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Nudas Veritas

Notes on Catherine MacKinnon, “Pornography: On Morality and Politics”


In contemporary industrial society, pornography is an industry that mass produces sexual intrusion on, sexual access to, possession and use of women by and for men for profit. It exploits women’s sexual and economic inequality for gain.

This understanding of the reality of pornography must contend not only with centuries of celebratory intellectual obfuscation. [sic] It must contend with a legal tradition of neutralization through abstraction from the realities of power, a tradition that has authoritatively defined pornography as not about women as such at all, but about sex, hence about morality, and not about acts or practices, but about ideas.

Abstracting from the realities of power, men have sought to shift attention away from the incriminatory concrete to the realm of discursive morality where debates about freedom can be manipulated to further the ends of preserving power where it inheres, i.e., in men. The law of obscenity, for example, concerned to serve free expression, is recruited by men to cover pornography, which is not about expression but about the material and symbolic use of women.


Obscenity law is concerned with morality, meaning good and evil, virtue and vice. The concerns of feminism with power and powerlessness are first political, not moral. From the feminist perspective, obscenity is a moral idea; pornography is political practice. Obscenity is abstract; pornography is concrete.

[For him, sexuality’s moral implication looms large and obscures the political dimension that is so glaring to her. Mackinnon is right about this. It is not, as he sees it, about power over others—woman does not quite rise to the level of “other,” but about self-control, his.]

Not to be emptily universal, to leave your concreteness showing, is a sin among men.

[“…a sin”—as clear a statement of the radical difference between men and women as we are to find this side of Weininger. Moreover, the emptiness of the universal is very hard for him to see. The wavelength of its color may not be within the range of the equipment he has for the purpose.]

Pornography, in the feminist view, is a form of forced sex….

[While for him, it is a service he extorts with the excuse that his permission for having been forced, by her, to assume the physical envelope he has was never acquired.]

Men treat women as whom they see women as being. Pornography constructs who that is.

[Morally flattened.]

…the erect penis and penetration. Historically, obscenity law was vexed by such portrayals while protecting great literature. (Nobody considered protecting women.)

[Because protecting great literature is connected with preserving his moral tradition, while women, it was assumed, would survive in the normal course of events.]

With the advent of Freudian “derepression,” Victorian mores, which had restrained the more brutal reaches of pornography somewhat by making even mild sexual references erotic, classical liberals have defended a freedom that has resulted in increasingly more extremes of pornography.

Greater efforts of brutality have become necessary to eroticize the taboo—each taboo being a hierarchy in disguise—since the frontier of the taboo keeps vanishing as one crosses it.

[When rules were stricter, we could indulge our penchant for breaking them with less effort…

Curiously enough, something very much like this happens at the other extreme, that of a progressive morality: increasingly, as more and more formerly oppressed groups are acknowledged as deserving moral consideration, the frontier moves out. Consider movements for moral inclusion of racial, ethnic or religious minorities, women, animals, biotic systems, etc. See, for example, Peter Singer’s moral analogies in his work on animal liberation, and Tom Regan’s work on animal rights…

Luno: “As morality expands, immorality is obliged to keep pace.”]

…hierarchy is sexy.

Traditional law, like traditional morality—male morality, that is, and in the realm of tradition, almost the only kind there is—is meant to apply to an “average person.” MacKinnon argues:

Feminism doubts whether the ‘average person,’ gender neutral, exists; has more questions about the content and process of definition of community standards than about deviations from them; wonders why prurience counts but powerlessness does not, why sensibilities are better protected from offense than women are from exploitation; defines sexuality, hence its violation and expropriation, more broadly than any state law; and wonders why a body of law which cannot in practice tell rape from intercourse should be entrusted with telling pornography from anything less.

