For Men, Freedom of Speech;
For Women, Silence Please
I wrote this to answer two editorials in The New York Times that quoted from Pornography: The New Terrorism and denounced feminists for undermining the First Amendment (freedom of speech) by speaking out against pornography. The New York Times would not publish it; neither would The Washington Post, Newsweek, Mother Jones, The Village Voice, The Nation, The Real Paper, or anywhere else one could think to send it. It was first published in 1980 in the anthology Take Back the Night, edited by Laura Lederer. I had been named in one of the Times editorials and thought that ethically I was entitled to some right of response. No. I thought the other places–very big on free speech–should publish it because they were very big on free speech. No.
A great many men, no small number of them leftist lawyers, are apparently afraid that feminists are going to take their dirty pictures away from them. Anticipating the distress of forced withdrawal, they argue that feminists really must shut up about pornography–what it is, what it means, what to do about it–to protect what they call « freedom of speech. » Our « strident » and « overwrought » antagonism to pictures that show women sexually violated and humiliated, bound, gagged, sliced up, tortured in a multiplicity of ways, « offends » the First Amendment. The enforced silence of women through the centuries has not. Some elementary observations are in order.
The Constitution of the United States was written exclusively by white men who owned land. Some owned black slaves, male and female. Many more owned white women who were also chattel.
The Bill of Rights was never intended to protect the civil or sexual rights of women and it has not, except occasionally by accident.
The Equal Rights Amendment, which would, as a polite afterthought, extend equal protection under the law such as it is to women, is not yet part of the Constitution. There is good reason to doubt that it will be in the foreseeable future.
The government in all its aspects–legislative, executive, judicial, enforcement–has been composed almost exclusively of men. Even juries, until very recently, were composed almost entirely of men. Women have had virtually nothing to do with either formulating or applying laws on obscenity or anything else. In the arena of political power, women have been effectively silenced.
Both law and pornography express male contempt for women: they have in the past and they do now. Both express enduring male social and sexual values; each attempts to fix male behavior so that the supremacy of the male over the female will be maintained. The social and sexual values of women are barely discernible in the culture in which we live. In most instances, women have been deprived of the opportunity even to formulate, let alone articulate or spread, values that contradict those of the male. The attempts that we make are both punished and ridiculed. Women of supreme strength who have lived in creative opposition to the male cultural values of their day have been written out of history–silenced.
Rape is widespread. One characteristic of rape is that it silences women. Laws against rape have not functioned to protect the bodily integrity of women; instead, they have punished some men for using women who belong to some other men.
Battery is widespread. One characteristic of battery is that it silences women. Laws against battery have been, in their application, a malicious joke.
There is not a feminist alive who could possibly look to the male legal system for real protection from the systematized sadism of men. Women fight to reform male law, in the areas of rape and battery for instance, because something is better than nothing. In general, we fight to force the law to recognize us as the victims of the crimes committed against us, but the results so far have been paltry and pathetic. Meanwhile, the men are there to counsel us. We must not demand the conviction of rapists or turn to the police when raped because then we are « prosecutorial » and racist. Since white men have used the rape laws to imprison black men, we are on the side of the racist when we (women of any color) turn to the law. The fact that most rape is intraracial, and more prosecution will inevitably mean the greater prosecution of white men for the crimes they commit, is supposedly irrelevant. (It is, of course, suddenly very relevant when one recognizes that this argument was invented and is being promoted by white men, significantly endangered for perhaps the first time by the anti-rape militancy of women.) We are also counseled that it is wrong to demand that the police enforce already existing laws against battery because then we « sanction » police entry into the home, which the police can then use for other purposes. Better that rape and battery should continue unchallenged, and the law be used by some men against other men with no reference to the rightful protection of women. The counsel of men is consistent: maintain a proper–and respectful–silence.
Male counsel on pornography, especially from leftist lawyers, has also been abundant. We have been told that pornography is a trivial issue and that we must stop wasting the valuable time of those guarding « freedom of speech » by talking about it. We have been accused of trivializing feminism by our fury at the hatred of women expressed in pornography. We have been told that we must not use existing laws even where they might serve us or invent new ones because we will inevitably erode « freedom of speech »–but that the use of violence against purveyors of pornography or property would not involve the same hazards. Others, less hypocritical, have explained that we must not use law; we must not use secondary boycotts, a civil liberties No-No (since women do not, with rare exceptions, consume pornography, women cannot boycott it by not buying it; other strategies, constituting secondary boycotts, would have to be used); we must not, of course, damage property, nor do we have the right to insult or harass. We have even been criticized for picketing, the logic being that an exhibitor of pornography might cave in under the pressure which would constitute a dangerous precedent. The men have counseled us to be silent so that « freedom of speech » will survive. The only limitation on it will be that women simply will not have it–no loss, since women have not had it. Such a limitation does not « offend » the First Amendment or male civil libertarians.
The First Amendment, it should be noted, belongs to those who can buy it. Men have the economic clout. Pornographers have empires. Women are economically disadvantaged and barely have token access to the media. A defense of pornography is a defense of the brute use of money to encourage violence against a class of persons who do not have–and have never had–the civil rights vouchsafed to men as a class. The growing power of the pornographers significantly diminishes the likelihood that women will ever experience freedom of anything–certainly not sexual self-determination, certainly not freedom of speech.
The fact of the matter is that if the First Amendment does not work for women, it does not work. With that premise as principle, perhaps the good lawyers might voluntarily put away the dirty pictures and figure out a way to make freedom of speech the reality for women that it already is for the literary and visual pimps. Yes, they might, they could; but they will not. They have their priorities set. They know who counts and who does not. They know, too, what attracts and what really offends.