Porn in the U.S.A., Part II
An Exchange of Letters
One would never know from Maureen Mullarkey's vitriolic and
unreasoned review that in their two recent books. Intercourse
and Feminism Unmodified, Andrea Dworkin and Catharine
A. MacKinnon make a series of intellectual contributions to
feminism that are destined to have historic impact, even if
one disagrees with them ["Hard Cop, Soft Cop," May
Within the first fifteen pages of her work, MacKinnon argues that gender "difference"
cannot be understood except as gender domination; the domination constructs
the difference. Since the sex act and gender are inextricably entwined, the
status quo in pornography has real and immense implications for women. Dworkin
argues that sexual intercourse occurs in the context of a power relation that
is pervasive and incontrovertible. Her book draws its strength from a wealth
of examples, from literature and law, of intercourse representing power. The
cumulative impact is comparable to that of Susan Brownmiller on rape or Kate
Millet on sexual politics.
But this would be hard to glean from the more than 2, 000 words in The
Nation's review. Nor would one begin to understand how Burke Marshall,
Assistant Attorney General in the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department
from 1961 to 1965, could describe MacKinnon's book as "final evidence .
. . that hers is the most powerful mind and forceful voice now at work in this
critical section of the law." In Mullarkey's review, no reader can find
a trace of the MacKinnon who first conceptualized sexual harassment as sex discrimination,
an argument accepted by the Supreme Court, which provided the practical possibility
of redress for every woman in the labor force.
The message that Dworkin and MacKinnon bring is unsettling. Neither of them
is a Pollyanna. But the use of Nazi imagery to describe their books is both
inappropriate and shocking, and trivializes what happened in the Holocaust.
It is particularly abominable given Dworkin's extensive analysis in Intercourse
of sexual sadism in the Holocaust and the loss of a substantial portion of her
family in that time of horrors. The Nation should be ashamed. A review
can disagree, of course, with Dworkin and MacKinnon, but it should take the
lime to explain the intellectual framework of the authors' arguments.
Pauline B. Bart
New York City
After reading Maureen Mullarkey's trash job on Andrea Dworkin and Catharine
A. MacKinnon's new books, I thought, Looks like the Nation boys found
themselves a woman to mouth their views, get back and get even. Then I looked
at the names of the editorial staff, saw that nearly half are women and got
sick—in that order. How could women, or humane and progressive men, for that
matter, participate in publishing a review filled with such hatred and loathing
for women, feminists and lesbians, and Dworkin and MacKinnon personally? The
only explanation I can offer is the self-hatred we internalize as women in a
male supremacist society. Mullarkey's mean ravings and disjointed ramblings
constitute a new literary form—hate mail in the guise of serious criticism.
Ironically, Mullarkey accuses Dworkin and MacKinnon of hating men, the First
Amendment, penises, intercourse, heterosexuals and freedom, and of expressing
this hatred in "hysterical" and "lunatic" prose. She then
reproduces the very flaws she claims to have found in their works.
Having read both Dworkin and MacKinnon's books, I feel they deserve an intelligent
and respectful review by a feminist critic, not Mullarkey's antifeminist, nanny-nanny
boo-booing. Not once does the reviewer seriously consider the idea expressed
in both books that one and only one sexual practice— intercourse, meaning penile
penetration of the vagina with ejaculation of 435 million spermatozoa—has been
prescribed for centuries as the only real way to have sex. This prescription
has been forced and compelled for women and men, and has dangerous consequences
for both, but especially for women. I suspect that this idea is too radical
for The Nation. Yet women have been saying it for hundreds of years—feminists
and nonfeminists alike.
Women who do not like or enjoy the specific sexual practice of penetration,
whether they love men, women, both or neither, know and talk about intercourse,
as Dworkin does. So, what's the big deal? Why the fear of analyzing the role
that compulsory heterosexual intercourse plays in sexual politics? To read Mullarkey's
rage, disguised as rational thought, one would think that Dworkin, MacKinnon,
"goose-stepping" feminists and "porn squads" were going
to physically stop her from ever having intercourse again.
Dworkin, MacKinnon and other feminists writing about sexual issues are encouraging
women to think about the sexual practices we engage in. Whose pleasure and power
is enhanced by intercourse? Unfortunately, Mullarkey never got the point.
