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Feminism Unmodified: Discourses on Life and Law
Catharine A. MacKinnon
Harvard University Press, 1987, 315 pp.

reviewed by MC5 [There were some errors in the transcription or scanning of this document. Edited and proofread March 11, 2004.]

The strength of this book is its examination of the structure of gender relations. Instead of examining issues on a personal level through anecdotes, as too much Amerikan writing does, this book analyzes and theorizes on the subject of women as a group.

Comrades should be aware of certain facts about the condition of women in the United States that MacKinnon makes constant reference to in this collection of slightly repetitive speeches: 44% of women in a San Francisco survey had been a victim of rape or attempted tape in their life time.(1) (People should keep in mind that that figure is probably higher because one can never get an accurate figure until a woman is dead and the women interviewed probably had many years of patriarchy ahead of them.)

  • Only 7.8% of the women in the survey said they had never experienced sexual assault or harassment.(2)
  • It is estimated that between one-quarter and one-third of married women experience serious violence in their homes---some studies find as many as 70 percent."(3)
  • Four out of five murdered women are killed by men; between one third and one half are married to their murderers.(4) The figure is 60 to 70% if lovers and ex-lovers are included.(5)
  • Modeling and prostitution are the only jobs in which women make more money on average than men in their field.(6)
  • 13% of women are or have been prostitutes.(7)
  • 38% of girls and 10% of boys experience sexual assault.(8)
  • Some 4.5% of all women are victims of incest by their fathers, an additional 12% by other male family members, rising to a total of 43% of all girls before they reach the age of 18, if sexual abuse within and outside the family is included.(9)
  • From these figures, one must conclude that while there are individual exceptions to every generalization, on the whole, women in the United States are oppressed by rape, sexual assault and job discrimination among other things. It is pointless to talk about individual experiences of people who say they are not oppressed. Whether an individual man or woman knows it or not, women are oppressed as a group in the United States.

    What does MacKinnon cite as the cause of this oppression?

    "The mainspring of sex inequality is misogyny and the mainspring of misogyny is sexual sadism."(10) According to MacKinnon, the standards of sexual sadism are established by pornography.

    "The first theme is the analysis that the social relation between the sexes is organized so that men may dominate and women must submit and this relation is sexual--in fact, is sex. Men in particular, if not men alone, sexualize inequality, especially the inequality of the sexes. The second theme is a critique of the notion that gender is basically a difference rather than a hierarchy ... [T]he third theme identifies pornography in America as a key means of actualizing these two dynamics in life. Pornography turns sex inequality into sexuality and turns male dominance into the sex difference. Put another way, pornography makes inequality into sex, which makes it enjoyable, and into gender, which makes it seem natural. "(11) MacKinnon deviates from the accepted feminist line, which is implemented by sexual assault centers: that rape is an act of aggression, not a product of sexual frustration or an act of pleasure for the rapist. According to MacKinnon, men are encouraged by the system to enjoy dominance of women sexually and rape is part and parcel of that eroticization of power.

    In most cases, however, society accepts the inequality of the sexes because it appears consensual, even enjoyable.(12) MacKinnon's argument on this parallels Marx's analysis of exchange.

    "Sexuality is to feminism what work is to marxism."(13) While it may seem that workers agree to a contract with capitalists in exchange for wage payments, in reality, such an agreement covers up coercion underneath. The consequences for workers not to work are more severe than for capitalists.

    This raises some difficulties in MacKinnon's arguments. While it seems reasonable to say that the eight-billion dollar a year pornography business, sexist advertising, etc. set standards for male pleasure, one has to wonder about this as an explanation for why women take part in romance.

    MacKinnon believes the issue is one of power. On the subject of lesbianism, MacKinnon says, "but so long as gender is a system of power, and it is women who have less power, like any other benefit of abstract equality, it can merely extend this choice to those women who can get the power to enforce it." (14) MacKinnon believes that most women are not in positions of power where they could abstain from sex or turn down sex.

    To MC5, this seems a little out of line with reality in Amerika of 1989. Women in the United States who choose not to have sex will not starve most of the time or die from other consequences. The life-and-death dependency of women on men has been severely undercut by women's entry into the work force.

    Now, one can say that women may be "emotionally dependent." MacKinnon does speak of a continuum of coercion as if there were no fundamental difference between Playboy magazine and the production of snuff films. She states that "feminism stresses the indistinguishability of prostitution, marriage and, sexual harassment."(15)

    Some feminists working against sexual assault in the United States say sex obtained by men through physical force and sex obtained through "emotional coercion" are the same thing. In arguing against calling rape non-sexual, MacKinnon says, "In other words, in all these situations there was not enough violence against them to take it beyond the category of 'sex.'"(16) To MacKinnon all sex is roughly equivalent: "Maybe they were forced-fucked for years and put up with it, maybe they tried to get it over with, maybe they were coerced by something other than battery, something like economics, maybe even something like love."(17)

    On this point, MC5 deviates from orthodox feminism including MacKinnon because it is not useful to see "emotions" as the cause of oppression. Those who take the materialist approach to knowledge will immediately agree, but another way to examine the same question is to ask what would eliminate "emotional coercion" from society?

