Hitting the Hard Core Of the Big Apple
The passengers on the Cambridge bus to the Women Against Pornography (WAP) march on Times Square a week ago got a pretty good idea of what they were up against the minute they boarded. A day-glo poster above the driver's seat read, "Don't ask me to think--I was hired for my looks." Tall, blond, and paunchy, wearing his name (Dick) on a big pewter belt buckle, the man beneath the sign greeted the "ladies" as the coach pulled onto the Mass Pike. "A couple of you look familiar back there," he said. "I didn't see you in a strip joint on 42nd Street, did I?"
And there was still New York to face.
The WAP demonstration on October 20, the first large-scale feminist protest on the issue of pornography in ten years, took a lot of people by surprise. Conceived of two months ago by an organization which has only existed three times that long, the demonstration brought to the foreground an area of women's rights which has seldom been confronted by the women's movement and often swept under the rug by other progressive groups. Pornography--a multibillion dollar underground industry with organized crime and international connections, which WAP claims eroticizes male humiliation of and violence towards women in the name of entertainment and sexual liberation.
The idea of an anti-porn march met opposition from various sources. Many people who call themselves politically progressive refused to support WAP because they fear the organization's stand against pornography is tantamount to censorship. A host of civil rights groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, which recently showed pornographic films at a fundraiser in San Diego, lambasted WAP for its apparent opposition to First Amendment rights for publishers and dealers in the business. And feminists of both sexes, believing that the movement's energy could be better spend elsewhere, chose not to get involved in the issue.
WAP faces the danger of being identified with the right wing--a sector of society which only approves sex, according to feminist Theresa Hummel, for "married couples making babies in the missionary position." Many of the same groups that traditionally oppose pornography are also against such women's movement goals as abortion rights, lesbian and gay rights, and passage of the Equal Rights Amendment.
From its storefront office on 9th Avenue in New York, the organization tries to educate people about the hard-core pornographic culture many of them, especially women, never see: how its violent and misleading images of women filter down into popular culture like record and fashion advertising; how these images promote stereotypes about female sexuality; and how pornography encourages male violence toward women. WAP members quote studies which claim that more than half of all child rapes are committed by men who say they are "trying out" techniques they saw in hard-core magazines and books.
Representatives of the organization state its purpose carefully and often. During a slide show about pornography, at the Harvard Science Center three weeks ago, Wendy Kaminer of WAP said, "We're not against erotica. We're against violence against women masquerading as entertainment."
The movement against pornography is primarily concerned with "the image of women in society and the way we educate society about women," said Simone Reagor, director of the Radcliffe Forum, adding "Pornography is one way society is miseducated about women." The forum co-sponsored the Cambridge bus trip with the Boston chapter of Women Against Violence Against Women.
"People have said that I'm against freedom of speech," Reagor said. "I'm not...but what if there were a section in each town set aside to portray minorities in such degrading ways?"
Buses containing groups from several women's colleges showed up to participate. Approximately 10,000 people, including about 1,000 men and contingents from all over the East Coast and from as far away as Alaska, joined the demonstration. The crowd massed at Columbus Circle on the southwest corner of Central Park and marched down Broadway to 42nd Street, the pornography capital of New York, and maybe the world.
Not everyone who watched the procession pass by understood WAP's arguments or sympathized with them. A woman who claimed to oppose the death penalty on principle except for child pornographers said she decided not to join the march because, "This crowd is too colorful for me." She settled on a park bench nearby.
"As a man, I find (pornography) titillating," a male bystander said, "but it stains the moral fiber. In priinciple I'm for what you are doing," he added as he turned to walk down the street away from the march.
A young black couple stood together on the sidewalk, observing the demonstration with opposite expressions on their faces. "I think they're fighting for a good cause," the woman said. "If I weren't with him," she continued, pointing to her companion, "I'd join them."
"A woman's gotta do what a woman's gotta do," her friend conceded.
