Jacoby (b. 1946), a journalist since the age of seventeen, is
known for her feminist writings. “A First Amendment
(our title) appeared in a “Hers” column in the
is no news that many women are defecting from the ranks of civil
libertarians on the issue of obscenity. The conviction of Larry
Flynt, publisher of Hustler magazine—before his metamorphosis
into a born-again Christian—was greeted with unabashed
feminist approval. Harry Reems, the unknown actor who was
convicted by a
jury for conspiring to distribute the movie Deep Throat, has
carried on his legal
battles with almost no
support from women who ordinarily regard themselves as
supporters of the First Amendment. Feminist writers and scholars
have even discussed the possibility of making common cause
against pornography with adversaries of the women’s
movement—including opponents of the equal rights amendment
and “right-to-life” forces.
of this is deeply disturbing to a woman writer who believes, as
I always have and still do, in an absolute interpretation of the
First Amendment. Nothing in Larry Flynt’s garbage convinces me
that the late Justice Hugo L. Black was wrong in his opinion
that “the Federal Government is without any power whatsoever
under the Constitution to put any type of burden on free speech
and expression of ideas of any kind (as distinguished from
conduct).” Many women I like and respect tell me I am wrong; I
cannot remember having become involved in so many heated
discussions of a public issue since the end of the Vietnam War.
A feminist writer described my views as those of a “First
feminist arguments for controls on pornography carry the implicit
conviction that porn books, magazines, and movies pose a greater
threat to women than similarly repulsive exercises of free
speech pose to other offended groups. This conviction has, of
course, been shared by everyone—regardless of race, creed, or
sex—who has ever argued in favor of abridging the First
Amendment. It is the argument used by some Jews who have
withdrawn their support from the American Civil Liberties Union
because it has defended the right of American Nazis to march
through a community inhabited by survivors of Hitler’s concentration
feminists want to argue that the protection of the Constitution
should not be extended to any particularly odious or threatening
form of speech, they have a reasonable argument (although I
don’t agree with it). But it is ridiculous to suggest that the
porn shops on
are more disgusting to women than a
march of neo-Nazis is to survivors of the extermination camps.
arguments over pornography also blur the vital distinction between
expression of ideas and conduct. When I say I believe unreservedly
in the First Amendment, someone always comes back at me with the
issue of “kiddie porn.” But kiddie porn is not a First
Amendment issue. It is an issue of the abuse of power—the
power adults have over children—and not of obscenity. Parents
and promoters have no more right to use their children to make
porn movies than they do to send them to work in coal mines. The
responsible adults should be prosecuted, just as adults who use
children for back-breaking farm labor diould be prosecuted.
Susan Brownmiller, in Against
Our Will: Men, Women and Rape, has described pornography as
“the undiluted essence of antifemale propaganda.” I think
this is a fair description of some types of pornography,
especially of the brutish subspecies that equates sex with death
and porhayS women primarily as objects of violence.
The equation of sex and
violence, personified by some glossy rock record album covers as
well as by Hustler, has fed the illusion that censorship of
pornography can be conducted on a more rational basis than other
types of censorship. Are all pictures of naked women obscene?
Clearly not, says a friend. A Renoir nude is art, she says, and
Hustler is trash. “Any reasonable person” knows that.
But what about something
between art and trash—something, say, along the lines of
Playboy or Penthouse magazines? I asked five women for their
reactions to one picture in Penthouse and got responses that
ranged from “lovely” and “sensuous” to “revolting”
and “demeaning.” Feminists, like everyone else, seldom have
rational reasons for their preferences in erotica. Like members
of juries, they tend to disagree when confronted with something
that falls short of 100 percent vulgarity.
In any case, feminists will
not be the arbiters of good taste if it becomes easier to
harass, prosecute, and convict people on obscenity charges. Most
of the people who want to censor girlie magazines are equally
opposed to open discussion of issues that are of vital concern
to women: rape, abortion, menstruation, contraception,
lesbianism— in fact, the entire range of sexual experience
from a women’s viewpoint.
Feminist writers and editors
and filmmakers have limited financial 10 resources: Confronted
by a determined prosecutor, Hugh Hefner1 will fare
better than Susan Brownmiller. Would the
jurors who convicted Harry Reems for his role in Deep Throat be
inclined to take a more positive view of paintings of the female
genitalia done by sensitive feminist artists? Ms. magazine has
printed color reproductions of some of those art works; Ms. is
already banned from a number of high school libraries because
someone considers it threatening and/or obscene.
who want to censor what they regard as harmful pornography
have essentially the same motivation as other would-be censors:
They want to use the power of the state to accomplish what they
have been unable to achieve in the marketplace of ideas and
images. The impulse to censor places no faith in the
possibilities of democratic persuasion.
isn’t easy to persuade certain men that they have better uses
for $1.95 each month than to spend it on a copy of Hustler?
Well, then, give the men no choice in the matter.
believe there is also a connection between the impulse toward
censorship on the part of people who used to consider themselves
civil libertarians and a more general desire to shift
responsibility from individuals to institutions. When I saw
the movie Looking for Mr. Goodbar, I was stunned by its series
of visual images equating sex and violence, coupled with what
seems to me the mindless message (a distortion of the fine
Judith Rossner novel) that casual sex equals death. When I came
out of the movie, I was even more shocked to see parents
standing in line with children between the ages of ten and
simply don’t know why a parent would take a child to see such
a movie, any more than I understand why people feel they can’t
turn off a television set their child is watching. Whenever I
say that, my friends tell me I don’t know how it is because I
don’t have children. True, but I do have parents. When I was a
child, they did turn off the TV. They didn’t expect the
Federal Communications Commission to do their job for them.
am a First Amendment junkie. You can’t OD on the First
Amendment, because free speech is its own best antidote.
we want to make a rough summary, more or less paragraph by
paragraph, of Jacoby’s essay. Such a summary might look
something like this (the numbers refer to Jacoby’s
Although feminists usually support the First Amendment,
when it comes to pornography, many feminists take pretty much
the position of those who oppose ERA and abortion and other
causes of the women’s movement.
