Pornography: Women, Violence and Civil Liberties by Catherine Itzin - review by Lynne Segal

Lynne Segal

Obscene Publication

Pornography: Women, Violence and Civil Liberties


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‘What is to be done about pornography?’ ask two of the contributors to Catherine Itzin’s bulky, 650-page collection of essays. What indeed? Itzin aims to provide us with a ‘comprehensive and exhaustive’ clarification of all the misunderstandings and confusions surrounding the troubled topic of pornography. In the process, she calls upon the international expertise of most of the major figures now campaigning against pornography. One-sided? Well, she has a battle to fight.

Itzin believes, in line with Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin in the US, that pornography is ‘a crucial element’ in maintaining women’s oppression and causing violence against women and children: ‘Sexual equality depends on the elimination of pornography as part of the elimination of sex discrimination.’ Her collection includes numerous psychological and sociological surveys supporting her claim of consistent and conclusive links between pornography and violence. Yet, unintentionally mocking any such claim, we find here James Weaver overturning the majority of recent research linking images of sexually explicit violence with more ‘calloused’ responses in the laboratory from men towards women. His own data ‘proves’ that exposure to any sexually explicit image, but in particular to ‘consensual and female-instigated sex’, produces the most calloused responses from both men and women!

Like MacKinnon and Dworkin, Itzin claims to have come up with a new definition of ‘pornography’, rejecting the neutral, ‘sexually explicit material designed to arouse’, for one she sees as unambiguous, ‘closed, concrete and descriptive’: namely, material which involves ‘sexually explicit subordination’. Borrowing from MacKinnon and Dworkin again, Itzin proposes new legislation to replace the existing Obscene Publications Act. This would allow individuals who believed they had been harmed through pornography to win compensation from those responsible for producing the ‘harmful’ images, making use of civil anti-discrimination law in the courts. This procedure, holding publishers and distributors liable for sex crimes ’caused’ by subordinating sexual images and words, we are assured, has nothing to do with censorship nor with forming alliances with the Moral Right. Itzin claims to be ‘absolutely opposed to censorship, in any form’, and insists that feminist anti-pornographers have never worked with moral crusaders or religious fundamentalists.

Let’s look at all this very carefully. There is no doubt that the pornography debate has become frustratingly stuck: one side denounced as anti-sex, the other side denounced as anti-women. We are always on difficult and dangerous ground when we think about sex. It’s not so much that sex can drive us just a little bit crazy, as the reverse: because sex is given such a central place in our culture and personal identity, all our craziness – our wildest dreams and worst fears – is projected onto sex. Most women have seen and read little pornography, although we are now a growing market for the X-rated sex video. This means that most pornography is about men’s fears and fantasies, designed to comfort, reassure and titillate men. Interestingly, the most effective opponents of pornography, especially in the US, are also men. These are the men of the Moral Right, like Jesse Helms, who are concerned to keep sex within marriage, and who are as deeply horrified by the idea of women as sexually assertive, autonomous and entitled to sex on their own terms as they are by gay sex or indeed any display of the male body as the object of desire rather than the subject of authority. But the feminist anti-pornography movement has quite separate goals and strategies. Or has it?

Fundamental to anti-pornography feminism is the connection made between pornography, violence and discrimination against women. It is foolish, however, for Itzin to claim that the US Attorney General’s Commission on Pornography (although carefully selected by Edwin Meese III in 1985 to seek stronger law enforcement against sexually explicit images) was ‘unanimous in its finding of a causal link between pornography and sexual violence’. Indeed, the only two feminists on the Commission, as Itzin must know, Ellen Levine and Judith Becker, published their own dissenting report, claiming: ‘To say that exposure to pornography in and of itself causes an individual to commit a sexual crime is simplistic, not supported by the social science data, and overlooks many of the other variables that may be contributing causes.’

Itzin’s collection itself illustrates the folly of her claim that defining pornography as ‘sexually explicit subordination’ provides a concrete, unambiguous demarcation. Here, Michael Moorcock maintains that such a definition would clearly exonerate such material as the novels of D H Lawrence, Henry Miller and Nabokov’s Lolita. Yet these are, of course, precisely the novels which feminists have singled out as providing subordinating and demeaning, and in the latter case, child-abusive, images of women and girls. Here also, in the single impressive and coherent essay in the collection, Deborah Cameron and Elizabeth Frazer point out the inadequacy and danger of claiming, as do Itzin and most of her assembled authors (weirdly and repeatedly citing the ‘evidence’ from serial killer Ted Bundy), that pornographic images ’cause’ sex crimes. The narratives of male assertiveness and female passivity which so frequently feature in pornography, appear as readily in almost every other genre of literature, art and scholarship; while images of violence are far more common in popular, non-pornographic genres like ‘true crime’ magazines.

Women do need real remedies for men’s violence, but banning sexually explicit images (violent or not) is not one of them. State funding for women’s refuges (attacked in the US by Edwin Meese III); anti-sexist education; and improved job prospects and welfare facilities are the only effective ways of enabling women to avoid violence.

Worryingly, Itzin must know that her insistence that MacKinnon and Dworkin do not work with the Moral Right in seeking new anti-pornography legislation is false. Whether collaborating with Presbyterian minister Mayor Hudnut in Indianapolis, or anti-feminist Republican conservative Bealah Coughenour in Minneapolis, they have worked primarily with the Moral Right. More worryingly, it was feminist anti-pornography rhetoric which facilitated Jesse Helms’s successful attack on state funding for exhibitions of gay artists like Robert Mapplethorpe, on the grounds that it ‘denigrates, debases or reviles a person, group or class of citizens . . .’, in this case straight men.

The frightening truth is that ltzin’s proposed legislation encourages new and far wider forms of censorship. She is well aware that censorship does not operate through any single legal act or institution. Encouraging citizens to seek financial redress through reactionary courts against publishers or distributors of sexually explicit material (particularly given the current tendency of rapists and abusers now to blame ‘pornography’ rather than ‘mothers’ for their crimes), could entail crippling fines or self-imposed censorship on anyone trying to market sexually explicit material – particularly material transgressing prevailing heterosexual sexist norms. (Using similar legislation in Canada, the lesbian sex magazine, Bad Attitudes, was recently condemned and fined. )

Itzin declares that the pornography debate has not divided the women’s movement. In fact it is within feminism itself that some of the fiercest debates around ‘pornography’, and what to do about it, are taking place. Should readers wish to see just how varied feminist positions on this issue are, they should take a look at alternative feminist collections on the topic.

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