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What happened to the anti-porn feminists?

(Correction: Because of a reporting error, an article in Sunday's Ideas section about feminist critics of pornography incorrectly referred to the National Organization of Women. The correct name is the National Organization for Women.)

LAST MONTH, Adelphia Communications became the first American cable company to offer its subscribers triple-X-rated pornography. Adelphia's role as porn pioneer struck some as a bit unlikely: Five years ago the company had dropped Spice, a popular softcore pornography channel, because the company's since-disgraced founder and CEO, John Rigas, found it offensive. Asked about the reversal, a company spokeswoman replied succinctly, ''People want it, so we are trying to provide it. The more Xs, the more popular.''

Indeed, revenues from pay-per-view and video-on-demand adult movies have quadrupled since the late 1990s as cable operators have started airing more explicit erotic material. And it's not just cable television that's embraced the truly lewd. Movies like ''Boogie Nights'' and the recent documentary ''Inside Deep Throat'' have portrayed the adult industry as an enclave for good-hearted, rough-edged misfits and cultural freedom fighters. Last fall the memoir of porn superstar Jenna Jameson spent a month and a half on the New York Times bestseller list. And the industry itself continues to grow at a torrid pace: Hard numbers are difficult to find, but estimates put it at anywhere from a $3 billion to $14 billion a year industry.

In response, a predictable political debate has emerged, with cultural conservatives standing athwart the tide yelling ''Stop!'' while left-leaning civil libertarians brandish the First Amendment. But there's a voice that's been conspicuously absent in the current debate: anti-pornography feminists.

In ''Inside Deep Throat,'' it is prominent feminists like Gloria Steinem and Susan Brownmiller, as much as decency crusaders like Charles Keating, who get credit for shutting down the nationwide porn party that ''Deep Throat'' kicked off in 1972. ''The worst censors in the country,'' Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz says in an onscreen interview, ''were the feminists.'' The characterization is of a piece with the documentary's cartoony glibness. Still, today, as social conservatives lead the campaign to rid the airwaves of the taint of sex, it's easy to forget that the most powerful anti-pornography legislation ever passed in this country was written not by cultural conservatives but radical feminists led by legal scholar Catharine A. MacKinnon and author Andrea Dworkin.

MacKinnon and Dworkin's efforts depended on support from notorious bluenoses like Phyllis Schlafly and former attorney general Edwin Meese. But the two women's brief against pornography went beyond simply attacking its lasciviousness. They argued that its aestheticized visions of female degradation actually incited men to violence. In 1974 the writer and activist Robin Morgan had put it most starkly: ''Pornography is the theory, rape is the practice.''

MacKinnon and Dworkin's antipornography statutes-which passed in Indianapolis and Bellingham, Wash., and were defeated in Minneapolis, Los Angeles, and Cambridge-made little use of obscenity standards and instead reframed the issue as one of sex discrimination. While their bills didn't ban porn outright, they allowed women to sue pornographers for damages.

And those damages, the anti-porn feminists argued, weren't merely abstract. During the debates over the local ordinances, and in testimony before Edwin Meese's Commission on Pornography in 1985, MacKinnon and others arranged for often horrifying testimony by women on the physical and mental abuse they had suffered either in the making of pornography or at the hands of men they claimed had been inspired by it. Some of the most dramatic testimony was from Linda Lovelace, star of ''Deep Throat.''

. . .

So what happened to those voices? Now a law professor at the University of Michigan, MacKinnon has a new book out this month, ''Women's Lives, Men's Laws'' (Belknap), which includes essays and speeches on pornography, but in recent years she and Dworkin seem to have lost not just the legal battle but the cultural war. These days, ''sex-positive'' feminists like Laura Kipnis or Camille Paglia tend to get the airtime. And in the universities, women's studies scholars are more likely to do close readings of the aesthetics and politics of pornography than to march in favor of banning it.

Even at the time, MacKinnon and Dworkin's campaign sharply split the feminist movement. While supported by leading figures like Steinem and Brownmiller, the Indianapolis law in particular galvanized others in opposition. They formed the Feminist Anti-Censorship Taskforce, or FACT. When the law's constitutionality was being decided by a federal appeals court, FACT submitted an amicus brief-signed by Betty Friedan, Rita Mae Brown, Kate Millet, Adrienne Rich and others-opposing it.

