Poverty, not pornography, is the most pressing feminist issue of the 1990s. But try telling that to Catharine MacKinnon, the charismatic legal scholar who has been waging a passionate campaign against pornography. MacKinnon is a superstar on the college lecture circuit, and her fans have played a decisive role in derailing the feminist movement from addressing women's most urgent problems.
The controversy is hardly new. Feminists have clashed over pornography since the 1970s. Some have closed their eyes and held their noses, committed to the principle of free speech. Others, like MacKinnon, have argued that since pornography causes sexual violence against women - an unproved premise hotly contested by social scientists - it should be banned.
In her new book, "Only Words," MacKinnon goes further, arguing that pornography is not merely speech but a hostile act that must be banned as a violation of women's civil rights. For MacKinnon, words are the same as acts; like sticks and stones, they break your bones. Her argument is seductively clever: If pornography is a hostile act, then protecting women from violence is more important than defending smut as free speech.
MacKinnon's claim that sexual violence is a violation of women's civil rights is right on target; rape is a terrorist act that reinforces women's inequality. But sexual violence and pornography are not the same thing. And what if pornography is - as many contend - a symptom but not a cause of American society's misogynist depiction and treatment of women? Then MacKinnon's effort to pit free speech against women's equality creates a bogus choice. Chipping away at the First Amendment is rarely a good idea, and especially dangerous for groups committed to radical social change. Censorship, as history teaches, is more likely to be used to silence leftists and feminists than pornographers.
The situation in Canada is a case in point. In 1992, MacKinnon's analysis influenced the Canadian Supreme Court to permit censorship of pornography when it portrays "women as a class as objects for sexual exploitation." Not surprisingly, Canadian censors first targeted gay and lesbian bookstores. …