To the editors:
Victoria Stagg Elliott’s letter of February 19 reveals three central weaknesses of the anticensorship feminist position. First of all, pornography is not offensive only to “fundamentalists, politicians, and guardians of everyone else’s morality but their own.” Pornography is offensive to the majority of Americans both left and right on the political spectrum. As a leftist, I accept the feminist arguments against pornography more readily than those of the puritanical right.
There must be a way for this majority of Americans to express their opinions and to be able to bring legal pressure against the porn industry, even if it means redefining the limits of free speech. Obscenity legislation has established a “community standards” norm and yet it does not specify the legal apparatus that defines community standards. Although feminists have rejected the obscenity approach, I think that it is an approach that fails only because it has never been properly enacted. One possibility is that charges of obscenity should be brought before town meetings and voted on by the local residents. That’s how a democracy works. Of course, the ever-vigilant ACLU will be there defending the rights of the pornographers and to the devil with democracy.
Feminist antiporn civil rights legislation is also fraught with difficulties owing to the vagueness of “subordination.” Is it subordination if a woman is on top? I do think it is a civil rights issue, but the issue is not subordination of women. The issue is the selling of sex. Pornography is economic exploitation whether its subjects are male or female.
Ms. Elliott’s second weakness is her claim that pornography is fantasy. The main point of pornography is that it is real. Real genitals make real contact. The line between fantasy and reality is crossed in explicit photography of sexual acts. The viewer is left with the notion that real sex can be bought and that consent does not matter if one pays for it. Thus, the date rape phenomenon is the clearest manifestation of the social attitude expressed by porn. If a guy pays for a date, he ought to get his “money’s worth.”
My argument that selling real sex is the problem has the virtue of removing literary pornography from the issue and focusing on photography of sexual acts. Of course, this does raise the issue of artistic freedom. At this point I’ll simply say that explicit sex should not be photographed for commercial purposes and leave the definition of what is art and what is not for aesthetic theorists to debate.
Ms. Elliott’s final flaw is the one she ascribes to the antipornography feminists, the failure to take in the “whole context.” The whole context is the economic system that controls the media. Capitalism believes that everything has its price, even the sacred domain of sex. A pornographic film is not a mere transaction between a customer and a producer alone. It involves an entire mode of production in which women and men are paid to have sex in front of cameras so that others can pay to see them. Human sexuality is not a commodity and the fact that capitalism has defiled this sacred domain is evidence of the alienation that is the heart of capitalism. Feminism has objected to all structures that make women economically dependent on men and thus vulnerable to male sexual aggression. The pornography industry takes this intimate violation and makes it profitable.