A Plague on Both Your Houses

Women have always been our cen­sors. Mrs. Grundy was a household word for inflexible propriety a good 30 years before Dr. Bowdler produced his expurgated version of Shakespeare. Times and manners change, and the American Mrs. Grundys took up, in succession, Abolition, Women’s Suffrage, and Temper­ ance,butitremainedtruethat:

Many are afraid of God                                                                                                                                                                                                                              and more of Mrs. Grundy.

Her most recent and unlikely incarna­tion is as a radical feminist. She’s given up suffrage for androgyny, but she still holds on to her inflexible determination to impose morality. In what has been described as “porn wars,” the feminists are lined up with the Moral Majority to attack pornography, which they define as any depiction of women as the victims of violence or lust. The biggest cause so far has been the Minneapolis ordinance devised by law professor Carol MacKinnon and the feminist answer to John Candy, Andrea Dworkin—the high priestess of hermaphrodites. In the final event, the mayor of Minneapolis vetoed the law, which would have made it possible for women to sue pornographers for “psychological damage,” but a similar ordinance has passed in Indianapolis.

The press has not been slow to take up an issue that allows them to talk dirty. Most news stories are limited to reporting on the curious alignment of Jerry Falwell and Gloria Steinem. Walter Goodman, writing last July in the New York Times, refrained from explicit editorializing, but he did manage to make his preference plain. He cites, without remark, the declaration of the 1970 Presidential Commission that pornography has no effect on criminal behavior and concludes with an ACLU statement calling for “the broadest interpretation” of the First Amendment. By taking the line that pornography is a legal issue—one that falls between the poles of criminal influence and civil rights—the Times removes the subject from the moral sphere. In September the Los Angeles Times printed a racier story by Patrick Goldstein, who interviewed three women record company execu­tives. The ladies expressed concern over s/m (sado-masochist) images in rock videos, which tend to portray women as a “conglomeration of fishnet stockings, breasts, and spiked heels.” But—and this is typical of the Los Angeles Times—the story is more concerned with the indus­try’s dilemma (how can they pass up the revenues?) than with the moral implica­tions. Elektra executives are quoted as insisting that “video reflects cultural values as much as it shapes them.” The same could be said for Jack the Ripper. The language of ethics is as alien to Los Angeles as it is to NewYork. It is hardly surprising, since most gentlemen of the press are, well, gentlemen of the press, whether they are grinning down at you from the TV screen or splitting infinitives on the editorial page. For most of them, their ethical education stopped in ninth grade Health & Guidance class.

If a press can only view pornography as a legal, rather than a moral issue, then they cannot escape seeing it as a question of balance: the rights of writers, publishers, and shopkeepers vs. the rights of women. Jean Bethke Elshtain, in a serious New Republic article (25 June 1984), expresses her unhappiness with the “porn plague” and finds the conservative alternative offered by George Will “attractive,” but she is frightened by its implications. Will had pointed out that community health depends on maintaining and enforcing a collective moral sence, but—she suggests—

He apparently forgot that his ideal traditional Communities restricted many women and denied them full civilidentity….He also added a heavy dose of conventional moralism on sexual behavior in general, as if any deviation from the standard ‘Thou shalt nots’ puts us on a slippery slope to sleaze and sadism. Will’s ‘high’ standards may, in practice, function rather like the old double standard. For what counted as ‘deviant’ in traditional communities was all too frequently a woman’s desire to break out of an oppressive double standard of sexual morality.

Elshtain is a feminist trying to climb back up the precipitous slope of social liberalism. The bottom of the slide is represented by writers like Carolyn Weaver in Mother Jones (December 1984). She complains that the “new feminist orthodoxy” on sex leaves out “a large number of women, lesbian and straight, who balked at deferring their pleasures….” Women should be less concerned with preserving their special status. Taking her title from Tina Turner’s celebration of the hooker, ”What’s Love Got to Do With It?” Weaver concludes:

Perhaps what we need now is less theory and more such models who…can show us how to ‘get it, bring it, and put it right here.’

Elshtain, on the other hand, is intelligent enough to realize that communities “should have the power to regulate and to curb open and visible assaults on human dignity.” (Was she thinking of Tina Turner?) But she has only begun to think through the problem. We cannot, she argues, return to an America of shared values and community consensus. Instead, we need to aim at a societyin which pornography will no longer “speak to our isolation, our resentment, our fear.”

In her conclusion, Elshtain seems to accept the feminist theory (borrowed from Michael Foucault) that the objects of pornography are the powerless victims of society—typically, women and children. Peter Drucker in Against the Current (Fall 1984) makes the connection clear:

The chief merit of Foucault’s History of Sexuality comes from his adopting, ably defending and seeing the full consequences of the radical position that, whatever the biological basis of human sexual drives, there is nothing innate or ‘natural’ in the way these drives are channeled or structured. Feminists have always insisted that there is nothing ‘natural’ about the social roles our culture assigns to males and females. The early move­ment for gay liberation added that neither heterosexuality nor homo­sexuality are innately determined forms of sexual behavior; both are socially shaped and defined by the institutions and ideology of our particular culture.

