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 analysis:

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" has failed:

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 vague.

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

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