FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

When It Comes to Misogyny, Facebook Learned from the US Government

by NATHAN GOODMAN

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.

Nathan Goodman is a writer and activist living in Salt Lake City, Utah. He has been involved in LGBT, feminist, anti-war, and prisoner solidarity organizing. In addition to writing at the Center for a Stateless Society, he blogs at Dissenting Leftist.

Nathan Goodman is the Lysander Spooner Research Scholar in Abolitionist Studies at the Center for a Stateless Society (C4SS.org). He blogs at Dissenting Leftist.

More articles by:
May 23, 2016
Conn Hallinan
European Union: a House Divided
Paul Buhle
Labor’s Sell-Out and the Sanders Campaign
Uri Avnery
Israeli Weimar: It Can Happen Here
John Stauber
Why Bernie was Busted From the Beginning
James Bovard
Obama’s Biggest Corruption Charade
Joseph Mangano – Janette D. Sherman
Indian Point Nuclear Plant: It Doesn’t Take a Meltdown to Harm Local Residents
Desiree Hellegers
“Energy Without Injury”: From Redwood Summer to Break Free via Occupy Wall Street
Lawrence Davidson
The Unraveling of Zionism?
Patrick Cockburn
Why Visa Waivers are Dangerous for Turks
Robert Koehler
Rethinking Criminal Justice
Lawrence Wittner
The Return of Democratic Socialism
Ha-Joon Chang
What Britain Forgot: Making Things Matters
John V. Walsh
Only Donald Trump Raises Five “Fundamental and Urgent” Foreign Policy Questions: Stephen F. Cohen Bemoans MSM’s Dismissal of Trump’s Queries
Andrew Stewart
The Occupation of the American Mind: a Film That Palestinians Deserve
Nyla Ali Khan
The Vulnerable Repositories of Honor in Kashmir
Weekend Edition
May 20, 2016
Friday - Sunday
Rob Urie
Hillary Clinton and Political Violence
Andrew Levine
Why Not Hillary?
Paul Street
Hillary Clinton’s Neocon Resumé
Chris Floyd
Twilight of the Grifter: Bill Clinton’s Fading Powers
Eric Mann
How We Got the Tanks and M-16s Out of LA Schools
Jason Hirthler
The West’s Needless Aggression
Dan Arel
Why Hillary Clinton’s Camp Should Be Scared
Robert Hunziker
Fukushima Flunks Decontamination
David Rosen
The Privatization of the Public Sphere
Margaret Kimberley
Obama’s Civil Rights Hypocrisy
Pete Dolack
We Can Dream, or We Can Organize
Chris Gilbert
Corruption in Latin American Governments
Dan Kovalik
Colombia: the Displaced & Invisible Nation
Jeffrey St. Clair
Fat Man Earrings: a Nuclear Parable
Medea Benjamin
Israel and Saudi Arabia: Strange Bedfellows in the New Middle East
Ted Rall
Trump Isn’t Bluffing, He’ll Deport 11 Million People
Kent Paterson
Death in a Shopping Aisle: Jonathan Sorensen’s Fatal Encounter with Kmart
Clancy Sigal
Trump’s Rasputin: What the Donald Learned From Roy Cohn
Lisa Sullivan
Venezuela’s Crisis From Up Close
Manuel E. Yepe
Think Tanks and the US Power Elite
Kathleen Wallace
$25 vs $30, Hats Off to the Two-Party System!
Terry Simons
Mob Politics: the Democrats Have a Problem and It’s Not the Sandernistas
Franklin Lamb
U.S. Financial Regulations Increase Starvation Among Syria’s Children
James Cronin
The Pope and Mercy: the Catholic Church has not Abandoned Its 400 Year War on Science
Linn Washington Jr.
Islamophobia on the Rise in England
Thomas Mountain
25 Years of Struggle Building Socialism in Eritrea; Fighting the Cancer of Corruption
David Wilson
Who Speaks for the Refugee Children of Calais?
Michael Welton
Terry Eagleton: the Cheeky Marxist
David Mattson
Disserving the Public Trust: the Despotic Future of Grizzly Bear Management
Rick Sterling
Bernie Comes to Vallejo
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail