A Rejoinder

Against the Current, No. 65, November/December 1996

Cathy Crosson

WHAT WE HAVE here is a failure to communicate.  Ann Menasche complains that my criticisms of MacDworkinism act to “discourage real debate” about pornography-precisely my announced intention.  Enough ink and feminist energy have been squandered on this relatively insignificant topic to last us the next century.  If it was ever a debate worth having, it has long ago exhausted its usefulness and has become an ever-weightier albatross for the women’s movement.

Hopefully none of us disagree regarding the need for an all-sided struggle against gender oppression, or would minimize the violence of this society, particularly against women.  The real questions concern how to conduct our struggle effectively; doing so requires that we both understand the world properly and build the solidarity necessary to change it. In that regard, Menasche’s riposte reveals political and methodological differences that are worth pondering.

We have a decade and a half of experience with the ideological current best known through MacDworkin.  As revolutionary feminists, we need to objectively and critically evaluate it, theoretically and in terms of its practical effects.  Menasche hails MacDworkin as having developed a “radical feminist critique of heterosexuality,” and finds it shocking that a socialist would trash their “radical feminism.”  But people are not “radical” in any helpful sense just because they say they are.

In defense of MacDworkin’s supposed progressiveness, Menasche also accuses me of misrepresenting their views, presumably by characterizing them as anti-sexual gender- sectarians.  Yet, as Nadine Strossen does in “Defending Pornography,” I have amply supported that conclusion with their own exceptionally plain words.

Menasche has neither demonstrated that MacKinnon and Dworkin mean something other than what they so vividly say, nor has she addressed the fact that feminism lies in ruin following this period of their ideological “leadership.”  Both in its demoralizing effects on the troops and in providing the right wing with ammunition to assassinate feminism, MacDworkinism has essentially done for feminism what Stalin did for socialism.

“Name-calling” is one thing; calling a thing by its right name is quite another.  MacDworkin and their adherents consistently paint a scorched-earth landscape in which sexuality is nothing but perilous and humiliating for women, a universe in which gender relations are at least as hopeless as Northern Ireland and Palestine combined.

Amid their many profound observations that men are Pavlovian attack dogs, that we should regard our sons as our enemies, etc., I have yet to see a kind word for either men or sexuality.  If there is some metaphysical sense in which MacDworkin and their ilk are attempting to reclaim our sexuality, their approach is the ideological equivalent of burning the village to save it.

Others more deserving of the badge of radical feminism, such as Adrienne Rich, have developed thoughtful and constructive critiques of heterosexuality as a compulsory institution.  Such contributions have an important place in our evolving socialist/feminist theory and practice; they enrich our understanding and provoke critical questioning.

In contrast, MacDworkinism offers us nothing liberating; its emotion-laden screed comes down to nothing more sophisticated than “pornography is bad, sex is dangerous, and men are violent.”  Positing that words and pictures cause violence and oppression, it scrupulously avoids any meaningful discussion of the root causes of these social problems.

In the real world, this version of “feminism” has disaffected countless women who do not experience male violence as the defining characteristic of their lives, and has distracted countless others from the economic and political battles we should have been fighting while we have been squabbling about “pornography.”

This idealism-attributing to ideas and images a significant or even decisive causal role in social phenomena-is the central conceptual flaw of anti-pron feminism.  With no totalizing view of the social and economic system we live in, MacDworkinism is incapable of getting to the material baes of gender oppression.  It thus makes impossible the gender solidarity we will desperately need even to defend or improve our lot under capitalism, not to mention creating a new world.

A few points are worth making here about the pornography issue itself, although again, the more important disagreements Menasche raises concern the relative strategic importance/advisability of making it an issue at all.

First, neither Menasche nor her “radical feminists” meaningfully define the term “pornography,” as distinct from sexual expression they would defend (assuming the latter category exists at all for MacKinnon and Dworkin, which one has good reason to doubt, but softer MacDworkinites want to distinguish “erotica”).  They necessarily fail to do so, because that judgment is far too subjective and contextual to delineate in the abstract.

Even the Supreme Court, at the high water mark of its dedication to free speech (in Cohen v. California, the “Fuck the Draft” case), was sophisticated enough to understand that “one [person’s] vulgarity is another’s lyric.”

MacKinnon and Dworkin have tried variously to define what they consider proscribable pornography in unavoidably amorphous terms such as “degrading to women,” “presenting women as sexual objects … or commodities,” or “exhibiting women’s body parts…such that women are reduced to those parts.”

These criteria may sound at first like nice feminist rhetoric, but they are extremely problematic in any number of ways. Are depictions of sex “degrading to women,” but not to men?  Is it alright to present men as sexual objects, or reduce them to their body parts?

MacKinnon and Dworkin are doing one of two things here. Perhaps they really mean to limit these concepts, in which case they are making the classic mistake of the politically naive-assuming that those in power who will end up using these tools of censorship will do so in accordance with their “feminist” understanding of what is “degrading,” etc. Or, a theory more consistent with the evidence, they essentially want to suppress all pornography because they understand sex itself to be “degrading,” at least to women.

