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The Thorny Debate over Art vs. Pornography

By Lefevere, Patricia | National Catholic Reporter, February 17, 1995 | Go to article overview

The Thorny Debate over Art vs. Pornography


Lefevere, Patricia, National Catholic Reporter


Many might agree with the Religious Alliance Against Pornography and its call to fight the producers and purveyors of hard-core pornography.

But the issues become tangled and complex the deeper the search goes for a legal remedy. People drawing up laws eventually run up against the thorny question of where art or more innocent, soft-core pornography stops and where hard-core pornography begins. Obscenity laws have been used, say some, as a lever that enables enforcement personnel to infringe on First Amendment rights.

Clarifying the issues seems to be part of the process for those who oppose the hard-core pornography purveyors. When Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago, one of the founders of RAAP, delivered an address on an entirely different topic recently at Rockhurst College, a Jesuit school in Kansas City, Mo., someone in the audience praised his work in opposing pornography.

Bernardin quickly explained that as a priest he opposes all pornography and obscenity but emphasized that the religious alliance did not deal with any matters protected by the First Amendment. Alliance efforts, he said, are aimed primarily at the most extreme expressions of pornography - involving children and violence - and against the trafficking of hard-core pornography by electronic means and international sex trade.

Even among women, who in the past might have been portrayed as unified against pornography, the issue has become extremely divisive. Some feminists - many Christians among them - see a link between the use of pornography and violence against women.

They claim that pornography denigrates women by promoting them as sexual objects for men, that it packages the subordination of women as sex and eroticizes women's inequality.

Writer Andrea Dworkin and University of Michigan law Professor Catharine MacKinnon reign as the doyennes of the anti-pornography drive. Their definition of pornoraphy as sexually explicit speech or images that are "degrading and dehumanizing" omen became the crux of anti-pornography ordinances in Minneapolis and Indianapolis.

While these ordinances of the 1980s did not survive mayoral vetoes or court rulings, they did influence the Canadian Supreme Court to incorporate the Dworkin-MacKinnon definition in a 1992 ruling. Once the ruling was in force, Canadian authorities pounced on images of lesbian sexuality and prosecuted gay and lesbian bookstores and some feminist and campus bookstores.

"Look what censorship has wrought!" cries the I-told-you-so diva of First Amendment absolutism, Nadine Strossen. Her T-shirt reads "Defend Bob Packwood's right to keep his Senate diaries private." Strossen, a professor of constitutional law at New York University, is the first woman to head the 75-year-old American Civil Liberties Union.

In her new book, Defending Pornography: Free Speech, Sex and the Fight for Women's Rights, Strossen critiques the pro-censorship feminists for searching for a quick fix for a complex and troubling social problem. Destroying dirty pictures, she argues, will not eradicate rape or discrimination, which preexisted the printing press and blue movies.

What's needed is not less speech but more speech, she insists, speech that will change people's perception and sensitize them to the problem of violence against women. Short of this, any tampering with the First Amendment may prompt what feminists fear most: a stifling of their rights, especially as regard reproductive choice, a censoring of their art and even a raid on their bookshelves and photo albums.

Strossen emphasizes that the Supreme Court never said all speech is protected absolutely. If speech shows a clear and present danger of actual or imminent harm, then and only then may it be restricted. To argue as MacKinnon does, that pornography causes rape, is in Strossen's view counterproductive as it displaces responsibility from real rapists and puts the culpability on words and images.

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