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The Place of Pornography View other pieces in "Harper's"
By Mark Danner , Lewis H. Lapham, Al Goldstein, Susan Brownmiller, et al. November 1984
Tags: american politics | Pornography | Media Print

When no less sacred a national symbol than Miss America found herself displayed in a pornographic magazine last summer, the public was duly outraged - at the pornographers, for profiting from a young woman's inexperience; at the pageant committee, for demanding she relinquish her crown; and finally at Miss America herself, for not knowing better. Absent from this roster of the accused were the 6 million citizens who, in their eagerness to view Miss America undraped, gave the publication in question its largest sale ever.

The huge commercial success of pornography suggests a discrepancy between America's public and private morality. Church groups and other traditional campaigners for public decency have long recognized this; but as porn has exploded into a $ 7 billion a year iridustry, they have been joined by a vocal contin, gent of feminists who condemn pornography as anti-female propaganda -"violence against women" - and campaign to suppress it.

In a supposedly liberated society, what is the place of pornography? Why is it so often grim and violent? And what, if anything, should we do about it? Harper's recently brought together social critics, civil libertarians, feminists, and a pornographer to consider how we might balance the right of free expression against the claims of our public morality.

The following Forum is based on a discussion held at the New School for Social Research in New York City. Lewis H. Lapham served as moderator.

LEWIS H. LAPHAM
is the editor of Harper's.

AL GOLDSTEIN
is the publisher of Screw and the producer of Midnight Blue, a cable television program.

MIDGE DECTER
is executive director of the Committee for the Free World and the author of The New Chastity and The Liberated Women and Other Americans.

ERICA JONG
is a novelist and poet whose books include Fear of Flying, Fanny, and Parachutes & Kisses.

SUSAN BROWNMILLER
is a founder of Women Against Pornography and the author of Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape.

JEAN BETHKE ELSHTAIN
is a professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts and author of Public Man, Private Woman: Women in Social and Political Thought.

ARYEH NEIER
is a former national executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union and is currently vice chairman of Helsinki Watch and Americas Watch.

LEWIS H. LAPHAM: In our discussion today, ladies and gentlemen, I would like to take up three questions. First, what is the place of pornography in our society? What purpose does it serve? Why is there so much of it?

Second, what is the nature of the product? Why, for instance, does pornography so often seem so earnest, so angry, so empty of wit, humor, or sexual feeling?

Third, what, if anything, should we do about pornography? Should we pass laws to regulate it? If so, what sort of laws? By first examining the uses of pornography, I hope we can arrive at a clearer understanding of a subject too often hidden under the blankets of ideology.

Maybe we can begin with Al Goldstein, the only pornographer in our midst.

AL GOLDSTEIN: Well, I have been publishing Screw magazine for sixteen years now, and I am still not sure what the word "pornography" means. I have been charged with publishing obscenity a number of times - in Wichita, Kansas, for example, in 1977, I was brought to trial and faced a prison sentence of up to sixty years if convicted. But after the members of the jury examined copies of Screw, they voted to acquit me. Now if Screw is not pornographic and obscene, nothing is. But the citizens of Wichita decided it was not.

But whatever pornography is, I am convinced it serves a useful purpose. Pornography aims for the groin; its function is to turn us on. In publishing Screw, I want to turn men and women on, to celebrate sexual pleasure and sexual abandon. I believe sex, whether it is straight sex, gay sex, group sex, or whatever consenting adults wish to do together, is a very positive thing. To me, an erection is its own best defense. I find it repugnant when some women argue that a penis is an instrument of assault and rape, that women must always be victims in sexual relations.

Pornography helps us free ourselves from the puritanical attitudes about sex that have long dominated our society. Pornography and fantasy are closely related - pornography helps us to fantasize: to look at a woman and strip her, to look at a man and strip him. I do hot consider publishing photographs of nude women exploitation, but a celebration of their bodies. And I do not consider masturbation self-abuse, but rather a celebration of sexuality.

Not only does today's pornography serve to liberate us in our attitudes toward sex; it is also shattering the elitism that has traditionally surrounded pornography itself. Once, pornography was acceptable only if it was sold in fancy, expensive editions that claimed to be "erotic art" from India or Japan. To me pornography is what the truck driver wants, what the sanitation man reads, what the bus driver buys. For them, too, pornography can now serve as a celebration of human sexuality and an aid to sexual congress.

MIDGE DECTER: I don't quite see that pornography functions as an "aid to sexual congress." So far as I know, until quite recently sexual congress didn't particularly require any help; people somehow managed it one way or another all by themselves.
The traditional function of pornography was to offer a vision of erotic utopia. Throughout history, pornography - seedy, hidden beneath counters, and very expensive - offered its readers a vision of anonymous, faceless sex, sex without personality and without consequence. I call this vision utopian because it promised what everyone knew to be impossible: sex without the possibility of pregnancy, without the risk of emotional entanglement, without the need to confront another human being. We can trace this utopian vision back very far - we see it, for instance, expressed in the orgies of the ancient Greeks, in which the participants wore masks. And I believe it derives more from men's fantasies than from women's. But not always: in Erica Jong's Fear of Flying, the heroine dreams of just this kind of blind sex - her search for it is what drives her.

ERICA ]ONG: Until she finds it. That's one of the ironies of the book - which of course most of its critics missed.

DECTER: The point is that traditional pornography was inherently masturbatory. For what is masturbation if not having sex with yourself, and thus not risking any entanglement, any consequence?

Today, pornography works in precisely the opposite way, that is, it attempts to make its au- dience focus their fantasies on specific people. The "Playmate of the Month" is a particular woman about whom the reader is meant to have particular fantasies. In my view, this has a more baneful effect on people - makes them demented, in fact, in a way that earlier pornography didn't. Today's pornography promises them that there exists, somewhere on this earth, a life of endlessly desirable and available women and endlessly potent men. The promise that this life is just around the corner - in Hugh Hefner's mansion, or even just in the next joint or the next snort - is maddening and disorienting. And in its futility, it makes for rage and self- hatred. The traditional argument against censorship-that "no one can be seduced by a book," as I believe Gore Vidal put it - was probably valid when pornography was impersonal and anonymous, purely an aid to fantasizing about sexual utopia. Today, however, there is addiction and seduction in pornography. Thus the power of pornography to do harm is much greater than it used to be.

]ONG: To understand the function of pornography we have to distinguish it from erotica. Erotica celebrates the erotic nature of the human creature, attempts to probe what is erotic in the human soul and the human mind, and does so artfully, dramatically. Pornography, on the other hand, serves simply as an aid to masturbation, with no artistic pretensions and no artistic value. I believe the nature of the pornography we have in America today and the enormous quantity in which we have it reflect our country's puritanical attitudes toward sexuality. I think we should look at our pornography to see what it reveals about our society: it's violent, it's pedophilic, it's full of anger toward women.

Today's pornography, in other words, shows us in sharp relief the sickness of our society, the twisted attitudes toward sex that persist beneath the facade of gentility. The ugliness we see in it - the joyless, obsessional, humorless quality - is the ugliness and twisted puritanism that exists in America.

But we cannot legislate these attitudes out of existence. Instead we must seek to change them in the hearts and minds of people. Despite the ugliness of a lot of pornography, despite the fact that I don't want to defend pictures of little girls being molested, I believe that censorship only springs back against the givers of culture - against authors, artists, and feminists, against anybody who wants to change society. Should censorship be imposed again, whether through the kind of legislation introduced in Minneapolis and Indianapolis or through other means, feminists would be the first to suffer. Leaves of Grass will go into the garbage before The Story of O. The history of censorship is full of hideous examples of great works of art-books like Ulysses, The Return of the Native, and Tropic of Cancer - being censored while trash has gone free. As the mother of a girl who is not yet six, I am sickened by child pornography; but I would not legislate against it directly. Perhaps the print industry needs to establish a rating system like that of the film industry.

LAPHAM: We'll come later to the question of what to do about pornography. But first, still in the way of definitions, I'm sure Susan Brownmiller has different opinions about the function of pornography. Is it a mask for Eros, a vision of an erotic utopia, a parliamentary speech in a sexual congress, a masturbatory tool?

SUSAN BROWNMILLER: I certainly think pornography is more than just a "masturbatory tool." I do not oppose masturbation, but I oppose pornography. If I can step back from my strong feelings about it-and I find this very difficult to do - I would say the apparent function and intent of pornography is to serve as an aid for people who, for whatever reasons, have difficulty becoming sexually stimulated. Unfortunately, what seems to stimulate these people is, I believe, a dangerously distorted picture of female sexuality, indeed of human sexuality.

I find this extremely troubling, for I believe that beneath pornography's apparent purpose lies a more dangerous one. In my book Against Our Will I wrote a few impassioned pages in which I identified the real purpose, the hidden intent, of pornography as anti-female propaganda. Pornography functions quite similarly to anti-Semitic or racist propaganda. The intent of all three is to distort the image of a group or class of people, to deny their humanity, to make them such objects of ridicule and humiliation that acts of aggression against them are viewed less seriously. Also, the aggression is subliminally encouraged by the propaganda itself. In an age when women are putting forward their aspirations toward equality in a healthy, positive way, pornography is working to increase hostility toward women, and therefore to increase tensions between the sexes. I find this unbearable; and I don't think there's any danger that if we limit pornography we will eventually ban Leaves of Grass or Ulysses or even Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer. Those battles were fought and won a long time ago. The Indianapolis legislation, by the way, states explicitly that libraries cannot be considered "traffickers in pornography," regardless of what books might be on their shelves. Women Against Pornography has never supported unrestrained censorship; but we believe that liberals must try to do something about pornography, which I consider to be a clear and present danger to women and to the health of our society itself.

JEAN BETHKE ELSHTAIN: What is the place of pornography today? Pornography's place changes as a society transforms itself politically, economically, morally, and aesthetically. Pornography has been heavily commercialized and is now readily available to all classes of society, as AI Goldstein pointed out. Porn has become a growth industry - a $7 billion a year business, by most estimates - and a very public vice, available as it once was not on Main Street, on videotapes sold in the corner drugstore. That pornography's place is now anywhere it can gain a toehold points to complex social transformations: social fragmentation has increased over the past decade in our society; there are no longer any widely shared moral rules; the traditional ties of community that once served to guide people in living moral lives have broken down. This fragmentation has allowed a very ancient theme to emerge in a blatantly public way-the theme of absolutely unbridled erotic freedom.

Pornography has obviously been affected by changes in technology - pornographers now use modern equipment such as videotape. Finally, pornography may be encouraged by challenges to the traditional patriarchal prerogative in our society - challenges to male dominance. As Steven Marcus suggested in his book The Other Victorians, there is an inverse relationship between the growing number of dominating and sadistic images of masculine sexuality in pornography and the decline of male dominance in everyday life. In a sense, this is the reverse side of Susan Brownmiller's argument.

What is pornography's function? There are several. First, and most blatantly, porn has a commercial function - it's a big moneymaker.

