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.
In an act of extraordinary horizontal hostility, FACT filed a brief against the ordinance in court as part of a media-based legal attack on it. They did what they could to prevent from existing, to keep out of women’s hands, this law, written in women’s blood, in women’s tears, in women’s pain, in women’s experience, out of women’s silence, this law to make acts against women actionable – acts like coercion, force, assault, trafficking in our flesh. Pornography, they said, is sex equality. Women should just have better access to it. Using the debased model of equality-as-sameness that the women’s movement we used to know was predicated on criticizing, they argued that pornography must not be actionable by its victims because, among other reasons, “the range of feminist imagination and expression in the realm of sexuality has barely begun to find voice. Women need the freedom and socially recognized space to appropriate for themselves the robustness of what traditionally has been male language.” Men have it; FACT women want it.
Thus, “even pornography which is problematic for women can be experienced as affirming of women’s desires and of women’s equality” (emphasis added). This is a subquote from Ellen Willis in the brief, “Pornography can be psychic assault,” – get it, that rape only happened in your head – “but for women, as for men, it can also be a source of erotic pleasure… . A woman who enjoys pornography, even if that means enjoying a rape fantasy, is, in a sense, a rebel.” From what is she rebelling? Their answer: “Insisting on an aspect of her sexuality that has been defined as a male preserve.” Now who can’t tell the difference between rape and sex? Rape has been a male preserve. But to insist on being defined by what one has been forced to be defined by is, to say the least, a rather limited notion of freedom. And choice. And a women’s movement that aspires to inhabit rapist preserves is not a women’s movement I want any part of.
You might be wondering what the FACT response to all the knowledge, data, understanding, and experience of women’s sexual victimization presented in support of the ordinance was. What their response was to all the women who wanted to use the law, the women who had the courage to speak out so it could exist, who put their lives, their reputations, and, yes, their honor on the line for it. Mostly, FACT did not even mention them. They were beneath notice. Coerced women, assaulted women, subordinated women became “some women.” In fact, the FACT brief did what pornography does: it makes harm to women invisible by making it sex. It makes harm to women into ideas about sex, just like the right-wing male judge did who found the ordinance unconstitutional. On the bottom line, the FACT brief was a pure address to the penis. It said, “We like it. We want it. All we want is ‘in.’ Want to watch?”
Liberalism and the Death of Feminism, Catharine A. MacKinnon