Steinem on Flynt: “This pornography is as different from sex as rape is from sex”


Pornographers like Larry Flynt style themselves heroes of the First Amendment, and say that to oppose their products is to oppose sex and support censorship. Gloria Steinem disagrees, reports The Boston Globe:

In an op-ed piece in Tuesday’s New York Times, Gloria Steinem equated [Larry] Flynt with a publisher of Ku Klux Klan books or “a Nazi on the Internet, no matter what constitutional protection he secures.” She accuses the movie [“The People vs. Larry Flynt”] of cynical deception because it omits what Hustler actually publishes: specifically, images of women being “beaten, tortured and raped, women subject to degradations from bestiality to sexual slavery.”

In a subsequent telephone interview, Steinem says she doesn’t think she’s raising Flynt’s profile by contributing to the public debate. “His profile is already there,” she says. “It’s whether people perceive him as First Amendment hero or sexual fascist.”

She asserts that Flynt “has not only the right to say these things, but a lot of money to say them. I’m saying we don’t have to support it. I’m just making the radical suggestion women are human beings… The point of the movie is to be seductive, and that’s what’s dangerous about it. It’s an extension of the pornography-industry campaign, that if you oppose pornography you oppose sex–and that’s a lie. This pornography is as different from sex as rape is from sex. They’re trying to preclude opposition by saying [anti-porn arguments] endanger the First Amendment. The porn industry has succeeded in positing two alternatives: pornography or censorship.”

Wrong battle lines, says Steinem. “In the same way the film posits censorship vs. pornography as if this were the only alternative, it also posits [the choice between] Jerry Falwell and Flynt. They’re two sides of a male-dominated coin. The difference is one wants to control women for sexual reasons, the other for reproductive reasons.”

Adds Steinem: “We have used free speech against slavery, the war in Vietnam and smoking in public, and we’ve been pretty successful. We need to use free speech against pornography…”

Owen Fiss, a Yale professor and author of “The Irony of Free Speech,” is concerned about the effect the First Amendment defense of pornography has on the less powerful. “What a pervasive bombardment of pornography does is transform a woman into a sex object as opposed to a deliberating citizen,” says Fiss. “It’s a more complicated issue than ‘Who is entitled to claim the First Amendment?'”…

But it has been suggested that Harrelson’s portrayal of Flynt makes him seem more like a rascal–a crazy, pilled-up rascal, sometimes–than like, say, an exploitative, sexist opportunist. There are key omissions in the film; his first three wives and his children do not factor in, for example. (One daughter, Tonya, is, in fact, an anti-porn advocate who picketed the film upon release…) And certainly the sexual raunchiness and the crude class-and-race-conscious baiting at the core of Hustler’s politics are underplayed…

[S]ays Al Goldstein, publisher of Screw… “I personally don’t like Hustler. It makes me dislike sex. If I [have sex] I’m grateful; to Larry, it’s an act of war. Larry throws women in the gutter and feeds on their bones. [His is] a constituency of men who are very angry with women…”
“More Hustler Than Hero in the Real Man”, The Boston Globe, 1/10/97

23 thoughts on “Steinem on Flynt: “This pornography is as different from sex as rape is from sex”

  1. Again, what does this have to do with whether there should be a porn store in Northampton? If your conclusion is “porn should be illegal,” then I see where comparing it to rape, which should be illegal, would be relevant.

    But if your conclusion is merely, there should be no porn store on 135 King St, but other porn stores in other places are fine, then I don’t see how you help yourself by comparing it to rape, which shouldn’t be tolerated anywhere it occurs. Because then it sounds like you’re saying, “zoning ordinances should be used to prevent rape from occurring near residences and houses of worship. However, if rape should occur outside a 500-foot buffer zone surrounding any school or house of worship, that’s fine with us.”

    So which is it? Is NPN comparing porn to rape, or not? Is NPN advocating that we outlaw porn outright, or not?

  2. This post addresses several points raised by our opponents. They have said that to be anti-porn is to be anti-sex. We’ve been trying to say that we’re only against a certain kind of sex–exploitative, harmful, with a gross imbalance of power. Porn is just a subset of sex, just as rape is a subset of sex.

    Larry Flynt’s porn is not about love, liberation, the empowerment of women or a celebration of the female body. It’s about raw power, domination and cruelty. Steinem herself opposes censorship, but says people need to speak out against this material. That’s what we do.