Todd Gitlin observed in his essay "The Left and Porno" that "porn occupies the shadow of legitimate culture and extends the boundaries of it. The marginal moral enterprise, like all crime in capitplist society, becomes big business." Second, if pornography is the marketing of fantasies, then we can assume, following Freud, that these fantasies provide something that is missing from real life - perhaps a sense of robust eroticism and joy in the body, perhaps a feeling of possessing crude power to compel others to do one's bidding. Third, as I mentioned, pornography helps reassure those frightened by the waning male prerogatives in our culture.

Why is there so much pornography? Perhaps because our need to celebrate ourselves and to express our dominance is so great. By "our" I mean a collective masculine we: men in a society that remains male dominated, men who live and work according to an intensely competitive performance principle and who evaluate themselves according to that principle. To attempt to eliminate these fantasies of dominance by censoring pornography - ,and here I agree with Erica Jong - is futile; such efforts only cover up the deeper truths that the fantasies themselves express.

ARYEH NEIER: For a good many years, I confronted the issue of pornography as a civil libertarian, defending the right of anyone to express himself in any way he chose as long as he did not directly infringe on the rights of others. Since I left the American Civil Liberties Union six years ago I've worked for organizations that are concerned with human rights in various repressive countries. In these countries, whether they are in Central America or Africa or Eastern Europe or wherever, there is virtually no pornography; but there is a great deal of the same hostility toward women and the same violence against women that one finds in the United States. In fact, in many of these countries sexual violence - mass rape or sexual torture or sexual humiliation - is one of the main forms political repression takes. I conclude from the astounding level of sexual violence in these countries and the absence of pornography that pornography is really not very important, that it is no more or less important than the great variety of images that dominates the media in the United States and other Western countries: images of sex and violence and melodrama and ugliness and beauty.

I suppose there is so much pornography because, like the nightly melodramas on television, pornography is not very satisfying stuff; one seeks satisfaction by exposing oneself to more and more and more of it. Obviously, improvements in the technology involved in producing and distributing pornography contribute to the growing quantity of it. But more important is the fact that no particular pornographic image in Mr. Goldstein's magazine, or 100 or 1,000 other magazines, or 1,000 movies or live shows or whatever, means a great deal to the viewer. Thus he needs more and more images. In much the same way, one exposes oneself to a vast number of violent images or a vast number of melodramatic plots because none of them amount to a great deal. What is really important about the surfeit of pornographic images is that it reflects one side of a society that is spoiled by too much of everything, including violent images of all sorts.

Is This the Real Message of Pornography?

When this Hustler cover appeared on newsstands in 1978, it drew loud protests from feminist groups throughout the country. The widespread outrage it evoked strengthened the fledgling women's anti- pornography movement and led to the founding the following year of Women Against Pornography, an organization of feminists convinced that "the proliferation of images eroticizing the degradation, brutalization, and dehumanization of female bodies... I contributes to a pervasive cultural devaluation of women and fosters and legitimizes sexual crimes from harassment to rape." For the organization, which today claims 10,000 members nationwide, the Hustler cover became a notorious symbol of the brutality toward women that the antipornography movement believes is at the root of all pornography. But according to Paul Krassner, publisher of Hustler in 1978, the cover was intended not as a pornographer's self-revelation but as' self-mockery. Krassner later wrote that the cover picture was "Hustler's hurried attempt at self-parody," a last-minute substitute for the scheduled photograph, which had appeared in a different magazine. The cover was meant to be seen as an ironic commentary on the vow of Hustler owner Larry Flynt (who had just become a born- again Christian) to "no longer hang women up like pieces of meat." Flynt's public declaration was a reply to the magazine's critics, feminists prominent among them. As Krassner acknowledged, the intended irony of the cover was not widely appreciated.

BROWN MILLER: You're implying that we shouldn't pay any attention to the quantity of pornography. I feel surrounded by it. I can't go to my corner newsstand without being confronted by pictures of women mutilated, tortured, spread into ridiculous postures - pictures designed, I feel, to humiliate my sex and my dignity as a woman. More important is the link between these pictures and violence against women. Too many rapes appear to be "copycat" crimes - that is, the rapists seemed to be acting out scenes that had been published in pornographic magazines a month or two before. The gang rape last year of a woman on a pool table in a New Bedford, Massachusetts, bar may have been inspired by an eight-page sequence of photographs in Hustler magazine in which a woman is spread out on a barroom pool table and gang raped. Now many of us here are in the business of writing; we believe books - words and ideas - can seduce people. But pictures seduce even more. Today's pornography is not delicate Japanese erotica. Go to Forty-second Street, go into one of the peep shows, see the pictures of eels being stuffed up women's vaginas, the obscene images of dogs with women, dogs with men, the whips, the chains, the chain saws. This is not a question of too many images, but a question of violence.

NEIER: I may not go to Forty-second Street peep shows. But two weeks ago, in a displaced-persons camp in EI Salvador, I talked to a group of women, everyone of whom had been raped; some told me of friends who had been killed after they were raped. Pornography, was not a factor. There isn't any pornography in EI Salvador.
The fact is that there is violent humiliation of women all over the world. Pornography is almost irrelevant to the question of sexual violence. You may have made yourself vulnerable to pornographic magazines on a newsstand. . .

BROWN MILLER: What do you mean, "made yourself vulnerable"? Is that like getting yourself raped?

NEIER: Only that many women turn a blind eye to these magazines, while other women feel very vulnerable.

DECTER: I agree with Susan Brownmiller that there is much that is degrading to women in contemporary pornography, though I don't know if this is endemic to pornography as such. I certainly feel degraded by it. And I agree with Aryeh Neier that one of the reasons we have so much pornography is that we have so much pornography; that is, there is a progressive deadening to the stuff. Anyone who watches Mr. Goldstein's television program, Midnight Blue, eventually reaches the point where he or she needs an extreme escalation of violence or gaudiness to overcome the tedium. People looking for stimulation must keep upping the ante.

Susan Brownmiller spoke of the violence in pornography--of women being whipped and mutilated and chained. Much of this imagery is drawn from the writings of the Marquis de Sade. Many years ago, thanks to the loosening of censorship, I was finally able to read his books. I discovered that de Sade was a philosopher of homosexuality; his work is a celebration of buggery as the highest form of erotic satisfaction.

BROWN MILLER: What you say about de Sade may be true. Nonetheless, according to the 1970 report of the Commission on Obscenity and Pornography, 90 percent of the pornography produced in this country is heterosexual. Homosexual pornography frankly troubles me less because it does not reflect the power imbalance in our culture between men and women. When men are doing it to each other, there is no clear victim.

GOLDSTEIN: You said pornography "reflects" the power imbalance, which I think is the right word. But earlier you claimed it was more than a reflection. You said pornography causes the degradation of women, and causes violence against them.

BROWNMILLER: It is a contributing factor. Pornography is propaganda against women, and propaganda is a very powerful spur to action think of the anti-Semitic propaganda in Hitler's Germany. Pornography promotes a climate of opinion in which sexual hostility against women is not only tolerated but ideologically encouraged. Recent studies, in particular those by Malamuth and Donnerstein,' support the first part of that equation, at any rate.

ELSHTAIN: The link that you're suggesting between pornography and violent sexual crimes draws on simplistic behaviorist psychology. This psychology doesn't enjoy much credibility today because it doesn't take into account the intricacies of human fantasy life - the complex relationship between what goes on in our minds and what we do in the world. Most of the studies that assert a direct connection between pornography and sexual violence are done under highly artificial conditions and don't stand up under close scrutiny. Words and ideas certainly influence how people behave, as Susan Brownmiller said; but to try to draw a direct causal line is to oversimplify the relationship between images, fantasies, and actions.

LAPHAM: Do we agree that the increase in pornography, the fact that it has become such a growth industry, is a symptom of profound unhappiness in our society?

DECTER: I think we can agree that pornography, in the quantity in which we swim today, is doing something bad to us as well. In our society we find less and less good humor and cheerfulness about our inevitable human lot. There is so little play - innocent or otherwise - between men and women, and play is one of the things that make their life together tolerable. And whatever little is left of the erotic - with due respect to Erica Jong - is being snuffed out.

GOLDSTEIN: I know I'm on the right side of the argument when I hear feminists like Susan Brownmiller tell me about the business I've been in for sixteen years. Her idea of the pornography business has nothing to do with reality. I've heard people here talk about eels and mutilation and pedophilia. I don't see eels; I don't see mutilation. Yes, there are photos with S/M connotations, but they represent less than 3 percent of my business. Pedophilia does not exist in what is called the establishment end of the business - the Adult Film Association and magazines like Playboy and Penthouse and Hustler and Screw. I personally believe anyone involved in the sexual exploitation of children should go to prison for twenty years - and I have supported legislation to that effect. I realize this may be construed as an inconsistency in my position. But I have come to feel that pornographic photos of children should not be constitutionally protected. After sixteen years of discussion on panels such as this one I can state that my position is this: I am in favor of pictorial depictions of people fucking. That is what pornography is to me. But children must be protected. There is a higher cause here than First Amendment absolutism and it is the protection of innocent people, and the innocent people are children.

Susan Brownmiller finds pornography appalling because she considers it anti-female propa- ganda-she objects to what she considers the ideology of pornography. My retort to that is- tough. Anti-female propaganda has as much right to exist as anti-Jewish propaganda and anti-American propaganda. If someone hates women, or hates gay men or midgets for that matter, he has a right to express that opinion. The price of living in a free society is putting up with points of view you don't like. I'll be glad to buy Susan Brownmiller a one-way ticket to Cuba, where there's no pornography.

BROWNMILLER: No one in this country is making billions of dollars on anti-Semitic propaganda or on anti-black propaganda. If these traditional forms of propaganda were huge moneymaking activities, no one would tolerate it. You, Aryeh Neier, would not defend the enormous commercial success of virulent hatred directed against Jews or blacks. Only when it is directed against women do we meekly accept such hatred and propaganda, contenting ourselves with philosophic discussions about whether we are or aren't curtailing free speech.

ELSHTAIN: But the fact that women are participants in this form of-to use your term-propaganda makes it rather different from anti-black or anti-Semitic propaganda. Certainly women could end pornography right now if they adopted a strategy like that of the women in Lysistrata and simply ceased to participate in it. Women's complicity cannot be ignored.

LAPHAM: The question still remains as to complicity in precisely what; maybe we can now turn the discussion to the specific nature of pornography.

BROWNMILLER: I think we have to recognize that advances in technology have not only played a part in the proliferation of pornography, as Jean said; they have increased its power as well. A photograph is infinitely more shocking than a drawing, for example. A photograph makes people think that what they are seeing is the truth; a drawing tells them that what they are seeing is fantasy. When people look at Penthouse, Hustler, or Screw, they think: "This is the truth about women." I mean, here's the photograph. A woman is actually doing this.

JONG: Yes: "That's what women do."

