THE BODY POLITIC July/August 1982, No. 85. Chris Bearchell
Five members of a recently formed Toronto group called Pornography Oppresses Women (POW) were roughed up June 4 by employees of the Zanzibar Tavern, a strip joint on Yonge Street. They had been busy taking photographs of patrons' comings and goings, their press release explained, "to make each man accountable for contributing to the exploitation of violence against women." The police were called as a result of the scuffle with bouncers, but they declined to lay charges because they said the two sides of the account varied too widely. In response POW organized a demonstration to take place outside the Zanzibar June 12. And for the first time in recent memory I found myself assigned to cover a demonstration for which I had almost no sympathy.
I share the protestors' rage at the treatment of the women both by the bouncers and by the police. But for the organizers, there was no distinction to be made between the violence suffered by POW members and the group's original target pornography. For me, their tactics the attempted use of guilt to modify someone's sexual behaviour left a very bad taste.
The same day that 200 feminists picketed the Zanzibar Tavern in Toronto, the National Film Board's controversial film Not a Love Story: A Film about pornography was opening on 57th Street in New York, just blocks away from where much of the footage of the cinematographic indictment had been shot. I finally saw the film a few days later, when I participated in a panel discussion about film censorship.
Robert Fulford, writing in the June 5 Toronto Star, credited the film with inspiring 500 women and men to march with the Feminist Coalition Against Pornography in Montreal two weeks before. He also said that he knew of no woman reviewer who was critical of the film. After taking a look back at the whole time, I've decided I'd love to be the first.
Not a Love Story tells a morality tale, using he perceptions of former stripper Linda Lee Tracy as its vehicle. Tracy opens the film with a challenge to filmmaker Bonnie Klein that feminists, like men, think that strippers are exploited and too dumb to know it. The film ends with her tearful confession of relief that "at least I can feel sick" about sexual objectification.
Film also objectifies: it takes pieces of life out of their real context and preserves them on celluloid. The funny thing about this film, though, is that not all the characters are objectified equally. Some people seem to be looking more than they are being looked at, while others are being looked at more than they are looking. Those who do the looking sit in bright, airy, greenery-filled frames and deliver carefully measured and sensitive insights. The people who are mostly looked at inhabit dingy photo studios, peep shows, strip joints and the like. Confronted by the camera they react, often defensively and with growing bitterness, their own lives their only authority.
Despite its pretence to be a documentary, the film has an anti-science bias. In the first few minutes, it dismisses any investigation of the role of fantasy in porn and never again deals with the contradictions and distinctions that always exist between image and reality.
By assuming that all porn, and all sexuality, is heterosexual, Not a Love Story glosses over the rich complexity of human sexuality and misses potential avenues of exploration. Gay male porn obviously doesn't exploit women, but does it exploit men? In the same way? If so, how? If not, why not?
Film that blunders into the territory of sexual behaviour cannot safely dismiss sexual minorities, precisely because they are the least understood and most vulnerable to pressure from the ill-informed. Could it be that the filmmakers had no opportunity for such a digression? How, with well-known radical lesbian Robin Morgan and equally well-known radical fairy Kenneth Pitchford both interviewed, could that have been so? And how was it the two of them turned up incarnated as a sensitive, liberal, nuclear family complete with offspring in a state of grace and threatened by the eroding evil of pornography?
Gay people aren't the only sexual minority who might be affected by this discussion or by anti-porn actions like the one at the Zanzibar. As the moral clean-up-the-streets crusade grows, its most obvious targets in this city are prostitutes.
Sex and violence each conjure up powerful emotions and images, and the camera wades in, bent on imposing it sown definitions. Images progress from tame to hard core (well, wort of ) to occasionally gory. An expert in a laboratory talks about men with uncontrollable appetites seeking ever more evil thrills, losing their grip on reality and perpetrating violent crimes against women and children. Not a Love Story does for pornography what Reefer Madness did for marijuana.
This film is dangerous not only because it is less honest, thorough, complete or sophisticated than it should be. It is also dangerous because it is bad feminism.
Despite Kate Millett's lone plea for more authentic sexual images, the filmmakers seem to have misplaced the feminist criticism that our society is sex-negative. In the past feminists have argued that twisted images of sexuality may well result from the suppression and distortion of sexual desire. In asserting that sex ought to be an aspect of life like any other, feminists have said that a sexual assault is a crime because it is an assault and not because it is sexual. Shouldn't it follow that the exploitation and degradation of the hooker or the stripper is not qualitatively different from that of the migrant worker, the secretary, the welfare mother, the factory worker or the mental patient?
Not a Love Story bemoans women's silent complicity with pornography without asking whether it really is all women who have averted their eyes from the billboards and magazine racks and have remained ignorant of the evil or the delight to be found in pornography. Not that many are going to admit to finding delight while, during the New York premiere of Not a Love Story, Gloria Steinem blithely compares women who read porn to Jews who read Nazi propaganda.
Nowhere does the film try to locate violence against women in the context of other injustices women face. As hands are wrung and tears are shed, all that is offered is Women as Victim. Despair may be an inevitable response, if you are convinced that men are violent toward women simply because they are men bound to some property of the Y chromosome, perhaps. If the film had seen men as agents of violence against women in a social system that is a haphazard hierarchy of interlocking and overlapping power relationships, a system in which gender is an important (but not the only) factor (class, race and sexual orientation being others), and in which violence is a symptom not to be mistaken for the disease itself, it would not have ended up with such strange bedfellows.
Canadians for Decency, a certifiable member of the anti-gay and anti-feminist right, is thanked in the credits of Not a Love Story. As are the boys from Project P, the anti-porn squad that engineered the first raid on TBP. A sad testimony to just how radical feminism can be.
I was surprised to find out a while ago that Emma Goldman (whose radicalism is above reproach) didn't consider herself a feminist and in fact distrusted feminism for its middle-class base and its narrow, conservative outlook. She had a somewhat more down-to-earth approach to her sisters in the sex industry. She advocated free love and tried to organize prostitutes' unions.
There's a lesson in there somewhere.