The rise of the New Right in the late seventies and early eighties kept feminists busy and on the defensive. Feminist efforts to expand female horizons gave way to the more immediate concerns of protecting the gains already made, especially the legalization of abortion, which suffered a renewed, relentless attack. In this poisonous climate the quest for a politics of pleasure appeared to have fallen by the wayside, especially as the right sought to brand feminists as the immoral destroyers of the nuclear family and the murderers of “unborn babies.”
In 1982, a diverse group of feminists attempted to return to an exploration of sexual issues in a conference called “Toward a Politics of Sexuality,” held at Barnard College in New York City. The concept paper for the conference, written by the program’s academic coordinator, medical anthropologist Carole S. Vance, acknowledged the success the New Right enjoyed in limiting notions of female sexuality to its reproductive function, and urged feminists to seize back the agenda. The conference, part of Barnard’s acclaimed “Feminist and Scholar" program, sought to explore the gamut of female sexual experience, including such controversial subjects as “politically incorrect” sex and lesbian “butch-femme” roles. Among those presenting papers were several women known for their critiques of the antipornography movement.
In the anthology, Pleasure and Danger: Exploring Female Sexuality, that emerged from the papers delivered that day, editor Vance tells a harrowing tale of harassment and obstruction that led up to the conference, conducted not by the New Right but by antipornography feminists. According to Vance, antipornography activists alarmed Barnard administrators with accusatory phone calls about the harm that would come to women as a result of the conference, to the point whether Barnard President Ellen V. Futter confiscated the conference handbook intended for distribution at this sold-out gathering of some 800 participants. As a result of the controversy, the Helena Rubenstein Foundation dropped its funding for Barnard’s Feminist and Scholar series.
On the day of the conference, Vance writes, members of Women Against Pornography leafleted attendees with a flyer that not only decried and mischaracterized the conference but made allegations about the sexual practices of some of the speakers, calling them by name. This action, Vance claims, caused lasting damage to those defamed, derailing careers and causing much grief. “These tactics were McCarthyite,” Vance writes. “[They were] cowardly, surreptitious, dependent on slander and sexual panic for their power.”
In the wake of the Barnard Conference, American feminism appeared poised for a split, and it came the following year with the introduction of a new antipornography statute in Minneapolis by Andrea Dworkin and legal scholar Catharine A. MacKinnon. Years of grassroots organizing among feminists and neighborhood groups paid off in the hearings that led up to the vote on the ordinance, at which a diverse group of academics, health care professionals, women’s rights advocates and everyday people testified to a link between pornography and sexual abuse. Women spoke to the harm caused them by pornography, harms that Dworkin and MacKinnon would later list to include “dehumanization, sexual exploitation, forced sex, forced prostitution, physical injury, and social and sexual terrorism and inferiority presented as entertainment.”
The Minneapolis ordinance addressed pornography as a civil rights issue, allowing anyone who had been harmed by a particular piece of pornography, in accordance with the causes of action specified in the statute, to sue for civil damages. [See Appendix A, “The Dworkin-MacKinnon Antipornography Civil Rights Ordinance (Minneapolis),” items (l) through (o) for specific causes of action.] Arguing that, rather than a form speech, pornography is something that is done to women, Dworkin and MacKinnon explained, “Under the ordinance, pornography is what pornography does [emphasis theirs.]” Although there was no provision for prior restraint, the ordinance did allow for the removal from stores of material that had been proven harmful. Once the censorship question was called, the double helix of sexual protection and liberation untwined into two strands; the simple mixture of the xx chromosome and a desire for positive change was no longer enough to bind the complex organism the movement had become. Feminists appeared to split into two camps, the so-called protectionists vs. the free-speech advocates.
I was a junior editor at Ms. magazine when this conflict arose, and it made for some high drama. Dworkin and MacKinnon came to the magazine’s offices with several activists (including one who had worked in the sex trade) to make an impassioned presentation before the editorial staff, followed later that day by the women of the Feminist Anti-Censorship Task Force (FACT), led by Carole Vance, writer Lisa Duggan, attorney Nan D. Hunter, and filmmaker Barbara Kerr.