Torn between the conflicting arguments, the National Organization of Women was unable to take a position. MacKinnon's description of her opponents, in a 1987 speech, was typical of the heated rhetoric: ''The Black movement has Uncle Toms and Oreo cookies. The labor movement had scabs. The women's movement has FACT.''

Starting in the late 1980s some feminist scholars also began to see porn as a tool that women could appropriate to liberate themselves from patriarchal norms of behavior and beauty. Porn sexuality, they argued, wasn't simply about subjugation. Instead, ''what pornography is trying to do is create, using real bodies, a fantasy of a kind of idealized and perfectly abundant pleasure,'' says Linda Williams, a film studies professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and a leading porn theorist. What others might see as basically a masturbatory aid was cast instead as a genre of utopian social criticism. As for the anti-porn crusaders, Williams adds: ''Really, who are they to tell us where our sexual imaginations should go?''

So it was a deeply divided feminist movement that faced the failure of MacKinnon and Dworkin's laws, not only in places like Los Angeles and Cambridge, but when they were eventually struck down by federal courts in both Indiana and Washington. As Joshua Cohen, an MIT political science professor who has studied the First Amendment ramifications of the laws, puts it, ''A lot of the energy that went into the issue during the 1980s was focused on these legal strategies.'' When they failed, he says, ''It became pretty clear that legal regulations directed to stop pornography were not going to be accepted by the courts, and that probably sapped some of the energy from the anti-pornography movement.''

Even where they did survive, the laws had unintended and often crudely ironic consequences. In Canada, which in 1992 adopted MacKinnon and Dworkin's definition of pornography, it was used largely to prosecute gay and lesbian bookstores and even to seize copies of two of Dworkin's books because they ''illegally eroticized pain and bondage.''

. . .

Today, Mackinnon bristles at the old charge that anti-porn feminists were, in effect, in bed with the political right. ''I actually know who I'm in bed with,'' she said in a recent interview. ''This was just something created by the pornographers to scare liberals off, which doesn't take much.''

But her language has been adopted by some on the right. Now, according to Janet LaRue of Concerned Women for America, ''It may be that we're not hearing as much from the traditional hardline feminist organizations, but when I write and speak on the topic of pornography, one of the aspects that I point out is that it certainly subjugates and degrades women and reduces us to the sum or our body parts.''

But perhaps it's porn's very ubiquity that has most weakened the anti-pornography case, feminist and conservative. Thanks to the growth of home-video pornography in the 1980s and the more recent shift to the Internet, far more people have access to X-rated material than ever before. As Williams puts it, ''In a way I think MacKinnon and Dworkin were able to invoke the kind of horror that they did at pornography at a time when not as many people had seen it. For better or for worse, now it has become part of the vernacular of our way of talking about picturing sex to ourselves.''

MacKinnon agrees, though she sees the shift as more insidious: ''The data just show that pornography sets community standards, so the more pornography there is, the less will be seen to be wrong with it. It's just its own intrinsic dynamic.''

Despite the recent backlash against television indecency, pornography prosecutions remain rare. The Bush administration has picked up the pace from the Clinton administration, creating a special anti-porn unit in the Department of Justice and hiring Bruce Taylor, the prosecutor who went after Larry Flynt in 1981, as its porn czar. Last month, the Justice Department announced that it would appeal a recent decision by a federal judge that declared federal obscenity laws unconstitutional. And speaking earlier this week, the new attorney general, Alberto Gonzales, listed ''the aggressive prosecution of purveyors of obscene materials'' among his top priorities.

Still, Frederick Schauer, a First Amendment scholar at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, points out that ''criminal obscenity prosecutions have come close to disappearing, they're constitutionally permissible but almost nonexistent.... The legal definition of obscenity remains very, very, very narrow.''

As for MacKinnon, since the early 1990s she has focused on international issues like prostitution, human trafficking, and war crimes. (In 2000, she won a war crimes conviction against the Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic for the rape of Muslim and Croat women during the Bosnian War.) But she says pornography is still a central issue for her.

''Until a problem is solved, it's always a good time to solve it,'' she says. ''Whether people want to solve it is another question.''

Drake Bennett is the staff writer for Ideas. Email drbennett@globe.com.


Gloria Steinem (at left) in an antipornography march in New York,Oct. 20.
Gloria Steinem (at left) in an antipornography march in New York,Oct. 20. (Globe Composite of a Bettmann/Corbis Photo)
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