Aside from the lesbian hating in her review, most offensive were the references
to Dworkin and MacKinnon as storm troopers, Hitlers and Nazis, taking out after
men (Jews). This is crude, racist propaganda reminiscent of the frequent claim
that black people are reverse racists when they criticize whites. Women are
reverse sexists or even fascists when they criticize men, their ideas and sexual
practices. Jews were an oppressed and despised group in. fascist Europe; the
fascists were the oppressors. Men cannot be equated with Jews because they are
not the oppressed and despised group in "Amerika." Women are. Just
read Mullarkey's piece again if you don't believe it.
Mary Lee Sargent
OFF OUR BACKS
One correction to Maureen Mullarkey's rambunctious analysis of the Andrea Dworkin
and Catharine A. MacKinnon missionary position. Although the pornography debate
has definitely polarized the feminist community, it is not along sexual preference
Lesbians writing in Gay Community News, The Advocate, The New York Native
and The Village Voice have vehemently opposed the antipornography
ordinance, pointing out that it could lead to the censorship of books such as
The Joy of Lesbian Sex (pictures of vibrators could violate the clause
prohibiting the depiction of objects in the vagina), lesbian erotic magazines
such as On Our Backs (too many scenes involving the objectification and/or
domination of women), and artwork such as Judy Chicago's Dinner Party
or Tee Corinne's Vaginal Landscapes (portrayals of detached female body
Gay men, who have little interest in heterosexual pornography, have also been
quick to realize that restrictions on sexual expression in the media could soon
be turned against gay literature in general. In Margaret Thatcher's Britain,
Her Majesty's customs officials have repeatedly raided gay bookstores and confiscated
imported stock (including one of my novels, which, though obscene by British
standards, is used as a college textbook in this country).
True, many of the antiporn activists are lesbians, but their opposition arises
from a feminist revulsion for institutionalized violence against women, not
from their lesbian life style. I agree with Mullarkey that the remedy they propose
is dangerously misguided, but it's too simplistic to explain the appeal of this
position in terms of the old myth about lesbians haling men. We dykes take enough
flak without having to be blamed for pornophobia!
PORN IN THE U.S.A.
Staten Island. N. Y.
Recently, in preparing an essay for the journal Women Artists News ("Porn,
Polls and Polemics," Winter 1986/1987, Feb.), I had occasion to survey
a cross-section of the current literature on what might be called the impact
of pornography on society. As a result, I'm in a position to state that Maureen
Mullarkey's outrage over the intellectual corruption of Andrea Dworkin and Catharine
A. MacKinnon is, if anything, understated.
The so-called field of social science from which this research emanates has
yet to offer and agree on any useful (rather than expedient) definition of "pornography."
Most of those in operation are value judgments masquerading as definitions.
Neil Malamuth and Edward Donnerstein, whose research Dworkin and MacKinnon perverted
(these scholars have publicly repudiated Dworkin and MacKinnon's specious extrapolations
from their studies), use the term pornography "without any pejorative meaning
to refer to material that is sexually explicit in referring to or visually depicting
male and female anatomy." According to this definition, a medical school's
models of reproductive organs, Playboy's centerfold and Picasso's Demoiselles
d'Avignon are all pornographic. This hardly solves the problem. As art critic
Morse Peckham once noted with chagrin, "It appears, then, that there is
no available definition of pornography and no prospect of creating a neutral
definition." That this lament occurred eighteen years ago. yet still holds
true despite almost two decades of subsequent debate, says much about the quality
and substance of that debate.
The absence of a neutral, commonly agreed-on, working definition of a subject
would normally be considered a fundamental roadblock to critical inquiry. Astonishingly,
as Malamuth and Victoria Billings aver without the slightest hint of sarcasm,
"The lack of a precise definition has not impeded empirical work on the
functions and effects of pornography, especially since the 1970 Presidential
Commission on Pornography and Obscenity, and more vigorously, in the early 1980s."
The only research that the field itself now treats as in any way paradigmatic—the
experiments of Malamuth and Donnerstein—claim, at the most, that men exposed
under clinical conditions to explicit sexual material with a strongly violent
aspect will, for a short time. be slightly more tolerant than previously of
depicted or reported behavior in which sexuality and violence are conflated.
This is neither a radical proposal nor a discovery that suggests provocative
new paths for inquiry. As my late Aunt Dorothy would have said, "Any fool
could have told them that."