BROWNMILLER: Exactly, and that's who women are.

JONG: That these photographs constitute a campaign of violence against women is a point well taken. And I disagree with AI's statement that it's just too bad women are being shown this way in photographs. I think we should make people understand how this distorts women's sexuality. What Susan has tried to do in her books - to demonstrate how pornography is violence against women, to show the hostility behind it - is certainly all to the good. I think discussion is vital. But I stop short of supporting legislation to censor pornography.

DECTER: Erica Jong said earlier that pornography is a reflection of the puritanism in our society. Societies and historical periods have varied widely in their sexual attitudes: some have been quite licentious, others quite puritanical. But to call the United States today puritanical seems to me to do something very peculiar to that word. Perhaps we should ask ourselves why, when there is supposedly a great deal of sexual activity and no serious social sanction against it, we have more and more pornography.

JONG: The very proliferation of pornography shows that our society is not liberated sexually. In Venice in Casanova's time, for example, a married woman who had one or two lovers was considered virtuous. Only if she had six or seven did her behavior become a bit questionable. Sex then was treated as something light and enjoyable, a celebration of the body; sexual desire was associated with humor and laughter and looked upon as a human foible, tolerated as such things are by wise people. Today's attitudes toward sex are quite different, and they are reflected in our pornography's intense, joyless focus on organs. This pornography is not a celebration of sex as one of the pleasures of life, like enjoying a meal or cuddling a baby. The sex in it is a very frantic, fraught, obsessive, and humorless pursuit, and that very obsessiveness is indeed a product of our puritanism.

ELSHTAIN: I think this joylessness and grimness is a reflection of the production process itself - of the joylcssness of work in an advanced industrial society. Human beings, diminished within giant factories and giant bureaucracies, feel powerless to affect what's going on. The mechanistic sexuality of pornography is an outgrowth of our mechanistic world, with its productivity goals and all the rest. Perhaps the real puritanism in pornography is the grim work ethic that permeates our culture.

NEIER: Isn't the joylessness also a function of the fact that there are a lot of untalented people producing pornography? Very few of them have any imagination, so they present all these grim images. Perhaps the real difference between erotica and pornography is simply a question of talent.

Consider Helmut Newton's photographs: they treat women as objects, they are violent, they are sexually explicit. Yet they reflect a certain level of talent, more talent, certainly, than is on display in the pornographic magazines one can buy at newsstands. And so Helmut Newton's photographs are called erotica instead of pornography.

BROWN MILLER: I find Helmut Newton's photographs quite offensive, and I think they are part of the fallout from pornography. Vogue's fascination with S/M derives from its popularization in hard-core porn. As for its joylessness . . .

GOLDSTEIN: Isn't it possible this so-called joylessness is a manifestation of the elitism of this panel? This joylessness everyone is making so much of - l don't see it around me. Screw every week makes fun of sex. We always say, "Fucking is only friction." Pornography is not joyless. But of course the mass media won't deal with the subject unless it's done in a very serious, pedantic, and elitist way. You people are filtering the subject through your own inhibitions, your own intellectual biases. The attitudes you are displaying in this discussion are those that force the person who masturbates to feel a high degree of self- contempt. As Lenny Bruce said, "America makes Americans sexual cripples and then tries to take away their crutches." If all you see in pornography is joylessness and grimness, perhaps it's because you're viewing it through your own pomposity, elitism, and sexual self-hate.

LAPHAM: I don't see any evidence of those qualities here at all. . .

GOLDSTEIN: Weill do. It's as if ]ewish intellectuals don't masturbate.

JONG: I think Philip Roth proved they do.

ELSHTAIN: Don't you think a performance principle exists in pornography' somewhat analogous to production quotas?

GOLDSTEIN: Quotas imposed by whom? We don't have quotas. We don't have orgasm counts. Who are you talking about? Give me specific examples instead of these general indictments of porn.

I'd like to know the last time anyone here walked into a porno shop or saw a sex film. You people are uptight intellectuals. I think you should examine your own need to make sex boring. I think you're afraid that if sex is too much fun, you must be doing it wrong.

LAPHAM: I don't agree. The crowds in pornographic bookstores strike me as a very unhappy lot. I don't associate pornography with joyful truck drivers.

NEIER: If people really found one copy of Playboy so stimulating, they wouldn't need a hundred other copies of Playboy or a hundred copies of other magazines.

GOLDSTEIN: That's ridiculous. Look, we're talking about junk food here. Pornography is junk entertainment, that's all. The fact that pornography is so popular - that Playboy sells 4 million copies each month and Penthouse 3 million - indicates that it's a success, not a failure, that people want the entertainment it provides. Pornography is minutia - a diversion. It's not much different from The Gong Show or Dynasty.

LAPHAM: We've heard pornography defined as a medicine, as an aid to the repressed, as a political vendetta, as a Greek mask, as a grim reflection of the puritanical work ethic, and now as junk food. But nobody has defined it as a form of speech.

GOLDSTEIN: Give me two minutes and I will. In 1975, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that oral sex can be prosecuted as a "crime against nature" in a court of law. Now I would argue that pornographic magazines and films, by offering pictures of men performing oral sex on women and the other way around, and both ways at once, serve as a visual polemic that encourages people to feel more open about their sexuality. In the pages of Screw, and in pornography in general, a philosophic argument is being set out that is intended to liberate people sexually. Pornography advocates ideas: swinging, diversity in sexual positions, openness to homosexuality. In our society Nazis have a right to speak, communists have a right to speak, atheists have a right to speak, people against and in favor of abortion have a right to speak. Sexual swingers have the same right to put their views forward.