"But why don't they do it eight blocks down?" an incensed Toyota dealer asked. "Why are they marching here? If you wanna stop it, protest in front of the (porn) stores. I think what they're doing is stupid. they're tying up the whole city!"
In the meantime, the march reached the heart of the adult entertainment district, provoking varied responses from the bystanders there. The atmosphere became more volatile as the demonstrators approached the sex merchants. A prostitute and several male shop-owners gave the protestors the finger when they passed by their stores, stopping in front of some and shouting "Close them down!" and "Porn is violence!"
"You're a bunch of nuts," men mumbled from the street corners. A few began snapping their fingers and grinning broadly at the chants. One strolled into the throng. "Whatchu doin out here, baby?" he leered at one woman. As the neighborhood exposed its hard core, the marchers--many of whom had never been to Times Square before--drew closer together.
"It isn't doing any good, we're still here," laughed one male bystander.
The march, which by this time had accumulated representatives of the Screen Actors Guild, Gray Panthers, Hare Krishnas, prolifers, and civilian peacekeepers, wound its way out of the district and proceeded to nearby Bryant Park for a rally. Heartened by music from a women's jazz group and performers from the Broadway shows "I'm Getting My Act Together and Taking It On the Road" and "Gemini," the crowd settled down to consider a question posed by poet Robin Morgan: "How come the women's movement woke up to the issue of pornography?"
"It's not a new issue," she said. "What is new is our numbers, our strength, our rage, and our refusal to cower at the accusation, prude."'
Drawing parallels between Ted Bundy--a Floridian accused of murdering 26 women and whose folk hero status is celebrated in T-shirts and songs--and Ted Kennedy, who Morgan says has not yet offered a sufficient explanation of Mary Jo Kopechne's death at Chappaquiddick, Morgan warned, "Trust not ye the right or the left on any issue in which women's lives are at stake."
The two-hour rally featured speakers such as Susan Brownmiller, author of Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape, ex-Congresswoman Bella Abzug, and Ms. magazine editor Gloria Steinem. Steinem commented further on the attitudes of major male political figures.
"Jimmy Carter thinks--probably--that pornography is all sex outside the bounds of marriage and procreation," she said. "Ted Kennedy thinks--probably--that pornography is the sexual liberation of the 1960s, a male invention to make more women available to more men. Ronald Reagan thinks--probably--that pornography is 19th century literature including sex, and those movies in which, had he acted, he would have made more money."
The dictionary definition of pornography is "writing about female slaves," she said, contrasting that with erotica, which implies love, mutuality, and consent. "There is a profound difference, as profound as the difference between life and death," Steinem said, mentioning the so-called "snuff films" in which women are actually killed during sex. "If there is not equality between men and women, then every time we come together it will be pornography."
"One thing basic to all pornography," feminist author Andrea Dworkin said, "is the idea that 'She wants it'--she 'wants' to be beaten, she 'wants' to be forced, she 'wants' to be raped...brutalized...hurt."
"Meanwhile, all across this country, women are being raped and beaten and forced and brutalized and hurt," she said. "And when a woman has the courage to come forward and ask for help, most of the police and the people around her ask, 'What did you do to provoke him?' and 'Did you like it?"'
Dworkin recited a litany of things women do to "lead men on"--go to the movies alone, smile, tell men the time of day, get married, sit on their fathers' laps, and even the way they dress, walk and talk.
"And still the question persists: 'Did you like it?"' she said. "How does everyone whose opinion counts know women want it? Pornography says so! We are here today to explain calmly, to scream, to yell, to holler, that we women do not want it...we never have wanted it, and we never will want it!"
The women who spoke on Saturday didn't persuade everyone listening though. An older woman approached demonstrators returning to the Cambridge bus, saying, "You American women are so permissive." She berated them for encouraging pornography by wearing tight pants and skirts and attracting men. "You've called my son, he knows!" the woman shrilled.
"I'm a lesbian. I don't call your son," one of the women in the group replied.
The struggle continues.