Mackinnon: Pornography is Oppression

Professor Catharine Mackinnon seeks to be the Galileo of sexual inequality: the philosopher free of preconceptions who reveals a new structure, incorporating all known facts, radically different from anything previously understood.

The structure Galileo overthrew was the Earth-centered universe. The structure Mackinnon must overthrow, in order to make the law do what she thinks it must, is the First Amendment- centered universe (though Mackinnon would probably say it was the pimp-centered universe; pimp is a favorite term of hers).

If you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail; Mackinnon is a lawyer, so the law looks like the best way, or the only way, to solve the problem of pornography. If you divorce Mackinnon's conclusions from her prescriptions, you would have a valuable feminist scholar, calling attention to contexts and subtexts in our society previously ignored. But, as an attorney and law professor, Mackinnon must, to accomplish her goals, place herself squarely in confrontation with free speech.

This is doubly sad, because the idea she presents us with is so valuable. Mackinnon's central idea is that pornography is the oppression of women; it is not simply talk about or advocacy of oppression. Thus, she argues, contrary to most Constitutional scholars, that pornography is not speech, but action.

In Mackinnon's opinion, pornography acts against women twice, when it is made, and when it is viewed. First, women are degraded, raped and (in her belief) even killed in the making of pornographic pictures and films. Then, the pictures and films further participate in the degradation, rape and murder of women by the users of pornography. To cite just one example from Mackinnon's Only Words, Linda Marchiano, then known as Linda Lovelace, was beaten and threatened at gunpoint by her husband during the filming of Deep Throat. The movie then caused men to force women to try acts which Marchiano had only been able to perform under hypnosis. According to Mackinnon, numerous women were hospitalized directly as a result of the film; some were raped by strangers, others were coerced or raped by boyfriends. (Mackinnon and her colleague, Andrea Dworkin, do not really distinguish between rape and psychological coercion; in fact, to Dworkin, all heterosexual sex seems tantamount to rape.)

While Mackinnon's world view, thus summarized, may sound extreme, a thought experiment-- one I have advocated before-- is all that is really necessary to see the validity of her ideas. Assume that there is a public market place for sadistic torture videos set in concentration camps, and that drug-addicted, psychologically unstable Jews could be found to act in them. Virtually none of us would have any problem recognizing this as an extremely unhealthy form of entertainment, nor would we hesitate to believe that the consumers of such videos would be confirmed in their racist and sadistic views and more likely to act on them as a result.

There is no moral difference between really degrading pornography and the concentration camp videos I described. As Mackinnon points out, there is a sub-genre of S&M videos which are, in fact, set in concentration camps where the inmates are seen to assist in their own degradation.

Mackinnon points out that "freedom of speech" allows the stronger, more dominant speaker to silence the weaker one, and believes that women have been silenced by the speech of men. Though a favorite liberal feminist argument against Mackinnon is that she portrays women as shrinking violets in need of protection, I believe that speech can in fact silence speech and even attack one's sense of self-worth. This is the speech of the schoolyard and the street, the howling taunt, the racial epithet, and the sexual bombardment that women recieve. The latter, the sexual harassment that every woman must face in the world every day, is of the same quality and the same effect as the former. The racial taunt says, "You are an animal, not a human being," and the sexual taunt says, "You have no identity, no personality-- you are a collection of appealing body parts." Mackinnon was instrumental in the last fifteen years in getting the courts to recognize that unwelcome sexual speech in the workplace prevented women from realizing their full potential as human beings; an extremely common form of sexual harassment is having pornography-- a magazine or poster--forced on you with the intent to hurt or upset you. If this kind of speech is unacceptable at work, Mackinnon asks, why does no one recognize that outside the workplace, it also prevents women from coming into their own?

While we may respond to the political by countering it with the political, we frequently don't know how to respond to the personal except by silence and shame. So speech may in fact kill speech. Mackinnon has exposed a conflict between speech and equality in our Constitutional law.

