Anti-Pornography Website

Nadine Strossen: The Pornography Industry's Wet Dream

by Diana E. H. Russell

[Article appeared on Diana Russell's website. It is a response (written in 2000) to the book Defending Pornography (1995) which was written by President of the American Civil Liberties Union Nadine Strossen -- one of the so-called feminists who support porn]

How many ACLU lawyers does it take to screw over women harmed by porn? Try this one.

Nadine Strossen's OBJECTIVE in Defending Pornography is to destroy the reputation and achievements of the feminist movement against pornography. To this end, she dishes up the same tired old caricature of us as anti-sex prudes, pro-censorship, and in collusion with the right wing.

Not until the very last chapter does Strossen address the scientific evidence on the harmful effects of pornography, and her discussion of that evidence is a sham. Most of the key researchers on the relationship between pornography and violence against women (Neil Malamuth, James Check, Dolf Zillman, Jennings Bryant, myself) do not rate a single mention in her book. 

I confronted Strossen on National Public Radio in February about the gaping holes in her review of the scientific literature. Her disingenuous defense was that she had relied on a short book -- which she described as the best source on the subject -- by her nonacademic pal, anti-censorship advocate Marcia Pally, founder and president of Feminists for Free Expression and a columnist for Penthouse. Pally concluded that (surprise! surprise!) "no credible evidence substantiates a clear causal connection between any type of sexually explicit material and any sexist or violent behavior."

Strossen's book was enthusiastically feted by the media not because it's so brilliant but because she's president of the American Civil Liberties Union (an organization that has increasingly become a watchdog for the interests of pornographers). The fact that Strossen professes to be a feminist gives her a lot more clout than a man would have doing the same dirty work for a dirty industry. Men can sit back and applaud the cat fight. Pornographers can breathe a sigh of relief and get on with their lucrative business of exploiting women to facilitate men's ejaculations.

Strossen makes no distinction between erotica and pornography. Her failure makes it so much easier to identify anti-porn feminists (who have no objection to nondegrading images that turn people on -- unless the woman in the image was abused in its production) with the right wing (many of whom do oppose all sexually explicit images).

Over the last 20 years I have been engaged in considerable research and writing on pornography -- which I define as material that combines sex and/or genital exposure with abuse or degradation in a manner that appears to endorse, condone, or encourage such behavior. My most recent works include Making Violence Sexy: Feminist Views on Pornography (Teachers College Press, 1993) and Against Pornography: The Evidence of Harm (Russell Publications, 1994). I have been an anti-porn activist for the same length of time. The high point in my activist career was discovering the thrill in tearing up porn magazines. Doing this in private is no fun. It has to be a public act executed with other women, preferably in front of the porn store owner and his male customers. The catharsis I felt was definitely worth the night I spent in jail.

In Against Pornography I reprinted over 100 examples of pornography because I was bored to death by talking about its effects with people who haven't seen it, or whose exposure to it has been so minimal that they equate it with pictures of nude people in sexual encounters. I had also repeatedly found that many women are more convinced of the harmful effects of pornography by seeing examples of it than by reading about the scientific evidence.

Some critics of Against Pornography accused me of including more negative images than they believe is typical of pornography. Similarly, Strossen charges anti-porn feminists with selecting "overtly violent, sexist samples" of porn for our educational slide presentations. This is analogous to a neo-Nazi arguing that the horror and devastation of anti-Semitism in Nazi Germany cannot be judged from photographs of the concentration camps, because a lot of Jews weren't incarcerated in them.

Strossen devotes a helfy chunk of her book to a vehement and demonizing attack on Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin. Assuming that all the rest of us agree with everything MacKinnon or Dworkin has ever said, done, or written, Strossen both scapegoats those two and makes invisible many other prominent feminists who have also opposed pornography. Besides me, for instance, she does not mention Gloria Steinem, Alice Walker, Susan Brownmiller, Susan Griffin, Nikki Craft, Kathleen Barry, Florence Rush, Ann Simonton, Melissa Farley, Jane Caputi, Catherine Itzin --all of whose commitment to this issue is public knowledge.

Strossen spends most of the book arguing against censorship, claiming that MacKinnon and Dworkin and the rest of us unmentionable clones are virulent advocates of it. Although censorship appears to be Strossen's favorite word, she never even attempts to define it. From the examples she cites, though, her definition appears indistinguishable from what most people would consider the exercise of their free speech and civil rights.

Strossen accuses Dworkin, for example, of censorship for organizing a protest campaign against A Woman's Book of Choices. A particular passage included advice on how women could qualify to get an abortion by falsely claiming to have been raped. The passage explained how women could increase the credibility of such a false rape claim "by wearing torn clothes and borrowing semen from a friend or lover to spread on their clothes or bodies." When the publisher and the authors claimed it was impossible to revise this passage, Dworkin organized a successful campaign to get them to change their minds.

This incident inspired Strossen to criticize "the censorial impact of such coercive tactics as boycotts." To call any protest censorship is utter nonsense. In the context of the First Amendment, censorship involves state-based action to prohibit the publication of literature before it reaches the stands. There is a vital distinction between state action and acts of individuals. Dworkin's campaign involved individuals, myself included, exercising our First Amendment rights to exert pressure on the authors and publisher to change an appallingly misogynist paragraph.

