When Conservative Senators Sound Like Anti-Porn Feminists

The feminist movement should continue to have a robust pro-free-speech wing.
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Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, who recently criticized pornography use in the military (Susan Walsh/AP Images)

Who knew that Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions harbored stirrings of radical feminism? Sexually explicit magazines are responsible for sexual assaults in the military, Sessions suggested during recent Senate hearings. "We live in a culture that's awash in sexual activity," he said. "There are videos and so forth that can be obtained, and it creates some problems, I think." He sounds remarkably similar to feminist anti-porn crusader Gail Dines, who has said, "young men who consume more porn than ever before, have difficulty forming healthy relationships ... Sex becomes something like making hate to a woman's body."

Affinities between social conservatives and anti-porn feminists aren't new; they date back some 30 years to the start of the late-20th century anti-porn movement. But back then, feminists against pornography were strongly and effectively opposed by feminists against censorship. In the early 1990's, for example, the National Coalition Against Censorship organized a feminist symposium on the anti-porn "Sex Panic." (Papers and speeches were collected in a special, 1993 edition of the New York Law School Law Review.) Anti-censorship feminists organized and testified against legislative proposals defining pornography as a civil rights violation. Today, however, "I'm not in favor of censorship, but ..." advocates of regulating various forms of hate speech are dominant. Free-speech feminists are about as influential—and unwelcome by their tribe—as pro-choice Republicans.

I've been a staunch feminist throughout my adult life, but I'm often labeled an anti-feminist and condemned for victim-blaming, at least, or enabling "rape culture" because I defend the right to engage in misogynist speech, as well as the due process rights of accused (in other words, unproven) rapists. The drive against sexual violence has sparked a drive against sexist speech presumed to cause violence, as well as a presumption of guilt in sexual assault cases, especially prevalent on college and university campuses. 

"This is what rape culture looks like," one not atypical commenter said in reaction to my post on sensational rape allegations at Amherst. A recent (spectacularly uninformed) post at Think Progress included me among the presumably anti-feminist "conservatives" who protested the Obama Administration's latest demand that colleges and universities enact unconstitutionally vague speech codes barring sexually offensive speech.

I'm not suggesting that all feminists are anti-libertarian, anti-porn advocates. Some identify as pro-sex or pro-porn, but they don't dominate much less define the feminist movement. Nor am I ignoring other liberal groups opposed to free speech. Many gay-rights activists promote absurdly over-broad anti-bullying policies. The NAACP squelches dissent. Congressional Democrats sponsor potentially censorious anti-harassment laws. As I frequently lament, allegedly offensive speech that targets presumptively disadvantaged groups is now routinely labeled "verbal conduct" and considered a civil rights violation by liberal activists who elevate the collective equality interests supposedly served by censorship over individual freedom.

But feminists are more likely than other liberal pro-censorship groups to find themselves on the same side as conservatives. While bemoaning the war on women, they inadvertently support it, by advancing regressive, stereotypic notions of male and female sexuality. Feminist legal scholar Catherine MacKinnon once memorably remarked that exposing a man to pornography is like "saying 'kill' to a trained guard dog." That is a dark, fatalistic view of male sexuality with which Georgia Senator Saxby Chambliss might sympathize. He attributed sexual assaults in the military to male hormones: "The young folks coming in to each of your services are anywhere from 17 to 22 or 23. Gee whiz, the hormone level created by nature sets in place the possibility for these types of things to occur."

It is not a great leap from these beliefs in a natural, masculine proclivity toward sexual violence (and feminine vulnerability to victimization) to a belief in traditional gender roles based on women's presumed status as a weaker but more nurturing and morally superior sex. 19th-century women's rights activists promoted and exploited a belief in their moral superiority to justify women's entrance into public life, while also advocating the censorship of pornography and prohibition of contraception as well as alcohol (both were linked with domestic violence.) 21st-century feminists intent on securing reproductive choice, among other freedoms, should seek stronger, more libertarian role models.

150 years ago, women were unnaturally weakened, ensnared by legal and cultural restraints that no longer exist today. We're not living in a feminist world, but considering our history, it's fair to say we've been liberated, because preceding generations of women dared to give offense by speaking up for equality.

Now some of those same brave women demand censorship, including, perhaps most notably Gloria Steinem, a leading member of the generation of feminists who helped make my life possible. She aligned herself with anti-porn forces long ago and recently signed a letter of support for an Icelandic proposal to impose legal limits on Internet porn. I have always admired Steinem and felt indebted to her and regret that she no longer represents a freedom-oriented feminism. Who does? Who will? That's a question and a challenge for young feminists. It's time to rebel against the fearful censoriousness of their elders.

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Wendy Kaminer is an author, lawyer, and civil libertarian. She is the author of I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional.

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