21 September, 2005

War on Eroticism

So, those of you who are over thirty (anyone? anyone?) might remember the war on pornography prosecuted under the Reagan Administration, under the stern eye of Attorney General Edwin Meese III and his famous Commission. I don't remember this, but that's okay, since I can just watch it play out again today. Via 100 monkeys typing, we learn that Attorney General Alberto Gonzales is fashioning an anti-obscenity squad composed of FBI agents.*

Even if you do NOT recall, I trust most of you are familiar with the reaction of feminists to the Meese commission. That is, many feminists chose to side with the conservative Christian right and their censoriousness in decrying pornography, on the grounds that pornography was chauvinist and hateful towards women. The Meese commission, in fact, concluded that pornography promotes rape and sexual abuse. Many parties concluded that the Meese commission was full of shit and would have said just about any sort of lie in order to prove its point, and the fact that, you know, they didn't actually perform any studies, and in fact brought in experts to contradict actual studies that had been performed. However, many radical feminists of the Andrea Dworkin school of thought apparently didn't attend those parties and continued to quote Meese's bogus "research" favorably.

Andrea Dworkin is now dead, however, and hopefully others of her ilk are as well. This time, if a war flares up, I'm hoping feminists will ally themselves in favor of free speech and, well, sex. I happen to think being pro-sex is actually quite feminist, for reasons I think I've sketched out before. Women should be taking firmer control over their own sexuality (ideally with both hands). There's certainly more room for this in a sexually liberal society than there is in a conservative one. On the other hand, the idea that women can't have sex without being victimized (which is essentially what an anti-porn stance amounts to) seems decidedly non-feminist to me.

* We are late, as usual, on this observation, but the appeal of this blog has never been its timeliness. Or its trenchant insights, its wit or even its prolificacy. In fact, this blog has no appeal whatsoever.

Sexperts? How often do you actually get to use that term? Okay, I know it's not a real term. I already told you this blog lacks wit.


i don't think this line is quite right:

"On the other hand, the idea that women can't have sex without being victimized (which is essentially what an anti-porn stance amounts to) seems decidedly non-feminist to me."

feminists (usually) don't critique all porn, and there's more to sex than porn. just like being against sweatshops doesn't mean being against all wage labor.

the problem is that it's hard to draw any clear legal lines. hence the hypocritical and ageist "protect the children" focus.

also "free speech" doesn't mean quite the same thing when you're talking about commerical speech - e.g. you or i can't choose to put up sex-positive, feminist billboards all over the subway. this may be part of why feminists don't see things in the 18th century terms you were using. 

Posted by aram

The reason we can't put up sex-positive, feminist billboards all over the subway (other than not having any money) is because the MBTA wouldn't allow it. That is, space on the T is not a commodity that we can purchase to do what we like with. It's the T that decides what it wants to allow; it's their constraint on "speech" that's at issue. Money, also, of course, but this is a secondary consideration; were it otherwise, the T would be full of anti-war advertisements.

As for porn, I hardly see the relevance of the commercial aspect. Porn is ridiculously cheap to make. Anyone with a digital camera can make it.

Clearly there's more to sex than porn, but the relevant question is if there's more to porn than sex (and just sexual fantasy, at that). Feminists who sided with Meese were NOT being judicious about which kinds of porn they were opposed to. They opposed "pornography", not specific kinds of porn, because of its purported effect on the male psyche and its depiction of women. 18th century terms, maybe, but these were their terms, not mine.

I have no issue with critiquing pornography, much of which is, shall we say, problematic. And it may even be true that nearly all of porn is demeaning to women. It may also be true that most heterosexual relationships are demeaning to women. This is hardly call to end heterosexual relationships, and is in fact deeply skeptical of the powers of both men and women. It IS a call to learn how to transform heterosexual relationships, or to transform pornography.

On the other hand, maybe you believe that porn is an unmitigated evil, and that it isn't possible to put sex on film in a manner that is pro-woman. If you believe that, I'd be interested to read some justification. But that, I think, is essentially the position you must take if you side with Meese (or Gonzales). 

Posted by saurabh

The idea I think is 18th-century is that free speech is an ideal that stands outside of power relations, in particular economic power relations. While it's nice to say we should counter oppressive speech with more speech, it ignores the fact that public speech costs money, and often the only democratic influence over it comes through government regulation. I don't think this is a secondary consideration.

The problem is that public speech that degrades women often isn't really pornographic, so porn may be too narrow of a focus. While at the same time, gov't regulation is too heavy-handed to separate good porn from bad porn.

But the debate is more complicated than "all porn is bad" vs. "all free speech is good." I think you need to look at the sorts of speech actually being practiced, and other empirical questions, rather than saying any restrictions on pornography should be immediately rejected.

(Mind you, I'm not sure I have good solutions. One idea would be a society in which erotic public speech is legit, but hate speech laws could apply to some kinds of porn. But I'm not sure I'd call this a "good solution.") 

Posted by aram

I'm not really sure where you intend to go with these arguments. Even if we know that some porn is demeaning to women (obviously true), where does that lead us? It would be very difficult to prove to me that porn, even the kind that is demeaning to women, has a demonstrably negative effect. But let's say you COULD do that. I'm not of the type that thinks solutions should be applied in the negative, especially not at the hands of the government (ESPECIALLY not at the hands of a Christian conservative government).

My point about speech is merely that the debate over pornography should be considered orthogonal to feminist considerations. Yes, there's demeaning porn, just like there's demeaning everything else. That hardly means one should do away with porn - as well say do away with newspapers because a considerable fraction of them contain content that is demeaning to women. Huh?

Meanwhile, I absolutely don't believe all free speech is good. Clearly not. Some speech is bad. But it's no one's decision to make which speech that is. And, as feminists we should recognize both that censorious control is bad, and that "porn" is not in itself the problem.

As to your first paragraph, by now I think it's clear that you and I part company over what positives can be achieved via government action. Personally, I don't trust the government to do the proper thing in this instance. 

Posted by saurabh

Hmm, I wrote my comment (below) before all the comments (above), but was having java troubles. I'm not going to modify it, oh well. :-p

Dude, you don't have to be pro-pornography to think Gonzales is full of shyte. Even if I were one of the feminist(II)*-anti-porn-crusaders, it would be pretty un-feminist of me to think that wasting time and resources prosecuting consenting adult oriented smut wouldn't be better spent going after, say, rapists and child molesters and human-traffickers. You can stand in the garden forum of cultural critique and turn up your powdered nose and make a pretty reasonable literary  case against a lot of excessive yet consensual-adult pornography. To then think that makes you important enough to be speaking in the public squares' forum of what should be illegal and discouraged by tax-funded-arm-of-the-state-empowered policy --without statistical evience, ignoring the first amendment--is obnoxiously pretentious, given that the stakes are the actual lives of other women.

I mean, hell, I've an artistic prejudice over certain kinds of country music and soft, soft jazz, but if I was queen tomorrow I wouldn't send AG after it.

Which is too say, I'm not too crazy about excessively hardcore pornography, and vastly prefer our local version of burlesque at Thrillville , but I'll be damned before someone will manipulate my personal preferences into a stand against the first amendment.

*We have various types of feminists, like with proteins.

Posted by Saheli

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