May 16, 2019

HOW THE MEMORY HOLE WAS WON:

[Andrea] Dworkin is best known as a fierce campaigner against pornography, which she accused of complicity in the oppression of women. Along with Catharine Mackinnon, a lawyer, she worked tirelessly to discredit and ban pornography—by which they meant any sexual depiction of women, portrayed in any medium. Dworkin, Mackinnon, and their followers (the “Macdworkinites”) ruffled feathers on the Left by forming alliances against pornography with the Christian Right and the Reagan administration, at the very moment feminists were uniting to defend Roe v Wade from these same powers. This political realignment catalysed a damaging internecine split in the feminist movement into its “anti-sex” and “sex-positive” tendencies.

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The Macdworkinites opposed obscenity laws, which were based on a community standard they considered too permissive. They instead opted for a “civil rights” approach to censorship, arguing that displays of sexual expression were themselves harmful to women. They drafted a pro-forma law, the Antipornography Civil Rights Ordinance, which they encouraged city and state legislatures to adopt. This was far more draconian than obscenity law, because it defined pornography so broadly and subjectively as to include any potentially sexual expression, and because it handed the power of censorship to any “concerned citizen.” Any woman, using the law, could claim to have been harmed, and then take legal action: against a producer of pornography, a television company, or a bookshop. Their law was adopted in parts of the United States, but was later struck down under the First Amendment. However, their initiative enjoyed greater success in Canada, where it was adopted as a part of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982. As if to demonstrate the unintended hazards to which the slippery-slope of censorship can lead, two of Dworkin’s own books were banned in Canada in 1994, under the very law she had helped to create.

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