[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
WOMEN'S LIVES, MEN'S LAWS
By Catharine A. MacKinnon.
558 pp. The Belknap Press/Harvard University Press. $39.95.
By JENNIFER MICHAEL HECHT
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
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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