We live in a world where nothing, it seems, is immune to portrayal in words or pictures. The farthest reaches of perverted fantasy, the most loathsome acts, not even stopping short of mutilation and murder—all are available to be seen, slathered over, and imitated. Today’s pornography is unimaginably different from that of a century ago; yet under new trappings, fear is the same.

In December 1983, Minneapolis City Council held public hearings on a proposed ordinance that redefined “pornography” as a violation of civil rights and set up legal channels for its prosecution. Dozens of people testified; a few experts were in psychology or sociology but most were ordinary citizens who had suffered harm, they said, from the material the ordinance would make actionable. The transcript of the hearings fills some 350 pages, a harrowing compilation of battery, bondage, and rape. Hardly anyone spoke out against the ordinance, and the arguments of those who did seem bloodless by comparison: worry that bookstore owners would be forced to read everything in stock in case a single item might be liable to prosecution; once allowed in a limited context, censorship would spread, until the expression of any controversial idea was forbidden. What were these abstractions next to the true tales told by bruised and prostituted women? By a vote of seven to six, the Council approved the ordinance.

Mayor Donald Fraser vetoed it immediately; when a revised version was approved a few months later, he did the same. In Indianapolis, a re-revised ordinance was signed into law by Mayor William H. Hudnut III, only to be found unconstitutional by District Judge Sarah Evans Parker. Re-re-revised and shipped eastward, it came before the County Council of Suffolk County, New York, and was voted down. In each case, authorities relied upon the dry dogmatics of law to frustrate pleas of people with real scars to show. This might seem a crime in itself, but it is not. It is, in fact, an instance of the wisdom that inheres in the law, despite the shortcomings and occasional corruption of its enforcers. Those who would ban pornography on brand-new grounds desire not only to shove a ramshackle ideology down our throats; grounding themselves in an ancient myth, they also seek to re-awaken in us a superstition we have labored for centuries to overcome—the fear of images.

In all its forms, the itinerant ordinance seems to represent a break with the past: none of the tired old buzzwords like “obscene,” “lewd,” “lascivious,” and “filthy” appears in it. Instead, pornography is defined as “sex discrimination”; it is “a systematic practice of exploitation and subordination based on sex that differentially harms women,” “the graphic sexually explicit subordination of women through pictures and/or words.” Law professor Catherine A. MacKinnon and feminist writer Andrea Dworkin, who drafted the Minneapolis ordinance and have been tinkering with it for two years, insist that they have no “puritanical, moralistic intent.” The proposed law carries no criminal penalties; it allows individuals to file civil suit if they have been coerced into the production of pornography, if pornography has been forced upon them, or if they have been physically assaulted “in a way that is directly caused by specific pornography.” It is in every apparent respect an enlightened piece of legislation, a beacon in a world of brutal darkness.

The most disturbing story told at the Minneapolis hearings came from a twenty-three-year-old woman who described how, ten years before, she wandered away from a Girl Scout camp in the woods in northern Wisconsin and came upon three deer hunters “reading magazines and talking and joking around.” Though it was November and very cold, they made her take off her clothes; by turns, each raped her, while the others held their rifles at her head. At first, they called her “little Godiva” on account of her long blonde hair; when they were finished, they called her “a bitch and a slut” and simply walked away. She put her clothes on and then noticed the magazines the men had been reading: “They were magazines with nude women on the covers.”

Frightened, mortified, and confused, she complained to no one of what had been done to her. Under existing law, she could have brought the men to trial on rape charges; if the proposed antipornography law had been in effect, she also could have sued the “makers(s), distributor(s), seller(s) and/or exhibitor(s)” of the magazines that seemed to have instigated her violation. Everyone involved, from the photographer who took the pictures to the shopkeeper who waited on the hunters, could have been haled into court—with the exception of the nude models themselves, since they, according to the same statute, had been “coerced” into posing, no matter how fully they seemed to cooperate. The evil line that led from a photographer’s studio to a bloodstained campsite in the Wisconsin woods might thus have been utterly erased.