[The consonance with Weininger is palpable. MacKinnon allies herself with what we might call—to borrow a term from racial and ethnic debates—a non-assimilationist feminism. (Also, sometimes called difference feminism.) Unlike in many, if not all, cases of racial division, where assimilation in some degree of harmony is conceivable, however resisted, the disregard of difference, in all but hypocritical form, is not here in the offing. With regard to non-sexual difference, it is conceivable because intimacy is not a prerequisite to civility and decency; indeed, it may be an obstacle. The day men and women actually achieve civility and decency toward each other is a day only Mother Ann Lee could have dreamed of… (and other unwitting followers of Weininger). But look at what has happened to the Shakers: at last count there were only seven on the planet (2004). It is the fact of unbridgeable difference that makes Weininger and some of the most radical of feminists unlikely bedfellows (not literally, of course, never!). An unbridgeable difference, however, is no argument for the status quo. Far from it, if Weininger is correct, even apart from the demands of their own native moral imperatives, men could stand to cede a great deal of that material power that, all indications are, is doing them little good and which women could better manage. This would free men up to pursue their true vocation, their heterocosmic business (of conquering or—failing that—embracing death) more gracefully.]

A “redeeming context”, or just the possibility thereof, legitimizes porn for men, while exacerbating its negative effects for women. It creates the conditions of license that permit even otherwise laudable values to be pressed into the service of prurience.

[Iaia Gombrowicz: “Truth sometimes gains in purity by being suppressed. Thus imaginative literature still thrived in Victorian England. While the obscenity trials of the works of Joyce and Lawrence and Cabell (ironically, the first two were deeply affected by Weininger, we strongly suspect the third as well) may have been inevitable in reaction to the museum-smelling writing of the earlier century, Flaubert, Dickens, Thackeray, Hardy, Stendahl, James et al. have not lost their shine. I am not hankering here for pre-Freudian times, just noting that at whatever point in the arc of the pendulum swing on this issue, great art thrives. Queen Victoria may yet be thought to have been manipulating her age as effectively as Louis XIV his but in the interest of her sex and this has not been lost on some feminists.

On a related theme, Western women (and men, too, but for other reasons) sometimes think of Islamic women as terribly oppressed—and indeed they are. But it may surprise some Western women to know that a Muslim woman, (covered in traditional costume, of course) has far less fear of sexual assault walking about alone in her backward village at odd hours of the night than any American woman (dressed as she pleases, of course) in just about any American city—as not a few Muslim women with experience in both cultures have noted. In societies with the greatest restrictions on women, rape is only a fraction of what it is in Western cultures. Women are oppressed everywhere, make no mistake, but methods vary.

Political freedom, in whatever community-bound acceptation of the word, is a male province. Even where women have been granted a guest pass it is never been without restrictions in practice special to her. It is not even clear, that she wants precisely what men value in the concept of freedom. She wants—if I may be so jejune as to put it plainly—to be treated decently. And seeing how hard this simple request is for men to accede to is the crux of the problem.”]

MacKinnon argues prurience, what obscenity law addresses, is about giving a man an erection. Certain erection-giving images or objects are OK. Others are not, and it is instructive which. A woman covered in blood and semen, masturbating with a knife (an image similar to one described by Joel Feinberg, which we discuss elsewhere) is OK because it actually serves a real male need. And because one can imagine a story or context tying it to a statement about some human condition more edifying than simple prurience or the relief of detumescence, to outlaw such depiction could be dangerous to the fundamental principles of a free society (so Feinberg claims). MacKinnon notes, however, that child pornography especially involving same-sex acts is not OK to many of these same defenders of free expression. Evidence that perhaps not every child or youth participating in such depictions is being exploited or is totally bereft of sexual interest in the act is summarily dismissed. Sex with animals, other men, boys, bagels or bottles is more likely to find itself classed with those things that can serve nothing other than pure prurience. We have yet to see wares advertised to a general community using such themes. (Explicitness is not the issue here.) But it so happens that (with the exception of animals) none of these things comprise a class of the oppressed with an ancient tradition of being a viable competitor to the earthly power men have wielded. The threat from women is real. Pornography acknowledges that sexual power is the one power women have over men even as men seek to quarter, compartmentalize and devalue its effects.

