Defending Pornography: Free Speech, Sex, and the Fight for Women's Rights
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"A passionately argued, cogently written, lively discourse on the increasingly peculiar politics of sex." ― New York Times Book Review
"Proves without a doubt that free expression is an essential foundation for women's liberty, equality, and sexuality." -- Betty Friedan
"Strong medicine for all those who would censor sexual expression in cyberspace." -- Jerry Berman,Executive Director, Center for Democracy and Technology
"Defending Pornography is valuable precisely because of its lucid, broad exploration of the long debate over pornography." ― The Washington Post Book World
About the Author
- Publisher : NYU Press (July 1, 2000)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 320 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0814781497
- ISBN-13 : 978-0814781494
- Item Weight : 15.2 ounces
- Dimensions : 5.63 x 0.96 x 8.75 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #2,321,130 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
Top reviews from the United States
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Recommended reading for almost everyone, especially now that this topic is in the news again with "liberal" / "democratic" Icelandic parliament members threatening to outlaw sexual content on the internet.
Strossen would fit in well with the so-called "Intellectual Dark Web" in how she identifies feminists--*some* feminists, who have "gone too far", to be sure--as a far greater threat themselves than the threats they speak out against. I kept having to remind myself that the book was written in the 90s (published 2000) and the live controversies were very different theb. Authorities in popular culture and in government really were antisex and censorious. Radical feminists were certainly a legitimate target given the kind of common cause intellectual heft they afforded regimes with real power to censor.
But then I got to the chapter about how the feminists--*some* feminists, of course--have just gone too far with "sexual harassment". Strossen worries that threats of sexual harassment have created a chilling environment for everyday sexuality. In the MeToo era, of course, this just seems utterly blind to the very existence of power dynamics. And there is no reason to suspect that power and hierarchy worked differently in the 90s than they do 20 years later.
I'd have given the book a lonely star but the second half of the book is much stronger, perhaps because Strossen is more in her element. This part of the book explores the strong libertarian and legal cases against censorship. Overall I'd give the book a pass, but if you do read it, make sure to endure through to the later chapters.
Into this polarised picture stepped a segment of the feminist movement often dubbed "MacDworkinites" after their leaders: University of Michigan law professor Catherine MacKinnon and writer Andrea Dworkin. They argued that pornography should be suppressed not for traditional "moral" reasons but because it leads to discrimination and violence against women. They drafted an ordinance, or model law, which provided the basis for anti-pornography laws in a number of American states. They formed alliances with conservatives, many of whom were opposed to women's rights, and under a joint anti-pornography banner attacked a wide range of sexually oriented expression.
So successful has the MacDworkinite campaign been, that many people believe the suppression of pornography is a high priority for all feminists, or even for all women. But from the start their ideas and initiatives were countered by anti-censorship feminists.
This book adds an impressive voice to the anti-censorship argument. Nadine Strossen is a professor at New York Law School, editor of the Harvard Law Review and president of the American Civil Liberties Union. A feminist and passionate defender of free speech, her book sets out not just to present the well-worn argument that censorship is always injurious to freedom, but to counter the feminist rational for suppressing pornography with a feminist rational for defending it.
In summary, Strossen argues that any scheme for censoring pornography would undermine women's rights and interest in many ways: "It would be enforced in a way that discriminates against the least popular groups in our society, including feminists and lesbians: it would perpetuate demeaning stereotypes about women, including that sex is bad for us: it would perpetuate the disempowering notion that women are essentially victims; it would distract us from constructive approaches to countering discrimination and violence against women; it would suppress many works that are valuable to women and feminists; it would arm women's efforts to develop their own sexuality."
In contrast to these, and other, costs to feminist goals, the advocates of censorship can cite only on benefit - that it would reduce violence and discrimination against women - a benefit that is far from proven as repeated research had failed to find a casual link between pornography and sex crimes.
To support her case, Strossen has amassed a vast body of evidence. Perhaps most compelling comes form Canada, where a Supreme Court decision in 1992 (Butler V. The Queen) introduced MacDwokinite legislation.
The Canadian version is less sweeping than the original ordinance proposed by MacKinnon and Dworkin, but numerous commentators have demonstrated how it has been used, in Strossen's words, as "a potent weapon to suppress free speech for all, as well as the equality rights of various disempowered groups, including the very women whose rights it was supposed to enhance." Supremely ironic is that the Butler legislation has been used to confiscate two books written by Andrea Dworkin herself.
It's easy to see why the anti-pornography movement so readily gained support. It tapped into women's concern about sexual violence and seemed to offer a quick-fix solution or at least something concrete that could be done. It also tapped into the feelings of violation and disgust which pornography engenders in some women. Some, but not all.
And therein lies the difficulty - who decides which representations are "degrading" to women and what are merely a turn-on? Pornography is a vague term, with no legal definition or significance and is so amorphous that it can be - and is - used to encompass any sexual expression which a dominant group find objectionable.
When it comes to sex, and sexual representation, one person's revolting obscenity is another's treasured delight. That Western society find this hard to handle can be seen in the way we treat those dubbed sexually "deviant". Strossen's book demonstrates how the anti-porn movement feeds into this deep-rooted distrust of sex.
The book arises from the twists and turns the US justice system has taken around the issue and at times is US-centric but the questions it raises are relevant to all. If you'd like to move beyond polarised sloganeering around the contentious topic of pornography, this authoritatively documented and persuasively argued book provides an excellent place to begin.