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Women and Pornography

Only Words

by Catherine A. MacKinnon
Harvard University Press, 152 pp., $14.95


People once defended free speech to protect the rights of firebrands attacking government, or dissenters resisting an established church, or radicals campaigning for unpopular political causes. Free speech was plainly worth fighting for, and it still is in many parts of the world where these rights hardly exist. But in America now, free-speech partisans find themselves defending mainly racists shouting “nigger” or Nazis carrying swastikas or—most often—men looking at pictures of naked women with their legs spread open.

Conservatives have fought to outlaw pornography in the United States for a long time: for decades the Supreme Court has tried, though without much success, to define a limited category of “obscenity” that the Constitution allows to be banned. But the campaign for outlawing all forms of pornography has been given new and fiercer form, in recent years, by the feminist movement. It might seem odd that feminists have devoted such energy to that campaign: other issues, including abortion and the fight for women’s equality in employment and politics, seem so much more important. No doubt mass culture is in various ways an obstacle to sexual equality, but the most popular forms of that culture—the view of women presented in soap operas and commercials, for example—are much greater obstacles to that equality than the dirty films watched by a small minority.

But feminists’ concentration on pornography nevertheless seems easy to explain. Pornographic photographs, films, and videos are the starkest possible expression of the idea feminists most loathe: that women exist principally to provide sexual service to men. Advertisements, soap operas, and popular fiction may actually do more to spread that idea in our culture, but pornography is the rawest, most explicit symbol of it. Like swastikas and burning crosses, pornography is deeply offensive in itself, whether or not it causes any other injustice or harm. It is also particularly vulnerable politically: the religious right supports feminists on this issue, though on few others, so feminists have a much greater chance to win political campaigns for censorship than any of the other campaigns they fight.

And pornography seems vulnerable on principle as well. The conventional explanation of why freedom of speech is important is Mill’s theory that truth is most likely to emerge from a “marketplace” of ideas freely exchanged and debated. But most pornography makes no contribution at all to political or intellectual debate: it is preposterous to think that we are more likely to reach truth about anything at all because pornographic videos are available. So liberals defending a right to pornography find themselves triply on the defensive: their view is politically weak, deeply offensive to many women, and intellectually doubtful. Why, then, should we defend pornography? Why should we care if people can no longer watch films of people copulating for the camera, or of women being whipped and enjoying it? What would we lose, except a repellent industry?

Professor Catherine MacKinnon’s new book of three short essays, Only Words, offers a sharp answer to the last of these questions: society would lose nothing if all pornography were banned, she says, except that women would lose their chains. MacKinnon is the most prominent of the feminists against pornography. She believes that men, want to subordinate women, to turn them into sexual devices, and that pornography is the weapon they use to achieve that result. In a series of highly charged articles and speeches, she has tried to talk or shock other women into that view. In 1986, she wrote that

Pornography constructs what a woman is as what men want from sex. This is what pornography means…. It institutionalizes the sexuality of male supremacy, fusing the eroticization of dominance and submission with the social construction of male and female…. Pornography is a harm of male supremacy made difficult to see because of its pervasiveness, potency, and principally, because of its success in making the world a pornographic place.1

Only Words is full of language apparently intended to shock. It refers repeatedly to “penises slamming into vaginas,” offers page after page of horrifying descriptions of women being whipped, tortured, and raped, and begins with this startling passage:

You grow up with your father holding you down and covering your mouth so that another man can make a horrible, searing pain between your legs. When you are older, your husband ties you to the bed and drips hot wax on your nipples and brings in other men to watch and makes you smile through it. Your doctor will not give you drugs he has addicted you to unless you suck his penis.

The book offers arguments as well as images, however, and these are presented as a kind of appeal, to the general public, from a judicial decision MacKinnon lost. In 1983, she and a feminist colleague, Andrea Dworkin, drafted an ordinance that outlawed or attached civil penalties to all pornography, defined as the “graphic sexually explicit subordination of women through pictures and/or words” that meet one or more of a series of tests (some of which are impossibly vague) including: “women are presented dehumanized as sexual object, things, or commodities”; or “women are presented as sexual objects experiencing sexual pleasure in rape, incest, or other sexual assaults”; or “in positions of sexual submission, servility, or display”; or “women’s body parts—including but not limited to vaginas, breasts, or buttocks—are exhibited such that women are reduced to those parts.”