Sometimes it seems that what is obscene is what turns on those men whom the men in power think they can afford to ignore. Sometimes it seems that what is obscene is what makes dominant men see themselves as momentary potential targets of male sexual aggression. Sometimes it seems that anything can be done to a woman, but obscenity [legally actionable obscenity] is sex that makes male sexuality look bad.

The debate over what constitutes obscenity and what not is mere male fussing over distinctions within their hierarchy of rules. Male sexual energy and domination expended on animals and children is wasted. They are not a threat. Women are a threat. Pornography is a tool for keeping them in their place. Men interested in boys are not upholding the hierarchy. [By ‘threat’, we mean a threat to the system, not a threat within the system. Pederasty is easily identifiable as the latter and so has a place in it.]

MacKinnon asserts the fundamental issue is “gender inequality” and, as such, not about morality but politics: the disproportionate distribution of power between men and women. [The irrelevancy of morality to the feminist plaint confirms Weininger’s claim that morality is essentially beside the point when it comes to women. Weininger never claimed that the feminine was apolitical.]

Classical liberal assumptions “do not apply to the situation of women.” [And classical liberalism, born of enlightenment ideals, is inextricably bound up with male theories of morality (whether Aristotle, Kant or Mill).]

The masculine hierarchy wants to make a public/private distinction where the public can be hedged with regulation while the private remains his unfenced playground. To which MacKinnon replies “The problem is that not only the public but also the private is a ‘sphere of social power’ of sexism.”

In the dominant scheme of things, as a form of free speech, pornography “helps discover truth.”

[Indeed it may, though, perhaps, not a truth conducive to the untrammeled right of free speech… Deeper still is this fact about male rule-bound mentality: In a society, ripe with repression, say, Stalin’s Russia or Hitler’s Germany, this male compunction to not only set down rules but to break them as well would find a foothold—as it in fact did: only in those cases we hear it judged it a good thing. Dissent thrives on obstacle. If it is this state or another, this set of principles or another, this authority or the other—it does not matter. Take the United States in this period, the acne of its reign over planet, it is, more than any other developed nation, infested with dissent, the putting down of which costs it dearly in resources that will in the fullness of time (and, for our philosophical purposes, it matters little when) cripple and destroy it. Who are these dissenters to the system? Certainly not feminists. Not foreign terrorists. No, I don’t have in mind radical right or left wing elements: the system has shown itself adept at buying them off. I mean the common criminal. By ‘common’ I don’t just mean drug dealers, car thieves, rapists, vandals, and serial killers. I mean ‘common’ in the sense of not being rare, in the sense of the everyday, in the sense of pickup-any-newspaper, in the sense of white-collar, well-educated, reared in two-parent families, ubiquitous and almost always male criminality. The availability of weapons to the dispossessed and the halls of power to the well-possessed shall insure this result… I am not being political. I am just noticing.

Thus it matters little who or what ideology is in power to the course of male history. Only that there be a power either to have or, failing that, to resist. In the act of resisting and suppressing resistance there will be ‘collateral damage’. To the landscape, to the innocent, if there are any. In the ‘struggle with the evil of death’, for that is how men will ultimately characterize it, life is the weapon. It is what is not the enemy that is consumed in the fray.

It is, indeed, about power over the intransigence of the material, the concrete, and feminists are right to remind us of this. Nothing could be more foreign to the pure feminine…. but the irony is that her cries of righteous protest are laced with hapless despair at what must seem like internal betrayal. How can one point to injustice (that is, maldistribution of power) without becoming a contender and perpetuating the contest? She must know at some level that she had her chance to level the playing field when he was still a boy in her arms. That at some level her vicarious thrill at his success was as much to blame. Who is a more heartless judge of infanticide than a mother or would-be mother? Who convicted Andrea Yates? (Editor’s note: On June 20, 2001, 36-year-old Andrea Yates, mother of five, methodically drowned all of her five children and then phoned the police. The Jury, composed of more women than men, found her guilty of capital murder, though, significantly, they recommended, in the end, life imprisonment. Luno is alluding to the theme of this post.)]

Men would long since have finished their work here and passed on to their dream-world of abstractions—their ultimate pornography, utterly derobed of every vestige of the flesh and its hankerings—had not women been complicit in prolonging the travesty. What resentment, if it can be called that, that one finds in Weininger and in the many feminists at feminine complicity is understandable. But we stop short of justifying it: for men have accepted the responsibility. It is writ large in their moral contract. It is the price they must pay. They and the women who envy them.]


So while the First Amendment supports pornography on the belief that consensus and progress are facilitated by allowing all views, however divergent and unorthodox, it fails to notice that pornography (like the racism, including anti-Semitism, of the Nazis and the Klan) is not at all divergent or unorthodox. It is the ruling ideology. Feminism, the dissenting view, is suppressed by pornography.

While the mind is purportedly freed “to fulfill itself, pornography freely enslaves women’s minds and bodies inseparably, normalizing the terror that enforces silence on women’s point of view.”

“…the free so-called speech of men silences the free speech of women.” Women are silenced systematically prior to any government action to defend speech.

The common assumption is that the only way one can be harmed is linearly.

The trouble with this individuated, atomistic, linear, exclusive, isolated, narrowly tortlike—in a word, positivistic—conception of injury is that the way pornography targets and defines women for abuse and discrimination does not work like this. It does hurt individuals, just not individuals in a one-at-a-time sense, but as members of the group of women.

…you cannot be harmed unless you are harmed through this etiology [the linear one]—is to refuse to respond to the true nature of this specific kind of harm.

Perhaps causality in the law of obscenity is an attempt to privatize the injury pornography does to women in order to insulate the same system from the threat of gender equality.

The hypocrisy of the courts who see “no threat to freedom and no censorship in criminal prosecution of obscenity” but see a violation of free speech when actions are brought by women to regulate pornography.

[Certainly, many defenders of the legitimate existence of pornography would consider hypocrisy feminist attempts such as Mackinnon’s at limiting it in the light of the fact that the free expression principle permits feminists themselves to criticize dominant institutions. An articulate response to this tu quoque might be that of Stanley Fish, who, in the context of defending campus and other institutional speech codes designed to curb inflammatory racist speech, argues (in There is No Such Thing as Free Speech, New York: Oxford University Press, 1994) that speech is and has always been regulated in and by society. In any given community, strictures are placed on what speech is beyond the pale and what speech is not (e.g., laws against slander, libel, perjury, atheistic speech in church, prayers in public school, “shouting ‘fire’ in a crowded theater”, and so forth.)

But Fish’s admirable air-clearing, pragmatism, notwithstanding, there is a serious flaw to his moral logic. It is the same perennial flaw afflicting most pragmatic philosophy and one we will deal with in more detail elsewhere. Basically, it is that common sensical human practice will never justify fundamental moral reform or human edification. Pragmatism will always insure we will perpetuate more of the same. To say that free speech is just what a community says it is is to put limits on the moral growth of that community…

(Editor’s note: elsewhere Luno writes: “Whatever unreality lies at the heart of Kantian morality—and it can scarcely be exaggerated how great that is, it has this one virtue vis-à-vis all others: it is never complacent.” Luno believes Otto Weininger illustrated this aspect of Kant most clearly.)]

MacKinnon admits,

It seems essential to the kick of pornography that it be to some degree against the rules, but never truly unavailable or truly illegitimate. Thus, obscenity law, like the law of rape, preserves both the value and the ability to get what it purports to devalue and restrict access to.

[It must have occurred to MacKinnon that anti-pornography laws are not likely to fare better at reforming men—if indeed that is even a consideration here. But failing that, what hope is there? It is about power, agreed. So then there must be hope for a little vengeance… And how is that going to come about? The best bet is the division of power… (Editor’s note: See Luno’s and Agacinski’s arguments for parity.)]


Other posts on this topic.

Posted by luno in political philosophy, philosophy and sex, pornography, male criminality, feminism (Thursday August 16, 2007 at 12:47 pm)

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