The Civil Rights Approach
Catharine MacKinnon, who is at the forefront of the feminist anti-pornography
movement, has created a civil rights approach to combating pornography.
She explains that approach in the article excerpted here.
Pornography, Civil Rights and Speech
20 Harv.Civ.Rts - Civ.Lib.L.Rev. 1, 16-21, 24-26, 47-54, 65 (1985).
In pornography, there it is, in one place, all of the abuses that
women had to struggle so long even to begin to articulate, all the
unspeakable abuse: the rape, the battery, the sexual harassment,
the prostitution, and the sexual abuse of children. Only in the
pornography is it called something else: sex, sex, sex, sex, and
sex, respectively. Pornography sexualizes rape, battery, sexual
harassment, prostitution, and child sexual abuse; it thereby celebrates,
promotes, authorizes, and legitimizes them. More generally, it eroticizes
the dominance and submission that is dynamic common to them all.
It makes hierarchy sexy and calls that "the truth about sex"
or just a mirror of reality. Through this process, pornography constructs
what a woman is as what men want from sex. This is what the pornography
means. . . .
Pornography constructs what a woman is in terms of its view of
what men want sexually, such that acts of rape, battery, sexual
harassment, prostitution and sexual abuse of children become acts
of sexual equality. Pornography's world of equality is a harmonious
and balanced place. Men and women are perfectly complementary and
perfectly bipolar. Women's desire to be fucked by men is equal to
men's desire to fuck women. All the ways men love to take and violate
women, women love to be taken and violated. The women who most love
this are most men's equals, the most liberated; the most participatory
child is the most grown-up, the most equal to an adult. Their consent
merely expresses or ratifies these preexisting facts.
The content of pornography is one thing. There, women substantively
desire dispossession and cruelty. We desperately want to be bound,
battered, tortured, humiliated, and killed. Or, to be fair to the
soft core, merely taken and used. This is erotic to the male point
of view. Subjection itself with self-determination ecstatically
relinquished is the content of women's sexual desire and desirability.
Women are there to be violated and possessed, men to violate and
possess us either on screen or by camera or pen on behalf of the
consumer. On a simple descriptive level, the inequality of hierarchy,
of which gender is the primary one, seems necessary for the sexual
arousal to work. Other added inequalities identify various pornographic
genres or sub-themes, although they are always added through gender:
age, disability, homosexuality, animals, objects, race (including
anti-semitism), and so on. Gender is never irrelevant.
What pornography does goes beyond its content: It eroticizes hierarchy,
it sexualizes inequality. It makes dominance and submission sex.
Inequality is its central dynamic, the illusion of freedom coming
together with the reality of force is central to its working. Perhaps
because this is a bourgeois culture, the victim must look free,
appear to be freely acting. Choice is how she got there. Willing
is what she is when she is being equal. It seems equally important
that then and there she actually be forced and that forcing be communicated
on some level, even if only through still photos of her in postures
of receptivity and access, available for penetration. Pornography
in this view is a form of forced sex, a practice of sexual politics,
an institution of gender equality.
From this perspective, pornography is neither harmless fantasy
nor a corrupt and confused misrepresentation of an otherwise natural
and healthy sexual situation. It institutionalizes the sexuality
of male supremacy, fusing the erotization of dominance and submission
with the social construction of male and female. To the extent that
gender is sexual, pornography is part of constituting the meaning
of that sexuality. Men treat women as who they see women as being.
Pornography constructs who that is. Men's power over women means
that the way men see women defines who women can be. Pornography
is that way. Pornography is not imagery in some relation to a reality
elsewhere constructed. It is not a distortion, reflection, projection,
expression, fantasy, representation, or symbol either. It is a sexual
To give a set of rough epistemological translations, to defend
pornography as consistent with the equality of the sexes is to defend
the subordination of women to men as sexual equality. What in the
pornographic view is love and romance looks a great deal like hatred
and torture to the feminist. Pleasure and eroticism become violation.
Desire appears as lust for dominance and submission. The vulnerability
of women's projected sexual availability, that acting we are allowed
(i.e. asking to be acted upon), is victimization. Play conforms
to scripted roles. Fantasy expresses ideology, is not exempt from
it. Admiration of natural physical beauty becomes objectification.
Harmlessness becomes harm. 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. Specifically, its harm cannot be discerned, and will not
be addressed, if viewed and approached neutrally, because it is
so much of "what is." In other words, to the extent pornography
succeeds in constructing social reality, it becomes invisible as
harm. If we live in a world that pornography creates through the
power of men in a male dominated situation the issue is not what
the harm of pornography is, but how that harm is to become visible.
At the request of the city of Minneapolis, Andrea Dworkin and I
conceived and designed a local human rights ordinance in accordance
with our approach to the pornography issue. We define pornography
as a practice of sex discrimination, a violation of women's civil
rights, the opposite of sexual equality. Its point is to hold accountable,
to those who are injured, those who profit from and benefit from
that injury. It means that women's injury - our damage, our pain,
our enforced inferiority - should outweigh their pleasure and their
profits, or sex equality is meaningless.
We define pornography as the graphic sexually explicit subordination
of women through pictures or words that also includes women dehumanized
as sexual objects, things, or commodities, enjoying pain or humiliation
or rape, being tied up, cut up, mutilated, bruised, or physically
hurt, in postures of sexual submission or servility or display,
reduced to body parts, penetrated by objects or animals, or presented
in scenarios of degradation, injury, torture, shown as filthy or
inferior, bleeding, bruised, or hurt in a context that makes these
conditions sexual. Erotica, defined by distinction as not this,
might be sexually explicit materials premised on equality. We also
provide that the use of men, children, or transsexuals in the place
of women is pornography. The definition is substantive in that it
is sex-specific, but it covers everyone in a sex-specific way, so
is gender neutral in overall design.
For those of you who still think pornography is only an idea, consider
the possibility that obscenity law got one thing right. Pornography
is more act-like than thought-like. The fact that pornography, in
a feminist view, furthers the idea of the sexual inferiority of
women, which is a political idea, doesn't make the pornography itself
a political idea. One can express the idea a practice embodies.
That does not make that practice into an idea. Segregation expresses
the idea of the inferiority of one group to another on the basis
of race. That does not make segregation an idea. A sign that says
"Whites Only" is only words. Is it therefore protected
by the first amendment? Is it not an act, a practice, of segregation
because of the inseparability of what it means from what it does?
Law is only words.
Return to VAW Module II
Go to Part 5 - The Internet, Pornography,
Race and Representation