(The following is an unedited excerpt from my forthcoming book, Radical Womanhood: Feminine Faith in a Feminist World. It is from a chapter that traces the reasons for the female raunch culture that we live in today. This excerpt is about the brief period when Christians and feminists were in agreement--about the issue of pornography. Caution: This blog post is not appropriate for younger eyes...)
Hugh Hefner launched Playboy from the kitchen of his Chicago apartment in 1953. He sold more than 53,000 copies for 50 cents each—the beginning of a multi-million dollar enterprise. Playboy reached the height of its U.S. circulation in the early ‘70s, shortly after it came under scrutiny by the Commission on Obscenity and Pornography, which was established by President Johnson in 1968. The commission published its report in 1970, stating that it found no evidence that pornography caused crime or delinquency among adults and youths. While it supported laws prohibiting sales of pornographic materials to children, it also recommended eliminating all legal restrictions on the use by consenting adults of sexually explicit books, magazines, pictures, and films.
At the same time, a serial killer named Ted Bundy began a horrifying murder spree across the country. From at least 1974 to 1978, he sexually assaulted and murdered dozens of young women in five states, dismembering and defiling their corpses in unmentionable ways. Some say he was responsible for more than 100 such murders. He was sentenced to death in 1979 and spent ten years on death row before he was executed in 1989. He was one of the most notorious criminals in the 20th century—as infamous for the extent and severity of his crimes as he was for his law-student smarts and boy-next-door good looks.
While Bundy was on death row, another national commission on pornography was formed under President Reagan in 1985. Led by Attorney General Edwin Meese III, and informally known as the Meese Commission, this commission invited several prominent Christian leaders, including Focus on the Family’s founder, James Dobson. In the 16 years between these commissions, society and technology had changed. The VCR had introduced porn films to private homes, but the Internet was not yet commonly available. Even so, there was a distinct difference in the way society viewed pornography from the 1970 commission to the Meese Commission:
By this time, society had changed in several ways. Pornography had become even more available; a new generation of social science studies suggested a link between exposure to violent or degrading pornography and male aggression against women in laboratory settings; and new conservative and feminist movements were joining hands to attack pornography. In addition, the membership of the new commission was decidedly more conservative than that of the 1970 commission. Not surprisingly, the Attorney General’s Commission on Pornography, also known as the Meese Commission, reached strikingly different conclusions than did its predecessor. In its 1986 report, the commission concluded that violent pornography and degrading pornography (pornography showing the “degradation, domination, or humiliation” of women) cause violence and discrimination against women and an erosion of sexual morality.
Here’s the unusual twist: The language in this report of a “decidedly more conservative” commission bore a striking resemblance to many leading feminist statements of the time. What fascinates me personally is that I clearly remember this period myself. I had recently graduated from college when the Meese Commission was formed. In my women’s studies classes, I was taught the feminist position that pornography degrades women. I have forgotten many things about college, but the lecture about pornography is still clear in my mind.
The Porn Wars
Women Against Pornography coalesced in the late ‘70s out of several organizations, and was loosely led by feminist author Susan Brownmiller, who wrote Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape, and the militant feminist Andrea Dworkin, among others. Dworkin made headlines in 1980 for collaborating with feminist and legal scholar Catharine MacKinnon on behalf of Linda Lovelace, star of the X-rated movie, “Deep Throat,” whose civil rights they were convinced had been violated. Dworkin campaigned frequently on the subject, helping to draft a law in 1983 that defined pornography as a civil rights violation against women. The law was later overturned by an appeal court as unconstitutional.
Dworkin even testified before the Meese Commission and a subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee, as reported in a 1979 TIME magazine article:
Perhaps the basic question is whether pornography really incites men to violence against women, or does the opposite—lets them sublimate their aggressive sexual fantasies in a relatively harmless way. The 1970 report of the President’s Commission on Obscenity and Pornography implied that it did indeed serve as a useful social outlet. But since then, at least one of the study’s authors is having second thoughts. Says University of Pennsylvania Sociologist Marvin Wolfgang: “The weight of evidence [now] suggests that the portrayal of violence tends to encourage the use of physical aggression among people who are exposed to it.” Backed by such support, Brownmiller and other feminists have every intention of stepping up their fight, hoping to recruit still more converts to their cause.
Serial killer Ted Bundy could have been their poster child. In the final hours of his life before his execution in 1989 in Florida, Bundy gave a controversial video interview to Meese Commission member James Dobson. In it, he stressed over and over the influence of violent media and pornography on his thinking, and on the thinking and impulses of the other men in prison with him: “I’ve lived in prison for a long time now and I’ve met a lot of men who were motivated to commit violence, just like me. And without exception, every one of them was deeply involved in pornography—without question, without exception. Deeply influenced and consumed by an addiction to pornography. There’s no question about it. The FBI’s own study on serial homicide shows that the most common interest among serial killers is pornography.” Bundy claimed he wanted to make this warning about pornography his final message because he had seen the mainstreaming of porn and he was concerned for future generations.
Opposition to pornography was the link between two groups that typically had little else in common: the Christian Right and feminist activists. For a brief period in 1980s, they found themselves on the same page.
I've embedded a segment of that video conversation between James Dobson and Ted Bundy. It's direct, but not graphic. During this interview, Bundy talks about how you can find stuff on cable TV that you couldn't even see in X-rated theaters years ago. And this was 1989 -- nearly 20 years ago! Now we have Law & Order: SVU depicting sexual violence each week on broadcast TV. If ever I'm flipping through channels and come across this show even briefly, I am horrified at what they portray.
It's a significant conversation. Unfortunately, sin is nowhere mentioned. That would have made a stronger video, in my opinion. Bundy was a master manipulator, so his motives for granting this interview are questionable. But even if he was looking to clean up his reputation by shifting blame to the influence of pornography, I think he still raised some valid points about the mainstreaming of porn and sexual violence. And all this was said before the rise of the Internet and third-wave feminism's "porn-positive" ideals.