Speaking Volumes: Pornography

November 8, 1996

Catherine Itzin on Andrea Dworkin's Pornography .

I read Andrea Dworkin's Pornography when it was first published in 1981 by the Women's Press and appeared on the syllabus of the new MA in women's studies at the University of Kent where I was doing my PhD. Through her eyes I first saw the harm in pornography and its meaning as male power, gendered power relations and misogyny.

In the same year Polly Toynbee described in The Guardian what she had seen as a member of the Williams Committee on Obscenity and Film Censorship. This included scenes of castration, cannibalism, flaying, the crushing of breasts in vices, exploding vaginas packed with hand grenades, eyes gouged out, beatings, dismemberings, burnings, multiple rape and every other horror that could befall the human body. They had also witnessed "women engaged in sexual intercourse with pigs and dogs" and heard of women killed on film in "snuff movies".

But the committee could not see the harm in pornography and recommended "the greatest possible freedom from censorship" with some limited "restrictions on the open display of material" described as indecent, but not defined. Like the committee I was "for" free speech and "against" censorship, but I could see the harm in pornography. I just could not see what could be done about it that would not be censorship.

Later in the 1980s, researching commercially available pornography, I went shopping in Clapham High Street to see what the man on the proverbial omnibus could purchase in his local newsagents: there were four, selling 73 titles. Most of this "top-shelf" material was page after page of women reduced to their genitals and anuses, posed open and gaping, inviting sexual access and penetration: pieces of meat. In other magazines women were being beaten and portrayed as enjoying sexual violence and humiliation; or shown with their pubic hair shaved, genitals exposed and posed to look like little girls, linking male sexual arousal to children's bodies.

This was "legal" so-called soft porn. Scotland Yard Obscene Publications Branch seizures at that time included pictures of a woman with her labia nailed to the top of a table; another with men's arms up to their elbows in her vagina and anus; and women hung by their breasts from meat hooks. If this was in an Amnesty ad, it would be seen as torture. But sold and seen as sex, the harm seems to be invisible.

There is more and worse now, and a substantial body of scientific evidence of pornography-related harm which corroborates the harm in pornography and in its making. This, in turn, is corroborated by sex-offender evidence and victim testimony. With satellite broadcasting and computer technology, pornography is now widely available and cannot be regulated. The Obscene Publications Branch has been disbanded and the Crown Prosecution Service has taken a decision not to prosecute "adult" pornography presumably because, in the view of the Williams Committee in 1979 and police, lawyers, judges and directors of public prosecution ever since, obscenity legislation is a mess.

It is possible, however, to legislate against pornography without censorship by, for example, using the Race Relations Act as a model for legislating against incitement to sexual hatred and violence, or on the ground of sex discrimination using the formulation by Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon of pornography as a civil rights issue. People who could prove they were victims of pornography-related harm could take action against manufacturers and distributors of pornography, using a harm-based legal definition in a civil statute that would not ban the publication of pornography or give power to the state to censor. This approach is supported by National Association of Women's Organisations, but opposed by civil libertarians.

The real issue is not the evidence of harm, which is unequivocal, but the relative value of its victims. For as Andrea Dworkin points out, if it is sexually explicit, whatever the nature and level of violence, abuse, and dehumanisation it contains, it will always be sex for someone who will want it protected as their "freedom of speech".

Catherine Itzin is research professor in social work and social policy, University of Sunderland.

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