Strossen insists that anti-porn feminists are the darlings of the media. Nothing could be further from the truth. Strossen, like other female feminist-bashers (Camille Paglia, Christina Hoff Sommers, and Katie Roiphe, for example) had the media falling over themselves to publicize her pro-porn views.

And Strossen doesn't just defend pornography; she enthusiastically celebrates it. In her chapter on "positive aspects of pornographic imagery," she includes testimonials by other women. One is Sally Tisdale (author of Talk Dirty to Me): "Pornography tells me...that anything goes." Another is Ann Snitow (an editor of Powers of Desire):

Think, for example, of all the pornography about servants fucking mistresses, old men fucking young girls, guardians fucking wards. Class, age, custom -- all are deliciously sacrificed, dissolved by sex.

Whether some women get off on what Strossen approvingly calls "rape scenes and scenes dramatizing the so-called rape myth," that does not mitigate the fact that many other women feel violated by such images, that some are violated by acts inspired by those images, and that some who were used to make those images are exploited or abused in the process. In her myopic individualism, Strossen repeatedly fails to address the consequences of pornography for women or for male consumers in general.

Here is another Strossen gem delight pornographers: "The more unconventional the sexual expression is, the more revolutionary its social and political implications become." I suppose rape doesn't qualify as unconventional sexual expression anymore -- but would child porn qualify as revolutionary? Or images of sexual mutilation and woman-killing?

I know what would be revolutionary: Strossen keeps telling us how much women love pornography, so why not pictures of gangs of women raping men, sticking broomsticks up their asses as they smile and ejaculate and say, "Encore," snipping their balls off with pliers, sticking wire up their penile openings? Why haven't pornographers saturated the market with these kinds of images to match what they've done to women? Isn't this evidence that porn is discriminatory?

But Strossen denies there is any inequality in pornography. She even contests that "women have historically and consistently been subjugated in the realm of sexuality." She thinks the conditions for women in the porn industry are just dandy, and that there is no reason "to believe that force or violence are endemic in the sex industry, or more prevalent there than in other sectors of our society." In the event that the odd problem emerges, says Strossen, there are a "panoply of criminal and civil remedies for women who have been physically or psychologically abused in the production of sexual materials." What a bunch of fatuous Pollyanaisms.

Many anti-porn feminists today reject the concepts of obscenity and censorship as appropriate frameworks for judging pornography. Dworkin and MacKinnon have proposed a law enabling women who have been damaged by pornography to sue the pornographer(s) responsible. The trial court would decide whether or not the evidence is convincing. The rationale for this law is similar to the rationale for laws against sexual harassment: it can cause harm, and it is disproportionately harmful to women, and therefore discriminatory. People who support the laws against sexual harassment would, if consistent, approve similar laws against pornography.

But Strossen complains sexual harassment laws are having a chilling effect on the joys of finding sexual affirmation in the workplace. She calls sexual harassment (a concept referring to unwanted sexual advances, not those that are welcome) a "stigmatizing epithet." She can't seem to get the difference between sex and sexual abuse.

No wonder Strossen fails to reckons with my theoretical work on pornography as a causal factor in rape. I believe there are many different causes of rape, and the significance of pornography varies depending on its availability, its content, and the degree of its acceptability in a particular country. In nations saturated with porn, as the United States is, scientific evidence shows.

Pornography predisposes some men to want to rape women, and intensifies the predisposition in some other men already so predisposed. For example, research has shown that porn combining sex and violence against women teaches some male viewers to be turned on by such violence.

1. Pornography predisposes some men to want to rape women, and intensifies the predisposition in some other men already so predisposed.

For example, research has shown that porn combining sex and violence against women teaches some male viewers to be turned on by such violence.

2. Pornography undermines some men's internal inhibitions against acting out their desire to rape.

Research shows that by promoting rape myths, beliefs in interpersonal violence, and callous attitudes toward women, porn undermines the internal inhibitions that restrain many men from raping. The more convinced men who would like to rape a woman are that women enjoy rape, the more likely they are to do it. And a very high proportion of men would like to rape women. Neil Malamuth and colleagues have shown that 30 to 60 percent of male college students report some likelihood that they would rape or force sex acts on a woman if they could get away with it.

3. Pornography undermines some men's social inhibitions against acting out their desire to rape.

By rewarding men in porn for objectifying, dominating, violating, and raping women, the social message conveyed to consumers is just as Tisdale said: "Anything goes." Moreover, "It's easy to get away with."

Many people share Strossen's opinion that men who consume porn but who have never raped a woman disprove the theory that porn can cause rape. This is comparable to arguing that because some cigarette smokers don't die of lung disease, there cannot be a causal relationship between smoking and lung cancer. Only members of the tobacco industry and some seriously addicted smokers consider this a valid argument today. Although the scientific evidence that porn can cause rape is at least as strong as the evidence that smoking can cause lung cancer, many people are so ideologically committed to the view that porn is harmless that they find a multitude of excuses to disregard it. Strossen and the ACLU's strategy seems to be to ignore information, arguments, and theories that they find too difficult to tackle, no matter how much dishonesty and misrepresentation it takes.

Diana E. H. Russell, Ph.D., is a prominent researcher on sexual violence, Emerita Professor of sociology at Mills College, and author, editor, or co-author of 13 books. Among these, she wrote Sexual Exploitation: Rape, Child Sexual Abuse, and Workplace Harassment (1984), The Secret Trauma: Incest in the Lives of Girls and Women (1986), and Against Pornography: The Evidence of Harm (1993).