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Defending Pornography: Free Speech, Sex, and the Fight for Women's Rights

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Defending Pornography: Free Speech, Sex, and the Fight for Women's Rights, by Nadine Strossen

Defending Pornography: Free Speech, Sex, and the Fight for Women's Rights, by Nadine Strossen

That religious conservatives would oppose pornography is no surprise, as graphic sexual expression is contrary to many religions’ sexual morality. That feminists would also oppose pornography, joining with the same religious conservatives who would relegate women to inferior social roles, was quite a surprise — but that’s what happened during the 1990s. Today the voice of anti-pornography feminists is more muted, but their arguments and language have been adopted by religious censors.


Title: Defending Pornography: Free Speech, Sex, and the Fight for Women's Rights
Author: Nadine Strossen
Publisher: New York University Press
ISBN: 0814781497

• Arguments and ideas continue to be relevant today
• Refutes arguments used today by religious conservatives, though they started with feminists

• A bit out of date by this point, but not terribly so

• Defense of pornography being constitutionally protected against free speech
• Offers legal, social, and practical arguments
• Focuses primarily on “feminist” attacks on pornography

Book Review

Because anti-porn feminists’ arguments and ideas live on in new forms, even if they are being used by religious conservatives who don’t accept these arguments in any other context, it’s still worth understanding them, their flaws, and how to counter them. Nadine Strossen’s Defending Pornography: Free Speech, Sex, and the Fight for Women’s Rights is invaluable in this context. Written in 1995, it might seem outdated in some ways, but it’s disturbing how relevant some of the material continues to be.

It’s clear from Strossen’s book that the positions and arguments that constitute anti-pornography feminism are without basis or merit, so why are they still being used? I think it’s because religious conservatives have been realizing that their traditional rhetoric against the equality of women no longer has the same credibility as it once did. Their beliefs may not have changed very much, but their language can change and the anti-pornography feminists handed them an unbelievable opportunity to continue fighting porn while pretending to defend the equality of women.

Thus it’s become a standard part of the anti-pornography arsenal to argue that graphic sexual imagery contributes to the repression of women in society and encourages men to treat women as sexual objects. The religious conservatives saying these things, though, don’t invest any effort to fight other means by which women are definitely repressed, like differences in pay, or other ways they are treated like sexual objects, such as the idea that women belong in the home either pregnant or raising children.

Strossen’s arguments can be divided into three groups. The first, naturally, is legal: censorship of pornography is ultimately unconstitutional. There may be valid reasons for restricting the time, manner, and place of distributing pornography, but not for eliminating pornography entirely. Strossen argues that pornography isn’t merely prurient, but also political because (in part) it forcefully promotes a vision of sex and sexuality that is contrary to traditional religious and social ideals.

Second, Strossen argues that censorship of pornography is counterproductive — especially from the perspective of the feminists in question. These anti-pornography feminists argue or just assume that society is patriarchal and anti-women, but then they want to give this same society the power to decide what qualifies as pornography and what sorts of material will be censored. This makes no sense whatsoever; it does, however, offer an enticing suggestion as to why religious conservatives ended up adopting these ideas.

Defending Pornography: Free Speech, Sex, and the Fight for Women's Rights, by Nadine Strossen

Defending Pornography: Free Speech, Sex, and the Fight for Women's Rights, by Nadine Strossen

Finally, Strossen argues that pornography and sexual expression are positive goods which need to be supported, not necessary evils that need to be protected lest we slide down a slippery slope of censorship. She insists that women cannot be treated as “victims” of pornography because they are just as active in the production and consumption of porn as men — and for good reason, too. Pornography provides a safe outlet to explore sex and sexuality which doesn’t typically exist when traditional sexual norms are enforced by society or the state.

There are certainly newer books dealing with pornography and censorship, books that address more recent events and arguments. Strossen’s thus isn’t the first book that can be recommended for the subject anymore, but it still deals with important issues and ideas which continue to be recycled, and this means that it continues to be a useful resource that’s worth reading.

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