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Don't blame pornography for sexual violence

Within the next few weeks, the Senate Judiciary Committee will vote on a bill known as the Pornography Victims' Compensation Act. Although graced with a politically useful title and likely to pass, the bill _ S. 1521 _ is misnamed and its intentions misguided. Neither sound legislation nor sound feminism, it would do victims of sexual violence more harm than good.

S. 1521 would allow victims of sexual crimes to bring suit for unlimited money damages against publishers, exhibitors, distributors and retailers of any book or movie that the victims can convince a jury is obscene and triggered the violence that harmed them. The bill is aimed at reducing such crimes as rape, battery and incest _ an important goal, but one that won't be achieved by passing S. 1521. I recently joined with other members of a group formed to combat this legislation _ the Ad Hoc Committee of Feminists for the First Amendment _ in sending a letter of protest to the Judiciary Committee.

The legislation's premise _ that violence is caused by pictures or books _ is false. Violence against women and children flourished for thousands of years before the printing press and motion picture, and continues today in such countries as Saudi Arabia and Iran, where no commercial sexual material is available. No reputable research shows a causal link between sexual imagery and violence.

Not only would S. 1521 do nothing to diminish such crimes, it would likely aggravate them as it diverted attention from the sources of sexual abuse. Violence is caused by deeply rooted social and psychological structures.

Rather than pass S. 1521, Congress should enforce existing laws against violence, promote programs that teach law enforcement and legal professionals to help victims of crime, and fund programs such as rape crisis centers, day care, child support enforcement and anti-discrimination agencies. These will enable women to leave abusive situations or prevent them from developing in the first place.

In the long run, those committed to diminishing rape and battery need to address how we teach our sons and daughters to be men and women. Dismantling the roots of sexism and violence is a daunting project, to be sure, but it is better to begin it now than to waste time and resources on a quick fix such as S. 1521, which seeks to blame sex rather than sexism for the problem.

Sexual imagery causes arousal, not violence. Eliminating arousal is no goal of feminism or of law enforcement. S. 1521 reinforces the "porn made me do it" excuse for rapists and batterers, allowing them to shift responsibility for their crimes onto two-dimensional images.

Ironically, S. 1521 does not require a criminal conviction for a victim to sue a bookseller or a distributor. Thus the perpetrator of a crime could go free, perhaps to rape again, while a bookseller is punished.

Without reducing violence, S. 1521 would ban books by bankruptcy. Even if a publisher's material is eventually judged to be harmless, legal costs are ruinous. With no criminal conviction required, it is especially easy to bring repeated suits. The most likely outcome of S. 1521 is that crime victims would gain no benefit while book and movie businesses folded or _ to avoid the risk of liability _ self-censored future expression that was legal and valuable. Feminists are especially keen to the harms of censorship, legislative or monetary. Historically, material about sex and reproduction has been banned under the guise of "morality" and the "protection" of women. This has never reduced violence. It has, however, led to the jailing of suffragists and birth-control advocates, and to attacks on cutting-edge art and information, from Ulysses to Our Bodies, Ourselves.

Finally S. 1521 relies on decidedly anti-feminist notions of female "purity" and supposed uninterest in sex _ as though all women were offended by sexual imagery all of the time. This is an outright perversion of feminism, which encourages women to explore eroticism in all its potent complexity.

Confusing the emotions of sexual fantasy with violence, S. 1521 attacks sex, leaving the sources of violence untouched. It should be quickly discarded, leaving Congress and the country free to address violence and the many other social problems at hand.

Marcia Pally is a New York writer.

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