Feminism and Censorship in the United States
Falwell's obnoxious Moral Majority is only one of many repressive
movements operating in the United States. As in Britain, a strident
minority of men-hating feminists have joined forces with
ultra-conservative elements in a crusade to promote censorship and
conformity. John Lauritsen, a journalist and freethought activist who
lives in New York, examines their aims and tactics.
The Old Wolf, Censorship, is
prowling around the United States, decked out in the garb of Little Red
Riding Hood's suffragette grandmother. The purpose of this masquerade
is to bypass the free speech guarantees of the First Amendment. The
strategy is to get an opening wedge by attacking pornography, not
through the traditional channels of the criminal code, but rather as
“discrimination against women”, a violation of human rights.
alliances have been formed. In crusading against the evils of
pornography, feminists have embraced some of the staunchest opponents
of women's rights: fundamentalist Christian and Jewish groups and
elements of the New Right.
anti-pornography movement was launched a decade ago by Susan
Brownmiller's treatise on rape, Against Our Will.
Notwithstanding this book's status as a best seller and a Book of the
Month Club selection; it was a shoddy piece of work: ludicrously
inaccurate, flagrantly dishonest, patently reactionary and vulgarly
written. By special pleading, falsification of evidence and
atrocity-mongering, Brownmiller created an atmosphere of hysteria and
misinformation conducive to assaults upon civil liberties, as well as
to diverting the women's movement from its rational priorities.
a few “feminist leaders” founded the New York Women Against
Pornography (WAP), which gave birth to similar groups across the United
States. Rape, WAP claims, is all omnipresent danger to all women.
Pornography is an expression of violence against women. If men are
allowed to look at pictures of naked women, they will he inspired to
commit rape upon such bodies.
coined: “Pornography is the Theory; Rape is the Practice”.
Hysteria fed upon hysteria. Anti-porn agitators created the
“Snuff Hoax” in 1976. According to this rumour, there
existed a genre of movies known as “snuff” movies.
“Snuff” movies, so the horror story went, were produced for
the sexual titillation of depraved men; they featured the actual
torture, dismemberment, and murder of unsuspecting actresses.
The Snuff Hoax
was investigated thoroughly by the authorities and found to be a rumour
without the slightest factual basis. Nevertheless, new censorship
boards were created to deal with this horrible, if imaginary, threat to
techniques came into play. A frequent occurrence at conferences and
forums would be a female stentor declaiming: “It is a Fact That One Out of Every Three American Women Will be Raped in Her Lifetime!” People began to believe this sort of thing.
In 1933 the
anti-porn movement entered a new phase when the Minneapolis City
Council hired Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin to draft a
feminist anti-pornography bill. In return For their $14,000
“consultants' fee”, MacKinnon and Dworkin delivered seven
double-spaced pages of strident feminist rhetoric, lame-brained
generalisations, half-truths and Big Lies. The central contentions of
the bill appear to be: (1) Pornography is central to the oppression of
women (2) Pornography is itself discrimination against women (3)
Pornography prevents equal rights for women in the areas of employment,
housing, education, property rights, public accommodation. etc. and (4)
Pornography promotes “injury and degradation such as rape,
battery and prostitution”.
defined as “the sexually explicit subordination of women”,
which is broadly defined in terms of multitudinous possibilities,
including when “women are presented in postures of sexual
submission” or when “women's body parts . . . are
exhibited, such that women are reduced to these parts”. So broad
is the range that almost any conceivable form of erotica could qualify
What about gay
male porn? Could a film or magazine with an all-male cast still qualify
as “sexually explicit subordination of women”? Yes it
could. The clever “consultants” stipulated that “the
use of men, children, or transsexuals (!) in place of women . . . is
pornography.” Still not clear? Well, according to Dworkin and
MacKinnon, some of the men in all-male porn are really
playing the parts of women. Therefore, even all-male erotica serves to
prevent women from achieving equal rights in employment, education,
property rights and public accommodation.
bill would enable any “woman, man, child, or transsexual”
to bring an unlimited series of civil actions in court against
producers, distributors, or exhibitors of pornography. The courts could
forbid the future display or sale of such commodities and award
monetary damages to the alleged victims.
the bill claim that it is not censorship, since the law is civil rather
than criminal. The difference, however, is illusory. Few bookstore
owners, for example, could afford to pay legal expenses to defend works
which censorious feminists might interpret as depicting the
“subordination of women”.
The MacKinnon-Dworkin bill was twice passed by the Minneapolis City Council, and twice vetoed by the Mayor.
A similar bill
(for which MacKinnon and Dworkin were also paid a generous
“consultants' fee”) was passed in Indianapolis. It was then
ruled unconstitutional by a woman judge in Federal District Court, and
is now being appealed in Federal Circuit Court.
County of New York, feminists joined with extreme Right-wing elements
to introduce a much more blatantly censorious version, which was
defeated. In Los Angeles County in California, two similar-bills are
feminism is not a new phenomenon. Indeed, a current of irrationalism
and intolerance has run through the women's movement since its
inception. One recalls such slogans as “Chastity for Men”
(Christabel Pankhurst, England, 1910-1914), “Castrate
Rapists” (USA 1970s) and “Dead Men Don't Rape”
A generation ago, the French sexologist, René Guyon, pointed out a few “feminist errors”:
her fits of spleen, woman will not grant others the freedom she desires
for herself. That is why she becomes a fanatical prohibitionist.
Unaccustomed to liberty, she, in the article of claiming it, denies it
to others, thinking it dangerous. Hence women leaders of the feminist
movement advocate all sorts or restrictions, and their programme is a
long list of interferences with private life. Women lack the respect
for freedom which men have been hard put to it to acquire. Feminist
leagues make our gorge rise by their prohibitionist spirit and their
puritan trend. In sexual matters, above all, woman seems determined to
impose restrictions. One who has adopted a scheme of sexual behaviour,
wishes intolerantly to impose it upon the whole world, and is ready to
persecute those who will not comply. When feminists speak of
“immorality”, they seem to mean simply and solely an
unwillingness to accept without discussion a particular group of sexual
conventions. Thus the most deadly enemies of sexual freedom are women
of average mental calibre who are incapable of appreciating any other
canons than those which were taught them in childhood, and who cling to
their conventional past as a shipwrecked seaman clings to a floating
plank. (Sexual Freedom, New York, 1958)
What is new and
encouraging is the emergence of feminist opposition to censorious
anti-porn politics. Such prominent feminists as Betty Friedan and Kale
Millett have spoken out against the Minneapolis legislation. Last year
the Feminist Anti-Censorship Taskforce (FACT) was formed. They have
sponsored forums, appeared on talk shows and written articles to inform
the public that not all women support censorship and that the anti-porn
movement is basically a handful of media stars based in New York City.
FACT opposes the Dworkin-MacKinnon law as a “misguided,
dangerous, and ineffective strategy in the battle against sexism and
The women in WAP
have responded with vindictive fury, branding their opponents in FACT
as “sexual degenerates”, “racists”,
“anti-semites” and “male-identified women”. WAP
adamantly refuses to enter into public debate with FACT. WAP forums do
not allow for discussion: if critical discussion should occur, the WAP
speakers simply pick up their papers and make a sanctimonious exit. On
several occasions, WAP supporters have succeeded in persuading colleges
to “disinvite” speakers from FACT.
during the discussion period of a FACT forum, one of the panelists
asked two WAP supporters in the audience if they wished to say
anything. No response. She again gave them the opportunity to speak.
The two WAP women squirmed in their seats; then one replied that they
were only there “as observers”.
FACT makes it a
practice to distribute copies of the Minneapolis bill so that one can
read exactly what its provisions are. Between FACT and WAP, it is clear
which side feels its cause is best served by Free Enquiry.
and MacKinnon have been praised for their “sincerity”, one
is more impressed by their boundless cynicism. Just last month on
“listener-sponsored” Radio WBAI, Catherine MacKinnon
several times cited “snuff” movies as among the horrors her
bill is intended to counteract. Surely the woman knows better.
No one who
values the free expression of ideas ought to hesitate in opposing the
anti-pornography movement. The historical precedents are all too clear.
On 23 February 1933, as one of the very first acts of the Nazi
government, a decree banned pornographic literature of every
description. After that, one thing led to another.
anti-pornography legislation should be recognised for what it is: a
ploy designed to bring us one step closer to a police state.
The above article appeared in the December 1985 issue of The Freethinker (London).