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Whip me, beat me and while you're at it cancel my N.O.W. membership.


"The anti-pornography campaigndoesn't want to hear about pleasure and what turns us on,' Paula Webster, a feminist writer, defiantly told the feminists at the 1985 "Women and the Law' conference. Webster was representing the "pro-sex' side of the feminist debate over pornography and politically correct sex. "Something cold, mean, and unforgiving is being shoved down my throat by steely-eyed women who transmit a feeling of hysteria.' Portions of the audience that was packed into the room hissed and booed. "This campaign may really be a symbolic castration of men,' she continued to more hissing.

When Webster finished, Dorchen Leidholdt,co-founder of Women Against Pornography, took the microphone. "We're not anti-sex,' she insisted. Then she launched into a blistering tirade against Webster and the pro-sexers. "The pro-sexers aren't feminists, but sexual liberationists. They support sexual oppression of women.' Their support for anything from sex with children to pornography showed they'd been brainwashed by the sick male view of sexuality, she argued. To prove her point, Leidholdt recited some of the more outrageous comments from pro-sexers who attended a workshop a few years earlier on "erotic taboos' that was chaired by Webster: "I want to sleep with young girls. . . . I want to rape a woman . . .. I want to be fucked every which way.' Leidholdt thundered, "Where do these sadistic fantasies come from? We must look to the culture in which they develop. In this system, denigration is sexual pleasure.' She was greeted by the strongest applause of the day.

Spurred by the growing acceptance of the anti-porncampaign, fueled by the Meese Commission Report on pornography, the Great Sex Wars engage the best and brightest of radical feminists in an intellectuals' version of mud-wrestling. The two sides of the fight are now going at each other with an intensity not seen since the Stalinists and Trotskyists hurled pamphlets in the thirties. The anti-pornography activists believe their feminist critics front for pimps and pornographers, as well as champion "politically incorrect' sex. The prosex group derides the anti-porners as "sex cops' who threaten sexual minorities and free expression. Each accuses the other of betraying the credos of feminism. The debate is taken so seriously that both sides have taken to picketing each other's meetings, passing resolutions and signing petitions condemning one another, and fighting each other in the courts and at legislative hearings.

There's genuine merit at the core of each side'sconcerns--the degrading impact of pornography on women on the one hand, and the threat to personal freedom and free expression on the other-- but it has been all but swamped by the overblown rhetoric, obsessions, and kooky agendas of both factions.

Porn safaris

Those in the anti-pornography camp contendthat pornography is part of an "ideology of cultural sadism' that promotes violence against women, particularly rape, by casting women as sex objects to be degraded. But these feminists' views of degradation can be very broad, sometimes including heterosexual intercourse, which has been defined by Women Against Pornography as "intimate imperialism.'

This spring, feminist author and anti-pornographyactivist Andrea Dworkin published two new books calling for the abolition of not just pornographic displays of intercourse--but of intercourse itself. A 257-page meditation on the subject, Intercourse, condemns coitus and those who practice it, especially women. Women who claim to enjoy that act are labeled "collaborator, more base in their collaboration than other collaborators have ever been: experiencing pleasure in their own inferiority; calling intercourse freedom.' Dworkin's other book, Ice and Fire, is a novel whose only sympathetic male character cannot produce an erection.

Many of these anti-porn activists have focusedon raising the consciousness of women about the dangers pornography poses to their dignity and safety. In addition to writing books, their activism includes picketing against red-light districts. Lase year in Washington D.C., for example, 15 young women and a few male companions were guided on a tour of this nether world by Feminists Against Pornography, one of several such safaris the group conducts each year. Marty Langelan, an economist with the federal government, led the group down the capital's 14th Street and into its bookstores. Notebooks in hand, they wrote down the titles of cheap paperbacks and magazines: Journey of Lust, Hot Librarian, 100 Pregnant Misses. One woman picked up a book with a crude sketch of a naked woman embracing a teen-age boy. "That's disgusting,' she said, returning it to the shelf.

Like the Reagan administration, the antipornersdon't confine their efforts to public education. They have pushed their case before city councils and in the courts--a strategy that has created some strange alliances. In Indianapolis in 1984, feminist activists drafted a "civil rights' anti-porn ordinance defining pornography as a form of sexual discrimination that "subordinates' women. Beulah Coughenour, an anti-ERA legislator, led the fight, and Phyllis Schlafly endorsed it. The local National Organization for Women chapter opposed it. The ordinance, which stirred plenty of feminist infighting elsewhere, was struck down last year when the Supreme Court refused to review it. Variations of this law were proposed and nearly passed in several other cities. In Minneapolis, an ordinance passed the city council twice but was vetoed by the mayor. In Los Angeles, where similar legislation was fought by leaders of the Feminist Women's Health Center and the U.S. Prostitutes Collective, it was defeated by one vote.

The anti-porners likened the Supreme Courtdecision to the Dred Scott ruling upholding slavery. Amy Elman, a Women Against Pornography coordinator, said. "It shows that men treasure their right to orgasm over the pain and humiliation of women.' Some went even further, openly scorning the First Amendment. Catherine MacKinnon, co-author of the ordinance, told us bluntly, "The bottom line of the First Amendment is that porn stays. Our bottom line is that porn goes.' She added, "We're going to win in the long term.' To that end, they're planning to introduce a revised version of the original bill.

Kinky fringes

In reaction to the passage of the Indianapolisordinance, a number of feminist academics and activists formed the Feminists Against Censorship Taskforce (FACT). They were angered that the ordinance, among other things, allowed women to sue for several types of alleged harm, including the presentation of women as "whores by nature' or in "postures of sexual submission, servility, or display.' This, they contended, was broad enough that it could have been used to ban Henry Miller's books or Erica Jong's Fear of Flying, along with Black Bun Busters and Tri-Sexual Lust, cited as offensive by the Meese Commission. The pro-sexers argued that the ordinance could be used against feminist and lesbian sex materials. They also argued that the whole antiporn campaign promoted a traditional view of women as helpless, and that the anti-porners were allying themselves with the most anti-feminist, conservative forces in the country. That persuaded such feminist stars as Rita Mae Brown, Betty Friedan, and Kate Millett to join as signatories of FACT's amici curiae brief opposing the ordinance.

Obscured in all this reasonableness, however,was the alliance of some FACT members and their allies with the kinkier fringes of lesbianism: the sadomasochists and pedophiles.

In 1983, for instance, 150 pro-sexers signed apetition defending these sexual minorities as "people making tentative forays into new realms of experience.' This faction has become a key component of the pro-sex coalition. The most heated attacks on anti-pornography groups like New York's Women Against Pornography came in the early eighties from a band of lesbian sadomasochists who saw themselves as sexual freedom fighters pitted against the prudish, repressive anti-porners. In one opening salvo, Pat Califia, co-founder of Samois, a pro-S&M group, denounced the anti-porners as "the new puritans' who were "siding with fascism.'

Some feminists don't like the leather-and-whipcontingent marching under the women's rights banner, and charge that lesbian S&M is violent and sexist. Califia denies that. "It's an act of mutual pleasuring in a context of respect and consent,' she says. "I feel very strongly that simply because I am a sadomasochist, that doesn't mean that I can't be a feminist.' Nevertheless, she once wrote that as a sadist, she enjoys "leathersex, bondage, various forms of erotic torture, flagellation, and verbal humiliation.' Moreover, some of these pro-sex allies, who euphemistically call sex between adults and children "cross-generational' sex, are sympathetic to the North American Man-Boy Love Association and even argue that current age-of-consent laws are discriminatory and repressive. As Gayle Rubin argued in Feminist Studies, "The young should have full rights to have sexual contact with whomever they choose'--presumably a nine-year-old can give informed, uncoerced sexual consent.