LAPHAM: But to say that pornography has a viewpoint is like saying cigarettes have a viewpoint, or whiskey has a viewpoint.

NEIER: No, it's not quite the same thing. Remember that pornography is a representation of something, an image in words or in pictures. Pornography is not the sex act, but a representation of the sex act; in protecting freedom of expression, one protects the representation of something, not the thing itself.

LAPHAM: Suppose that instead of defining pornography as a form of expression, we define it as a drug, like liquor or tobacco - a product you buy for the specific physical effect it has on you. Perhaps if we were able to distinguish it in this way from other sorts of written expression, we could regulate it without entangling ourselves in the First Amendment.

NEIER: But your definition is arbitrary; I could define anything as a drug - soap operas, mystery stories, Good Housekeeping, anything I might not happen to like.

DECTER: I think Lewis is implying that pornography, like drugs, is having a bad effect on the community, and we seem to be without any means to deal with it. I'm not talking about re- stricting "anything we don't happen to like." We are able to make meaningful distinctions between Lady Chatterley's Lover or Ulysses and the pornography sold at newss'tands. Indeed, the courts were once able to arrive at such distinctions.

JONG: Yes, but only after those books had been banned and burned for years.

LAPHAM: Is anyone here in favor of laws to limit pornography?

ELSHTAIN: I support the recent efforts of many communities to organize themselves democratically and regulate pornography through "community standards" legislation or through zoning laws designed to "put pornography in its place" without completely suppressing it. In Massachusetts alone, over a dozen towns and cities have discouraged pornographers from opening "adult bookstores" and sexual paraphernalia shops by restricting them to certain areas. I believe this is as far as we can go without imposing actual censorship.

NEIER: I wouldn't attach much significance to communities "organizing democratically." That a majority of the people in a given community say they don't want to hear or see something is no legal basis for suppressing it. You could suppress virtually anything if all you had to do was submit it to a vote. But our Constitution says that "Congress shall make no law" - that is, the democratic process shall not be a basis for prohibiting speech or expression.

The basic legal problem in restricting or penalizing particular forms of expression is that expression is continually changing. It is thus extremely difficult to determine precisely what will be prohibited. The legislators who write the laws are forced to employ vague terms that they hope will accommodate any changes in expression. But the prosecutors and judges, who must determine what those terms actually mean, inevitably apply them to some forms of expression that those who wrote the laws did not intend to be limited.

Another problem is developing a clear standard that would determine when a particular form of expression should be prohibited: what is it that makes it obscene or whatever? For example, do we claim there is a cause-and-effect relationship between this form of expression and some crime? If so, how can we prove it? Suppose someone argues that such a relationship exists between some other kind of speech and a crime. For example, suppose a "human life amendment" is passed making abortion a crime on the grounds that killing a fetus is murder. Now someone might argue that there exists a cause-and-effect relationship between advocating birth control and abortion and killing fetuses, and that the state therefore has a right to prevent the dissemination of information about birth control.

Obscenity and the Law:
A Question of Definition

The First Amendment to the Constitution states that
''Congress shall make no law. . . abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press." The history of censorship may be understood as the history of the courts' struggle to specify what those few words mean. This has often meant formulating a definition that would adequately distinguish "obscenity," which the state may have the right to regulate in some way, from other forms of speech. Following is a selective history of such definitions offered by the courts.

Queen v. Hicklin (1868). This English court ruling defined obscene material as that which tends "to deprave and corrupt those whose minds are open to such immoral influences, and into whose hands a publication of this sort may fall." This definition, which was used by U.S. courts until the 1930s, stated for the first time that material could be banned solely because of its sexual content and allowed an entire work to be suppressed on the basis of a few passages.


United States v. One Book Entitled Ulysses (1934).
A federal court defined obscene material as that "tending to stir the sex impulses or to lead to sexually impure and lustful thoughts." In determining that Joyce's Ulysses was not obscene, the court rejected the Hicklin test and ruled that a finding of obscenity must be based on a reading of the entire work, not isolated passages, and on a judgment of its effect on a "normal person," not the most immature and susceptible.

Roth v. United States (1957). The Supreme Court defined obscene material as that which "deals with sex in a manner appealing to the prurient interest" and offends "the common conscience of the community by present-day standards." The Court declared that obscenity is not constitutionally protected and that the "clear and present danger" test, which the Court had formulated after World War I to evaluate any government attempt to suppress speech, need not be applied to it.

Memoirs v. Massachusetts (1966). In this decision, the Supreme Court defined material as obscene if it met three requirements: "( 1) that the dominant theme of the material as a whole appeals to a prurient interest in sex; (2) that the material is patently offensive because it affronts contemporary community standards relating to the description or representation of sexual matters; (3) that the material is utterly without redeeming social value." The Court, in formulating this definition, found that John Cleland's novel Fanny Hill was not obscene.

Miller v. California (1973). To find material obscene, it must be determined "(a) whether 'the average person, applying contemporary community standards,' would find that the work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest. . . (b) whether the work depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by the applicable state law, and (c) whether the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value." In this decision, the Supreme Court stated for the first time that the "community standards" in question need not be "national," because people "in different states vary in their tastes and attitudes, and this diversity is not to be strangled by the absolutism of imposed uniformity." Miller is the Court's most recent attempt to define "obscenity."


