Me and Catharine MacKinnon on prostitution, gender, patriarchy and sex: not two minds with but a single thought

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

21 thoughts on “Me and Catharine MacKinnon on prostitution, gender, patriarchy and sex: not two minds with but a single thought

  1. Dave

    Being a man, I find it difficult to fathom MacKinnon style feminism’s demand for gender loyalty. It’s almost like women are like a political party that is intolerant of those who resist the party platform as formulated by a select few. Men don’t seem to preach that loyalty to their sex, as if everything they do is a reflection on the male sex. They certainly don’t suggest that someone who behaves differently from the norm is a traitor to their sex.

    To us simplistic outsiders, it often seems like feminism is simply trading one central dominant authority (men) for another (women). Kind of like, meet the new boss, same as the old boss. I’m not a fan of bosses. I’m more a proponent of the idea that a person is his or her own boss.

  2. Iamcuriousblue

    “They certainly don’t suggest that someone who behaves differently from the norm is a traitor to their sex.”

    I think that’s the way trans- and homophobia functions, actually.

  3. Sina

    @Dave: Radical feminists as well as misogynists seem to have the very sexist view that women should limit their actions because “it makes other women look bad”. As a sex worker, I have many times encountered that attidude coupled with hateful comments in online discussions. Fortunately, there are many feminists who don’t see it that way. I wouldn’t say feminism in general wants to trade one authority for another, that’s just one kind of feminism. Confusing, isn’t it;-)?

  4. Asturiano

    I think it is very necessary to distinguish ‘Radical Feminism’ (Kate Millet; S. Firestone; Ti-Grace Atkinson; V. Solanas, etc.) from ‘Cultural Feminism’ (Mackinnon; A. Dworkin; Kathleen Barry; Mary Daly, etc.)

  5. Dave

    Laura: Forgive my rather sweeping generalization. Being at work, I didn’t listen to any of it, yet. I was simply making an observation based on your comments and my own (relatively vague) understanding of MacKinnon and (the late) Dworkin as purveyors of a one-size-fits-all philosophy about what’s good and bad for women and their enthusiasm in seeing that philosophy legislatively codified.

    Sina and Asturiano: I do find the various branches of feminism confusing and I know they are not equivalent. Feminist writers seem to like to differentiate themselves, but I’m not sure the modifiers (cultural, radical, gender, libertarian, sex-positive, etc) necessarily do much to clarify things for anyone who isn’t an avid student of the movement. Most of the women I’ve read are not hostile to sex work (that’s not to say they are all sex workers — I know very few sex workers). On the other hand, if you consider all feminists together, on average I’d say they are very hostile to sex work. And yet, feminists universally claim that advancing women’s rights is their most important mission.

    My perspective is going to be biased because I am a long-standing libertarian. To me, the “right to choose” is what rights are about. And I’m obviously not talking about abortion.

    My posts probably tend to come across a bit off-topic and certainly uninformed to anyone well versed in all the various forms of feminism. Sometimes when I pound out a comment, it’s really just thinking out loud more than contributing much to the conversation.

  6. laura agustin Post author

    I agree that the labelling of different types of feminism is confusing and don’t myself feel the labels are descriptive or fair. All we really need to know is that there are several sorts of feminism and that one of them takes quite drastic positions about men and sex. It is a kind of fundamentalism in an age when fundamentalisms proliferate.

    sorry blue that your comment was caught up in the spam machine.

  7. Sina

    @Dave: I also consider myself a libertarian. Some feminists from the women-as-a-collective-fraction have told me I confuse feminism with libertarianism, but for me feminism is exactly about that- liberty for every individual to make their own path, regardless of their sex. I have to admit I´m not that informed either, on the subject of feminism I only read blogs and not books.

  8. Del LaGrace Volcano

    I recently had a very similar experience, running into someone who works in the same field but has diametrically opposed views…views that the world sees as far more credible than my own. I actually DO read books and blogs and Laura, if you are around the same age as MacKinnon then you are about 10 years older than me, which only means, I’ve been around for awhile as well.

    What I find missing, in most discussions about sex workers rights and feminism is a little thing called balance. I’m close friends with many sex workers and have led far from a sheltered life myself. I find the fact that all of those advocating sex work as a liberating, positive profession, come from white, middle-class backgrounds significant. When I call this often overlooked observation to their attention I am placed in the MacKinnon/Dworkin camp. It has been my own experience, as well as the experience of the hundreds of women (and men and trans) I know who have worked or are currently working in the sex industry, that childhood sexual abuse is common and with the exception of those working in the top tiers of the industry, making the most money, all of us would preferred to do work that was safer and saner.

