The other day I spoke to a large sexuality class in Basel, Switzerland. In an hour-long talk I can at least mention the many complications and ambiguities of Sex at the Margins: Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry (the book’s the name of this particular talk). The material – and my take on it – was probably unfamiliar to most of the students. My ideas come from within the logic of people who leave home and sometimes wind up selling sex, folks without many options but who negotiate their way. Mine is a pragmatic view, not an ideological one. It can be called postcolonial, or an anthropological view of western folks’ conviction that their ways of looking at things are always, by definition, most progressive and best.
At dinner afterwards, I learned that Catharine MacKinnon had spoken at the same university just the other day, airing a view of gender and prostitution that is all about abuse and patriarchy. Hers is a bottom-line, zero-tolerance vision of women, sex and gender. MacKinnon began her activism against sexual harassment and pornography in the 1970s and has remained loyal to that vision, unswerved by the sort of perplexing experiences that influenced me.
If anyone happened to hear both presentations they can be pardoned for feeling confused. I just listened to part of a talk MacKinnon gave a year ago but turned it off after ten minutes or so. She is admirable in many ways, but how can she justify citing decades-old research to ‘prove’ that pornography causes violence and that all women who sell sex were abused as children? MacKinnon is a legal scholar who knows what evidence is, so how do her intellect and training allow her to misuse research like this?
In 1985 she wrote
Having power means, among other things, that when someone says, ‘this is how it is,’ it is taken as being that way. . . . Powerlessness means that when you say ‘this is how it is,’ it is not taken as being that way. This makes articulating silence, perceiving the presence of absence, believing those who have been socially stripped of credibility, critically contextualizing what passes for simple fact, necessary to the epistemology of a politics of the powerless.
I completely understand how this applied to women as a class and would agree that in many ways it’s still largely true everywhere. But the same idea applies to women who do not agree with her ideas on sex and gender and particularly about the meaning of selling and buying sex. Why doesn’t she see her own fundamental contradiction?
I presume it’s the sheltered life she has led. Anyone who has stayed in the academy continuously their whole adult life runs the strong risk of Not Getting Out Enough to know what’s happening in the world. Furthermore, universities are hierarchical and in many ways still feudal, and those who advance by producing the sort of outputs prescribed are led to believe that they are, in fact, superior intellectually to ordinary folk. MacKinnon reproduces in her ideology the same elitist, unbending belief in her own ability to Know Best that male patriarchs do. And she probably isn’t aware of it, because she is undoubtedly met by admiring, if not adoring, followers everywhere. She must also have a strain of the absolute certainty which leads me to talk about Fundamentalist Feminism. She is a quintessential example of a theorist in the Rescue Industry.
I, on the other hand, have been buffeted to and fro by confusing, contradictory, enriching and impoverishing experiences in a raft of different jobs, countries, cultures and social contexts. I couldn’t possibly have maintained my own beliefs from the 1970s – too many things have proved them wrong. So although Catharine and I are nearly the same age and almost bumped into each other in Basel, we seem to be creatures from different planets. Good luck to students trying to sort out the differences!
– Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist