Academic feminists like Catharine MacKinnon aren't just doing theory--when they say they're out to get you, they mean it.--Tracy Quan, member of Prostitutes of New York
During the last two decades, Catharine A. MacKinnon has become the country's most prominent feminist legal theorist as well as the feminist some people most love to hate. It is impossible to over-estimate her influence on the way we socially and legally define such hot-button topics as sexual harassment, rape, and pornography. Every man in the country has been, or will be, affected by the thought of Catharine MacKinnon.
Over the last decade or so, Catharine MacKinnon's name has been synonymous with the campaign to restrict pornography. In 1983, she and her feminist colleague, Andrea Dworkin, drafted a ground-breaking ordinance for Minneapolis that outlawed or attached civil penalties to sexually graphic material that depicted the "subordination of women through pictures and/or words." The mayor vetoed the ordinance. The next year MacKinnon and Dworkin drafted a similar anti-pornography ordinance for Indianapolis, but a federal court held that the ordinance violated the First Amendment.
Although MacKinnon's campaign against pornography has stalled in U.S. courts, it has triumphed in Canada, perhaps an indication that her views may eventually prevail here. In February 1992 the Supreme Court of Canada held that while the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms grants freedom of expression, "portraying women as a class as objects for sexual exploitation" could be banned for its "negative impact on the individual's sense of self- worth." MacKinnon helped write the brief that made this argument. MacKinnon says of this decision, "[t]his makes Canada the first place in the world that says what is obscene is what harms women, not what offends our values. In the United States the obscenity laws are all about not liking to see naked bodies, or homosexual activity, in public. Our laws don't consider the harm to women. But in Canada it will now be materials that subordinate, degrade or dehumanize women that are obscene."
Perhaps invigorated by her success in Canada, MacKinnon has continued to press for restricting pornography in her latest book, Only Words (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993). In addition to arguing that "pornography" is not "speech" but a discriminatory act tantamount to rape, that it sanctions male dominance and female subordination, that it causes violence against women, and that the First Amendment is a male device to silence women, Only Words also contains a welter of demented, jaw-slackening pronouncements about pornography, sex, women, and men that underscore the degree to which MacKinnon's view of things conflicts with traditional liberal concepts of free speech and with equity-feminist notions of sexuality and empowerment. Not surprisingly, Only Words provoked a host of trenchant and vituperative reviews from both the right and the left--as well as several MacKinnon retorts.
In National Review (1 November 1993, 61), Roger Scruton confesses to having read MacKinnon's "diatribe" with "horrified amazement," branding it a "vivid instance of what she condemns, a dirtying of life and love that deploys all the dehumanizing tricks of the pornographer, blocking out the soul with the hate-filled image of the body." Her frequent descriptions of sex are, he believes, as "impersonal, violent, and reifying as the pornography she condemns." "Spitting out obscenities, and crowding her pages with pornographic descriptions of men at work, she implies that only a thin veil of prohibition arrests my desire to rape, torture, humiliate, and dismember the next woman who catches my eye." The "intemperate fury" of MacKinnon's book is a sign, Scruton believes, of just how "heartbroken' women are that trust between the sexes has been destroyed by the "pornocracy" created by liberal jurisprudence and sexual liberation. But this bitterness is no excuse, he argues, for a book that engages in "group libel" every bit as virulent as that to be found in Jew Suss, Goebbels's anti-Semitic propaganda film of the 1930s. Unnerved by the book's "moral depravity," not to mention its other "weaknesses," Scruton, who agrees that pornography should be banned, thinks MacKinnon's "hate-intoxicated" invective is a prime candidate for the bonfire.
