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From The National Post Wednesday, March 22, 2000

Feminist cleavage

One side believes pornography is hate literature. The other side says it's a virtue

Norman Doidge


   In a case that perfectly captures the collapse of intelligent conversation about sex in our time, two equally impoverished views of human beings are pitted against each other. Which emptied husk of humanity will triumph?
   This past Thursday, the Little Sisters case reached the Supreme Court of Canada. Little Sisters Book and Art Emporium, which sells lesbian pornography, launched the case because Canada Customs seized its pornographic imports, declaring them obscene. The emporium's lawyers now assert that standards of obscenity should be applied differently, depending upon whether homosexual or heterosexual pornography is involved. Little Sisters' lawyer Joseph Arvay argues in his brief that sadomasochistic pornography plays an important role in gay and lesbian culture, and group identification. One doesn't know whether to laugh or cry. How does Arvay know this? Presumably Arvay is basing his brief on evidence he has gathered that a significant number of homosexual publications and clubs are involved heavily in sadomasochism. But is he speaking for all homosexuals, and about all homosexuals? Many ancient Greeks seemed to manage homoerotism without glossy mags, while maintaining greatness of soul. And does Arvay think it good that a group's identification be dependent on sadomasochistic pornography? He also argues that when sadomasochism appears in heterosexual pornography it is harmful, but when it appears in homosexual pornography it is not. In short, it isn't sadomasochism that is perverse, but, rather, it gets twisted in perverse heterosexual hands. It's OK to trash the hetero- but not the homo- stash. Deep thinker: heterophobia, good; homophobia, bad.
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   The original Canadian decision argued by LEAF was based on the work of American feminist Catharine MacKinnon. MacKinnon treats all pornography as hate literature. In her book, Only Words, she argues pornography is either filmed rape or snuff. "In pornography women are gang-raped so they can be filmed ... women are hurt and penetrated, tied and gagged, undressed and genitally spread and sprayed with lacquer and water ... killed to make a sex movie." Describing a rape is equated with rape. (Strange, because she does just that.) Elsewhere, she, an inanely literal woman, blends word and deed: "Unwelcome sex talk is an unwelcome sex act." MacKinnon also argues that all heterosexual intercourse in our times is a form of rape. "Sexual intercourse under conditions of gender inequality ... [is] an issue of forced sex," she wrote in 1983. Had MacKinnon been consistent, she would have banned all conjugal relations. Harry would never get to meet Sally. But her views persuaded the wise Canadian justices. MacKinnon views a heterosexual man's identity as based on or tied into his interest in pornography. Her assertion is no different from Arvay's assertion that a homosexual's identity is tied into his or her special interest in pornography. They differ only in that MacKinnon thinks pornography is bad, and Arvay seems to think it is worth propping up for gays and lesbians. It is this impoverished view of whole groups as mere porn consumers that allows LEAF to be on both sides of the current case. Meanwhile, LEAF receives Canadian taxpayers' money to support it in its legal challenges against itself.
   It says a lot that MacKinnon could think pornographic-lust is all there is to half the human race, or that Arvay can argue the same for all homosexuals. Such broad generalizations about what goes on in the minds of billions of people often say more about the generalizers own experiences, or attitudes, than about those they purport to understand. Indeed, many have noted that MacKinnon seems very focused on pornography herself. Susie Bright, a lesbian writer and S/M advocate, remarks on the "fantastic pornographic passages (penises ramming vaginas, etc. )" that run through MacKinnon's work. MacKinnon even implies that she, as a woman, is into sadomasochism: "Sexual desire in women, at least in this culture, is socially constructed as that by which we come to want our own self-annihilation; that is, our subordination is eroticized; ... we get off on it, to a degree." Perhaps she should speak for herself.
   But she can't. -------
   Bright, author of Susie Sexpert's Lesbian Sex World, has nothing but contempt for MacKinnon, whose influence on the Canadian obscenity law led to the banning of Bright's books here. But, despite the cleavage in the feminist movement, Bright, has more in common with MacKinnon than she thinks.
   Bright is equally immoderate, and sees pornography only as liberating the self, never degrading it. In her introduction to her book, Sexwise, she defines herself by her sexcapades, her vibrator, her vulgar exhibitionism: "Fame raised its pointed little head over my career, and it's hard to believe that this is the result of teaching fist-f----ing workshops or demanding that pornographers be given their due. After years of gay and feminist artists talking among themselves, the mainstream has finally opened up to us like a parting sea."
   Pornography is, with the rarest of exceptions, not hate literature as MacKinnon claims, nor is its use a virtue as Bright claims. It is usually a vice that saps energies better spent; it has an opportunity cost, for anyone who can imagine life as being about more than serial orgasms; it interposes images of third parties between lovers isolating them as it arouses them. But Bright is right that pornography is now moving into mainstream, and on TV during the family dinner hour.
   Clinically, those who compulsively use sadomasochist fantasies to get aroused often have problems fusing, or integrating, tender loving feelings and lustful ones, often because of unresolved issues to do with aggression. These problems can often be traced to traumas of various sorts. There is nothing all that liberating about having to replay a trauma, or a sadomasochistic script in which someone is having to be humiliated. Humiliation is the essence of sadomasochistic perversion, and perversion is the erotic form of hatred. The very real isolation, loneliness and conflicts about identity that exist in the homosexual community today are not remedied by pornography, they are reinforced by it. It is laughable and pathetic that a supposedly educated lawyer will be arguing otherwise, before the Supreme Court of Canada.

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