In the mid-1980s there were two developments that prompted sexual liberals to step up their attacks against feminists. The first was an amendment to a municipal human rights ordinance that defined pornography as a practice of sex discrimination and gave women injured in its production and dissemination a cause of action to sue pornographers. The ordinance, authored by Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin, represented a significant break with legal tradition.
Unlike antiobscenity laws that frame the harm of pornography in moralistic and aesthetic terms, as the offense that pictures and words that arouse some people’s prurient interests do to other people’s sensibilities, the ordinance identified pornography’s harm in feminist political terms, as its damage to the status and safety of women. Unlike antiobscenity laws, which empower the state’s prosecutors to bring criminal charges against alleged purveyors of obscene materials, the feminist ordinance empowered individual women to file civil suits against traffickers in pornography.
The civil rights antipornography ordinance was twice passed by the Minneapolis City Council, only to be vetoed each time by its civil libertarian mayor. A slightly altered version was approved by the Indianapolis City Council and signed into law by that city’s mayor. Before a single suit could be brought under the ordinance, it was challenged on overbreadth grounds by the Media Coalition in conjunction with American Booksellers Association and the ACLU. Playboy lent the services of its legal counsel and flooded local legislators with letters denouncing the feminist law. The ordinance was eventually held to be unconstitutional by a conservative district court judge, a decision affirmed by a conservative circuit court panel.
The truth of the matter was that the feminist law flew in the face of both liberal and conservative legal traditions and so was attacked by forces on both ends of the male-dominated political spectrum. Moreover, many conservatives are sexual liberals. Fundamentalist Marabel Morgan’s best-selling The Total Woman, which attempted to indoctrinate women into sexual submission, pomography-style, was no aberration of conservatism, and two of the three most popular pornography magazines—Hustler and Penthouse—are published by arch-conservatives and aimed at politically reactionary audiences.
The Sexual Liberals and the Attack on Feminism