Politically correct erotica

The zealotry of both the anti-porners and thepro-sexers have made their clashes particularly bruising. At a 1982 Barnard College conference, "The Scholar and the Feminist: Towards a Politic of Sexuality,' the "sexual outlaws,' including advocates of sadomasochism and more moderate pro-sexers, tried to rally their troops. Conference workshops focused on such topics as "butchfemme' lesbianism, "politically correct' sex, and "concepts for a radical politic of sex,' the last offered by a lesbian masochist anthropologist. Two hundred women showed up at an off-campus speak-out on "politically incorrect' sex hosted by the Lesbian Sex Mafia, a support group for lesbians with unusual sexual tastes. Brandishing the devices and symbols of lesbian S&M--from cut-out leather pants to nipple clamps to studded neck and wrist straps--members of the crowd attacked the anti-porners who viewed them as traitors to feminism for aping the worst aspects of patriarchal sexuality. "We're feminist because we're tired of having men tell us how we should feel and be sexual,' said one woman, as the defiantly waved a strap-on dildo. "Now women are telling us. What's the difference?'

These sorts of activities brought out the antipornvigilantes. They protested to the Barnard administration and leafletted on campus, attacking the conference organizers and speakers for promoting sadomasochism, unorthodox lesbian sex roles, sexual abuse of children, and pornography. "They're advocating the same kind of patriarchal sexuality that flourishes in our culture's mainstream, that is channeled into crimes of sexual violence against women, and that is institutionalized in pornography,' their leaflet said. It went on to give intimate details of the foundness of some of the speakers and their groups for acts ranging from flagellation to dressing up as Nazis during sex.

Not surprisingly, the leaflet infuriated thebackers of the conference. They charged it distorted their political views, smeared individuals' personal lives, and smacked of fifties-style red-baiting. They responded with their own petition: "Feminist discussion about sexuality cannot be carried on if one segment of the feminist movement uses McCarthyite tactics to silence other voices.'

The confrontations elsewhere have been justas vituperative. In a fight over an anti-porn referendum in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1985, Catherine MacKinnon lumped her pro-sex opponents in with "pimps and pornographers,' calling them "house niggers who sided with the masters.' (The referendum lost, but garnered 42 percent of the vote.) Andrea Dworkin, co-author of the Indianapolis ordinance, repeated her charge of collaboration. She says the pro-sexers are being used by men who own publications like The Village Voice. Their goal, she says, is to return to the halcyon days of the sixties when "women were available to men at all times for anything.' Her feminist credentials challenged, Ellen Willis, a Voice writer, furiously demanded of such critics: "who are you to decide I don't belong in a movement I've helped create?'

More mainstream feminist leaders are now takingsides in the battle. Last year NOW endorsed key elements of the Meese Commission report. The commission found, among other things, that there is a causal link between violent and "degrading' pornography and violence towards women. NOW's current position reflects much of the anti-porn view: "NOW believes that pornography violates the civil rights of women and children . . .. NOW supports the recommendation that legislatures should consider legislation recognizing civil remedies for harm directly attributable to pornography.'

Dorchen Leidholdt said of the report, "Wecommend the commission for being the first federal government body to report on the systematic campaign of abuse, terror, and discrimination being waged against over half the citizens of this country.' Nan Hunter, an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer and FACT co-founder, denounced the report for condescending protectionism that "ultimately harms women,' and charged that when the Meese Commission said "pornography degrades women, they mean that sexually explicit materials encourage premarital sex, birth control, abortion, oral sexuality, homosexuality, and teenage sexuallity, which they would like to eradicate.' The antiporners did try to distance themselves from the New Right by saying they opposed the commission's sex-is-dirty emphasis on stepped-up obscenity prosecutions. They want to ban the sale of "sexist' material only, they claim, not all smut, and favor an ill-defined "erotica' marked by egalitarianism and mutual respect.

