issue 249 - November 1993
Sex and freedom
In one camp is the anti-censorship lobby.
In the other, anti-pornography activists.
Catherine Itzin charts a path through the impasse
in the debate on sexually explicit material.
‘I can’t define pornography,’ said a Supreme Court judge, ‘but I know what it is when I see it.’ Indeed. Most people do. Pornography is an industry which manufactures and markets a very profitable product and the people who make it, sell it, buy it and use it know exactly what it is. So why has the belief been fostered that it is somehow indefinable and that defining it for purposes of legislation would be difficult or impossible?
One of the main reasons is because pornography has traditionally been seen in terms of ‘morality’. The laws against pornography were – and in the UK still are – ‘obscenity laws’. And the definition of obscenity is vague, subjective, and reflects little more than the dominant mores and values of the day.
Art and literature have been censored by means of these laws. Homosexuality – whether lesbian or gay – has been, and still is, regarded as inherently obscene. In 1936 Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness was declared obscene because it dealt with lesbianism. Nearly 50 years later, in 1984, the London bookshop Gay’s the Word was prosecuted and 800 items seized on the same grounds. Among the titles were works by Oscar Wilde, Kate Millet and Jean Genet – books that would have merited no legal action had they been heterosexual.
The irony is that while obscenity legislation can lead to censorship of non-pornographic material it poses no real threat to pornography itself. If anything it protects it. Obscenity laws look to see if men are or the moral fabric of society is ‘depraved and corrupted’. It does not look at pornography from the position of women and children. If it did, it would see that this is not an issue of morality but of power, sexual objectification, subordination, sexual violence and inequality eroticized.
You don’t have to look far to find the evidence. The top shelves of newsagents or supermarkets are stocked with mainstream, so-called ‘adult’ magazines containing photographs of women’s vaginas and anuses, pulled open and posed gaping for the camera, inviting penetration. There are forms of technically legal child pornography where women have their pubic hair shaved and are posed to look like little girls. There is also sexual violence, with women being humiliated, whipped and beaten. Illegal pornography also circulates – sold from under the counter. This features women bound and gagged, raped and tortured; burnt on their breasts and genitals with cigarettes, labia nailed to the top of a table, hanging by their breasts from meat hooks, disembowelled and murdered – in ‘snuff‘ pornogaphy.
‘Pornography and the small idea of ‘liberty’
are opposed to that of liberation.’
Obscenity legislation looks at this and, because it sees nakedness and genitals, sees just ‘sex’. Take pornography out of the moral realm and place it in the context of the structures of power, and you will find that it is not impossible to define at all. Indeed lawyer Catharine MacKinnon and writer Andrea Dworkin came up with a workable legal definition at the request of the City Council of Minneapolis. Pornography, they say, is graphic, sexually explicit and subordinates women. It also presents women in one or more of the following eight conditions of harm:
dehumanized as sexual objects, things or commodities
as sexual objects who enjoy humiliation or pain
as sexual objects who experience sexual pleasure in rape, incest or other sexual assault
as sexual objects tied up, cut up or mutilated or bruised or physically hurt
in postions and postures of sexual submission, servility or display
being penetrated by objects or animals
in scenarios of degradation, humiliation, injury and torture
shown as filthy or inferior, bleeding, bruised, hurt in a context that makes these conditions sexual
with their body parts (including vaginas, breast, buttocks or anuses) exhibited such that women are reduced to those parts.
Although this definition is based upon the treatment of women it also applies to children or men or transsexuals – and so it covers paedophilia and violent or subordinating gay pornography.
And here we come to the billion dollar question: can pornography be shown to actually cause harm?
If we look at the experience of women working within the pornography industry, we find chilling accounts of sexual murder, rape, coercion. The case of Linda Marchiano – who under the name of Linda Lovelace was the ‘star’ of the 1970s porn film Deep Throat – is especially poignant. Linda – presented in the film as ‘liberated’ and with an insatiable appetite for fellatio – was held captive for two years under threat of death by her boss Charles Traynor. During the filming of Deep Throat she was hypnotized to suppress the normal gag response. She was tortured horribly when she tried to escape, was never let out of Traynor’s sight and, at gunpoint, suffered innumerable other indignities. When she finally escaped and told her story, it was echoed by that of a great many other women involved in the pornography business.
But what about the men who use pornography? Do they treat women any differently as a result? A plethora of social science research carried out by male academics in Canadian and US universities shows that pornography desensitizes men, makes them find their sexual partners less desirable and inclines them to believe that women are less deserving of equality. Men who use pornography become less sympathetic to rape victims, more sympathetic to rapists and report an increase in their own likelihood of committing rape.
According to Edward Donnerstein, a leading researcher in the field: ‘the relationship between sexually violent images in the media and subsequent aggression and... callous attitudes towards women is much stronger statistically than the relationship between smoking and cancer’.
Pornography can be divided into three categories. One, the sexually explicit and violent. Two, the sexually explicit and non-violent but subordinating and dehumanizing. Three, the sexually explicit material which is non-violent and non-subordinating which is based on mutuality and which can be called ‘erotica’. Research consistently shows that the first two result in negative attitudes and behaviour but the third – erotica – is harmless.
Then there is the evidence of sex offenders. In Canadian research a third of the rapists and half of those who committed child sexual abuse said they deliberately used pornography in preparation for committing the offence. Pornography supports distorted belief systems that enable them to rationalize, and justify, their behaviour. Women who have been raped in the US have reported being asked to re-enact scenes from pornography.
Recent government inquiries in different parts of the world – in the US, Australia, Canada, Aotearora/New Zealand – all point in the same direction: dehumanizing and degrading pornography harms women and reinforces sexual inequality. Only a 1990 UK Home Office review could find ‘no causal links’ – a view that has been vigorously challenged internationally by leading researchers and women’s organizations.
So what’s the answer? Should there be state censorship of violent and subordinating pornography? I don’t think so. Firstly censorship does not work, as the thriving underground pornography market clearly illustrates. Secondly, there are other, better ways which give more power to the people and less to the state.
One proposal is for Sex Discrimination legislation that would enable people who could prove they were victims of pornography-related harm to take action against the manufacturers and distributors of pornography. This would not ban the publication of pornography and it would give no power to the state to censor.
Another proposal is to use the UK Race Relations Act as a model for legislating against pornography which could be shown to have contributed to the incitement of sexual hatred and violence. Race hatred literature is illegal because of the ‘identifiable harm’ it causes to ethnic minorities. Why should not the same thing apply to women and pornography, using MacKinnon and Dworkin’s definition?
None of this could guarantee the elimination of sexism and sexual violence any more than the abolition of slavery ended racism and racial violence. But like pornography today, black slavery in the US was a major international profit-making industry – and it was ended.
There are certain ‘freedoms’ that people have agreed to forgo because of the damage and harm they do to other people. These include the freedom to steal, to assault, to rape, to murder, to incite racial hatred and discrimination and to discriminate in employment on the grounds of race or sex.
The freedom to incite sexual hatred, sexual violence and sex discrimination through pornography is another freedom people should agree to forgo to ensure and safeguard the civil liberties of women.
Catherine Itzin is an Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Bradford and is editor and co-author of Pornography: Women, Violence and Civil Liberties (Oxford University Press, 1992).