Larry Flynt produces garbage, but I think his conviction
represents an unconstitutional Limitation of freedom of speech.
4. Feminists who want to control (censor) pornography
argue that it poses a greater threat to women than similar
repulsive speech poses to other groups. If feminists want to say
that all offensive speech should be restricted, they can make a
case, but it is absurd to say that pornography is a “greater
threat” to women than a march of neo-Nazis is to survivors of
Trust in the First Amendment is not refuted by kiddie
porn; kiddie porn is not a First Amendment issue but an issue of
7, 8. Some feminists think censorship of pornography can
be more “rational” than other kinds of censorship, but a
picture of a nude woman strikes some women as base and others as
“lovely.” There is no unanimity.
10. If feminists censor girlie magazines, they will find
that they are unwittingly helping opponents of the women’s
movement to censor discussions of rape, abortion, and so on.
Some of the art in the feminist magazine Ms. would doubtless be
12. Like other would-be censors, feminists want to use
the power of the state to achieve what they have not achieved in
“the marketplace of ideas.” They display a lack of faith in
14. This attempt at censorship reveals a desire to
“shift responsibility from individuals to institutions.”
The responsibility—for instance, to keep young people from
equating sex with violence—is properly the parents’.
We can’t have too much of the First Amendment.
Jacoby’s thesis, or major claim,
or chief proposition—that any form of censorship of
pornography is wrong —
clear enough, even as early as the end of her first paragraph,
but it gets its life or its force from the reasons offered
throughout the essay. If we want to reduce our summary even
further, we might say that Jacoby supports her thesis by arguing
several subsidiary points. We will merely assert them briefly,
but Jacoby argues them—that is, she gives reasons:
Pornography can scarcely be thought of as more offensive
Women disagree about which pictures are pornographic.
Feminists who want to censor pornography will find that
they help antifeminists to censor discussions of issues
advocated by the women’s movement:
Feminist who favor censorship are in effect turning to
the government to achieve what they haven’t achieved in the
One sees this abdication of responsibility in the fact
their children to watch unsuitable movies and television programs.
we want to present a brief summary in the form of one coherent
paragraph—perhaps as part of our own essay to show the view we
are arguing in behalf of or against—we might write something
like this summary. (The summary would, of course, be prefaced by
lead-in along these lines: “Susan Jacoby, writing in the New York
Times, offers a
argument against censorship of pornography. Jacoby’s view,
it comes to censorship of pornography, some feminists take a
position shared by opponents of the feminist movement. They
that pornography poses a greater threat to women than
other forms of offensive speech offer to other groups, but this
interpretation is simply a mistake. Pointing to kiddie porn is
also a mistake, for kiddie
an issue involving not the First Amendment but child abuse.
Feminists who support censorship of pornography wilt
inadvertently aid those who wish to censor discussions of
abortion and rape or censor art that is published in magazines
such as Ms. The solution is not for individuals to turn to
institutions (that is, for the government to limit the First
Amendment) but for individuals to accept the responsibility
for teaching young people not to equate sex with violence.
we agree or disagree with Jacoby’s thesis, we must admit that
the reasons she sets forth to support it are worth thinking
about. Only a reader who closely follows the reasoning with
which Jacoby buttresses her thesis is in a position to accept
or reject it.
for Critical Thinking and Writing
What does Jacoby mean when she says she is a “First
The essay is primarily an argument against the desire of
some feminists to try to censor pornography of the sort that
appeals to some heterosexual adult males, but the next-to-last
paragraph is about television and
children. Is the paragraph
connected to Jacoby’s overall argument? If so, how?
Evaluate the final paragraph as a final paragraph.
(Effective final paragraphs are not, of course, all of one
sort. Some, for example, round off the essay by echoing
something from the opening; others suggest that the reader,
having now seen the problem, should think further about it or
even act on it. But a good final paragraph, whatever else it
does, should make the reader feel that the essay has come to an
end, not just broken off.)
This essay originally appeared in the New York Times. If
you are unfamiliar with this newspaper, consult an issue or
two in your library. Next, in a paragraph, try to characterize
the readers of the paper—that is, Jacoby’s audience.
Jacoby claims in paragraph 2 that she “believes ... in an absolute interpretation of the First
Amendment.” What does such an interpretation involve? Would it
permit shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater even though the
shouter knows there is no fire? Would it permit shouting racist
insults at blacks or immigrant Vietnamese? Spreading untruths
about someone’s past? If the “absolutist” interpretation
of the First Amendment does permit these statements, does that
argument show that nothing is morally wrong with uttering them?
(Does the First Amendment, as actually interpreted by the
Supreme Court today, permit any or all of these claims?
Consult your reference librarian for help in answering this
Jacoby implies that permitting prosecution of persons on
obscenity charges will lead eventually to censorship of “open
discussion” of important issues such as “rape, abortion,
menstruation, contraception, lesbianism” (para. 9). Do you
find her fears convincing? Does she give any evidence to support