Our next story takes a look at a controversy that's been raging over the Internet. Here is "Her Turn" reporter Arlene Zaucha.
Arlene Zaucha: The Wisconsin Coalition Against Sexual Assault, or WCASA, invited noted feminist Andrea Dworkin to speak at their annual conference this fall, then disinvited her. The incident touched nerves on both sides. Charges and countercharges have been leveled and the debate has often deteriorated into personal attack, but the bigger questions remain: How does our anti-sexual-assault movement address the issues raised by survivors of pornography and prostitution? How do feminist organizations make decisions and are they accountable only to their members? What about accountability to grassroots supporters of member agencies and to other supporters of the national and international anti-sexual-assault movement? There is not much both sides agree on, starting with whether or not Andrea Dworkin was ever really invited by WCASA. Dworkin is a noted author and feminist theorist who over the last twenty years has given numerous lectures on the issue of violence against women. But although Dworkin received a letter of invitation from WCASA asking her to present the keynote speech at its conference, according to WCASA there was no formal agreement. Erin Thornley is WCASA's Executive Director:
Erin Thornley: We did talk to a variety of people much like when you're working with contractors when you're building a room on your house, not that I've ever done that, but I know because I watch "Home Improvement"...so I know that these things happen. And I know that you talk to various people and yes, it is true that we talked a great deal to her. We did want to bring her and it did get very close to--I don't know what I mean by very close. There were arrangements made, we were going to bring her and we just decided not to. It happens.
Arlene Zaucha: Was there at least a verbal agreement? Andrea Dworkin thought so; she says she worked out the details over the phone with staff member Jody Reddington then faxed a written contract to the group that outlined the agreement. Andrea Dworkin:
Andrea Dworkin: I expected to get it back within a day and that didn't happen. I got a call from Jody Reddington saying we're just trying to get some things solved, just hold on, I'll be sending it back to you in a couple of days. Then I came home one night and found a message on my machine from a man who identified himself as Louis Fortis. [He] said that under no circumstances would I speak at this conference because of my views on the First Amendment and because of my so-called notoriety.
Arlene Zaucha: Louis Fortis is chair of the board and only the board of directors can enter into a contract, says WCASA. Dworkin says it's ironic that someone like Fortis who claims to be in favor of free speech would not want her to speak because she's too controversial.
Andrea Dworkin: I am very disciplined in working for women and what I do is that I don't let controversy stop me from working for women. I think it's just exceptionally unfair to suggest that because there is controversy about me that that is a reason not to have me speak. To be told that by somebody, essentially, who claimed to be speaking in the name of civil liberties as a civil libertarian, which is the way Mr. Fortis identified himself to me, is beyond hypocrisy; it's close to being sinister.
Arlene Zaucha: In large part due to objections raised by Fortis, fellow board member Linda Selk-Yerges says, the WCASA board instructed its director, Erin Thornley, to make calls to others they respected in the movement to get their opinions about having Andrea Dworkin speak. Selk-Yerges, secretary of the board, explains what happened next:
Linda Selk-Yerges: We went into the executive session I'll have to say that three of us, three out of the four board members were "Yeah, let's bring her in; this would be really great to hear a national speaker on the whole issue." Then we really asked for, OK now, let's hear all the things that you found out, Erin, all the facts, and it came down to funding. It came down to the whole financial issue that WCASA is a business and it was a total business decision not to bring her.
Arlene Zaucha: Selk-Yerges says it was Louis Fortis who first, in her words, raised a red flag about Dworkin's appearance. A letter on the Internet signed by over 150 activists claims Fortis executed tyrannical power in the decision. Fortis comments:
Louis Fortis: I don't in any way apologize for expressing my opinion. I mean this is America; I have a right to do that. I don't understand how that could in any way be unethical. Finally, I don't control anyone. It's an insult to the other members of the board and the executive committee to think that I have some kind of magical powers over them.
Arlene Zaucha: But doesn't his position of authority confer a special status?
Louis Fortis: I am chair of the board and as chairman, chairperson of the board you certainly make recommendations and all. But Erin did admit that she also should have brought this to the board; she was real clear on that, that if you enter into a contract the board has to approve that. I expressed my opinions, no question about it and I expressed them very strongly at the board meeting. Then when we went to the executive committee I said very little.
Arlene Zaucha: WCASA says its decision to rescind the invitation to Dworkin was based in part on the fact that controversy surrounding Dworkin's work could jeopardize its fund-seeking efforts, but Dworkin says a feminist organization must not compromise its mission for the sake of running a business.
Andrea Dworkin: Rape prevention work shouldn't be run that way, it can't be run that way, it has to do with finding ways not only to help women who have been raped to survive and go on; but as the letter of invitation says: ending rape, I mean, that is our goal, to end rape. So the notion that it's a business before it's anything else, I think, is very wrong. The second thing is that as a business decision, it's a little screwy because I, it's a little uncomfortable for me to talk about, but I fill halls wherever I go. People come to hear me speak because I'm good at it and original and I say things that people want to hear and want to think about. So as a business decision, if that's what it was, it was a damn stupid one.
