A 1986 Lantern's Light Editorial
by Mike Nichols
At times my political views seem to lead me into contradictions. Last month saw me writing a furious letter to "Penthouse" magazine concerning their misinformed story on Witchcraft. Within two weeks I was writing to the head of the "QuikTrip" Corporation protesting the removal of "Penthouse" from their stores. You'd think I would have been happy at a blow struck against a magazine that maligned my religion. Not so. At stake is the free expression of ideas. Misinformation and censorship are both threats to that freedom. Of the two, I judge censorship to be the greater threat. As long as publishing continues unimpeded, retraction of misinformation is possible. When publishing is censored, even that becomes impossible.
But Mike, you say, aren't you a Pagan and a Witch. Certainly. And don't most Witches consider themselves feminists? I know I do (if, by "feminist", you mean one who believes in the equality of women and men). And aren't most feminists opposed to pornography? Tricky. My own answer: not necessarily. And certainly NOT at the expense of the First Amendment. After my bout with "QuikTrip", I started pondering how other Pagans viewed the pornography vs. censorship issue. My hunch is that, despite Pagan/feminist consensus on most issues, there would be a real split here. While most feminists may oppose pornography, I suspect that a surprising number of feminists who are also Pagans would support pornography, or at least one's right to publish it. And one needn't look far for the reasons.
Isaac Bonewits (author of Real Magic) once observed to me that at most Pagan households he's stayed in, there is usually a stack of Playboys and Forums in the master bedroom. And they are enjoyed by both partners. I would have been surprised had it been otherwise. Sexuality is a crucial issue to Paganism. After all, in high contrast to the traditional Christian view of sexuality as inherently evil (original sin), Paganism espouses sexuality as inherently sacred, or sacramental. It is no coincidence that the sex act itself, in the context of Wicca, is called "the Great Rite". There is ample evidence of a "Tantric" strain of practice within our native Western European religious traditions before it was suppressed by Christianity.
But Mike, you may say, surely you are confusing sexuality with pornography. Being opposed to pornography doesn't mean you're against sexuality, does it? It depends. Primarily it depends on who is allowed to define "pornography". And from a Witch's perspective, such thoughts can be chilling. Anyone with even a cursory knowledge of the history of Witchcraft and its persecution will remember how may Witches went to the pyre accused of sexual crimes. From the viewpoint of the medieval Church, any sexuality that was practiced outside of heterosexual marriage (and for the sole purpose of procreation) was pornographic (in the sense of being sexually offensive or obscene) and should be censored. Inquisitors routinely accepted confessions of Pagan sexual license as proof of demonic activity.
It was the Christians who eventually put a stop to the open marriages, group marriages and Taillteann marriages allowed by the Pagan Irish Brehon laws. It was the Puritans who declared the "pornographic" Maypoles illegal, along with seasonal frolics in the woods. It was the Christians who condemned young girls for their "painted faces" and insisted they keep their hair hidden and wear clothes that covered the entire body, even in hottest weather. It was the Puritans who believed that dancing was immoral, and music (other than church music) was indecent. In short, any activity which encouraged sexuality was viewed by them as "pornographic", and must be censored.
When the people who define pornography are the Christian Fundamentalists, Witches are bound to get nervous. Fundamentalists may go far beyond the most ardent feminists in what they find "sexually offensive." You don't believe me? Have you had a chance to glance at Georgia's new anti-sodomy law? It's real. It's on the books. And it's there because sodomy (even between consensual adults!) falls outside the Christians' narrow concept of "sex as God intended it". I've got news: a lot of Pagan sexuality falls outside "sex as God intended it." That is why, when I hear of radical feminist Andrea Dworkin marching arm in arm with Jerry Falwell in her anti-pornography campaign, all the alarm bells in my head go off at once!
Usually, I find myself in agreement with most feminist ideology; if other feminists are for it, then I'm for it. But another good litmus test of my politics is to switch on channel 50; if the Fundamentalists are for, then I'm against it. Dworkin's anti-pornography campaign represents the first time these two barometers of my politics have collided. Obviously, I better look a little deeper and pay very close attention.
Andrea Dworkin, together with law professor Catherine MacKinnon, have authored several anti-pornography laws (similar to one just defeated by popular vote in the state of Maine) which would make it illegal for anyone to sell pornography. These laws have received widespread support from Right-wing anti-obscenity enthusiasts, such as Attorney General Edwin Meese, whose Commission on Pornography recently turned in a highly biased report to President Reagan. When Meese's commission had called 54 witnesses to testify to the "evils" of pornography, and only four to defend it, editor Hugh Hefner accused the commission of "sexual McCarthyism". Andrea Dworkin seems to believe that an alliance with such Christian Fundamentalists will serve women's rights, not endanger them. But all my background as a feminist and as a Witch leads me to conclude just the opposite - just as Elizabeth Cady Stanton concluded long ago - that the institution of Christianity is more responsible than any other for the repression of women in our society. Dworkin's stance, it seems to me, is a dangerous and unholy alliance.
