Why Phyllis Schlafly Is Right (but Wrong) about Pornography

By Koppelman, Andrew | Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy, Winter 2008 | Go to article overview

Why Phyllis Schlafly Is Right (but Wrong) about Pornography


Koppelman, Andrew, Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy


Phyllis Schlafly is wrong about the regulation of pornography, but her views need to be taken more seriously than they typically are in the overwhelmingly liberal academy. She represents an important tradition in thinking about gender issues, and she has advanced her views vigorously and articulately.

Schlafly's preeminent concern is to preserve a pattern of gender-specific roles and relations that, she thinks, have helped protect women and children from desertion and abuse. She wants to suppress pornography because it helps to reinforce a vernacular masculine culture that is indifferent or even hostile to the needs of women and children. Schlafly's worries about this culture are legitimate. But the suppression of pornography, I will conclude, is the wrong solution to the problem.

I. SCHLAFLY ON PORNOGRAPHY

Schlafly has argued that

   [p]ornography can be best defined as the degradation of woman. It
   exploits women individually and as a group in the most offensive,
   degrading, and cruel way. In the modern jargon, pornography is the
   most "sexist" activity of all.

   The women's liberationists prove their hypocrisy by their
   nonattitude toward pornography. They profess outrage at the
   role-concept fostered by school textbooks that include pictures of
   women in the home as wives and mothers, but they raise no protest
   about the role-concept fostered by obscene pictures of women as
   playthings for male lust and sadism in obscene and "bondage" books,
   magazines, and movies. (1)

Schlafly wants to suppress pornography precisely because of the way in which it socializes men. "Pornography cannot be victimless because its very essence demands that a victim be subordinate. One cannot be an abuser unless there is an abused. Pornography portrays the past abuse, and pornography is a tool to facilitate future abuse." (2) The testimonies of women abused either in the making of pornography or by men who have consumed pornography--testimonies that Schlafly collected in an edited volume--"prove that pornography is addictive, and that those who become addicted crave more bizarre and more perverted pornography, and become more callous toward their victims." (3) The basic problem is the effect of pornography on the way that men think. "Pornography changes the perceptions and attitudes of men toward women, individually and collectively," she writes, "and desensitizes men so that what was once repulsive and unthinkable eventually becomes not only acceptable but desirable. What was once mere fantasy becomes reality. Thus conditioned and stimulated by pornography, the user seeks a victim." (4) Pornography, she argues, should be regarded as a "public nuisance." (5)

The claims just quoted are wildly overstated. Schlafly suggests that pornography provokes sexual violence. The correlation between pornography and sexual violence, however, is strong only among a very small subset of already pathological men, comprising less than one percent of the male population. (6) In the aggregate, it appears that the availability of pornography actually reduces the frequency of sexual assault. (7) It is true that women have often been abused during the production of pornography, but abuses of this kind are ubiquitous in illegal markets, and they appear to have become relatively rare in the porn industry now that producers are permitted to operate openly in some parts of the country. (8) There is anecdotal evidence that some consumers of pornography become so transfixed by it as to lose all interest in relationships with actual people. (9) There is no good data, however, on the proportion of consumers for whom this is true, and no principled distinction can be made between this and other socially isolating behavior (such as too many hours spent watching television); "addiction," therefore, is not a helpful metaphor for the problem. (10)

Despite these caveats about Schlafly's arguments, the deeper concern she identifies is worth investigating. …

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