Waging War on Sex Crimes and Videotape

By Gutmann, Stephanie | Insight on the News, May 3, 1993 | Go to article overview

Waging War on Sex Crimes and Videotape


Gutmann, Stephanie, Insight on the News


Summary: United by their calls for a greater crackdown on pornography and sex crimes, highly vocal activists, legal experts and polemicists are crusading to change society's attitudes about such concepts as discrimination and a woman's consent. And they are fighting to transform their ideas into law. Led by heavyweights such as legal scholar Catharine MacKinnon, the movement has several victories behind it and is going strong.

We're talking about what it means to be turned into pornography!" thundered writer Andrea Dworkin to the rapt crowd spread below her at the Law School at the University of Chicago. "What it means to be bought and sold! We are flattened on the page, on the screen. Men use sex to hurt us! We count ourselves lucky when we are only being humiliated and insulted!"

Dworkin's audience erupted into shrieks, cheers, whistles and foot stomping. This was heady stuff, just what the 700 young activists and students who had signed up for the March conference, titled "Speech, Equality and Harm: Feminist Perspectives on Pornography and Hate Propaganda," had come for. It was a call to arms, a rallying cry for feminist opponents of pornography, scholars of hate speech and grass roots political organizers to pull together in a jihad against pornography.

United in its belief that hate speech and pornography are forms of oppression, the antiporn front is a vocal, diverse and prickly bunch. There are nationally known writers, speakers and activists such as Dworkin, author of Intercourse, Women Hating, and Pornography: Men Possessing Women, and John Stoltenberg, author of Refusing to Be a Man and the forthcoming The End of Manhood. And there are pranksters and grass roots organizers such as Niki Craft, a self described "shameless agitator and outlaw for social responsibility" who says she "remains unrehabilitated after 49 arrests for creative direct action against various institutions that oppress women."

Craft ran a seminar on the subject of civil disobedience at the conference, in which she taunted a male press photographer crouched near the podium, exuberantly shredded a copy of Madonna's book Sex on stage, and regaled the audience with a story about crashing a fund-raiser for the American Civil Liberties Union -- the archvillain of the antiporn movement.

But the real heavy hitters in the movement are legal scholars such as Canadian Kathleen Mahoney and American Catharine MacKinnon, who have drafted legal rationales that have dramatically changed the way their respective countries think about sexual harassment in the workplace, sexual assault and pornography.

Together, the movement of the grass roots organizers, legal tacticians and polemicists, bolstered by ranks of young, energetic students, is gaining momentum.

It's hard to know what to call them: The label "radical feminists" would be confusing, because feminist leaders such as Betty Friedan and Kate Millet, bothered by what they have seen as the "antisex" aspect of anti-pornography statements, have fallen over each other in a rush to disassociate themselves from the movement. The antiporn label is incomplete because most of these people demonstrate speak and write on such issues as rape, sexual harassment and hate speech as well.

But they're united in their calls for greater regulation or bans, speech codes, and injunctions against pornographers. What binds them is a package of beliefs: that women's status hasn't improved much since the 18th century; that pornography harms all women by leading to rape and other violence and, more indirectly, by defaming and helping to enforce second-class status; that the link between pornography and harm has been amply demonstrated by social scientists; and that the best way to fight pornography is to bring about a new way of thinking in which the courts would understand pornography's very existence as discrimination and defamation, a violation of women's civil rights. …

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