The Meese Commission And The Sex Warsdiscourses On Pornography

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In 1970, under President Nixon, a commission on pornography had determined that pornography, unlike violence, had no measurable ill effects. Beginning in 1986, during President Reagan's last two years of office and into the first Bush administration, the Commission on Pornography, headed by Attorney General Edwin Meese, made significant strides in prosecuting and demonizing pornography. Ostensibly, new laws and an Obscenity Task Force were aimed at child pornography, but the elaborate new record-keeping requirements (combined with extensive legal fees) were intended to drive producers of sexually explicit materials out of business. Established in 1987, the National Obscenity Enforcement Unit attempted to eliminate as much sexually oriented material as possible. Frequently the unit would force plea bargains and settlements on defendants who wished to avoid prosecution; in one instance, plea negotiations with the Adam & Eve Company demanded that the company stop selling even mild soft-core porn, including marriage manuals like The Joy of Sex (1972). A federal circuit court ultimately ruled that the Unit did violate the company's First Amendment rights. During the late 1980s, the unit also began ''Operation Porn Sweep,'' pursuing major producers of porn videos. One of the most notorious cases that undermined the adult film industry was that of Tracy Lords, an underage actress who had been working for several years in the industry under a false name. Her illegal status rendered almost all of her work ''child pornography,'' and the films were either seized or destroyed in order to avoid prosecution. The industry lost millions of dollars and suffered extensive fees due to this case alone.

Unlike the 1970 commission, which relied upon the analysis of scientific data, the Meese Commission relied on anecdotal presentations in order to make its claims. Some of the more significant testimonies and claims were presented by such anti-pornography feminists as Andrea Dworkin, Catherine MacKinnon, and Robin Morgan. These women, initially forming in the 1970s as Women Against Violence in Pornography, were invested in the belief that all pornography was degrading to women, and that the consumption of porn by men maintained a causal relationship to the violence perpetrated on women in contemporary society. Indeed, for anti-porn feminists, violence was inherent in the heterosexual sex act, and any women who might enjoy fantasies of violence or submission were considered victims of false consciousness. During this period, Dworkin and MacKinnon drew up city ordinances, most notably for Indianapolis, that ostensibly censored pornography, openly recognizing that pornography's postures and acts were demeaning to women. (While these city ordinances were ultimately rendered unconstitutional, Canada eventually drafted laws against pornography that drew upon the Dworkin-MacKinnon model). Due to anti-porn's vocal presence, hard-core pornography did indeed evolve, so that representations of rape and violent coercion were not allowed in films that showed penetration.

What resulted from this fusion of feminism and right-wing social moralizing was the subsequent scape-goating of unorthodox or alternative sexual practices, which were thereby rendered perverse. Thus the sexual role-playing characteristic of butch/femme relationships and sexual practices involving bondage or sado-masochism quickly came under fire. During the mid- to late 1980s, and in the midst of backlash against the women's movement, anti-porn feminists represented a popular media force, and various members (including Gloria Steinem) were held up as the definitive feminist perspective throughout the United Stattes. Unsurprisingly, this vision of white, middle class, educated feminism did not account for the diversity of women concerned with issues of sexuality. Many of these tensions became pronounced at the notorious Barnard Conference ''Towards a Politics of Sexuality'' held in New York City in 1981; the subsequent divisiveness that held sway for many years in the feminist movement became known as The Sex Wars. Opposed to anti-porn views stood anti-censorship feminists, who believed that different sexual practices were defensible and that censoring some types of pornography would create a hierarchy of these differences. While these women were not necessarily amenable to all forms of pornography, they did hold to beliefs that the censorship of sexual materials would create overwhelming limitations on sexual expression and the pursuit of sexual knowledge. Since then, with the continuous growth of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender activism and acceptance, along with what might be considered the ''pornification'' of mainstream commercial culture, anti-porn feminism has fallen out of fashion and hard-core pornography has grown increasingly acceptable.

Since the onset of the home video boom, legal porn's exhibition and consumption has been largely relegated to the private, as opposed to, the public sphere. Subsequently, DVD and streaming video technology available on the Internet has increased the accessibility of hard-core sexual representations; and with the emergence of sophisticated cellular phone technology, porn viewing will become highly mobile as well. In turn, hardcore pornography has gained new legitimacy, with porn actresses hosting special shows on the E! Entertainment Network. Mainstream films have explored the adult film industry, including Boogie Nights (Paul Thomas Anderson, 1997) and Wonderland (James Cox, 2003), and performers have become the topic of several mainstream documentaries, including Porn Star: The Legend of Ron Jeremy (Scott Gill, 2001) and Inside Deep Throat (Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, 2005). The dividing line between art and pornography has become increas ingly blurred as foreign directors such as Catherine Breillat (b. 1948) have made dramatic films that feature hard-core penetration and employ male porn actors, such as Rocco Sifreddi (Romance [1999] and Anatomy of Hell [2004]). Even more dramatically, porn superstar Jenna Jameson released the national bestseller (co-written with Neil Strauss) entitled How to Make Love Like a Porn Star: A Cautionary Tale (2003).

The perception of the soft- and hard-core pornographic industries has also changed substantially in academic circles, especially after the publication of Linda Williams's groundbreaking book on the hard-core film genre, Hard Core: Power, Pleasure and the ''Frenzy of the Visible" in 1999. Williams's book, which analyzes the cultural and social debates surrounding pornography and examines the theoretical discourses that affect porn's definitions and meanings, was the first text to seriously analyze hard-core pornography as a film genre. Since its publication, academic courses devoted to analyzing sexually explicit representations have emerged across the United States, and what is known as Third Wave Feminism has come to embrace issues of sexual expression and pleasure as fundamental to feminist identity. Books on gay male porn, such as Thomas Waugh's Hard to Imagine, and histories of exploitation cinema, like Eric Schaeffer's ''Bold! Daring! Shocking! True!'', have opened the door to further explorations of both soft- and hardcore pornographies by academics, students, and porn consumers alike. Still, in the twenty-first century the United States is mired in what are known as The Culture Wars, and the divisions over popular and acceptable representations of sexuality are so intractable that dissension over pornography's production, distribution, and consumption will continue to splinter cultural opinions for years to come.

see also Censorship; Exploitation Film; Feminism; Gender; Sexuality further reading

Elias, James, et al., eds. Porn 101: Eroticism, Pornography, and the First Amendment. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1999.

Gibson, Pamela Church, and Roma Gibson, eds. Dirty Looks: Women, Pornography, Power. London: British Film Institute, 1993.

Johnson, Merri Lisa, ed. Jane Sexes It Up: True Confessions of Feminist Desire. New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 2002.

Kipnis, Laura. Bound and Gagged: Pornography and the Politics of Fantasy in America. New York: Grove, 1996.

Lederer, Laura, ed. Take Back the Night: Women on Pornography. New York: Morrow, 1980.

Lehman, Peter, ed. Pornography: Film and Culture. New Brunswick, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006.

Schaefer, Eric. "Bold! Daring! Shocking! True!'': A History of Exploitation Films, 1919-1959. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999.

Slade, Joseph, ed. Pornography and Sexual Representation: A Reference Guide. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2001.

Vance, Carole S., ed. Pleasure and Danger: Exploring Female Sexuality. London: Pandora Press, 1992.

Waugh, Thomas. Hard to Imagine: Gay Male Eroticism in

Photography and Film from Their Beginnings to Stonewall. New York: Columbia University Press, 1996.

Williams, Linda. Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the "Frenzy of the Visible.'' Reprint Edition. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.

--, ed. Porn Studies. Durham, NC: Duke University Press,

2004.

Nina K. Martin

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