Then there was the debate over sadomasochism. If it had escaped you before, it was hard to miss this breakdown in what the women’s movement had meant. The part I want to highlight has to do with our ability to say the word “we” in discussions of sexuality, including of sexual abuse, and to have it mean anything. It seems to me that the advocacy of sadomasochism as women’s first love, women’s final destiny, what we would all do if we really did what we wanted, is based on the absence of a critique of why women would experience sexuality in exactly the way in which it has been shoved down our throats since day one: top down.
Actually, women have largely rejected the politics of sadomasochism. But the residue of its defense has been extremely destructive nonetheless. In discussions of sexuality, women don’t say “women” any more, but “speaking only for myself, I …” The debate over sadomasochism made “women, we” taboo in the sexual area. It began in a moral morass and left us, politically, with an individualistic analysis of sexuality, undermining a collectivity that was never based on conformity, but on resistance.
Everything some of us had started to notice exploded in the discussion on pornography. As many of you may know, Andrea Dworkin and I conceived and designed a law based on the politics of the women’s movement that we thought we were part of and fielded it with others who were under the same illusion. It is a sex equality law, a civil-rights law, a law that says that sexual subordination of women through pictures and words, this sexual traffic in women, violates women’s civil rights.
This was done in feminist terms: as if women mattered; because we value women; because it wasn’t enough only to criticize oppression, and it wasn’t enough only to engage in guerilla activities of resistance, although they are crucial. We wanted to change the norm. To change the norm, we looked for a vulnerable place in the system. We looked for something that could be made to work for us, something we could use. We took whatever we could get our hands on, and when it wasn’t there, we invented. We invented a sex equality law against pornography on women’s terms.
To no one’s surprise, especially ours, it was opposed by many people. It was opposed by conservatives who discovered that they disliked sex equality a lot more than they disliked pornography. It was opposed by liberals, who discovered that they liked speech—i.e., sex, i.e., women being used—a great deal more than they liked sex equality. Then came the opposition from a quarter that labeled itself feminist: from FACT, the Feminist Anti-Censorship Task Force. At this point, for me, the women’s movement that I had known came to an end.
Catharine A. MacKinnon, Liberalism and the Death of Feminism