This horrible story is probably true, but its impact doesn’t depend on truth. It moves us because it contains all the elements of a contemporary myth: a defenseless girl, brutish men, emblems and acts of violence—and those magazines, tossed aside when flesh arrived to take the place of pictures. It is, of course, a pornographic story in its own right, exactly resembling what the rapists had been reading before their victim stumbled on them. Every feature of the story is up-to-date except for one, the myth on which it is based, which has a long history.

In 1888, a writer for the London Sentinel happened to pass a bookstore and noticed a boy of about fourteen reading from a volume displayed open in the window. It turned out to be “one of the most notorious” of Emile Zola’s novels—probably La Terre (The Earth), an English translation of which had recently been published. Horrified by what he (and the boy) had read, the writer barged into the store and demanded that “the infernal book” be put out of sight. “The matter was of such a leprous character,” he later reported, “that it would be impossible for any young man who had not learned the Divine secret of self-control to have read it without committing some form of outward sin within twenty-four hours after.” The book was taken out of the window, and the anonymous vigilante’s story was read before the House of Commons; later, it served as evidence at the trial of Henry Vizetelly, Zola’s English publisher, who was driven bankrupt and sent to jail for distributing “immoral” books.

The dreary history of obscenity trials has been a series of skirmishes between the impulse to show and the fear of images.

The Sentinel story need not be true, either; it, too, epitomizes a myth, though an outmoded one. A hundred years later, we feel fairly certain that no one, even a boy ignorant of Divine secrets, can be driven to instant debauchery by a novel—surely not by two pages of a recognized classic. The first decades of the twentieth century witnessed the trials of innumerable books, from Ulysses to Fanny Hill, almost all of which were found to possess some value that prevented their suppression as obscene. After 1966, when the Supreme Court vindicated John Cleland’s frankly lascivious narrative of a prostitute’s career, the argument about value ran out of steam. The slightest trace of “redeeming social importance,” as the Court had called it, could sanitize heaps of raunch; though local schoolboards still haggle over Huckleberry Finn and Catcher in the Rye, anything with pretensions to literary or scientific worth has been safe from large-scale prosecution for nearly twenty years.

Yet the core of the myth remains untouched and is as hard today as it was in 1888. Value might serve as an effective antidote, but if value is lacking—as we assume it is in what we now call “pornography”—then the old monkey-see-monkey-do mechanism still operates. A Victorian adolescent and three modern-day deer hunters have little enough in common, but other stories assume a direct connection between the reading of words or the viewing of pictures and imitation in life. It is one of the oldest beliefs in Western culture: Socrates would have muzzled poets in his ideal Republic, because they liked to tell lewd tales about the gods and encouraged lewd behavior in mortals. The belief is so ingrained that it persists without evidence, indeed in defiance of any data to the contrary. For decades, psychologists and sociologists have been employing all their ingenuity in an effort to establish the link statistically. Results are equivocal; the only sure conclusion is—and has been for half a century—that more research is needed.

The groups advocating the MacKinnon-Dworkin model ordinance, organizations like the Women Against Pornography (WAP) and the Women Against Violence Against Women (WAVAW), are more sophisticated in their reasoning than most would-be censors in the past. As Susan Brownmiller, a founder of WAP, phrased it in Against Our Will (1975), pornography for them is “the undiluted essence of anti-female propaganda”; pornography, “like rape, is a male invention, designed to dehumanize women, to reduce the female to an object of sexual access.” In Pornography: Men Possessing Women (1981), Dworkin went further: “The woman’s sex is appropriated, her body is possessed, she is used and she is despised: the pornography does it and the pornography proves it.”

Half of this argument is plausible. Pornography is only the crudest, most graphic enactment of attitudes that permeate male-dominated society. Men respond to pornography with gratified recognition; it confirms what they already think they know and presents these inbred prejudices in the ultimate, most literal form. One glance at Hustler or Penthouse, not to mention their less glossy counterparts, is enough to lend considerable credence to this definition of “pornography.” It is self-defeating, however, as a rationale for removing from sale even the slimiest picture or film. It makes pornography out to be an ideological statement, indeed a statement of the most fundamental tenets of the culture in which it circulates. Even if a society could be persuaded to ban the expression of its own favorite ideas, that expression would still have “social importance” and hence would deserve protection under the First Amendment.

