Defending Pornography: Free Speech, Sex, and the Fight for Women's Rights

By Nadine Strossen
(Scribner, 320 pp., $22)

Nadine Strossen is the president of the American Civil Liberties Union, and the ACLU has strong opinions about pornography. In its view, just about any restrictions on pornography are a bad idea, and a violation of the United States Constitution. This book, a real barn-burner, marshals almost every imaginable argument against restricting pornography. What is distinctive about Defending Pornography is that its author identifies herself not just as a strong opponent of "censorship," but also as a strong feminist: a feminist who wants to defend, and even to celebrate, pornography. Her intention is to respond to people who think that pornography should be regulated--or even criticized--on feminist grounds.

Strossen offers three arguments. First, she makes strictly legal claims and urges that restrictions on pornography amount to an infringement of the First Amendment to the Constitution. Even people who agree with Strossen will find, I think, that this is the weakest part of the book--windy, rhetorical, one-sided. Then Strossen turns policymaker and claims that any restrictions would be unhelpful and counterproductive; here she makes some noteworthy points about what she sees as the likely effects of real-world enforcement policies. And finally, and in some ways most interestingly, Strossen appears as sociologist, even sexologist. Here, she joins company with a number of other women who are concerned about the "cult of victimization," notably Katie Roiphe and Christina Hoff Sommers. Strossen defends her belief that women are agents, not just victims, in the world of sex as everywhere else. Strossen explores what she sees as the many valuable functions of pornography, in giving people pleasure and helping them to learn about their sexuality and to express an important aspect of themselves.

But we need to back up a bit, and to ask why some people think that it is legitimate or appropriate to regulate some sexually explicit materials. As a matter of law, such materials have never received full constitutional protection. The most familiar argument, accepted by the courts since the nineteenth century, invoked the need to protect traditional morality. The Supreme Court refined this argument in 1973, when the Court concluded that some materials ("obscenity") can be regulated under three conditions: (a) if, taken as a whole and under contemporary community standards, they appeal to the prurient interest; (b) if they depict or describe, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by state law; and (c) if, taken as a whole, they lack serious social value. These materials---according to the Supreme Court--are far from the "core" of the free speech guarantee and may be regulated on the basis of a lesser showing of harm, that is, they may be regulated without a demonstration of the likely "threat of imminent lawless action" required for regulation of political speech. The Court said that a legislature might believe that such materials "have a tendency to exert a corrupting and debasing impact leading to anti-social behavior."

Emphasizing corruption and debasement, many conservatives (and not a few liberals, too) think that it is legitimate for a community to fear that at least some kinds of commercial exploitation of sex will have unfortunate effects on social attitudes and practices. Some critics worry that any restrictions on obscenity will lead to a widespread censorship; and grotesque incidents of censorship have occurred in American history, perhaps most notably and most disgrace-fully with the attempted suppression of Ulysses, Since 1973, however, the Supreme Court has understood the category of regulable material to be very narrow, and prosecutors who suffer from "sex panic" (Strossen's term) will lose most of their cases. Realistically speaking, the Court's standard is restricted to a small category of "hard core" pornography. Do not be misled by the shameful and heavily publicized prosecutions of Robert Mapplethorpe and 2 Live Crew; there is just about no possibility, under the Court's understanding of its own standard, that such prosecutions could result in judicially affirmed convictions.

In the last twenty years or so, some feminists, most famously Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin, have argued for regulation of some sexually explicit materials, but on a different rationale. They urge that the real problem with such materials is not that they are inconsistent with community values, but that they can produce more tangible harms, especially (though not only) to women. Some of the women who participate in pornography are victims of violence and abuse, and it is hard to prevent such violence without regulating pornography as well. Moreover, there is evidence that some pornography can incite violence against women. (This is not a claim that sexual violence would disappear without pornography, or that most or even many men who are exposed to pornography will commit acts of violence; it is a claim about aggregate rates of violence.) Finally, it is argued that pornography is associated with various forms of degrading and unequal treatment, some of it--like sexual harassment--unlawful.

All of these claims are widely disputed, of course, as an empirical matter (Strossen disputes them vigorously), and people disagree about what ought to be done even if pornography can be associated with real-world harms. Some people think that the particular proposals offered by MacKinnon and Dworkin are too vague or too broad, and would be willing to consider narrower versions. What is most important and most interesting is the emphasis on a certain kind of harm, and in particular the emphasis on materials that are sexually abusive rather than sexually explicit.

Now we may consider Strossen's legal argument. To qualify as a genuine legal argument rather than a policy proposal, her claim should be based, at least to a degree, on a reading of the Constitution's text and history, and on an encounter with analogous cases both ways. But even like-minded readers will find that Strossen disappoints on these counts. Briefly, her argument takes the following form. The text of the First Amendment says that "Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech." She points out that there is no textual exception for sexually explicit materials. Yet the Supreme Court has consistently--and in her view illegitimately--read an exception into the First Amendment.

Strossen thinks that this is especially bad in light of her judgment that pornography is "political." For her, pornography is a form of dissent; and the censorship of pornography is therefore no different from the censorship of political speech, which the Court would not allow. And once we start on the project of censoring sexually explicit materials, there is no logical stopping point. Everything is at grave risk: not just Robert Mapplethorpe, not just Lina Wertmuller, and not just Debbie Reynolds, but also classical music and even, Strossen thinks, the Bible itself.

This is a lawyer's brief, and it isn't at all convincing. Like a bombastic talk radio host, Strossen does not present counterarguments except in their most absurd form, and she does not investigate distinctions that might complicate her own view or lead to intermediate positions. Strossen does not, in fact, give us a full account of her position on the legal issue. She seems to think that sexually explicit speech deserves absolute protection as a matter of constitutional law; and she seems unaware that this is not a simple position to defend. Would Strossen really protect the distribution of any and all child pornography (involving, say, movies with children who are 12 years old, or 8 years old, or 4 years old)? In the name of the Constitution, would she ban states from restricting the time and place when unwilling viewers could be exposed, say, to billboards and subway posters showing child pornography, or acts that are violent and sexually explicit? If Strossen patiently confronted these questions, her argument would be easier to understand and to evaluate; but she doesn't like to deal with hard questions that might draw her absolutism into doubt.

Now ask whether the text of the First Amendment really leads where Strossen wants to go. (For charity's sake, put aside the embarrassing fact that the First Amendment applies only to Congress, not to other government bodies; this is a large problem for Strossen and other literalists, and it is dodged in her book by an uninformative footnote.) Strossen's main argument--that the text of the amendment contains "no exceptions"--could be made about the vast array of cases in which government now controls speech without getting many people upset. Consider the fact that government regulates, among other things, unlicensed medical or legal advice; false or misleading commercial advertisements; tobacco and alcohol advertising even if truthful; libel, especially private libel; fraudulent real estate deals; obscene telephone calls; attempted bribery; perjury; and threats, including threats to assassinate the president.

Are all of these troublesome "exceptions" to the First Amendment? In truth, they should not be viewed as "exceptions" at all, certainly if we read the text historically. But Strossen says hardly a word about history. It is a surprising gap in a book in part about the meaning of the Constitution; but if we care about history, we will see that the constitutional term "freedom of speech" was not originally understood to include everything that someone might want to say. It had a narrower and more specialized meaning. Some people think the clause applied principally to prepublication restraints; others think it allowed a distinction between "liberty" and "license." In any case, it is hard indeed to find absolutism in the relevant history.

Maybe Strossen believes that the text should be read entirely apart from its history. But absolutist platitudes notwithstanding, the text has never been understood to include whatever people might want to use words to say, and it is unlikely that Strossen herself really reads it that way. In view of the many cases in which government legitimately regulates expression, free speech absolutism is an illusion, and people who believe that pornography deserves absolute protection should explain if or why, on their view, the government can punish the many forms of speech that it regulates every day. The argument cannot be carried simply by brandishing the word "censorship."

Strossen may want to make distinctions among categories of speech, to claim that regulable speech causes serious and immediate harm, whereas sexually explicit speech does not (though this argument runs into trouble when we consider that a lot of regulated speech, including, for example, much unlicensed medical advice, and many threats that cannot realistically be carried out, are not necessarily harmful). Perhaps she can show, as others have tried to show, why sexually explicit speech usually or always deserves protection, while libel and misleading commercial speech and threats and unlicensed medical advice and attempted bribery do not. But sympathetic readers will be disappointed to see that Strossen doesn't even try to do this. Instead she rests on the authority of a legal abstraction that can't do the work.

Nor is it helpful for Strossen to claim that pornography is "political," a term that she does not define. Maybe pornography in political in the sense that it appeals to political outsiders and dissidents; maybe it is political in the sense that it expresses a view on what is good and right; maybe it is political in the sense that it is (sometimes? often?) sexist. But if speech that is political in these ways is protected by the First Amendment, then a lot of speech apparently counts as political--including, for example, attempted bribery of a public official, and misleading commercial speech, and child pornography, and threats to assassinate the president. Strossen does not grapple with these problems, either.

Legally, then, Strossen's claims are weak. But on the policy issue--"Should we regulate pornography?" as opposed to, "Does the Constitution permit regulation of pornography?"--she is more successful and raises a number of worthy points. Strossen urges feminists who support anti-pornography laws to worry about how such laws will work in the real world. She thinks that any such laws will be too vague. In Strossen's view, it is impossible to define a regulable category of sexually explicit material without also allowing regulation of material that ought not, on any view, to be suppressed; for example, education about AIDS, or about sex in general, will be at risk.

Strossen thinks, too, that any enforcement efforts would be directed against people who are already weak or unpopular. She fears that such laws will not be used against women who have perhaps been harmed by pornography, but instead against homosexuals, who, in her view, benefit from pornography, (Again and again Strossen seems to think it decisive, against any argument for regulating pornography, that some homosexual materials might be endangered. I am not sure why she thinks this.) She points out as well that suppression of sex-related speech has not usually worked to the benefit of women, and that the most sexually unequal societies are especially concerned to cabin and to control women's sexuality.

Strossen is right to say that any efforts to regulate sexually explicit material--traditionalist, feminist or something else--will raise hard problems of definition. Enforcement efforts may also go awry. Still, there are problems with Strossen's arguments. First, and in spite of what Strossen says, the existing legal standard really doesn't have a high degree of open-endedness. True, the relevant terms--"prurient interest," "patently offensive," "serious social value"--could mean, in the abstract, just about anything at all; but in the abstract almost all words could mean just about anything at all, and we can't have laws without words. As the legal standard has been worked out, it allows regulation of very little, indeed a narrowly defined class of materials. Under the current standard, the difficulties of vagueness and excessive breadth are not nearly so drastic as Strossen thinks. (This is not a defense of the current standard, which is problematic, I think, insofar as it allows offense to be a basis for regulating speech.) Along similar lines, it is surprising to find that Strossen does not adequately investigate the experience of other nations, including Germany, Spain, France and England, at least some of which regulate some sexually explicit materials without endangering Mapplethorpe or 2 Live Crew, not to mention classical music or the Bible.

Moreover, I am not sure why Strossen thinks that the new feminist anti-pornography efforts are so much more troublesome than the old traditionalist view. Time and again Strossen shows contempt for what she calls the "MacDworkinite" concept, but the contempt isn't earned. Many people who are uncertain about or disagree with MacKinnon and Dworkin are happy to acknowledge that if speech is to be regulated, it is a lot better to point to real-world harms than to invoke the community's offense. Many people believe that it is important to insist that women are not yet equal--in legislatures, in workplaces, in families--and that pornography is a problem because of its association with inequality, not least in sexual harassment.

Perhaps any effort to regulate sexually explicit materials on the basis of harm would produce special problems of vagueness and excessive breadth. But this depends on how the relevant legislation is written. It is even possible that the feminist argument, properly conceived, would result in less, not more, regulation of sexually explicit materials. The feminist argument, properly conceived, might encourage government to proceed against a subcategory of speech that is already regulable under current law. The feminist view might even make nonviolent or nonabusive materials totally immune from regulation (they are of course regulable under the prevailing traditionalist view). Everything depends on the particular way in which feminist goals are understood and translated into law.

Strossen believes that regulation with purportedly feminist goals would misfire. Maybe; but she doesn't have anything more than anecdotal evidence for this belief. She places a great emphasis on the Canadian experience, where acceptance of aspects of the feminist anti-pornography argument has, according to Strossen, resulted in controls on homosexual material. But it is far from clear that censorship of homosexual material has really been spurred by feminist anti-pornography efforts in Canada. Strossen's argument about likely enforcement policies is plausible, and it might be right, but we need to know a lot more to be sure. And enforcement problems might be somewhat reduced if enforcement authority is not given to criminal prosecutors but instead (as MacKinnon and Dworkin urge) to women who can prove actual harm in a civil proceeding before a jury.

In the most interesting sections of her book, Strossen joins the ranks of a diverse group of people who consider themselves committed feminists but protest what they see as an anti-sex "cult of victimization" within the current feminist movement. Strossen thinks that the anti-pornography movement is "anti-sex," and it is this purported feature of the movement that seems to bother her most. In pointing to the positive aspects of pornography, Strossen offers her only personal observation: "As a frequent traveler myself, I've noticed that many hotels all over the United States, including some of the finest, now offer sexually explicit videos for in-room viewing, a service that I have certainly enjoyed!"

Sounding a little like Camille Paglia, Strossen celebrates the "wonderful diversity of pornographic imagination." She claims that all sorts of depictions of sex, including rape scenes, can be really good for women, since "they go against the grain, thus allowing viewers to express rebellion and individuality." Strossen urges that people's sexual imaginations are very unruly. In her view, men and women alike, heterosexual and homosexual alike, can benefit from pornography insofar as they enjoy it and insofar as pornography permits them to figure out what they like and who they are.

There is a distinctive feminist dimension to Strossen's arguments. Strossen wants to say that women are active, not passive, agents, not victims, and that in sex, as in other things, women are able to act and to choose. On feminist grounds, Strossen thinks that the anti-pornography movement is ultimately damaging to women, because it makes them think that they are powerless, and because it prevents them from claiming and accepting their sexuality. "The courageous 'vagina-woman'--whose sexuality is synonymous with her strength--contrasts dramatically with the pro-censorhip feminists' image of the cowering, cringing female whose sexuality is synonymous with her weakness." Thus Strossen thinks that the anti-pornography claims replicate pernicious old stereotypes, from earlier eras, about women's need for protection against sex.

There are some truths here, and Strossen is right to insist on them. People's imaginations are unruly. People's sexual interests need not be politically correct. Real-world violence should not be confused with descriptions of violence. The prospect of "sex police"--at least if these are understood as legal or social constraints on people's internal thoughts and desires--is unlikely to serve either liberty or equality. And much of what Strossen says about pornography and sexuality seems to speak to many women (and many men).

But there are some real oddities here, too, and the largest of them is that Strossen identifies opposition to pornography with opposition to sex. This is much too simple. All pornography is not the same, and all sex is not the same, and pornography and sex are not the same. Many people who raise questions about pornography, especially about violent or abusive pornography, are uncertain about legal controls on pornographic materials, and they are very much in favor of consensual sex They are concerned about rape and abuse; they don't think that a person's sexual capacities should be treated as objects for the use and control of others; and they don't believe that women's sexuality should be so treated in view of the extremely long association of this practice with second-class citizenship for women. In this light, it is much too coarse to say, as Strossen does, that rape scenes are liberating for women. I can't quite believe that this is her considered opinion.

To take these issues seriously, we don't need to draw easy distinctions between love and lust or the sacred and the profane, and we don't need to be sentimental or puritanical. We need only to reflect on some common aspects of human experience. It may be possible to argue, as some people do, that objectification and a form of use are substantial parts of sexual life, or wonderful parts of sexual life, or ineradicable parts of sexual life. Within a context of equality, respect and consent, objectification--not at all an easy word to define--may not be so troublesome. But Strossen doesn't engage this complicated matter. Thus she misses a big point of recent debates and makes things much too easy for herself.

So, too, the apparently overriding question of the 1990s--whether women are "agents" or "victims"--is impossible to answer in the abstract. Actually, it is a most peculiar question. Of course members of many groups that have been treated unequally are agents much of the time, but also victims, in the sense of objects of discrimination, some of the time. The point of a movement for equality is not to wallow in victimhood, but to ensure that people are not made victims, as they sometimes are, by virtue of a morally irrelevant characteristic, such as race or gender.

The constitutional question should not be confused with the policy issue, and Strossen does the Constitution no service by offering absolutist claims about the First Amendment that she cannot defend. But the fundamental weakness of this book has little to do with law. Its fundamental weakness is that it celebrates sexuality (apparently all kinds) and pornography (apparently all kinds, too), and proceeds as if all these celebrations involve exactly the same thing.

Cass R. Sunstein is author of (The Free Press).

By Cass R. Sunstein