Porn in the U.S.A., Part I
Hard Cop, Soft Cop: Catharine MacKinnon
and Andrea Dworkin on Pornography
INTERCOURSE. By Andrea Dworkin. Free Press. 257pp. $19.95.
FEMINISM UNMODIFIED: Discourses on Life and Law. By Catharine
A. MacKinnon. Harvard University Press. 315pp. $25.
IS PORNOGRAPHY A SEX AID, like
a dildo, hence undeserving of protection as speech? Is it a
potent political message that should be denied protection before
it leads to a Haymarket riot of rapists and pedophiles? By what
criteria is an image determined "degrading"? Is the
pet of the month a nastier purveyor of "bad attitudes"
than Calvin Klein advertisements, rock videos. Harlequin romances
or the New York Post? Is Screw an unusually dangerous
product, like gunpowder, which places special liabilities on
its maker? What effect will more laws have on the reasons isolated
men masturbate in stalls at Mr. Peepers? Will they try it with
chickens after they see Leda and the Swan? If Nazis can
speak in Skokie and man-haters can speak anywhere, why can misogynists
not speak in Indianapolis?
Andrea Dworkin and Catharine A. MacKinnon are not interested
in clarifying issues. Co-authors of the 1984 Indianapolis civic
ordinance that declared pornography a form of legally actionable
sex discrimination, they prefer obfuscation and shock tactics.
Intercourse and Feminism Unmodified should be
read solely for clues to the crudity of the authors' assault
on the First Amendment. This is lock-step, v�lkisch theorizing
spun from the tribal myth of male depravity. With the dictatorial
arrogance of traditional censors, the High Command disdains
information and truthful discussion. (At an April 4 conference
at New York University, titled Sexual Liberals and the Assault
on Feminism, Dworkin trashed "the free market of ideas"
because it does not guarantee that "good" ideas will
win.) They rely on demagogic pronouncements and sensationalism,
calculated to induce reflexive responses and hysterical acquiescence.
Both books are ritual performances, hokey rallying points for
the real agenda: the polarization of women along lines of sexual
preference. Pure feminists (lesbians and nice asexuals) on one
side of the sex code, collaborators on the other. The pornography
issue is a stalking horse for power-within the feminist bureaucracy
and its twin in academia.
Both books travesty debate with a pornography of their own:
the reduction of men to their erections and the depiction of
heterosexuality as vicious and degrading. Their styles are different-Dworkin
is Dzerzhinsky to MacKinnon's Lenin-but their substance is identical.
Dworkin's lunatic pens�es offer a glimpse at the hindside
of Mac-Kinnon's scholarly facade. These are the minds paving
the way for censorship. The two take turns playing Hitler. The
new "Jewish illness'' is male sexuality. The world Jewish
conspiracy is heterosexual intercourse (MacKinnon: "The
institution of intercourse is a strategy for subordination").
The despised Jew-lover is any woman who prefers sex with a man.
Implicit in their rhetoric is a condemnation of maleness itself,
sub species aeternitatis.
Dworkin's strong-arm specialty is cunt-speak. Intercourse is
a hate-mongering tantrum dolled up as a prolegomenon to the
work of Tolstoy, Tennessee Williams, James Baldwin, Kobo Abe
and Isaac Bashevis Singer. Nose-dive under the skunk spray,
and forget the thirty-four-page bibliography. Dworkin's monomania
has nothing to do with literature. Art and life are a ghastly
jumble, the artist mistaken for the art and vice versa. Fantasy
is equated with reality, metaphor taken for fact, in a global
attempt to discredit all of Western culture as pornographic.
The muddle fulfills MacKinnon's belief that "existing standards
of literature, art, science and politics, examined in a feminist
light, are remarkably consonant with pornography's mode, meaning
and message." Tolstoy's "goose-stepping hatred of
cunt" is a synecdoche for men's universal "genocidal
loathing" of women. In the Dworkin-MacKinnon pornotopia,
there are only the fuckers and the fuckees. The sooner the fuckers'
books are burned the better. Dworkin's readings are shackled
like an S/M bondage slave to a primitive abhorrence of men,
so blatant and compulsive that it obviates her pretense to critical
But in the world of real life-and in the
subtextual worlds of Brown [Norman 0.] and Freud and nearly
everyone else-men use the penis to deliver death to women who
are, literally, in their genitals, dirt to men. The women are
raped as adults or as children; prostituted; fucked, then murdered;
murdered, then fucked.
Beware the party hacks who chirp encomiums to her "elegant"
and "lyrical" prose. Dworkin lives in "Amerika,"
where "violation is a synonym for intercourse," and
"incestuous rape is becoming a central paradigm for intercourse
in our time." Her own description of intromission is as
brutal and lewd as anything on Forty-second Street:
The vagina itself is muscled and the muscles
have to be pushed apart. The thrusting is persistent invasion.
She is opened up, split down the center. She is occupied. .
. . This hole, her hole, is synonymous with entry.
Heterosexuality is on trial in a kangaroo court, and the judge
talks dirty. Sex is a "humiliation ritual," and "penetration
was never meant to be kind." (MacKinnon: "There is
much violence in intercourse as a usual matter.") The "norms
of disparagement and cruelty that constitute fucking male-to-female"
are so horrific that even Nazi death camps do not compare:
There is no analogue anywhere among subordinated
groups of people to this experience of being made for intercourse;
for penetration, entry, occupation. There is no analogue in
occupied countries or in dominated races or in imprisoned dissidents
or in colonized cultures or in the submission of children to
adults or in the atrocities that have marked the twentieth century
ranging from Auschwitz to the Gulag.
How did the submission of children slip in? What kind of submission?
The rant is as slovenly as its innuendoes: "In the United
States, incest is increasingly the sadism of choice." Dworkin
suggests that incest is a male policy, not an aberrancy that
occurs-initiated by both sexes against children of both sexes-in
troubled emotional situations for a tangle of tragic reasons.
She ignores the shared involvement, conscious or unconscious,
of other family members. She does not distinguish between increased
incidence of incest and increased reporting of it. (Patricia
Foscato, a psychotherapist and coordinator of a sexual-abuse
prevention program, testified before the Meese commission that
she did not believe there was more incest now than thirty years
ago, only "more exposure.")
Dworkin's regard for accuracy, like MacKinnon's, is matched
only by her estimate of the reasoning abilities of her audience.
Both women swing between biological determinism (the male is
destined to exploit by his demonic arousal mechanism) and the
wholesale denial of biology. Both grant canonical authority
to the fashionable theory that gender is exclusively "a
social construct," like the bourgeois-democratic state
machine and credit buying. According to the new Ladies' Anthropology,
sexual differences are not the sum of biologically determined
morphological and physiological characteristics. "Opposites
were created," says Dworkin, by such cunning conventions
as "vagina-specific fucking," sodomy laws and the
"martial aims of gender":
The creation of gender (so-called nature)
by law was systematic, sophisticated, supremely intelligent.
. . . Fuck the woman in the vagina, not in the ass, because
only she can be fucked in the vagina.
MacKinnon states the insight this way:
Gender is ... a social status based on
who is permitted to do what to whom. . . . gender is an ideology.
. . . Gender has no basis in anything other than the social
reality its hegemony constructs. Gender is what gender means.
Neither scholar is concerned with the implications of this
hash of sex and sex roles. With its tacit insistence on the
absolute rule of social conditioning, for instance, it provides
the heterosexual majority with a new rationale for imposing
the tyranny of behavior modification on the homosexual minority.
If all behavior is stored in culture, including our intuitions
of what it means to be human, the problem of incest, for example,
can be solved merely by lifting the taboo. If everything is
learned, any social system will do, because we can be trained
to live in any kind of society. The word "inhuman"
loses all meaning without a guide-pin to human needs by which
to judge the world.
The distinctive contribution of Feminism Unmodified
is its show of reasonableness. It offers itself as precise discourse
advancing revolution by systematic means. In reality, it can
be called rational only insofar as its staggering obtuseness
is the logical consequence of certain fixed ideas. There is
an apparent economy to MacKinnon's virulence. She has the intellectual's
instinctive gift for using blunter minds for the less amiable
aspects of persuasion. The difference is merely one of manners.
Dworkin mau-maus the audience with fascist rowdyism. MacKinnon
does it with analytic mumbo jumbo ("the marxism-feminism
problematic") that cloaks the same dreary aversions and
tactics. MacKinnon depends as much as Dworkin on slogans, false
premises, half-information, sinister innuendo and ad hoc reasoning.