But Drucker dissents from the feminist interpretation. After all, “domination often does appear unmistakably in any kind of sexuality.” Even though s/m pornography does reflect “systematic power imbalances,” the state should not be intervening selectively in our erotic lives. Drucker also insists that we should have a comprehensive social vision which will magically eliminate the appeal of filth:

The solution to sexist pornography is not to ban it, but to offer non-sexist, erotic alternatives….We can only take small steps in this direction before fundamental changes occur in this society…. The aim of a socialist and feminist transformation of society is to enlarge as much as possible the ‘realm of freedom’…. With such a transformation the whole notion of ‘normal sexuality’…would disappear….

Drucker is right about one thing—and only one thing: the argument over censorship does turn on the nature of men and women. Like Drucker, most feminists put the blame on capitalist society or “patriarchalism.” Ginney Soley, for example, writes in Sojourner (an ostensibly Protestant journal) that our male-biased American culture fosters violence against women:

The structures of patriarchy are inherentlyunbalanced.Andwhilethe imbalanceismaintained,thethreatof forceisalwayspresent.Butanalterna­ tive to viewing our relationships as strugglesforpowerexists…etc.,etc.

What none of these writers—Elshtain, Drucker, or the “Sojourners”—are willing to confront is the accumulating evidence on sex differences in the human (and other) species, or the universal, repeat: universal occurrence of sex roles and male dominance. If patriarchalism is to blame, then why are so many more outrages against women committed now than in the Victorian era? Why more in American Black com­munities, which are aptly described as matriarchal, than among more patriarchal whites (Black males per capita commit about nine times as many rapes as whites)? When it comes down to it, why don’t women rape men? It is not a ques­tion of size—gang rape is a popular diversion in some neighborhoods. Sexual equality would, in fsct, depend on the sort of total renovation of society demanded by Drucker and Elshtain. Their escape from history into fantasy is a clear sign of a basic intellectual defect: they cannot connect up the conse­quences of actions—never mind ideas. If 100 years of progressive equality and sexual freedom leads to where we are today, it may be time to retrace our steps. But no, the journalist’s eyes look in only one direction, the someday-soon perfec­tion of the future. Unfortunately, the only guide books to this land of heart’s desire have been written by Plato and Sir Thomas More.

Book-Burning and Worse

Journalists and cartoonists usually depict censors as illiterate rubes. Many of them are. But they are intellectual enough to take ideas seriously. Though there have been many shameful—and silly—book-burnings in this century, no one can accuse book-burners of under­estimating the potential power of the written word. No less than the careful editor of a professional journal (himself a kind of censor) who rejects most manuscripts as unfit for publication, the parent who wants some books out of the tax-supported library is intent on putting boundaries around certain kinds of thinking.

Those who cheerfully dismiss all censorship in favor of “the free play of ideas” either believe that ideas are mental toys, which have no influence on behavior, or they simply do not care if their teenage son uses a how-to manual on suicide or if the neighbor boy reenacts an erotic novel with their daughter. Last summer a New York Times editorial urged a never-ending “struggle” against all those who believe “putting ideas in other people’s heads is still a crime.” We wonder if, in retrospect, the Times would have refused to keep copies of Mein Kampf out of the hands of all the boys who grew up into SS men.

The Times affects aloofness from material concerns, but their sweeping dismissal of censorship puts them in the same camp with the greediest of entre­preneurs. According to the Wall Street Journal Madison Avenue is no longer worried about violating taboos, now that their survey research has revealed that most viewers do not hold advertisers responsible for programming content. Hollywood has reached the same con­clusion. According to a recent Los Angeles Times feature, the sheer profit­ ability of gore films has induced Holly­wood to ignore “the fierce debate…on the matter of the effect on the viewers” and to proceed with “blood sport.” Responding to adverse criticism of graphic depictions of brutality and victimization of women, one money­-making director said: “These films are only reflections of horror—they aren’t real. They are latex and Karo syrup.”

To its credit, the LA Times has ex­pressed some skepticism over televi­sion’s new willingness to explore child pornography, wife-beating, incest, homosexuality, and other controversial topics. In assessing CBS’s much-lauded “Fallen Angel,” a program dealing with child pornography, LA Times observed that “what it generated” in the subsequent season was “less high-minded.” They also questioned the apparent discrepancy between ABC’s professed standard of never glorifying prostitution and the portrayal in “My Mother’s Secret Life” of “a healthy, attractive, well-paid hooker who salvages a relationship with her daughter.”

With the Wall Street journal, the reader finds a disturbing schizophrenia dividing the thoughtfulness of the editorial page and the bottom-line treatment which their reporters have accorded to media, movies, and publish­ing. Constant exposure to hookers and hatchet murderers may have more than merely moral consequences. In the long run it could undermine the morale of employees. It might even affect profits.