Arlene Zaucha: WCASA says that many of the people criticizing its decision don't have the full story and aren't members of WCASA. WCASA is made up of almost 200 member agencies and individuals, including almost 30 Rape Crisis Centers from around the state. Board president Louis Fortis:
Louis Fortis: I don't understand how these people--many of them are in California, I was told, and New York who are supporters of Ms. Dworkin who are demanding that WCASA pay $4,000 to Ms. Dworkin to come and speak. I do a lot of volunteer work. I make speeches around the country; I do a lot of them for nothing. When I'm working with an organization that I support and feel strongly about and know does not have a lot of money I don't demand $4,000 for speeches and things of that sort. I don't understand how this is any kind of censorship. Ms. Dworkin is free to speak anywhere she wants. It's just that WCASA is also free not to spend $4,000 on her, but in turn spend that $4,000 to provide scholarships.
Arlene Zaucha: Many of the signers of the protest letter are grassroots activists and believe their voices matter, too. Andrea Dworkin comments:
Andrea Dworkin: I think that there's always an attempt when women make money from the work that they do to suggest that there's something very greedy and very awful about that. So I just want to say that I make my living most of it lecturing, not writing. I don't make anything resembling not only what Ted Koppel or Jack Kemp make, but I don't make half of what Christie Heffner makes. So I think that WCASA's efforts to suggest that because money is involved here there's something wrong with me is very dishonorable. I think women should be treated with respect around their work and that includes being paid.
Arlene Zaucha: Dworkin says her work has often been mischaracterized as being pro-censorship by those who support the pornography industry.
Andrea Dworkin: There's nothing that we have done that in any way increases police power that sanctions prior restraint,which is actually the legal definition of censorship. In other words, I make a law that says you can't use the word "gray" and if you use the word "gray" I'm going to send the police in and they're going to arrest you. If you're found guilty you go to jail. This is nothing like that. This says that the plaintiff, the person bringing the lawsuit, has to prove that the harm was done to her. The burden of proof is on her.
Arlene Zaucha: But is WCASA ready to address the difficult issues that survivors of pornography and prostitution raise? Secretary of WCASA's board Linda Selk-Yerges says it's a matter of timing:
Linda Selk-Yerges: We all have to look at our own arenas and our own agencies and our own communities and work in those arenas and see what we can do. After we get older, and I'm speaking for myself as being our agency is only four years old, after we get our base established and our funding then we can start moving out a little bit and really start strongly going into things like pornography. Because for the moment funders out there are saying, "Oh, pornography," and some of them might say, "It's no big deal." Well, it is a big deal. However, what do we need to do first to bring them in and show them we are credible and they can trust us. Then we slowly but surely start eeking out a little bit and going, "Well, you know, there's another issue out here that's combined in this layer." So they're not ready. They're not ready for pornography yet, but they're going to be.
Arlene Zaucha: Selk-Yerges says the incident has diverted WCASA's attention from its mission to end sexual assault.
Linda Selk-Yerges: This whole controversy, it seems so trivial to the big message that we really need to be working on. We're all in the same book, we really need to get on the same page. Controversy is not bad, controversy is good, it's wake-up calls. But we have to make sure that we don't split hairs and split seams and move forward. Because it's things like this that delete our energy.
Arlene Zaucha: But some activists say they're the ones who have been deleted by the anti-rape movement. Chris Grussendorf is one of the organizers of the protest against WCASA. She says Dworkin's treatment by WCASA mirrors the treatment of women who have been exploited by pornographers in prostitution:
Chris Grussendorf: Women who have been used are on the margins of this community and they're very, very silent. I know a lot of survivors and they do not speak; it has a lot to do with the way Dworkin is treated. You're sitting in a group of people and they start slamming on Dworkin about these issues and you're a survivor of this, you're not going to say anything. Of course, that is what these pimps and pornographers set out to do. A pimp is not just someone standing on the street corner. These are white businessmen, these are legislators, these are professors. I mean, these are men in power, dignified men in power who are doing this as well as the stereotype of what a pimp is.
Arlene Zaucha: Some have argued that prostitution is just another way for women to make money. Some women have made big bucks in the industry. Grussendorf has heard this argument and asks this question:
Chris Grussendorf: What about all the women that they're standing on top of? What about all the women underneath them? What about all the women and children who are being hurt by this? They just kind of shrug their shoulders, because to some women in this movement the women who are used in prostitution and pornography don't mean anything. I'd say that we're at the very bottom of the heap. Not to mention that this is largely an issue of class and race, because 40 percent of women in prostitution are women of color. A large number of them are homeless; they're getting beaten and raped at a regular rate. It's not a career choice.
Arlene Zaucha: Ninety percent of prostitutes are survivors of incest or childhood sexual abuse, says Grussendorf. Pornography and prostitution are acts of oppression, according to Grussendorf, and she challenges everyone to work to end the exploitation.
