Defending Pornography: Free Speech, Sex and the Fight for Women's Rights


The newest attacks on the First Amendment and on free expression have come from a vocal and influential segment of the feminist movement that has launched a successful - and puritanical - crusade against "pornography" as the root of discrimination and violence against women. But, as Nadine Strossen, president of the American Civil Liberties Union, forcefully argues, this view of sexuality as inherently dangerous does profound damage to human rights in general, and to women's rights in particular. In Defending ...
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The newest attacks on the First Amendment and on free expression have come from a vocal and influential segment of the feminist movement that has launched a successful - and puritanical - crusade against "pornography" as the root of discrimination and violence against women. But, as Nadine Strossen, president of the American Civil Liberties Union, forcefully argues, this view of sexuality as inherently dangerous does profound damage to human rights in general, and to women's rights in particular. In Defending Pornography, Strossen shows that, since the late 1970s, a new and startling alliance has been fused between "procensorship" feminists, most notably Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin, and conservatives, many of whom oppose women's rights causes. Together they are campaigning against a wide range of sexually oriented expression, including not only art and literature, but also materials concerning abortion, contraception, AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, sexism, and sexual orientation. One of America's most visible and articulate advocates of both feminism and free speech, Strossen is in the vanguard of an increasingly vocal group of feminist women who adamantly oppose any effort to censor sexual expression. Women's rights, Strossen demonstrates, are far more endangered by censorship than by sexual words or images. Strossen eloquently argues that women do not have to choose between speech and equality, between dignity and sexuality, between safety and "our freedoms to read, think, speak, sing, write, paint, dance, dream, photograph, film, and fantasize as we wish." Offering a feminist's unique perspective on the history of obscenity laws, she shows that censorship has long been - and continues to be - used as a tool to repress information vital to women's equality, health, and reproductive autonomy. As Defending Pornography makes devastatingly clear, those who would restrict freedom of expression ultimately restrict women's rights.

The president of the American Civil Liberties Union explains why censoring pornography undermines women's rights. Strossen claims that free speech and women's rights are not at odds--if we protect the law from the forces that would limit our constitutional right to free expression.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
University of Michigan law professor and anti-pornography crusader Catharine MacKinnon has avoided debating Strossen, a New York University law professor who heads the American Civil Liberties Union. As this book shows, Strossen has a broad arsenal of vital arguments. Free speech has long been a strong weapon to fight misogyny, she notes, and she catalogues the fuzzy legal theories behind censorship. She ascribes feminist panic over sexual expression to a surge in ``cultural feminism,'' which was a response to 1970s setbacks to more tangible feminist projects like the ERA. The ``MacDworkin'' (MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin) proposed law to fight ``subordinating'' porn, Strossen argues, misreads evidence of its effects on men and ignores more influential media images like advertising as well as the complexity of female sexuality. In practice, as recent Canadian cases show ominously, such censorship laws have been used to seize lesbian, gay and feminist material. Strossen writes in professorial prose, with numerous quotes from better writers, and eschews the opportunity to explore murkier issues like the sexism inherent in much pornography. But she forcefully makes her point that scapegoating porn diverts activists from more important fights for women's rights. Author tour. (Jan.)
Library Journal
In this antithesis to law professor Catherine MacKinnon's Only Words (LJ 9/15/93), Strossen, president of the American Civil Liberties Union, attempts a public debate with MacKinnon, who has refused arranged debates with feminists in the anticensorship/pro-pornography camp. Mac-Kinnon's view is that pornography, in the guise of free speech, rails against women's equality guarantee. Strossen sees censoring pornography as effectively rendering the right wing's agenda to control the media and an attack on the First Amendment. Tackling the toughest question, she traces the recent history of censorship in relation to sexual speech. Although Strossen complains that MacKinnon's name-calling tactics is divisive, she herself chomps greedily at her free-speech bit and does the same. Strongly recommended as an important work for academic and large public libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 9/1/94.]-Paula N. Arnold, Vermont Coll. Lib., Norwich Univ., Montpelier
Reprint of the 1995 original with a new (5 p.) foreword by Wendy Kaminer and a new (43 p.) introduction cum bibliography by Strossen. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780385481731
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 1/1/1996
  • Pages: 336
  • Product dimensions: 5.22 (w) x 7.97 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Read an Excerpt