Another conservative critic who didn't mince words was the acerbic David Horowitz, co-editor of the calculatingly "offensive" magazine Heterodoxy (which proudly describes itself as the cultural equivalent of "a drive-by shooting"). Wasting no time, Horowitz opens by branding Only Words as a "dishonest, intellectually worthless, malicious book," an "embarrassing display of perversity on the part of a female Savanarola innocent of human nature and in desperate need of public attention" (November 1993, 14). Disfigured by "wild accusations and zany hypotheses, all advanced with a Mad Hatter logic," the book manages to convey only one overwhelming impression: "its author's hatred of men, sex and women in that order." Although reviewers on the left used more temperate diction, they were no less critical. In thirteen columns of The New York Review of Books (12 October 1993), Ronald Dworkin (no relation to Andrea) criticized Only Words on a number of counts: for claiming that research shows a causal link between pornography and sexual crimes, for engaging in "breathing hyperbole disguised as common sense," for appealing to doubtful and unexamined correlations, for using "unreliable" anecdotal evidence, and for advancing "bad arguments" that could have "devastating consequences." Like Scruton, Dworkin felt compelled to account for the feverishness and "bad arguments" of the book, suggesting that women are deeply revolted by pornography, but since moral revulsion does not provide legal grounds for suppressing what repels them, they pretend that pornography causes all kinds of harms, such as rape, despite evidence to the contrary.
The most controversial review by far was Carlin Romano's in The Nation (14 November 1993, 563). To drive home his point that MacKinnon disastrously and illogically confuses words with acts and pornography with rape, Romano opened with a "provocative thought experiment": "Suppose I decide to rape Catharine MacKinnon before reviewing her book.... I plot and strategize, but at the last minute, I chicken out.... Nonetheless, when I sit down to write, I still believe that understanding her support for censorship of pornography requires raping her, so I do the next best thing: I imagine the act." Etc. Although Romano went on to offer some trenchant criticism of MacKinnon's principal contentions, it was his opening that drew fire--about 60 letters' worth. When editors at Harvard University Press, which published Only Words, wrote (self-interestedly) that Romano's "words...for some will have successfully snuffed out MacKinnon's ideas," the editors of The Nation pointed out that the metaphorical equation of a critical review to a "snuff" film is precisely the kind of outrageous thought and language that Romano's opening was designed to call attention to and lambast.
This "outpouring of emotion and opinion" eventually drew the attention of both Time and Newsweek (17 January 1994, 62 & 53). MacKinnon told Time that she felt more than insulted by Romano: she felt well, raped. "He wants me as a violated woman with her legs spread. He needed me there before he could address my work." She darkly intimated that her supporters will revenge the wrong done her. "Carlin Romano should be held accountable for what he did," MacKinnon said to the Washington Post. "There are a lot of people out there, and a lot of ways that can be done." Jeffrey Masson, MacKinnon's husband, wrote to Romano: "I want you to know, if them is ever anything I can do to hurt your career, I will do it," adding "I am not threatening you." Uncowed, Romano tartly responded that he did something "worse" than "humiliate" and "debase" MacKinnon, as her defenders charged. "I took her seriously. The worst thing that can happen to a flamboyant claim is to be tested by a good example" (Newsweek).
Although L'Affaire MacKinnon has cooled down (as most media brushfires eventually do), MacKinnon will continue to push for the legal suppression of pornography and may prevail. Does she make a case? Does she say anything of value? If she succeeds in getting U.S. courts to embrace her argument as Canadian courts have, would those who value free expression really have "reason to fret," as a Newsweek writer warns?
Essentially, MacKinnon has one argument against pornography (not four, as Dworkin thinks): it physically harms women. Sometimes the harm is direct immediate, palpable; sometimes it is indirect and subtle. But no matter how subtle these harms may be, pornography--MacKinnon insists--is an act which "is factually connected in many ways to a whole array of tangible human injuries" and crimes against women. Take, for example, what happens to the women in pornographic videos. Since the sado-masochistic violence in these videos is actually being done to the women in them, pornography does not just "depict" or"represent" the abuse of women, it involves it. Pornography is literal. "Women shown being beaten and tortured report being beaten and tortured" (27). Referring to "snuff films," MacKinnon says, "[o]nly for pornography are women killed to make a sex movie, and it is not the idea of a sex killing that kills them" (15). Since the women in these videos are being victimized, raped, tortured, and sometimes killed in fact, pornography "is no less an act than the rape and torture it represents" (29).