    We are also trying to puncture the noble aura that people like Capital Video attorney Michael Pill have tried to surround themselves with. In the blind defense of a single value, freedom of speech, greased along with some billable hours, Pill tramples other important values, such as compassion, safety, and the economic health of our community. When liberal values lead to illiberal results, something is out of balance.

    We do not advocate censorship. We do advocate reasonable, well-tested regulation of certain adult businesses. We also advocate awareness and self-restraint.

  3. Peter, equating adult-use zoning with censorship makes as much sense as saying that Northampton’s regulation of bar hours is evidence of hard-core Temperance sentiment at City Hall.

    Northampton has many regulations of businesses to protect the interests of residents. The courts find that reasonable adult-use zoning is an acceptable way to mitigate the secondary effects of adult businesses.

  4. Road Apples! If you place me out of the way of the audience I want to reach you are censoring me.

    Yes, we regulate a lot of things, but when its done best, it is in a mannner that does not strike at the heart of whatever that business may be.

    We do not, for example, have a similar zoning ordiance with respect to bars. Why? Consuming alcohol is harmful.

  5. The secondary effects of adult businesses are harmful, too. That justifies their regulation.

    You may feel censored if you have to drive another mile or two to buy porn, but the courts have found that this burden is so slight as to be acceptable in light of the many benefits to the community. Your position is unreasonable, extreme, and fails to appreciate the valid concerns of your neighbors.

    The right to bear arms is important, it’s in the Constitution, yet your government will not look kindly on an arsenal of anti-tank weapons and tactical nukes in your basement. There are a balance of interests here as with the First Amendment, as it should be.

    Our Constitution is an important document, but it’s short and can’t cover every conceivable situation of life in America as time passes. We need informed citizens, judges and politicians to apply the Constitution in a way that truly enhances our lives, rather than let callous businesspeople use it in a cynical fashion to make money, spread harm, and escape criticism.

  6. 1. Michael Pill tries to surround himself with an aura of nobility?! Not the Michael Pill I’ve seen!

    2. Rape is a subset of SEX?! I guess murder is a subset of annoyance, then. I believe it’s a widely-understood fact that rape is about power.

    3. The problem with your approach to this is that your “reasonable, well-tested regulation of certain adult businesses” doesn’t look like the regulation I would want, which doesn’t look like the regulation my daughter would want, her best friend would want, his uncle would want, etc. What you refuse to admit is that you want regulation to make the world the world you want to live in, and to hell with it if the rest of us don’t want that regulation! You (Adam and Jendi) are too self-serving, is what I’m saying. Your biggest obstacle is not just the First Amendment, it’s the entirety of democracy. You can’t make our society into one that serves only your values. Until your campaign begins to directly address the true evil side of porn, as opposed to Cap Video in your neighborhood, your arguments are just so much whining about not getting your way.

  7. Your suggestion that our proposals should be ignored because they are unpopular is false. All indications suggest they are substantially popular in Northampton. Over 1,000 local residents signed our petition last year. By contrast, only 28 people have signed the TalkBackNorthampton petition to date.

    Two-thirds of Northampton’s city councilors, who are elected officials, voted to approve the adult-use zoning measures last fall. Several of them reported hearing a considerable volume of feedback from their constituents on this issue. Many articles and letters were published in the local newspapers. Sounds like the democratic process is working A-OK in this town. The opposition had ample time and opportunity to present their arguments.

    We respect that there are people with opposing views, and show this respect by sincerely engaging with their arguments. We don’t expect to convince everybody (no politician does), and if some callous adult enterprise threatens our neighborhood with secondary effects, you bet we’ll object. That’s our right to free speech.

    If you have better regulation in mind, please propose it. If you feel we have inadequately addressed the “true evil side of porn”, please steer us in the right direction. So far, I believe we have demonstrated plenty of evil sides.

    While we’re at it, why don’t you show your respect for us by avoiding user names like “Sotiredofthisjunk”.

  8. Adam and Jendi,

    I think you misunderstood my point. I wasn’t saying everybody disagrees with you, I’m saying we all disagree with each other! We all have different ideas as to what’s acceptable, and I don’t want any one person (or unit, in your case) regulating what’s acceptable such that it affects my choices.