    On the social level, it is not really fruitful to just tell people that their emotions are wrong. Some will get the message, others will not. What needs elimination is the capitalist romance culture--the sick advertising, "love" songs, pornography etc.--which conditions people to have sick gender relations. This romance culture must be replaced with something that conditions people to have healthful social relationships.

    Yet, even seeing the need to replace today's romance culture is not enough. One must see that this will not be possible without overthrowing the interests that romance culture protects.

    While MacKinnon's theory is coherent, it is not in line with reality. Women's dependency on men in the United States is not strong enough to force them into being sexually available to men. (One might wonder if it is true the sexual availability of women is higher in countries where that dependency is greater.) Even if one were to say that dependency is of an "emotional" nature, one must still rely heavily on the argument of false consciousness to back it up.

    Why do women remain emotionally dependent on men if the result is sexual assault, rape, high divorce rates, etc? One could say that women have bought into this culture mistakenly, that they have false consciousness. "What I've learned from women's experience with sexuality is that exploitation and degradation produce grateful complicity in exchange for survival." (18)

    This is as problematic as saying that Amerikan workers are conservative because of repression and false consciousness. In previous issues, comrades have argued that American workers are not proletarians because they have a material interest in allying with imperialism. Similarly, it is not useful to make assorted individual excuses for the majority of women who could choose to resist but do not.

    Parallel To Marxism

    "Sexuality is the social process that creates, organizes, expresses, and directs desire. Desire here is parallel to value in marxist theory, not the same, though it occupies an analogous theoretical location. It is taken for a natural essence or presocial impetus but is actually created by the social relations, the hierarchical relations, in question. This process creates the social beings we know as women and men, as their relations create society. Sexuality to feminism is, like work to marxism, socially constructed and at the same time constructing. It is universal as activity, yet always historically specific, and jointly comprised of matter and mind."(19)

    Thus, a woman is not someone with female biological characteristics. Women are people with a certain social role. Prisoners who are forced into sexual availability are women, whether or not they are biologically men. Defining women by their biological characteristics has little use to MacKinnon, or MIM. MacKinnon says that male students also identify with women because of their powerlessness in society and their ability to identify with others in a similar position.

    "Financial dependency, motherhood, and sexual accessibility (our targeted- for-sexual-violation status) substantively make up women's status as women."(20)

    By viewing gender as a social role, something that is part of a structure, MacKinnon is able to draw her most radical conclusions, many of which parallel Lenin's thinking. Her conclusions on what individuals can do about their sexuality are revolutionary and unheard of to the point that the "off our backs" reviewer who asked where MacKinnon stood on lesbianism missed the meaning of the following, which is an answer to all individuals who ask if "'all women' are oppressed by heterosexuality."(21)

    "The question is posed as if sexual practice were a matter of unconstructed choice. If heterosexuality is the dominant gender form of sexuality in a society where gender oppresses women through sex, sexuality and heterosexuality are essentially the same thing. This does not erase homosexuality, it merely means that sexuality in that form is no less gendered. Either heterosexuallty is the structure of the oppression of women or it is not. Most people see sexuality as individual and biological and voluntary; that is, they see it in terms of the politically and formally liberal myth structure."(22) What MacKinnon means here is that no individual gets the choice of having correct sexual relationships in the current historical situation. Individuals' choices are constructed by the system/structure.

    On this structural outlook--looking at power relations between groups and the impossibility of individual choices that somehow reform the patriarchy--MC5 goes further than MacKinnon: No one in the United States is having "correct" gender relations. Revolution is the only answer.

    Parallels With Lenin

    MacKinnon is most well-known for her work to pass a city ordinance against pornography in Minneapolis. It encountered opposition from free speech advocates.

    In her book, MacKinnon reveals that she does not oppose free speech for the same reason Jerry Falwell does. According to MacKinnon, pornography promotes women's silence. "The First Amendment essentially presumes some level of social equality among people and hence essentially equal access to the means of expression."(23)

    MacKinnon reveals that the dominance of men is a matter of dictatorship covered up with the illusion of free speech. What is dictatorship? It is the repression of a group by another in deeds, not just words.

    As MacKinnon points out, the production of pornography involves dictatorship (a word she does not use) over women models. Some die in its production. Others are forced into sexual acts for money, the way coal-miners are forced into contracting black lung for money.

    She also argues, perhaps with less evidence (she only footnotes it, but we are not reviewing all of MacKinnon's work here), that pornography causes violence against women. Leninists see that as an act of dictatorship also.

