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Feminist censors endanger speech and women's rights.



And now, MacDworkinism.

Something about sex in print seems to bring out the censor in the strangest people ... and, indirectly, to enrich the language with new words for crusades of extremist paranoia.

The activities of Dr. Thomas Bowdler, the English editor who around 1820 rewrote Shakespeare and the Bible to delete their objectionable passages, gave our language its word for arbitrary expurgation, bowdlerize. The crusades of Anthony Comstock, the man whose raised eyebrows had the power to prevent booksellers from handling many books and magazines in nineteenth century America, gave us Comstockery, a synonym for overzealous censorship.

A century after Bowdler and Comstock, we now confront a new set of censorship advocates, as fresh, committed -- and extreme -- as Bowdler and Comstock were in their days. The new censors-to-be are author Andrea Dworkin and law professor Catharine MacKinnon, the proud and strident exponents of an allegedly feminist pro-censorship philosophy sometimes disparagingly dubbed MacDworkinism. Their claim is that a very broad range of literary and artistic content, which they view as demeaning women, can and should be outlawed.

MacKinnon, Dworkin and their supporters characterize the matters to which they object as "pornography," but the targets of their theory are really broader than what most people view as pornography. Not unlike the last century's Comstock crusades, their movement seeks to significantly limit a broad range of publications touching on human sexuality.

The MacKinnon-Dworkin viewpoint, extreme as it is, cannot be easily brushed aside, for several reasons:

* MacKinnon and Dworkin are feminists who base their philosophy on protection of women. This makes their viewpoint attractive to many women, and to liberals who otherwise might reject a pro-censorship position.

* The MacKinnon-Dworkin position feeds on many persons' natural discomfort with published portrayals of sex and sexuality.

* The feminist pro-censorship position appears to provide answers and solutions to some basic problems in society, as it ascribes sexual inequality, family problems, crime, and domestic violence to a broad range of objectionable literature. It is a "blame the messenger" theory, but a sophisticated one.

In America the usual test of a creative legal theory is simple: Will the courts accept it? Here the answer so far is a clear no: the courts have not bought MacDworkinism. When the city of Indianapolis in 1984 adopted a MacKinnon-drafted ordinance equating pornography with sex discrimination, the ordinance was challenged by book publishers and librarians, and promptly struck down by the courts as unconstitutional. In other tests in this country, the MacKinnon-Dworkin theories have been rejected. First Amendment rules are clear -- speech that falls outside the narrow category of legal obscenity cannot be banned.

But do our traditional First Amendment arguments really provide a persuassive answer to this new theory? The MacKinnon-Dworkin theory may be antithetical to the First Amendment, but is it wrong? Judicial rulings have usually skirted this key policy issue. As long as this question remains unanswered, the MacKinnon-Dworkin theory retains its potential appeal to public opinion, and hence presents a serious threat to free expression.

This is where Nadine Strossen comes in. Strossen, national president of the American Civil Liberties Union, is a feminist and constitutional scholar of unquestioned standing. In her book, "Defending Pornography: Free Speech, Sex and the Fight for Women's Right," she takes on MacKinnon and Dworkin both as a free speech advocate and as a feminist. She directly addresses the legal, social and feminist policy questions raised by MacDworkinism, and does not skirt the important underlying issue of the role of sexuality, and portrayals of it, in the lives of women and men.

The focus of the book is a feminist response to MacKinnon and Dworkin -- as Strossen puts it, "a women's rights-centered rationale for defending pornography," based on the MacDworkinite threat "not only to human rights in general but also to women's rights in particular." She argues that MacDworkinism, though clothed in the dress of modern feminism, actually represents a reversion to overprotectionism based on a belief in the inherent weakness of women. This "victim feminism" viewpoint, she concludes, ill serves women and if accepted would reverse many modern feminist gains.

