Pornography and the Sex Censor

Against the Current, No. 63, July/August 1996

Cathy Crosson

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.

Cathy Crosson is a member of the Bloomington chapter of SOLIDARITY and teaches law at Indiana University.


  1. This article does not examine pornography from a historical materialist perspective (when did it arise? why?), does not analyze the pornographic form (it’s a type of commercial sex; since when do socialists champion commerce?), nor does it explain why pornography is worth actively defending, as if it had any redeeming or progressive qualities; instead of a rigorous argument making the positive case for pornography (I don’t think it’s possible to make such a case), we get a long, sterile rant against censorship and thinly disguised advocacy of laissez-faire policy that fits perfectly with the politics of libertarianism and not socialism. Very disappointing to say the least.

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