Defending Pornography

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Defending Pornography (for real this time)

by Laura Antoniou

If pornography is part of your sexuality, then you have no right to your sexuality. - Catharine MacKinnon

Lesbian written pornography ... is an expression of self hatred. - Andrea Dworkin

WITH statements like these descending from their lips, it almost seems unnecessary to dispute Dworkin and MacKinnon: they obviously have the wherewithal to shoot themselves in various appendages and make enemies by the score. And that's before we start gathering other mots, such as their implied and stated contention that sex is what heterosexual men do to heterosexual women, and that all other forms of sexuality are mere representations or substitutions for the same; that essentially all men are born rapists and all women their victims; that women cannot be trusted to enter into a voluntary contract that involves any form of sexual expression; and on and on. These women are obsessed with sex, specifically of the violent and nonconsensual variety as enacted by men against women.

When Dworkin stood to testify before Congress and its Meese Commission in 1986, she claimed that 65 to 70% of all women involved in the sex industries--such as prostitutes, film stars, models, and presumably writers of a certain kind--had been victims of incest or child abuse, though she supplied no evidence to substantiate this assertion. She suggested that so-called snuff films were so commonplace, it began to sound as if you could pick one up at your local Blockbuster. When MacKinnon wrote an impassioned story about the horrible atrocities being committed in prison camps in Bosnia, her lurid tales of sexual abuse and torture were almost lyrical in their attention to detail.

The writings of MacKinnon and Dworkin could be dismissed were it not for the fact that much of the world--including whole governments, such as that of Canada--have taken their arguments seriously and even codified them into law. This opens up a curious mystery. Usually, when a woman with some academic credentials behind her stands up and rails against the heterosexist, patriarchal, violence-loving, oppressive, angry-white-male culture, she is left alone with her women's studies classes, published in under-distributed journals, abandoned by the mainstream to wait for tenure and retirement. But these two get their faces on every roundtable discussion, testify before every commission, get discussed in state legislatures, and find their words written into Canadian law (and make it necessary for me to become an international smuggler to sell my wares)!

What made MacKinnon and Dworkin such a uniquely successful feminist force to be reckoned with? Was it MacKinnon's sparkling prose? Dworkin's high media-Q factor and star quality?

Of course not: it was the smut. It was their focus on pornography, the writings of whores, the land of the solitary vice, that made the terrible twosome famous and feared. What they discovered, after years of putting in their time on various feminist fronts, was that the pornography war was the only one which the aforementioned hetero-patriarchal government and culture responded to. It was their big chance to get something done. No amount of writing and talking on their part could actually raise working women's salaries, create childcare opportunities, or make abortion safe and available to poor women. Congress wasn't holding hearings on the question of domestic partnership laws or the rights of lesbians to qualify for health care or the rights of young queers to safe sex information. People were looking for a scapegoat for every perceived moral and ethical failing in our culture, and pornography fit the bill. And MacDworkin--to borrow Nadine Strossen's name for them in Defending Pornography (Scribner, 1995)--was ready to fall into step. Here, at last, was a battle they could win.

This victory was not achieved without political compromise. As Strossen points out in her book, MacDworkin and the entire pro-censorship faction of the left-feminist movement has allied itself with the far Right, especially with groups such as Phyllis Schlafly's Eagle Forum and Beverly La Haye's Concemed Women for America. The two factions would probably rather slit their wrists than share a potluck supper, yet there they are, together in as unholy an alliance as anyone might imagine. Strossen is right to emphasize the importance of this alliance with the Christian Right, and knows just how damning it is, even for middle-of-the-road types who might be tempted to pick up and read a book with a title like Defending Pornography. But for all her good intentions in "defending" porn, what we really have is a solidly written and well-researched book that makes a thoroughly convincing case as to why censorship is bad. What it does not do is say why pornography is good. Where is the promised "defense" of pornography?

As a woman making a living in the field of erotic writing--as a pornographer--I was eager to see how Strossen would defend my literary niche. God knows I have a hard enough time doing so myself--when I bother. My defense rests on two legs: one, this was the first writing someone paid me to do; and two, writing and editing pornography have given me--and my readers, I trust--pleasure: the pleasure no one talks about when we talk about pornography, Noel Coward's "solitary vice." (And not so solitary, if you're into reading your lover bedtime stories, but that's another point entirely.) I wanted to hear from a woman--a scholarly woman--how great it was to have a literature of one's own, a place of fantasy where mind and body could be teased, aroused, and pleasured.

Instead, what we get from Strossen is an old-time defense of free speech, complete with a recitation of the First Amendment. Now it's easy to attack censorship, and even easier to poke fun at people who find salacious meanings everywhere. Strossen offers lots of examples of the latter, such as the censorship of crates of classical art because some contained voluptuous vessels of Venus, or the professor who saw in an exercise video an example of the exploitation of women in the media. The book Hot, Hotter, Hottest was stopped at the Canadian border but turned out to be a cookbook for dishes with jalapeno peppers. Also held up was Doing It Debbie's Way, an exercise video by Debbie Reynolds. The final kick in the head was the delay of two of Dworkin's own books, jam-packed as they were with scenes of women being degraded or used as "sex objects."

What this defense of pornography amounts to is a slippery slope argument of the kind, "If we allow censorship of one thing, what next?" If, for example, we allow the censorship of Leatherwomen, then what might be next, Rubyfruit Jungle? My question is, where does that leave Leatherwomen? The implication is that the only reason Leatherwomen deserves protection is to provide a line of defense for the literature that we truly value, and Strossen takes pains to show how much of our literature and culture could be sacrificed if the censors had their way, citing examples of books that would be banned not only by the far Right but by pro-censorship "feminists," as well. The implication is that porn is only a necessary evil in the battle for free speech.

When Strossen does get down to actually defending porngraphy, she points out that, contrary to the claims of the MacDworkin factions, the vast majority of porn is egalitarian and rather adolescent, depicting women as sexual aggressors who enjoy sex, are orgasmic, and seem to be having fun. Porn that doesn't fit this mold--which I gather would include a lot of what I write--is dismissed as the exception that proves the rule. Nor does Strossen have much to say about the suppression of gay and lesbian literature, which has been the chief victim of the MacDworkin-inspired Canadian statutes. She does get around to quoting both Pat Califia and John Preston, but her chief concern is not to defend the literature at the margins but instead the larger world of plain vanilla heterosexual porn, and from there the still larger world of literature and the arts in general. In the end it is the preservation of works with "socially redeeming value" that seems to matter, not works that might be defined by some as unmitigated filth.

I take Strossen as typical of a larger cultural inability to defend pornography in and of itself, not as just the price of free speech but as a positive good, as something both usefull and fun, something that can be dangerous and scary and that can also help us learn about our fantasies and demons--and as something that can get us off. Standing up for free speech and attacking censorship are always worthy goals, but they should not be mistaken for the actual defense of pornography, even in its more exploratory or extreme forms, as intrinsically worthy of being defended.

Laura Antoniou is the author of three novels and six anthologies, including Looking for Mr. Preston and Leatherwomen I & 11. This article is reprinted from The Harvard Gay and Lesbian Review, Summer 1995, Vol. II, No. 3, pp. 21-22. (HGLR, P.O. Box 180722, Boston, MA 02118, <>)

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