    As for your protestations of your popularity — unbelievable to me as they are — you’ve skewed the facts. First, Peter never stood on the corner of a major intersection collecting signatures for his blog. Had he, you can be sure many more would have signed. Second, I question the veracity of your petition simply because my name is on it: I signed, as a knee jerk reaction, while I was waiting for the light to change. I did so ONLY because I didn’t want to see something so tacky as a porn shop move into that location. I believe that intersection is too ugly already. But then, when I saw your approach to all of this, I realized that I’m hardly in agreement with you at all.

    I do grant you your free speech rights and admire the vigor with which you exercise them. I only wish you also exercised the flexibility to hear dissenting views without needing to argue against every one of them. This is a very “shades of gray” issue, but you treat it as if there is only one right side– yours.

    I gave myself the moniker “Sosickofthisjunk” because, in fact, that’s exactly how I feel. I didn’t think it mattered who I am as much as the fact that there’s yet another person “out there” who disagrees with you and is willing to take the time to say so. I’m Bonnie Rose. I used to have another handle here, but I forget what it was; I can only post for so long without regrets about the time it takes away from my work.

  9. Bonnie, I understand that people have different ideas. Our position is that some ideas are better than others, more conducive to the happiness of more people. This blog gives evidence that porn and adult businesses affect a lot more people than just the viewer who ‘opts in’. That makes it a public issue. Even if porn only affected the immediate viewer, we’ve also shown that it has bad effects on many of these viewers, a legitimate cause for concern in itself.

    I don’t see why it’s objectionable to rebut as many opposition arguments as we choose to. We do appreciate many of the underlying concerns, such as preserving a wide range of opportunities for women and respect for the GLBT community. We don’t feel it’s necessary to condone violent, misogynist porn in order to uphold those values.

  10. Adam,

    Your 100% rebuttal rate is much more of a problem for you and your cause than you realize. And I’m speaking from the perspective of having spent 20 years teaching people written and verbal communication skills. First, it initially frustrates the readers you would want to win over; the ones who aren’t sure where they stand on the issues. And then, after the third or fourth rebuttal, it angers and alienates them.

    I, personally. would actually prefer not to have the porn shop on King Street, but your blog is so alienating to me that you’d never know it by my comments here. But your insistence about being right makes me want to keep pointing out the other facts, the gray zone issues.

    The second reason your archness is a much bigger problem for you than your readers is the picture it paints of you. Regardless of who you are face-to-face, regardless of the soundness of your thinking, because you won’t consider the validity of opposing comments, you come off closed-minded, smug, self-righteous and extremist. I.e. you damage your own credibility, and the appeal of your blog, by having to be right all the time.

    I’ve noticed how this works in my own life: I’ll be hearing some “expert” on t.v. NPR talk about an issue that matters to me, and find myself intrigued that they’ve got an angle I’d never previously considered. Then I notice that they answer the first question stridently, without consideration, and that’ll give me pause. And then they answer the next question more stridently, or insistently, or even angrily, and BING! My brain writes them off as an extremist. Somebody who has no ability to objectively weigh all of the facts available to them. And suddenly they have no credibility to me. I’ll bet the same thing happens to you, because that’s the way it works between people.

    So, isn’t that objectionable enough for you to reconsider your tactics? You would have MUCH more impact here if there were true dialog between all sides as opposed to the “I’M RIGHT!!” “NO I’M RIGHT!!!!” battle that you’ve constructed.

  11. I agree it is important to hear the opposition, credit it when it’s right, and be critical of our own side when necessary. Posts like the following show this in action:

    Penn State Law Professors Trot Out ‘Female Porn Leaders’ to Whitewash Realities of Adult Industry (explicit language)
    This post observes that some of the testimony in the article from porn workers actually supports our case, not those of the law professors. Who is better listening to the data?

    A Review of Catharine MacKinnon’s Only Words
    This post applauds Catharine MacKinnon’s motivations but is critical of some of her proposals with respect to legal remedies for the harm of porn.

    A Response to Wendy McElroy’s “Banning Pornography Endangers Women”
    This post acknowledges that McElroy has some legitimate concerns: “I appreciate McElroy’s warning about the limits of the law. Women’s historical experience of subordination should teach us that “empowerment” is not always a warm and fuzzy word. Power corrupts, even if held by feminists.”

