The police always say that family fights are the most apt to turn ugly. Nothing is better proof of that than the recent split in the feminist movement over whether it is possible to have both sex and sexual equality at the same time. On one side are the forces of Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin, claiming that virtually all sexually explicit materials are inherently degrading to women. On the other side stand Nadine Strossen and the American Civil Liberties Union, claiming that not only can women have both cakes and ale, but that to deny society access to pornography is to deny it access to its deepest wellsprings of self-expression. Ms. Strossen's recent book, "Defending Pornography," is the latest salvo in this particular bit of sororicidal warfare.
Make no mistake about it, this is a knock-down, take-no-prisoners kind of fight. The MacKinnon side supposedly started it by calling Strossen and her people the "Uncle Toms and Oreo cookies" of the feminist movement and a few other things too rude to repeat. Strossen returns the compliment by dubbing antipornography feminists "MacDworkinites" and pinning them with the epithet "antisex."
For sheer audacity and persistence, however, my money is on the MacKinnon side. First of all, they know no shame; it is impossible in a family newspaper adequately to convey the flavor of MacKinnon and Dworkin's writings quoted by Strossen. Second, they are willing to call anyone who disagrees with them a victim of sexist brainwashing. This has a distinct tactical
advantage; it means their claims are essentially unfalsifiable.
MacKinnon refuses to share the platform with any woman who disagrees with her, which also tends to squeeze out the opposition and show a certain insouciant disregard for fair play.
Let me remark on one other thing: these people -- all of them -- have sex on the brain. They have thought and read more about sex than a whole high school full of adolescents put together. Recent surveys report that the American public thinks about sex with remarkable frequency, but few of us make it our life's work and fewer still make the claims for sex that MacKinnon and Strossen do. Both place sexually explicit writings -- pornography, if you will -- at the very center of our political and social culture. It is a peculiar kind of tunnel vision, to say the least, one that leads the ordinary reader repeatedly to ask why this particular tunnel? Why this particular vision?
The story, as Strossen tells it, begins in the late 1970s with the defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment -- the social retrenchment of the Reagan years, social services cutbacks, the growing strength of the right-to-life movement. Feminism needed a new focus after these political defeats. Enter the feminist war on pornography.
In 1983, Dworkin and MacKinnon seized the cultural moment. As young teachers at the University of Minnesota, they drafted a model law that defined pornography as the "graphic sexually explicit subordination of women through pictures and/or words" and gave anyone offended by this material the right to sue for damages as a person "acting against the subordination of women." In 1984, a date that Strossen cannot resist noting, the city of Indianapolis actually turned the proposal into law. It was promptly struck down by the federal courts -- in a suit brought by the ACLU -- as hopelessly violative of the First Amendment guarantee of free speech. Nevertheless. Indianapolis had made its point: it had staked out a position in the vanguard of the new Victorianism.
A mere decade later, campus disciplinary codes forbid everything from "leering" to "suggestive remarks" on the ground that they "focus on men and women's sexuality, rather than on their contributions as students or employees." Art history teachers demand that paintings of naked women be removed from classroom walls because their presence constitutes sexual harassment.
Strossen's book is her response to what she terms this "unholy alliance" between feminists and social conservatives. Reduced to its essentials, Strossen's argument is that suppressing sexually explicit expression on the ground that it is sex discrimination both violates the first amendment and undermines the cause of gender equality. Free expression and equal rights for women are inextricably linked.
According to Strossen, MacKinnon and Dworkin want to eliminate pornography because of the message it conveys about women -- their "subordination." Although constitutional free speech doctrine can get a little murky around the edges, virtually everyone agrees that the government may not regulate speech because of the speaker's point of view, no matter how wrongheaded or distasteful that point of view may be. Otherwise, as Strossen repeatedly reminds the reader, the restrictions on pornography will spill over into other areas -- the arts, literature and even politics. The parade of horribles heads right down the slippery slope.