THE BLOG
09/12/2013 05:52 pm ET | Updated Nov 12, 2013

Pornography and Sex Equality: The Life and Times of Linda Lovelace

Lovelace, starring Amanda Seyfried, is the story of a small town girl, Linda Boreman, pornographed as Linda Lovelace, who gained fame as the "star" of the porn classic Deep Throat. It is crucial to know, when watching this film, that Linda Boreman maintained that Linda Lovelace was not the "star" of Deep Throat, but rather its victim. Linda Boreman died in 2002, from injuries sustained in a car accident; but Linda's story is lived over and over by countless women every day who are trafficked to make pornography. And the objectification of women as only for sex accomplished through films like Deep Throat is lived by every woman, everywhere, in one way or another, and whether or not they care to admit it.

Reading Linda's book, Ordeal, which chronicles her life as she was pimped by her abusive husband, Chuck Traynor, and trafficked to make pornography, changed my life. It certainly changed the way I thought about pornography. It made me realize that pornography happens, literally, to those used to make it. It isn't harmless. It isn't make-believe. Lovelace, based on Linda's account of her life, is a beautifully done, superbly acted film. I hope everyone will see it. Hopefully, it will advance the understanding of what pornography really is -- and what it is that it does -- in important ways. But the film presents its own challenges. For one thing, Linda's life was not the screen's fiction. One only gets a clear picture of the torture she endured at the hands of the pornography industry by reading Ordeal. One understands, of course, that the filmmakers could not make a movie showing just how horrible Linda's life was actually made by pornography and domestic violence. The fact of the matter is that the same sort of chic detachment from reality that made Deep Throat into a 600 million dollar phenomenon had to be maintained in the Hollywood version of Linda's real life. As Catharine MacKinnon recently said in reference to the film, "apparently, when you make fact into fiction, people begin to believe it is true." That's true, but only so long as the fiction doesn't get too real.

Even so, Lovelace does more than any mainstream effort I know of to debunk the myth that pornography is just a fantasy. This portrayal of Linda's life demonstrates, without equivocation, that what you see happening in pornography is happening to a real, living, breathing woman. And Lovelace also makes clear that just because she looks like she's enjoying it doesn't mean that she really is. Critically, Lovelace pulls back the curtain on the pornography industry to reveal what's going on out of range of the camera. One of the things that made Deep Throat into such a tremendous success was that Linda Lovelace appeared to be the girl next door. She seemed innocent, a little naïve, on screen. And most important of all was the convincing smile that let her viewers know that she was enjoying it. It was Linda's ability to be convincing that allowed the well-heeled, business types who took their wives and girlfriends to see Deep Throat to say to these appropriated women: "Linda enjoys it. If you really loved me, you'd enjoy it, too." Linda said in Ordeal, as we see in Lovelace, that she was threatened with a gun by her husband/pimp, and in some cases even hypnotized to do what was necessary. I've often thought it was a terribly cruel response by so many civil libertarian defenders of pornography to disbelieve Linda simply because she managed to be a convincing actress when a gun was pointed at her head.

As much as it's defended as fantasy, pornography is also defended as "free speech" -- equal in abstraction to fantasy but legally sacrosanct. Undoubtedly, Deep Throat came with a message. The whole film is built on the premise of a young girl who, by some accident of birth, finds her clitoris in her throat. She is sexually liberated only when she discovers the joys of oral sex. So the message of Deep Throat to the boys watching and the girls cajoled to do what they saw Linda doing is that women get pleasure from oral sex -- more broadly, that women really do get pleasure from sexual acts that really aren't pleasurable for them at all. The message of Deep Throat is thus male supremacy's message: No means Yes; she really likes it even when she says she doesn't. Delving a little deeper, one could fairly observe that the message of Deep Throat is that a woman who doesn't enjoy sex with men has something wrong with her and must be cured by some enterprising man (in Deep Throat, it's the doctor who discovers that Linda's clitoris is in her throat). Deep Throat, like society generally, doesn't contemplate that something might be wrong with the men and with what men have done to sex.

The principal conceit of the liberal lawyers of the ACLU-variety who are the main allies of the pornography industry is that women like Linda -- the few women who survive to tell their stories -- speak only for themselves. They think nothing of, and concede no legal meaningfulness to, the women who can't speak, or those who, when they do speak, are not believed. As Lovelace shows, one of the preconditions for the kind of violence Linda Boreman endured is that the victim is cut off from any system of support. Lovelace shows how Chuck Traynor systematically alienated Linda from her friends and from an already largely unsupportive family. Linda's telling of her story nearly cost her her life, because it meant she had to escape from pornography to do it. When you watch Lovelace you can't help but wonder if Linda wasn't wondering what there was left to escape to.

The film Deep Throat made around $600 million for the pornographers. Linda was paid just over $1,200, none of which she actually received. Her pimp husband kept the money for himself. By what sane approach to the law is this kind of "speech" free? Therein lies the central problem with the liberal approach to freedom of expression: it proceeds from a position that holds everybody basically already equal and possessed of equal access to speech and its world-making possibilities. In America, where politics is virtually synonymous with consumerism, we have the clever metaphor of the "marketplace of ideas" to explain this liberal system. But Americans have learned -- as the world has -- over the past several years that the marketplace doesn't work all that well when a few people with a lot of power systematically exploit and abuse the rest of us with impunity. Linda's story reveals the same failings in the liberal conceptualization of pornography as speech. Incidentally, the pornographers sued for an injunction to stop the release of Lovelace. Evidently, the pornographers, with their endless supply of blood money to fund "free speech" initiatives, only like speech they can control.

There has been only one attempt in the law to take pornography seriously. In 1983, Catharine MacKinnon and the late Andrea Dworkin authored a law to help Linda and those like her. Their civil rights ordinance, first written for Minneapolis but adopted or considered in other jurisdictions, recognized pornography as a concrete practice of sex discrimination and gave victims harmed in and through pornography access to a civil remedy they could seek for themselves. MacKinnon and Dworkin said emphatically through their law that women's bodies are not words, and that the fortunes of pimps and pornographers are not more important than women's lives. When you get right down to it, the pornography civil rights ordinance marked a rare moment in the law when women's lives and their rights to bodily integrity were discernibly more important than the male erection. Perhaps not surprisingly, then, the MacKinnon/Dworkin ordinance was struck down as unconstitutional in American Booksellers v. Hudnut (7th Cir. 1985). Shortly after the release of Lovelace, I told Professor MacKinnon that women, men, and children injured through pornography need a law like the one she wrote now more than ever, because thanks to the Internet, the pornography industry is bigger and, in fact, crueler than ever. We need a fresh approach to pornography and its harms, and there is absolutely no reason the MacKinnon/Dworkin approach couldn't be found constitutional today. We need to say, once again, that women matter. The question Lovelace raises at this moment, when pornography is more normalized and more powerful than ever, is: who will have the courage to say it?

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