Personal vs. Public Preference
By Claire Andre and Manuel Velasquez
There is only one issue on which radical feminists find themselves
aligned with Reverend Jerry Falwell and civil libertarians with
Larry Flynt, the publisher of Hustler Magazine. The issue is
pornography. The question: What, if anything, should be done
to regulate this 8 to 10 billion dollar industry?
Pornography has become a booming business. No longer confined
to sleazy downtown shops, it's made its way into small-town
grocery stores. And, keeping pace with the new technologies,
the industry has tapped the markets for x-rated video cassettes,
cable TV offering "adult fare," erotic programs for home computers
and tantalizing telephone services such as dial-a-porn, some
of which promise a peep at sex with sadism and "kiddie porn."
The federal government recently unveiled legislation that,
if enacted, would place bans on obscene language transmitted
over cable TV and dial a-porn phone calls and prohibit the use
of computers to advertise, distribute or receive child pornography.
Elsewhere, systems are being designed that would permit homeowners
to block access to dial-a-porn telephone services and to some
cable TV stations. But the question of whether the public has
a right to ban or regulate pornography continues to invoke heated
debate, as the individual's "freedom to" is pitted against society's
The pornography industry and civil libertarians alike oppose
any attempt to regulate or curb the production or distribution
of pornographic materials. They argue that among the most inalienable
rights an individual possesses is the right to freedom. Every
person should be guaranteed the freedom to do what he or she
chooses so long as no harm comes to others as a result. Just
as we are free to live and work where we choose, so too should
we be free to express ourselves in any manner we choose as long
as we cause no harm to others. Pornographic literature, drama,
paintings and pictures are all forms of self-expression. There
is no evidence that a person's contemplation of "dirty" pictures
or "dirty" words causes harm to others. Granted, some porn may
be "offensive" to some people. But to ban pornography because
it is merely offensive to some is to jeopardize everyone's freedom
of expression, opening the door to wholesale censorship of any
novel or nonconforming ideas or opinions--a situation which
should repel us. Unless it can be factually demonstrated that
pornography causes harm to others, society has no right to restrict
this form of self-expression.
Those urging that pornography be banned, or at least regulated,
argue that society is morally permitted to restrict the liberty
of some persons in order to prevent harm to others. Freedom
of expression in public, when it results in acts or things that
are offensive to most people and are difficult to avoid, really
is harmful to others. And, most people find pornography offensive.
Furthermore, with the pornography industry now stocking the
racks at supermarkets and bookstore chains, and feeding obscenity
directly into our homes through cable TV and sex-by-phone services,
it's too accessible to children. Children in elementary schools
are already passing around porn-line numbers. No one has a right
to affect children in this way.
The campaign against pornography is also fueled by those who
claim that the dignity of human beings should be respected.
Pornography is a blatant, public assault on the dignity of persons.
It demeans, exploits, and degrades the human person. Even the
"softest" porn portrays women and children (as young as three)
as sexual objects or things, not as human beings. Society has
a right to regulate and curb such visible and open assaults
on human dignity.
Whether the personal or the public preference should prevail
on the issue of pornography poses a difficult dilemma. It requires
that we find the right balance between competing moral values--the
values of free choice and self-expression--and those of preventing
harm and respecting human dignity.
For further reading:
Jean Bethke Elshtain, "The New Porn Wars," New Republic
(June 25, 1984) pp. 15-20.
Laura Lederer, Ed., Take Back the Night: Women on Pornography
(New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1980).
Mary Pellauer, "Pornography: An Agenda for the Churches,"
Christian Century (August 5,1987), pp. 651-655.