Pornography, Rape, Feminism and Catharine MacKinnon

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I know that there are deep divisions of thought within feminism about pornography. My impression, based on the literature I am familiar with, is that we are a lot less divided about rape. Pornography and rape are two areas in which Catharine MacKinnon has been an activist as well as a scholar.

I rise to her defense here because I feel she has been unfairly treated at another feminist blog, in this post by Bitch/Lab. My personal circumstances now and for several more weeks deny me access to any MacKinnon scholarly work that is not available online, as I am not at home, so I can’t respond with specificity to the accusations that she makes generalizations which are inadequately supported by footnotes. Bitch/Lab may be correct when she says:

…one of the things I utterly detest about MacKinnon’s work, when I’ve read it, is that it rarely makes any direct reference to a specific writer or speaker. In other words, she’ll attribute a belief of claim to some amorphous being or group or something, but she never identifies who exactly she’s talking about. Funny that.

It’s entirely appropriate and useful for Bitch/Lab to call MacKinnon out if she thinks MacKinnon is creating and arguing against strawpeople. Considering that Bitch/Lab is also an academic, it would be nice if she held herself to the same standard she imposes on MacKinnon. Instead I think Bitch/Lab demonstrates the allure and rhetorical utility of the generalization when she herself writes things like:

When women of color criticize the canon of feminist theory, THEY ARE CRITICIZING the way in which their work was co-opted, stolen, appropriated, used, usurped, etc. while they, the women of color themselves, were pushed aside> Or, they were silenced and marginalized, relegated to the status of add-on. Not even a strap on, man! They were just used as add-ons, like tissue stuffed into a bra, as the lone representative voice to be included in the anthology of feminist theory. MacK’s statement ignores the way women’s studies and feminist theory texts focused on the issues that mainly concern white women, using examples of problems faced by white women, taking white women as the implicit standard of what it is to be a woman and what it means to experience oppression as a woman. . . . dot fucking dot fucking dot!

Names? Citations? Links? Footnotes? Anything at all to document this assertion with the specificity that MacKinnon is charged with lacking?

I don’t embrace everything MacKinnon has written or said, but I don’t know too many people who have read her work who would write her off as a “major twit” or that can consider her personal history without recognizing the great personal sacrifices she made when she committed her life to feminist activism. She has encountered powerful resistance from male liberals who do not want their societal privilege compromised, or even noticed. I do not offer names or links to support this point because I don’t know how I would begin to (e.g.) identify the men on the Yale Law School Faculty who refused to hire MacKinnon. Though recently Yale has added women to its law faculty, Yale remains a bastion of white males, and the liberalism of many of them has little to offer female scholars. Even if MacKinnon was rejected because she is “a major twit,” that doesn’t explain why so many other smart, successful women have been kept off the faculty as well, in part by men who identify as liberal. Again, I can’t provide individual names, but I can count the liberals on the faculty and I can count the women. To borrow a phrase from Twisty, “supposedly liberal dudes” are a huge problem for feminists and for women generally, not just in legal academia but in life generally, and most of MacKinnon’s critiques against liberals are directed against them.

There is also her work on rape. Even those who most passionately disagree with her views on pornography ought to be able to find merit in her efforts on behalf of rape survivors.

Power and privilege issues are important and should be debated. MacKinnon may be wrong about things, but she isn’t stupid, and she deserves to be read and considered. My own experience with her writings has been that they are different and better than I expected them to be, and I learn a lot from them. My own view is that a lot of smart men are frightened of MacKinnon, and that is why they work so hard to disparage and marginalize her. But I don’t think she is correct about everything or that she shouldn’t be challenged. I just think the criticisms should be well supported and fair, and free of ad wominem attacks.

Somewhat related posts here here here here here and here.

–Ann Bartow

Updated for clarity. I should also add that in addition to her work on rape, MacKinnon did a lot of important work in sexual harassment law, and other areas as well.

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