Work does not condemn ACLU

I want to thank the BG News editors for perfectly illustrating my point that we are so blinded by fears of censorship, we have almost lost the ability to discuss (with any thoughtfulness or subtlety) issues related to pornography.

Rather, attempts to talk about pornography outside of a censorship framework provoke knee-jerk responses such as the ones we read in Monday’s staff editorial. (“Wheeler Unfairly Bashes ACLU,” BG News, 21 March 2006, p. 4)

The editors – whose knees must have been jerking wildly – confused my questions about how pornography has moved into our cultural mainstream and what role the American Civil Liberties Union has played in that process with bashing the ACLU and advocating censorship.

Accusations to the contrary, distinctions between “our public and private lives” are central to my research. And students have inspired this focus.

In the mid-1990s, I taught a course titled, “Rethinking Pornography and Hate Speech.” In this class, each young woman admitted that, although pornography made her uncomfortable, she would not ask her partner to remove it from her home for fear of violating his First Amendment rights.

These students (like many others) equated criticizing pornography – and exercising control over their private space – with advocating censorship, erasing, in the process, critical distinctions between private behavior and state action.

Because this sort of thinking appears in material written by ACLU leaders (see Nadine Strossen’s Defending Pornography), I am trying to figure how the ACLU has influenced our approaches to sexuality – in our public and private worlds.

My work does not condemn the ACLU. Rather, I argue that the ACLU has played a major role in constructing privacy rights that protect our access to sexual options – from birth control, to abortion, pornography, and nudism.

However, I acknowledge that, in doing so, the ACLU helped to clear away laws and regulations designed to limit sexuality to the private sphere. One consequence is the rise of a public realm saturated with sexual images and messages.

This finding is less a denunciation of the ACLU than a recognition of some unintended consequences of its work.

It might interest you to know that the ACLU does not necessarily condone “activism” – which the BG News endorses as an alternative to “censorship” – especially when it is directed against sexual material. Indeed, since the 1930s, the ACLU has condemned most such activism (including boycotts, organized pledges, public protests, ratings systems, screening devices, age restrictions, and efforts to persuade industries to employ their own standards), declaring it an insidious form of censorship.

I clearly take issue with the BG News’s characterization of my work, but I applaud the editors for provoking public consideration and discussion of pornography and censorship.

These issues are crucial for us to engage in our various public and private identities as citizens, colleagues, friends, and family members

Send comments to Leigh Ann at [email protected].