By the time the two sides held their separate teach-ins for the assembled Ms. staff, the ordinance had failed in Minneapolis,the result of mayoral vetoes, after winning the vote twice in the city council. Soon thereafter an amended version passed into law in Indianapolis, thanks, in part, to the support of a right-wing constituency. Dworkin and MacKinnon took a lot of heat for appearing to make common cause with Indianapolis councilwoman Beulah Coughenhour, described in the page of Ms. as the “Stop-ERA, antiabortion Eagle Forum member” who introduced the legislation for vote by the city council. (The Indianapolis statute was ultimately overturned in Federal Court on First Amendment grounds.)
Dworkin and MacKinnon’s model ordinance soon took on a life of its own, as politicians more concerned with moral decency than women’s rights began tinkering with the model to suit their own purposes, causing alarm among both antipornography and civil libertarian feminists. The most notable example occurred in Suffolk County, New York, where a right-wing county legislator rewrote the ordinance to reflect his political agenda, despite the opposition of both Dworkin and MacKinnon, as well as the New York chapter of Women Against Pornography, whose members testified against it. “I don’t want to tell anybody what to do as long as they live by the Ten Commandments,” asserted Michael D’Andre, sponsor of the Suffolk County measure. A new wariness set in over the right’s easy co-option of the pornography issue.
Although the Suffolk measure ultimately failed, the county legislature was considering D’Andre’s measure at the time each of the warring feminist parties assembled before us in the Ms. conference room, and the jury was still out on which way the vote would go.
It was one of the most difficult days I ever experienced at Ms.. As it wore on and we asked more and more questions, the volatility of the issue began to flower, as some women on the staff bravely stated their political discomfort with their own sexual fantasies, and others took emotional objection to the belief stated by one of the FACT members that freedom of expression had to extend to everything in the realm of human experience in order to sustain itself. You see, if you took the Dworkin-MacKinnon position, pornography was not defined simply by its content, as in obscenity law, but by its role as an agent of discrimination against women. MacKinnon’s very definition of pornography refers to material that combines “the graphic sexually explicit” with activities that are “actively subordinating, treating unequally, as less than human, on the basis of sex [emphasis mine].”
Divisions in the staff became manifest, it seemed, in an instant. Letty Cottin Pogrebin attacked the notion that “anything goes,” arguing that although holocaust pornography set in concentration camps may be based on fact, that doesn’t mean it belongs in the public consciousness imbued with erotic meaning. Though not present at these discussions, Gloria Steinem, who had long ago made a distinction between erotica and pornography in a much-reprinted article, had already given her blessing to the Dworkin-MacKinnon ordinance. At the helm of the editorial ship, Suzanne Braun Levine mediated what at times came close to being a free-for-all. “I’d always believed that on any issue, despite our diversity, that a consensus feminist position could be arrived at, at least within the pages,” she recently told me, “until this one came along.”
Levine had set up the presentations for the magazine's coverage of the debate. Among ourselves, we handled the issue gingerly, arguing politely with each other, suddenly aware of the potential the pornography problem had to blow us apart. In private, the more libertarian among us (myself included) made cracks about the “feminist thought police,” while the debate raged internally in the form of private campaigns waged in the hope of influencing the coverage of this feminist family feud.
The story was assigned to contributing editor Mary Kay Blakely, a thoughtful, mild-mannered reporter who happened to be newly arrived in New York, fresh from the Midwest. The assignment had barely been made before Blakely was cast under a cloud of suspicion by both sides. Dworkin was annoyed that her words would be set into Blakely’s narrative. To Blakely, the women of FACT seemed convinced that she had been co-opted by the antipornography side in her discussions with Dworkin and MacKinnon, though they had no direct knowledge of her interviews.
Before Blakely wrote a word of her piece, nearly every editor on staff was fielding phone calls from colleagues outside the magazine, as feminists lobbied their contacts for a shot at determining what tack the story would take.
Later, parts of one of Blakely’s drafts was leaked out, and the fracas caught fire. The attacks became intensely personal; there wasn’t an editor not affected. “Everyone had an agenda,” says Blakely, looking back on it now. “There were excesses on all sides.”
The resulting cover story, “Is One Woman’s Sexuality Another Woman’s Pornography?”, elicited reams of reader mail, both angry and appreciative. (Even the title of the article was a matter of contention.) The magazine’s coverage still angers Andrea Dworkin, who feels that in giving the two sides equal treatment, Blakely’s large piece lent FACT, a group of 30 or so New York-based journalists, artists and academics, political legitimacy that was undeserved when compared with the grassroots efforts that brought forth the Minneapolis and subsequent ordinances. But Vance is quick to point out that events organized by FACT often drew more than 100 participants, and that FACT chapters existed in at least four other cities where antipornography legislation was under consideration.