These harms are not palliated by the fact that these women get paid for their services. According to MacKinnon, all payment does is make "pornography an arm of prostitution. Money is the medium of force and provides the cover of consent" (28). "Empirically," she writes, "all pornography is made under conditions of inequalities based on sex," and these conditions--poverty, homelessness, drug addiction--"make women do what is in even the pornography that shows no overt violence" (20). In other words, even non-violent pornography entails the coercion, subjugation, and exploitation of the women who make it (15). Indeed it must, for this is MacKinnon's definition of pornography.
MacKinnon's view of the women who make pornography is condescending and ill-informed. Yes, a few porn stars, such as Linda Lovelace, have said that they were forced to make pornography, but there is no evidence that this is a common practice. There are thousands of female porn stars who do not complain of abuse, who seem to enjoy what they do, who return to it film after film and year after year, who attend the annual Adult Film Awards ceremonies to celebrate their achievements, and who go on Geraldo and Oprah to defend their "craft" and luxuriate in the pleasures and satisfaction of their profession (this point is made by Horowitz).
Moreover, there are plenty of laws on the books designed to protect people--even "sex-workers"--from sexual discrimination, physical assault, threats and intimidation, etc. If women who make pornographic videos and magazines are being physically abused against their will, they can go to the police or other agencies committed to protecting and defending their rights. There are any number of civil-rights lawyers who would gladly take their case, just as they have taken the cases of the disabled, the homeless, and domestically abused women. The notion that female sex-workers can get no justice because, as Tabitha King has put it, "porn star[s]" are "prostitute[s]" and thus their "credibility is nil" (Women's Review of Books, 11.5, February 1994, 6) is a simplistic and dehumanizing slur both on the women who seek justice and the women attorneys committed to giving it to then. Snuff films, of course, are already illegal, and those who make them should be indicted for murder. As for the women (and men) who voluntarily engage in flagellation and other acts involving pain, they should be as free to do so as stuntmen and stuntwomen who endure pain and risk injury to make violent action films. However, being a voluntary participant does not mean that these people waive their legal rights.
Although MacKinnon focuses her attention on sado-masochistic pornography, most erotic films do not involve or even depict violence, torture, abuse, rape or physical coercion (USA Today, 26 August 1993, 4D). Erotic films are made no differently from any other kinds of films and the women who make them do so willingly and for money. MacKinnon tries to parry this clam by asserting that this makes no difference--"empirically"' all pornography is made under economic "inequalities based on sex." Even if this were true, so what? As Horowitz argues, "[i]t is a simple non sequitur to argue that because poverty makes someone unequal, their choice to perform a particular job for money is coerced.... Do women who make pornographic films, even if they are poor, lack the free will to decide whether or not to act in them?" (Heterodoxy, November 1993, 2.3, 14).
Dworkin also argues that it would be a mistake to assume that women (or men) who appear in pornographic films do so unwillingly. It is true, he concedes, that our economic system makes it difficult for many women to find satisfactory, fulfilling jobs, and may well encourage some of them to accept roles in pornographic films they would otherwise reject. But it also, he points out, works to the benefit of many other employers--fast-food chains, for example--who are able to employ women at low wages. There is great economic injustice in America, he says, "but that is no reason for depriving poor women of an economic opportunity some of them may prefer to the available alternatives" (New York Times, 37).
MacKinnon never acknowledges that many women who make pornography are non-homeless, well-paid, and very much in control of their lives, thank you. Those who model for Playboy can earn up to $25,000.00, and the woman elected Centerfold of the Year can earn as much as a million dollars, merely for being photographed with her clothes off. If we accept MacKinnon's argument, however, this woman is a subordinated female, a victim, seduced or coerced into becoming a millionaire. David Horowitz, who lives in Hollywood and who has interviewed porn stars as a free-lance journalist, points out that if there is economic exploitation and discrimination in the porn industry, men are its victims, not women. "Annette Haven makes ten times the salary per porn film that her male counterparts do. So much for MacKinnon's claim that pornography entails the subordination of women" (14). MacKinnon's view is so far removed from the way the world works and the reality of actual women, Horowitz asserts, "as to border on psychosis" (15).
The alleged harm done to the women who make pornography is only one of MacKinnon's reasons for restricting it. Pornography also harms the women living in the culture in which it is made. The subjugation and victimization of women depicted in pornography permeates, according to MacKinnon, every aspect of society and gender consciousness. By "institutionaliz[ing] the sexuality of male supremacy," pornography trains men in how to dominate and subordinate--or discriminate against-women both in and out of bed:
Pornography makes the work a pornographic place through its making and use, establishing what women are said to exist as, are seen as, are treated as, constructing the social reality of what a woman is and can be in terms of what can be done to her, and what a man is in terms of doing it. (25)
By portraying male domination of women, pornography transmits the ethic of male supremacy and makes it real. It excludes, segregates, denigrates, and dehumanizes women, "violating human dignity and denying equality of opportunity" (46). Thus pornography itself oppresses women, sanctioning by extension all the ways that women are physically harmed and subordinated, from "affronts and lower pay at work, insult and injury at home, [to] battery and rape on the streets" (92). Pornography does all this, MacKinnon contends, without the consumers who see women as less than human and who rape them even "being aware that an 'idea' promoting that content, far less a political position in favor of the sexualized inequality of the sexes, is being advanced" (62).
Let me postpone, for a time, the issue of sado-masochistic pornography and focus right now on non-violent, non-coercive erotica. Does it reduce women to mere sex objects? Does it train men in how to subordinate and discriminate against women? As to the first question, erotica does depict both men and women as merely sexual creatures. But such objectification is an elemental aspect of storytelling and daily life, in and out of bed. We simply cannot know the fullness and complexity of all individual identities. In bed, both women and men, at times, objectify their partners for their own sexual pleasure. Yet, these exercises in objectification do not prevent these same people from valuing, and forming intense intimate relationships with, the very partners they sometimes objectify.
Let me suggest that MacKinnon has reversed the flow of influence. Erotic videos do not affect how men view real women, real women affect how men view erotic videos. After all, not all men view or read erotica, and even those who do spend vastly more time with real women than with the women sexually objectified in erotica. Men (and women) who view erotic videos understand that they are seeing people engage in only one dimension of human existence, and that the women in them, though now functioning solely as sexual beings, are as human and complex as the women they live with and among in the real world--their mothers, sisters, nieces, wives, girlfriends, co-workers, acquaintances, supervisors, etc. It is not the sexualizing of men and women in erotica that poses a problem but how it sexualizes them.
MacKinnon contends that even non-violent erotica transmits the ethnic of male supremacy and trains men in how to subordinate and dominate women. I find this claim both curious and revealing. How does erotica--sexual material that is not sado-masochistic--depict male supremacy and domination? Most erotica depicts men and women consensually engaging in an array of sexual acts and positions. Sometimes the woman is on top, sometimes the man; sometimes the woman is being given sexual pleasure, sometimes the man; sometimes the woman is the initiator, sometimes the man. It would take a highly politicized consciousness to read "subordination" into most of these videos, even if one incorrectly assumes that only males enjoy them. And what would MacKinnon have to say about the erotic videos now designed to satisfy the masturbatory fantasies of women--videos written, produced, and directed by women (USA Today, 26 August 1993, 4D)?
MacKinnon does not distinguish, as I have tried to do, between sado-masochistic material and erotic material because she sees no distinction. All erotic material, as far as she is concerned, subordinates, dehumanizes, denigrates, and degrades women. That's because such material treats women "unequally," no matter how pleasurable or even-handed the acts depicted. MacKinnon has come to this pass, I suggest, because she believes that sex itself subordinates women. I'll explain.
