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Free speech and feminism:
Why do so many free speech champions support pornographers when porn silences women?
In the mid-eighties, I toured a number of cities in England with a slideshow. The pictures started with the sorts of topless models you might see gracing the centrefold of Playboy and ended with the Hustler cover showing an image of a naked woman being pushed headfirst through a meat grinder. The images formed the centrepiece to a talk I gave to feminists who were keen to campaign against pornography and wanted to look at what they were protesting against in a safe environment.
These women were angry and shocked by what I showed them, but it was vitally important that we understood exactly what we were campaigning against. We were not anti-sex or taking a moralistic position against consensual sexual activity. But we saw the danger in peddling the messaging in porn that women enjoy being debased, hurt and humiliated during sex, and that rape is nothing but an erotic fantasy in which “no” always means “yes”.
Back in those days, the general atmosphere was one in which pressure was on women to endure pernicious sexism, stay silent, and endure the backlash from the pro-porn lobby when we objected to being portrayed as pieces of meat. We feminists were treated as pariahs for fighting back against the slurs of “pearl clutcher” and accusations that we wanted to “ban” and censor “eroticism” – as though Mary Whitehouse and grass-roots radical feminists had merged into a single entity.
Reading about how certain social justice warriors have started to refer to speech as violence, I was reminded of that slideshow – and of the reaction to our protests. These people are moaning about speech that is deemed to be critical of an identity group, rather than about actual threats of aggression. This is problematic when feminists like me want to talk about the harms of prostitution, say, or the violence of pornographic images as well as real male aggression towards women. This pernicious view that certain words and ideas pertaining to these matters are now considered literal violence by those who should be preventing actual violence is deeply troubling. It also got me thinking about “free speech” — namely, who has it, and who is silenced.
A decade after I first screened the image of the women being pushed through a meat grinder, the film The People Versus Larry Flynt was released. In it, Flynt – founder and owner of Hustler – was painted as a free speech hero. The evangelist Jerry Falwell was suing Flynt for “hurt feelings” in response to a satirical advertisement in Hustler depicting Falwell having his first sexual experience in an outhouse with his mother. Multi-millionaire Flynt hit back and used the courts to establish that pornography was “free speech” and so protected by the First Amendment, a law which guarantees freedoms concerning religion, expression, assembly, the press and the right to petition.
The crux of Flynt’s argument is that under traditional First Amendment rules, the more pornography is considered to be a form of hate speech, the more compelling it is to legally protect it. But free speech champions tend not to go as far in their support for other types of problematic speech.
For example, a key landmark of contemporary free speech law is Brandenburg v. Ohio, a 1969 case upholding the rights of a Ku Klux Klan leader who promoted violence and discrimination against African Americans and Jews at a rally where supporters brandished firearms. It remains as unlikely today as it was then that Hollywood would make a film about Brandenburg’s contribution to American liberty.
When Flynt died in 2021, most headlines described him as a “free speech hero”. The man who masterminded an image of a woman’s head being crushed was credited with protecting freedom of expression. And let’s not forget he didn’t only publish that one image of a woman being grotesquely mangled: pictures of women being raped and tortured, being subjected to bestiality, nailed to a cross, led by a leash - these were all featured in Hustler.
In the US now, just as it was in the Hustler days, the most passionate First Amendment debates about pornography concern sexual violence against women. US universities often use examples of pornography in classes about the First Amendment, and whenever I have attended debates about whether or not porn is harmful and degrading to women, the counter arguments are always about how feminists curb free speech by protesting such imagery. There was even a group, Feminists against Censorship (FAC) set up to protest feminist critiques of porn, despite the fact that the women in FAC were not feminists, and we feminists were not pro-censorship.
The libertarian arguments about any critique of porn being a threat to free speech are also happening in the UK, with organisations such as the Free Speech Union (FSU) caving in to pressure to defend pornographers. The American Civil Liberties Union, on which the FSU was modelled, has already done so when it fought the implementation of legislation intended to protect children from accessing porn online.
The FSU is without doubt a valuable organisation, in that it defends those of us who are being silenced on issues such as transgender ideology. But there is a divide: while feminists make up the bulk of those targeted by trans activists, we are also the loudest voices in the anti-porn camp. It was therefore rather uncomfortable when I began to be courted by the likes of the FSU and various free speech societies that were cropping up in universities. Aware that I was a high-profile feminist who had been repeatedly cancelled and de-platformed, they wanted me to join their cause against all censorship on campus.
Not only were those issuing invitations for me to speak at their events mostly men – they were also the same people who had previously considered me the enemy, when it came to their fight to protect pornography as free speech. They assumed that I – as a feminist who demands accountability when it comes to misogynistic speech that curtails women's freedom – wish to silence men. But I do not wish to shut them up, merely to draw attention to the fact that sexism silences women.
Nevertheless, I accepted invitations from the free speech brigade because it gave me an opportunity to speak in public about feminism. I would usually begin my talk with “I am not a free speech absolutist” but rather a campaigner seeking to end male violence and who, over the years, has been silenced and censored because of my unpopular views on trans ideology and the scourge of male violence.
Often, advocates of free speech have managed to defend me in a way that causes me the most upset, along with reputational damage. For example, back in 2015 the scholar Mary Beard commented that she thought it was terrible that I and other feminists were being disinvited from speaking at universities, despite my ‘transphobic views’, because our freedom of speech was under threat. Former Green Party leader Caroline Lucas said almost exactly the same thing in an article in Pink News, timidly questioning whether or not it was fair to banish me from public life despite the fact that she condemned my' transphobia'. Peter Tatchell followed suit, defending my right to speak out with the usual caveat that he personally condemned my views.
As a feminist, I’ve always argued that support for absolutist free speech ignores structural inequalities and assumes a level playing field. Free speech is based on a libertarian view of all players being equal, autonomous and free – yet sexual violence and pornography violate freedom. This approach to free speech ignores the fact that for marginalised and disenfranchised communities, speech is already pre-curtailed.
It is wholly inappropriate to use the free-speech argument to defend pornography; free speech is important because it is about being able to share ideas and formulate theories, put forward principles and different points of view. How does pornography even fit into this? Pornography is simply material to masturbate to; it has nothing whatsoever to do with ideas or thoughts.
I am a supporter of free speech within the bounds of the law, and within reason. But we should all recognise that speech has consequences when it is controlled and facilitated by the rich and powerful against those who have little access to justice.
If you have no voice, then free speech matters nothing.