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Reading: The Feminist Mistake

If all men are oppressors, and all sex is violence, aren't all of us doomed to perpetuate the sins of history?



Even though we know that there are some things that are fairly regular about the social relations between management and labor, the elite and the masses, men and women, we see our own personal interactions as much more complex than the vulgar "reality" described by various -isms.

It is one thing to dislike your job and resent your boss. It is a totally different experience to "fight capital." It is one thing to be cynical about politics because the men in Iowa, so far, look like dorks. It is quite another sensibility that regards American politics as a neo-fascist collaboration of the wealthy and the religious Right.

It is one thing to have some trouble with the old guy who makes sexist jokes at the office, feel icky each time you buy a newspaper at the smoke shop and receive change two inches from that month's Playboy bunny, or bear detached witness to your boyfriend's twat jokes. It is something else again to view all men as hateful oppressors.

Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon argue for the latter perspective, Dworkin in her consideration of heterosexual intercourse in literature and MacKinnon in her speeches on the law. Both maintain that our culture's representations of gender and sexuality are perverse, and survive not because they are logical, but because the degradation of women serves the interests of men.

Dworkin and MacKinnon are the authors of the hotly debated 1983 Minneapolis antipornography law. What the ACLU defense of the American Nazi party's right to march in Skokie was to the Jewish community, the antipornography law is to feminists. The debate has intensified since a similar measure passed in Indianapolis, while Cambridge, Massachusetts, voters recently defeated a referendum by a narrow margin following an emotional campaign by all sides.

MacKinnon and Dworkin's ordinance, which was vetoed by the mayor of Minneapolis and ruled unconstitutional in Indiana, states:

"Pornography is the graphic sexually explicit subordination of women, whether in pictures or in words, that also includes one or more of the following: (I) women are presented dehumanized as sexual objects, things or commodities; or (II) women are presented as sexual objects who enjoy pain or humiliation; or (III) women are presented as sexual objects who experience sexual pleasure in being raped; or (IV) women are presented as sexual objects tied up or cut up or mutilated or bruised or physically hurt; or (V) women are presented in postures of sexual submission, servility, or display; or (VI) women's body parts--including but not limited to vaginas, breasts, and buttocks--are exhibited, such that women are reduced to those parts; or (VII) women are presented as whores by nature; or (VIII) women are presented being penetrated by objects or animals; or (IX) women are presented in scenarios of degradation, injury, torture, shown as filthy or inferior, bleeding, bruised, or hurt in a context that makes these conditions sexual."

Pornography, according to the law, also includes "the use of men, children, or transsexuals in the place of women."

In the wake of the law's passage, MacKinnon and Dworkin have managed to antagonize everyone from the ACLU to lesbian sadomasochists, while somehow finding allies among fundamentalist Christians. They have been accused of being against the First Amendment, and of being "maternalistic"--women, many liberals argue, can take care of their self-image without pornography laws. Certain radicals have argued that the law is antisex. Fundamentalist Christians agree with all of the above: naturally they give Bible-thumping approval of a law that is against free speech, for the traditional family protection of women's virtue, and opposes sex without procreational intentions--that is, a law that is "antisex."

Now, in two recently published books, MacKinnon and Dworkin take on their adversaries. While Dworkin's book Intercourse catalogs the relation between intercourse and misogyny by looking at the various ways that violence against women is eroticized in novels, MacKinnon's collection of speeches presents a more direct and systematic response to the criticism.

MacKinnon's strategy is to use real-life shock therapy on her audience, the assumption being that if we really understand how bad things are, we will agree with her politics--about what to do to make things better. She cites, for example, a random study wherein 44 percent of the women in San Francisco were found to have been victims of rape or attempted rape at least once in their lives. She lists the titles of the pornographic books found on a man who sexually assaulted a 14-year-old Minnesota girl: "Violent Stories of Kinky Humiliation, Violent Stories of Dominance and Submission--you think feminists made up these words?--Bizarre Sex Crimes, Shame Victims, and Water Sports Fetish, Enemas and Golden Showers."

MacKinnon's brilliance lies not in her radicalism per se, however, but in the clever way she manipulates the contradictions of liberalism. Rather than simply disparage the legal system because it protects those already in power, she shows the way that First Amendment protections, for instance, have never been absolute in the face of other compelling state interests. Communities routinely decide that child pornography offends some moral code, MacKinnon argues, and ban this material without widespread fear that Pampers diaper commercials will be banned. Why, then, is there supposedly no precedent for a community to be so offended by the degradation of women that it gives that concern legal voice? Laws that appear neutral in fact embody particular values, political choices. To invalidate child pornography but allow pornography that degrades women means that our society recognizes something humiliating about pornography, but does not care to act on that perception in respect to women. Libel, obscenity, and pornography laws currently on the books, as well as court decisions upholding them, make a strong case that it is not antipornography rhetoric but the already existing legal fabric that must be picked apart in order to invalidate the antipornography law.

Throughout her book MacKinnon writes eloquently about what it's like for women to inhabit a pervasively, even overwhelmingly misogynistic culture. On Phyllis Schlafly, for instance, MacKinnon writes:

"Women of the right know that women are socially not persons. Either they acquiesce in this or are fearful of embracing the illusory image of life as 'person,' knowing they will be treated as women. . . . I have often wanted to ask Mrs. Schlafly: why are you so afraid of our freedom? Now I am beginning to see that if you assume, as she does, that sex inequality is inalterable, freedom looks like open season on women."

But for most readers, her most disturbing point will be her reevaluation of Susan Brownmiller's thesis in Against Our Will. Brownmiller had argued that rape is not a sexual crime, but a crime of violence. MacKinnon disagrees, saying that any heterosexual sex is itself violence against women:

"Men who are in prison for rape think it's the dumbest thing that ever happened. . . . It isn't just a miscarriage of justice; they were put in jail for something very little different from what most men do most of the time and call it sex. The only difference is they got caught."

Both MacKinnon and Dworkin believe that heterosexual intercourse can in our society be equated with violence, and Andrea Dworkin's Intercourse is an attempt to spell out the cultural history behind the linkage. Her thesis is that men use sex as a mainstay for their oppression of women. Men, she says, disseminate a discourse that eroticizes violence against women because that reinforces their power over women.

Dworkin does not want to argue, however, that our ideas about sexual intercourse are no more than another instance of male domination. We need a separate book about intercourse, she suggests, because fucking (she uses the words "intercourse," "fucking," and "sex" interchangeably) offers its own separate form of oppression. Reforms proposed to create formal legal equality, such as the ERA and comparable-worth policies, will not themselves bring on a new age of sexuality: "These reforms do not in any way address the question of whether intercourse itself can be an expression of sexual equality." That seems to imply that there is something intrinsic to heterosexual intercourse that must be understood independently of men's and women's social relations.

Yet for the most part Dworkin makes strong claims against arguments that men's sexual brutality is as natural as women's passivity. In fact, she uses literature as the main source for ideas about sexuality because she believes that sexuality is something those in power "make up," in novels and other cultural artifices. So it is not a specific theory of human nature that is illegitimate but any argument from human nature.

Still, Dworkin is inconsistent on that point. On the one hand, she argues that the violence and domination associated with intercourse are socially constructed, not at all intrinsic to the act:

"Remarkably, it is not the man who is considered possessed in intercourse, even though he (his penis) is buried inside another human being; and his penis is surrounded by strong muscles that contract like a fist shutting tight." And she ridicules arguments from "human nature" about why men and women take pleasure in their different sexual roles. In fact those roles are the result of "male power that constructs both the meaning and the current practice of intercourse as such."

On the other hand, she does seem to imply that intercourse violates women's innate sexuality:

"Despite all efforts to socialize women to want intercourse--e.g., women's magazines to pornography to Dynasty; incredible rewards and punishments to get women to conform and put out--women still want a more diffuse and tender sensuality that involves the whole body and a polymorphous tenderness." Women inhabit a realm of "male objectification," lose their sense of self, and so only enjoy sex because men build a world in which women "collaborate" in their own sexual humiliations. That means that women who claim to take pleasure in intercourse cannot be trusted. Why believe women, once they have been "remade into objects, no longer human in any sense related to freedom or justice"?

There is a logical inconsistency underlying Dworkin's and MacKinnon's arguments that makes them likely targets for attack. After all, what makes them so different from the masses of women they say are so overwhelmed by misogynist culture?

"Sexual desire in women," writes MacKinnon, "is as socially constructed as that by which we come to want our own self-annihilation. That is, our subordination is eroticized in and as female; in fact, we do get off on it to a degree, if nowhere as much as men do. This is our stake in this system that is killing us." Such a formulation poses problems for a theory about change: we cannot expect those with false consciousness to lead the revolution.

The urge to question MacKinnon and Dworkin's authority is not rooted in some abstract concern for logical consistency, nor does it echo the banal objections raised by those cynical about any political agenda at odds with the status quo. The concrete ways in which we experience the world raise the question. In fact, MacKinnon and Dworkin seem wrong: violence is not the same as sex. There is violence, and then there is sex. There may be an awful lot of sex that looks like violence, and yet the very basis for perceiving that connection to be problematic is a common sense that these two activities are different. To what do these writers appeal, other than such an intuition?

Dworkin has one fine passage, in her section on James Baldwin, where she describes the key for achieving what appears to be her ideal type of intercourse, an intercourse that rejects the fetish of conformity: "Imagination finds new meanings, new forms; complex and empathetic values and acts. The person with imagination is pushed forward by it into a world of possibility and risk, a distinct world of meaning and choice; not into a nearly bare junkyard of symbols manipulated to evoke rote responses." Perhaps if MacKinnon and Dworkin too adopted empathetic values, they would give their audience credit for having a lot more imagination. The problem is not that they are all wrong about sex and violence, but that their righteousness perpetuates a fight that we already know is rigged, and prevents change as surely as any liberal ignorance.

Feminism Unmodified: Discourses on Life and Law by Catherine A. MacKinnon, Harvard University Press, $25.

Intercourse by Andrea Dworkin, Free Press, $19.95.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Richard Laurent.

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