  9. Laura Agustín

    My own thoughts in this field can’t be glossed as a clear rights discourse, but I can confirm from now onto 16 years participating in international rights movements that the rights ideas and demands come independently from third-world, poorer, non-middle class, browner people in every country I know. Follow the links in the piece on Ekman and see how these groups position themselves as prostitutes and sex workers in the most disadvantaged situations.

    Finding work safer or saner is entirely relative, so while I can see why you might see it that way I know many people who don’t.

  10. redpesto

    “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.”

    I’m reminded of Susie Bright’s line in her collection Sexwise: MacKinnon reads like the typical academic who must publish but can’t write. Throw in a propensity towards advocacy rather than evidence, and the result is something like the Minneapolis Ordinance.

  11. Wendy

    I did a lot on obscenity law as an undergrad so I had to read MacKinnon. I have to admit I did find her work intellectually challenging at times (which is more than I can say for Andrea Dworkin’s), but ultimately she struck me as someone who was so sure of her convictions she didn’t even feel she had to justify them, all she had to do was assert them and anyone who disagreed was simply wrong. If not evil.

  12. Susie Bright

    Thanks for being so eloquent, again, on a topic I thought I couldn’t take one more look at: “CMcK.”

    I think the cognitive dissonance you speak of, in her case, may have started a sheltered existence.

    But that was superceded by old-fashioned “selling-out.” Her entire career and financial-legacy empire are built on sticking to her guns about this.

    She is not so stupidly naive as her lectures would lead you to believe. Like a lot of politicians, she is now dedicated to the closet she’s walled herself into, no matter how many perfectly satisfied “whores” she knows on the side.

    It makes me just as sick, whether it’s David Vitter, or her.

  13. Pingback: Twitter Trackbacks for Laura Agustín | Catharine MacKinnon | Gender | Fundamentalism | Border Thinking on Migration, Trafficking and Commercial Sex [] on

  14. Sheldon

    The orginal radical feminists were Firestone and the others listed (except Valerie Solanas), as well as Ellen Willis and the Redstockings Collective.

    Dworkin and MacKinnon appropriated the ‘radical feminist’ label to give cachet to the anti-pornograghy movement they led. In truth, their movement was an example of what lesbian-feminist author Alice Echols named ‘cultural feminism”.
    Solanas was adored by Dworkin and her widower, John Stoltenberg, who dedicated one of his books to her.

  15. Laura Agustín

    i was in another part of the world when that minnesota anti-pornography business went on, and didn’t really know about mackinnon until i read her at the beginning of my phd research, when i was trying to find writers who could explain my questions to me. i try to avoid the labels, myself, but felt i found something in some feminists that could be understood as fundamentalism. i also understood that they felt betrayed by people like me, who would have spoken about ‘women’ as a massive generalisation in the 60s (and before).

    has she got rich, then? if i’d known that i’d have put it in the post, to contrast with how i’ve got poor! or porr

  16. asturiano

    I have read The SCUM Manifiesto, the feminist essay of Valerie Solanas, and I think that the main ideas that this woman put there are more ‘radical feminists’ than ‘cultural feminists’ (despite of some parts of Valerie’s argument lapses into a essentialism way of understanding the gender).

  17. Maxine Doogan

    Self reflection is a spiritial attribute, it’s the process of re-evaluating one’s personal path, choices and future. This attribute of an inability to self assess and make corrections is what these patriarchal women share with their religious zealots counterparts.

  18. Asehpe

    To quote from Umberto Eco: ‘What terrifies you most in purity?’ ‘Haste.’

    Ms MacKinnon and similar fundamentalists apparently believe in their own purity. They apparently (pace Susie Bright above) cannot see the path they have followed as anything but a necessity, a simple movement towards the correct worldview. As such, there is no need to reconsider implicit or explicit assumptions, review more recent research, or initiate dialogue with those who think differently. This, because certainty in one’s purity means that the path ahead is clear; the right thing to do is obvious, and we must go ahead towards the obviously good goal. This lack of interest in these lateral activities — reflection on one’s assumptions, attention to research, dialogue with dissenters — is the haste.


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