Free Speech and the Porn Wars

By Carol, Avedon | National Forum, Spring 1995 | Go to article overview

Free Speech and the Porn Wars


Carol, Avedon, National Forum


For most of my life, I was aware of an assumption being made that pornography was inert; that is, it had no long-term effect on (male) readers or viewers and had only the short-term effect of causing arousal. Our society saw this as a negative effect: arousal (which was presumed to be a male trait) lacked any real social value and was associated with violence, and masturbation was perceived as a tawdry, anti-social activity.

Under the circumstances, pornography could be restricted under obscenity laws because it was alleged to have no political content of any kind and therefore was not "expression" as such. Even as restrictions on sexual material were being lifted in the 1950s and 1960s, and social science had begun to take a less negative view of masturbation, pornography was still seen as, at best, "empty calories."

Feminists generally had a negative view of pornography, partly because we felt that it pandered to the lowest and least edifying aspects of male sexuality and partly because we perceived its content as being largely sexist. Some also felt that pornographic materials promoted an idealized standard of female beauty with which real women could not compete.

On the other hand, feminists also were aware that legislation restricting sexual content always became a weapon against feminist speech as well as other material meant to create, either in art or explicitly political expression, a challenge to the status quo. Because sexual content was deemed sordid and without merit, obscenity movements and laws had been the tools that suppressed some aspects of Black culture--at one point, the blues were banned in Memphis itself--and also information promoting reproductive health. For example, Margaret Sanger was arrested under obscenity laws for telling women about birth control. As the modern women's liberation movement emerged in the late 1960s and early 1970s, a spate of obscenity actions were directed at feminist materials; Ms. magazine, the health-care handbook Our Bodies, Our Selves, and Judy Grahan's poetry were typical targets.

Antipornography Feminism

Overall, feminists were anticensorship virtually by definition, until the advent of antipornography feminism. Although most long-time feminists still opposed censorship, by the late 1980s the media were presenting a view of the pornography debate that placed feminists directly in opposition to the First Amendment. This image was encouraged by the high visibility of campaigns by Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon, and also by America's premier feminist magazine, Ms., taking the antipornography position at the editorial level.

For many feminists, however, the antipornography, pro-censorship view represented a return to prefeminist consciousness. The language of antiporn women, whether on the right or left, was largely judgmental of sex and of women in much the same way as might have been found in social-purity tracts. The view of gender roles these activists expressed was and is explicitly one that glories in the sex dualism and fully stereotypes males and females along the sugar-and-spice/snakes-and-snails model in which the "bestial" urges of the male must be counteracted and controlled by the motherly purity of the female.

Perhaps most importantly, antipornography feminism rests wholly on a desexualized model of femaleness--what once was known as "femininity." Reactionary feminists, as Gayle Rubin noted in her speech to the National Organization for Women's pornography hearings, "Misguided, Dangerous, and Wrong" (a version of which can be found in Bad Girls &, Dirty Pictures, edited by A. Assiter & A. Carol, from Pluto Press, London and Boulder, 1993), had been using terminology that specifically debased sex workers. Moreover, those with long memories and some knowledge of feminist history recognized the essential pro-sex factor at the foundation of every known feminist movement in history. …

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