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Tuesday, August 17, 2004 FULL SHOW | HEADLINES | NEXT: Are Sex Workers Coming to New York for the RNC?
2004-08-17

Susie Bright and Susan Brison on Pornography and Larry Flynt

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Two weeks after our interview with Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt, we host a debate on pornography with Susie Bright, a former Salon.com columnist and author of Mommy’s Little Girl: Susie Bright on Sex, Motherhood, Pornography, and Cherry Pie and Susan Brison, professor of Philosophy at Dartmouth and author of Aftermath: Violence and the Remaking of a Self. [includes rush transcript]

Two weeks ago we interviewed the controversial publisher of Hustler magazine. Flynt is known for publishing an image of a woman being put through a meat grinder, for putting feminist icon Gloria Steinem on a wanted poster and depicting women in a manner that many people say is outright demeaning and encourages violence against women.

At the same time, Flynt is also known as a fierce defender of free speech and the first amendment. His personal victory at the Supreme Court, defending the first amendment is well-known.

On the program, we spoke with Flynt about President Bush, his lawsuit against Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, the Clinton impeachment hearings and more. We then moved on to the issue of women’s rights and the exploitation of women.

  • Excerpt of Democracy Now! interview__ with Larry Flynt, August 3, 2004.

An excerpt of our interview with controversial publisher of Hustler magazine, Larry Flynt. It was broadcast August 3rd. Soon afterwards we received a large number of responses from our listeners and viewers around the country–Many were concerned that Democracy Now! had interviewed Larry Flynt.

Today on Democracy Now! we host a debate on pornography.

  • Susie Bright, author of Mommy’s Little Girl: Susie Bright on Sex, Motherhood, Pornography, and Cherry Pie, former Salon.com columnist, and series editor of Best American Erotica.
  • Susan Brison, professor of Philosophy at Dartmouth, author of Aftermath: Violence and the Remaking of a Self and an article last week in the San Francisco Chronicle magazine entitled "The Torture Connection."

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined right on the telephone by Susie Bright, who is the author of Mommy’s Little Girl: Susie Bright on Sex, Motherhood, Pornography, and Cherry Pie , a former salon.com columnist. And Susan Brison joins us in a radio studio from Dartmouth, a professor of philosophy at Dartmouth, and author of Aftermath: Violence and the Remaking of a Self. Susan Brison, let’s begin with you. Your response to Larry Flynt.

SUSAN BRISON: Well, I was going to say when you introduced this as a debate between two leading feminists about porn that I’m not sure you’re going to get much of a debate between me and Susie Bright because I’m pro-sex, I’m pro-erotica, I’m anti-violence against women and anti-sexual torture and sexual murder as entertainment, and I think she agrees with me about these things. I think that you asked Larry Flynt just the right hard questions towards the end of that interview, but he didn’t answer them. He didn’t give satisfactory answers to them. It’s not enough to say, if Gloria Steinem is offended, she shouldn’t read the magazine. I’m wondering if he would say the same thing about the photos of lynchings of black men and sometimes women circulating in the early 20th century in the U.S. There’s been a lot of discussion about these in the aftermath of the photos of the torture at Abu Ghraib. Would he say, suppose we still lived in society in which people got off on seeing these photos of black men being lynched, and the people who sent these postcards and who received them, you know, clearly got a kick out of it. I would say there was even some kind of a sexual kick that some people got from these. Would he say to those of us who are very — would be very concerned and outraged, if these things were still circulating, well, if you are offended by them, you don’t have to look at them? You know, what’s it to you? Just don’t look. First of all, Gloria Steinem is not talking about speech that is merely offensive. She is talking about harmful speech. Feminists have been talking about that since 1980. We’re not talking about offensive speech. We’re talking about harmful speech. So, it’s just a red herring to say well, if someone’s offended, they should not bother looking at the stuff.

AMY GOODMAN: Susie Bright, let me get your response?

