Larry Flynt last month co-hosted a fundraiser for Democratic presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich in Los Angeles. Kucinich and his wife, Elizabeth, joined Flynt and a number of other left-leaning Hollywood celebrities at a dinner November 16 at the headquarters of Larry Flynt Publications. At the dinner, Flynt endorsed Kucinich's bid for the Democratic nomination. He later told the porn industry web site Xbiz that he has been friends with the liberal congressman from Ohio for 40 years.
For those of us who cling to the quaint notion that any progressive politics worthy of the name must be anti-sexist by definition, this is truly deflating news. After all, we're in the 21st century. The days when prominent men in the progressive movement would dare to associate this openly with the likes of misogynists like Larry Flynt were supposed to be relegated to the mists of memory, before the modern multicultural women's movement came along. In fact, one of the catalyzing forces in the rise of feminism in the 1960s and 1970s was women's experience of sexism on the left and in the civil rights, anti-poverty and anti-war movements.
The pioneering women who built the women's movement -- and subsequent generations of feminists/womanists -- implicitly and explicitly issued a challenge to liberal and progressive men: If you truly believe the radical notion that women's civil and human rights are every bit as important as men's, then put your behavior where your rhetoric is. You can't say you're committed to the struggle for non-violence and human dignity while actively perpetuating the subordination and degradation of women. You can't publicly claim to be for social justice and privately continue to treat women like second-class citizens. Quite simply, you can't claim to be a leader of the progressive wing of the Democratic party if you align yourself with Larry Flynt.
Let's be clear about who Flynt is. He's not some run of the mill good ol' boy with political passions and deep pockets. Please spare us the "First Amendment hero" platitudes. On the contrary, Flynt is a wealthy capitalist who for years has been one of the most notoriously sexist figures in American public life. His signature publication, Hustler magazine, has published some of the most misogynist and racist photo layouts and cartoons in the history of mass-distributed porn magazines. He has been accused of incest by his now-grown daughter. He repeatedly dismisses women with the gumption to challenge his raging sexism as "anti-sex bitches" and much worse.
It is willfully naïve for any self-respecting "progressive" to dismiss Flynt's pornography as harmless "adult" entertainment. How can it be considered harmless to consistently portray women and girls in a sexually demeaning and degrading manner? Flynt hasn't built his porn publishing empire in a vacuum. Our society has some of the highest rates of sexual and domestic violence in the world. The numbers are staggering: one in four women will be raped or sexually assaulted. One study showed that one in five teenage girls has been in a physically or sexually abusive relationship. Most women won't even walk alone after dark. Whenever we discuss the effects of pornography -- and regardless of how one feels about people's right to produce or consume it -- anyone with a minimal sense of social responsibility has to examine the relevant context, including where and how it is produced and its relationship to social reality.
It is within this tragic cultural and historical context that Flynt has taken the commodification and exploitation of women's bodies to new lows. But Hustler is not just notable for its uber-explicit photographs of women's genitals. A shrewd businessman with sharp cultural antennae, Flynt found a way, early on, to profit from the male backlash against feminism. Its pages are filled with angry rants against feminists and other "uppity" women.
For those readers who have averted their eyes from Hustler, or have never taken the time to see what's on or between the covers, it is important to note that Flynt's woman-hatred is not confined to the countless misogynous photographic images he publishes, such as the infamous Hustler cover portraying a woman's naked body going through a meat grinder, or an "erotic" photo layout where a nude and bound Asian woman is depicted hanging lifeless from a tree.
Hustler cartoons are also notoriously saturated with images of racism and sexual cruelty. As the media scholar Gail Dines points out, the cartoons can be even more overtly offensive than the photo layouts because they carry a "humor license" and hence avoid critical scrutiny. One result is that men of color -- especially African-American men -- are routinely presented in the most reductive racist stereotype: as brutish rapists of white women. Women of color are caricatured with animal-like qualities -- or as non-hygienic slobs. One characteristic cartoon depicts a school science fair. A white boy proudly stands in front of his project, next to a big sign that reads: "ant farm." Next to him is a large Black girl, naked from the waist down; under her the caption reads: "crab farm."
Rape and domestic violence jokes are a recurring theme in Hustler cartoons. One cartoon depicts a billboard where the text reads: "If you have been raped or would like to be raped, call RAPE LINE 555-7675." Another shows a middle-aged white man wearing bright red boxing gloves. He is punching a naked woman's breasts. She is screaming, with her hands tied up behind her head. The caption reads: "Every good fighter started out slappin' one of these around."
It gets worse. The Larry Flynt who endorsed Dennis Kucinich sits atop an empire that actively participates in the crude sexualization not only of women, but of teenage girls. Among his many magazines, Flynt also publishes Barely Legal, a web site and porn magazine whose raison d'être is the commodification of young girls' bodies. The male consumers of Barely Legal would likely insist that naked 18-year-old models with bows in their hair, spreading their legs wide for the camera, are technically "consenting adults." But everyone knows the intent is to create the illusion that they are much younger.
For years a popular feature in Flynt's signature publication, Hustler, was a cartoon that followed the exploits of a fictional serial sexual abuser of young girls, Chester the Molester. The cartoon was discontinued only when the cartoonist, Dwayne Tinsley, was convicted of sexually abusing his real-life daughter -- who claimed the art was a chronicle of her actual victimization. Is it credible to maintain there is no relationship whatsoever between our society's pandemic of child sexual abuse and the widespread availability of products like Barely Legal? You don't need to argue that legal porn causes illegal activity in order to assert that it contributes significantly to a culture where younger and younger girls are made into sexual playthings, and hence set up to be the objects of adult men's sexual desires and pathologies.
Congressman Kucinich has famously proposed the creation of a federal Department of Peace. According to his web site, this new institution would seek "nothing less than the transformation of our society" to one where children are educated in principles of compassion and non-violence. The department would focus not just on issues of war and peace, but on issues like child abuse and domestic violence, and other issues of "unique concern" to women and children.
Here is a suggestion for Mr. Kucinich. If you want people to believe you are serious about abiding by the principles embodied in the Department of Peace you envision, issue a statement to the effect that you renounce Larry Flynt's endorsement, and have returned his money. It is not only the right thing to do; there are also political benefits. You might lose some porn-loving white male lefties and die-hard libertarians (the latter wouldn't be voting for you, anyway). But you might begin to repair the damage you've done with feminists and many other women, as well as the no-longer silent minority of men who are beginning to speak out against sexual exploitation and all forms of men's violence against women.
For good measure, you might also want to point out that unlike your antagonist President Bush, you are confident enough in who you are as a person -- and as a man -- that you can admit you made a mistake in aligning yourself with a misogynist like Larry Flynt. That would go a long way toward modeling the kind of masculinity that is surely required if we are ever to live in a just and non-violent society and world.
Jackson Katz's book The Macho Paradox: Why Some Men Hurt Women and How All Men Can Help, is available at major bookstores and at Amazon.com.