DECTER: In principle I am in favor of laws limiting pornography. But the great problem we have in even considering such laws is that we must first recognize, as even Al Goldstein has been forced to, that we are not in favor of absolute protection of speech. I say this not as a legal argument but as a cultural argument. We have reached a point of extreme confusion in this society - we no longer have any idea what our values are or what they should be. If pornography is not a cause of this confusion it is unquestionably a symptom. We cannot legislate attitudes, as Erica Jong said. But we as a society must do something to protect ourselves. If the law cannot involve an assertion of community standards, what is it for? And if we have no community standards in this area, we are more than halfway to the abyss. Amid all our talk about First Amendment absolutism, I must point out that at one time in this country - and not all that long ago, either - speech was not absolutely protected; and I don't think American society then was repressive, or that people's rights and freedoms' were violated.

NEIER: You are quite wrong. During World War I, 2,000 people were sent to prison for speaking out against the war-speaking against it, nothing more. We were certainly a more repressive society then. Our protection of speech essentially began after World War I, with the development of the "clear and present danger" test. One has to ask a simple question of those who favor censorship: What do you regard as an intellectually honest method of distinguishing between material you find offensive and other forms of expression? We need a persuasive argument that regulating pornography would not at the same time allow the regulation of other forms of communication.

BROWNMILLER: Clearly it is essential to protect the freedoms we have; no one wants to return to the repression of the Palmer Raids era. We must protect the right to political dissent. But I think we can separate pornography from genuine political expression. And I do not doubt, Al, that we can preserve the right to engage in cunnilingus and fellatio without help from pornographers. Certainly pornographers have not been in the forefront of the battle to strike down laws prohibiting sodomy; nor have they been in the forefront of the struggle for gay liberation and women's liberation.

Perhaps we should examine the pieties that often prevent people from publicly opposing pornography, even though they may admit in private that it has become a major problem. First, no one wants to be considered politically illiberal, an opponent of free speech. Second, and even more important, no one wants to be considered sexually illiberal or repressed. The anti-pornography movement must convince people that they can be good liberals, support the First Amendment, have a terrific sex life - and oppose pornography and fight to curtail it.

NEIER: Fighting to curtail it is one thing, imposing your will on others by invoking the authority of the state quite another. If you want to do that, you owe everyone a strong argument for proscribing pornography that would not also allow the state to prevent Margaret Sanger from distributing birth control literature, which many free-speech court battles centered on in the past. On what basis would you proscribe one and not the other?

BROWN MILLER: That it's dangerous. That it incites people to commit violent acts. That it distorts the nature of sex.

NEIER: But the claim that certain kinds of expres- sion are "dangerous" and an "incitement to violence" is used all the time to try to prohibit speech one doesn't like. We evolved the notion of a clear and present danger to deal with that. For pornography to be suppressed under this test, we would have to demonstrate that it is probable that any viewer would be provoked to, commit sexual violence immediately upon seeing it. No one claims that pornography has this instantaneous effect.

DECTER: Can we not at the very least distinguish between books and shows that we read and view voluntarily and the pornography displayed at newsstands and on movie marquees, which we are forced to see?

BROWNMILLER: Yes, we can certainly impose re- strictions on public displays of pornography without violating the First Amendment. I want to protect free speech. I would never say, "Smash the presses! Don't let Al Goldstein put out his smut sheet!" I think he has a right to publish it. But I don't think he can claim he has the right to display his magazine on the newsstands because it is protected speech.

NEIER: The legal term generally used when we talk about restricting public displays is "thrusting," that is, large public displays that someone cannot avoid seeing. I agree that we can regulate such displays without interfering with anyone's right to read what he wants, see what he wants, and express himself as he wants. I don't have difficulty with the idea of regulating thrusting. In Stockholm, for example, there are quite a few sex clubs, but they are permitted to have only very small signs.

GOLDSTEIN: Imposing pornography on an unwilling public, the way the marquees on Forty-second Street theaters do, is as repugnant to me as a hooker soliciting a man when he is walking with his wife. But I believe that adults who want to buy pornography have the right to do so. Those who want to limit it in some way have the problem of distinguishing it, as Aryeh Neier said, from other forms of expression.

BROWN MILLER: But I just offered a concrete suggestion that would not conflict with free expression - restricting public displays. Which would mean, Al, that Screw could not be featured prominently on the newsstands.

GOLDSTEIN: I would agree to such a restriction, Susan - but only if you agreed to restrict Ms. as well. After all, we must consider the feelings of those people who are offended by Gloria Steinem's arguing in favor of killing little children who aren't born yet. If we must be so sensitive to Susan Brownmiller's aesthetics, why should we ignore the strong beliefs of women marching against abortion in Queens? '

BROWNMILLER: Our society is able to understand the distinction between pornography and political disagreement. We can support gay rights; we can support the right to abortion; we can strike down all consensual sodomy laws; and we can still restrict pornography.

NEIER: But you do agree that many people are as offended by what they consider propaganda for abortion as you are by pornography? And you don't want those people to be able to suppress propaganda for abortion.

BROWN MILLER: But "propaganda for abortion" is not a huge business in this country. You can protect the pornographer's right to free speech without giving him access to a billion-dollar business. By restricting public displays, pictures that personally offend many people and encourage violence as well would be removed from public view. It is mainly the danger, not the personal offense, that concerns me.

JONG: I don't think we are limiting freedom of speech if we restrict the display of pornographic magazines on the newsstands.

NEIER: As I said, limiting public display - "thrusting" - I have no problem with.

JONG: And I also don't think we're limiting freedom of speech if we say these magazines must be purchased only by subscription.

