A ground-breaking force in determining international legal attitudes toward sexual harassment and rape

But Prof. Catharine MacKinnon agrees that she has been less successful in fighting pornography.

In at least one area – pornography – Catharine MacKinnon has failed spectacularly. Ever since she began writing about women in the pornography industry and to advocate for them, at the start of the 1980s, nothing in their situation has changed. Her criticism of the damage caused by pornography has achieved nothing.

“On the contrary,” she says. “During the past 20 years the situation has only deteriorated. Today pornography is accessible and available everywhere. It is possible to obtain it with a few keystrokes, it comes in through Internet to every home where there is a computer and the women who work in the industry, in the thousands, are weak and exploited and have no options.”

MacKinnon represented, pro bono, victims of rape in the Serbian-Croatian war. In 2000 she won in the famous Kadic vs. Karadzic case and obtained for the women – victims of the Bosnian Serb war criminal Radovan Karadzic – compensation totaling $745 million. More importantly, she advanced the awareness of rape during wartime as an act whose aim is genocide.

However, MacKinnon’s influence is evident primarily in other areas, which have to do with the mainstream of society. All of the basic terms accepted today in the United States, and also in the cultural and legal system in Israel, regarding sexual harassment in the work place as a prohibited form of discrimination against women, as well as rape and violence within the family, and the criticism of the idea of “consensuality” in rape (the fact that forced sex is considered rape even if the woman who was raped said “yes”), that is, the very fact that women today have the possibility of obtaining legal aid in cases in which they have been injured in a gender-related context – all of these are the fruit of MacKinnon’s theoretical and activist work.

From what she says and from the way she analyzes the power relations between men and women, great pessimism emerges. MacKinnon’s basic idea is that gender – that is, the concepts of “man” and “woman” – is not about difference, but rather about dominance. By virtue of their definition, she argues, the man is dominant and the woman is dominated, subordinated to his needs. And in any case, the male, as Simone de Beauvoir saw before her, is the standard, is “man” – the pattern on which everything is based and from which everything is derived – whereas the woman is the “other,” who is defined relative to him. Just as in anatomy the human body is studied and the model is usually the male body, whereas the female body is shunted into the study of gynecology, as a special case – the same holds true in culture: Woman is not part of the human standard.

MacKinnon stresses: “De Beauvoir showed the problem: that the woman is the `other,’ and the man is the standard. I am showing something else: that the things that have been depicted as a solution to the problem – that is, the feminist struggle for equality, for the equalization of the rights of women to the rights of men – are in fact part of the problem.”

MacKinnon makes it clear that the very fact of wanting to be equal to men perpetuates the assumption that men and masculinity are the model that determines what is worthy and what is desirable. “If we want to achieve equality in such conditions of inequality, our way will become endless,” she comments.

It sometimes seems as though MacKinnon’s radical feminism does not respect women. If a woman is by definition subordinate to a man’s authority, and is defined by him and in relation to him – it is difficult to imagine a totally free and independent woman. This is especially difficult with respect to sex and pornography. MacKinnon assumes that heterosexual sexual relations are defined and shaped by the male point of view. Sex is penetration and subordination, she says, only from the male perspective. She argues that unequal sexual relations – relations of conquest and forced submission – became eroticized in order to perpetuate the inequality between the sexes.

Why have you failed? Why have your proposals for legislation in the area of pornography failed and in all other areas – sexual harassment, rape, sexual assault and so forth – you have succeeded in bringing about real change?

“It’s very simple: Power and money win. There is not a sexual harassment industry. There aren’t people who are making millions out of sexual harassment the way people are making millions from pornography. The moment we succeed in advancing legislation against pornography in one of the states in the United States, or in the world, someone in the international lobby of pimps hears that this is getting under way and they organize and exercise tremendous power to prevent change. They hire huge public relations firms and they invest lots of money and make sure that this does not succeed.

“And not only that. The problem is that the printed and electronic media support pornography, on the mistaken assumption that a prohibition on pornography threatens them and their power. They confuse obscenity laws and the pornography laws that Andrea Dworkin and I have proposed, and they think that they are publishing pornography and their freedom of expression will be limited. But in fact we have made a clear distinction between pornography and all the rest. What there is in advertisements for Hollywood films is not pornography.”

But the non-pornographic eroticism in advertising and mainstream films is also likely to contribute to the demeaning and harming of women. And it is consumed by everyone.

“Ordinary advertisements and films do not lead to violence and rape. Pornography does do this. Studies show this clearly. And pornography is what influences the mainstream, and not the other way around. The struggle has to focus on pornography.”

From a longer article and interview published at http://www.haaretz.com/culture/arts-leisure/man-as-the-standard-woman-as-the-other-1.62353

See also:

The Future of Pornography: Stop Porn Culture! Conference
June 12-13, 2010 – Wheelock College, Boston MA

In March 2007, over 500 people gathered at a conference in Boston to help re-ignite a progressive and feminist movement against pornography. Our second national conference will once again bring together activists, researchers, survivors, parents, and other concerned community members to continue developing our anti-pornography analysis and building our resistance movement. Come and join us for two days of keynotes, workshops, and discussion.



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