Porn again

An old debate, new feminist theory, and the same damned questions
By ANITA DIAMANT  |  May 31, 2006


Andrea Dworkin

A few weeks ago, I walked through the Combat Zone. It was noon. The streets were quiet. I kept my eyes on the sidewalk and concentrated on the words of a friend who was walking with me. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a picture of a woman, naked except for the yellow stars pasted over her nipples. I looked away as fast as I could but it was too late. I walked faster.

We turned down a side street that took us from the Zone to Chinatown, where we were headed for lunch. In the shade, a knot of men were leaning on a car, smoking cigarettes, taking a break from work. I held my breath as we passed them, as they watched us. What did they see? Me or the woman on the marquee?

Over spring rolls and lo mein, I told my friend about the upcoming debate between Andrea Dworkin, the anti-pornography activist who had just published a book on the subject, and Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, the holy crusader of the First Amendment. This is going to be a real show, I told my friend. I told her I tended to side with him and those convincing arguments about the specter of censorship, about book burning, about the suppression of ideas as unpopular as some of my own. And I said I distrusted the anti-sex bias of the anti-porn campaigners.

We walked back through the Zone. There is no other direct route. I lowered my eyes again. Again, I speeded up. As we approached the now-reassuring blank brick wall of Jordan Marsh, I realized that my shoulders were stooped, and that I had been chattering non-stop in order to drown out the silent assault of the marquee. In a combat zone, the survivors are victims too.

***

More than 300 persons overflowed a Radcliffe lecture hall expecting, as Andrea Dworkin put it, "an intellectual car crash." They stood around the room, sat in the aisles, and listened to a loudspeaker set up in the corridor for those who couldn't crowd into the room.

It was not really a debate. According to Barbara Haber, curator of books for the Schlesinger Library and the evening's moderator, the two parties had agreed to a format whereby Dworkin would make a presentation, Dershowitz would respond, and Dworkin would have the last word. Nor was it a debate in the sense of a confrontation between opposing ideologies or approaches. What the audience heard was a dramatic speech about male supremacy and then a series of outraged gasps about dangers to the First Amendment. Dworkin's challenge was cultural. Dershowitz's reply was legal. They were not talking about the same things.

Dworkin was clearly nervous. Her voice was breathy and it wavered as she stood at the podium to make a complicated, obviously well thought-out speech about the nature and context of pornography. It was not a pretty speech. "We live in a system of power that is male supremacist. This means that society is organized on the assumption that men are superior to women and that women are inferior to men." According to Dworkin, male supremacy is justified by theological and biological arguments both of which advance the tenet that "women exist to be sexually used by men, to reproduce, to keep the cave clean and to obey . . . In both systems, man is at the top, where he belongs; woman is under him, literally and figuratively, where she belongs."

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Related: Saluting the enemy, Parody flunks out, Flashbacks: June 2, 2006, More more >
  Topics: Flashbacks , Politics, Political Policy, Harvard University,  More more >
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