Riane Eisler on MacKinnon on Pornography

From Riane Eisler, Sacred Pleasure: Sex, Myth, and the Politics of the Body (HarperSanFrancisco, 1995), pp. 298-300

This web page created February 18, 2010.

[298] We have long been told that images of the nude human body, and particularly of the human body experiencing sexual pleasure, are obscene. This type of thinking—which curiously even considers depictions of women in the act of giving life unfit for "innocent" eyes, at the same time that images of men in the act of taking life are considered perfectly acceptable and normal—led to laws prohibiting the publication and distribution of all sexually explicit materials. Then, during the first stages of the sexual revolution, these laws were increasingly ignored, as pornographic books, magazines, videos, and films became widely available and, far more slowly, sex education was gradually introduced into schools.

However, the debate over obscenity is far from over. The most publicized aspect of this debate has been the argument between those in the traditionally conservative establishment who would still prohibit all sexually explicit materials as obscene, and those in the traditionally liberal establishment who would protect all sexually explicit materials, regardless of their content or consequences. But there is another view, one that again highlights how renaming gives us the power to redefine reality.

This view is based on a fundamental distinction between, on the one hand, erotica and sex education and, on the other, pornography. Probably the best-known application of this new view—which cuts through many myths and stereotypes about obscenity—is the "civil rights" antipornography legislation first introduced during the late 1970s by the law profes-[298/299] sor Catharine MacKinnon and the writer Andrea Dworkin. This legislation does not deal with erotica—in other words, with materials that celebrate sexual love and the sharing of sensual pleasure and treat the human body with dignity and respect. It only applies the term pornography to those sexually explicit materials that dehumanize women and glamorize domination and violence. And it therefore only provides legal remedies against the makers and distributors of materials that fall under this definition of pornography, as distinguished from sex education or erotica, on the grounds that such materials are central to creating and maintaining the inequality of women and men and that, in many cases, they are dangerous to women's safety.

This legislation challenges the absolutist position of both the politically conservative male establishment and the politically liberal male establishment. And in the process, it shifts the argument over pornography from a coercive or punitive morality of censoring obscenity (under this definition, any sexually explicit materials) to a morality of caring and responsibility—one where protecting the right to freedom of speech and press of powerful commercial interests that control the production and distribution of pornographic materials is balanced with the protection of the right of women to legal recourse for injuries to them individually and as a group from these materials. This must be a careful balancing, as freedom of speech and press are central to a free and equitable society. But in fact there has always been such a balancing. For example, there are libel and slander laws restricting the right of one person .to destroy the good name and reputation of an other. Similarly, there is the prohibition against falsely shouting "Fire!" in a crowded theater, on the grounds that it impairs people's right to be protected from the danger of being trampled in a stampede.

Indeed, this balancing of different rights has been central to the entire history of human rights, which has from the very beginning been the struggle between those who hold power trying to maintain their absolute rights and privileges, and traditionally disempowered groups trying to narrow those rights and privileges through laws that protect their rights instead. So what we are here dealing with is essentially a continuation of this struggle.

But once again, it requires that we make a fundamental distinction between the protection of two very different kinds of rights. One is the right of those who do not hold power to speak out against violence and injustice without fear of governmental suppression—which is the basis of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The other is the right of [300] protection from members of institutionally powerful groups (such as Whites and men) when they advocate violence and injustice against these groups—which is also in line with constitutional intent, in this case, the protection of people's life, liberty, and property.

This is not always an easy distinction to enforce. Personally, I strongly favor class actions and other suits for damages but still have some qualms about prior restraints, as I am concerned about censorship. Nonetheless, I believe that those who directly or indirectly instigate acts of violence and oppression must be held accountable—a principle that was recently in corporated into the U.S. legal system through "hate crime" laws holding those who propagate hatred against Blacks or Jews accountable when this incites acts of violence. And I also believe that when the right to freedom of expression clashes with the right of women and children to be protected against sexual violence, the rights of women and children come first, and that only when sexual images debase, brutalize, and objectify another human being should terms like obscene and pornographic apply.