Defending the L‑word
Nadine Strossen heads what may be the most vilified institution in the country. Patrick Cooke talks to the president of the ACLU about sex, censorship, and regressive feminism.
December 1992

Strossen, with ever‑present computer, at her country home in Putnam County, New York.

When a mugger hit on Nadine Strossen in the New York City subway a couple of years ago, no one would have blamed her had she experienced a predictable conversion: open-minded liberal turns hang‑'em‑high conservative. Not this liberal, though. "As the cops were hauling the guy away," the victim cheerfully recalls, "I reminded them that the accused has rights just like anybody else."

Anyone meeting urban brutality with that sort of supernatural fair‑mindedness probably deserves the title of president of the American Civil Liberties Union. For almost two years, Strossen has presided over this organization, which for seventy‑two years has sought to safeguard the individual rights of American citizens. With six thousand cases pending in fifty‑one affiliates nationwide, the ACLU is the nation's biggest law firm; Strossen, forty‑two, is both the youngest person to hold the top position and the first woman.

By all accounts, she was born for the job. Aggressive but compassionate, focused but laid‑back, refined but street smart (despite the subway incident), she has a passion for the Bill of Rights and a knack for getting that document's finer points across without reducing it to sound bites. Mercifully, she neither swings placards at the multitudes nor blows bullhorns in their ears. Spreading the gospel is a matter of steady, unrelenting persuasion.

Strossen regards her mission as an especially urgent one today: in the past decade the ACLU has fought (and often lost) battles in an increasingly conservative Supreme Court involving unrestricted access to abortion, race relations, prisoners' rights, and the death penalty. This election year the ACLU took snide shots from George Bush, while Democratic candidates at all levels, fearful of appearing too liberal, largely ignored the civil liberties issues that traditionally have been rallying points for the party.

Of course, the ACLU has never won any popularity contests. The organization fought the first Supreme Court abortion battles in the 1960s, defended the American Nazi party in its 1977 attempt to march in Skokie, Illinois, and argued on behalf of Joyce Brown, the mentally ill homeless woman who refused hospitalization, insisting she had the right to live on the streets of New York City. More recently the ACLU worked to block a constitutional amendment banning the burning of the American flag. Throughout most of this century it has defended, but also offended, just about everybody.

"You'd be surprised how many audiences are openly hostile to me ‑they think I'm the devil incarnate," Strossen says. "Antireligion, antifamily, anticommunity ... pro‑pimps, pro‑prostitutes, pro‑criminals…”

And these days, "pro‑pornographers." In a debate last spring with former Reagan attorney general Edwin Meese III at Central Missouri State University, for example, the audience wasn't openly hostile, but neither did they seem particularly warm. The night's topic was censorship, specifically the banning of what Strossen demurely terms "sexually explicit works" and what Meese snarls is porn. Celebrated cases like those involving the homoerotic photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe and the explicit lyrics of 2 Live Crew have made censorship a blistering civil liberties issue. But it seemed a particularly sensitive subject in the heartland, where folks seldom allow their eyes to wander below the buckle of the Bible Belt.

Meese, like a figure from the Old Testament, sternly gazed down upon his flock and began to preach. "People should be able to determine the kind of society in which they live, and that includes the publishing of certain kinds of material," he said, to approving applause. "The Supreme Court has said that pornography is so far out of bounds it is offensive to community standards."

"The Constitution says that government may not censor speech merely because the majority disagrees with it," Strossen replied gamely in a firm, steady voice when it was her turn to speak. "The whole point of the Bill of Rights," she went on, "is to prevent the tyranny of the majority. If a right could be voted away by individual communities, there'd be no such thing as a right."

Calls for an outright ban of sexually explicit material have long come from conservative quarters both inside and outside of government, although the First Amendment has been able to fend off wholesale prohibition of such works. Even Meese's 1980s commission on pornography was unable to mount an effective argument for shutting down the porn business.

