by Ann J. Simonton
[Article appeared on MediaWatch.com]
"The burden of proof will be on those of us who have been victimized. If I (any woman) am able to prove that the picture you are holding, the one where the knife is stuffed up my vagina, was taken when my pimp forced me at gunpoint and photographed it without my consent, if my existence is proved real, I am coming to take what is mine. If I can prove that the movie you are looking at called Black Bondage, the one where my black skin is synonymous with filth and my bondage and my slavery is encouraged, cause me harm and discrimination, if my existence is proved real, I am coming to take what is mine. Whether you like it or not, the time is coming when you will have to get your fantasy off my ass.”(1)
The ways in which pornography constitutes human rights abuse is largely censored by mainstream media. Instead the media is teeming with stories that promote and legitimize pornographic messages. An example is U.S. News & World Report’s cover story on “The Business of Porn” giving readers the impression that all women in porn are “exhibitionists who love the sex and the stardom” or are free-thinking, radical feminists putting themselves through law school.(2) The media profits from distorting the truth about pornography’s impact on our modern world. Viewing the actual harm of pornography in the media is as likely as seeing a 30-second spot on prime time TV warning viewers that TV is highly addictive. Standard media fare consists of well-funded lies about the goals and opinions of anti pornography feminists and human rights legal strategists. With generous assistance from groups like The Center for Libel Defense Information, The American Civil Liberties Union and the Media Coalition, pornographers are comfortably shielded from liability for the harm they cause by their so-called “free speech.”(3)
But what of films that feed the growing market for torture pornography? One, for example, that was confiscated by San Jose police showed a woman hanging by her labia from a hay hook, real blood pooling on the floor. What of the young woman whose boyfriend insists on covering her face with his favorite pornographic image when they have sex? And what about the military’s use of pornography? For example, U.S. Naval pilots were shown pornographic films before flying bombing raids during the Gulf War in Iraq. What about the popular video series entitled “Cherry Poppers” that is essentially a rape manual on how de-virginize girls? Are these insignificant, isolated incidents? I don’t think so.
People joke that the worst harm pornography can inflict is a paper cut. A ludicrous lie. The truth is that pornography is extremely harmful to women, children and men as well. Our culture celebrates its predilection for this woman hating propaganda. Few people recognize that it actively protects men’s right to torture women by labeling the harm “free speech.”(4) His idea of sexual entertainment, his orgasm and his speech take precedence over her pain. Whatever makes him or her orgasm is more important than any harm or human rights abuse.
And today, sex, rather than being an intimate part of relationships between people, is wholly accepted as a viable commodity for sale. Pornography is capitalists’ way of technologizing prostitution. Humans of all ages can be purchased as table dancers, street prostitutes, call girls or as “dates” through an escort service. For a quarter you can watch them being raped in peep shows.(5) Pornography is transmitted through magazines, newspapers, television, cable TV, radio shock-jocks, pay-per-view videos, the internet, videos, mail-order magazines, billboards, phone-sex lines, books, computer ads, X-rated software, posters, T-shirts, coffee mugs, graffiti, answering machine messages, personal ads and more. Pornography is an 8 to 10 billion dollar a year industry and the U.S. leads the world in its production, releasing 150 new pornographic titles each week.(6)
Pornography’s harm can be delineated in the following ways. A lot of pornography actually documents the torture, coercion and sexual abuse of those pictured or filmed. Pornographers often coerce victims into silence, sexual abuse and systems of prostitution by blackmailing them with the pictures, videos, films or audio tapes they possess. Pornography is used for sexual arousal by criminals before they commit their crimes. Eighty-six percent of rapists admit to regular use of pornography, with 57% admitting actual imitation of pornographic scenes in commission of sex crimes.(7) No single characteristic of child molesters is more pervasive than obsession with child pornography. Eighty-seven percent of molesters of girls, and 77% of molesters of boys admit to regular use of hard-core pornography.(8) “She was thirteen. She was at a Girl Scout camp in northern Wisconsin. She went for a long walk in the woods alone during the day. She had long blond hair. She saw three hunters reading magazines, talking, joking. One looked up and said: ‘There’s a live one.’ She thought they meant a deer. She ducked and started to run away. They meant her. They chased her, caught her, dragged her back to where they were camped. The magazines were pornography of women she physically resembled: blond, childlike. They called her names from the pornography: Little Godiva, Golden Girl, also bitch and slut. They threatened to kill her. They made her undress. It was November and cold. One held a rifle to her head; another beat her breasts with his rifle. All three raped her, penile penetration into the vagina. The third one couldn’t get hard at first so he demanded a blow job. She didn’t know what that was. The third man forced his penis into her mouth; one of the others cocked the trigger on his rifle. She was told she had better do it right. She tried. When they were done with her they kicked her: they kicked her naked body and they kicked leaves and pine needles on her. ‘[T]hey told me that if I wanted more, that I could come back the next day.”(9)
Over 10 million men in the U.S. consume pornography on a regular basis.(10) Its ubiquitous presence and widespread use make it a very potent form of propaganda about who women are and what women want. Studies show that 65-75% of the current population of women in pornography and prostitution have been abused as children, usually in their homes. Many social service providers believe the percentage is much higher.(11) The majority of women in pornography are poor and uneducated. A common scenario begins when children run away from abusive homes into cities where pimps pick them up, beat, drug, and rape them and then force them into prostitution, pornography or both. For some like KC, pornography is intergenerational: her mother was in it, she was in it and her daughter was in it. The following is an excerpt from a BBC interview with her. “I was involved in pornography all my life. Until 1987. I was gang raped, that’s how I conceived my daughter. My daughter’s career wasn’t very long lived. She was beaten to death by her trick. She used to get beat up a lot by tricks. I’ve often wondered if some of the physical damage that was done to her. Maybe a child’s body wasn’t meant to be used that way, you know maybe babies aren’t meant to be anally penetrated by things, or snakes, or bottles, or men’s penises. But I don’t know for sure. I’m not sure about that, because, that’s how I grew up.”(12)
Racism is also celebrated in pornography, in jokes or in scenarios portraying slavery or holocaust themes. These outrageously racist messages, directed predominately at Jews, African-Americans and Asians are standard in top-selling men’s magazines, like Hustler. Women of color in the sex industry are much more frequently harassed, arrested and convicted by the police than are white women in the industry.(13)
“She was raped by two men. They were acting out the pornographic video game “Custer’s Revenge.” She was American Indian; they were white. “They held me down and as one was running the tip of this knife across my face and throat he said, ‘Do you want to play Custer’s Last Stand? It’s great. You lose but you don’t care, do you? You like a little pain, don’t you, squaw. ‘ They both laughed and then he said, ‘There is a lot of cock in Custer’s Last Stand. You should be grateful, squaw, that All-Amerikan boys like us want you. Maybe we will tie you to a tree and start a fire around you.’ “(14)
Researchers have demonstrated that pornography desensitizes men to the pain women experience in sexual assault, encourages sexism, pro-rape attitudes, sexual harassment, and other forms of sexual assault, and increases men’s self-reported likelihood to commit sexual acts.(15) For example, Dolf Zillman conducted a study in which pornographic films were shown to a group of students over an extended period. By the end, the group who saw the pornographic films were more hostile to the women’s movement and the equality of women in general. They also recommended lower sentences for rapists, minimized the suffering of rape victims, and considered them more responsible for their victimization.(16)
Popular opinion polls in Time and Newsweek confirm that most people believe violent pornography causes sexual violence. In one poll of 6,000 Women’s Day readers, 98% believed freedom of speech was less important than the violence against women generated by pornography.(17) Unfortunately, myths like the one purporting pornography to be a harmless outlet for sexual tension remain powerful. This catharsis theory has absolutely no data to support it; indeed, the opposite has been documented in various studies. Pornography consumers need increasingly degrading and violent images as they become more and more desensitized.(18) Pornography’s most lethal message that women and children (and men) enjoy and even beg for pain, torture and abuse is reiterated in an endless pornographic loop.
