“Harm is harm, hello”

Leading scholar in the field of gender equality, women’s rights, and law reform surrounding prostitution and sexual harassment, Catharine A. MacKinnon, sat down with On Century Avenue, following her lecture at NYU Shanghai. Professor MacKinnon is currently a Professor of Law at University of Michigan Law School and a Visiting Professor at Harvard Law School. Through the course of this conversation, Dr. MacKinnon provides her stance on the topics of gay prostitution, transgender inequality, and sexist culture.

OCA: For the past 40 years, you have been a pioneer in reforming laws around female rights and gender equality. What sparked your interest in the subject, or was there a significant defining moment for you when you realized that this is what you needed to address?

Catharine A. MacKinnon: What moved me in this direction was, is, and always has been the women’s movement. In 1969, 1970, I first became involved in it in New Haven, Connecticut, then nationally, then globally. Everything I have done comes from there.

After completing a BA at Smith College, you went on to obtain a JD from Yale University, followed by a PhD in Political Science at Yale. What provoked this desire to go to law school?

CM: I wanted to change the world for women and was really tired of being told by men lawyers that what I wanted to do couldn’t be done. As it turns out, they were wrong. But to do it, to see what can be done and how, you have to have the tools in your own hands. That’s why I wanted to go.

Feminism has been defined differently by different societal groups. What does feminism mean to you and do you believe that your definition of feminism has evolved over time, as your career has progressed?

CM: I’m a big tent person. I don’t agree with “how many angels can dance on the head of pin” definitions of feminism or bunker mentalities or identifications with marginalization. As a description, not a definition, to me feminism springs from the sense of self-respect in every woman. In the world, it takes the form of the movement for the liberation of women from male dominance. How one lives one’s life is more important than ideological definitions. The world is full of women living self-respecting lives who respect other women and identify with all women who may or may not accept a label or a term or an identification. But look, we’re at a point where men in some third world countries force their girlfriends to watch pornography and say see, you want to be a liberated woman? This is what feminism means. That definition is the opposite of mine, but there are women who agree with it who (naturally) have pretty big megaphones. If that is feminism, I’m part of some other movement. If a lot of women lead feminist lives, whether they identify with the term or not, and some women defend misogynist practices and views under the feminist label, the issue is not the brand but the substance. It’s politically important to have an identified movement, but the issue is not saluting the flag, certainly not carrying a card, it’s the politics of what you do — how you work, organize, and live.

Who would you say your influences are? Were you largely influenced by first-wave feminism, or was it something that came naturally to you?

CM: Survivors of sexual abuse, including the last one I talked to. Every woman who tells me about her experience, I learn more, always. Survivors of sexual abuse, raped women, sexually assaulted women, sexually harassed women, women who have been violated to make pornography, women used for prostitution – who really know what’s going on in life and are some of the most brilliant women I’ve ever met – they are the ones who have had the most influence on me.

Have these women driven you to pursue what you do, as opposed to any theory or academic work?

CM: No theorist has driven me to much except despair. Andrea Dworkin’s work is superb, of course, and she and I worked together for decades. But one doesn’t describe comrades in arms as influences. We built our work step by step, reality by reality, together. None of it was theory-driven. It was reality-driven, although it did produce new theory. But everything I’ve done – against sexual harassment, pornography, prostitution and trafficking, genocidal rape, and gender crime more broadly, and for equality – I did because someone asked me to do it. Literally everything.

As you speak and listen to more women, have you noticed any form of social change – in mindset or in the facts? How do you think society’s stance on gender equality has evolved?

CM: Many more women and girls are more willing to speak out against sexual subordination. That is a shift. There is also more inspiring movement against racism and its relation to sex inequality. More younger men see through male dominance and don’t want any part of it. Those numbers are growing. So many women and girls all over the world are standing up for their humanity and taking risks doing it, connecting with each other productively in more and more ways. That’s changed. Some laws have changed, some consciousness has shifted. But there is as much sexual abuse as there ever has been, maybe more. That reality has not changed. Not accepting it as inevitable or just life is what has changed. Survivors do not shame themselves, blame themselves, quite so much. They’re more willing to take the risk, and it still is a risk, of speaking out. Increasingly, they realize they’re not alone. Still, when it happens, you can feel like you’re the only one this has ever happened to.

Conditions have shifted in some places. Not much, but some. When France introduces a law against buyers of women for sex, you know something has moved. But I come from a country where have sex equality is still not explicit in the Constitution. Even though there are changes in some laws, a lot of the most important ones haven’t changed — rape, prostitution, sexual abuse of children. If anything, those abuses themselves have increased, underreported and undercounted, and we still have not even delivered equal pay for equal work, although women’s literacy rate, for instance, has improved.

In your work, you have supported Sweden’s legislation on prostitution, and suggested that it be a model for other countries. How did this model become so crucial to your argument against prostitution? Why has this not been implemented in the US yet and what obstacles have you faced while attempting its implementation?

