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Off the Fence:  A Feminist Discusses the Debate on Porn
By Ashley G


     Heterosexual pornography is a sticky issue for the left, and more so for feminists.  It might even beat out the topic of prostitution for “Most Controversial” in the women’s movement.  For ACLU members, their heads spin as they try to decide which part of the constitution to uphold when confronted with this issue:  First Amendment?  Fourteenth Amendment?  First?  Fourteenth?
     I consider myself a forward-thinking and tolerant person.  I’d like to be open-minded and progressive.  My aim is to enable all people—and especially women—the opportunity to be truly autonomous and act without societal pressure.  And while I’m sure there are women who chose to be in the porn industry, and I personally know women who enjoy porn themselves, I just cannot support it.
     It is important to stress that I am not condoning those who gallivant around and slap the label of pornography on everything from a videotape of childbirth to the nipples on a baby Jesus.  I have no desire to pick and choose what should be considered obscene.  This is not about values or ethics.  For me, and for many prominent feminists, the issue of porn is about discrimination (which is not a surprise) and about harm and violence (which may be to some).  More than any other medium, pornography objectifies women—more than advertising, more than Hollywood, and more than beauty magazines.
     So before I continue, let’s get a couple of things straightened out so we’re all on the same page.  Heterosexual pornography is not about sex, as many in our culture understand it to be.  It’s about women.  And the porno mags, movies, and websites do not foster an exchange of ideas and communication; they portray actual practices.  Often these practices include humiliation, degradation, and simulated—if not actual—harm to women.  Some men find this control and violence a power trip.  The domination is eroticized, they get off, and they assume that what they were looking at was sexy.  In this way, pornography supports male supremacy by incorporating the concepts of domination and submission into an unhappy little marriage with all that is considered erotic (MacKinnon, “State” 197).
     Here’s the rub:  how can a liberal like me make even a peep against the porn industry without being accused of trampling on the freedom of speech?  On the other hand, how can my conscience ignore the one part of the constitution that is closest to the defeated Equal Rights Amendment—the part that says one cannot be discriminated against based on race, sex, and all that good stuff?  The Fourteenth Amendment attack on porn is much more stable than the First Amendment defense of it.  The Indianapolis Ordinance of 1984 defines pornography as a “practice of exploitation and subordination based on sex which differentially harms women” (Hunter 231).  The premise of the Ordinance is that women are degraded as a class.  The Ordinance discusses the bigotry and contempt promoted by pornography, the acts of aggression it supports, the crimes it perpetuates, as well as the effects it has on women’s opportunities in general (Hunter 232).  Put them on scales:  the right to express oneself in a way that is harmful to other citizens weighs little when up against discrimination against half of the human race.
     What really allows me to sleep at night knowing that I might be mistaken for John “Rights are overrated” Ashcroft is the many types of speech that Congress and the Supreme Court have decided not to protect.  Think about libel, disturbing the public peace, criminal conspiracy, creating a clear and present danger, and on down the line.  Furthermore, words and pictures that are spoken or printed can stand as evidence that an action occurred or was forced.  This is why kiddie porn is off the market, folks.  Catherine MacKinnon hits the nail on the head when she says, “Public sexual access by men to anything other than women is far less likely to be protected speech” (MacKinnon, “State” 203).
     No liberal with their head on straight would suggest that legal censorship is an acceptable mode of regulation, let alone a solution.  But this is exactly what the media fear.  Pornography, some claim, may sometimes serve as a form of journalism.  The accounts of those who have been victims of pornography are victimized doubly when the media censor their experiences.  The media fear that negative press on pornography will lead to censorship, and therefore infringe on journalism, their livelihood.
     Now that you see exactly how convoluted this whole porn situation is, the next step is to make a change.  But how?  Censorship is bad and wouldn’t work anyway, and the last time I checked, the patriarchy was still ahead by a couple millennia in the battle of the sexes, so we might just be at an impasse.  As for the government, here’s where we stand:  the law was made for men, by men, and was made to see and treat women as men do—as subordinate.  MacKinnon makes an interesting point:  “Whole segments of the population are not systematically silenced socially, prior to government action” (MacKinnon, “State” 206).  Clearly the anti-porn movement doesn’t have Uncle Sam on its side.  There’s always the possibility of talking some sense into those running the porn industry, but it doesn’t seem likely.  Who is making the money in the pornography industry?  Not the women.  Who is harmed?  Not the men.
     Just when it seems all hope is lost, our uptight society kicks us while we’re down.  Another subject clouding the issue is that pornography is the scapegoat of our culture’s confusion about sexuality.  The problem of pornography and other things labeled by society as obscene is magnified by the over-regulation of the topic.  Society is reluctant to deal with sexual matters.  How much sense does this make:  pornography is so taboo that it is only allowed in private, yet criticizing it in public is not socially acceptable either (MacKinnon, “Roar,” 3).  Black face is not socially accepted anymore, why is pornography?  Will it ever not be?  Will it take an intellectual and cultural renaissance to change the current system?  Should we take away all regulation in order to let sex and pornography right itself?
     The questions come faster than the answers.  Not only are many feminists hesitant to take a position, but there is also the added complication of enforcing a position in which self-regulation already plays a large role (Hunter 242).  And there is a fear that the labeling of pornography as deviant only further eroticizes it.  “Making sex with the powerless ‘not allowed’ is a way of keeping ‘getting it’ defined as an act of power” (MacKinnon, “State” 200).  Most of those who are turned on do not realize that what excites them may not be the dirtiness of the sexual images themselves.  Instead it is the power trip concentrated in the experience of looking at a woman at her most vulnerable and powerless.  According to some courts of law that defend it, pornography is more important than those it harms (MacKinnon, “State” 213).  To those lawmakers, their own decision to violate the human rights of women is the ultimate turn-on.