Despite mounting evidence now available that pornography causes harm and discriminates against women, our judicial system believes free speech is more important. Judge Easterbrook in American Booksellers vs. Hudnut noted pornography’s harm to women, but dismissed the resulting injuries by arguing “this simply demonstrates the power of pornography as speech.” Since this harm to women is done through “speech,” the Constitution protects it.(19)
Women’s magazines, that habitually use bizarre pornographic-like layouts and advertisements, now push articles claiming women enjoy or should try to enjoy pornography.(20) But research finds “the more pornography women were exposed to, the more likely they were to have been forced or coerced into sexual activity they did not want.” In addition, a male was present in most of the cases in which women were exposed to pornography. According to Charlene Senn, this indicates that most women who consume pornography do so because a man wants them to.(21) Women’s magazines, such as Glamour and Cosmopolitan are known to run articles promoting topless dancing as a viable job option for female students wanting to put themselves through college.(22)
There has been a sharp increase in the popularity of “sophisticated” topless bars and strip clubs. The number of major strip clubs in the U.S. roughly doubled between 1987 and 1992. In the past few years, topless donut shops, topless car washes, topless hot dog stands and topless housecleaning services have been made available. Some strip clubs even offer topless women to shine the men’s shoes.(23) In the U.S. more money is spent at strip clubs than at Broadway, off-Broadway, regional, and nonprofit theaters, the opera, ballet, jazz and classical music performances combined.
For women, taking it all off is promoted as a practical stepping stone to stardom, with Pamela Anderson, Demi Moore and Sharon Stone paving the way. These are exemplary front women the media pushes into the spotlight to show how lucrative it is and how successful you can become if you strip in pornography.
Unfortunately, when individuals who have survived human rights abuses as a result of pornography speak out, they are most often attacked again for having the nerve to speak out. For example, after pornography survivors appeared before the City Council in Minneapolis to describe their personal stories horror and torture, a nationally distributed pornography magazine published an article identifying the women by name, using their direct quotes and highlighting the graphic testimony of sexual violence. Without exception, these women were harassed by obscene phone calls, followed, spied on, tormented, threatened by letters.
Linda Marchiano (a.k.a. Linda Lovelace) submitted to an 11 hour lie detector test to try to convince publishers that her story of torture was genuine. Her manuscript (Ordeal) was rejected by most major publishers.(24) Marchiano traveled to campuses to speak out about her two and a half year imprisonment by her husband/manager Chuck Traynor. Linda’s speech encouraged women on the campus to protest outside the fraternity-sponsored showing of "Deep Throat". She said that in this movie there are visible bruises all over her body that attest to part of her torture. The fraternity brothers’ response, was to shout out during "Deep Throat": “Fuck her, hurt her, rip her.” Toward the other females on the screen they screamed comments such as “Ugly bitch and whore.” They chanted, “Bruises, Bruises, Bruises!” continually during the film.(25) It is unlikely to imagine a male political prisoner, who describes his abuse, to be so taunted and publicly humiliated.
The sex industry commands a global market and is quickly becoming the cornerstone of many third world economies. Male sex tourists travel from rich countries to prey on younger and younger poor children in these countries, often photographing them. Men in the U.S. purchase pornographic stalking/rape videos made in Japan.(26) The thousands of women who were raped and tortured in Sarajevo war camps were also filmed, and these films which document these women’s worst nightmares are protected free speech here in the U.S. and easily distributed.
