Signs of Struggle: Voices from the Anti-Pornography Movement

By Robert Jensen

Published in Jurist/Books-on-Law · July, 1998

[This article appeared in Jurist/Books-on-Law, July 1998.]

review of
In Harm’s Way: The Pornography Civil Rights Hearings
Catharine A. MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin, editors
Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998
512 pp.
$24.95 paper; $45 cloth

Reading In Harm’s Way sparked both joy and despair in me. On one hand, the publication of this collection of documents from the feminist anti-pornography movement is an important political and scholarly event to be celebrated. But it is difficult not to feel a deep sadness when reading the book, not simply for the human pain that emerges in the stories of survivors of sexual abuse but for the culture’s continuing indifference to that pain.

In this volume, Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin, co-authors of the anti-pornography civil rights ordinance, have collected the hearing transcripts and related documents from the political struggles over the ordinance in Minneapolis, Indianapolis, Los Angeles, and Massachusetts. The book accomplishes several important tasks. First, this documentary record has been in the past either difficult or impossible to obtain. Prior to this volume, the transcript of the Minneapolis hearings–in many ways the founding document of the movement–has circulated primarily in photocopied form; the only published version came out in England and hasn’t circulated widely in the United States. Transcripts of the other hearings were for all practical purposes unavailable.

Stories that Matter

These transcripts are important because it was in those hearings that people spoke clearly of the harms connected to the pornography industry. The record includes testimony of supporters and opponents of the ordinance, but it is the stories of the women and men who lives have been damaged by pornography that are most compelling and important. These are the stories that tell us so much about the pornography industry yet so often go unheard in the debate.

Second, MacKinnon and Dworkin make it clear that the feminist anti-pornography movement is not the work of them alone. As authors of the ordinance and much of its supporting theory, the two are central to the movement, of course. But no matter how much the two have emphasized the grassroots nature of the movement over the years, the movement often is presented as these two individuals, who then become the targets of rather vicious attacks and defamations. In this volume, MacKinnon and Dworkin assemble the documents that show how, like any truly progressive social movement, the feminist anti-pornography movement is the result of the work of numerous people, primarily women. From this book we learn who those people are, see the results of their work, and read their words.

Third, the book should put to rest many of the misconceptions about the movement. I say “should,” because some of those misconceptions are the result of purposeful distortion, and no amount of evidence seems to derail the public relations campaign of the pornography industry. MacKinnon’s introductory essay particularly takes on these distortions, such as the common assertion that the feminist movement cut some sort of nefarious deal with right-wing Republicans to push through the ordinance, and offers evidence that plainly refutes them. To date, no accurate book-length account of the movement has been published. While this volume is not such a narrative history, the documents and the essays of the two editors are an excellent reference and go a long way toward establishing a reliable history. In a country with an appalling short historical memory, the importance of this book cannot be overstated. Without a permanent, accessible record, the truth about the beginnings of the feminist anti-pornography movement would be increasingly hard to determine, lost to time and the distortions of opponents.

Public Education

But the book’s value is not simply scholarly. Anyone interested in understanding the role of pornography in contemporary society should review the evidence in the book. My own education on this subject began when I read the photocopied transcript of the Minneapolis hearing. After that, it was impossible for me to ignore the power of the feminist critique or the importance of pornography as a political issue. My own work on the subject–published most recently in Pornography: The Production and Consumption of Inequality, co-authored with Gail Dines and Ann Russo–would not have been possible without the pioneering work of the women in In Harm’s Way.

The debate about pornography, both within feminism and the wider culture, has been difficult and sometimes divisive. As I often tell my students, principled people can disagree about appropriate solutions to social problems. But because of the work of the women in the feminist anti-pornography movement, articulated in the pages of this book, it is clear that principled people–people concerned not just about their own sexual freedom but about sexual justice for everyone–cannot ignore the voices of these women. In Dworkin’s words: “You need to listen. You need to know. You need to care about the suffering pornography causes and be willing to decide what is fair” (p. 36). This volume’s demand that we listen should be heeded, no matter what one’s political position on pornography.