This piece originally ran on the op-ed page of the New York Times
on December 17, 1993.
WEEHAWKEN, N.J.--Were it not for an event in my own life, I might view the current debate over date rape and the rape crisis movement with detached amusement, the way one does whenever opposing pockets of the intellectual elite have a go at each other. But for me, the issue runs far deeper than that, and it seems to me that neither side has really got it right.
In 1978, I was raped by an acquaintance in my college dorm room. This was no murky instance of date rape; I was asleep when the perpetrator, a guest at a party my roommate was giving in our campus apartment, let himself in, gripped my arms over my head and bored his way into me.
Of course I protested, but I was afraid to do so too loudly, for just outside the door lurked the beer-soaked players of an entire hockey team, and I had heard too many boasts from athletes about girls who had “pulled the train” for a team, who had serviced 10 or 15 members in a single night. So I resigned myself to my fate, taking the advice of police experts on violent crime against women: “Resistance only excites them.”
Today’s debate is fueled in part by Katie Roiphe’s book, “The Morning After: Sex, Fear and Feminism on Campus,” which argues that young women are being whipped by feminists into a frenzy of fear about a rape crisis that doesn’t exist.
Revisionists like Ms. Roiphe often point out that some women are categorized as rape victims in studies even though they do not identify themselves as such. But if you asked me, even several years after my dorm-room horror, if I had ever been raped, I doubt I would have said yes. It was years before I told anyone about the assault; the experience was too painful, and the guilt at not having resisted harder was overwhelming. Revisionists who believe they would have been more forthcoming could at least show a little gratitude to the women’s movement for their untroubled psyches.
On the other side are the protectionist feminists, those so focused on shielding women from harm that they inadvertently encourage us to exalt our status as victims. In their advocacy for anti-pornography legislation, Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin often refer to the powerlessness of women as if it were innate.
I resist the notion of women as sexually pure damsels in need of special protections. In the 1980’s, when I was working at Ms. magazine, I heard an editor express concern about her politically incorrect sexual fantasies, and was shocked by the puritanism I saw creeping into the women’s movement. More concerned with reality than fantasy, I came to this movement for sexual equity, not sexual purity.
The revisionists and the protectionists cling to one or another clause of the old social contract between the sexes. Though Katie Roiphe acknowledges the widespread problem of sexual harassment, and she rightly insists that we are each responsible for our own actions (e.g., having sex with someone because you’re tipsy doesn’t mean he raped you), she implies that nearly any level of aggression visited upon us, short of stranger-rape at knife-point, is no big deal.
On the other hand, what are we to make of Andrea Dworkin’s statement that women’s silence over the dangers we face at the hands of men is “that silence into which we are born because we are women”?
I reject both assumptions. Since being raped, a remarkable thing happened to me--I became violent, and in this violence found liberation. I have been grabbed several times by strangers on the street, and I never let the culprit go without physically attacking him. When a vile remark is shouted at me, I shout back something equally vile.
Yet feminists often discourage women from such behavior. Some six months ago, Newsday ran a front-page article on a women who wielded a kitchen knife to foil a would-be rapist who broke into the apartment. The next day, a number of experts, including the sex crimes prosecutor Linda Fairstein, cautioned readers not to try the same thing--you could get killed. Isn’t it time we applauded women who defend themselves against attack? Why assume that women don’t have the judgment to assess their chances of success?
Likewise, we must reconsider how we raise our children. I believe that the pattern of sexual harassment that begins in grade school could be altered if we taught our daughters to fight back when attacked by boys. We expect girls to be comforted with the admonition not to pay them any mind; boys are like that. In other words: get used to it.
If more boys received more negative reinforcement at the hands of girls, the offensive behavior might be discouraged. At the very least, girls would feel less powerless. If there really is a war against women, then we ought to be raising women warriors.
Until all feminists are willing to rethink the social contract--including the provisions that cede our well-being to the good will of men and that proclaim us to be, like cows, on of nature’s mute and gentle creations--we will be left to the task of laying blame when we could be seeking real solutions.