The latter is certainly in keeping with the tenor of Dworkin’s insistence that heterosex is “a bitter personal death” and “fucking is inherently sadistic” (a claim that is quite hard to interpret as other than essentialist).  Lesbian erotica is “an expression of self-hatred,” Dworkin tells us. Meanwhile MacKinnon would censor all materials suggesting that women “desire to be fucked” (and of course materials depicting women being fucked unwillingly are even worse).

Precious little would remain safe from censorship under a MacDworkinite regime.  They have expressly rejected the limitations based on artistic, etc. value that qualify the Supreme Court’s already intractable definition of obscenity.  The best Menasche can do by way of asserting MacDworkin’s open-mindedness is a quote from Dworkin that implies precisely the opposite: Dworkin admits only that “erotica “could” exist,” but goes on to disclaim that there now exists any such category of sexual speech she would deem acceptable.

One can only conclude from this quote, consistent with Dworkin’s positions repeatedly expressed elsewhere, that all (or virtually all) sexual expression is “filled with hatred of women.”  This litmus test for the stuff we should all dedicate our lives to eradicating is of course as accordion- like as any other.

Sadly, under the sway of such demagoguery, lots of supposedly intelligent members of our gender have been swept up in the silliness of this crusade in the name of “feminism.”  Menasche asserts that “none of the opponents of pornography see sex and nudity itself as sinful, dirty, or immoral.”  Why is it then that a fuss is now almost routinely made-usually in the name of a “feminist sensibility”-over any frank artistic display of sex or even nudity?

In “Defending Pornography”, Strossen cites numerous such episodes, many of which would be laughable if they were not so discrediting and otherwise damaging to feminism.  For example, when writer Ntozake Shange appeared on the cover of “Poets & Writers” magazine wearing a lace bodice and balancing a book on her head, readers raised a hue and cry over her bare shoulders, complaining that the publication was degenerating into a “flesh magazine.”

In 1992, Penn State officials removed a reproduction of Goya’s celebrated “Nude Maja” from a classroom, after a MacDworkinite art history professor evidently concluded it was “filled with hatred of women” and demanded its removal.

Apparently, Gauguin was a dreadful misogynist-is it therefore politically incorrect to admire his confident and unselfconscious female nudes?  [I have his “”Aha Oe Feii”?” (“Are You Jealous?”) on the wall of my office, which I would probably have to worry about if I were a man, or taught at the University of Michigan, where MacKinnon teaches law and has actively censored the work of pro-sex feminist artists on themes of sexuality and prostitution.]

This is the climate MacDworkinism has fostered, and it is an extremely dangerous one for all of us. As democratic socialists, we should understand as a bedrock principle that there are no thought crimes.  We should recognize and strive for a realm of freedom including all ideological and imaginative expression, no matter how noxious one may find the particular ideas and images.  Only oppressors are interested in such thought control, in policing culture and consciousness in the ways MacKinnon and Dworkin suggest.

At one level, perhaps we should be grateful to MacDworkin for making so crystal clear the political implications of this gender-divisive analysis of women’s oppression.  There are kinder and gentler versions of this idealistic retreat from grappling with the real-and admittedly daunting-structural sources of sexism, violence and discrimination, but all lead down the same blind alley.

The point has never been that sexist, racist, homophobic speech (which does not include all “pornography”) is “completely harmless.”  But neither is it fundamentally causal, and because the fundamental causes reside elsewhere, to censor it will change nothing except to enhance the repressive authority of the state.  And we know from experience that once they have that authority, our patriarchs will not suppress what we might consider “bad” pornography.

They could hardly care less about policing for misogyny, and have undoubtedly been laughing in their sleeves ever since this maelstrom over pornography arose.  What could be more convenient than to have feminists at each others’ throats, with a highly visible faction of them scapegoating pornography for the ills of capitalist society?

Menasche admits that censorship will backfire on us, and that MacDworkinism exaggerates the effects of pornography.  Why then such fealty to those who so studiously ignore the deeper causes that one begins to suspect an intentional attempt to blind and divert us?  And whose basic assumptions are so deeply pessimistic, usually in the form of an essentialism holding that sex and men are “inherently” violent and oppressive, that we are left with no strategy other than seeking protection from the repressive state?

The point that worsening economic conditions may well force many women and children (not just girls) into sex work is an instructive one. That sex work is much more likely to be prostitution than the production of pornography (which, contrary to Menasche’s assertion, does not at least in its more mainstream sectors offer “some of the worst working conditions available;” adult film performers have organized themselves quite effectively to demand industry health and safety standards, insurance funds, etc.).

I hope that as feminists and socialists we have more to offer these people than MacDworkin’s response: moral disapproval and support for criminal prostitution laws. I hope instead that we are fighting against the predations of the ruling class that are causing such misery, and that in the longer run we stand for fundamental change to forever eradicate the need for anyone to sell themselves on any market.

Cathy Crossen teaches law at Indiana University and is a member of Bloomington Solidarity.

ATC 65, November-December 1996