The bitter attacks and counterattacks have notabated--and aren't likely to anytime soon. In February, FACT published a major broadside aimed at the anti-porners that featured footnoted essays celebrating female sexual expression and opposing censorship, all liberally spiced with photos of leather-bound masochists and lesbian and gay sex that seem calculated to drive the antiporners into a rage. "The [Women Against Pornography] people are, wittingly or unwittingly, playing into a conservative clamp down on women's liberation,' argues Barbara O'Dair, one of the book's editors. When it comes to pornography, she says, "what one woman abhors, another enjoys.' In April, over 1,000 people attended Women Against Pornography's conference on "The Sexual Liberals and the Attack on Feminism,' at New York University. The overflowing crowd gave its rapt attention to an anti-porn statement from Gloria Steinem, read by her co-editor at Ms., Letty Pogrebin. But the most rousing address came from Catherine MacKinnon who reiterated her opposition to FACT and the free-porn movement. Typically, she likened them to traitors. "The labor movement had its scabs, the slavery movement had its Uncle Toms,' she said, "and the women's movement has FACT.'

Porn pandemonium

This sort of heat is typical of the porn debate,At the 1985 National Women and the Law Conference in New York, for instance, MacKinnon and Hunter pulled no punches before a packed ballroom.

"What happens if a woman says to a man,"fuck me'?' Hunter asked, referring to the anti-porn ordinance, which prohibited "sexually explicit subordination.'

"Is that submission? Is that begging, or is itdemanding? Is she submitting, or is she in control?' Hunter then calmly analyzed the dangers of the anti-porn efforts to feminism. At one point she said, "Under this law, the new feminist erotica that is starting to come out would be gone. Publications, primarily lesbian, like On Our Backs and Bad Attitude get attacked.'

"Boo!' shouted the anti-porners in theaudience.

"You're damned right!' one woman screamed.

Hunter paused. "Look further into thelanguage of the ordinance,' she continued, pointing to a section that barred presenting women as sex objects who are hurt or tied-up. "Now that sounds pretty horrible, but think about if for a minute. Do you really think that "tied-up' necessarily belongs there?'

"Yes!' the anti-porners shouted back.

Hunter appeared momentarily shaken by thevehemence of their response. "There are other people in this room who do not find it to be subordinating,' she said. Then she warned, "We are going to be fighting against each other in court over the meaning of sexually explicit subordination, and I suggest this is a disaster.' She received polite applause.

MacKinnon then dismissed the legal reasoningof Hunter and other opponents of the anti-porn legislation. "Why don't women lawyers act as though they give a damn?' she demanded angrily. "Why are women lawyers who identify as feminists trying to make sure that women are not going to matter?' Most of the audience cheered. MacKinnon derided Hunter as "speaking for the pornographers' and masquerading as a feminist. There was a thunder of approval. More than 20 women then trooped to the podium to call out their differences to the still-riveted crowd. At one point, a black woman law student and a white incest victim confronted each other. "If one iota of the intensity of this debate had gone into outlawing poverty in this society, maybe we'd be getting somewhere,' said the law student. "To put these [anti-porn] laws on the books is such a diversion away from bread and justice and real empowerment.'

"If women and minorities are really empoweredin our society, you will see a change, you will not see pornography,' she continued. "But, no, you want to attack a goddamn symptom! Where are we going here? This is dividing a community. I couldn't go anywhere else today because finally I was sucked into this debate.'

"Is it not worth it?' demanded the incest victim,who was now crying.

"No, it is not worth it!' the student yelled."Hundreds of thousands of people are dying!'

"And 100,000 missing children are taken off thestreets for the use of sex and to be photographed!' cried the incest victim.

"You give women the power they need and thatwon't happen,' the law student shouted back. "You give women the support they need for raising their children and that won't happen!'

A former prostitute joined the argument withthe law student. The crowd applauded eagerly. Then, all over the room, the different factions began screaming at one another about porn and rape, bad feminists and lesbian erotica, The Village Voice and Jerry Falwell, their angry words barely distinguishable above the roar.
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Copyright 1987, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:feminists war against each other over pornography
Author:Levine, Art
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Jun 1, 1987
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