Pornography, in the feminist view, is a form of forced sex, institution of gender inequality... [P]ornography, with the rape and prostitution in which it participates, institutionalizes the sexuality of male supremacy. --CATHARINE MACKINNON

Feminist women are especially keen to the harms of censorship. Historically, information about sex, sexual orientation, reproduction and birth control has been banned under the guise of the protection of women. Such restrictions have never reduced violence. Instead, they have led to the jailing of birth control advocate Margaret Sanger, and the suppression of important works, from Our Bodies, Ourselves to the feminist plays of Karen Finley and Holly Hughes. Women do not require "protection" from explicit sexual materials. Women are as varied as any citizens of a democracy; there is no agreement or feminist code as to what images are distasteful or even sexist. It is the right and responsibility of each woman to read, view or produce the sexual material she chooses without the intervention of the state "for her own good." This is the great benefit of being feminists in a free society.

The strain of anti-pornologism is hardly what's distinctive about feminism; whereas anti-anti-pornology--the critique of the anti-porn movement on grounds other than constitutional formalism or First Amendment pietism--is a distinctive feminist contribution.
--HENRY LOUIS GATES W. E. B. Du Bois Professor Harvard University

In the past decade, some feminists have dramatically altered the long-standing debate in this country about sex and sexually oriented expression.Liberals--including those who advocated women's rights--had long sought increased individual freedom, and decreased government control, in the realm of sexuality. Accordingly, liberals had urged the repeal both of laws restricting consensual private sexual conduct between adults, and laws restricting the production of or access to sexually oriented materials, including books, photographs, and films.

Conversely, conservatives--including those who opposed women's rights causes--had consistently advocated strict government controls over both sexual conduct and sexual expression. With the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan and the growing mobilization of the so-called Religious Right, what had become a conservative clamor gained enormous political clout. It led to the 1986 Report of the Meese Pornography Commission, which in turn led to sweeping new law enforcement crackdowns on all manner of sexual materials, including popular, constitutionally protected works such as The Joy of Sex and Playboy magazine.

The startling new development is that, since the late 1970s, the traditional conservative and fundamentalist advocates of tighter legal restrictions on sexual expression have been joined by an increasingly vocal and influential segment of the feminist movement. Both groups target the sexual material they would like to curb with the pejorative label "pornography." Led by University of Michigan law professor Catharine MacKinnon and writer Andrea Dworkin, this faction of feminists--which I call "MacDworkinites"--argues that pornography should be suppressed because it leads to discrimination and violence against women. Indeed, MacKinnon and Dworkin have maintained that somehow pornography itself is discrimination and violence against women; that its mere existence hurts women, even if it cannot be shown to cause some tangible harm.

I share the fears, frustration, and fury about the ongoing problems of violence and discrimination against women, which no doubt have driven many to embrace the "quick fix" that censoring pornography is claimed to offer. Who wouldn't welcome an end to the threat of violence that so many women feel every time they venture out alone in the dark? But censoring pornography would not reduce misogynistic violence or discrimination; worse yet, as this book shows, it would likely aggravate those grave problems. In the words of feminist attorney Cathy Crosson, while the procensorship strategy may be superficially appealing, at bottom it reflects "the defeated, defeatist politics of those who have given up on really altering the basic institutions of women's oppression and instead have decided to slay the messenger."

