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Chances Are, Women Can Decide for Themselves

Answer: If pornography is part of your sexuality, then you have no right to your sexuality.

Question: To whom might the quote be attributed?

A) Anti-porn crusader Jesse Helms.

B) Prominent anti-feminist Phyllis Schlafly.

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C) Family values freedom fighter Dan Quayle.

D) Feminist law professor Catharine MacKinnon.

E) All of them.

The correct answer, of course, is E, because all of them might have said it.

But who really did?

The answer is Catharine MacKinnon, one of the stranger allies of the reactionary right.

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The feminist debate over pornography, which pits pro-censorship feminists against civil libertarian feminists--has led to a mind-bending collaboration of reactionaries from both ends of the political spectrum.

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The debate is in the news just now because the president of the ACLU, 44-year-old law professor Nadine Strossen, has written “Defending Pornography: Free Speech, Sex and the Fight for Women’s Rights,” in which she attempts to demolish the logic of those who would censor--or even try to define--pornography.

For some pro-censorship feminists, by the way, logic is a patriarchal concept with no place in this debate. But for my money (which is earned by exploiting the protections bestowed by the First Amendment on all Americans, including pro-censorship feminists), Strossen does a fine job explaining why, absent the clear and present danger test spelled out by the Supreme Court, censorship is never the answer.

Pro-censorship feminists, as epitomized by MacKinnon and her colleague, writer Andrea Dworkin, maintain that pornography should not be accorded the same kinds of protection as other forms of speech because it is not speech, it is sex discrimination, and promotes the subjugation of women.

Anti-censorship feminists, as epitomized by Strossen, maintain that the “MacDworkinite” view of women is discriminatory and regressive (some women enjoy pornography). Strossen sees two major problems with attempts to outlaw pornography.

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The first is that it is indefinable, existing only in the eye of the beholder. In fact, some people find the word pornography pornographic. Last week, Ventura Bookstore owner Ed Elrod put a sign on an easel announcing that the author of “Defending Pornography” would visit. Elrod received five complaints; the city of Ventura received three. Elrod was cited for violating a minor ordinance requiring a $7 permit to display a portable sign.

Curiously, although the city has more than 400 sign complaints pending, this one went right to the top of the stack.

Three guesses why.

Elrod says he received an official apology from the city for processing the complaints against his sign in such a timely manner (!) after noting that the city’s action could be construed as selective enforcement and--possibly--an attempt to curtail free expression.

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The second problem with outlawing porn, Strossen says, is that it puts dangerous power in the hands of government, which historically has used anti-pornography laws against women. In “Defending Pornography,” Strossen cites as proof the arrest of contraception pioneer Margaret Sanger, who was repeatedly arrested early in this century for teaching birth control to poor women.

She cites the fallout from a 1992 Canadian Supreme Court decision that incorporated the “MacDworkinite” concept of pornography into that country’s obscenity laws. Canadian censors, she notes, seized two works by Dworkin herself.

And she mentions the plight of an Oklahoma City doctor, charged under obscenity laws for displaying a safe-sex poster featuring a man wearing a condom in the window of his AIDS clinic, located in a gay neighborhood.

One man’s pornography may be another man’s life-saving information.

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Good civil libertarians must spend a great deal of time holding their noses as they defend what many consider to be the indefensible: Nazis, fascists and, sure, pornographers.

“I am so ingrained to seeing beyond the particular vehicle to the principle,” Strossen says. “It’s never defending Nazis, it’s defending freedom of speech for everybody, including Nazis.”

She takes an almost unbelievably cool tone when discussing the infuriating MacKinnon, who has refused to debate Strossen (or any anti-censorship women) on grounds that they are “the Uncle Toms of patriarchy,” as one anti-censorship feminist put it.

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Says Strossen coolly: “There is no satisfactory way to answer that other than to say that is inconsistent with my view of women’s equality and autonomy and dignity and freedom to tell me that I am this little puppet on a string and the strings are being pulled by men. And that, ultimately, is the view of pro-censorship feminists, that women are not free and independent agents in the realm of sexuality or sexual expression, that we need to be protected.”

The beautiful and ironic thing about the pro-censorship movement is the way it so nicely illustrates why the ACLU, love ‘em or loathe ‘em, is so important to defending our constitutionally guaranteed liberties.

Several years ago, Strossen says, a group called Feminists Fighting Pornography set up a graphic display of porn in Grand Central Station. Commuters complained and the station tossed the women out. The women went directly to the ACLU.

“Please,” they said, “defend our right to display pornography.”

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Which, of course, the ACLU did.

And of course, the ACLU won.


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