It is no coincidence that groups like the National Coalition Against Censorship, Feminists for Free Expression, and the ACLU are the loudest defenders of pornographers. The ACLU actively protects pornographers in the media and defends their free speech in the courts. The ACLU takes donations from them and has raised money by showing pornography. They accept money from The Playboy Foundation and are housed for nominal rent ($1 per year) in a building owned by pornographers.(27) An ACLU lawyer working for a pornographer sued a woman who was working for Women Against Pornography for libel because she denounced the pornographer on television for publishing pornographic cartoons of children. ACLU is hypocritical to defend the civil liberties of the Klan and Nazis while expending enormous effort to censor, slander and demolish the civil liberties of anti pornography feminists.(28)
Activists concerned about the dangers of tobacco, alcohol, drugs, or even fat in their diet manage to raise questions about the harmfulness of their products without calling down the same hysterical level of invective meted out against anti pornography activists. Most of us want more education concerning the harms, and real debates about our culture’s lust for sado-masochism. We want sex education that doesn’t rely on voyeurism, objectification, humiliation and pain as their basis. And where are all the depictions of fully erect penises in a culture wallpapered with the spotlighted anal and vaginal regions of women? Are men protecting something here? We aren’t calling for censorship in our fight to survive the pornographic tidal wave. We have questions: Should pornographers have the absolute legal and moral right to materials produced through coercion, that may be forced on others, that cause sexual assaults, and that are integral to keeping half the population in a second-class status? What are the social consequences of a private multi-billion dollar industry defining human sexuality 24 hours a day? Powerful corporations and governments have long recognized that to control the public they must control information. Unchallenged information is inherently flawed information. Centralized control will always be incompatible with freedom, equality and truth.
One brilliant legal approach deserving serious attention substitutes civil damage proceedings for ineffective criminal obscenity prosecutions. This legislation would allow civil lawsuits against pornographers on the grounds that pornography is a civil rights violation. Victims of pornography would have the right to prove in a court of law that they had been injured or victimized by having pornography forced on them, by being coerced into pornographic performance, or because pornography was used in sexual assault. They could then sue traffickers in pornography on the basis of that proven violation of their civil rights. With the passage of this anti pornography ordinance, individual civil suits could be brought forward, but not through state prosecutions, police action or censorship boards. The law’s definition of pornography is concrete, not abstract.(29) If a woman won, no one would be arrested or jailed, the police could not conduct a raid, and there would be no criminal prosecution. She could, at best, get money damages and removal of the particular pornography from sale in the city. This type of case would be difficult for anyone to win given the extreme prejudice against the women and men who appear in pornography. Though the ordinance is based on laws against sex discrimination, anyone, a woman, a child, a man or transsexual, could sue under it if they could prove they had been a victim of pornography. This legislation, written by Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin, has had impact around the world. “It is on the agenda of legislators in England, Ireland, West Germany, New Zealand, Tasmania, and Canada; it is on the agenda of political activists all over the world.3/4(30)
Yet, our pornographic culture keeps it’s head in the sand and remains unwilling to debate these ideas in public. The pornographer’s economic control of women’s nudity and sexuality will keep this potential step toward social equality hidden in the closet. Other important steps are changing attitudes through education. Norma Hotaling’s school for johns is proving to help with part of that equation. The school allows first time offenders to remove the arrest from their record if they spend a day in school. These men pay approximately $500.00 to learn about the seriousness of second-offenses and sexually transmitted diseases. Most importantly, during the seminar former prostitutes tell them the truth about what it is like to be a prostitute. Out of 900 participants only three have since been arrested on similar charges. This school, which began in San Francisco, is being replicated in Toronto, Portland, Oregon and scores of other cities are considering joining them. (31)
Activist and author John Stoltenberg began educational workshops where men coached each other in imitating the exact poses and expressions of the women they see in pornography. Discussing their reactions proves to be enormously successful in educating men about the impact of pornography on their lives.
It is crucial for us to recognize and act on the harm being perpetuated through systems of pornography. Censorship and criminal obscenity charges are no answer. What will it take for people to respond to the screams for help? Maybe we don’t really want to hear the cries. Maybe when we heard someone screaming we turned up the radio, or when we saw her head smash against the wall we looked away, not wanting to get involved. We seem to feel better and prouder as Americans if our hookers are happy and our pin-up girls are willing.