GOLDSTEIN: Of course you are; you're limiting availability to the public. You'll guarantee my right to publish Screw as long as I stay in the closet and don't try to distribute it. My product is valuable only if it can reach the marketplace. And your attempt to prevent that presupposes you know what's best for the man or woman who wants to buy Playboy or Screw.

JONG: As I said, I oppose any across-the-board law that could be used to inhibit free speech. Perhaps the best course is to take voluntary action: for example, to institute the coding system for books that I mentioned earlier throughout the publishing industry. The Literary Guild forewarns its subscribers that certain books, including my own, may be offensive to some people. That often piques people's interest in the books - though it is supposedly meant to do the reverse. I find all this absurd, since I think my books demonstrate a healthy celebration of sex. I would sooner see violent books about the Ma- fia, say, published with caveats. But nobody seems to think they're offensive or harmful. Only sexual desire, the oldest of all human drives, needs a caveat. It's mad!

Whenever I read from my novels or my poetry there is inevitably someone in the audience who says, "It's all very well to speak out for the rights of women in our society, but what action should we take?" There are always people who believe that writing and other forms of public argument are not enough. I applaud many of the efforts of the members of Women Against Pornography: the slide shows they have produced showing the true nature of pornography, the polemics they have written exposing the sadomasochism that lies at the root of so much of it. We should continue these efforts. But I oppose invoking the authority of the state on one side or another. I don't believe the state is all-knowing, particularly not our state. I think we should be wary of imposing laws such as that in Indianapolis, which allow the "victims" of pornography to sue for damages. Our society is already obsessed with lawsuits and litigation. Litigation is not the key to reforming social attitudes.

ELSHTAIN: While I also oppose across-the-board statutes restricting pornography, I support community efforts to limit it. But pornography is only a symptom, as both Midge Deeter and Erica Jong have pointed out. What we really must address is, in the words of Bernard Williams, the "pervasive lying and destructive sexism of popular culture.'" To do this we need to develop a more historically and philosophically sophisticated feminist perspective than that offered by the contemporary feminist anti-pornography movement. Such a perspective would help us explore the links between pornography and the political and economic conditions of a particular time, and the relation between pornography and changes in sexual mores.

BROWN MILLER: Over the last ten years or so the anti-pornography movement has been fighting hard to draw attention to a subject that we find extremely distasteful. I don't want to spend my time fighting against pornography. I would much rather be gardening, or writing my books. But someone has to do it, and feminists have brought new ideas to the struggle. Someone has to make society recognize that pornography is a problem - that it is in fact anti-female propaganda that presents a distorted picture of female sexuality. We've got to do something about it. The question is, how do we do it while protecting our important right of free speech? One way to start is by restricting the public display of pornography. And restricting public display obviously means restricting public access.

NEIER: I could have gone along with you until your last statement. Public access means that a person is able to choose freely whether to expose himself to pornography. One restricts public display so that people who don't choose to subject themselves to pornography do not have it thrust upon them. I would not oppose restricting public display; but I would oppose restricting public access. The First Amendment protects the freedom of choice of the person who disseminates information and images, and the freedom of choice of the person who receives information and images. We want to protect both sides of that equation. When the person who disseminates imposes his images on an unwilling audience, he may be interfering with the freedom of choice of that audience.

One can sympathize with the feminist attack on pornography but remain wholly unsympathetic to what verges on an effort to invoke the power of the state to suppress it. When one invokes that power, one sets in motion forces that, I believe, will damage, first and foremost, those groups that are relatively powerless. To the extent that the feminist movement speaks on behalf of women victimized by those who have more power, it will be the loser in any effort to legitimize the power of the state to restrict expression.

DECTER: I agree that legislation by itself is not the answer. It never is. The genie is now out of the bottle, and those of us who oppose pornography must press our campaign, not through legal means but in the manner we have today - by conducting public argument. Although pornographers like Al Goldstein claim to be liberating us, we should think a little more seriously about what they are doing to our culture. I believe that among other things they are helping to destroy all humane and valuable attitudes about sex: we will be lucky if there is any sex at all twenty-five years from now.

GOLDSTEIN: Pornography is certainly not the death knell for sex, Midge; marriage is 'a much greater threat. And to Susan Brownmiller, who has been plucked from her garden to fight the good fight against pornography, I must say that being a pornographer is a dirty job, too, but someone has to do it.

The problem with pornography is that no one really knows what it is, no one knows where to draw the line that separates it from other forms of expression. We know only that certain things offend us; and again, my response is - tough. In a democracy, a lot of things offend someone. I am an atheist, yet I must listen to the diatribes of priests and various religious nuts. But I listen to points of view I disagree with because that's what living in a democracy is. Totalitarian countries eliminate this problem; people don't have to worry about choosing between various points of view because there is no choice. Here there is, and since I don't know what's best for me, and you people don't know what's best for you, why don't we assume that the average person doesn't know either, and that he will stumble along, making his own choices. That's called living in a free society.

LAPHAM: With Mr. Goldstein's democratic sentiment, I think we can bring the discussion to an end. I'm grateful to all of you for the civility as well as the thoughtfulness of your remarks. Arguments about pornography have a way of getting lost in the mists of polemic, and I was glad to see that the range of your agreement was broader than I would have guessed. The conversation seemed to suggest a possible balance between the claims made on behalf of morality and those made on behalf of freedom. If we could limit the public uses of pornography (i. e., its egregious display, its pretense to political statement), then we could more easily preserve its private uses (as a form of expression, as a stimulus to sexual feeling). It would be ironic if a too devout reading of the First Amendment proscribed the chance of a decent and intelligent compromise.

Nov1984

© 2017 Mark Danner