Letters: Women and Censorship

The Women and Censorship issue of Index (9/1990) prompted a wide and varied response, and the topic of pornography and censorship attracted the biggest proportion of reader’s comments. We print two opinions below.

Censorship is about minds, not bodies. When a person’s work is censored it is the mind which is attached and not the body, of whatever shape, in which that mind is housed. Any discussion of censorship which focuses on women as women, i.e. female bodies first, and everything else creative artists, political activists, philosophical or religious thinkers second, is essentially sexist. It was therefore sad to find an issue of index (Vol 19 No 9) devoted to “Women and Censorship.’’ It was still more regrettable to find Britain represented there by a feminist anti-pornography campaigner. First, because pornography is a minor issue within both censorship and women’s rights, second because she typifies the pro-censorship branch of Anglo-American feminism, and third because the article contains so many false assumptions, misrepresentations and half-truths. It needs an answer and I am very grateful to the Editor of Index for providing this opportunity.

‘Cunt’ is a term of abuse. So is ‘prick’. ‘Balls’, ‘bugger’ and ‘shit’ are expletives. All that proves is that in English there is no tradition of elaborate curses. It is a case of arrested development, stuck at the age at which children discover that certain bodily parts and bodily actions are taboo and you can offend or embarrass the grown-ups by mentioning them. Well-adjusted adults ignore such behaviour even when practised by other adults. Attaching importance to ‘‘bad language’’ is a mark of insecurity.

As with words, so with images. People who find particular images unsettling exaggerate both their prevalence and their power. In addition, campaigners need persuade both themselves and others that the enemy is larger and more powerful than it really is. The multi-million dollar international pornography industry is really very small as a proportion of the whole market in magazines or videos. ‘‘Hard’’ pornography is a matter of back-street premises and pirated films, small scale or even amateur.

Another popular campaigning gimmick is to present the worst cases as though they were typical; gambling on the probability that most of the audience have never looked at the material in question. A recent detailed analysis found that just 4.8% of sexual material available in British newsagents could be defined as sado-masochistic, and much of that actually depicted violence by women against men, a category which feminist anti-pornography campaigners do not admit exists. However, the worst dishonesty affects the so-called ‘‘evidence’’ linking pornography with sex offences. Mostly it is simply bad science. It still relies on laboratory studies although no reputable biologist today would extrapolate from the behaviour of an animal in the laboratory to the behaviour of the species in its normal habitat. Besides, unlike other experimental animals, homo sapiens can guess what result the researcher expects and this will itself affect the behaviour. The same ability to guess what is wanted affects sociological studies. These also rely on self-selected samples, which are unbalanced and therefore worthless. So are self-serving statements like witness testimonies, confessions and lawyers’ speeches. Reliance on ‘‘evidence’’ from convicted offenders is specially pernicious. By accepting the suggestion that pornography somehow ‘‘made them do it ‘‘the campaigners are actually encouraging those people to evade responsibility for their crimes. The ugly fact of the matter is that the object of the exercise is not to reduce the number of sex offenses but to reduce the availability of pornography.

Nor does readiness to mislead stop there. No anti-pornography campaigner will tell you that the Meese Commission in the US was appointed with the implicit aim of reversing the findings of an earlier enquiry under a previous administration and was accordingly packed with people known to support the required conclusion. No anti-pornography campaigner will tell you that the Minneapolis hearings, published in the U.K. as Pornography and Sexual Violence: Evidence of the Links, were held because the City Council had already decided to legislate against pornography and hoped, by mounting a parade of witnesses, to influence the higher authorities and bypass the First Amendment. (They failed.)

Catherine Itzin does not say, in her article for Index, that she and a fellow campaigner conducted the Cosmopolitan (November 1989) survey. As sociological research, that survey is a disgrace. The article preceding the questionnaire made it quite clear what answers were expected and the questions themselves were difficult or impossible to answer accurately unless one shared Ms Itzin’s views. The irony is that the rest of Cosmopolitan, most of the advertising and large sections of the editorial content, is devoted to the idea that the most important aim in a woman’s life is to make herself attractive to men.

In fact pornography is a symptom of problems between the sexes, not a cause. It does nothing to subordinate or silence women, for the simple reason that men do not learn how to treat women from images on paper or film but from the living people around them. Humanity has existed for around two million years, pictures for about twenty thousand and photography for less than two hundred. Evolution is very slow. At the deep biological level where sexual behaviour is learned there is no machinery which can persuade a male human being that an image on a page or a screen is what women really are if his experience of living women is different. Although modern pornography often uses live models, it is by no means realistic. On the contrary, it shows not what women are, but what some men would like them to be. All but a very few disturbed individuals know perfectly well that women are not like that, they just wish that they were.

Pornography is fantasy, sexual fantasy in print and pictures. It is nor propaganda, it is not incitement to anything except masturbation, and any parallel with racist material is false. Its fantasy nature is also why pornography is not an issue for the poor half of the world. A preoccupation with sexual fantasies, either your own or other people’s, is the product of leisure and affluence. Genuinely oppressed people have other concerns, like getting enough to eat and staying out of jail.

No matter where they start from, anti-pornography campaigners do end up advocating censorship. Their definition of ‘‘pornography’’ already implies it. It means sexual material of which I (the speaker or writer) disapprove. Approved material is called ‘erotica’. Any attempt to expand the definition, for example when trying to draft legislation, always breaks down into other equally subjective terms like ‘sexually explicit’ or into laundry lists of disapproved images or activities. What does ‘‘sexually explicit’’ mean? Nudity? Genitalia? Intercourse? What about the use of sexual images for social satire or political comment? Sex, because it is so deeply primitive and personal, is always potentially anarchic or subversive. It follows that political reactionaries, religious fundamentalists and anti-pornography campaigners will get together. All three are concerned that people’s thinking about sex shall be expressed only in ways they approve. So we have Claire Short, MP, socialist and feminist, speaking at a meeting organised by CARE and sharing a platform with Mary Whitehouse, organiser of another conservative, sexually repressive pressure group.