“If one values women as human beings, one cannot turn away or refuse to hear so that one can refuse to care without bearing responsibility for the refusal. One cannot turn one’s back on the women or on the burden of memory they carry. If one values women as human beings, one will not turn one’s back on the women who are being hurt today and the women who will be hurt tomorrow.”
— Andrea Dworkin (32)
Ann Simonton is a lecturer and media activist. She founded MediaWatch in 1984, which works to challenge racism, sexism and violence in the media. She can be reached at
Click here to see a message of "Free Speech" from the ACLU.
(1) Therese Stanton, “Fighting for Our Existence” in Changing Men, No.15, fall 1985, quoted in Andrea Dworkin’s, Life and Death: Unapologetic Writings on the Continuing War Against Women, (New York: Free Press, 1997), p. 89-90.
(2) Schlosser, Eric, U.S. News & World Report, 2/10/97.
(3) Stoltenberg, John, “The Triangular Politics of Pornography.” The Price We Pay, Lederer, Delgado, eds. (New York: Hill & Wang, 1995), p.178. Some money also came from Penthouse. see also: Susan B. Trento, The Power House: Robert Keith Gray and the Selling of Access and influence in Washington (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992), p. 196. “The annual Hugh Hefner First Amendment Award is orchestrated for the Playboy Foundation by the American Civil Liberties Union. Inside Edition recently flashed pictures of women apparently sexually servicing men at a fund-raiser in Los Angeles for the Free Speech Legal Defense Fund to benefit the so-called adult video industry.” Twiss Butler, “Why The First Amendment is Used To Protect Violence Against Women.” The Price We Pay, Lederer, Delgado, eds. (New York: Hill & Wang, 1995), p. 166. A group called the Media Coalition, which includes the American Booksellers Association, The Association of American Publishers, the Council of Pericodical Dirtributors, the International Periodical Distributors Association, and the National Coalition of College Stores, launched a smear campaign to discredit the Meese Commission findings that causes violence against women. This Coalition hired a PR firm in 1986 with twice the budget of the entire Pornography Commission to sway the public into believing that pornography is harmless and those against it are anti-sex puritans who want to censor. From Diana E. H. Russell, Making Violence Sexy. (New York: Teachers College Press, 1993), p. 9-10.
(4) In Columbia’s "People vs. Larry Flynt", Flynt is depicted as a First Amendment hero because the filmakers couldn’t sell a movie with the horror, hate and racism that fills Flynt’s magazines. Eric Schlosser was also featured on NPR’s Fresh Air w/ Terry Gross, 2/97, discussing how pornography is an acceptable all-American institution because of the money it makes. U.S. News & World Report, 2/10/97.
(5) "Not A Love Story: A Film About Pornography", International Week of Cinema, 1982 prize.
(6) Schlosser, Eric, U.S. News & World Report, 2/10/97.
(7) Russell, Diana , Against Pornography, (Berkeley, Ca. Russell Publications,1993), p.147, William Marshall’s 1988 studies of prisoners.
(9) Dworkin, Andrea, Life and Death: Unapologetic Writings on the Continuing War Against Women, (New York: Free Press, 1997), p. 82
(10) Lederer, Laura, “Pornography and Racist Speech as Hate Propaganda,” The Price We Pay, Lederer, Delgado, eds. (New York: Hill & Wang, 1995) p. 134.
(11)Pornography and Sexual Violence Evidence of the Links: The complete record of public hearings for experts, witnesses and victims of sexual assault involving pornography. (London: Everywoman, 1988)
(12) Interviewed in © BBC’s, "Against Pornography: The Feminism of Andrea Dworkin", 1992. PBS censored this popular program, so most U.S. audiences couldn’t view it.
(13) Council For Prostitution Alternatives, 1994, Fact Sheet on Prostitution.
