May 08, 2002


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Obscene feminists
Why women are leading the battle against censorship.

By Annalee Newitz

DIAN HANSON IS sorting through dozens of porn magazines. In one pile are Jaybird nudist publications from the late 1960s, featuring what she calls "crotch liberation" fantasies of happy, unshaven hippie kids. Filed in a different category are the British magazines, which "are so tidy and sensible – they have names like Practical Photography."

Hanson, a career pornographer who has run popular adult magazines like Leg Show and Juggs, is working on several pictorial histories of men's magazines for art publisher Taschen. She's been on the editorial staff of various porn mags since 1976, and although she's joined the art world now, she says proudly, "I still consider myself a pornographer."

Although Hanson estimates that close to 10 percent of adult magazines are run by women, public perception lags behind the facts. Most people assume women avoid pornography. Playboy's CEO may be Christie Hefner, and the wildly popular adult Web site Danni's Hard Drive may be woman-owned, but the conventional wisdom is that naked pictures exist only in man's domain. Women are supposed to be deeply disturbed by porn – that's why companies marketing "adulteryware" on the Internet aim their e-mail ads at women, who will supposedly want to catch their male companions in the "naughty" act of downloading a little tits and ass.

There's a reason for this. In the 1980s and '90s, antiporn feminist crusaders Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon sparked intense debate among feminists and progressives by forming a coalition with the religious right to stamp out pornography, based on the idea that it violated women's civil rights. They never managed to push through a piece of federal legislation called the Pornography Victims Compensation Act that would have denied porn First Amendment protection as free speech. Although Dworkin-MacKinnon ordinances in more than a dozen states were struck down – largely owing to feminists who organized against them – they nevertheless left a mark on U.S. pop culture, as well as the municipal laws of several cities, including Indianapolis. These days women, and feminists especially, are still being treated as if pornography should threaten and disgust them.

Yet the truth is, women are generally in the vanguard when it comes to fighting sexual censorship. The civil rights lawyers, activists, sex workers, media pundits, and professors who fight for your right to have dirty pictures are by and large female. Many call themselves feminists.

And the people fighting to stamp out pornography today are most decidedly male.

Attorney General John Ashcroft; his sympathizers in Congress, such as Mark Foley and Orrin Hatch; and powerful male-dominated lobbying groups like the Family Research Council and the American Family Association are on the warpath to eliminate "obscene materials" on the Internet. They're doing it using an argument conservative pundit George Gilder would undoubtedly deem feminine in the extreme: these antiporn boys say they want to protect the children.

Legislation such as the Child Pornography Prevention Act (the so-called morphing law recently ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court) and the Child Online Protection Act (the American Civil Liberties Union has challenged COPA's constitutionality, and a ruling is expected from the Supreme Court any day now) is aimed at censoring adult free speech to protect children and teens.

Ann Beeson, the ACLU's chief counsel in the COPA case, told us that although "the rationale is to protect children, every single law [like COPA] we've seen considered is to censor adults' access to speech. I think [conservative groups] are trying to legislate morality through these laws."

The conservative "morality" that inspires COPA is just one reason feminists are combating legislation that could ultimately cripple the First Amendment. They are also fighting for a basic civil liberty that women gained only a few decades ago and that teens are rapidly losing: the right to speak freely about your sexuality without fear of social, political, or legal reprisals.

From sexism to paternalism

Judith Levine's new book Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children from Sex has placed her at ground zero in current controversies over the broad range of issues that fall under the umbrella of "child porn." Her simple message – that it's OK for kids and teens to have sexual feelings and that legislation like COPA will prove harmful in the long run – has earned her potshots from conservatives and nervous write-ups in Time and USA Today. Levine says her position in Harmful to Minors grows out of feminist arguments against censoring pornography from the early '90s.

"Censorship historically has been attempted in the name of protecting women, children, and the feebleminded from 'bad' ideas," she says, explaining that the public has "anxiety about kids having sexual experiences." She believes right-wing groups hook into this understandable fear when they propose legislation to ban images that merely "resemble" children or when they attempt to censor sexual images on the Internet because children might see them.

People get so uneasy thinking about young people and sexuality that it's unlikely they'll bother to learn about the real effects of legislation such as the Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA), which reads more like an Internet-censorship act than something designed to protect kids. If passed, CIPA would halt federal funding for public libraries that don't use highly unreliable "censorware" on their computers. In Multnomah County Library vs. United States of America, the CIPA case, the ACLU's legal team represented Multnomah County and argued that censorware blocks access to politically progressive sites (including the ACLU's) and medical education sites, as well as hardcore pornography, thus making the tools harmful to adults who value free speech.

Levine marshals a traditional feminist argument to explain the problems with using children as an excuse to censor free speech: "Feminists have made the argument that women can tell the difference between coercion and consent. Women also have desires of their own. A similar argument can be made about teen sexuality. Teens are sexual and do have desire. It is our obligation as adults to respect their sexual autonomy." In other words, laws like these are not only problematic from a civil liberties perspective but also disrespectful of young people's rights.

