Wednesday’s Book Review: “Sex, Sin, and Blasphemy”

Sex, Sin, and BlasphemySex, Sin, and Blasphemy: A Guide to America’s Censorship Wars. By Marjorie Heins. New York: The New Press, 1998 second edition.

This author served as the director of the Arts Censorship Project for the American Civil Liberties Union between 1991 and 1998. This account is a telling of numerous censorship battles in the 1990s to which she was a party. Marjorie Heins discusses the assault on the First Amendment by the political right from the 1970s on as it sought to control expression. This is not the first instance of such efforts, nor was it the last; but the rising American right that came to political power in the 1980s flexed its muscle to control artistic expression in ways not previously seen. At least that’s the position of the author.

This is an advocacy book more than anything else; not anything approaching an historical analysis. In a new introduction and eight chapters Heins explores the nature of obscenity, the role of movies in shaping culture, the power of government officials and threats of censorship, and the place of nudity, pornography, and blasphemy in modern American society. She focuses on individual battles most of the time; sometimes she backs away to look at broader trends.

Especially fascinating was Heins’s analysis of the anti-pornography crusade of Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin, two feminists who believed pornography was demeaning to women and an objectification of a female body. The fascinating part of this story is that the campaign they championed, while not intended as anything that would support a conservative political agenda, fell into a larger effort to control women’s bodies, to impose a morality lost in time and space, and to ensure that women remain second-class citizens. As Heins concluded: “Suppressing sexual fantasies—or insisting on politically correct ones—is bad politics, bad feminism, and a bad idea” (p. 164.)

Heins argues that “Most Americans agree with the principle of free expression, but rebel when it comes to words and ideas we find heinous or hateful” (p. 188). While understandable, the populace can never let down a guard to forces of censorship. It is critical, according to Heins, that we all must remain vigilant to protect the speech that we hate. That is the only way to preserve the First Amendment.

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