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(This essay was first published in The Globe and Mail in 1993. It was written in response to previous articles on the subject of pornography and censorship, by lawyer Clayton Ruby and feminist/professor Thelma McCormack. Some of the material here is dated and I appreciate that. I don’t just acknowledge it – I appreciate it, because it confirms my belief that there is still so much to do.)

Pornography and censorship are bitter issues for feminists. They’re issues that have turned sister against sister, friend against friend.

One feminist tells how she counsels 15-year old girls who are being coerced into uncomfortable sexual activities by boyfriends who have read Hustler. Others point out that if censorship is seen to be a solution, feminist thought and writing will be among the first to be censored because they so blatantly challenge the political and social status quo.

Feminists in women’s shelters see women every day who are victims of men who are consumers of pornography. The women are frustrated when their testimony is not considered in the search for empirical evidence of the harm done by pornography.

Clayton Ruby is swept away by Thelma McCormack’s speech given at a recent forum on censorship (December 1, 1992). Much of what he quotes challenges the views of the Legal Education and Action Fund (LEAF) and other feminists that pornography does indeed harm women, that by its very nature pornography constitutes a form of inequality.

I am anti-pornography. I am also anti-censorship – although not because of any particular reverence for the freedom of expression of pornographers.

But I would like now to see the discussion about pornography move beyond hurtful words used by feminists against each other (or by those who enjoy seeing this feminist split) and ask this question: could pornography, in its ever-escalating forms and in its horrifying proliferation, exist without the more socially acceptable objectification of women as presented in mass media?

* * *

In the early ’80s, I was a writer/broadcaster in current affairs at CBC Fredericton. In central New Brunswick, a 16-year-old girl had been murdered. Her 18-year-old boyfriend was about to go on trial.

Every time the girl was mentioned in news stories, it was noted that at the time of her death, she’d been wearing a pink angora sweater and tight jeans – symbolizing at once vulnerability and sexuality. Every time her boyfriend was mentioned, it was noted that he was a cadet at a military college studying engineering.

The producer of the program I worked for decided to send someone from our program to cover the trial – an unusual move, which I questioned.

“The news department covers trials; we usually don’t,” I said.

“Ah, but this murder is different,” he said slowly, with mock lasciviousness. “This is a murder with sex appeal.”

* * *

The attraction of mainstream media to sexy murders of women is nothing new – both in news and elsewhere.

For example: in a recent memoir, The Good Times, about his life in journalism, New York Times columnist Russell Baker wrote about covering the police beat in Baltimore in the ’30s and about which murders rated with his editors. “Any number of things could elevate a little murder into a good murder,” Baker wrote. “…Could the rewrite man justifiably describe the victim as `statuesque’, the universally understood code word meaning `big breasts’? If so, good murder, especially if the murderer was still unknown and the cops could be persuaded to hint at sexual motives behind the crime…”

For example: Esquire, a magazine which subtitles itself “Man At His Best”, did a cover story this year on “Women We Love.” The picture used to illustrate the story was of Laura Palmer, the dead girl from the television series Twin Peaks.

For example: Advertising layouts in such upscale magazines as Vogue and Vanity Fair commonly show women – if not dead or suffering – in attitudes of implicit and somewhat anonymous distress.

Women as natural victims. Women as natural sex objects. How convenient when both can be captured in one image.

The eroticized pain and suffering of women has been normalized by the mass media; thus, pornography becomes acceptable as simply being the medium at the end of a continuum, falling in rather naturally behind news, advertising, fashion and entertainment.

* * *

There remains much resistance to the idea that pornography and violence against women are connected – as there was in Mr. Ruby’s column. Oddly enough, there is no such denial when pornography is used to increase the aggressiveness of soldiers as they go into battle or of pilots as they set out on bombing raids during wars.

But doesn’t the loving and lewd coverage of sexy murders and rapes, the portrayal of young, vulnerable, almost-naked women to sell products, the depiction of women as dead or hurting in fashion layouts, soften us up for the terrifying pornography of violence and death? Isn’t is logical that the imbalance of power between men and women – as exemplified in all the branches of the media – would be extended into real life?

There was a story a few years ago in a British feminist magazine written by a woman who described an experience she had in an Underground station. She was alone, waiting for a train, when a man arrived on the same platform. He looked at her, stared at her. Both were surrounded by larger-than-life billboards, all of which used women or women’s bodily parts to advertise products. There were bums and legs and lips.

“I felt like a thing,” she wrote. “And I felt like all those pictures were his gang – that they somehow gave him a right to look at me that way.”

Pornography is the ultimate right to look – the blatant expression of male dominance and female subordination.

* * *

After the Montreal massacre, violence against women became the glamour issue of the ’90s and was taken up as a cause by many newly-organized men’s groups. They go to meetings and talk about causes and about solutions; it’s possible they talk about pornography. I doubt if they talk about the way women are portrayed in mass media – although the mass media itself is the fertile breeding ground for attitudes which lead to the disadvantaged status of women in our society.

Violence against women grows out of that disadvantage and inequality. Pornography, whether it causes violence or simply gives a powerful endorsement of a society built on male domination, grows out of our everyday information and entertainment services.

Eliminating material that degrades women is a lot more complicated than simple censorship. Providing for the safety of women in our society is a lot more complicated than we’ve been treating it up to now.

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