A Response to Cathy Crosson

Against the Current, No. 65, November/December 1996

Anne E. Menasche

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.

Ann Menasche is a member of Bay Area Solidarity.  She is a feminist and civil rights lawyer.

ATC 65, November-December 1996