In the early days of the Gulf war, ABC's Nightline took a break from round-the-clock coverage of lit-up skies and talking dignitaries and shifted its attention to MTV's refusal to air the video for Madonna's song "Justify My Love." The video depicted both hetero- and homosexual interactions (she kissed another woman) and bondage (she tied herself to a bed) which, MTV claimed, would offend viewers and sponsors. Madonna argued that the video depicted her unabashedly in charge of her sexuality and was no more offensive than standard MTV fare featuring scantily clad women debasing themselves before men.
The case strikingly exposed our society's stunted capacity to discern what is good and acceptable. While smart bombs and clever generals upstaged corpses and devastation, "decency" de-manded casting Madonna as a lewd pariah instead of a shrewd, authentically Ameri-can businesswoman.
The power to determine what is seen and said in this country is enormous, and it shapes our perception of freedom and propriety. In this decade alone, debates over National Endowment for the Arts funding, hate speech on campuses, and controlling cyberspace have revealed just how difficult is the balancing act between personal freedom and corporate good.
Whirling through this maelstrom is the contentious debate over whether or not to censor pornography. Nadine Strossen, president of the American Civil Liberties Union and author of Defending Pornography, argues that censorship violates women's rights and perpetuates the myth of our powerlessness. Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon, notable anti-pornography campaigners, argue that pornography violates the civil rights of those who participate in it and that the failure to make it illegal elevates the First Amendment rights of those who create pornography above the basic rights of those whose lives are subjugated by it.
The debate is complex and multifarious. Anti-censorship activists insist that direct links between pornography and violence are unsubstantiated and dangerously alleviate a perpetrator's responsibility. Further complicating matters is the subjective nature of defining pornography. Webster defines pornography as "a depiction of erotic behavior designed to cause sexual excitement"; Dworkin and MacKinnon define pornography as the "sexually explicit subordination of women through pictures and/or words." Strossen asserts that this definition infers "that sex and materials that depict or describe it inevitably degrade and endanger women" and thus snuffs out women's free sexual expression.
But it's childish at best to claim freedom to express sexuality through pornography while refusing to bear responsibility for the impact that it has on our culture. Neither prudish nor repressive is the claim that the degrading, dehumanizing impact of pornography feeds and is fed by a culture of commodified sexuality. From illicit portrayals of bestiality and pedophilia to the "softer" images of Playboy and Penthouse, women are reduced to sexual objects whose validity exists solely in their body parts.
THE FBI ESTIMATES the pornography trade to be worth between $8 billion and $10 billion a year in the United States, and ranks it as organized crime's number three racket after narcotics and gambling. Despite the pernicious nature of pornography, censorship is neither the most responsible nor the most effective response.
Impeding free expression tends to hurt those with the least power. It creates a scapegoat for the malaise of our culture's sexuality by quarantining the "dark underbelly" to a small portion of the population, while ignoring the far more pervasive evidences of our debasement.
We need look no further than freeway billboards, fashion and business magazines, and television to catch a glimpse of objectification. A recent issue of Cosmopolitan, for example, contains a photo essay titled "Entertaining His Friends" in which a pretty, thin woman wearing shorts and a T-shirt is perched on a coffee table, surrounded by potato chips, beer-and couches full of strapping young men. To preserve the shock value of advertisements, Madison Avenue offers women (wearing anguished expressions and bruises) being stepped on by men, pulled by the hair, and slung over men's shoulders.
Though we claim to be image bearers of the God who became incarnate, the Christian church too has remained in a state of adolescence with regard to sexuality. Rather than affirming and celebrating human sexuality, we have allowed society to shape it for us and then have responded with fear and repression. Our children are left to learn who (and whose) they are from society. "Girlie" magazines and Guess jeans ads are hardly an appropriate curricula about the complexity and sacredness of women and men. Despite how absurd and silly these images are, their power to erode relationships and unity is insidious and real because they are prevalent and largely unchallenged.
Pornography, which in all of its forms exploits and degrades the human person and distorts God's gift of sexuality, requires not censorship but alternative creating. It challenges us to recognize the ways we objectify ourselves and others, and to be clear about what we will tolerate and what we will not. Finally, it demands that women and men reject the dehumanizing images we are fed and loudly proclaim who we are and to whom we belong.