A few years ago, however, a number of radical feminists began adding their voices to the debate, arguing that pornography isn't speech at all but conduct, and that such conduct is violent, discriminatory, dangerous, and degrading to women. "Pornography, in the feminist view," law professor Catharine MacKinnon has written, "is a form of forced sex." Author Andrea Dworkin calls pornographers "the secret police of male supremacy: keeping women subordinate through intimidation and assault."

It's a view that has gained acceptance with the ascension of groups like the Women's Alliance Against Pornography and Pornography Awareness ‑and has earned Strossen and the ACLU some new enemies. "I debated Nadine Strossen last year and I don't trust her in the least," says Norma Ramos, general counsel of the ten-thousand‑member, New York City‑based Women Against Pornography. "She is profoundly supportive of pornography, which is clearly a system of prostitution.

The ACLU is still very much a white male‑dominated organization that uses its women to further its antifeminist agenda. When Strossen became an apologist for the pornographers, she passed their litmus test to become president."

"That's nonsense," says Strossen, clearly steamed, but resisting the temptation to use an earthier description. "First of all, the ACLU takes no position for or against the actual content of a publication; we neutrally defend the right to engage in speech. Second, the ACLU has always been a significant force in litigating for women's rights ‑we've handled 80 percent of the reproductive rights cases nationwide since the early seventies." Strossen herself spends at least as much time speaking on women's issues as she does about free speech.

Strossen acknowledges that, while some women may be coerced into the pornography business, the industry is far from a slave trade. "Norma Ramos once said to me that I was the most patronizing person she'd ever met. Well, I think it's patronizing to assume that no woman is capable of voluntarily entering the sex industry. I know women who've gone into the business who thought it was a perfectly legitimate way to make a living, less demeaning in fact than some other jobs women fill in this society. There are a lot of women who actually rent and enjoy X‑rated videos. Personally, I find the pictures of the kind in Playboy attractive and erotic. The other end of the scale ‑the photos that mix eroticism and violence ‑ I find unappealing, but those have much more to do with violence than eroticism.

"My view of feminism is that we should not see sex as something that's inherently degrading to us, and that we can be sexual actors and not just victims."

Strossen's office at the New York University Law School is a cluttered room with tall windows overlooking the drab streets of Manhattan's Tribeca. For several weeks she's been on the road for the ACLU but has returned today, as she regularly does during the school year, to teach law classes. It's a hectic morning, but Strossen, dressed in a black leather jumpsuit, suede boots, and an abundance of stylish jewelry, appears refreshed. She is able to hold down what amounts to two full‑time jobs, she says, because she's married to "a saint," which is how she characterizes her husband of twelve years, Eli Noam, an economics professor at Columbia University's Graduate School of Business.

Strossen, who began volunteering on ACLU cases straight out of law school in 1975, always had a good idea of where she was headed. In high school in suburban Minneapolis, she was the sort who kept student activities humming along productively while the rest of us were smoking in the bathrooms. "Even as a child she always had a soft spot for the underdog," says her seventy‑year‑old father, Woodrow, an immigrant to the United States who spent World War II in a forced‑labor camp, where he was imprisoned for anti‑Hitler activities. (He renamed himself Woodrow in honor of President Wilson and says he is far more conservative than the ACLU.) He describes his daughter as always "very competitive, very ambitious."

Yet Strossen never felt particularly encouraged to pursue a career. "I didn't know any female lawyers," she remembers. "I didn't think it was even possible. I remember saying to the guys on the debate team" ‑Strossen was its only female‑ 'Gee, the law would be such a wonderful career. You should go off to Harvard and become lawyers.”

In the end it was she who went to Harvard. After graduating Phi Beta Kappa from Radcliffe, Strossen attended Harvard Law School, where she was an editor of the Law Review and active in student women's groups. Knowing how difficult it was for women to be taken seriously in those years may explain why she resists being drawn into a more‑feminist‑than‑thou rivalry. In any case, she has bigger things to worry about. For example, two-thirds of the respondents to a recent American Bar Association poll said they didn't know what the Bill of Rights was. "People knew it had something to do with government, but not much beyond that."