SUSIE BRIGHT: Well, I was fascinated by his discussion with you, because he was so progressive on so many issues, and then he comes up with this incredible vicious attack about ugly women. You’re like — what happened? Who are you? And what occurred to me is that he and Gloria Steinem have this rather amazing blind spot as if they were preserved in amber in some long-ago debate where actually neither of them recognize a very important part of the average American women’s experience, since he brought that up. The average American woman has been through a revolution in the last couple of decades where our desire for sexual self-interest and expression has changed the way we look at everything, from the women’s revolution in health care regarding gynecology and childbirth, the whole boom in vibrators and acknowledgement of masturbation, the popularity of something like The Vagina Monologues. Women’s erotic writing in film, the emphasis on communication between partners. These are subjects that both Larry and Gloria act as if they didn’t happen. Like it’s not part of the history that they’re a part of. Then in the meantime, they sort of look at each other and don’t see what effect they had or what they ever had in common in terms of sexual liberation or women’s liberation which is bizarre to me. Hustler, it’s interesting, until the women’s movement attacked his magazine for the meat grinder issue, which ironically was also his conversion to Christianity issue, what Hustler was known for, the revolution they made in publishing was that they published explicit pictures of women’s genitals, which had never been done before. I mean, Hugh Hefner, Bob Guccione and all of the others avoided this like the plague, because it was considered ugly and taboo and disgusting. Here comes Flynt. He goes, no, this is the essence of male heterosexuality. This is what we love. This is what it’s all about. This is what I’m going to glory in and revel in. He was then criticized by some people, including some feminists who saw those pictures and instead of saying, ah, the celebration of the vulva, they said, this is hideous, and it’s treating women like pieces of meat. That was the famous expression. And then what does Flynt do? He does what Hustler always does, which is vicious, vicious satire, especially of public figures that they — you know, hate and just as he decimated Jerry Falwell and impugned his childhood and reputation, they went on a rampage and they did a whole lot of making fun of this, like, oh, really? You think what we’re doing is anti-woman? Well, we’ll show you. And you have this satire about food and sex. The pictorial that is now become an urban legend, was not designed as a turn-on in the least; it was, you know, a satiric pictorial, yet it got taken out of context. Like, well, this is what Hustler prints and their membership sits around and gets off on this. You know this is what they’re audience does.

AMY GOODMAN: Susie Bright, we have to break, but we’re going to come back to Susie Bright, author of, Mommy’s Little Girl, and Susan Brison, professor of philosophy at Dartmouth, author of Aftermath: Violence and the Remaking of a Self. Stay with us. [break] "Hell Hound on My Trail," a 1936 recording by Robert Johnson. His music would go on to influence many of rock’s biggest acts, including the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and Eric Clapton. This is Democracy Now!, the War and Peace report. I’m Amy Goodman. We’re talking about pornography with Susie Bright, who is a former salon.com columnist, series editor of Best American Erotica, and Susan Brison, professor of philosophy at Dartmouth, author of the book, Aftermath. Professor Brison, your response to Susie Bright’s comments.

SUSAN BRISON: I don’t want to speak for Gloria Steinem, I do think it wasn’t the sexual explicitness of these photos of women that she was primarily concerned about, but let me speak for myself. I’m not primarily concerned about that, and that’s why I would love to have a new word for what some people call pornography. I don’t think it’s possible any longer to have — or ever was — to have a productive feminist debate about pornography given the very different things that people mean by this. I’m in favor of sexual expression, and much of what some people would call pornography, I would find sexually liberating just as Susie Bright would. So, I’m — I am at a loss for a word, but what I’m concerned about is what I might call violently misogynistic hate speech. I think that’s what Steinem was concerned about as well. It wasn’t necessarily sexually explicit. One of the worst examples to cite was the cartoon in the May, 1983 issue of "Penthouse" that showed a man penetrating a woman from behind and holding a pistol to the back of her head and the caption reads, "Oh, you don’t have to worry about getting pregnant. I have taken all of the precautions." Admittedly, that wasn’t something people were not getting off on, that was something that people were laughing at. That was funny. I’m saying that we should be questioning our attitudes as a society if many of us, some of us even, find such cartoons funny. If they find photos of depictions of sexual murder and sexual torture arousing, What does that say about us as a society, and what does it say to those actual victims of sex crimes, that we treat their real pain as fodder for entertainment?

AMY GOODMAN: Susie Bright.

SUSIE BRIGHT: I totally understand the frustration about how pornography is defined, because it just seems to be one of those buzz words that provokes different issues in different people. For me it tends to be a discussion either about what do you think of the aesthetics of explicit sexual expression, how it influences people. Is it artistic, is it moronic, is it vulgar, is it uplifting? What do you think of the effect of images and words and then the other side of pornography is what do you think of it as a labor issue? What do you think of the corporatization of the sex industry, of the strange class differences and kind of third tier aspect of the film industry that it occupies now. What do you think of the fact that Britney Spears breakthrough videos were directed by a mainstream porn director. There’s a whole labor issue of what it’s like to work both behind the scenes or in front of the camera in this business which is just chock full of controversy, to say the least, and has been just beginning to be discussed by economists and social scientists and people obviously — obviously people in the industry who feel like their livelihoods and their image and their futures are at stake. When it comes to what do we make of cruel jokes and things that make fun of people in a brutal way, it does need to be analyzed and not just in a, like, oh, my god, that’s a horrifying way, but why do we make fun of certain things at certain times? You know, there’s a whole group of people who make this their point of focus. Why do people make vicious AIDS jokes at a certain time? What is that relieving? What is the psychological motivation behind that? Why that kind of cruelty — it’s interesting, the cartoon she describes is not what would be in vogue in the vulgar cartoon world of today. Isn’t that strange? Not because people got nicer or better, but because interestingly, and we see this in contemporary images all around us both real and fantastical, the societal tension right now is about emasculation and submissive men and men being made fun of or degraded in a, like, oh, you’re nothing but a little girl, but I’m going to make a mockery of you. I’m going to rape you. So, now we have — and I’m not pointing at any particular magazine, but this is — if you look at the kind of underground — the kind of humor that makes a lot of people sick to the stomach and other people like laugh in embarrassment, the topics have changed. And they will continue to change and they need to be looked at in terms of, you know, what is — what is this shadow side that’s haunting us? What is the American sexual zeitgeist that gives rise to certain feelings?