Feminism Unmodified approaches pornography, among other issues,
with a cavalier disregard for due process and a call for mob
rule: "So, first feminism, then law." Feminism is
defined, in a characteristic blur, as that which "stresses
the indistinguishability of prostitution, marriage, and sexual
harassment" The book is a dizzying blend of legal references,
special pleading and mesmerizing incoherence that reads like
a fun-house mirror. MacKinnon strung it together from a series
of public speeches. Possibly aware that her personal charisma
outweighs her credibility as a theorist, MacKinnon begins: "I
want you to hear me speaking, rather than read me writing."
The odor of the podium pervades her rhetoric, much of it rabble-rousing
or alarmist ("Most women have died without a trace").
Simplification and confusion run riot. The very few facts that
appear are so subject to distortion that they cease to inform.
For MacKinnon, this is proof that "liberal feminism"
The rape rate is increasing significantly
while the conviction rate for rape is not, in spite of legal
changes feminists fought for and won.
What does that mean? Is rape outpacing other violent crimes,
which also happen to be rising? To what extent docs the "increase"
reflect greater documentation in a climate more supportive of
the victim? If the percentage of convictions is stable, can
we assume that the number of convictions is keeping up with
the number of reported rapes? If reform (such as the "rape
shield law," which precludes inquiry into a victim's sexual
history except with the accused) has not altered the conviction
rate, does that indicate an inadequate legal system? Or does
it simply mean that the more protected status of the alleged
victim does not override the rights of the defendant? "
MacKinnon's arguments sink into sweeping, indiscriminate accusations
that are never substantiated. Her standards of proof tend toward
anecdotal evidence and manipulative extrapolations from equivocal
data. Her "evidence" is acquired through a process
of selective perception that allows her to ignore or disesteem
any voice that contradicts her own. Despite considerable testimony
that coercion is rare, and unnecessary, in the pom industry,
MacKinnon flaunts the "slave training" of Linda Marchiano
(Linda Lovelace of Deep Throat) as the norm. The preferences
and qualities of judgment of women who work in the pom industry
are as various as the women themselves. But MacKinnon reduces
all variables to force and torture. Convinced of the "commonalities
between convicted rapists and other men," she indulges
in statements like this:
"Specific pornography does directly
cause some assaults. Some rapes are performed by men
with paperback books in their pockets."
Her two footnotes here point to no supporting social science
data. The first refers only to MacKinnon's ordinance, and admits
that "it would be very difficult to prove 'direct cause.*"
The second is a complaint that wonders "how many bodies
must pile up" before correlation is equated with causation.
In her impatience with court standards for "close and demonstrable
cause," she bypasses the obvious. Any sociopath intent
on doing sexual harm is likely to enjoy looking at sexually
explicit pictures. Anything can provide stimuli for disturbed
personalities. The greater the pathology, the harder it is to
predict either the stimulus or its result. Seven Brides for
Seven Brothers or the stigmata of St. Francis might "cause"
violent aggression. The 1970 Commission on Obscenity and Pornography
found no significant connection between antisocial behavior
and pornography. It concluded that most existing legal regulation
should be terminated. MacKinnon submits no convincing new evidence-
neither does the Meese commission-to change that conclusion.
MacKinnon's bluster is stunning. Faked orgasm is discussed
in terms of Cartesian doubt and Heisenberg's uncertainty principle.
Since women are presumed "force-fucked," sexuality
is presented in the light of Marx's theory of work. Heterosexual
desire is "parallel to value in Marxist theory" because
it is not natural but rather "created by social relations."
Consecutive thought buckles under all the hulking bombast. The
professor's charm derives largely from her unintelligibility:
Sexual is whatever sexual means in a particular
society. Sexuality is what sexuality means. This is a political
hermeneutical view. Hermeneutics concerns matters of meaning.
In other words, sexuality means whatever she says it means.
Language, too, means whatever she wants it to mean. The prose
is perfect for terrorizing city fathers and tenure committees.
It is a snake pit of hissing jargon that encircles itself and
swallows its own tail:
If heterosexuality is the dominant gendered
form of sexuality in a society where gender oppresses women
through sex, sexuality and heterosexuality are essentially the
same thing. This does not erase homosexuality, it merely means
that sexuality in that form may be no less gendered. Either
heterosexuality is the structure of the oppression of women
or it is not.
Agree Or die. Agree or be accused of lying, of "false
consciousness," "pimping," "fronting for
male power" or "fronting for the ACLU as the ACLU
is fronting for the pornographers." (In person, on April
4, MacKinnon scorned objections to her ordinance by the Feminist
Anti-Censorship Taskforce as "an address to the penis.")
