Pornography and Civil Liberties

By Itzin, Catherine | National Forum, Spring 1995 | Go to article overview

Pornography and Civil Liberties


Itzin, Catherine, National Forum


"I can't define pornography, " said a U.S. Supreme Court judge, "but I know what it is when I see it." Indeed. Most people do. Pornography is an industry that manufactures and markets a very profitable product. The people who make it, sell it, buy it, and use it know exactly what it is. So why has the belief been fostered that it is somehow indefinable and that defining it for purposes of legislation would be difficult or impossible?

[Note: This article contains some explicit language and descriptions. Reader discretion is advised. Ed.]

One of the main reasons is that pornography has traditionally been seen in terms of "morality." The laws against pornography were--and in the United States and the United Kingdom still are--"obscenity laws." And the definition of obscenity is vague, subjective, and reflects little more than the dominant mores and values of the day. Morality is, and always has been, anti-sex and even more so, anti-women.

Furthermore, art and literature have been censored by means of these laws. Homosexuality--whether lesbian or gay---has been, and still is, regarded as inherently obscene. In 1936, Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness was declared obscene because it dealt with lesbianism. Nearly fifty years later, in 1984, the London bookshop "Gay's the Word" was prosecuted and 800 items seized on the same grounds Among the titles were works by Oscar Wilde, Kate Millet, and Jean Genet--books that would have merited no legal action had they been heterosexual.

Obscenity and Pornography

The irony is that while obscenity legislation can lead to censorship of non-pornographic material, it poses no real threat to pornography itself. If anything, it protects pornography. Obscenity laws look to see whether men are or the moral fabric of society is "depraved and corrupted" (a concept that has been shown through case law to have no consistent or practicable meaning at all). The law does not look at pornography from the position of women and children. If it did, it would see that this is not an issue of morality but of power and of sexual objectification, sexual subordination, sexual violence, and eroticized inequality.

You do not have to look far to find the evidence. In the United Kingdom, the top shelves of newsstands in every neighborhood are stocked with mainstream so-called "adult entertainment" magazines containing photographs of women's vaginas and anuses, pulled open and posed gaping for the camera, inviting penetration: women presented as constantly sexually available, insatiable and voracious, or passive and servile, serving men sexually. There are forms of technically legal child pornography where women have their pubic hair shaved and are posed to look like little girls, linking male sexual arousal to children's bodies. There is also sexual violence, with women being humiliated, whipped, and beaten.

Illegal pornography also circulates, sold from under the counter. This pornography features women bound and gagged, raped and tortured: cigarette burns on their breasts and genitals, labia nailed to the top of a table, hanging by their breasts from meat hooks. It includes visual records of child sexual abuse (called child pornography) and material promoting pre-pubescent sex. There is evidence of the existence of "snuff films" in which women and children are sexually murdered on camera.

Obscenity legislation looks at this, and because it sees nakedness and genitals, and because it is sexually arousing, it just sees "sex." In the sexually explicit, sexualized context of pornography, the dehumanization and subordination of women in the so-called soft core pornography and the violence and torture of women in the so-called hard-core pornography are not recognized as such.

Pornography, Status, and Value

This is some of the harm in pornography. What does this mean to the status and value of women in society? In the United Kingdom, women are economically subordinate to men. …

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