Adam Ash

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Monday, June 05, 2006

Catharine MacKinnon on the end of feminism

Raunch culture and the end of feminism
The post-feminist world of no-strings sex and equality is a con — we’re back to square one, Catharine MacKinnon tells Sarah Baxter

In the pantheon of American feminists, Catharine MacKinnon will be for ever linked with her friend and colleague the late Andrea Dworkin, the anti-pornography crusader whose outsize “feminazi” appearance in baggy dungarees was the cause of a great deal of mirth and endless sexist jokes.

MacKinnon, in contrast, is lithe and stylish and loves wearing Nicole Farhi. She also has an unexpected vice: an addiction to People magazine, the American celebrity weekly that is obsessed with Britney and Angelina Jolie. “I read it cover to cover,” MacKinnon confesses, who also tells me about “this incredible, velvety swing coat thing” that she got years ago at a Farhi sale.

I can’t imagine having the same conversation about clothes and stars with Dworkin but it would be a mistake to surmise that MacKinnon, 59, has the more easy-going personality. She is razor-sharp intellectually, as befits an Ivy League educated lawyer and academic, and as steamed up about women’s inequality as she was as a young feminist on the march in the militant 1970s.

When I ask her if she enjoyed being part of the women’s movement during its most dynamic era, she repeats, shocked: “Enjoy it?” as if I were expecting her to dance on the graves of oppressed women. She has kept her address secret for 25 years after receiving death threats. “Ever since I started working against pornography, and then against white supremacists, and then against Serbian fascists, I don’t ever disclose a location.”

In the late 1970s she helped to pioneer laws on sexual harassment and went on to draft legislation with Dworkin in the 1980s designed to make pornography a civil offence on the grounds of sex discrimination and giving women the right to sue for redress. The gambit didn’t work: in America porn remains a protected form of free speech, but the debate made her famous.

MacKinnon and Dworkin also championed Linda Boreman, aka Linda Lovelace, the housewife-superstar of the taboo-breaking porn film Deep Throat, who claimed to a sometimes sceptical audience she was severely beaten and raped by her former husband and obliged to perform at gunpoint.

The film was so chic that Jackie Onassis went to see it but its legacy has been horrendous, says MacKinnon, persuading a generation of young women to hook up with men they barely know and act out their fantasies. She “minds for Linda” every time she hears the Watergate scandal mentioned and its source, Deep Throat. “It was the cheap joke of our generation, of the boys who became men, who cut their teeth on us,” MacKinnon says.

The 21st century’s raunch culture has been upsetting quite a few feminists of late, even Erica Jong, the author of that other 1970s phenomenon, Fear of Flying, which celebrated the joys of “zipless” casual sex for women. “Being able to have an orgasm with a man you don’t love . . . that’s not liberation,” Jong now says.

Other younger feminists have also noticed the downside, such as Ariel Levy, whose book last year, Female Chauvinist Pigs, argued that it wasn’t “liberated” or “feminist” to learn to pole dance, wear a T-shirt saying “porn star” or have lots of no-strings sex “like a guy”, but rather it was a sad con visited on her generation by men who were twisting the idea of “liberation” for their own ends.

We are supposed to be light-hearted and ironic post-feminists now, who can laugh at our old fears about patriarchy and enjoy flicking through porn with our boyfriends. Nonsense, says MacKinnon. “It’s something the pornographers have been trying to convince us of for a long time.”

Post-feminism is really a return to pre-feminism, she asserts. “It’s kind of funny. When we started, what we were trying to accomplish was so radical and so far out that nobody could take it seriously and then all of a sudden we’re told everything we ever want has already been accomplished and we are passé. I want to know, when are we current?

“There’s a sort of let’s pretend approach. Let’s pretend we are equal and life will feel better today. Even if it isn’t any better.”

MacKinnon has a new book out, Are Women Human? (Harvard University Press), and her verdict, as you might expect by now, is no. Can things really be that bad? I am reminded of the quip by Borat, the wildly politically incorrect television reporter on Da Ali G Show: “In Kazakhstan we say, ‘God, man, horse, dog, then woman, then rat,” which led to an indignant protest by the Kazakh press attaché in America.

“We’re not stuck in the Stone Age,” the diplomat complained, feeling the honour of his country was at stake. “We have women ministers, judges and business people.”

I try the same line on MacKinnon but she thinks women like me are in denial and that Borat has a point. “Everything that men and women do together and alone takes place under conditions of sexual inequality. It’s important to face that and figure out what needs to be changed rather than to deny it.”

In her book, she writes: “If women were human, would we be a cash crop shipped from Thailand in containers into New York’s brothels? Would we be sexual and reproductive slaves? Would we be bred, worked without pay our whole lives, burned when our dowry money wasn’t enough or when men tired of us, starved as widows when our husbands died (if we survived his funeral pyre)?”

If those examples seem rather extreme, MacKinnon spent much of the 1990s devising legal remedies for Bosnian and Croatian victims of rape, whose gut-wrenching experiences were sometimes filmed for the entertainment of Serbian soldiers. “Pornography,” she contends, “emerged as a tool of genocide.”

Her knowledge, close up, of the horror endured by many women in the former Yugoslavia is impressively documented (although the massacre of the men and boys of Srebenica surely proves that atrocities are not confined to one sex). But when she moves from the experience of genocidal war to insist that all women are routinely abused as part of their sub-human condition, she loses me.

“All women can be subjected to violence and aggression at any time. That’s true for you too,” she warns. Well yes, but a man was murdered for his wallet on a street near me recently, so what difference does my gender make?

Feminist critics such as Katie Roiphe and Naomi Wolf complain that MacKinnon treats women as perpetual victims. “She’s quite clever and she’s a mesmerising speaker, but all roads lead to one place for her, the degradation of women,” says Roiphe.

She adds that MacKinnon has a “vivid pornographic imagination” in that “she looks at normal sexual life and sees exploitation where there is none. She doesn’t want to face the fact that a lot of women have fantasies that she thinks are exploitative”.

MacKinnon has seen the women’s movement go from flower power and free love to “reclaim the streets” demos against violence, only to find that women have gone on to offer men sex of the most explicit kind in the name of equality. As an article in The Wall Street Journal put it: “How did feminists end up in bed with (Playboy boss) Hugh Hefner?”

The answer is, not all of them did.


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