(14) Dworkin, Andrea, Life and Death: Unapologetic Writings on the Continuing War Against Women, (New York: Free Press, 1997), p. 85.
(15) Lederer, Laura, “Pornography and Racist Speech as Hate Propaganda,” The Price We Pay, Lederer, Delgado, eds. (New York: Hill & Wang, 1995) p. 135. McKenzie-Mohr, Zanna, “Treating Women as Sexual Objects; Look to the Male Who has Viewed Pornography,” Pers. Soc. Psychol. Bulletin, 1990, pp. 296. See also Morrison Torrey, “We Get the Message: Pornography in the Workplace,” Southwest University Law Rev. 22 pp. 53, 89: “Behavioral and social scientists have discovered over and over again in a multitude of studies that pornography affects male attitudes about rape, desensitizes men, sexually arouses them, and reduces their general inhibitions against sexual aggression.” (Torrey also lists and summarizes the most important social science research.)
(16) Zillman, D., and J. Bryant. “Effects of Massive Exposure to Pornography.” In N. Malamuth and E. Donnerstein, eds., Pornography and Sexual Aggression. (New York:Academic Press, 1984) Sillmann, D. and J. Bryant. “Effects of Prolonged Consumption of Pornography.” In D. Zillmann and J. Bryant, eds., Pornography: Research Advances and Policy Consideration. (Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum, 1989).
(17)Time magazine poll (7/86), Newsweek poll (3/85 ), and Women’s Day poll (1/86), A. Dworkin & C. MacKinnon, “Questions & Answers” in Diana E. H. Russell ed., Making Violence Sexy. (New York: Teachers College Press, 1993), p.94-96.
(18) ibid. p.142.
(19) Stoltenberg, John, “The Triangular Politics of Pornography.” The Price We Pay, Lederer, Delgado, eds. (New York: Hill & Wang, 1995), p. 179.
(20) Harper’s Bazaar (8/94), “Women Who Love Pornography” See also images of man photographing nude women in Mirabella (8/94).
(21) Russell, Diana E. H., “Pornography and Rape a Causal Model,” ed., Making Violence Sexy. (New York: Teachers College Press, 1993), p. 143.
(22) Silverman, J. (1993, April). “Night and Day: The Double life of a Topless Dancer,” Glamour, p. 243. Haynes, K. (1993, August). “The Lowdown on Topless Bars: Can These Girls Really Undress for Success? Cosmopolitan, p. 200.
(23) Ciriello, S., Buchwald E., Fletcher P., Roth M. eds. (1993). “Choice? commodification of women: morning, noon, and night” Transforming a Rape Culture. (Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed Editions,1993), pp. 265-274.
(24) Steinem, G., “The Real Linda Lovelace.” in D. E. H. Russell, ed., Making Violence Sexy. (New York: Teachers College Press, 1993), p. 27.
(25) Sanday, Peggy Reeves, Fraternity Gang Rape: Sex, Brotherhood, and Privilege on Campus, (New York University Press, 1990), p. 35.
(26)Hard Copy, 11/29/95 investigated these films that literally stalks women forcing them into cars or hidden areas where the gang rape is videotaped.
(27) Dworkin A. & MacKinnon C., “Questions & Answers” in D. Russell ed., Making Violence Sexy. (New York: Teachers College Press, 1993), pp. 90-92.
(28) Strossen, Nadine, Defending Pornography, ( New York: Scribner, 1995)
(29) Dworkin, Andrea, Life and Death: Unapologetic Writings on the Continuing War Against Women, (New York: Free Press, 1997), p. 94.
(30) ibid. Part 3, “Beaver Talks,” p. 89.
(31) Landon, Robert, “Unsafe Sex,” George, 4/97, pp. 91-92.
(32) Dworkin, Andrea, Life & Death: Unapologetic Writings on the Continuing War Against Women, (New York: Free Press, 1997), p. 88.