So if Dworkin, MacKinnon, Falwell, and Meese are on the same side of the net, who is on the other side? That , too, tells a story. Naturally, Hugh Hefner and Bob Guccione. But also: the ACLU, People for the American Way, the American Booksellers Association, and the American Library Association, to name a few. Interestingly, there are also some well-known feminists in the anti-Dworkin camp, like Kate Millett and Betty Friedan, who argue that if pornography is bad, censorship is worse. It is comforting to me as a Pagan to realize that even feminists are split on this one.
Only last week, the ABA announced its intent to join Playboy and the ACLU in bringing suit against the Meese Commission for sending a letter (on U.S. Department of Justice stationery) to convenience stores such as Seven-Eleven "alleging that your company is involved in the sale and distribution of pornography". Significantly, the law suit is being directed by ACLU lawyer Barry Lynn - the same Barry Lynn who defended Witches and Pagans against the infamous Helms amendment only last fall. Well, you may say, naturally Mike Nichols is going to take their side; he's an ex-librarian, a bookstore owner and publisher himself. Maybe so. But when the country's publishers, bookstores and libraries are in trouble, then we are all in trouble. You have only to remember libraries like Alexandria and Caernarvon, destroyed by religious fanatics, and modern-day book burnings of "obscene" material, to get the point.
But Mike, you now protest, you have been using the word "pornography" in a very loose way. According to the dictionary, pornography is any material that is "sexually arousing". And surely none would protest tasteful erotica; we only object to pornography that is negative, violent, degrades women, promotes child abuse, etc. First of all, I would point out that the good folk on Meese's commission may not agree with you about what is "tasteful erotica". Again, remember Georgia's new law. Second, I would argue that there is still no study (aside from the highly dubious Meese Commission report) that connects pornography with violent sexual behavior. In fact, all the best evidence points in the other direction. Countries with the most permissive pornography laws (such as Sweden and Denmark) have the lowest proportional incidence of rape and other sexual crimes. And the recent books on convicted rapists, like The Rapist File and Men on Rape, have constantly shown a negative correlation between pornography and rape - these men actually read pornography far less than the average man. Indeed, psychological profiles show these men to be almost Puritanical in their sexual attitudes. They would very likely to be the first to applaud the Meese Commission report.
Or, for the sake of argument, let's suppose that pornography does influence behavior (a very unlikely supposition). If so, then surely all literature influences action. Consequently, we'd better seriously consider a ban on movies like "Rambo", or any senselessly violent war movie.
But surely the Dworkin/MacKinnon laws focus on more specific problems than these examples would indicate. What, in fact, is Dworkin's own definition of pornography? And would modern Pagans find objections to her definition? They'd better! Because some of Witchcraft's most cherished images, myths, and symbols would fall under Dworkin's labrys. The most recent issue of "Woman of Power" published an interview with Dworkin, which included the text of the revised Dworkin/MacKinnon anti-pornography law.
The "Definitions" section begins:
1) Pornography is the graphic sexually explicit subordination of women through pictures and/or words that also includes one or more of the following:
One final point is that Pagan myth and literature is not the only sacred literature that contains sexual and/or "pornographic" material. So does virtually every other sacred literature in the world, including the Christian Bible! Although you may feel that I stretched a point or two to make my arguments fit the Dworkin ordinance, still I hope my general concerns carry conviction. And if the carefully worded definitions of the Dworkin/MacKinnon law conflict with Pagan sensibilities, just imagine what the broader, looser definitions of the Meese Commission would be like.
Thus, if it comes down to a choice between pornography and censorship (a distasteful choice to many), then I believe we are safer to support the rights of those who publish, sell, distribute, and enjoy pornography. If you don't want to use it yourself, you don't have to. Dworkin and MacKinnon argue that pornography should be an "exception" to the First Amendment. I disagree. To support censorship - even in this limited form - would be a fatal mistake for a minority religion that sees sexuality as sacred. Paganism remains the strongest antidote we have to the repressed sexual attitudes of our patriarchal Judeo-Christian society. We must not give up our right and our freedom to depict sexual energy in all its beautiful, myriad and diverse forms.
Document Copyright © 1988, 2002 by Mike Nichols.