Movies Don't Commit Rape Rapists Do

ELLEN GOODMAN

April 24, 1992|By ELLEN GOODMAN

Boston. -- In the very last interview before his execution, America's most famous and least remorseful murderer, Ted Bundy, finally made a clean breast of things. He confessed: Porn made him do it. His psyche had been putty in the hands of pornography.

The ''porn defense'' did not elicit a whole lot of sympathy for the serial killer. It went down in the annals along with the ''Twinkie defense'' mounted by Dan White when he claimed that junk food made him kill San Francisco's mayor.

But when the Senate returns from spring break, the Judiciary Committee will be considering a bill to let victims of sexual crimes do what Bundy tried to do: Blame the video, the movie, the book, the magazine.

The bill is called the Pornography Victims Compensation Act. Under its rules, people who have been sexually abused or raped and the families of murder victims could sue the producers or distributors of pornographic material.

This bill is supported by an odd coalition of religious right and feminist left. Lock these folk in a room together and the only thing they would agree on is that pornography causes great harm.

The traditional right has, of course, long opposed sexually explicit material on the grounds of ''decency,'' of good and evil. They have been anti-smut and pro-censorship since Henry Miller's books had to be smuggled into America.

But now a group of feminist scholars attack pornography on the grounds of sexual politics. It isn't prurience that matters but powerlessness. Pornography is defined as material that degrades and therefore discriminates against women. Women are the victims not only of the hard-core video but of the cultural climate it helps create.

For many, sexual violence has become the defining issue of feminism. They see porn as a greater danger than censorship. In an argument between equal rights and free speech, equality comes first.

Indeed many of the bills they authored, like one in the Massachusetts legislature, go further than the one in Congress. They would allow lawsuits against any sexually explicit material.

I am sympathetic to the weather report on the cultural climate for women. It is progress of a sort that the old anti-porn rhetoric about ''decency'' has been replaced by the new rhetoric about ''harm to women.''

The Republican sponsor of the bill, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, gets no stars as a friend of feminism. But even he has pitched this bill on the idea that ''all women are victims in this culture of sexual violence.''

Most American women would agree that, every day, female freedom is curtailed more by the fear of violence than by anything else. They describe themselves as fed up with the images that spew from every media orifice. Fed up with slasher movies and MTV and even with the female characters that inhabit sitcoms and advertising.

The prism held up by many of the anti-porn feminists has helped to read the subtext of media messages about hate and power. But what's good for consciousness-raising isn't always good for the law.

Obscene material is already illegal. So are rape, sexual abuse and murder. Obscenity is also, however, a vague and moving target defined by community standards.

If we take this giant step and allow lawsuits by victims against film makers and video stores, the target is likely to become murkier. In these lawsuit-phobic days, book and video sellers may censor their own shelves of anything more sexual than ''Bambi.''

At the same time, the victims' compensation act won't deal with the vast problem in our culture: images of women that are appalling without being obscene. The bimbo, the bitch and the ditz do their damage with a PG rating.

Nor will it deal with violence against women unless it is specifically sexual. If a victim of rape can blame a book, calling it a ''how-to'' manual, then why can't a victim of battering blame a movie? In a world of copycat crimes, why shouldn't the movie theater that showed ''The Deerhunter'' be liable for inciting suicide?

Both the right and left wing of this argument seem to agree on something that is highly debatable. They see pornography as the smoking gun of many a sex crime. That's as simplistic as the idea that sex education promotes sex. And on that, the coalition of right and left splits down the middle.

I, too, would like a good bit of climate control, a better, less threatening atmosphere for women. But, at the risk of mimicking the gun lobby, it isn't movies that rape women, it's rapists.

They don't deserve excuses.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.