socialists we have more to offer these people than MacDworkin's response: moral disapproval and support for criminal prostitution laws. I hope instead that we are fighting against the predations of the ruling class that are causing such misery, and that in the longer run we stand for fundamental change to forever eradicate the need for anyone to sell themselves on any market.