Art vs. Obscenity - Drawing Distinctions

Pornography is in the news again. In Congress, the proposed Pornography Victims Compensation Act is under discussion. Massachusetts legislators are considering similar antipornography laws that would allow anyone harmed by pornography to sue the producers. And last February, in Butler v. Her Majesty, the Canadian Supreme Court ruled that pornography was constitutionally unprotected because it harms women.

The feminist idea of pornography, as newly adopted in these proposed laws and the Canadian case, is not the same as obscenity. While pornography degrades women and is at war with equality, obscenity offends one's sense of decency and is at war with morality. This dichotomy, championed by feminist Catherine MacKinnon, has not yet been adopted by United States courts.

Enter Edward de Grazia, who argued and won several noted obscenity cases, including the famous 1964 case involving Henry Miller's spicy autobiographical book, "Tropic of Cancer." A lawyer turned law professor, de Grazia is also the author of books on censorship - most recently, "Girls Lean Back Everywhere."

In style and substance, this tome is provocative. The title itself refers to a quotation suggesting that female sexual provocation and male response are universal and "no one is corrupted."

Stylistically, de Grazia subtly defends obscenity; he sometimes replicates it in his own writing. Some chapter titles are laced with four-letter words while others contain lewd innuendoes. In effect, de Grazia dares his adversaries to censure this book, thus proving his point about the arbitrary quality of censorship.

The book is the best compilation of particulars relating primarily to the American experience with obscenity. The Yeshiva University law professor offers fact-filled accounts of several of the most famous obscenity cases.

His account treats obscenity as if it were essentially indistinguishable from literary and artistic expression. He proceeds as a relentless absolutist, virtually equating all sexual material - from literary novels to explicit skin flicks - with James Joyce's "Ulysses." Stitching a patchwork of cumbersome block quotes together with text, the author describes how certain writers and their publishers confronted the criminal charge of obscenity. We encounter the experiences of Joyce, Emile Zola, Radclyffe Ha ll, D. H. Lawrence, Theodore Dreiser, Edmund Wilson, and others, all once caught in the law's nasty web.

On the whole, "Girls Lean Back Everywhere" succeeds in showing how the legal doctrine of obscenity has generally evolved toward liberal views on sexuality, though there are exceptions, as the Robert Maplethorpe exhibit and the 2 Live Crew performances make clear. Looking back, as this book allows, much of yesterday's fuss over obscenity and the toll it took on writers and publishers seems senseless by today's standards.

But the book lacks any sustained analytical framework. It instructs more by descriptive accounts than by cogent arguments. And in trying to equate the literary high with the sleazy low, de Grazia demeans the former and exalts the latter.

Although the book mentions the current feminist distinction between pornography and obscenity, it does little more than narrate portions of testimony presented to the Meese Commission in 1985. The controversy, largely left unanalyzed, pits a more female conception of unbridled equality against a more male conception of unbridled expression.

The author doubts that pornography fosters a cultural climate hostile to women. In the end, de Grazia can do little more than argue this point of view, and, failing to convince, analogize pornographic harm to the "genius" of literary or artistic expression. By that measure alone, this is a big book with big problems.

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