The pornophobic feminists have forged frighteningly effective alliances with traditional political and religious conservatives who staunchly oppose women's rights, but who also seek to suppress pornography. As noted by feminist anthropologist Carole Vance, "Every right-winger agrees that porn leads to women's inequality--an inequality that doesn't bother him in any other way."

Under their joint anti-pornography banner, the allies in this feminist-fundamentalist axis have mounted increasing--and increasingly successful--campaigns against a wide range of sexually oriented expression, including not only art and literature, but also materials concerning such pressing public issues as AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, abortion, contraception, sexism, and sexual orientation.

So influential have the MacDworkinites become that all too many citizens and government officials believe that the suppression of sexually oriented materials is a high priority for all feminists, or even for all women. But nothing could be further from the truth.

An increasingly vocal cadre of feminist women who are dedicated to securing equal rights for women and to combating women's continuing second-class citizenship in our society strongly opposes any effort to censor sexual expression. We are as committed as any other feminists to eradicating violence and discrimination against women; indeed, many of us work directly for these goals every day of our lives. But we believe that suppressing sexual words and images will not advance these crucial causes. To the contrary, we are convinced that censoring sexual expression actually would do more harm than good to women's rights and safety. We adamantly oppose any effort to restrict sexual speech not only because it would violate our cherished First Amendment freedoms--our freedoms to read, think, speak, sing, write, paint, dance, dream, photograph, film, and fantasize as we wish--but also because it would undermine our equality, our status, our dignity, and our autonomy.

Women should not have to choose between freedom and safety, between speech and equality, between dignity and sexuality. Women can be sexual beings without forsaking other aspects of our identities. We are entitled to enjoy the thrills of sex and sexual expression without giving up our personal security. We can exercise our free speech and our equal rights to denounce any sexist expressions of any sort--including sexist expressions that are also sexual--rather than seek to suppress anyone else's rights.

Women's rights are far more endangered by censoring sexual images than they are by the sexual images themselves. Women do not need the government's protection from words and pictures. We do need, rather, to protect ourselves from any governmental infringement upon our freedom and autonomy, even--indeed, especially--when it is allegedly "for our own good." As former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis cautioned: Experience should teach us to be most on our guard to protect liberty when
the government's purposes are beneficent...The greatest dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well-meaning but without understanding." Or women of zeal.

The feminist procensorship movement is a far greater threat to women's rights than is the sexual expression it condemns with the epithet "pornography." For women who cherish liberty and equality, Big Sister is as unwelcome in our lives as Big Brother. Defending the sexual expression that some feminists condemn with the dread P word is thus a critical element in our support of free speech, sexual and reproductive autonomy, and women's equality.

Traditional explanations of why pornography must be defended from would-be censors have concentrated on censorship's adverse impacts on free speech and sexual autonomy. This book supports the anticensorship position from an important different perspective, which is not as widely understood. In light of the increasingly influential women's rights-centered rationale for censoring pornography, this book focuses on the women's rights-centered rationale for defending pornography. It explains why the procensorship faction of feminism poses a serious threat not only to human rights in general but also to women's rights in particular.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments 7
Introduction 11
1 The Sex Panic and the Feminist Split 17
2 Sexual Speech and the Law 37
3 The Fatally Flawed Feminist Antipornography Laws 59
4 The Growing Suppression of "Sexpression" 83
5 Revealing Views of Women, Men, and Sex 107
6 Defining Sexual Harassment: Sexuality Does Not Equal Sexism 119
7 "Different Strokes for Different Folks": The Panoply of Pornographic Imagination 141
8 Positive Aspects of Pornographic Imagery 161
9 Posing for Pornography: Coercion or Consent? 179
10 Would-Be Censors Subordinate Valuable Works to Their Agenda 199
11 Lessons from Enforcement: When the Powerful Get More Power 217
12 Why Censoring Pornography Would Not Reduce Discrimination or Violence against Women 247
13 Toward Constructive Approaches to Reducing Discrimination and Violence against Women 265
Notes 281
Index 309
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