The second half of our latest case against pornography—that it not only “proves” the subjugation of women but also “does” it—has ancient roots and deep emotional appeal. It could form the basis of a justification of censorship, if it could only be shown to happen in any regular, demonstrable way: it never has been, yet research will no doubt keep on getting funded, over and over again, as though just one more study would do the trick. The most interesting aspect of research in this area isn’t its inconclusiveness—the matter is extremely subtle and subject to an incalculable number of variables—but rather the dogged determination of the researchers. The only thing they have established absolutely is their own passionate wish to find a causal connection between images and deeds. Before they fill out another grant application, they might pause to ask themselves where the passion comes form.

It comes, I think, in both scientists and legislators, from a conviction far deeper than that rape should cease or that all our neighbors should be safe. If we acknowledged that pictures of sex have no determinable effect on the sex acts of those who see them, we might have to grant the same for pictures of people in love, stories that reward honorable behavior, sermons, and even the Bible. Judeo-Christian culture is grounded in the trust that images can make you good; they must therefore also be able to make you bad. The two imperatives are inseparable. To put it as radically as possible, if those depraved hunters didn’t rape that little girl because they had been reading pornography, then maybe Christ didn’t fulfill the prophecies of the Old Testament. The recent alliance between right-wing activists and antipornography feminists isn’t so unaccountable as it is often made out to be. Michael D’Andre, who sponsored the MacKinnon-Dworkin ordinance in Suffolk County, was explicit for his own part: “I don’t want to tell anybody what to do,” he said, “as long as they live by the Ten Commandments.”

It would be simpler to burn a few magazines than to explore the economic, social, and psychological factors of which both rape and pornography are symptoms.


Religious and moral fables have traditionally been employed as models for regulating human behavior, though with mixed success. They have always had to be rigorously inculcated, and have never exercised the kind of automatic effect still attributed to even the sleaziest pornographic snapshot. To be made good by words and pictures requires effort; to be made bad is easy, not even calling for the intervention of the will. The endowment of evil images with this disproportionate power derives from the ancient belief that man is a fallen creature, a belief shared by today’s antipornography feminists, although they would reduce the provenance of “man” to that forty-nine percent of the species equipped with penises. Like other religiously based convictions, this one needs no proof and is immune to refutation.

Since the days of anti-smut crusader Anthony Comstock—who at least was straightforward about his doctrinaire puritanism—the superstitious fear of evil images has been secularized, losing its religion aura but retaining the power that only such prerational bugaboos possess. At the same time, the last century has witnessed an incredible burgeoning of the means of producing images and disseminating them. This dramatic, apparently unstoppable development testifies to what is perhaps a profounder urge: to represent everything that can be known, thought, or even fantasized, and to send those representations everywhere. In itself, the technology of representing is amoral and without fear; an obscene daguerreotype or videotape can be made just as easily as a pure one. The urge to represent is governed by a single Commandment: Thou shalt show.

The long, dreary history of obscenity trials in the United States has been a series of skirmishes between the impulse to show, fed by ever more sophisticated technology, and the fear of images, steadily retreating but still stubbornly holding on. Reticence of all kinds has been eroded so far by now that we may already have reached the point where there is nothing not yet said, written, photographed, or taped. All that remains is for the extremities of loathsomeness to find their way into every pair of hands, a condition we seem to be approaching. In a March 1985 Gallup poll commissioned by Newsweek, forty percent of the VCR owners questioned replied that they had bought or rented an X-rated videocassette during the past year. Figures are unavailable on the number of children who, while the adults were out, pressed some buttons. Once again, we seem on the edge of chaos, as we did to Comstock in 1883 and Summerfield in 1959.

The failure of chaos to arrive is puzzling, given how often it’s been called imminent. Perhaps it waits for the year 2000, our second chance at the millennium. In the time left to us, I would suggest that what we need is neither more laws nor more research reports, but a rethinking of our cultural myths, especially those that concern the connection between images and actions. Why do we so powerfully desire to multiply images and yet cling to our fear of them? It would be immensely simpler, of course, to burn a few magazines than to explore the economic, social, and psychological factors of which both rape and pornography are symptoms. Besides, a big bright fire, whether the fuel be paper or flesh, has always stirred something very deep and very old in the human heart.