Media

In Praise of Porn

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Defending Pornography: Free Speech, Sex, and the Fight for Women's Rights, by Nadine Strossen, New York: Scribner, 320 pages, $22.00

By some estimates, Americans rented almost 800 million pornographic videotapes last year. Women, either singly or as part of couples, took home about half of them. Since porn seems to be very much a "guy" thing, one may reasonably wonder whether watching a skin flick is the first choice of the women included as "part of couples." But from my observations of couples renting x-rated movies on a Friday night at my local video store, most women take a very active part in choosing the tapes. They appeared to have very definite likes (Rocco Siffredi), very definite dislikes (Ron Jeremy), and one common complaint (you can't tell anything about the movie from the box cover).

Obviously, not all women enjoy pornography. But a substantial number certainly do. For most of the past 20 years, however, a certain segment of the feminist movement has tried to marginalize these women, either by denying that they exist or by telling them that they suffer from false consciousness. Only women brainwashed by the patriarchy could be deluded enough to think they really enjoyed porno, goes this line of thinking. Widespread media attention to such anti-sex zealots as Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon makes it seem as if their beliefs are universally shared by feminists.

In fact, there are many feminists who disagree with the Dworkin-MacKinnon line. Porn star Nina Hartley, activist Susie Bright, and journalist Lisa Palac, among others, have stepped forward to defend pornography and women's rights to enjoy and to participate in it. Of course, you will never see them counter Dworkin or MacKinnon face to face, since those two refuse to debate other women on the subject.

The latest feminist case for porn is Defending Pornography, by ACLU President Nadine Strossen. Strossen makes an important, if ultimately flawed, contribution to the ongoing feminist debate on the matter. Pay careful attention to the title of her book: Strossen does not merely defend free speech—she makes a positive case for pornography itself. Porn, says Strossen, does not play an especially strong role in engendering sexism in society. In fact, for many women, it has a positive impact, helping them get in touch with their sexuality. Indeed, even the Meese Commission agreed that sexually explicit images can have such therapeutic effects.

This line of reasoning stands in stark contrast to the Dworkin-MacKinnon position, which holds that pornography fosters sexism, upholds patriarchy, and causes rape. They define sexually explicit speech as a form of sexual discrimination and propose changing laws so that "victims" of pornography can bring a variety of civil suits. For example, if a rapist claims that a particular book or movie inspired his crimes, then his victim would be able to sue the work's producers and distributors for damages. Or if a woman is coerced into making a pornographic film, she would be able to sue the people involved. Dworkin has even argued that female participation in porn is in fact proof of coercion—even if no threats or force were used and even if the women say they participated freely.

Strossen agrees that coercing women into making pornographic films should be illegal and notes that it is in fact already illegal. But she argues that claiming women can never consent to pose for sexual images denies women full citizenship and reduces them to the status of children or the mentally deficient.

Indeed, she notes that the model anti-pornography legislation drafted by MacKinnon and Dworkin states, "Children are incapable of consenting to engage in pornographic conduct, even absent physical coercion, and therefore require special protection. By the same token, the physical and psychological well-being of women ought to be afforded comparable protection."

Strossen argues persuasively that the feminist censorship movement is rooted in a distrust of sex itself. "Compare victims' reports of rape with women's reports of sex. They look a lot alike," writes MacKinnon. Dworkin has offered such observations as: "One of the differences between marriage and prostitution is that in marriage you only have to make a deal with one man"; "Romance…is rape embellished with meaningful looks"; "In seduction, the rapist bothers to buy a bottle of wine."

Strossen points out that the Dworkin-MacKinnon world view is essentially old-fashioned sexual conservatism: that sexuality is male, not female; that men are raving beasts; that men inflict sex on women; and that sex is inherently degrading to women. Indeed, conservative censors have appropriated Dworkin and MacKinnon's arguments about pornography and have tried to enact their ideas into law in several places. Talk about strange bedfellows.

Censors, whether feminist or conservative, operate under the mistaken impression that sexually explicit materials are somehow the root cause of anti-social behavior. To that end, they cite studies showing that communities with high rape rates have high circulation of pornographic magazines. But those same studies also show that these same communities have higher circulations of all types of male-oriented magazines. No one has yet called for banning Field and Stream because it causes rape.

More to the point, less ideologically driven researchers have been unable to confirm these patterns. And Murray Straus, one of the nation's leading researchers on domestic and sexual violence, has found that there is actually a positive relationship between the circulation of pornographic magazines and his index of gender equality, a composite of 24 indicators of political, legal, and economic equality.

Strossen stresses that even though obscenity laws are passed in the name of "protecting" women, they have historically been used to limit speech and writings beneficial to feminist causes. For example, many early books and pamphlets advocating birth control were outlawed as obscene. Strossen reports that nowadays, many law professors are foregoing discussion of rape laws, fearful of stepping into the quagmire of sexual harassment created by MacKinnon and Dworkin. That can hardly be considered an advance for women's rights. And after the Canadian Supreme Court incorporated Dworkin-MacKinnon logic into that country's obscenity laws, authorities there used their new powers to target sexually explicit works by gay and lesbian authors. In the ultimate irony, Dworkin's own works, which are filled with violent sexual images, have been seized by Canadian authorities as violating the very law she and MacKinnon helped create.

Strossen makes a persuasive case against Dworkin and MacKinnon, but ultimately her argument, like that of many other feminist critics of censorship, is undermined by her statism.

This is most evident in her discussion of sexual harassment. She argues that current law, by focusing on sexual behavior, is misguided. Instead, she argues that the law should target behavior that is sexist, a nebulous concept.

The ACLU has always argued that bad speech should be countered with more speech. So why shouldn't bad, but non-aggressive, behavior not also be met with more speech and with other private behavior? What business is it of the government that some private employers will not hire or promote women?

On a more fundamental level, why should the right of speech be privileged against government interference in ways that constitutional rights of property, contract, and voluntary association are not? If government can ban certain non-aggressive private actions in order to further noble ends, why can't it also ban speech when such censorship might advance a good cause? The leap in logic is not that great. And as long as feminists grant government that power, they will be agreeing to the basic political principle of their pro-censorship sisters.

Contributing Editor Charles Oliver writes for Investor's Business Daily.