In 1984, largely through their efforts, a similar ordinance was adopted by the Indianapolis legislature. The ordinance included no exception for literary or artistic value, and it could plausibly be interpreted to outlaw not only classic pornography like John Cleland’s Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, but a great deal else, including, for example, D.H. Lawrence’s novels and Titian’s Danae. In 1985, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals held the ordinance unconstitutional on the grounds that it violated the First Amendment’s guarantees of free speech and press, and in 1986, the Supreme Court declined to overrule the Seventh Circuit’s decision.2

Only Words offers several arguments in favor of the Indianapolis ordinance and against the Seventh Circuit’s ruling, though some of these are run together and must be disentangled to make sense. Some of MacKinnon’s arguments are old ones that I have already considered in these pages.3 But she devotes most of the book to a different and and striking claim. She argues that even if the publication of literature degrading to women is protected by the First Amendment, as the Seventh Circuit declared, such material offends another, competing constitutional value: the ideal of equality embedded in the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which declares that no state may deprive any person of the equal protection of the laws. If so, she says, then the courts must balance the two constitutional values, and since pornography contributes nothing of any importance to political debate, they should resolve the conflict in favor of equality and censorship.

Unlike MacKinnon’s other arguments, this claim has application far beyond the issue of pornography. If her analysis is right, national and state governments have much broader constitutional powers than most lawyers think to prohibit or censor any “politically incorrect” expression that might reasonably be thought to sustain or exacerbate the unequal positions of women or of racial, ethnic, or other minorities. I shall therefore concentrate on this new argument, but I shall first comment briefly on MacKinnon’s more conventional points.


In Only Words, she repeats the now familiar claim that pornography significantly increases the number of rapes and other sexual crimes. If that claim could be shown to be even probable, through reliable research, it would provide a very strong though not necessarily decisive argument for censorship. But in spite of MacKinnon’s fervent declarations, no reputable study has concluded that pornography is a significant cause of sexual crime: many of them conclude, on the contrary, that the causes of violent personality lie mainly in childhood, before exposure to pornography can have had any effect, and that desire for pornography is a symptom rather than a cause of deviance.4 MacKinnon tries to refute these studies, and it is important to see how weak her arguments are. One of them, though repeated several times, is only a metaphysical sleight-of-hand. She several times insists that pornography is not “only words” because it is a “reality.” She says that because it is used to stimulate a sexual act—masturbation—it is sex, which seems to suggest that a film or description of rape is itself a kind of rape. But obviously that does not help to show that pornography causes rape in the criminal sense, and it is only the latter claim that can count as a reason for outlawing it.

Sometimes MacKinnon relies on breathtaking hyperbole disguised as common sense. “Sooner or later,” she declares, “in one way or another, the consumers want to live out the pornography further in three dimensions. Sooner or later, in one way or another, they do. It does make them want to; when they believe they can, when they feel they can get away, they do.” (Confronted with the fact that many men who read pornography commit no rapes, she suggests that their rapes are unreported.)5 Elsewhere she appeals to doubtful and unexamined correlations: In a recent article, for example, she declares that “pornography saturated Yugoslavia before the war,” and suggests that pornography is therefore responsible for the horrifying and widely reported rapes of Croatian and Muslim women by Serbian soldiers.6 But, as George Kennan has noted in these pages, rape was also “ubiquitous” in the Balkan wars of 1913, well before any “saturation” by pornography had begun.7

Her main arguments, however, are anecdotal: she cites examples of rapists and murderers who report themselves as having been consumers of pornography, like Thomas Shiro, who was sentenced to death in 1981 in Indiana for raping and then killing a young woman (and copulating with her corpse) and who pleaded that he was not responsible because he was a lifelong pornography reader. Such evidence is plainly unreliable, however, not just because it is so often selfserving, but because, as the feminists Deborah Cameron and Elizabeth Fraser have pointed out, criminals are likely to take their views about their own motives from the folklore of their community, whether it is sound or not, rather than from serious analysis of their motives. (Cameron and Fraser, who favor banning pornography on other grounds, concede that “arguments that pornography ‘causes’ violent acts are, indeed, inadequate.”)8

MacKinnon’s second argument for censorship is a radically different one: that pornography should be banned because it “silences” women by making it more difficult for them to speak and less likely that others will understand what they say. Because of pornography, she says,

You learn that language does not belong to you…. You learn that speech is not what you say but what your abusers do to you…. You develop a self who is ingratiating and obsequious and imitative and aggressively passive and silent.9

  1. 1

    Catherine MacKinnon, “Pornography, Civil Rights and Speech,” reprinted in Catherine Itzin, editor, Pornography: Women, Violence and Civil Liberties, A Radical View (Oxford University Press, 1992), page 456. (Quotations are from 461–463.)