And so the message she carries from coast to coast is largely a remedial one. Censorship, she reminds her audiences, doesn't make ugly opinions go away, it merely drives them underground, where they cannot be flushed out by open discussion. Societies that stop talking, stop evolving.

What Strossen finds especially troubling today is the trend to circumvent this rationale for free speech by linking pornography with violence. This year, the Canadian Supreme Court, in upholding its obscenity laws, agreed with the budding viewpoint that pornography harms women by leading to violence and discrimination, and ruled that it may, under certain circumstances, be banned. Pornography opponents in this country hope that the Canadian example will spur the enactment of similar laws here.

This past summer, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted on a bill based on the same theory. The Pornography Victims Compensation Act, Strossen explains, would enable someone who claims to be the victim of a sexual assault to sue a writer, bookseller, exhibitor, or distributor of sexually explicit material that the jury finds contributed to the crime. Although the bill allows for suits only against convicted pornographers, Strossen warns that such an approach could drive legitimate artists out of business or underground; others would be so intimidated that they would voluntarily stop creating provocative work. Either way, bookstore and video‑store owners, fearful themselves of prosecution, would be in no mood to stock anything these artists created.

To some degree those fears are already being realized on a state level. Last summer Washington state enacted a statute criminalizing the sale of "erotic music" to minors. "Retailers have stopped selling recordings and artists have been pressured to change their lyrics," says Strossen. (The ACLU is representing Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Heart, Sir Mix‑A‑Lot, and several other bands challenging this law.)

According to Strossen, the public often misinterprets such laws as a way to rid the country of smut. When the Pornography Victims Compensation Act was debated in the Judiciary Committee, for example ‑the same august consortium of gray suits that presided over the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings‑ Senator Howell Heflin reportedly told fellow committee members that he was daily receiving boxes of postcards from entire churches back home in Alabama demanding that he vote for the "anti-pornography" bill. It passed the committee by a vote of seven to six. (Because the bill did not reach the Senate floor this session, it will have to be reintroduced in 1993.)

Apart from the fact that a link between pornography and violence against women is far from proven, Strossen complains that such laws go after the wrong people. The more time you spend prosecuting writers and distributors of sexually explicit work, intending to protect women from rape, the less time and money you actually spend catching rapists. And if you toss writers and video store owners in jail alongside rapists, doesn't that rather devalue the heinousness of rape? "It's a sideshow," says Strossen, who helped form an organization, Feminists for Free Expression, to fight what they view as regressive dogma. "This law is paternalistic toward women; it doesn't advance women's equality and in fact undermines women's interests."

Indeed, after the Canadian Supreme Court upheld the nation's pornography restrictions, the very first charges brought were against a lesbian magazine. "Not surprisingly, to the local law enforcement authorities, these images ‑and not violent misogynistic images‑ were seen as degrading or demeaning to women and hence subject to censorship," she says.

"What you buy with laws like these is the illusion that government is doing something. What you trade for the illusion of action is your freedom. You know," she continues, "many members of Congress who are the most interested in censoring sexually explicit speech because they want to protect women and children are the ones who never support family leave, child care, welfare programs, antidiscrimination legislation, the kinds of things that actually help women and children. We need to look at the root causes of these problems."

If that sounds like it might one day make a fine stump speech delivered by, say, a bright, attractive, charismatic young female candidate at a time when the call is going out for more women to enter public office, well ... you can forget it. Strossen claims no political ambitions.

"I don't presume to know her mind on such things," says one longtime friend, "but Nadine would be invaluable in politics."

"No ambitions at all," Strossen asserts, and her firm, impassive gaze seems to suggest she means it. But then, don't they always say that?

Strossen will say only that five to ten years seems about the right length of time to serve with the ACLU, waging its wars as president. After that, who knows? She's been toying with the idea of one day writing and producing a one-woman play.

And what will she write about?

Anything she wants to…