Pornography and Civil Rights:
A New Day for Women's Equality
By Andrea Dworkin and Catharine A. MacKinnon.
Organizing Against Pornography, 1988, 142pp.
Review by David A. Orthmann (c) 1995
Despite drawing widespread criticism, Andrea Dworkin and Catharine A. MacKinnon have been steadfast in refusing to reform the grim evaluation of male behavior contained in their writings and political work. In an age when many assume that women are rapidly gaining social and political parity with men, this intransigence may seem unnecessary. It is, however, impossible to reconcile the popular notion of increasing equality between the sexes with the reality of widespread sexual violence against women. While it is not news that men rape and sexually abuse women, the extent to which these crimes are perpetuated and their profound effect on male-female relations is still largely ignored or denied.
Dworkin and MacKinnon have no intention of allowing us to dieregard these contradictions. Their recently published book, Pornography and Civil Rights: A New Day for Women's Equality, is an affirmation of the necessity of facing the consequences of the worst of male conduct. Without denying the importance of economic equality, the book primarily emphasizes the connection between the endemic sexual violation of women and the denial of their civil rights. Dworkin and MacKinnon contend that rape, battery, incest, prostitution, sexualized torture and sexualized murder are not disparate incidents committed by a few unstable individuals. Rather, they are frequent and "systematic violations of women's rights to safety, dignity and civil equality." "These are means of keeping women subjugated as a group with low civil status and a degraded quality of life" (p. 15).
For several years, Dworkin and MacKinnon have used pornography as the center of their theoritical analysis and political activity. In the following passage, they summarize why pornography is both a symptom and a cause of overtly hostile acts and second-class status for women.
Pornography sexualizes inequality and the hatred of women so
that men get sexual pleasure from hurting women and putting
women down. It creates bigotry and aggression. It desen-
sitizes men to rape and other forms of sexual violence against
women so that they do not recognize the violence as violence,
or they believe the women provoked and enjoyed it. Pornography is used as a blueprint for sadism, rape, and torture" --(p. 73).
The judgments made by Dworkin and MacKinnon regarding pornography are not moralistic but instead based on evidence that the material is a source of real harm to women. Their investigations, particularly those conducted at hearings in Minneapolis in 1983, exposed the bankruptcy of the fashionable view of pornography as an abstract, insubstantial representation divorced from actual behavior. Testimony at the hearings from victims, therapists, and social scientists revealed that women are often physically coerced into making pornography; that pornography is frequently forced on women who then have to imitate the depicted sex acts; rapes have been patterned on specific pieces of pornography; and sexual harassment is common in neighborhoods where pornography is prominently displayed.
Dworkin and MacKinnon's anti-pornography civil rights ordinance aims at granting all women at least some of their rights as citizens by giving them the option of initiating a civil suit against persons who produce and/or use pornography in ways that can be proven harmful. The ordinance, in part, states that pornography is sex discrimination and as such poses "a substantial threat to the health, peace, welfare and equality of citizens in the community" (p. 31).
Inspired by the civil rights movement of the fifties and sixties, Dworkin and MacKinnon are convinced that "the moral authority of those confronting entrenched power can be a force for change" (p. 10), but only if enough people are willing to challenge it "where it is strongest, meanest, and most entrenched" (p. 10). At this point in the struggle for women's equality, the anti-pornography civil rights ordinance is the only strategy that gives the victims of pornography "a forum of authority--the courts--in which to articulate the injuries of sexual inequality" (p. 92). Moreover, although the ordinance is a means for radical change, the fact that it utilizes democratic institutions for the empowerment of all citizens indicates a respect for the community as a whole as well as disaffected individuals.
Ultimately, Dworkin and MacKinnon force us to acknowledge that we live in a society that preaches the gospel of human and civil rights, but willfully ignores the fact that women must suffer abuse so that men can have sex in a way that both affirms and perpetuates male power. Pornography and Civil Rights stands as a challenge to both men and women to rethink our conceptions of private and public expressions of sexuality vis-a-vis the civil rights of women.