CM: The Nordic Model has been implemented it a lot of places, and is in the process of being considered in a lot of others. People are watching to see how it works. It’s been in effect in Sweden now for almost 15 years, and the government, after official review, has concluded that it is working as intended. Prostitution is down an average of 85 percent; sex trafficking has disappeared. Swedish women put it into effect in the year 2000, having worked on it for a decade before they won. It amounts to a sex equality model, lowering men’s privilege and raising women’s rights. The Swedish model for prostitution is precisely what I advocate regarding prostitution: if the women, or whoever is being sold, are criminalized, decriminalize them. Get off their backs. Criminalize the real criminals. Whoever is buying them, who are the reason they are being sold, as well as those who are selling them, criminalized them. For this, as for so much else, we need the rule of law to actually work.

The majority of your work has been centered around prostitution, trafficking, sexual harassment, sexual assault, rape and pornography. Given that, do you believe that other social structures, such as marriage, have hindered gender equality?

CM: Kate Millett was right about the centrality of sexuality in women’s subjection. But I think the family is just one concrete expression of male dominance, not as fundamental to it as she said. The family can change in many ways, but as long as sexual assault remains across the society, not much is going to change for women. It turns out to be possible to transform certain gender roles within the family, including in same-sex marriage, without apparently doing much of anything about patriarchy in the larger sense, that is, male dominance throughout society.

All the issues you mention that I work on happen at times within the family, but they also happen in every sector of society. I think sexuality is the driving force of sex inequality; the family is just one powerful location for it. Sexual abuse of children, which Kate Millett doesn’t discuss, is fundamental to the way male dominance as a system works everywhere; it’s rock bottom. Instead of the family being the foundational institution of gender inequality, keeping women unfree, my work suggests that sexuality as socially constructed is its foundational institution.

Although pornography is generally defined as material depicting sexually explicit images, designed for sexual gratification, would you consider advertisements depicting female sexuality a form of pornography, such as the Calvin Klein advertisements or Victoria’s Secret?

CM: It’s not, no. Pornography is what the pornography industry makes and sells. They know who they are, and they are not Calvin Klein. Calvin Klein and Victoria’s Secret are successful companies, but they aren’t making billions of dollars a year off those ads. The ads are a part of a larger sexist culture, a culture of the objectification of women and to some extent men, that is driven by the pornography industry. If it were not for the pornography industry, those ads would not be the way that they are and would not be as effective as they are. But they are not pornography.

It’s tempting to train your sights on material that is more readily visible and easier to see and less violating and threatening to consume, like ads. They certainly are a part of the visual landscape of male dominance – no question. They are sexist and objectifying. But they are not sexually explicit materials, and they are not made with people who are abducted or forced into prostitution by extreme poverty or with guns pointed at their heads. If billions of dollars are being made on the materials, and men are masturbating to them, it’s the pornography industry. If not, it’s some other consequence of living in a society saturated by pornography.

How do you see this sexist culture changing?

CM: It’s getting worse, much worse, because nothing is being done to stop it. The legal proposal that Andrea Dworkin and I made would stop it, making clear that this is a problem that a lot of people with power do not want solved. When we first proposed our civil rights law against pornography in 1983, the pornography industry was very powerful and very rich and expanding every minute, but it was nothing like it is now, which actually is as we predicted then it would become. It’s even more built into the everyday and even more normalized as well as universally accessible to anyone with a cell phone or a computer. The technological advances mean, as they have always meant, that pornography is much more intimately located in people’s personal lives. It’s right in their homes – piped directly in. They don’t even have to cross the street to get it. It has penetrated ever more deeply into society, making it even more pervasive and tenacious than before, so even more harmful and even more challenging to address. This doesn’t mean nothing can be done, but the sooner the better. It’s getting more pervasive and more and more violent, because the well-documented logic of the materials is that as one consumes it, one needs more and more violent materials to produce arousal. So as massive proportions of the male population become progressively more and more desensitized to the abuse of women, they demand yet more abusive materials. The pornography industry is only too happy to profit from this manipulation of their sexuality.

In your works, you have consistently opposed pornography, as it involves the ‘direct subordination of women’. However, what would your stance be on gay or lesbian porn – types of pornography that do not involve women, or are for the sexual gratification of women, respectively?

CM: Basically, it’s no better, no worse. If the material is violating people on the basis of their sex, it’s like any other pornography. The fact that it is gay or lesbian, that is, same sex rather than non-same-sex, doesn’t make be violating or not; it is just not relevant to the harm question. I guess it is because people miss that harm is and always has been the issue that they keep asking if there is some different analysis for gay and lesbian materials. Litigation in Canada on this issue called Little Sister’s considered the defense argument that gay and lesbian materials, because they were not heterosexual, even if it looked like people were being harmed, including men with pipes shoved up them, nobody was really being harmed because the material was gay or lesbian, hence liberating. The argument was, it had to exist and be seen because it showed a dissident sexuality and was not harmful as it would be if a man did it to a woman. It was the most homophobic argument imagineable: that when a gay man is being raped by a man, it isn’t rape but freedom. It makes your hair stand on end. The Supreme Court of Canada rejected that argument. Harm is harm, hello, and it can be gender-based, even when it is not straight.

