Reel fantasies, real crimes

August 8, 1997

Andrea Dworkin describes how she, Catharine MacKinnon and Linda Lovelace battled to prove that pornographers were similar in kind to the Ku Klux Klan

In fall 1983 Catharine MacKinnon and I co-taught a course on pornography at the University of Minnesota law school, Minneapolis. We had spent the summer reading obscenity decisions, compiling essays on issues raised by pornography, and deciding which pornography our students would study. Not a course for the faint-hearted, it started off with Salo, the Marquis de Sade's 120 Days of Sodom and Snuff.

We selected 64 students, mostly women. Enrolment was open to liberal arts students and law students.

We were lobbied by activists to attend a zoning committee meeting at the city hall. The US pornography business above all concerns property: whose is worthless enough that politicians can get away with dumping commercial sex nearby? The answer in every city is the same: put porn establishments near the dwellings of people of colour and poor whites. Minneapolis is 96 per cent white, but the pornography outlets saturate neighbourhoods inhabited by American Indians and African Americans. For years, neighbourhood groups wanted fairer zoning laws. But even in progressive Minneapolis, pornography was not going to be zoned into wealthy, white areas.

MacKinnon and I made clear we would not support any zoning strategy. The community activists, it turned out, were not asking that: rather, they wanted to confront the hatred of women in pornography. Exposed to pornographic films and magazines over years of organising, they had developed a human-rights consciousness and we became the catalysts for its expression. Several of them testified to the zoning committee about pornography's brutality towards women. MacKinnon and Iconnected pornography to the low civil status of women.

A liberal Republican woman, Charlee Hoyt, proposed hiring MacKinnon and myself to draft civil-rights legislation that would recognise pornography's role in subordinating women, to organise hearings on the legislation, and to consult with the city council on pornography.

Before we had fully drafted our legislation, the Minnesota Civil Liberties Union denounced it, setting the tone for the political struggle ahead. While drafting the law and organising the hearings for the city council, MacKinnon and I were followed, threatened and demonised in cartoons and newspaper articles. Life became complicated. Nevertheless we seized the day.

First we drafted a statutory definition of pornography, concrete and precise so that it could not be misused. Next we created a cause of action (a right to sue) against traffickers in pornography for sex discrimination. We knew that we wanted a civil, not a criminal, law and that it had to be easy to understand so it would not be in the exclusive domain of lawyers but victim-friendly, something people could use.

Then we thought, What about Linda? Known as Linda Lovelace, she had been beaten to force her participation in Deep Throat, the most commercially successful pornographic film. MacKinnon and I had spent a year, along with Gloria Steinem among others, trying to frame a civil-rights lawsuit on Linda's behalf. She was raped, tortured, bought and sold, forced into pornography. Surely, if Linda's civil rights had not been violated, whose had?

Steinem pointed me to Linda's account of these events in her autobiographical book Ordeal. After reading it, I began to conceptualise the violence used against Linda as interrelated civil-rights injuries. I wanted to bring a lawsuit against these pornographers as if they were the Ku Klux Klan. I consulted MacKinnon. She thought that post-civil war equality statutes designed to get at the Klan might be applied to the pornographers who had coerced Linda. I also wanted the suit to target all the men who used Linda as a prostitute and the husband who pimped, beat, and raped her.

MacKinnon and I grilled Linda on every detail of the violence against her, including the gang rape that was her first experience of forced prostitution. In the end we were unable to bring the suit. We could find no way around the statute of limitations. Too much time had elapsed, even though Linda spent those years trying to get people to believe her. Today courts will sometimes extend the statute of limitation for sexual abuse. But back then I was beside myself, frustrated to death. "Don't worry,'' said Steinem, "this won't be for nothing.'' Two years later in Minneapolis we used everything we had learned in trying to sue for Linda.

So, we created a cause of action for coercion together with a list of facts that could not be used by a judge to throw the plaintiff out of court - such as the plaintiff's being a woman, or a prostitute, or being married to the pimp who exploited her. We also created a right to sue if someone had pornography forced on her (for instance, in sexual harassment in a job; or rape or battery in a marriage); and if someone experienced a sexual assault directly caused by pornography. In every case, the burden of proof was on the victim. But the standard of proof was a civil standard: not "beyond a reasonable doubt'' but whether "a preponderance of the evidence'' supported the plaintiff's claim.

In the public hearings that took place before the Minneapolis city council on December 12 and 13 1983, Linda testified that "every time someone watches (Deep Throat), they are watching me being raped''. Linda's lie-detector test was submitted as an exhibit to the city council. A victim of pornography-related child molestation said: "I want to tell you how pornography has affected my life, how I am fighting self-loathing, disgust and shame.'' A woman raped repeatedly in marriage said: "Pornography is not a fantasy. It was my life, reality ... He would read from the pornography like a textbook ... when he asked me to be bound, when he finally convinced me to do it, he read in a magazine how to tie the knots, and how to bind me in a way that I couldn't get out.'' A former prostitute testifying for a group of women who had been prostituted in Minneapolis said: "We were all introduced to prostitution through pornography. There were no exceptions in our group, and we were all under 18.'' A construction worker described pornography at her work site. It was, she said, "uncomfortable ... to go down there and have dinner and lunch with about 20 men, and here is me facing all these pictures''. An American Indian woman testified: "I was raped by two white men, and from the beginning they let me know that the rape of a 'squaw' by white men was practically honoured by white society. In fact, it had been made into a video game called 'Custer's Last Stand'. That's what they screamed in my face as they threw me to the ground - 'this is more fun than 'Custer's Last Stand'.'' The anti-pornography civil rights bill we drafted was passed by the Minneapolis city council on December 30 1983. The mayor vetoed it; a new city council passed the law again in 1984; the mayor vetoed it a second time. Meanwhile, similar legislation that we drafted was passed in Indianapolis, Indiana, in April 1984. Mayor William Hudnut signed the bill into law. One hour later, Indianapolis was sued by a group called the Media Coalition, which included the American Publishers Association, American Booksellers Association, and American Library Association.

It has taken 15 years to get these hearings published in the US. The Minneapolis hearings were distributed as photocopied samizdat. None of the subsequent hearings has been available in any form. Nothing makes clearer how the pornographers and those who defend them depend on the suppression of women's speech. For MacKinnon and me, the publication of these hearings honours those who dared to speak. But our debt to them will not be paid until they and all those they stand in for can use the law we drafted.

In Harm's Way. Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon, eds. Harvard University Press, March 1998.

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