  2. 2

    American Booksellers Ass’n v. Hudnut, 771F.2d 323 (1985), aff’d 475 US 1001 (1986). In a decision that MacKinnon discusses at length, a canadian court upheld a similar Canadian statute as consistent with that nation’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms. I discuss that decision in “The Coming Battle over Free Speech,” The New York Review, June 11, 1992.

  3. 3

    Two Concepts of Liberty,” in Isaiah Berlin: A Celebration, edited by Edna and Avishai Margalit (University of Chicago Press, 1991), and printed in The New York Review of Books, August 15, 1991.

  4. 4

    Among the prestigious studies denying the causal link MacKinnon claims are the 1970 report of the National Commission on Obscenity and pornography, appointed by Lyndon Johnson to consider the issue, the 1979 report of the Williams Commission in Britain, and a recent year-long British study which concluded that “the evidence does not point to pornography as a cause of deviant sexual orientation in offenders. Rather it seems to be used as part of that deviant sexual orientation.” MacKinnon and other feminists cite the voluminous, two-volume report of the infamous Meese Commission, which was appointed by Reagan to contradict the findings of the earlier Johnson-appointed group and was headed by people who had made a career of opposing pornography. The Meese Commission duly declared that although the scientific evidence was inconclusive, it believed that pornography (vast tracts of which were faithfully reprinted in its report) did indeed cause crime. But the scientists on whose work the report relied protested, immediately after its publication, that the commission had misunderstood and misused their work. (For a thorough analysis of all these and other studies, see Marcia Pally, Sense and Censorship: The Vanity of Bonfires (Americans for Constitutional Freedom, 1991). MacKinnon also appeals to legal authority: she says, citing the Seventh Circuit opinion holding her antipornography statute unconstitutional, that “not even courts equivocate over [pornography’s] carnage anymore.” But this is disingenuous: that opinion assumed that pornography is a significant cause of sexual crime only for the sake of the argument it made, and it cited, among other material, the Williams Commission report, as support for the Court’s own denial of any such demonstrated causal connection.

  5. 5

    In “Pornography, Civil Rights and Speech,” MacKinnon said, “It does not make sense to assume that pornography has no role in rape simply because little about its use or effects distinguishes convicted rapists from other men, when we know that a lot of those other men do rape women; they just never get caught.” (page 475).

  6. 6

    Turning Rape Into Pornography: Postmodern Genocide,” Ms., July/August 1993, p. 28.

  7. 7

    The Balkan Crisis: 1913 and 1993,” The New York Review, July 15, 1993.

  8. 8

    Catherine Itzin, editor, Pornography: Women, Violence and Civil Liberties, p. 359. At one point MacKinnon offers a surprisingly timid formulation of her causal thesis: she says that “there is no evidence that pornography does no harm.” The same negative claim can be made, of course, about any genre of literature. Ted Bundy, the serial murderer who said he had read pornography since his youth, and whom feminists often cite for that remark, also said that he had studied Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Even MacKinnon’s weak statement is controversial, moreover. Some psychologists have argued that pornography, by providing a harmless outlet for violent tendencies, may actually reduce the amount of such crime. See Patricia Gillian, “Therapeutic Uses of Obscenity,” and other articles reprinted and cited in Censorship and Obscenity, edited by Rajeev Dhavan and Christie Davies (Rowman and Littlefield, 1978). And it is at least relevant that nations with the most permissive laws about pornography are among those with the least sexual crime, (See Marjorie Heins, Sex, Sin, and Blasphemy, New Press, 1993, p. 152) though of course that fact might be explained in other ways.

  9. 9

    MacKinnon’s frequent rhetorical use of “you” and “your,” embracing all female readers, invites every woman to see herself as a victim of the appalling sexual crimes and the abuses she describes, and reinforces an implicit suggestion that women are, in pertinent ways, all alike: all passive, innocent, and subjugated.

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