Have your views ever changed over the years? Have you ever had to uphold a viewpoint that you do not necessarily believe in for the purposes of achieving some form of legal reform?

CM: My views have certainly developed. They develop every day, with everybody I talk to, everything I hear and everything I see. I don’t know of something I thought in the past that I don’t agree with today. The only legal position I have supported that I don’t fully agree with was the defense of a criminal law against pornography in Canada. That was because Canadian women wanted to defend it, it was their law and their country, and its definition was closer to harm-based. I warned them that even if we won, which we did, it wouldn’t likely make any difference in the availability of the materials, which it hasn’t. I also advised that if it won, it would make clear that a law that would make a difference, the civil rights anti-pornography law, would be constitutional. Which it would be.

Certain things that I have had an inkling about have grown over time, for example, concerning transgender people. I always thought I don’t care how someone becomes a woman or a man; it does not matter to me. It is just part of their specificity, their uniqueness, like everyone else’s. Anybody who identifies as a woman, wants to be a woman, is going around being a woman, as far as I’m concerned, is a woman. Many transwomen are more feminist than a lot of born women who don’t much want to be women (for understandable reasons), who don’t really identify with women, some of whom are completely anti-feminist. The fact that they’re biologically female does not improve things.

To me, women is a political group. I never had much occasion to say that, or work with it, until the last few years when there has been a lot of discussion about whether transwomen are women. I discovered I more or less have always had a view on it, developed through transwomen I know, and have met, including prostituted ones, who are some of the strongest feminists in opposition to prostitution I’ve ever encountered. They are a big improvement on the born women who defend pimps and johns, I can tell you that. Many transwomen just go around being women, who knew, and suddenly, we are supposed to care that they are using the women’s bathroom. There they are in the next stall with the door shut, and we’re supposed to feel threatened. I don’t. I don’t care. By now, I aggressively don’t care.

Simone de Beauvoir said one is not born, one becomes a woman. Now we’re supposed to care how, as if being a woman suddenly became a turf to be defended. I have become more impassioned and emphatic as I have become more informed, and with the push-back from colleagues who take a very different view. Unfortunately some people have apparently physically defended their transition, also. This kind of change develops your views is a further in response to a sharpening of developments in the world. But the law Andrea Dworkin and I wrote gives “transsexuals” rights explicitly; that was 1983. We were thinking about it; we just didn’t know as much as it is possible to know now.

As college students, we are continually being faced with the choice of pursuing what we love, or pursuing a career for alternate reasons, such as monetary or fame factors. How do you think a college student makes the choice between these reasons, or how do you suggest one pursues their interests?

CM: Follow your own genius, make the world create a space for you, do what you see to be done and follow that path. So many people, for reasons they explain to themselves as necessity, end up in a twisted, distorted contortion of what they originally envisioned. There is such a thing as necessity. But there are also an awful lot of ways to work out a life to make real what you see for yourself. Survival is crucial, obviously, but frequently people end up, at least in the United States, with a lot more than that. It escalates to way more than they need to survive. They did not have to cave in the way they caved in to survive. Also – again this is especially true in wealthier countries – a lot of people in positions of privilege and power could use those positions more than they do to serve the vision they began with, a vision they still hold in some place inside. What ends up happening is, they think once they get to here, they can do whatever. Here tends not to ever come, because they become the people they need to be, to get there, when actually here was here all along. You grow away from the person you were trying to become. Once you’ve caved in in certain ways, you aren’t anymore the person you need to be to do what you wanted to do. Integrity takes practice. If you practice the opposite, you become the opposite.

This article was written by Bella Farr & Alhan Fakhr. Send an email to to get in touch.
Photo Credit: Kadallah Burrowes

2 Comments on this Post

  1. Has Ms. MacKinnon read Delusions of Gender, Christine Benvenuto’s book on her life, marriage and her husband’s “middle aged crisis”. Does she read the news, about the many many women and children attacked in sex segregated spaces, the “women’s studies professors” who are Male, coming from IT, the many women stalked harassed and threatened to the point of calling police, using lawyers to protect their elderly mothers and children, the conferences and speaking engagements cancelled, the feminists who have been no-platformed while Nazi orgs are welcomed. Talked to Germaine Greer, Julie Bindel, Lierre Keith, the Red Stockikng Women, all who have been silenced, by those “women” she says are better than some other women.

    Misinformed, behind-the-times, and spiteful about it. Astounding.

  2. I already knew she was rich being a lawyer but I did not realize she was so old, no wonder she doesn’t understand why so many women reject the trans ideology which insists we should be happy with our “lady brains in a lady body” as if that is somehow not sexist stereotyping, or why we object to bio males being allowed to counsel recently traumatized women at the rape crisis centers. And I guess she also hasn’t heard about all the maletofemale who are screaming at LESBIANS that we are “PHOBIC” if we refuse to consider a bio man with intact peen as sexual partners. Anyway, this is only the second time I’ve heard her talk and both times she speaks about feminists as if the only kind she knows are the liberal “Slutwalker/FreeTheNipple” faux feminists. Dear Catherine, thanks for all the work you’ve done in the past but it’s time to enjoy retirement now.


Leave a Comment