Testimony of pornography survivors

In Harm's Way
September 11, 1998

In 1983, Catharine MacKinnon, a feminist lawyer and academic, and Andrea Dworkin, a feminist writer and activist, were engaged by the city council of Minneapolis to draft an anti-pornography ordinance. There ensued a vigorous and often intemperate debate in and beyond the United States about the analysis of pornography's harms from which the ordinance proceeded and about the constitutional validity of the ordinance itself.

Dworkin's and MacKinnon's model defines pornography as sex discrimination and gives those harmed by it a civil right of action. In the US, attempts to enact ordinances based on this definition have ground to a halt, scuppered (at least in part) by the Supreme Court's affirmation in 1986 of a Circuit Court of Appeal's finding that they violated the constitutional bar on abridgement of freedom of speech. Though the first phase of the campaign for the ordinance is past, it is arguable that the court's decision provides a strong basis for more activism. For it goes some way towards recognising the harmful effects of pornography as posing an equality issue, and hence poses in stark terms the relative constitutional valuation of free speech and equality.

The idea of pornography as offending against constitutional principles of sex equality has had a key influence on the interpretation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and Dworkin's and MacKinnon's work has informed debates about pornography and its effects all over the world. Though many (me included) have disputed the wisdom of enacting legal proscriptions that may be invoked to suppress literature beyond the contemplation of their framers, the message underlying the campaign is powerful and far-reaching. This is the idea that free speech depends not merely on the absence of legal restraint but also on positive conditions such as dignity and respect; and that in so far as pornography affects women's social status, it is both an equality issue and an erosion of women's speaking power.

Perhaps the most distinctive aspect of the ordinance's history was the attempt to build into the legislative process a real attention to the experiences of those whose lives are affected by pornography. Hearings were held in Minneapolis, Indianapolis, Los Angeles and Boston, and the testimony was fed directly into the law-making process. This testimony is of particular interest in that it provides an unusual insight into the suffering of what MacKinnon and Dworkin call pornography survivors.

The feminist politics of the hearings, as well as the dearth of published first-hand testimony of this kind, would seem to have indicated a speedy publication. As MacKinnon says: "The hearings are the only source on the way pornography works concretely in everyday life that has seen the public light of day. And they may be the last." However, this testimony was not published until 1988, and that publication included only the Minneapolis hearings and appeared only in this country.

In Harm's Way presents a transcript of the entirety of the oral hearings in the four cities. It also includes a selection of written evidence and other exhibits submitted. The collection is prefaced by an essay by MacKinnon and one by Dworkin, each of which articulates the moral case for the ordinance and the arguments for its constitutional validity. These essays recapitulate arguments that will be familiar to readers of Dworkin's and MacKinnon's work, though I was struck by their bitterness at the stalling of the reform process.

In view of the political thinking behind the hearings, it is surprising to find that the greater part of the evidence presented was not the first-hand testimony of pornography survivors but rather evidence from researchers and professionals working with sex offenders and victims of sexual violence. One important focus of debate is the research of Edward Donnerstein and others into the long-term effect of men's exposure to pornography on their attitudes to women in general and to sexual violence in particular. Though a substantial minority of the testimony articulates practical, moral and constitutional objections to the ordinances, the majority is insistent upon the scale of pornography, its links with sexual violence, with prostitution and with the denigration of women and children, and most of these witnesses are sympathetic to invoking law to deal with the problem.

Amid the welter of "expert evidence" it is, however, the voices of the pornography survivors that make the most compelling - and the most distressing - reading.

This is not a piece of scholarly research. It is, however, an important social document. We should be grateful for Dworkin's and MacKinnon's perseverance in bringing it to the light of day.

Nicola Lacey is professor of criminal law, London School of Economics.

In Harm's Way: The Pornography Civil Rights Hearings

Editor - Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin
ISBN - 0 674 44578 3 and 44579 1 X
Publisher - Harvard University Press
Price - £29.95 and £16.50
Pages - 496

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