Anti-Choice Imagery


This is a response to a display of anti-choice materials at Trent University’s Otonabee College some months ago (as well as the long ago debate about the denial of club status to an anti-choice group, Trent Lifeline). It’s conclusions, I think, can be mobilized to address similar situations in other institutions.

I returned to Frances Ferguson’s Pornography, The Theory (2004) and found the book’s central argument compelling. It does not oppose itself to ideology – we’re stuck in some version of libertarianism for now – but takes up its terms, uses the language of the Master so to speak, to discuss literary pornography in the bulk of its chapters, but first works out a theory of pornography that can be applied to images. Her work is without a political pole, or better, is not oppositional to a particular pole (unless one was to naively think that any insistence upon women’s equality is a radical and leftist feminism).

Ferguson’s project is to analyze pornography from the majoritarian politico-ethical foundation: Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarianism. Bentham, through Ferguson, held fast to a framework of equality. His Panoptic model, when applied to social structures such as the workplace and school, was an effort to ensure that any individual, regardless of class, race, and/or gender, could be equally evaluated according to his or her abilities and performance in a common activity, and individuals want to participate in this ranking because it is life-enriching – in part because it is inclusion in a group. In different words, an individual is ensured his or her right to visibility since this model compared and ranked individuals according to their observable behaviour. For example, a young girl in a school structured on this evaluative model could be observed as being equal to or better than the boys in terms of her performance – there is no question, then, as to her abilities, and at least in the classroom, equality is attained. In Bentham’s model individual identity and individual beliefs are effectively replaced by the fostering of observable participation in an artificial environment, thus resulting in a heightened inclusion into a group which one does not already belong (the school is a social construction; gender identity is suppressed for evaluative and ranking purposes; a girl then becomes a member of the group of students who are ranked according to their individual abilities). Bentham’s model should sound, and look, quite familiar, both theoretically and when we consider the ways contemporary institutions operate. From here we move on to pornographic images.

Ferguson argues that Catharine A. MacKinnon’s only tenable claim against pornography is from the standpoint of sexual harassment. An image should be restricted not because of its content, but because of its use by one individual (or group) to deny an individual’s (or group’s) access to evaluative and life-affirming social structures (for ease of discussion, Ferguson names the workplace and school). Ferguson is worth quoting at length here:

Like a variation on irony, with its rehearsal of the same words with a different meaning from that which they have previously carried, the harassing image is harassing not so much because of its content, what it says, but rather because it uses an image as conspicuous expression of the difference between the parties who view it. A pornographic image need not be offensive in itself, need not even be sexually explicit, to be used in harassment. It need only be used as an ostensive definition of an individual’s difference from the other members of a group.

Pornography may be used for masturbatory purposes, may serve as fodder for the beliefs of sexist men and in some instances serve as material which promotes or instigates violence and rape, and it may require coerced performances from its actresses (MacKinnon’s arguments against pornography), but each claim is untenable given the complex and unsound premises necessary for their justification. Therefore pornography, given these impossible to complete arguments, does not warrant censorship – it is difficult to believe, either generally or rhetorically, that these claims are true without exception.

Ferguson is more interested in how pornography is used in a particular context and truly becomes actionable. Consider, within the context of a social structure, one individual forcing another individual to view pornographic images in an effort to assert difference (in the simplest case, a male employee showing a female employee an image which, in words or in gesture, suggests the woman is or should act “like this”), thereby bringing individual identity (gender) into a social structure which had previously guaranteed equal access to it (by objectively ranking and evaluating individuals who participated according to their legal right). When an image is used in this way, in Ferguson’s adopted terms set out by majoritarian politics, it is harassment and should be restricted in its use. That is, the image itself does not demand or command censorship, only its use by a particular individual or group to assert difference – we may want to call such a use, in MacKinnon’s language, subordination.

Given the recent controversy over the campaigning and distribution of anti-choice materials in schools and other public-access institutions (information and materials intended to persuade women, and men, to bring fetuses to term rather than abort – effectively an attempt to question the legitimacy of women’s and men’s past, present, and future decision-making regarding their personal reproductive rights, and further, limit the extent to which women can exert their free will and free choice over matters concerning their bodies), Ferguson’s analysis finds a useful application.

The materials and groups that have promoted and continue to promote “Glad you were born” masquerade as anti-choice activism. The materials with the text and imagery on the theme of “Glad you were born” will, for the person acquainted with anti-choice activism, be synonymous with texts and imagery on sexual freedom, fetuses, and reproductive rights. These materials serve, in Ferguson’s argument, to reflect a difference between the individuals who compose the anti-choice group and the respective targets of their activism (mostly women, but certainly if a man is persuaded by anti-choice materials he too can question, if not be an authority, on a woman’s free choice to bring a fetus to term – certainly anti-choice activists would not target any institution on directly economic issues, individual’s and couple’s financial status of course being the neglected factor in anti-choice campaigns).

My contentious claim: Anti-choice materials are pornographic under a utilitarian politico-ethical structure when they are brought into an institution where differences of belief have been suspended for the purposes of evaluating and ranking individuals in an effort to establish equality through individuals’ respective abilities. By allowing the anti-choice activists access to a school space in which they can uncover and identify (interpellate?) individuals who disagree with the anti-choice position, individuals who have had an abortion, or individuals who want to leave the question of abortion open, Otonabee College has allowed one group to display and assert differences between individuals based on their beliefs and/or their prior exertion of their free will and free choice (to bring a fetus to term or not) and, in no small way, via the images and texts on display, visibly or invisibly harass them about their respective political views and/or prior behaviours.

I am claiming an equivalence between “Glad you were born” materials with anti-choice materials. When either type of material is forced upon an individual within the institution of the school, it attains the status of a harassing image, for certain rights to evaluation without presupposing one’s identity, gender, beliefs, etc., had been guaranteed. If an individual is barred access to the institution by other individuals confronting him or her with such an image, in the utilitarian view, it requires restriction. Consider the person whom is incapable of attending class lest their prior decision to abort be questioned by the anti-choice activists campaigning out front their classroom. In this instance, the school has therefore violated the rights that they had previously established, unanimously and univocally (all individuals have access to the school, access to an evaluative and ranking system whereby their religion, beliefs, gender, etc., do not reflect the evaluation and ranking they are able to receive based on their individual capacities).

Text and imagery are actionable, are part of speech. It is not up to the individual to secure his or her own rights and freedoms at an institution; that institution had promised an access free of prejudice and Otonabee has violated this access to a building free from an assertion of difference through the allowance, and worse, the promotion of harassing text and images.

I have hopefully hinted at how a politically right-wing problem (anti-choice activism) necessitates its own restriction based on right-wing terms (the institutional agreement to a utilitarian foundation).[1] I have also shown the complications involved when individuals resort to the position of free speech to remain politically neutral or indifferent to the harassing image (until it harasses them). Together, these three issues – anti-choice activism, Benthamite utilitarianism, and free speech – reveal inherent contradictions when they are simultaneously produced, promoted, and accepted without critical thinking. Indeed, the latter political issue (free speech) is frequently restricted at universities for the very reasons presented above. Why the anti-choice campaign was allowed, despite the utilitarian principles Trent University operates upon, needs to be addressed by the administration.



[1] Of course we may not agree that all politically right-wing foundations are anti-choice. I generalize here.