The First Amendment is founded on the proposition, set forth so beautifully by J.S. Mill in On Liberty, that good speech ultimately drives out bad. Free speech, like our court system, is based on a faith that truth wins. If in either case, victory goes to he who shouts the loudest, the system breaks down. Mackinnon believes that men, who have more power and more aggression, will always shout loudest, that their speech is backed by the threat of violence, and that the pornographic speech of men, supposedly protected by the First Amendment, is itself violence.

Mill not only believed in free speech; he believed that no action should be prohibited that harmed only oneself, that the government should only intervene to bar acts that harmed others. His goal was the full development of the individual in any direction; he knew that in a Millian world, some would grow into stunted monstrosities while others might become mighty oaks, and that was fine. In our world, however, and largely because of sexual speech and sexual violence, women still do not have the opportunity to grow into whatever they will; the fact that women cannot go out alone at night, or travel many places even in daytime without the company and the mediation of a man means that women cannot easily take even the first steps necessary towards full self-development. Mackinnon believes that free speech perpetuates this, that male power uses speech to enforce inequality.

Mackinnon drafted a civil ordinance, which was passed in a number of places, which would have given women victims of pornography a civil right of lawsuit against pornographers. A coalition of civil libertarians went into court 90 minutes after the ordinance had been passed and successfully petitioned a federal judge to throw it out, as a violation of the First Amendment.

I suppose we are lucky that law professors do not run the world. Mackinnon's bitter and veristic world view concentrates on truths most women must ignore to survive: that the male world in an important sense is hostile to them, that male sexuality mixed with violence is a potent force that holds them back, that we still fall far short of a world in which men and women will work and love as equals. Her prescriptions, however, like most Utopias, collapse of their own weight: in a patriarchic world, why does she think she can petition the patriarchy to pass laws that will silence evil speech and promote equality? A patriarchy has never truly promoted equality of any kind before, though many have claimed to. As Nadine Strossen points out, Mackinnon's views of pornography, accepted by the liberal Canadian Supreme Court, resulted only in action being taken against lesbian and feminist pornography in Canada, while mainstream porno went on unchecked. The people in power will use whatever means are available to preserve their position, not change it.

The only hope lies with free speech. Without free speech, there cannot be equality. With free speech, equality is not guaranteed, but we have the opportunity to pursue it. It gives us the tools we need to begin the work.

The progress made by black people gives evidence of this. I am not pretending that this is no longer a racist country, or that they don't still face significant inequality. However, a type of discourse about them, a way of portraying them in the media that was acceptable fifty years ago--the word "nigger", the Amos and Andy buffoon--has all but vanished. It is gone because society understood that these words, these portrayals, were racist and not acceptable. No laws needed to be passed to censor speech; laws were passed to assure access to public facilities, to schools, to jobs instead. I don't see why we cannot combat the ill effects of pornography similarly, by raising our voices, rather than by demanding censorship which will backfire upon us.

I can imagine Mackinnon's reaction. To change a white man's attitude about a black man, she would say, you must only make him see that the other is a man like him. But (it goes without saying) you can never make a man see that a woman is a man like him, because she is not. Sexual desire is a powerful solvent of rationality ("Did you ever try to argue with an orgasm?" Mackinnon asks in Only Words). She is right that the final battle for equality between men and women may be much harder than that for racial equality, because it must overcome forces deeper in the human soul (desire is more primal and more powerful than xenophobia).

Women today tolerate a lot more casual abuse than black people have in decades. They sit in audiences at mainstream movies like Interview with the Vampire without realizing that what they are watching glorifies sexual violence. Why not speak out, demonstrate against movies, ask the director, writer and producer what they are teaching their sons and daughters, ask the audience to think about what draws them to these kinds of stories? The anti-abortion forces have mastered the art of taking protest speech to the very limits of the First Amendment; the feminist movement, apparently a bit tired right now, knew how to do this, but has lost the will. People, men, are not ignorant or totally unable to see connections and parallels. Educate women to educate men that there is no moral difference between sexual violence and any other kind. Mackinnon would say this cannot work, but I believe it has not effectively yet been tried, loud enough, for long enough.

Free speech can promote equality, but censorship never will. When government declares that it will use censorship for this purpose, it should not be believed. Thus, Mackinnon's solution, of asking government to use censorship to promote equality, is dangerous and wrong.