Civil Liberties The National Newsletter of the ACLU #380, Spring 1994 (c) 1994 American Ci

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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. Andrew Shalit Somerville, Massachusetts 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 people!) 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, Ursula LeGuin ============================================================= ACLU Free Reading Room | A publications and information resource of the gopher:// | American Civil Liberties Union National Office | | "Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty"


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