Sex in the Twilight Zone: Catharine MacKinnon's Crusade

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Author: Roger Kimball
Editor: Janet Witalec
Date: 2004
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 3,832 words

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[(essay date October 1993) In the following essay, Kimball summarizes MacKinnon's case against pornography, describing her arguments as obsessive and extreme as well as concluding that MacKinnon exhibits a reductive view of human behavior.]

Speaking about pornography is not like anything else. It is crazier. ... It makes grown men cry and smart people stupid.--Catharine MacKinnon, Feminism Unmodified

Every idea is an incitement.--Oliver Wendell Holmes

The demand for excessive freedom is a curious thing. Beginning in wholesale rebellion against restraint, it soon sets about erecting its own restraints--often harsher and more irrational than those it intended to replace. What was meant to shatter the bonds of convention and establish liberty ends up forging a new set of tyrannous conventions, all the more noxious for being imposed in the name of freedom.

The latest access of sexual liberation is a case in point. Born in the 1960s, the movement for sexual liberation has followed a predictable trajectory. It started in naïve abandon--chanting "Down with monogamy, emotional commitment," etc.--and proceeded quickly through shock, disillusionment, bitterness, and rage. Herbert Marcuse, Norman O. Brown, and a thousand lesser gurus foretold the sensual paradise awaiting those who were bold enough to dispense with the repressive trappings of bourgeois morality. (And bourgeois politics: it is remarkable how regularly prophets of sexual revolution have fused, or confused, sex and radical politics.)

By the mid-Seventies, though, the prophets were grumbling. The sexual utopia they had envisioned was, literally, no place. Nature itself was part of the problem. A battery of new sexually transmitted ailments, from herpes to AIDS, arrived in quick succession to make casual sex a dangerous, potentially a deadly affair. Nor was disease the whole story. For one thing, most people found the pursuit of sexual gratification for its own sake ultimately ungratifying. They were looking for sex without strings. It turned out that "the strings"--the emotional and spiritual nourishment that longstanding relationships offer--were essential: sever them and the pleasure chills.

So much was a salutary corrective to the excesses of the Sixties and Seventies. But true to form, the demand for sexual liberation has also spawned a counter-movement, an ideologically motivated demand for sexual orthodoxy. This shows itself above all in what we might call the sexual-harassment industry: the fantastical reinterpretation of everyday life such that every human exchange is potentially open to the charge of sexual malfeasance. Of course, there are genuine instances of sexual harassment, when an employer or a teacher or even a family member or friend takes unfair sexual advantage of someone. In the course of things, such cases are rare, which indeed is one reason we continue to be shocked when they come to light. But the sexual-harassment industry universalizes these instances. Largely an expression of the rancorous side of feminism, it is a perfect specimen of political correctness in action: yet another case of the euphoric Sixties suffering from a hangover. As usual, comic elements abound. Connoisseurs of bunk owe the folks at Smith College a great deal...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1100053516