[Paleopsych] NYTBR: (MacKinnon) 'Women's Lives, Men's Laws': Down by Law

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'Women's Lives, Men's Laws': Down by Law

By Catharine A. MacKinnon.
558 pp. The Belknap Press/Harvard University Press. $39.95.


    MOST adults probably have an opinion on pornography. They may also
    have an opinion on Catharine A. MacKinnon, one of the country's most
    prominent antipornography activists. In the 1980's, she and Andrea
    Dworkin wrote an ordinance banning pornography that some feminists
    applaud but a great many of us reject as censorship. The battle lines
    are clear enough to support invective shorthand. Those for them are
    sometimes called MacDworkinites. They give as good as they get:
    MacKinnon refers to the American Civil Liberties Union as ''the
    pro-pimp lobby.''

    The well-worn debate notwithstanding, ''Women's Lives, Men's Laws,''
    MacKinnon's first collection of essays since 1987, is absorbing and
    important despite its polemical blinders. Perhaps more than anyone
    else, MacKinnon has changed the way we use the law in America today.
    The essays here on rape, abortion, prostitution and harassment law
    make clear how, and it's intellectually exciting stuff. As MacKinnon,
    who teaches law at the University of Michigan and the University of
    Chicago, memorably suggests, ''sexual assault in the United States
    today resembles lynching prior to its recognition as a civil rights
    violation.'' Instead of arresting prostitutes, she says, we should be
    using the antislavery 13th Amendment to fight pimps. True, her claims
    are often too large for their footnote. Worse, she's so maddeningly
    certain about everything that readers are often forced to disagree.
    Yet much here is persuasive. ''Women's Lives, Men's Laws'' is a
    compelling vision of how our use of law shapes inequality and how we
    might rethink it.

    As MacKinnon gracefully explains, issues of sexual equality used to be
    dealt with in Aristotelian terms: fairness is when equals, and equals
    only, are treated equally. So, since only women get pregnant, nothing
    to do with pregnancy in the workplace was actionable as sex
    discrimination. Thanks to MacKinnon the concept of equality now
    incorporates circumstances that promote second-class citizenship. She
    is responsible for many such conceptual changes: Sexual harassment
    isn't merely harmless flirting because it can easily be shown to have
    harmful consequences. Domestic abuse often creates such passivity that
    different standards are needed for ''consent.''

    Unfortunately, the book's driving thesis is that pornography causes
    violence, and it's not convincing. MacKinnon asserts that ''because
    the aggressors have won, it is hard to believe them wrong.'' But she
    doesn't usefully respond to the substantive reasons people disagree
    with her. To many of us it is evident that abuse, not images, causes
    abuse; rape has existed in the absence of pornography; and some
    pornography is enjoyed by peaceful women and men. Then there's the
    question of strategy: MacKinnon and Dworkin's approach was adopted in
    Canada and the law was used to ban their own books as well as
    literature with gay themes.

    Some feminists have celebrated sex work as empowering. Here too
    MacKinnon is surely right that many women in porn would leave if they
    had any real choice, and many of them get hurt. Jenna Jameson may be
    mainstream now, but her book is subtitled ''A Cautionary Tale,'' and
    she's not kidding. Pornography does some harm to some users too. But
    MacKinnon goes farther:

    ''Every day the pornography industry gets bigger and penetrates more
    deeply and more broadly into social life, conditioning mass sexual
    responses to make fortunes for men and to end lives and life chances
    for women and children. . . . The age of first pornography consumption
    is younger and probably dropping, and the age of the average rapist is
    ever younger. The acceptable level of sexual force climbs ever higher;
    women's real status drops ever lower.''

    One study, she tells us, held that one out of three American men would
    commit rape if assured escape, and that ''the figure climbs following
    exposure to commonly available aggressive pornography.''

    MacKinnon's world is utterly recognizable as our own, but there's
    something off. The women here are bruised, raped, poverty-stricken rag
    dolls. Utterly recognizable, as I said, but incomplete. The men in
    this world have no barriers between their fantasies and their
    behaviors. Women should look at pornography ''to find out what men
    really think of them.'' Why did Anita Hill remain on speaking terms
    with Clarence Thomas? ''If women refused to talk with every man who
    ever said vile sexual things to us, we would be talking mostly to
    women.'' The women I know are on speaking terms with only one or two
    people who have said vile sexual things to them.

    MacKinnon notes that when the equal rights amendment ''expired
    unratified,'' in 1982, women did not riot in the streets. Instead:
    they do menial labor in offices, ''fight for their lives as fist met
    face'' and ''lay their lives down as penis sliced in and out and in
    and out.'' Why that last image? Remember the old joke where a guy
    taking a Rorschach test sees people having sex on every card, then
    shouts at the shrink, ''How dare you show me all these disgusting
    pictures?!''+MacKinnon's fury is appropriate to the subject, and
    enlivened by a poison wit, but is often out of control. Sometimes an
    argument is merely burdened with a too bilious turn of phrase, but
    sometimes her one-sidedness is fundamental.

    MacKinnon wants a rape law that assesses ''consensual'' sex in terms
    of all power differences -- not only age. It's an interesting way of
    thinking about law and social equality, but who else really believes
    adult women need or want such protection? She several times mentions
    men with or without ''weapons other than the penis.'' Being human
    means negotiating different kinds of power, and sometimes a penis is
    just a penis.

    Jennifer Michael Hecht is the author of ''Doubt: A History'' and ''The
    End of the Soul.''

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