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Sex, Porn, and Prostitution

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Scarlot Harlot says she came to town to participate in an antipornography conference at the University of Chicago. Now she's protesting it. At lunchtime, on the first full day of the weekend meeting, she is parading on the sunny plaza in front of the law school in full view of the audience gathered inside for a panel discussion on "Freedom of Expression." She is fortyish and fleshy, done up like a clown in a dress made of an American flag and a bright red feather boa and hat. A few greenbacks are tucked into her deep decolletage.

Scarlot is the alter ego of Carol Leigh, a self-proclaimed San Francisco prostitute who is also a writer, performance artist, actress, and moviemaker. Today, like a mother hen with a retinue of chicks, she has a following: six or eight fresh-faced young women in black net stockings and spiky boots and skirts that barely kiss their crotches, carrying signs that say "Sluts United" and "Whore Power."

But, it turns out, they are not whores. Just graduate students playing dress up, "showing solidarity with sex trade workers," as English major Beth Freeman puts it. "The legislation this conference is promoting will be repressive," she explains. "A blow job is better than no job."

Scarlot climbs on a bench and begins to read from a book of her own poems, her feathers ruffling in the breeze: "I love the ones who pay," she says. "Cheap is when you fuck them just to shut them up....Cheap is when you want less than pleasure, a baby, or a hundred dollars."

The real prostitutes are inside, mixing it up with the academics at the conference, "Speech, Equality and Harm: Feminist Legal Perspectives on Pornography and Hate Propaganda." Their leader, Evelina Giobbe, once a performer in porn films, now heads a Minnesota-based organization WHISPER--Women Hurt in Systems of Prostitution Engaged in Revolt. She says prostitution is a $40 million a day business that exploits the young (more than half of all street prostitutes are under the age of 21), the poor, and women of color. "The fact that a john gives money to a woman or a child submitting to these acts does not alter the fact that he is committing child sexual abuse, rape, and battery," she says. As for pornography, it is "nothing more than the technological recycling of prostitution."

Academics at this meeting are gnashing teeth and splitting hairs over the difference between speech and act, erotica and pornography, correlation and cause. They are getting ready to kiss a traditional interpretation of the right to free speech good-bye, and most of their mostly female audience is eager to see it go. By lunchtime on the second day of the meeting, they've heard from some speakers that a man of conscience is an oxymoron; that we have a legal system built on women's status as chattel; that there is no such thing as erotica or consent in a patriarchy. Catharine MacKinnon has told them "the law's proper concern is not what speech says but what it does"--and what pornography does is give men erections. Her collaborator Andrea Dworkin has told them that "some consumers of porn write on bathroom walls, and some write judicial opinions." They are ready for action.

So when Nikki Craft asks for ten volunteers for her presentation on civil disobedience on the afternoon of the last day, twice that number leap, whooping, to the stage. Craft, a Californian, is founder of ACLU, an organization that she says just happens to have the same initials as the American Civil Liberties Union, those "defenders of pornographers, Nazis, KKK, and the tobacco industry." The full name for Craft's organization is Always Causing Legal Unrest. Its members have busied themselves with projects like publishing the names of all indicted sex offenders in Dallas, and keeping a photographic record of porn shop patrons, also for publication. Craft has been arrested 49 times. "Today," she says, "I want to talk about Madonna's new book. This is the worst mainstream porn I've ever seen."

Craft opens Madonna's metal-clad tome and reads from it: "Sex with the young can be fine, if you're in the right mood." She flips the pages--"a lot of whipping, a lot of chains, a lot of bondage"--then looks up, saying, "I just don't put up with those kinds of images anymore." All at once, she's tearing one clump of pages, then another, from the book, stuffing them in the hands of the women who have crowded around her on the stage. They hesitate for just a second, then set on the pages with a vengeance, ripping, shredding, tossing the ragged pieces into the air, while the rest of the audience breaks into wild applause. For a few frenzied moments, the air in front of the stage is thick with the scraps, chunky, jagged confetti, large and heavy.

And then it's over. The book's been destroyed. Craft is closing. "Start with the small things," she says. "Sticker some things. Move up to ripping up pornography. Kill a batterer if you get the opportunity. We support armed retaliation, the ACLU does."

She leaves them with a little prayer: "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the weaponry to make the difference."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Bill Stamets.

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