The Tech - Online EditionMIT's oldest and largest
newspaper & the first
newspaper published
on the web
Boston Weather: 23.0°F | Fair and Breezy

Feminists oppose referendum

By Harold A. Stern

analysis

Third in a series on proposed

Cambridge pornography legislation

Feminists are not unanimous in their support of the Cambridge anti-pornography referendum. Many of the speakers at the recent MIT/Harvard symposium on women and pornography attacked the measure; sentiments ranged from those who believed that control over pornography would not help the situation to those who thought the referendum would actually result in harm to the women's movement as a whole.

Many feminists, according to Marsha Pally, a freelance feminist author, believe that every problem of women is a subset of pornography. She said this view is inaccurate, and speculated that the women's movement would suffer a major loss of prestige if the removal of pornography from society did not lead to a decrease in rape statistics.

Violence and sexism existed for thousands of years before pornography did, Pally continued. Violence and pornography "interact in a different way" than many feminists think.

"Pornography may be the symptom and not the cause," she claimed. Sexism stems from the structure of our society, Pally said, rather than the existence of sexually explicit literature.

The women's movement presently possesses little money and less clout, Pally said. Feminists cannot afford to fritter it away, she warned, by barking up the wrong tree.

Pornographic material is not meant to be taken as true, and is unlike "instruction sets." It is intended only to be fantasies, she explained. In addition, she claimed, the vast percentage of pornography is non-violent.

Feminists should examine the family structure in order to halt violence against women, and address the psychological fuel behind misogyny. Mothers, she said, are "the sole reminder of infantile trauma ... implicated in every childhood disappointment."

"Why does anti-pornography argument feel so right?" Pally asked. The answer, she claimed, was easy to identify: "It carries the voice of mom -- sex is icky, and men are dangerous." This lesson, she continued, is "imbedded at the core of women's emotions."

Rape and violence are the problem -- not sex, Pally asserted. Pornographic images come from society, family, and politics, she said. "Women were strung up in the 16th century."

"Saudi Arabia and Iran have no pornography," said Carol Vance, a social scientist at Columbia University and member of the Feminist Anti-Censorship Task Force. These two societies are characterized by extreme sexism, discrimination and violence towards women.

"This is not the law people think that they are voting for," Vance said. The definitions of pornography include several clauses which refer to objectification, but not violence. Although they may be offensive to women, they should not be outlawed, she said.

"The targeting of sex by itself is wrong," Vance said. Feminists<>

[el-83p]

are focusing on the anti-pornography struggle, while services that protect women, such as shelters for victims of violence, are cut back due to a lack of funding.

Anne Snitow, a member of Women against Censorship, warned that in the minds of many feminists, "rape and violence are the central metaphors for women's existence." Snitow warned against stereotyping males and viewing anything that is explicit as bad.

There are ways of eliminating harmful sexually explicit materials from the marketplace without legislation, claimed Kate Millet, a feminist author. Consensus -- or agreement of the populace -- should be the method utilized.

Abuse referendum inevitable

Speakers throughout the day voiced concern over the potential harm that the measure could bring to the feminist movement. These fears centered on the usage of the referendum as a means to oppress women who are working as prostitutes or as actresses in sexually explicit magazines and films.

Leland Pierce, former member of the Prostitutes' Union of Massachusetts, worried about the effects of the measure upon women who voluntarily work in the sex industry. She accused the anti-pornography faction of minimizing the economic pressures behind the choice of employment.

The feminists supporting the measure, according to Pierce, have never performed an analysis of why women turn to the sex industry for employment. Pierce called it "a place for women to turn," and wondered "where will they find jobs if this legislation is enacted?" Over half are mothers, Pierce claimed.

Many women working in the sex industry are indeed hurt by the manufacture of pornography, she said. But, Pierce added, "what we have here [in pornography] is the culmination of a sexist society -- not the whole of the issue."

Molly Ladd-Taylor, member of "No Bad Women -- Just Bad Laws" and the US Prostitutes' Collective, denounced the referendum. Passage of the measure, which is concerned solely with "pictures and words," will force many prostitutes and actresses in sexually explicit movies underground.

Vance agreed that the referendum will be used against women working in the sex industry. In addition, the measure would further hurt these women by inciting an increase in incidents of sexual violence, she said. This was the situation in Los Angeles, where similar legislation became law.

The other potential source of abuse will occur if right-wing elements use the referendum as a means to suppress all sexually explicit -- not just pornographic -- materials. "Feminists are not going to interpret law; men will," warned Vance.

A move of the law towards first applying to sexist, and eventually to sexually explicit, material is inevitable, Vance predicted, along with the view that "sex itself is degrading to women."

The third potential souce of abuse centers around that section of the referendum which concerns itself with trafficking. That section is "the heart of the ordinance," claimed Vance. She said a person can be convicted of trafficking without harming anyone. The referendum does not require that any harm be caused for an individual to be found guilty, she explained. One needs only prove that material meeting the definition was distributed by that person.