As far as I can tell, the only clearly demonstrated and thoroughly substantiated
social consequence of the dissemination of sexually explicit material—written,
photographed, filmed, videotaped or theatrically performed—is that it generates
endless and apparently unresolvable healed debate among adults.
New York City
Professors Pauline B. Bart and Jane Mansbridge deserve an A+ for their faithful
restatement of the publishers' blurbs. The only thing they establish is their
remarkable trust in book jackets. Burke Marshall's ill-judged endorsement appears
on the back cover of Feminism Unmodified. There is no indication that
the professors read beyond this or even paid attention to the first fifteen
pares of MacKinnon's book.
I know what MacKinnon and Dworkin "argue." At issue
is the intellectual bankruptcy and crudity of the exercise.
I look care to quote them on the ground that their prose was
its own indictment. The professors cite nothing that provides
a counterargument to my evaluation of Feminism Unmodified.
Nor do they extract from Dworkin's "wealth of examples"
in Intercourse a single item that might contradict my opinion
of her vulgarity and Kampfzeit rhetoric. They content
themselves with name-dropping as a form of rebuttal.
The professors are confused about MacKinnon's historic contribution
to women's rights. She was far from the first to conceptualize
sexual harassment as discrimination. She was in law school when
the pioneering cases, testing the ability of Title VII of the
1964 Civil Rights Act to cover sexual harassment on the job,
came to trial in the mid-1970s. The concept evolved as the common
creation of men and women practicing equal-rights advocacy at
The landmark Williams v. Saxbe case, argued successfully
by Michael Hausfeld, marked the first legal recognition of the
concept. The case was filed in 1972 and argued through the courts
until a final Federal District Court decision in 1976. That
case, not MacKinnon's theorizing, was pivotal in subsequent
court action. [When I reached him by telephone in Washington,
D.C., Hausfeld told me he had never heard of Catharine MacKinnon.]
MacKinnon's book Sexual Harassment of Working Women was
not published until 1979. It had grown out of a student paper
and was much indebted to the harassment briefs filed in previous
years, particularly those by feminist lawyers Nadine Taub, Linda
Singer and Mary Dunlap. When the issue came before the Supreme
Court in 1986, it upheld the principle for which precedent had
been established ten years before. The case, Vinson v. Mentor
Savings Bank, was argued by Pat Barry. MacKinnon was only
one of many lawyers—including those of the Women's Legal
Defense Fund, which submitted an amicus curiae brief—who
worked on the case.
MacKinnon can more justly claim a first in attempting to prove
that pornography also violates Title VII. The attempt failed
because, among other reasons, what Marshall called "the
most powerful mind and forceful voice now at work in this critical
section of the law" was unable to define pornography in
a legally acceptable way. Although Bart and Mansbridge refuse
to attend this point, my review gave sufficient examples of
MacKinnon's reasoning to explain her lack of success. Her thinking
is riddled with discriminatory assumptions. ("To appeal
to 'prurient interest' means, I believe, to give a man an erection."
She does not admit that women also have prurient interests and
are not untainted by arousal.)
The professors are easily shocked, and by the wrong things. The quality of
Dworkin's argument is nor determined by her family history. Argument stands
or falls on the basis of its intelligence, coherence and honesty. Since Intercourse
displays none of these, there is no reason to squander courtesy on it. The professors
ratify bad thinking and debased scholarship on biographical grounds. This kind
of special pleading fans suspicion that the decline of the humanities begins
in the faculty office.
It is Dworkin who trivializes the Holocaust. She makes panty raids on Holocaust
scholarship, perverting the material into a crackpot sociology that brands heterosexuality
as the root of all evil. The professors can call her male-baiting and circular
reasoning ("What men need done to women so that men can have intercourse
with women is done to women so that men will have intercourse") an "extensive
analysis" if they choose. I consider it bald ignorance. Dworkin's savage
pedantry is not transformed into rational analysis by quotes from Jacobo Timerman
and Wilhelm Reich or by words like "epistemology" and "pedagogy"
(as in "At the center of the pedagogy is the fuck").
Dworkin's fanatical mimicking of Nazi qualities of mind and speech, seen in
the context of her family history, raises questions better dealt with by a therapist
than a book reviewer. A reviewer deals with what the author says and how she
or he says it. With that as the only admissible evidence, Dworkin merits the
Iron Cross. Any ideology that ascribes culpability to a people because of some
ineluctable aspect of their humanity—skin color, blood line, gender— is racist.