    Problems Of Methodology

    MacKinnon demonstrates the scientific thinking needed to liberate women. This makes her lapses into demagoguery clearer.

    In trying to demonstrate the relationship between pornography and violence against women, MacKinnon goes into graphic detail about the rape and assault of a 14-year-old. The assailant was found to have pornography on his person.(24)

    As MacKinnon knows, however, no length of details about the sickness of various rapes proves that pornography causes violence against women. It could very well be that the same people who would commit such acts also read pornography. Both pornography reading and acts of rape might be caused by the same thing--unemployment or other sick aspects of society.

    No protests by prostitutes, rape victims or police prove that pornography causes sexual violence. Real knowledge is not a privilege of any particular group. It is accessible to all.

    To answer this, MacKinnon indulges in a little me-firstism. She argues that the male dominated courts do not require causal reasoning to establish a case.(25) Men may establish in court that a damage is done through mere association, not causation, (This may be reasonable if it would take too long to come to a scientific determination of the question.)

    MacKinnon says that because men are allowed to use flawed reasoning, women should be too. This is fatal to the mobilization of a movement. The masses should not be confused by the crap that passes for reasoning in the status quo.

    In fact, one might speculate that MacKinnon may actually believe that pornography is not the cause of rape and sexual assault. She probably knows that in some countries the rape rates are a lot lower than in the United States, which is number one in the industrialized world in rape.

    MacKinnon sees her theory as a call to action against pornography. She admits that the oppression of women exists in societies without pornography. This is not a fatal admission: capitalist imperialism may be the cause of war in the 20th century, but not in the 1st century when capitalist imperialism did not exist. The causes of things may change over time and place.

    MacKinnon argues that even though eliminating Nazis or the Ku Klux Klan would not eliminate racism or anti-Semitism, no one would say that action against them are unnecessary.(26) Yet, people taking action against the KKK do not claim that it is the source of racism. MacKinnon has accorded pornography a privileged position in her theory that is not accorded to the KKK in anyone's theory of racism.

    It seems that someone with MacKinnon's outlook should have shown the reader more comparative evidence. Her theory leaves obvious questions unanswered. Although she claims to be a post-Marxist, MacKinnon doesn't treat the simple theory that capitalism is the cause of rape.

    The final problem with MacKinnon's theory is that it does not fit her political practice. Many implications of her theory are easily construed as revolutionary. Yet while she is known for her work on a Minneapolis ordinance, she is not known as a member of any revolutionary organization. (One gathers that she goes to radical conferences.)

    She constantly complains (and rightly so) how the media have distorted her position on pornography. What did she expect? Does working through the legal system really work? Can her law be an educational tool if there is no appropriate organization and press to publicize its meaning?


    MC5 agrees with much of what MacKinnon says. All sex occurs in the context of inequality between the genders. There is in some sense merely a continuum of coercion. It is important not to attribute the oppressions of gender relations to biological differences between men and women: that oppression is socially constructed.

    Just as consensual gender relations are a myth, free speech, the right to privacy--the whole Liberal framework--is a myth that conceals power relations underneath. Dead people have no free speech; that includes women killed by pornography. Male, bourgeois dictatorship is the reality.

    MC5 doubts, however, that there is as much false consciousness as MacKinnon says. Just as J. Sakai demonstrates in Settlers: The Mythology of the White Proletariat the material basis for what appears to be the false consciousness of white Amerikan workers, there is a material basis for the behavior of Amerikan women. As class, nation and gender are often closely intertwined, Sakai's analysis should be a starting point to explain the apparent complicity of Amerikan women in their oppression.

    Anyone with a comparative analysis of women's oppression--for example rape and sexual assault rates, especially in China under Mao or in other socialist countries--is encouraged to enlighten MIM for future issues. The centrality of pornography in MacKinnon's theory should be held up to the test of reality.

    Future issues of MIM Theory will continue the discussion of MacKinnon's work. All are invited to contribute.

    1. Catharine MacKinnon, Feminism Unmodified: Discourses on Life and Law, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987, p. 23
    2. Ibid.
    3. Ibid., p. 24
    4. Ibid.
    5. Ibid., p. 52
    6. Ibid., p. 24
    7. Ibid.
    8. Ibid., p. 41
    9. ibid., p. 51
    10. Ibid., p. 5
    11. Ibid., p. 3
    12. Ibld., p. 7
    13. Ibid., p. 48
    14. Ibid., p. 14
    15. Ibid., p. 59
    16. Ibid., p. 88
    17. Ibid.
    18. Ibid., p. 61
    19. Ibid., p. 49
    20. Ibid., p. 72
    21. Ibid., p. 60
    22. Ibid.
    23. Ibid., p. 129
    24. Ibid., pp. 185-6
    25. Ibid., pp. 191-2
    26. Ibld., p. 222

    (From MIM Notes 36, March 3, 1989)

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