Pornography: the Feminist Dilemma

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According to various feminists, the Meese commission report was good for the women's movement (Law Professor Catharine MacKinnon), bad for the movement (A.C.L.U. Attorney Nan Hunter) or basically irrelevant to feminist interests (Movement Pioneer Betty Friedan). "Today could be a turning point in women's rights," MacKinnon told a news conference in a cramped storefront near the Times Square porno district that serves as the offices of Women Against Pornography. "Women actually succeeded in convincing a national governmental body of a truth that women have long known: pornography harms women and children." Hunter tapped a different strand of feminist thinking: women should seek liberation, not special protection from the state. "Protectionist attitudes," she said, "ultimately hurt women." Friedan once again declared that the war against porn is a woeful waste of energies needed on the economic and legal fronts. Said she: "As repulsive as pornography can be, the obsession with it is a dangerous diversion for the women's movement."

Almost all feminists are troubled by pornography. By its very nature it tends to degrade women and treat them as sexual playthings for men. The problem: how to take an effective stance without seeming prudish or giving comfort to the antifeminist right. Gloria Steinem has tried to promote a distinction between pornography, which should be opposed, and erotica, healthy sexual materials marked by mutuality and respect, presumably the kind of material men should be interested in, but usually aren't. Some feminists see porn as repellent but harmless masturbatory material for shut-ins, or as an expression of anxiety by males who are threatened by the women's movement. But some of the more militant feminists take a darker view: porn is a conscious assault against women, comparable to antiblack and anti-Semitic literature. "Pornography is virulent propaganda against women," says Author Susan Brownmiller. "It promotes a climate in which the ideology of rape is not only tolerated but encouraged." In her book Pornography, Andrea Dworkin calls violence "the prime component of male identity" and says porn is an expression of men's abusive control of women.

Dworkin and MacKinnon have been pushing antiporn legislation framed as ways to protect the civil rights of women. One such bill passed the Minneapolis city council twice, but was vetoed each time by the mayor. A similar ordinance, passed in Indianapolis, was declared unconstitutional by a federal appeals court, a decision upheld in February by the Supreme Court. An uneasy alliance of Women Against Pornography and right-wing groups supported the legislation. Prominent feminists such as Friedan, Kate Millett and Rita Mae Brown opposed it, and the National Organization for Women avoided taking a position. The Meese Commission recommended hearings on a national version of the Dworkin-MacKinnon proposal.

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