BOOK REVIEW / The tongue bites deep: Only words by Catharine A MacKinnon: HarperCollins, pounds 9.95

Marina Warner
Sunday 23 October 2011 07:58

THE prophet of a new, feminist philosophy of human rights, a most dazzling and adored speaker on human wrongs, who framed an ordinance defining pornography as a violation of civil liberties which was accepted in Indianapolis, then overturned by the Supreme Court, but is still in force in Canada, a polemicist who inspires such rage that a hostile review of this book made headlines in America, Catharine MacKinnon, an academic lawyer, would seem poised to become the Great Helmsman of a new cultural revolution.

Only Words is by far her most accessible publication to date: adapted from three lectures, it tackles the issue of sexual harassment, but within the frame of her ongoing assault on pornography. The book is, however, still sprinkled with hieroglyphic references to US case law and assumes understanding of the US Constitution. Though it comes with a short UK preface, in an attempt to make her arguments relevant here, this isn't entirely successful. We have so much more censorship that we could almost be held up as an example (she doesn't). Not for today's Britain the bizarre fetishisation of freedom of speech which results in the US court upholding neo-Nazi marches through neighbourhoods of Auschwitz survivors. But her larger arguments, ablaze with all her characteristic fury about sexuality and violence, about the relationship between racism and misogyny, about vulnerability and voicelessness, are of pressing urgency, especially as our government, unlike France's, is determined not to open any kind of a cultural umbrella against the meteor showers of 'entertainment' films which will soon be beamed in, sent online or available on disc.

MacKinnon's work has given an extra twist to the old slogan, the personal is political, and her most incisive and rich contribution focuses on the need to name women as candidates for human rights, as particular subjects of the law. As she has pointed out, a submerged premise still operates, that society requires laws to organise men's behaviour, and men then in turn handle ('their') women; it has led to injustices in which crimes against women have simply never found a way into the open. A glaring example is that rape on the battlefleld is not a war crime, and she and other activists have been campaigning to have it recognised as such. She has also brought a case against the Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic for genocidal acts that include rape and forced pregnancy.

This line of argument has led her to dissolving the distinction between private and public, arguing that men should no longer be able to shelter behind the closed domestic door to perpetrate their crimes (child abuse, wife-beating, marital rape). She doesn't mention that British law has been trying recently, very hard, if clumsily and foolishly at times, to redress these wrongs - without abolishing the valuable democratic concept of personal privacy.

But Only Words takes as its chief target the US defence of pornography as a kind of speech. In her zeal, MacKinnon chooses shock tactics. The book opens (Warning: parental guidance needed from here onwards):

You grow up with your father holding you down and covering your mouth so 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 . . . Your doctor will not give you drugs he has addicted you to unless you suck his penis.

The brutality of this is intended to awaken us to the power of such speech, to prepare us to accept that words can have the force of acts, and should not be protected by the law, but condemned as the acts they describe would be. As a writer, MacKinnon seems to relish the power of obscenity. I have heard her sing out on the horrors of the civil war in Yugoslavia, dwelling on the detail of mutilation and sexual assault in much the same way as this opening paragraph of Only Words. When the Canadians passed her pornography law, some of the first literature to be seized was lesbian feminist writings, including - irony of ironies - the work of Andrea Dworkin. In Only Words, there are racial slurs and sexist comments that were unknown to me, at least, and hence the book oddly augments the pervasive corruption and hostility MacKinnon diagnoses with such vehemence. Her arguments about harassment do not need this squalid chapter and verse, any more than her attack on pornography needs the allegorical scene of torture. But the evangelist in her stirs to them, and longs to stir others; the atmosphere she creates in lectures recalls fundamentalist orators evoking the martyrdoms of the Shi'ite saints until the whole mosque is wailing. As the Oxford Law don Suzanne Gibson has pointed out, MacKinnon then casts out anyone who is not affected by her words as unfeeling - as an apostate from humanity.

Her desire for greater justice invokes victimhood as its first cause: 'Thirty-eight per cent of women are sexually molested as girls,' she writes, 'twenty-four per cent of us are raped in our marriages.' That pleading 'of us' - how sly and ingratiating it is. It gives a clue to what is coming: a collapse of the differences between women, so that every one, regardless of political position, access to influence, or national context becomes equally wronged, the US law professor alongside the child prostitute in India, poor Suzanne Capper alongside the appalling Alessandra Mussolini. As Only Words develops, the help it seems to be offering the victim diminishes, precisely because insisting on immemorial victim status for all females hardly fills the view with possibilities: women's groups in Zagreb, working vigorously to help one another, have protested keenly against MacKinnon's excitable visions of their haplessness (and against her lurid and unsupported statistics and use of hearsay). They also deny her allegations, repeated in the preface of this book, that Yugoslavia was awash with porn before the war and that the civil war's horrors can be attributed to this saturation - it's wryly comic that one of the magazines MacKinnon cites was a smart urban monthly, which revelled in the relaxed censorship laws, and published the work of writers like Slavenka Drakulic and Dubravka Ugresic, who have since, under the new Catholic Croatian regime, been denounced as 'witches' and even prevented from working in their native country.