One of the scare words that MacKinnon uses over and over again to underscore how women are abused in "pornography" is the word "penetrated" (or "penetration"). For her, the insertion of the male penis into the woman is itself degrading, and perhaps inherently unequal. This is a notion she may have picked up from Andrea Dworkin, who also believes that biology itself oppresses women because it calls for them to be penetrated by men. In her book Pornography: Men Possessing Women (1981), she writes that "a sabre penetrating a vagina is a weapon: so is the penis for which it substitutes" (7). And in her book Intercourse Dworkin writes that "fucking is an act of possession--simultaneously an act of ownership, taking, force; it is conquering.... The woman is acted on; the man acts and through action expresses sexual power" (in Roiphe, The Morning After, 158). Thus, every act of sex between a man and a woman is rape, expressing, as far as she's concerned, the "same power relation." In her reading, women who cohabit with men become collaborators in their own "political invasion and occupation."
MacKinnon also seems to think of intercourse as violent and degrading to women: "In pornography, the penis is shown ramming up into the woman over and over," and "actually was" (27); a video "contains a penis ramming into a vagina" (23). It is not the depiction but the "ramming" that troubles her. As she put it in a talk attended by Katie Roiphe, "man fucks woman. Subject verb object" (in The Morning After 158). Women, no matter how willing or pleasured, are thus always the object of sexual activity, always objectified, if one sees intercourse as "possession of an objectified Other" (24; "all women live in sexual objectification the way fish live in water"). One alternative to intercourse, fellatio, MacKinnon finds even more repellant and subordinating ("Who listens to a woman with a penis in her mouth?"). Indeed, the male orgasm itself--no matter how achieved--is silencing and intimidating: "Try arguing with an orgasm sometime. You will find you are no match for the sexual access and power the materials provide" (17).
MacKinnon likes to say that pornography is "the power of men over women, expressed through unequal sex" (40), but in her view sex between men and women can never be anything but "unequal" (unless the penis is to be permanently "marginalized" or "bobbittized"). That is why, in her view, pornography always depicts (and celebrates) male sexual supremacy. In other words, pornography doesn't subordinate women, sex does. Absurd as it sounds, MacKinnon is not so much an anti-pornography zealot as a sexual abolitionist.
Given her view of sex, MacKinnon is unable to entertain the thought that the women in erotic videos participate voluntarily or feel physical pleasure. Their "oooing" and "aahhing," their smiles and ostensible delight, are dismissed as "sexual bravado" covering up the "shame" of being made into a pornographer's text. Their willingness to perform fellatio has to be a painful charade, for how could women take pleasure in doing such vile things and in participating in their own humiliation? Indeed, they are helping to participate in the humiliation of all women. One of the dangers of erotica, for MacKinnon, is that it makes men want to engage in the sex acts depicted so freely and non-judgmentally in erotic videos. As she explains it, the consumer wants to do "the same acts" to the women he knows (5). For MacKinnon, that's a frightening prospect. If one interprets sexual activity (between men and women) as rape or a demeaning invasion of a woman's body, then any material that leads to an "increase in sexual activity" or to "greater variety in sexual activity" is appalling. "Once you are used for sex, you are sexualized. You lose your human status. You are sex, therefore unworthy of belief and impossible to violate" (67).
MacKinnon's basic problem is that she simply can't believe that women outside erotic videos want anything to do with erect penises and male orgasms. Indeed, what makes erotic material so dangerous for MacKinnon is that it perpetuates what she regards to be the oppressive and degrading message that women "desire to be fucked," that women are "unchaste," a telling revelation of her Victorian attitude towards sexuality (57; see also 102). Whether MacKinnon is afraid of sex or, as Roiphe suggests, merely "despises it" (151), her message reminds me of what Aunt Lydia tells her charges in Margaret Atwood's dystopia of female oppression, The Handmaid's Tale: "To be seen--to be seen--is to be--her voice trembled--penetrated. What you must be, girls, is impenetrable" (38).