Chris Grussendorf: Legislation is part of it, education is part of it, standing up to incidences in daily life is part of it, taking in the woman who is being beaten by her husband is part of it. Something that Rape Crisis Centers (and battered women shelters) really need to start doing is they need to start accepting women who are in prostitution. A lot of times they won't accept them because they're so afraid of the pimp. Rape Crisis Centers need to change their mission statements to include survivors of prostitution and pornography.
Arlene Zaucha: Rape Crisis Centers can play an important role in documenting the connection of pornography and rape, says Andrea Dworkin. She's asked centers to put a question on their intake forms about it.
Andrea Dworkin: The information that we have now is that pornography figures in the carrying out and the planning and the execution of a great many rapes. I will say that Rape Crisis Centers have been reluctant even to do that one thing, which is to ask about the role of pornography in rape in that victim's experience.
Arlene Zaucha: Rape Crisis Centers have not always done a good job of offering services for the survivors of pornography and prostitution, admits Becky Westerfelt. Westerfelt is the director of Madison's Rape Crisis Center. Madison's center is the oldest in the state and ten years ago wrote the original grant that formed WCASA.
Becky Westerfelt: What was valuable for all of us, WCASA and the member programs, is that the debate has said to us and I think maybe the larger women's community that we need to put the issue of pornography, the issue of victims of pornography and victims of prostitution back on the front burner. Perhaps we have not been most diligent as we need to be in talking about it.
Arlene Zaucha: But WCASA board president Louis Fortis is not convinced that rape and pornography are on the same continuum of violence against women.
Louis Fortis: If there is a relationship between pornography and prostitution or whatever, I mean, let's try to document that if it can be done. My understanding is most of the reputable studies that have been done have really come up with no conclusive evidence. I'm a researcher by training. I have a doctorate, so I've been trained in research skills. You look at the research and there isn't good research that shows a strong solid connection.
Arlene Zaucha: WCASA hopes it soon will be receiving a half-million-dollar grant to fund billboards, public service announcements, and future training sessions. The group is also recruiting new board members. Will WCASA ever re-invite Andrea Dworkin to speak in Wisconsin? It seems unlikely with the current sitting board. Andrea Dworkin comments:
Andrea Dworkin: I would never cross Wisconsin off of my map of the world. I feel very--I don't know what the word is--really touched and really moved and really proud that people have been standing up about this. Not just for me, I think for all of us. But it's a hard thing to do and I'm very grateful to them. So what I would say is that what I feel now is an obligation to those people who have stood up for me in this situation. They are the ones who have made certain demands about Mr. Fortis being fired, about an apology being extended to me. I would feel obligated to insist on the conditions that they are insisting on.
For "Her Turn," I'm Arlene Zaucha.
Louis Fortis, the Head of the Board of Directors at WCASA, has many business and legislative references and little to none anti-sexual-violence experience. He served as a State Assemblyman from 1986 to 1992. He was an adjunct professor of economic development at UW-Milwaukee; former executive director at the Wisconsin Community Development Finance Authority; president of Wisconsin Community Capital; economics professor at Smith College, high school teacher and VISTA volunteer. He was a member of the State Job Training Coordinating Council; member of the executive committee at Wisconsin Partnership for Housing Development; member of executive committee at Wisconsin Cooperative Development Council.
In 1991, Fortis was co-chairperson of Joint Survey Committee on Tax Exemptions, member of the Joint Committee for Review of Administrative Rules; member of Financial Institutions and Insurance; member of Environmental Resources, member of Utilities and Mining; member of Public Health Care Services and chairperson of its Subcommittee on a Wisconsin Health Insurance System.
In 1989, Fortis was the co-chairperson of the Joint Survey Committee on Debt Management; vice-chairperson of the Joint Committee for Review of Administrative Rules; vice chairperson of Financial Institutions and Insurance; member of Housing, Securities and Corporate Policy; chairperson of the Select Committee on Health Care Financing.
In 1987 he was vice chairperson of the Environmental Resources and Utilities; member of Children and Human Services; member of Financial Institutions and Insurance; member of Housing and Securities; member of Trade, Industry and Small Business.
Currently, Louis Fortis is an economic consultant in Madison, Wisconsin. His claim to feminism is the short time he spent as an economics professor at Smith College (an all-women's college). Fortis purchased a mall in 1992 for $1.1 million; he owns a condominium worth $124,00 and a four-unit apartment building worth $279,900. In January of 1996, Fortis bid on the opportunity to establish and run a new radio station in DeForest, Wisconsin. He's "been looking to own a radio station for about eight years." He claims to want to offer "objective, unbiased" talk radio (Wisconsin State Journal, January 17, 1996, page 8B). Louis Fortis fits in perfectly with the business approach at WCASA; but when an anti-sexual-violence organization becomes indebted to lawmakers, politicians and business interests it has lost its ability to create change on behalf of survivors of sexual assault.