Obscenity vs. child pornography

First Amendment activist and feminist Marjorie Heins points out that there's a crucial and often ignored difference between child porn laws designed to protect actual children from being abused and censorship laws like the Child Pornography Prevention Act (which would have outlawed any images, including cartoons and CGI, that "convey the impression ... of a minor engaged in sexually explicit conduct"). Heins, who heads up the Free Expression Policy Project at the National Coalition Against Censorship, worries that people confuse obscenity laws with child pornography laws.

Obscenity laws provide exceptions to the First Amendment, defining when it's appropriate for free speech to be censored. Child pornography laws such as the landmark Child Pornography Law of 1982 are there to protect children who are being used by adults to create porn. "The new laws are so broad that they shift toward mind control, not protecting real kids," Heins says. "Child porn laws can be justified because they are protecting kids from sexual exploitation. But today there's a general shift towards basing obscenity laws on the argument that minors must be protected."

As a result, you get laws like COPA that censor Web site content based on the idea that merely looking at pornography will hurt kids or turn adults into pedophiles. The problem is, as Heins points out, this kind of argument represents a slippery slope. "With this notion, any material could be banned based on the idea that it could arouse desires that were disapproved of," Heins says.

Activists in the women's movement have already dealt with the difficulties of balancing people's right to free speech with their rights to be protected from harm. "Feminists have pointed out that there is violence against women," Levine says. "And when it happens, we need to punish that. We need to create a culture where women have the ability to protect themselves. For children, the issues are similar. Children are going to be out in the world; they are going to be seeing media. So we need to prepare them with personal skills and good information. We need laws to protect them if they are harmed, but we also need to empower young people to express themselves sexually."

If you listen to Levine and Heins, it's obvious why women – and especially feminists – are involved in current battles against censorship. Historically, women's rights have been taken away and women's voices silenced to "protect" them from political and sexual knowledge. Obscenity laws have often been used to keep women from becoming educated about their bodies and their sexual choices. One might say that there would be no feminism as we know it without the First Amendment right to free speech, especially when it comes to sex and gender issues.

Remembering Dworkin

Although the women who make and defend pornography ally themselves with feminism, Beeson says it would be more accurate to say that censorship is a "very traditional civil rights issue, and the only time it was associated with feminism had to do with the lobbying efforts of Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon." ACLU president Nadine Strossen agrees. The author of Defending Pornography: Free Speech, Sex, and the Fight for Women's Rights, Strossen says the heyday for feminists against censorship was a decade ago, when the group Feminists for Free Expression was founded in response to MacKinnon and Dworkin's proposed Pornography Victims Compensation Act in 1992.

These days Strossen sees a pro-sex agenda as "part of mainstream feminism." And yet she acknowledges that "these debates never go away in the feminist community"; Dworkin's presence, and her passionate antiporn rhetoric, are still quite influential.

Dworkin, for her part, is still convinced that pornography and feminism are at odds. In her new autobiography, Heartbreak, she explores many of the reasons mainstream representations of women's sexuality are still deeply troubling for her. Despite the work of people like pornographer Hanson, who describes herself as "a feminist in practice," and local San Francisco feminist pornographers like Carol Queen and Shar Rednour, Dworkin says "feminist porn is irrelevant. What women need to do is break out of male control, and porn is an act of conformity."

Although she's known for a hard-line stance against pornography, based on the idea that graphic sexual images are equivalent to sexual assault on women, Dworkin's fuck-you-I'm-a-feminist political rhetoric has influenced the pro-porn feminist community in unexpected ways. Many of the reasons Dworkin is against pornography have become the reasons feminists have started making it. Both Dworkin and the feminist pornographers who grew up reading her work want to reclaim their bodies and their sexual identities.

"I think that one of the things pornography has done is that it's changed the way women experience their bodies so that sex is what you look like, not what you touch or what you feel and do," Dworkin says. Few feminist pornographers would disagree.

Rednour and Jackie Strano, who run SIR Video, have made careers out of removing the slick, sexist images from porn: using tattooed, variously sized, butch and/or femme women in their videos, they show that sexiness is about what you do, not how much you can conform to the generic Playboy-model mold. A star in one of SIR's recent productions said being in the movie was "about affirming for myself that being a sexual person is OK and that wanting to receive sexual attention is natural and healthy."

While feminist lawyers and pundits argue for pornography as a form of free speech, feminist pornographers think of it as a form of social and cultural validation. Women whose bodies have been deemed unacceptable by mainstream culture – "too fat," "too old," "too dark," "too butch" – can use feminist porn to show that they deserve sensual attention as much as anyone else. This is, in part, a lesson they learned from pissed-off women like Dworkin, who has argued her whole life for a world where women's bodies aren't treated, as she might say, "like shit."