Her intimidation obscures chronic bad thinking and an inability
to define pornography in a useful way. The failure stems from
her mistaken assumption that "pornography" is a technical
term. It is a subjective, value-laden word that can cover an
almost limitless range of utterances beyond those characterized
by existing obscenity laws. The dictums denoting obscenity are
equally subjective, dependent on the hypothetical "average
person" applying hypothetical "community standards."
The point at which sexually explicit imagery sacrifices a certain
tact and becomes "pornographic" or "humiliating"
is determined by the tastes and values of the viewer. Porn-sniffing
is a parlor game. One woman's art is another's pornography.
One man's filth is another's solace. For some, the moral evaluations
in the word "pornography" are better applied to gun
magazines, Rambo and Charles Bronson's Death Wish
movies. The promiscuous ownership of handguns is more seriously
"subordinating" than split-beaver shots and skin flicks.
Bereft of legally significant criteria, MacKinnon takes the
view of Justice Potter Stewart: "I know it when I see it."
She sees it everywhere. Pornography is not just about sex. It
"is sex" and "a form of forced sex." Art
and life do not imitate each other, "they are each other."
(Dworkin, at the same rally, defined pornography as "that
bastard in his collective manifestation.") Small wonder
the MacKinnon-Dworkin ordinance was declared unconstitutionally
The Feminist Anti-Censorship Task-force called MacKinnon's
ordinance "squarely within the tradition of the sexual
double-standard.'' The American Civil Liberties Union amicus
brief deemed it "extraordinarily ill-drafted," "fatally
overbroad" (its prohibitions would include even clinical
literature and illustrations in medical texts), filled with
"multiple uncertainties" and "riddled with discriminatory
distinctions." Ditto Feminism Unmodified.
MacKinnon's intellectual sloppiness is not surprising in view
of her obsession with the supremacy of her own will. The actual
empowerment of women in substantive ways is quite beside the
point. The key to MacKinnon is in her rage against the Supreme
Court's decision on abortion. By invoking the principle of privacy,
Roe v. Wade granted women the right to choose abortion
on grounds that did not require dangerous definitions of life,
nonlife or, worse, life-unworthy-of-life. The humane caution
of the decision is intolerable to MacKinnon:
"Why should women not make life and death decisions?"
The thrill is gone if she cannot play God. The right to privacy
is a mere vanity of the hated "liberal myth structure."
She stamps her foot and declares that women will not be equal
until the Court recognizes the right to abort as residing exclusively
in the will to abort. In MacKinnon's capricious lexicon,
equality is a variant of carte blanche ("unencumbered possibilities").
She musters support for her position by stating, falsely, that
the privacy principle necessarily cuts women off from state
funding for abortion. It does not. Her attempt to fudge the
difference between two separate issues is flatly dishonest.
The eye for smut is sharper than the eye for our own subterranean
biases and fears. Behind the catch phrases of the porn squad
("subordination of women," "trafficking in women's
bodies") crouches the tattered old horror of masturbation.
Lurking, too, is the ancient repugnance of the Better Sort for
the desolate and down-and-out who inhabit porn districts. The
sexuality of "that element" is a menacing nether world,
condemned as obscene because it reminds us of the fragility
of our well-being. Antiporn crusades are a symbolic barrier
between us and them, illusory buffers against all wayward, darkling
encroachments on our slender margins of safety. Such movements
are cruel in that they fail to address the conditions that help
create and sustain "offensive" populations of the
economically or emotionally disenfranchised. They divert scarce
resources from the enforcement of existing sanctions against
actual harmful behavior. In addition, they contribute nothing
to the material ability of women to leave abusive relationships
or exploitative jobs.
MacKinnon and Dworkin are mountebanks strutting on a feminist
stage. Women have much to lose by submitting to the regressive
"protection" of these neobarbaric thought police and
self-appointed arbiters of "correct" sexuality. Despite
the reservations we might have about pornography, the only proven
danger to date is the censorship mentality itself. There is
no constitutional protection for women or men against
uncertainty, ambivalence, dread or distaste. These are the hazards
of living. By seeking legislation against speculative perils
and whatever offends us, we invite suppression of any controversial
speech. Such censorship is the cherished technique of every
Führer who claims to know what is good for us.
Reprinted from The Nation, May 30, 1987