The following AP story from Japan suggests the extent to which MacKinnon's view of female sexuality and pornography misses the boat. Three years ago a disco began admitting sexily clad women for free, and gave them an elevated stage to dance on. Soon, hundreds of eager young Japanese women "with boring, dead-end office jobs" were spending their nights gyrating in G-strings and miniskirts in front of a crowd of men who paid a $55 cover charge to take it all in. The women did it for fun, without pay, and if they were being economically exploited, so were the men being charged over fifty bucks to watch. And if this "objectification" of women's bodies is exactly what men want, as MacKinnon insists, then why did male cops and politicians band together to stop it? When their efforts finally put the disco out of business, the owners scheduled one night of male strippers--6,000 people showed up.
Now let's turn to MacKinnon's final argument--that pornography conditions men to physically abuse, and sometimes rape and kill, women. To strengthen MacKinnon's case, I will assume that she is now referring not to erotica, which depicts non-violent consensual sex, but to sado-masochistic material that depicts the physical abuse of women within a sexual context. According to MacKinnon, men who view such material are "made, changed, and impelled" by it because they become "sexually habituated to its kick" (16). What the material says to men, she contends, "is 'get her,' pointing at all women. This message is addressed directly to the penis, delivered through an erection, and taken out on women in the real world" (21). "Sooner or later," MacKinnon asserts, "in one way or another, the consumers want to live out the pornography further in three dimensions. Sooner or later, in one way or another, they do. It makes them want to; when they believe they can, when they feel they can get away with it, they do" (19).
Although MacKinnon's view of causation is exceedingly simplistic, it seems plausible that some men who repeatedly view graphic depictions of other men violently imposing their sexual will on women may be triggered to force "other women [to] perform the sex that consumers come to want as a result of viewing it" (21). This is merely to admit that Ideas have Consequences. If one of the messages of violent pornography is that men should be able to beat and torture women to satisfy their own sexual desires, then I must take seriously the possibility that such material may condition and impel some men to harm some women.
Obviously, not all men who watch this material are affected, or affected equally, or affected in the same way (as MacKinnon simplistically assumes), but it would be absurd to posit that no men are ever affected at all.
As Ernest van den Haag has argued, although a given book, film, or video probably cannot be a sufficient cause of an action, it does not follow that it has no effect, or that the effect cannot be, at times, decisive either in initiating an inclination leading to an act, or in precipitating acts when the inclination exists ("Is Pornography a Cause of Crime?" Encounter 29.6, December 1967, 52-56). Reading or viewing pornography may lead to actions no less than doing other things may. Admittedly, it is almost impossible to know precisely how a given work impinges on reality or affects a particular person, but to assume that erotic material has no power to materially affect how we think and act is logically unwarranted and empirically implausible.
Many of MacKinnon's critics (Romano, Dworkin), and many who oppose anti-pornography legislation generally, continue to insist that "there is no meaningful body of research which shows...causal relationships" between "hard-core pornography" and "harm done to women" (letter, Chronicle of Higher Education, 22 September 1993, B4). As Ronald Dworkin puts it, "no reputable study has concluded that pornography is a significant cause of sexual crime." The "causes harm" theory, one writer asserts, is "bankrupt" and "bogus," based on "junk science" (Romano 566). I understand the motive for discrediting the notion that sado-masochistic pornography has harmful effects on some women and men. As Dworkin admits, if the claim that pornography "significantly increases the number of rapes and other sexual crimes" can be shown to be "even probable, through reliable research, it would provide a very strong though not necessarily decisive argument for censorship" (38). To fend off this frightening prospect, those who fear "censorship," that is, more laws further controlling erotic material, attempt to minimize or discredit any and all empirical studies that demonstrate a link between violent pornography and aggressive behavior. But these people are beginning to sound like tobacco growers and cigarette manufacturers who deny that science has demonstrated any causal link between smoking and cancer.