Since the "cumulative impact" of Intercourse is a call to the
Volk to denounce male sexuality, Reichsminister Dworkin qualifies
as a racist.
Bart and Mansbridge pull their skirts back from my use of Nazi imagery but
do not object when the Kampfstaffel back at headquarters use it. (MacKinnon:
"Sexuality has become the fascism of contemporary America and we are in
the last days of Weimar.") To Dworkin, every male is a Nazi. She rails
against the "complicity" of the woman who "values her lover,
the National Socialist, above any woman, anyone of her own kind or class or
status.") Used to flatter their prejudices, the imagery goes down like
pudding. Used to challenge them, it is verboten. That mentality keeps
the lights going at the Ministries of Culture and Propaganda.
The professors' lack of acquaintance with Nazi language patterns is a disability.
It impedes their recognition of parallels where they exist: in the fondness
for pathetic effect, the contempt for rationality, reliance on the seductive
power of ideological jargon. MacKinnon and Dworkin's inflammatory rhetoric,
like Nazi oratory, is designed to break down emotional resistance. It is not
an appeal to the audience's intelligence—as two of these letters demonstrate.
Truth is irrelevant; the mood, the Stimmung, is everything. Indeed, the
Nazi emphasis on "feeling" and "will" impairs the logic
of each book. (MacKinnon calls it rape whenever a woman "has sex and feels
violated." Such a definition rolls over circumstances and behavior with
the brutality of a panzer division.)
For reasons alluded to in her letter, Mary Lee Sargent needed to be told that
MacKinnon and Dworkin's manhating is the pride and banner of progressive feminism.
She is worked up because she did not hear what she wanted to hear. Too bad.
Since her displeasure does not permit her to articulate a cogent refutation,
there is no need to take it too seriously. Her letter is preprogrammed and running
on ideological microcode. It is a stellar illustration of the mindset to which
Leader MacKinnon and Herr Dworkin appeal. Sargent sinks into the same manic,
insinuating rhetoric that discredits Intercourse. She depends on the
standard accusations— lesbian hater, self-hater, antifeminist, stand-in for
male oppressors—used to deflect, rather than address, criticism. This is precisely
the kind of ideological bullying I objected to in my review.
It is irresponsible and pernicious to deduce from that objection any disparagement
of lesbians. By doing so, Sargent makes an implicit identification between lesbianism
and manhating, which I did not. Such an equation slanders gay women. The dignity
of homosexuals is not dependent on mudslinging at heterosexuality. Any attempt
to make it so is vicious and counterproductive. Dworkin's fantasy putsch against
heterosexuality, predicated on revulsion, only reinforces popular caricatures.
It does not enhance the credibility of gay men and women who assert the authenticity
of homosexuality as a sound expression of their humanity.
The vagueness of Sargent's generalized reference to "black people"
and "reverse racists" does not provide much leverage for discussion.
All that is clear is that she does not comprehend the nature of demagogy. A
fascist style can be adopted by anyone, in or out of power. I expect that point
will be lost on Sargent, who reveals affinities with that style herself. Obviously,
her definition of a feminist critic is one whose judgment is constricted by
the same ideological straitjacket she sports. Sargent is on the qui vive
to march in the ranks of any pop fascist who plays to her biases.
Noretta Koertge and I have no argument with each other. I heartily agree: the
pornography debate has not polarized me feminist community along lines of sexual
preference. I never said that it had. What I did say was quire different: first,
"the pornography issue is a stalking horse for power," and second,
the real agenda of the Dworkin and MacKinnon books is the polarization of women
along such lines. If Sargent's letter is any indication, the attempt has met
with some success. I regret any confusion arising from that passage. Nevertheless,
I think Koertge will find the meaning clear if she rereads the paragraph.
I am grateful to A.D. Coleman for addressing the heart of my argument: MacKinnon
and Dworkin's manipulation of data to justify whatever conclusions they like.
Not only does the research of Edward Donnerstein and Neil Malamuth not prove
their convictions, it sometimes contradicts them. One Malamuth study, which
the porn maidens ignore, indicated that repeated exposure to either sexually
violent or nonviolent stimuli resulted in reduced arousal patterns in "force-oriented"
I would have enjoyed Coleman's late Aunt Dorothy.
Reprinted from The Nation, August 1/8,