Catharine MacKinnon, along with feminists such as Andrea Dworkin, emerged in the late 1970s and the early 1980s as one of the staunchest feminist advocates for the censorship of pornography. With Dworkin, she authored an antipornography ordinance adopted by Minneapolis and Indianapolis before a court of appeals struck down the Indianapolis ordinance. According to MacKinnon in her 1997 book, In Harm’s Way (coauthored with Dworkin), although pornography leads to pervasive violations of women and children in private life, it often remains unacceptable to publicly criticize it. She argues that pornography has stature as a public, available, and effectively legal entity, but its damaging effects are denied as nonexistent.
In 1983, the city of Minneapolis, Minnesota, employed MacKinnon and Dworkin to construct a law citing pornography as a human rights violation. In the ordinance, the two women defined pornography as the sexually explicit subordination of women, either graphically or in words. Pornography, under their law, is the practice of sexual discrimination, thus making it a violation of civil rights. The ordinance formulated pornography’s harms as human rights deprivations, thus arguing for its treatment as a human rights violation. MacKinnon emphasized that in order for pornography to be made, pornographic acts had to be done to someone. Potentially, if even one person is victimized in the process of making pornography because of his or her sex, then as a member of a sex-defined group, that person is discriminated against on the basis of his or her sex. MacKinnon, along with Dworkin, opposes pornography for what they state is the harm it does to those coerced into making it, those forced to consume it, and those assaulted or physically harmed because of it.
MacKinnon, like much of the conservative right wing, argues for the censorship of pornography. However, she has stated that unlike the right wing’s approach, which focuses heavily on issues of morality, her approach, which she calls the civil rights approach to pornography, was created to permit those injured by pornography access to the courts in order to prove its harm. Through their antipornography ordinance, MacKinnon and Dworkin asserted that, for the first time, a law articulated how pornography used and affected women. They argued that the First Amendment cannot protect pornography because if it did, it would be protecting human exploitation. Under such a definition, pornography is thus sexual exploitation that produces sexual abuse and sexual discrimination and falls outside First Amendment protection because the amendment should not protect those with power against the claims of those seeking equality. The Minneapolis ordinance thus constructed pornography as a form of group libel that should be restricted to protect the reputation and image of women.
For the first time, individuals deemed radical feminists—such as Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon—led the call for censorship. Unlike for conservatives, for antipornography feminists pornography had little to do with sex and everything to do with power. MacKinnon and other procensorship feminists focused on what they believed to be pornography’s effect on women rather than on the morality and virtue of women argued by antipornography conservatives. Thus, according to MacKinnon, pornography reflects and reinforces the subordination of women to male sexuality and power.
The concept of equality is key to understanding MacKinnon’s interpretation of pornography. Pornography, she contends, dehumanizes women as a group through the use of demeaning depictions, thus socially constructing women subjectively in a way that makes them objects of male pleasure and power with no autonomy. According to MacKinnon and Dworkin, pornography expresses the underlying violent reality of male power. Pornography exemplifies a violent, male sexuality that is the most important factor in causing the subordination of women as a group. MacKinnon maintains that pornography is harmful in itself because it may trigger specific sexual violence—direct harm, in other words—and because it constitutes an ideological tool of male domination that generates and reinforces subordination of and discrimination against women in broader, systematic ways. In this view, pornography actively subordinates women by creating a sexual dynamic that puts down, suppresses, and ultimately brutalizes women while purporting to be what sex is.
MacKinnon argues that what pornography does, it does in the real world and not in the mind. Because pornography is used as sex, it is thereby sex. By this definition, pornography does not simply express or interpret experience. It substitutes for the experience. Thus invoking all feminists and ignoring feminists against the censorship of pornography, such as American Civil Liberties Union president Nadine Strossen, MacKinnon claims that pornography ‘‘in the feminist view’’ is a form of forced sex, a practice of sexual politics, and an institution of gender inequality. MacKinnon and Dworkin viewed their legislation as a way to empower women by giving them the option of bringing a civil suit against those whose involvement with pornography caused harm to women. It intended to give women a choice to confront pornography directly and to initiate civil suits against those who cause harm by trafficking in pornography, coercing individuals into pornography, forcing pornography on people, or assaulting people in a way directly caused by specific porn.
Yet, only alleged victims could legally initiate lawsuits, and they would have to prove that the challenged materials actually subordinated women in their making or their use. For MacKinnon and Dworkin, pornography is not an idea but sexual reality, not only discriminating against women but also institutionalizing the inferiority and subordination of one group (women) to another (men). According to MacKinnon, men have sex with their image of a woman. When pornography portrays violence, sexual arousal becomes conditioned to violence and internal prohibitions against acting upon such violent fantasies lessen.
MacKinnon and Dworkin’s antipornography ordinance passed in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and Indianapolis, Indiana. The passage of the law in Indianapolis became the test case for the use of the civil liberties argument to limit or to prohibit pornography. The ordinance defined pornography as a discriminatory practice based on sex that denies women equal opportunities in society and, as such, works as a systematic practice of exploitation and subordination based on sex that differentially harms women. MacKinnon and Dworkin based this definition on their belief that pornography is central to creating and maintaining sex as a basis for discrimination.
When tested in district court, the Indianapolis ordinance was struck down as, in actuality, regulating speech instead of the conduct involved in producing pornography. According to the court, speech could be regulated only if Indianapolis proved a compelling interest in reducing sex discrimination by their ordinance. The city failed to prove this interest to the court. Furthermore, the court declared the ordinance vague, overly broad, and an unconstitutional prior restraint of speech. Indianapolis appealed this finding of the lower court to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals. In 1985, upon hearing American Booksellers Association, Inc., et al. v. William H. Hudnut II, 84- 3147 (1985), a unanimous federal appeals court upheld the district court’s finding, also finding the ordinance to be too broad and in violation of the First Amendment.
MacKinnon argues that protecting pornography means protecting sexual abuse as speech while, simultaneously, pornography and its protection function to deprive women of speech. She contends that there is a deliberate connection between the silence imposed on these women and what she terms the ‘‘noise’’ of pornography that saturates society and ‘‘parodies,’’ to use her term, as something deserving constitutional protection. She believes the First Amendment protection of pornography allows those with power to intimidate the powerless into silence and that these elites use the state to wield such power.
In her work Only Words, MacKinnon explores what she sees as the irony of pornographic words and images being termed as ‘‘only words’’ because social inequality is created and enforced through words and images. Such a social hierarchy cannot exist without its meanings and expressions embedded in communication. MacKinnon argues that pornography functions in the real world and not in the mind; what it takes to make pornography and what happens through the use of pornography function in reality. It is not the ideas in pornography that assault women; it is the men who are made, changed, and impelled by pornography that do. MacKinnon posits that pornography contains ideas like any other social practice, but it does not work as a thought. Pornography’s place in abuse requires an understanding of it in more active rather than passive terms. Pornography does not express or interpret experience; it substitutes for it and stands in for reality. MacKinnon says that to call pornography representative of sex rather than actual sex alienates reality and gives license to anything and everything portrayed within.
According to MacKinnon, although obscenity is a moral idea, pornography is a concrete, political practice. It is a form of forced sex, a practice of sexual politics, and an institution of gender inequality. According to this view, pornography is much more potent than mere harmless fantasy or an expression of a healthy sexuality. It constructs men’s power over women and thereby defines, for men, who women can be. In pornography, women are violated and possessed, and men who consume pornography are invited to view women likewise and are validated in acting upon those assumptions. Pornography is an act of male supremacy and its harm is, in part, the difficulty of seeing male supremacy within it because of the pervasiveness and ‘‘success’’ of the saturation of pornography.
References and Further Reading
Cases and Statutes Cited
See also American Civil Liberties Union; Dworkin, Andrea; Obscenity; Strossen, Nadine