Strossen gives multiple reasons for her feminist attack on MacDworkinism. One concern is that the MacDworkinite anti-pornography statute, as tried unsuccessfully in the United States and as actually implemented in Canada, sweeps so broadly that it becomes in practice "a powerful weapon that can be aimed at dissent," including feminist speech. She also suggests that schemes for censoring pornography ultimately undermine women's rights, in ways ranging from the outright suppression of feminist works to the denial of choices, the perpetuation of stereotypes, and the reinforcement of the existing male-dominated power structure.

Beyond its feminist focus (and as part of it, since Strossen assumes that women care strongly about free speech, and argues that free speech is a bedrock of feminist activism), "Defending Pornography" is a brief for free speech. Strossen explains with admirable clarity how and why sexual speech came to be regulated as it is today. She gives the historical perspective on prior "dictatorship of virtue." She ably refutes the MacDworkin "blame the messenger" tactic by which they attempt to blame speech and publications for long-existing social problems, including inequality of the sexes. She repeatedly points out that MacKinnon and Dworkin seek to control ideas through government coercion -- not private persuasion, the method that time has taught us is the best means for controlling bad ideas.

And, perhaps most importantly, Strossen argues that free speech not only does but should extend into the sexual realm. Picking up from Justice William Brennan's description of sex as "a great and mysterious motive force in human life ... a subject of absorbing interest to mankind throughout the ages," Strossen presents several reasons why sexual speech deserves protection.

First, law targeting sexual content are often really viewpoint-directed. In early American history, anti-obscenity laws often targeted those who challenged the official political and religious orthodoxy. Even today, obscenity and indecency regulations and controversies usually revolve around social and sexual nonconformity -- disturbing NEA art, non-traditional roles and conduct, including homosexuality, and various aspects of feminism. The experience in Canada under a MacDworkin-modeled criminal obscenity law is no different; the speech suppressed has often been that of minorities and dissidents. In short, one cannot easily separate sexual speech from political speech; the two are often connected.

Second, sexuality is an important part of human experience which like other aspects of life can be better understood through speech, writing and artistry. Strossen probes this issue in depth, drawing on historical and psychological sources and personal accounts, the great majority of which come from the point of view of women. In particular she notes the close tie-in between women's rights and the struggle to disseminate basic information about sexuality and birth control in the early 20th century.

Specifically, Strossen rejects the claimed dichotomy between protected political speech and non-protected non-political speech. She asserts, instead, that "sexual freedom and freedom for sexually explicit expression are essential aspects of human freedom."

She examines the viewpoints of both readers/viewers (men and women who enjoy or learn from pornography) and authors/artists/ participants (including women who work in the so-called "sex industry" in roles ranging from models to prostitutes). From both viewpoints she concludes that sexual expression is not much different from nonsexual speech: it can instruct or inspire, help identify desires and dislikes, and liberate, directly or vicariously.

Strossen suggests that just as were slow to be recognized as legitimate media for expression, expression relating to the sexual side of, life is just as deserving as other speech, and ultimately should be recognized as such.

Traditionally liberals and minorities were viewed as friends of free speech. But every generation confronts new circumstances, and today some of the most dangerous attacks on expression, like the MacDworkinite challenge, come in the name of preventing "hate speech."

The feminist pro-censorship viewpoint is a particularly sensitive one to challenge because it touches on many emotional issues -- the status of women, the shadowy nature of pornography and other legal forms of sexual expression, the mysteries and intimacies of sexuality. Strossen has tackled these issues forthrightly, directly, and analytically. She has given feminists a lesson in free speech, free speech advocates an immersion in feminist concerns, and both a powerful brief against the MacDworkinism.

With "Defending Pornography," and her other ongoing activities. Strossen has taken the lead in the fight against MacDworkinism. "Defending Pornography" demonstrates that this is a worthy fight, based on the true interests of women on the common interests of women and men, and on the conviction that readings, writings and artistry about the mysterious realm of human sexuality are better left to personal choice than to a modern Comstockian censorship scheme.
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Author:Sableman, Mark
Publication:St. Louis Journalism Review
Date:Nov 1, 1995
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