AJR  Books
From AJR,   March 1995

A Spirited Feminist Defense of Pornography   

Defending Pornography: Free Speech, Sex, and the Fight for Women's Rights
By Nadine Strossen

Book review by Carl Sessions Stepp

Carl Sessions Stepp (cstepp@umd.edu) began writing for his hometown paper, the Marlboro Herald-Advocate in Bennettsville, South Carolina, in 1963, after his freshman year in high school. He studied journalism at the University of South Carolina, where he edited The Gamecock.

After college, he worked for the St. Petersburg Times and the Charlotte Observer before becoming the first national editor at USA Today in 1982. In 1983, he joined the University of Maryland journalism faculty full time.

In the ensuing 30 years, he also has served as senior editor and book reviewer for AJR, writing dozens of pieces. He has been a visiting writing and editing coach for news organizations in more than 30 states.


Defending Pornography: Free Speech, Sex, and the Fight for Women's Rights
By Nadine Strossen
320 pages; $22

As an argumentative sort myself, I relish a bare-knuckle verbal brawl as much as the next critic. So it's invigorating to take in the latest round between civil libertarian feminists like Nadine Strossen and revisionist activists like law professor Catharine MacKinnon and writer Andrea Dworkin.

This book is Strossen's shot, and she attacks from page one, scorning the "MacDworkinites" and "pornophobic feminists" in her introduction and assailing them by name, point by point, throughout her book.

In a nutshell, MacKinnon (whose book "Only Words" was reviewed here last March) and her allies believe that pornography and hate speech go beyond words, constituting acts of violence and discrimination that don't merit First Amendment protection.

By contrast, Strossen, a law professor and president of the American Civil Liberties Union, sees a profound difference between words and acts. She believes that trying to censor and regulate speech, even repellent speech, is unmanageable and counterproductive.

Strossen builds a forceful argument and seems to me to easily win the legalistic contest. Whether that's sufficient, however, is a separate point.

First, Strossen's case:

Like many, she begins with basic First Amendment theory, the compelling need to keep government away from "our freedoms to read, think, speak, sing, write, paint, dance, dream, photograph, film, and fantasize as we wish."

Then comes the problem of definition. What is pornography, and who decides? Here she targets one of the weakest links in MacKinnon's argument: While it is intellectually appealing to argue that the articulation of certain ideas can cause genuine and dreadful pain, it's far riskier to entrust anyone, especially the government, with determining just which ideas to suppress.

Strossen effectively quotes feminist writer Carole Vance, who notes, "Show any personally favored erotic image to a group of women, and one-third will find it disgusting, one-third will find it ridiculous, and one-third will find it hot."

"Were we to ban words or images on the ground that they had incited some susceptible individuals to commit crimes," Strossen adds, "the first work to go would probably be the Bible."

Strossen also makes a game argument that it is patronizing to seek to "protect" women from the sexual thrills and adventures of erotica. She cites figures that indicate "half of all women are regular consumers of pornography."

In short, Strossen maintains, censorship would "suppress many works that are valuable to women and feminists.. be enforced in a way that discriminates against the least popular, least powerful groups in our society, including feminists and lesbians..perpetuate demeaning stereotypes about women, including that sex is bad for us..distract us from constructive approaches to countering discrimination and violence against women..[and] by undermining free speech..deprive feminists of a powerful tool for advancing women's equality."

Finally, Strossen raises valid doubts that censorship would achieve its desired goals anyway. Whether pornography and hate speech arouse more violence (by inciting hotheads) or less (by opening escape valves) remains an open question. But much expert opinion favors the latter view.

I suspect most feminists and civil libertarians will find Strossen's position convincing. But her book, and MacKinnon's too, still raises troubling issues.

In both "Defending Pornography" and "Only Words," the legalistic method of argument leads to intellectual polarization. Each writer seems hell-bent on stretching for every conceivable scrap of evidence, demonizing the other side, and straining one-sided thinking to the breaking point.

For instance, Strossen, not very convincingly, defends the porn industry's treatment of women, lauding the jobs it provides. MacKinnon portrays a grotesque vision of sex, seeming to equate all eroticism with victimization.

Perhaps lawyers are trained to believe that any sign of vacillation or sympathy will undermine their cases. But I believe we can grant Strossen's legal point (censorship likely would bring far more problems than solutions) without losing a sense of balance and conscience in addressing the overall issue.

Certainly some pornography is zesty and fun. But some is vicious and misogynistic, and some people are victimized by the nasty side of sex.

As a combative legal brief, "Defending Pornography" is a heroic defense of free speech and human rights. But it would be even stronger if it recognized that, despite MacKinnon's excesses, her concerns are legitimate. Shouldn't we be looking for ways to leave the Constitution alone and still unload moral outrage on those who traffic in degradation and incivility?