But there are even graver problems than misrepresentation with MacKinnon's thinking, and her sudden take-offs into lurid rhetorical skydiving cover up the collapse of distinctions, of attention to particularity, and draw attention away from her extraordinarily rough and even contemptuous handling of other individuals' freedom of choice. Her wish to realign violent pornography as something more than speech is right, but her love of excess leads her to very muddy arguments: 'In terms of what men are doing sexually, an audience watching a gang rape in a movie is no different from an audience watching a gang rape that is re-enacting a gang rape from a movie, or an audience watching any gang rape.'

I don't find it easy to accept, either, that some women who do pornographic film work, choose to do it; there may be legal ways of diminishing the ordeal for such performers, just as there are social reforms (more housing, more jobs, more education) which would make prostitution or nude photos less of an obvious short-term option for women - and increasingly, for men in the gay porn industry. But to elide the difference between rape on screen and actual rape creates the same problem as claiming that all women are victims - it unjustly rubs out the peculiar horror the victim of gang rape has undergone. Similarly, pushing to elide racial prejudice and gender discrimination, as MacKinnon does here, seems to me to be insensitively overweening about wrongs done to women, in flagrant forgetfulness of black history and circumstances, and even to be co-opting slavery and other racial injustice (Me too] Me too]) for opportunistic purposes.

MacKinnon can make her claim about men's identical role in rape on film or in life, not because she doesn't grasp the difference between reality and representation - she is after all right that much of the sex in visual pornography took place for real; even Jesus made the same point when he said that whosoever looks after a woman to lust after her has already committed adultery with her in his heart (a passage many Catholics have taken to mean, well then, you might as well). She argues in this fashion because Andrea Dworkin's belief that intercourse is rape underlies her thinking, even though it is never enunciated here as such; porn, in their view, derives from the intrinsic nature of male sexual drive, its enshrinement in male social supremacy and the symbolic law of the phallus. But, as Edmund White notes in The Burning Library, the consumers of porn in the west aren't all Clarence Thomas candidates for the Supreme Court; they include many of the most disenfranchised males - illegal immigrant labourers without families, for example. Female pro-pornography campaigners (who, such being the nature of freedom of speech, are mostly American, too), who support the demands of 'sex workers' and promote women's entrepreneurship in the hardcore industry, make the point that many of the men who seek sexual services are abject, needy, and haven't much access either to the male hegemony: these activists ask for protection from the law, not more circumscribing legislation.

'Harassment that is sexual is a sex act, like pornography,' writes MacKinnon. The many unpleasant varieties of obscene speech - anonymous letters, taunts, jibes, catcalls - are rooted in the same culture of hardcore porn, and should also be redefined as deeds, she argues, and recognised as offences. She bases her advocacy of robust prosecution on the damage such sex acts inflict on people's equality, as guaranteed under the law, especially in places of work. But she also observes, acutely, that sexual harassment cases often prolong a woman's ordeal, making of a witness like Anita Hill a pornographic turn, uttering obscenities in public. This does not however inspire MacKinnnon to think again about privacy as a protection for women - and propose hearings in closed session.

A revolution of manners in courtship is going on in America and further afield. MacKinnon speaks for those who hold that the law, in these areas, should strike out ahead on the trail rather than shadow social change. I, too, believe in liberalism's historical inclination towards the reform of manners and morals, in the need to struggle against befouling lives with intolerance and bigotry - these are the underlying dynamics of a much-maligned and distorted political correctness. Only Words is at its most powerful when it points to the contradictions in American law, between its drive towards equality and its doctrine of free speech. The sexually harassed should have the protection of the law, but MacKinnon's identification of harassment springs from such a fount of hatred that it comes dangerously close to a bullies' charter rather than a protection against the bullies, and her disregard for individual spaces opens the door to a society of even greater surveillance and disinformation than already exists.

Words aren't only words, she is right about that: ''Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me' may act as a charm against the pain; the other, less well-known proverb, 'The tongue has no teeth but a deeper bite', tells it true. However, the harm words do does not turn them into deeds, either. And, as she acknowledges, they don't exist in a vacuum but derive their meaning and their strength from society and its beliefs. The power of curses (speech acts) was believed in by witch-hunters far more than by anyone else, including the alleged witches. The witch-finders saw themselves as victims, too, or at least as potential victims, and cast themselves as the protectors of victims; and many women - and many men - were the casualties of their vigilantism.

(Photograph omitted)

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