Although any attempt to control potentially harmful material threatens free speech, by definition, one cannot be blind to the fact that there is now convincing evidence that the viewing of sado-masochistic material can have harmful effects for some people. Research done by Thomas Radecki, H.J. Eysenck and D.K.B. Nias, Daniel Linz and Steven Penrod, Edward Donnerstein and Neil Malamuth, to name just a few of the more prominent experts in this field, supports the contention that eroticized depictions of violence against women have real-world harmful effects, whether by desensitizing men so they view violence against women less harshly or by actually triggering such violence. Since the research on this issue is now immense, I will offer a smattering of comments that show that the experimental support for such a connection is not weak but "robust" (H.J. Eysenck in Pornography and Sexual Aggression, ed. by Edward Donnerstein and Neil Malamuth , 312).
In 1978, Eysenck's own studies of sado-masochistic pornography led him to conclude, although such material can affect people in different ways, "that pornography has effects on viewers and readers can no longer be disputed" (italics in original). In some of his subjects, it provoked "anti-social sexual behavior, or help[ed] condition them to deviancy. It may lead to marital maladjustment and sex problems, and have all manner of subtle effects, such as modifying fantasies and attitudes to one's sex partner. There is even evidence that it may lead to aggression and violence" (Sex, Violence, and the Media 252-253). Even Carlin Romano, one of MacKinnon's most outspoken critics, admits as much when he says that it is "probably true in some cases" that pornography has provoked men to assault and rape women (567). He argues, however, that because it sometimes doesn't provoke such hostile acts, violent pornography is protected by the First Amendment.
Since 1978, hundreds of studies have strengthened the view that sado-masochistic material has harmful effects on some people. Even the judge who struck down Indianapolis's anti-pornography ordinance designed by MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin explicitly acknowledged that studies had demonstrated a causal connection between pornography and social harms, including sex crimes. A later case reasserted this view. In Schiro v. Clark, expert evidence held that Thomas Schiro, convicted of rape and murder, could not appreciate the wrongfulness of his acts because of his extensive consumption of sado-masochistic material and snuff films (NYRB, 3 March 1994, 48).
In hearings before the U.S. Federal Commission on Pornography (Houston, 1985), researchers testified that the role played by pornography in rape is significant. In Sexual Exploitation (Sage Press, 1994), Diana E. Russell found that of the 930 randomly selected adult women she interviewed, 89 reported having been upset by male friends trying to get them to do what they had seen in pornographic pictures, movies, or books. Fourteen of the women reported having been raped by men forcing them to do what they had seen in pornography. Twenty-nine of 36 serial killers interviewed by the FBI confessed that pornography had a negative impact on their thinking and behavior (Wall Street Journal, 1 February 1994, A15). According to police vice squads across the nation, 77 per cent of molesters of boys and 87 per cent of molesters of girls confessed to imitating the sexual behavior depicted in pornography. As long as we mean by "pornography" sado-masochistic material sexualizing the physical abuse of women (even this concept is open to interpretation), then the conclusion seems obvious that such material helps create a moral and social climate that glamorizes and encourages pernicious attitudes and behavior particularly harmful to women, and in some cases impels men to criminal acts against them.
Of course, we could always acknowledge these harmful effects without trying to do anything about them. It could be argued that not enough men and women are harmed by such material to make the effort to control it legitimate and worthwhile. Similarly, it could be argued that the number who are harmed must be accepted as an expense for avoiding even greater harms that might result from efforts to control such material. But this triage option would require quite a sophisticated calculation of costs and benefits to be convincing to women, and to the men who love them.
