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Gloria Steinem Speaks Out on Violent Porn

An editorial report by Daniela Gioseffi:
Sexism and Racism as Indivisible Factors:

The People Versus Larry Flint was a Hollywood whitewash of the biggest hardcore pornography distributor in the world, Gloria Steinem recently explained at a conference titled "Beyond Racism," hosted by the Southern Education Foundation. The conference was created to network social activists and eminent scholars from the USA, Brazil, and South Africa to discover and implement new strategies to combat bigotry and sexism. Held at Emory University in Atlanta at the beginning of April 1997, it contained presentations and symposia on various problems of racism and sexism which are proliferating in these three wealthy countries and increasingly decadent cultures-- where the gap between rich and poor is ever widening.

Larry Flint's brand of hardcore pornography is marketed internationally and throughout the USA and South Africa. Violent pornography, as an industry, is rampant everywhere across the globe. "White women are subject to sadism and Black women subject to sadism and compared to animals in these hideously explicit visuals," Steinem described. Racist images of Black women's genitalia displayed next to horses and donkeys similarly displayed in degrading poses, infer not only sexual disrespect of Black women, but a gross bigotry toward African peoples in general. We who count ourselves civilized can't stand to look at these images and so we do not come in contact with such marketed hardcore pornography. As a result, those who could protest to eradicate it are neglecting the issue and unwittingly complicit with the profits derived from the multi-billion dollar industry. There are factors involved which keep the issue clouded and allow the hideous industry to thrive. The double-bind of the censorship issue is the most difficult to surmount. Barbara Arwine, African American attorney of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights also explicated the issue. Women respresentatives from South Africa and Brazil told of similar instances of gross racism in the multi-billion dollar, global industry effecting their societies.

One problem is that many feminists hearing only peripherally about the women's campaign against pornography are loathe to look into the deeper truth of the matter-- perhaps, because its censorship is associated with the far religious right, an anti-feminist element of our society, or associated with an extreme constituent of feminist "puritanism." It can and has been turned into a means of mocking the women's movement as "prudish" and self-defeating-- as if feminists were attempting to deny the truths of human sexuality and its normal appetites. There is an attitude perpetuated that attempts to characterize all feminists as man-hating prudes who want to deny the existence of sexual feelings, or as repressed and unable to celebrate the differences between the sexes with a "viva la difference!" spirit.

Then, too, there are those women who walk around in tight miniskirts or revealing sweaters on city streets asking to be ogled so that they can have an excuse to attack the reaction they might succeed in soliciting from the sort of men who offer comments and wolf whistles. The double-binds that we mature women might feel in attempting to deal with the sex versus pornography issue might make us unwilling to associate ourselves with seemingly two-faced fuss-budgets or spoil sports. Most importantly, there is the problem of steering a clear path through the "free speech" versus censorship issue. Mature women activists are afraid to be associated-- and rightly so-- with the very kinds of oppression which kept them and their grandmothers in survile situations for centuries-- unable to exercise their rights to free expression, speech, opinion and the voting privilege.

We need to realize that this kind of pornography, hardcore and violent, is a despicable and hugely profitable industry that prays on poor and often defenseless women and children, and has nothing to do with normal, healthy, free-wheeling or natural sexuality. We need to understand that loathing and protesting it has nothing to do with being "prudish" or "non-sexy." The self-perpetuating industry is a manifestation of decadence and sexual sickness-- a blight on true civilization and healthy human sexuality. Nathaniel Hawthorne, Aldous Huxley, Olive Scheiner, James Joyce, Emma Goldman, Doris Lessing, Alexandra Kollantai, Calvin C. Hernton, Adrienne Rich, Alice Walker, Audrey Lorde, Robin Morgan, D.H. Lawrence, so many good writers one could name, have tried to illustrate varied portrayals of healthy sensuality and sexuality, as opposed to violent and vulgar pornography which encourages abuse of women and children and degrades all humanity. Somehow, this division between true sexuality and usury and degradation needs constantly to be understood and clarified to all women, and men, all humane activists of every gender and race, who oppose sexism and racism, world wide. The issue is both complex and yet crystal clear to those of conscience.

The images of this heinous industry are so unspeakable that the majority of decent people don't come in contact with them and can't stand to look at them. Most people faced daily with the horrors of the world might practice psychological avoidance in dealing with such sensational degradation. Disgusting violence and sadism are depicted in Hustler and the twenty two other publications distributed by Larry Flint, who is just one example of those who have made untold millions from such industry. Black men, too, are constantly depicted in a stereotypical way with small heads and gigantic penises, bent in their walk like prehistoric apes with leering animal-like countenances. The hardcore pornography industry is a huge multi-national one-- wedded to racism-- with ten to twelve billion dollars a year in trade and profits-- an industry twice as big as Hollywood, and therefore, difficult to dismantle. It is enormously problematic to point this out, explained Steinem.

The existence of this industry, in the opinion of this reporter, is the very thing that keeps those who would censor writers and artists strong and believable in the eyes of concerned parents and government officials. It gives those who would censor, and their repressive governments, a thick smokescreen and reason d'etre for preaching censorship and control of the Internet and artists in other media as well. Erotic "art" is one thing and hardcore, violent pornography another, and pornography is not art, as far as this editor is concerned-- but a matter of base appeal to sick and distorted instincts. The best thing that we can teach children about human sexuality is that it's a powerful and natural force in the world, a wonderful gift to our sensual joy of life, or our procreative instincts, and a means for bonding with a partner to create healthy consensual union and excitement, without master or slave, a gift of life that must be treated with respect and viewed as an urge over which we must exercise mature and healthy discretion, especially in the age of AIDS.

"The feminist movement has been fairly successful," says Steinem, "in pointing out that rape is not sex, that rape is violence, and that sexual harassment in the work place, is not about sex, but about power, but that's like talking about the corner store when you are talking about hardcore pornography industrialists. I find, and many activists find, you can talk about anything, in this country, we can talk about the president, you can say anything about almost any other center of power, but uniquely, if we talk about pornography we are called censors."

These industrialists must be called to account as the suppliers and creators of this sexist and racist market and phenomenon. Hardcore and violent pornography must be understood as a multinational industry! The producers of hardcore and violent porn, and their corporate executives, have been fairly successful in portraying their occupation as having to do with sex or human sexuality, when actually it has to do with violence and power and degradation. This successful association with sex makes it difficult for these industrialists, lacking international accountability, to be eradicated. If the producers are attacked by feminist activists, the women's movement is dubbed as against sex, sexiness or sexuality. Even worse, there is an Orwellian notion, that if you criticize or organize against violent pornography you are for censorship. This notion is very successfully used by multinational industrialists who profit so greatly from sexual illness and malaise.

Rather than give up in dismay over this difficult issue, we must remember that Gloria Steinem has had her "ear to the ground' on such issues for many years, as founding editor of MS. magazine, a labor union reporter prior to that, and social activist for women's causes and humane concerns for nearly half a century. As such, she has had to stand up to criticism from every direction. Steinem is a woman who has traveled the world and is very sophisticated about the realities of sociopolitical and humanist causes. In her presence, one feels her sincerity and concern. She is, no doubt, among the few, eminent white feminists welcomed to conferences run by Black organizers, as she has worked hard to bring warring factions of the women's movement together. It's clear she's aware of the fact that equal opportunity laws mostly benefited middle class white women-- more than any other group of men or women in the United States. A fact that was aired many times over by Brazilian and African, as well as African American feminists, and white feminists, too, at the conference on racism in Atlanta.

As a result of the difficulty of dealing with hardcore and violent pornography, and Orwellian maneuvers on the part of men like Larry Flint to justify such an industry, there are still magazines and videos manufactured and sold daily, throughout the world, which are the purveyors of the most pernicious,, sadistic and violent racism and sexism, but many tend to say "hands off! No censorship!" Steinem delineates the result: when these multinational industrialists succeed in sexualizing racism, it's their game and they continue to win their despicable profits without protest. The progressive left is frightened away from the issue and it remains status quo. Thus the most violent and despicable industry in the world continues unabated by any sort of powerful protest. We must be urged, painful as it is, to take on this cause, and to protest, just as we would any other form of racist or sexist literature and endeavor.

Though we can't easily urge censorship, as that might only drive the industry further underground, we must exercise our first amendment rights and speak out in the strongest ways possible. It's interesting, as Steinem described, that recently, the publisher of Hustler was arrested in England with four hundred pornographic videos depicting children, and, imported from South Africa. These videos are made where people are poor, starving and abused enough to make them out of desperation, and then they are sold in areas of the world where "sick" and wealthy white or privileged men consume them for their dubious delectation, men who have been impressed, or emotionally damaged, with the idea that human sexuality is mixed up with dominance and violence. This is not an issue to be ignored in our fear of encouraging censorship.

Please watch for a statement, by Ms. Steinem, herself, and others' views on this problem in future and upcoming issues of Wise Women's Web. Indeed, please e-mail or mail us your views, or favorite quotes in one succinct paragraph, and we will select and list as many as possible in a forum in the next issue, crediting you, of course. Obviously ,there is more to say, and delineate, and much that has been said by others, not mentioned.

Editorial report by Daniela Gioseffi, Atlanta / New York / Andover, 1997

The editor-in-chief of WISE WOMEN'S WEB was invited to the Southern Education Foundation Conference in Atlanta, April 1997, to speak on "Tolerance Teaching through Literary Art: Creating Empathy Between Races and Genders." A course on such teaching has been instituted in some colleges and universities throughout the country based on Daniela's multicultural compendium of world literature, ON PREJUDICE: A GLOBAL PERSPECTIVE [Doubleday/Anchor, NY. London & Japan]. See selections from the anthology, online in this issue.

Copyright © 1997 by Daniela Gioseffi for Wise Women's Web

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