    In short, we have made considerable efforts to be balanced and fair. Such efforts are less in evidence at Talk Back Northampton, even less in evidence at Prospect Perspective, and virtually absent from MoPornNorthampton.

  12. I’ll comment, since you mentioned my name.

    If these are your best efforts at being balanced and fair, then I’d hate to think what you’d present to the public if you didn’t put any effort into it. Take the extensive quoting you’ve done from the Dworkin and MacKinnon’s In Harm’s Way. You know as well as anyone that at those hearings people testified both for and against the proposed ordinances. You, however, made it appear as if only anti-porn testimony was heard. When I asked you when you were going to give a fuller picture, you explained that you don’t have to because your point of view is well-established. In other words, you don’t have to give the whole story.

    Can you explain how that demonstrates your efforts to be balanced and fair?

  13. You’re not serious, are you? This argument is nothing if not infantile. Have I ever even mentioned those other sites?! THIS IS NOT A POPULARITY CONTEST!!!!!!!! So what if Peter is my friend? My comments here have done nothing but treat your blog as if it is worthy of serious consideration. But you just further weakened your own respectability. You sound like an utter child.

    Once again, I’m so nausesated by your approach to the issues that I’m going to stop reading and commenting here for the foreseeable future.

    I just wish for your sake you could see how you come off. You’re your own worst enemy.

    –Bonnie.

  14. Balanced and fair implies more than addressing the “opposition” when it’s convenient for you.

    You don’t see much anti-Zoroastrian content at the Prospect Perspective either. I don’t see how what I don’t write about is particularly relevant, unless you’re trying to twist the facts somehow and suggest that I’m pro-porn.

    Regarding Springfield: it’s a terrible situation. To think that all Springfield has to do to eradicate prostitution is to close down one Capital Video store.

    Sounds to me like they’re having a problem of poor enforcement of existing laws. It’s just not a clear connection that says, if a Capital Video store opens that prostitution follows. I’ll ask again: are secondary effects immediate? Are they permanent? Can communities mitigate these effects in any way?

    And before you say that I’m not showing any sympathy to the residents of Springfield, you should know that I have ties to the City and know people who live and work there. I visit Springfield often.

    Regarding secondary effects: I’ve been waiting patiently for you to clarify your suggestions that the Capital Video store will pose a threat to our community’s children. Can you provide me data on this point?

    Thanks.

  15. Our child molestation and secondary effects categories answer your questions well with respect to the risks of Capital Video and similar porn merchants.

    I’m glad that you acknowledge that Apremont Triangle has serious problems. Obviously shutting down one secondary effects source, even a big one like Capital Video Springfield, won’t eradicate prostitution in Springfield, but it will help. Your position here seems to be that since we can’t solve a major problem in one step, we shouldn’t take any steps. That’s despair. And as Springfield Police Commissioner Flynn will tell you, attitudes matter.

    You may not believe there’s a “clear connection” between the Capital Video store and prostitution around it, but clearly many residents and people who work there do. It’s simply not credible to me that you, who lives perhaps 15-20 miles away from Apremont Triangle, knows better what’s going on there.

    One could characterize a public nuisance as a place that generates so many secondary effects it’s unreasonable to expect standard law enforcement to keep up with the problems. Two examples of this are St. Paul in the 1980s, and Capital Video in Springfield right now.

  16. I’ve read your material, and I’m unclear on the connection between child molestation and adult stores. You seem to imply a lot, but don’t really state anything (or perhaps I’m inferring.) Any clarity you can provide would be helpful.

    As regards secondary effects: are they immediate? Are they permanent? Can they be mitigated? And why hasn’t Northampton or Hadley or Whatley experienced them to the degree that Springfield and St. Paul have? I think those are questions worth answering.

    And no, I’m not suggesting that because we can’t solve a major problem, we shouldn’t do anything. What I am suggesting is that your approach to the problem may be too simplistic. Two years ago while doing some volunteer work at a Springfield public school, I saw a drug deal taking place right on the street. Should we shut down the public schools because they lead to drug trafficking?

  17. I may not have taught communications, but I have read several books on the topic. For what it’s worth: I find your page to be an incredible resource. Furthermore, you are able to stay cool when most people would become defensive and irrate. Keep up the great work.

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