Sex with a Heart -- Defending Pornography: Free Speech, Sex and the Fight for Women's Rights by Nadine Strossen

Article excerpt

Defending Pornography: Free Speech, Sex and the Fight for Women's Rights, by Nadine Strossen. Scribner's, 1995. $22.

Last year I served as a counselor at Seeds of Peace, a summer camp for Arab and Israeli youth. We dealt with many issues relating to the conflict in the Middle East. I was prepared to confront most of these from the perspective of a workshop facilitator in an always potentially violent situation. One issue I did not expect to tackle was porn.

One afternoon, we took the kids--most of whom were teenagers--to a shopping mall. In a bookstore, I noticed three of the boys perusing Playboy. Sexual liberal that I am, I chose to ignore the situation. I spent much of my own adolescence thinking about sex or buying literary substitutions, so I was not about to be hypocritical. They purchased the magazine and brought it back to camp. When I entered our bunk that night, five boys were huddled around a playmate pictorial, which they poorly attempted to shield from me. Playboy brought these boys together in a way that weeks of coexistence workshops and baseball games could not. I told them there was no need to hide the magazine, but that women had rights, minds, and feelings, not just bodies. They giggled, and I left.

My little speech could hardly compete with the allure of the magazine. Not that it mattered. A fellow counselor learned of the situation and quickly confiscated the porn. Who needs moral persuasion when censorship will do?

Feminists and leftists have been debating censorship and morality for the past decade. Nadine Strossen's Defending Pornography is a valuable contribution to that debate. Written clearly and confidently by the current president of the American Civil Liberties Union, Defending Pornography is a pointed response to Catharine MacKinnon, Andrea Dworkin, and other advocates of censorship in the name of feminism. Nadine Strossen's subject is the recent history of feminism's unseemly exploitation of conservative political strategies. Strossen clearly demonstrates why a pro-censorship feminist position is intellectually and legally bankrupt, and she vividly documents how the efforts of groups such as Women Against Pornography over the last ten years have politically backfired.

Strossen shares with others in the anti-censorship camp a recognition that sexual equality depends upon sexual freedom. In 1982, anthropologist Carole Vance organized a conference at Barnard College with the theme "Toward a Politics of Sexuality." When feminists opposed to pornography and sado-masochism protested the gathering, American feminism was torn asunder. Vance later wrote, "Feminism must put forth a politics that resists deprivation and supports pleasure." She argued that feminism "must understand pleasure as life-affirming, empowering, desirous of human connection and the future, and not fear it as destructive, enfeebling, or corrupt...Feminism must insist that women are sexual subjects, sexual actors, sexual agents...."

What distinguishes Strossen from her intellectual predecessors is her historical hindsight. She cites numerous examples of the devastating effects of feminist censorship in the last ten years, all inspired by what Strossen cleverly labels "MacDworkinism." As with fast food, MacKinnon and Dworkin offer a solution to the abuse of women in which the output is quick and the cost seems minimal--but the results are terribly unhealthy.

Strossen begins her book with a long list of escapades on college campuses where students and faculty have used this crude version of feminism in order to silence others. At the University of New Hampshire, an English professor was suspended from teaching without pay for a year and required to submit to counseling (at his own expense) because some students were offended by his comparison of writing and seduction. At Penn State, a professor demanded that a female nude by Goya be banished from the campus because it objectified women; fearful of a lawsuit, the university complied. …