Civil Liberties The National Newsletter of the ACLU #380, Spring 1994 (c) 1994 American Ci
Civil Liberties The National Newsletter of the ACLU
#380, Spring 1994 (c) 1994 American Civil Liberties Union
A flood of letters greeted Ursula K. Le Guin's article,
"Pornography and Responsibility," Civil Liberties, #379/Fall 1993.
One letter, a composite of all the correspondents' views, elicited
an answer. That letter and Le Guin's reply are offered below.
To Ursula LeGuin:
While I appreciate your stand against censorship and your
attempt to distance yourself from the anti-pornography movement, I
found your article to be flawed by incorrect assumptions, and by
your repetition of the stereotypes about pornography that the anti-
porn movement propagates.
Nowhere in your piece do you define what you mean by
"pornography." For most Americans, the term probably conjures up
visions of X-rated movies and sexually explicit magazines. I would
define pornography as: explicit depictions of sexual activity
designed to create sexual arousal.
You seem to understand the term broadly as a pejorative that
describes not only X-rated material, but also television
commercials, print advertisements, Hollywood movies and glamor
magazines. Indeed, you seem to regard pornography not as sexually
explicit material, but as any material that projects stereotyped or
otherwise negative images of women. Such usage makes sexually
explicit material -- that is, pornography -- tautologically bad,
leaving no room for a discussion of whether such material can play
a positive social role.
I have no argument with the assertion that some media
depictions of women are harmful, or that people should work to
reform such depictions. But I do dispute claims that these
negative depictions are necessarily more prevalent in sexually
explicit material than they are in media as a whole. As with all
media, the quality of pornography varies. Stigmatizing porn as bad
per se makes it harder for people to be informed consumers.
The anti-porn movement's image of the sex-media industry is
simply not correct. For example, in sexually explicit movies women
are not always portrayed as passive; dominant or balanced roles are
quite common. And depictions of explicit violence, rape or other
non-consensual sexual acts are very rare. To the extent that such
movies display stereotyped gender roles, they simply reflect the
sexism that pervades our other media and society in general. No
evidence exists to show that they caused the sexism.
Note: In this discussion, I'm referring to legally distributed
material that is potentially subject to censorship, not to child
pornography or so-called "snuff movies." I'm also not referring to
hyperviolent slasher movies that glorify violence against women,
but are by no measure "pornographic."
Some people hold the opinion that explicit depictions of sexual
activity are by their very nature degrading. Many others, however,
of both sexes and all sexual orientations, find such material
stimulating, educational and fun. Your quoting Margaret Atwood
assumes that all people share the same social matrix for their
sexuality. Not so. Many people choose to explore sex not in the
darkened bedrooms of traditional heterosexual romance, but outside
those bounds, in bright light with consenting partners.
Far from being a fundamental assault on women, sexually
explicit material can often be an educational tool for liberating
women who aspire to transcend the constraints our culture imposes
on sexual roles.
As for sex-workers in our society: The plight of Linda
Lovelace, if true, is certainly a tragedy. However, an event that
occurred in the early 1970s can hardly serve to indict an industry
operating in the very different climate of the '90s. The legal sex
industry is highly regulated to prevent participation by minors or
the coercion of actors. I discount economic coercion, which is an
unfortunate side-effect of our economic system, affecting many
people in many fields of work.
Our culture's attitudes towards sexuality are changing and
becoming more diverse. Sexually explicit material has a role to
play in this evolutionary process. The persistence of widespread
misconceptions about sexually explicit material, often repeated by
the well-intentioned, make First Amendment protection of
pornography all the more critical.
Dear Mr. Shalit:
Thank you for your letter. I appreciate your tone and spirit.
Several of your points made a great deal of sense to me; they will
help clarify my thinking, and I do keep thinking about this topic.
There is quite a widespread assumption that to dislike and
distrust pornography, pornoviolence, and commercial exploitation of
misogyny is to advocate censorship. It isn't easy to dislike,
distrust, and even loathe something, and yet be absolutely opposed
to silencing it; yet that is, of course, precisely the Voltairean,
ACLU stance. I know a lot of people besides myself who take that
stance as regards both commercial porn, and the not-technically-
pornographic commercial exploitation of violence against and
degradation of women in advertising and the media. A lot of them
are, of course, feminists.
I say this because there is a tendency at the moment to co-opt
feminism into extremism. On one hand, Dworkin and MacKinnon are
alleged to speak for all feminists, who are portrayed as pro-
censorship prudes, hand in glove with foaming Fundamentalists. On
the other, because feminism as a freedom movement is anti-
censorship, feminists are supposed to be sympathetic to any
depiction of sexuality, no matter how violent and misogynistic, and
to find it harmless and/or beneficent.
To me both these depictions of feminism are inaccurate. Yet
I keep meeting them. My talk was an inaccurate and probably unwise
attempt to say so.
You say my definition of pornography is so broad as to leave
out consideration of the positive role of sexually explicit
material. You are right. I need a better definition than
Atwood's, which I used in the article. But there must be a
definition. Because if all sexually explict material is defined as
inherently harmless or beneficent -- which is the position of many
anti-censorship spokespeople -- there is no room for consideration
of the negative role of some of its forms and varieties.
And so no reform, no effort to resist the acceptance of
commercial exploitation of misogyny, will be addressed by the ACLU
or other liberal bodies.
Censorship is not the only issue. (Oh how I envy single-issue
My books have been and are frequently censored, principally by
the market and by schools and library boards controlled by the
religious right. I have writen, and am writing, sexually explicit
material myself. Currently there are magazines who won't take such
stories because they're scared of getting pulled by their
distributors, who are scared of the religious right. Censorship is
my enemy. But that doesn't make misogyny my friend.
I am truly grateful for your letter, which allowed me to talk
to you as to a friend, and to feel that not everybody is totally,
irrationally polarized on this issue.
With all good wishes,
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