Lately, feminist activists are organizing against a litany of misogynist Facebook pages that glorify violence against women or treat it as a joke, pages with names like “Raping Your Girlfriend” and “Fly Kicking Sluts in the Uterus.” The activists’ primary tactics include making specific demands for changes to Facebook’s moderation policy and “calling on Facebook users to contact advertisers whose ads on Facebook appear next to content that targets women for violence, to ask these companies to withdraw from advertising on Facebook” until those demands are met. It’s a good example of how boycotts and other market activism can power the fight against bigotry.
But this campaign is illustrative for another reason. Facebook is under fire not just for permitting misogynistic speech that condones violence, but for banning speech far more innocuous. As Soraya Chemaly, Jaclyn Friedman and Lauren Bates explain in their open letter to the company:
These [misogynistic] pages and images are approved by your moderators, while you regularly remove content such as pictures of women breastfeeding, women post-mastectomy and artistic representations of women’s bodies. In addition, women’s political speech, involving the use of their bodies in non-sexualized ways for protest, is regularly banned as pornographic, while pornographic content — prohibited by your own guidelines — remains. It appears that Facebook considers violence against women to be less offensive than non-violent images of women’s bodies, and that the only acceptable representation of women’s nudity are those in which women appear as sex objects or the victims of abuse. Your common practice of allowing this content by appending a [humor] disclaimer to said content literally treats violence targeting women as a joke.
This is truly a vile double standard. It treats women’s bodies as more offensive than violence against women. It treats rape and domestic violence as less objectionable than women breastfeeding.
What we should keep in mind, however, is that this double standard did not start with Facebook. The same double standard has been promoted for more than a century as part of US law. One of the few exceptions to the First Amendment that the US government recognizes is an exception for “obscenity.” The US government claims the power to prosecute and incarcerate people for speech and expression it deems legally “obscene.” Historically this has meant targeting sexual expression.
In 1873, Anthony Comstock convinced Congress to pass the Comstock Law, banning “obscene, lewd, or lascivious” content from the mails. Moses Harman, publisher of anarchist feminist journal Lucifer the Lightbearer, was jailed multiple times under Comstock’s reign, because his periodical featured “obscene” advocacy of birth control and free love. Margaret Sanger was similarly charged with obscenity for distributing information about contraception. The Comstock Law was used to punish practically anyone who sent information about contraception or criticism of marital rape through the post.
Obscenity law has changed a lot since the days of the Comstock. In 1973, in Miller v. California, the Supreme Court affirmed that “Obscene material is not protected by the First Amendment” but narrowed the definition of obscenity, defining speech as obscene based on the following criteria:
(a) whether “the average person, applying contemporary community standards” would find that the work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest (b) whether the work depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by the applicable state law, and (c) whether the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value
“Prurient interest” refers to sexual arousal. So the US government claims the power to use force and violence to censor speech based on it being sexually arousing, “offensive,” and lacking “serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.” This provides justification for the US government to censor completely non-violent pictures of naked bodies. As John Stoltenberg writes, “obscenity laws are constructed on the presumption that it is women’s bodies that are dirty, that women’s bodies are the filth.”
Based on the Miller test, US courts have also ruled that government censorship of sexist material is unconstitutional. Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon’s Civil Rights Antipornography Ordinance was ruled unconstitutional in part because “The Indianapolis ordinance does not refer to the prurient interest, to offensiveness, or to the standards of the community.” Instead, the statute referenced objectification of women, degradation of women, and portrayal of violence against women.
The American legal system believes that the state has more legitimate interest in stopping people from being sexually aroused than in countering sexism or violence. Don’t you think those are bizarre priorities?
As a matter of principle, the state should have no power to censor. Furthermore, the state’s backwards priorities present a good argument for its abolition. In addition to abolishing the state, we should seek to stop its toxic and bigoted standards from defining the privately run social media spaces we use.