Today, Dworkin says she feels the same way she always has about these issues. "I think sexuality is there to be enjoyed, but there are a lot of problems before you get to the enjoyment part. There are a lot of ways that women's bodies are devalued, and I think that keeps you from feeling pleasure."

Dworkin's frankness in her writing may ironically mirror the rhetoric of the feminist porn movement, but of course, there are still fundamental disconnects. I ask Dworkin whether feminist pornography could help women who have been deemed "unattractive" by mainstream culture to feel valued and desirable. "Lenny Bruce said that men will fuck mud," Dworkin responds flatly. "I think he's right. I don't think any woman has any trouble getting laid because of the way she looks. I really don't. Women may have trouble having sex because they're shy or unwilling, but I don't think any woman doesn't have sex because she's not pretty."

Dworkin's point is that in a world full of pornography, women might as well be mud. It's clear why she thinks women's rights hinge on eliminating porn. But feminist pornographers take a different tack, trying to turn pornography into something that can set us free. Dworkin alerted women to the problems with porn, and feminist pornographers are trying to fix those problems – one porn movie and adult Web site at a time.

Feminist cyber-liberties

Strossen says she thinks Dworkin and MacKinnon have become little more than a bad memory. Pornography, she says, is "not a big issue on the feminist agenda. It's not about feminists and nonfeminists. It's about people who follow Internet issues and those who don't." Not surprisingly, some of the most prominent attorneys involved in cyber-liberties cases like COPA are feminists such as Beeson, as well as Shari Steele and Cindy Cohn, president and legal director, respectively, of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) in San Francisco.

Unlike film and magazines, the Internet emerged as a mass medium during a time when feminism had profoundly changed women's sexual roles in the United States. Some of the earliest and most successful examples of adult Web content were created by women like Danni Ashe, owner of Danni's Hard Drive. The importance of women in the online adult industry can be gauged just by looking at several months of Adult Video News Online, the magazine of record for the adult Web industry.

Female pornographers (not porn stars) are featured regularly on AVN Online's covers, and a recent cover was devoted to queer adult Web sites. While women may be underrepresented in the tech industry, they make up more than half the people surfing online. And as adult e-commerce leader Xandria.com has proved, women are consuming more sex-related retail items than ever before.

It wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that the Internet has helped empower women sexually by providing them with a way to gain easy access to sexual information and education – in a form that's safe and private. Therefore it seems natural that the energies feminists once put into fighting Dworkinite antiporn lobbies will now go toward fighting censorship online – whatever form that censorship takes. Indeed, it would seem that civil liberties online are quickly becoming a cause célèbre for feminists, even if they aren't a feminist issue per se.

ACLU counsel Beeson speculates that future legal battles around obscenity in cyberspace might turn into right-wing appropriations of classic feminist issues like sexual harassment. "We're seeing people dredge up old laws about harassment and public nuisance to justify mandatory [Web] filtering in public places," she says. Conservatives might argue that it constitutes "harassment" if people are able to find pornography on the Internet using a computer terminal in public libraries or at work. But, Beeson states firmly, "we're going to prevent the expansion of indecency law."

There's no doubt that the future of obscenity law is bound up with the Internet. New legislation and regulations will determine what can be posted online, as well as who can view it and where. As we wait to find out how the Supreme Court will rule on COPA, dozens of similar cases are waiting to erupt all over the country. In March, for example, the Pennsylvania General Assembly passed a law that requires Internet service providers to monitor the Internet-usage activities of all their customers to stop child pornography. Because such monitoring is astronomically expensive, most ISPs will simply resort to filtering content using the same kinds of censorware that are at issue in CIPA. This sort of law is an invitation both to invade citizens' privacy and to censor their Web surfing.

Many cyberlaws that will lead to censorship – like the one in Pennsylvania – are based on protecting children. "Perhaps they don't feel comfortable censoring adults. That's the positive spin," Beeson muses. "But that's also the negative. They're still legislating morality with these laws." And obscenity is only one issue among many that confront cyber-liberties feminists of the 21st century. Other First Amendment activists, like Cohn of the EFF, are concerned about the chilling effects on free speech caused by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act – which limits fair use and criminalizes copyright violations. Still others, like Sarah Andrews, research director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, focus on protecting people's privacy online.

The feminist-led battle for freedom of expression on the Internet is part of an ongoing crusade, according to Strossen. "[Internet censorship] was part of the agenda under Clinton and Reno, too," she says. "Democrats and Republicans both gang up on free speech. Clinton signed all three federal pro-censorship laws. All that's happened recently is that the caption on the case changed: now it's ACLU v. Ashcroft instead of ACLU v. Reno." As future cyber-censorship laws are written, the caption will no doubt change again. But one thing is for certain: feminists will continue to be powerful players and activists in the battle for free speech online.

As Hanson argues, "real feminism isn't about worrying whether porn is for you. It's feeling free to make your own choices. We don't have to be protected. We can go out into the world and deal with what's there."

E-mail Annalee Newitz at annalee@techsploitation.com.