Campaigners on both sides of politics also constantly associate violence with sex and sex with violence, which is sadism in the strict sense of the term. The self-confidence of a beautiful nude is beyond them. They treat the women who work in the sex industry as a lower form of life. ‘‘Pornography degrades women’’ does not, unfortunately, refer to the often working class women who appear in it, but to the well-heeled, well-educated women who feel soiled by seeing it in a shop.

Themselves unaffected by the economic factors which lead other women into this work, they demand criminalising measures which would deprive them of what employment safeguards they have. Anti-pornography campaigners help to keep in being the Victorian distinction between the ‘‘respectable’’ woman and the whore.

By making common cause with people who are actively hostile to homosexuals, the feminist campaigners are deserting gay rights, just when gays need their support. Now the authorities in China have taken the ‘‘pornography causes sex offences’’ thesis to its logical conclusion. According to a report on 18 July 1990 in The Guardian, ‘‘pornography-related crime’’ can carry the death penalty, not just for the criminal but for the pornographer. Given the impossibility of objective definition, the relation between sexual deviation and political dissent, and the Chinese readiness to conduct social experiments on a large scale, that is very bad news. Pornography by itself never killed anyone, but execution is the last word in censorship. The one certain way to suppress a word or an image is to kill the person who uses it.

Mary Hayward, Campaign Against Censorship, c/o 25 Middleton Close, Fareham, Hants, PO14 1QN

Gentlefolk: We must wonder what Catherine Itzin’s article, ‘‘Pornography and Civil liberties’’, was doing in Index (9/1990). The author seems so uninterested in protecting freedom of expression that she even sinks to muddling the meaning of once useful words, claiming that pornography ‘‘censors’’ women. Men may be critical of women, and prone to holding women to a double-standard, but none of this can honestly be called ‘‘censorship’’. Criticism is criticism, and no idea, even when delivered by Dr Catherine Itzin, is so lofty that it is above being evaluated or even laughed at.

There is no proof that pornography is alone in negatively portraying women. Certainly, this article does not describe any examples of oppression that have evolved since the advent of mass-produced pornography.

Moreover, the author freely asserts the existence of ‘‘evidence of causal links between pornography and rape’’, but we have never seen it. What we have seen are assertions similar to those in the article: somewhere out there is some real ‘‘proof of a solid link between pornography and rape. Sometimes studies are named, but when we read those studies, we find that no such relationship has been demonstrated. (See, for example, Pornography & Violence: What the Experts’ Really Say by Lynne Segal, Feminist Review 36 Autumn 1990.)

Ms. Itzin also refers to her own survey in Cosmopolitan, which she says reveals this link in that some 12-14% of respondents who had been sexually assaulted reported that their assailants had used pornography during the act. We are not told what ‘‘used’’ means, of course, and neither are we told what the remaining 86-88% of assailants used instead. But these figures are meaningless in both respects: people also use pornography when they don’t rape, the vast majority of porn users do not rape at all, and rapists use any number of items and cues to justify, inspire, and implement their actions. Neither the article nor the survey demonstrate that pornography is any more causal to rape than, say, the Bible.

Itzin also seems remarkably unfamiliar with both her subject and with non-pornographic media. ‘‘In pornography,’’ she says, ‘‘women are passive, servile, servicing men sexually, violated, victims of violence.’’ This is certainly true of some pornography, but it is truer of non-pornographic media, where women are far more often shown in this way. The primary difference between pornography and the non-pornographic media is that porn shows a bit more skin and more genital action, and that the non-pornographic media almost universally portray women as having been degraded by sexual activity to the extent that they deserve to be punished for it in some ‘‘slasher movies’’, for example, only the virgins are allowed to survive. In fact, the level of violence in pornographic film has decreased steadily since 1977, in contrast to the rest of the media.

The accusation that anti-censorship activists lie when we criticise the anti-pornography movement sounds suspiciously like an attempt to deflect attention from what is a demonstrable fact: that Campaign Against Pornography openly listed support and membership from right -wing groups in their ‘‘Off the shelf’’ publications; that the Dworkin/Mackinnon legislation was passed solely with Republican votes and with opposition from all Democratic members of the legislature as well as vocal feminist dissention; that the anti-pornography campaigns of CAP and CAPC have created an atmosphere in which Mary Whitehouse has received more media coverage and support than she has had in at least half a decade; and that many legitimate long-time feminists are by no means in agreement with this programme to return us to the ladylike modesty and dislike of sex which women have always been expected to maintain.

Once, a woman could be tried as a ‘‘common scold’’ for attempting to speak out, and sentenced to a public dunking- even if she was an old woman, and even if the sentence was likely to kill her. There was no pornography then no Playboy, no Penthouse, not even sadomasochists’ magazines.

In the last 30 years, however, just as there has been a rise in the quantity and availability of mass-produced pornography, there has also been an increase in the number of women who are leaders, scholars, and even respected speakers. These two things may be no more than a coincidence of timing, but the very fact that they can coincide suggests that sexually explicit material is the least likely culprit in silencing women.

A. Carol, Feminists Against Censorship, 38 Mount Pleasant, London WCIX OAP


See also:
Ask yourself...Do You Really Want More Censorship? - Censorship is dangerous and feminists who support it are wrong-headed. (CX4352).


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