Thirty years ago van den Haag wrote:
Were [pornographic and sadistic literature] directed against a specific human group--e.g., Jews or Negroes--the same libertarian ideologues who now oppose censorship might advocate it. Should we find a little Negro or Jewish girl tortured to death and her death agony taped by her murderers [a reference to the infamous Moors killings of 1966], and should we find the murderers imbued with sadistic anti-Semitic or anti-Negro literature--certainly most liberals would advocate that the circulation of such literature be prohibited. (54)
What MacKinnon has done is to insist, correctly I believe, that sadistic pornography is directed against a "specific human group": women (strange that van den Haag didn't notice this). While I cannot agree with MacKinnon that pornography is the sole or even primary cause of female oppression or that it hurts all women as a class (she at times compares pornography to the Holocaust), it certainly contributes to it, though how much and in what ways is contestable as well as contentious. Any effort to criminalize sadistic pornography will not prevent all distribution, but it would reduce it and deprive it of social approval. The advantage of doing this must be weighed against the likely disadvantages. And those disadvantages, which might be considerable and not respecting of gender, cannot be known before they are upon us.
After explaining why he believes that violent sexual material is harmful and should be banned, H.J. Eysenck turns to non-violent/non-coercive erotica, the kind that MacKinnon thinks is just as "subordinating" and injurious as "hard-core" material. Yet, Eysenck cannot see any reason why such a work as Fanny Hill, "perhaps as erotic a book as one could wish to read,"
should not be shown on film, for adult audiences, however explicit the sexual scenes might be. Such a film would undoubtedly have certain effects on the people who chose to view it, but none of the effects could be said to be socially undesirable--unless we regard sexual behaviour outside marriage as undesirable in itself. The film might lead to an increase in sexual activity, and it might lead to greater variety in sexual activity, but it is difficult to see that the censor would have any right to interfere with the freedom of the adult citizen to choose such material for viewing should he or she so desire. (Sex, Violence, and the Media 258)
For reasons that I've already mentioned, this testimony to the harmlessness of erotica is not going to convince or console MacKinnon and her epigones. Her goal is to suppress all erotic material, in the name of "equality." MacKinnon makes it very clear that her efforts to cleanse this country of everything that subjugates women or works against their "equality" will not stop with yanking Deep Throat and Playboy from the shelves. MacKinnon would outlaw not only violent/erotic depictions of hostile acts perpetrated against helpless women, but any sexually explicit material in which women are presented as sexual objects or in which their "body parts" are "fetishiz[ed]" (23). As I have suggested, this means that she would outlaw all erotic material involving women, including Calvin Klein ads. As some anti-pornography feminists are fond of saying, it's all on the same spectrum with Goya's "Naked Maja" at one end and snuff films at the other, with not a whole lot of space in between.
But MacKinnon and her followers will not stop with ads and art. As one feminist lawyer crowed at a conference, now that the premise of actionable "hostile and offensive" work places has been accepted, there is no reason not to press on with the concept of a "hostile and offensive world"! As we know, MacKinnon has already criminalized such expressions as "Hey pussycat, come here and give me a whiff" and "Women are only fit company for something that howls" through her definition of "hostile environment" sexual harassment (these statements have been cited in court cases). She would go further, however, and ban all "dirty words" and "sex words," on the grounds that they empower the perpetrator (men) and traumatize their victims (women). Such words and statements constitute a "sexual invasion, an act of sexual aggression, a violation of sexual boundaries, a sex act in itself" (58).
But even this is only the beginning for MacKinnon. She would outlaw anything that could remotely contribute to female "inequality," from academic books that make an argument for women's biological "inferiority" to claims that rape statistics are routinely fabricated ("especially without critical commentary," 106-08). Since the idea of "human equality is true," she avers, any statements to the contrary are "false" and can be "regulated" (107). All "expressive means of practicing inequality can be prohibited."
Katie Roiphe writes that MacKinnon's appeal is "essentially religious," and that her rhetoric is the "language of religious conversion" (158). The religion of course, is Puritanism. This is why MacKinnon is so dangerous. She is a moral vigilante--the Carry Nation of pornography--prowling for any and every act, word, or image that she says--through her widely disseminated "theory"--"subordinates" women. Since freedom is indivisible, if she succeeds, she may wind up closing the "pornomarts" only to create, like those sexual Puritans in Atwood's Handmaid's Tale, a porn-free dystopian nightmare in which women are really subjugated.