AMY GOODMAN: I want to switch gears for a few minutes because we have one more guest. I wanted to ask Susan Brison about a different issue. Right now, cable television is focusing on two major cases almost around the clock, the case of Laci Peterson, the brutal murder of Laci Peterson and her husband, Scott Peterson, on trial, and then also Lori Hacking. Her husband now went to court for the first time, Mark Hacking, for her brutal murder. Though they have not found her body. And the way the media covers these issues, clearly with the amount of time they have spent on them, you would think that people learn a great deal about domestic violence and about what the crisis is, but I doubt people are any more illuminated now than they were from the first day. I wanted to ask you about this issue.

SUSAN BRISON: All right. I would agree with you, and I would classify much media coverage of these cases as yet another form of sexual murder as entertainment. And instead of getting us to be more informed about what actual victims of domestic violence and other forms of abuse go through, it has a kind of distancing effect. You know, we are not like them. We cannot imagine that happening to us. I think there should be more focus on the more mundane cases of sexual torture, sexual murder that are happening all the time. So that we don’t just pathologize a couple of alleged perpetrators and try to figure out what’s the matter with them. How could they do that?

AMY GOODMAN: What should we know about domestic violence and murder? I mean in these cases, no one has been convicted yet, but in terms — since they’re spending this amount of time on the issue.

SUSAN BRISON: That it’s more common than most people realize. That it’s not being perpetrated by just few monsters who are not of us. That we should be looking at our society and taking responsibility for the society in which we raise our boys and in which many men come to feel entitled to abuse women.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Susan Brison, Professor of Philosophy at Dartmouth, author of Aftermath: Violence and the Remaking of a Self, and Susie Bright, author of Mommy’s Little Girl: Susie Bright on Sex, Motherhood, Pornography, and Cherry Pie . Susan Brison, you have also written an extended piece called "The Torture Connection," when photographs from Abu Ghraib cannot be distinguished between "good old American pornography." It’s not just the torture we should be questioning.

SUSAN BRISON: Right. I thought it was — as appalling as the events at Abu Ghraib were, it was fascinating to see the discussion of fact and fiction that came out of all of that. Both The Boston Globe and The Daily Mirror, published photos, presented them as fact, that turned out to be staged pornographic photos of U.S soldiers raping Iraqi women. And so, we were in the situation where pornographic photos were being presented as actual torture and then the photos of actual torture at Abu Ghraib were being called hard-core porn. So it raises interesting questions. What does it say about a society in which torture is viewed as porn and porn is viewed as torture? I mean leaving aside the difficulty of categorizing porn for one moment, I think that the debate about these photos should have gotten some of us to see that things aren’t always as they appear to be, that we can’t always assume that people who look like they’re being tortured are. But likewise we can’t always assume that, you know, they’re not.

AMY GOODMAN: And of course there were pictures that, for example, Seymour Hersh has alluded to that were boys who were being raped by soldiers as well. He has talked about seeing the images, saying what we have not seen perhaps is worse than what we have seen.

SUSAN BRISON: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: And Susie Bright, just — we only have a few more minutes before we move to our last segment, but your response?

SUSIE BRIGHT: Well, I was — had an extra special shock when I first saw the photos from Abu Ghraib, because in addition to seeing this, like, grotesque depiction of infantile rage and helplessness, you know, the sort of special kink of bizarre emasculation, I had to reflect on my own work as an erotic editor where I see thousands of manuscripts cross my desk from amateurs and professionals. Trends come and go, and the trend right now is there’s lots and lots of submissive male fantasies. Of course, these are very whimsical and they’re orgasm oriented.

AMY GOODMAN: We only have ten seconds, so if you can make your point fast.

SUSIE BRIGHT: Why is it going on? What is the perverse Peter Pan? What is this consciousness? It comes out in different contexts, both consensual and non-consensual. What it means is a real important topic for contemplation.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Susie Bright, I want to thank you for being with us, author of Mommy’s Little Girl , former salon.com columnist, series editor of Best American Erotica, and Susan Brison, professor of philosophy at Dartmouth, author of, Aftermath, Violence and the Remarking of the Self. It’s a discussion that needs to continue, certainly.

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