Catharine MacKinnon speaks on the work of Andrea Dworkin

This speech was given by Catharine A. MacKinnon at the Andrea Dworkin Commemorative Conference, April 7, 2006. This original transcript was prepared by secondwaver (blog now defunct).

Andrea should have been here for this. She would have liked it, or most of it. [laughter in audience]

There’s something awful, in both senses, that is, terrible and awe-inspiring, both, about Andrea’s work having to be my topic, instead of my tool, speaking her words not only to further our work together as they were and we did, for over thirty years, but to speak about it, and about her, as a subject, and in the past tense.

Yet even at the same time, her clarity and her passion and her inspiration to all of us to go further, go deeper, flows through her words.

Her whole theory is amazingly present in each phrase that she used. As Blake saw a whole world in a grain of sand, in each of Andrea’s sentences you can see the whole world the way she saw it.

Andrea Dworkin was a theorist and a writer of genius, an unparalleled speaker and activist, a public intellectual of exceptional breadth and productivity. Her work embraced the last quarter of the twentieth century and spanned fiction, critical works of literature, political analysis in essays and speeches and books, and journalism. Her legacy includes a vivid example of the simultaneity of thinking and activism, and of art and politics. Formally, she was an Enlightenment philosopher, in that she believed in and used reason. She was interested in diginity and equality and morality, and, especially, in freedom. Her contribution as a complex humanist was to apply all of this to women, and that changed everything.

An original thinker and literary artist, Andrea saw society ordered by power and the status excrescences of its variations animated by the sexual. She pioneered understanding the social construction of sexuality, and the sexual construction of the social, long before academics dared touch this third rail of social life.

In talking about The Story of O, a book of S/M pornography, in her book, Woman Hating, she says, “The Story of O claims to define epistomologically what a woman is.” She saw O as “a book of astounding political significance.”

Largely overlooked as an intellectual in her own time, she mapped social life before the postmodernists did, finding fairy tales and pornography to be maps for women’s oppression. She wrote about humiliation and fear before study of the emotions was a big academic trend. She analyzed social meaning before hermeneutics really caught on in the scholarly world, asking what pornography means, as for example, in the preface to Pornography, “this is not a book about what should or should not be shown. It is a book about the meaning of what is being shown,” what intercourse means, to men and women, most of all, what freedom for women means.

Her first book, Woman Hating, she “wrote to find out why I am not free, and what I can do to become free.” In her later work, this emphasis on freedom was synthesized with a re-made equality, consistent with and necessary for that freedom.

Her cadences were rhythmic, her use of repetition gaining inevitability and momentum, her suddenly-shifting convergences and metaphors were telling, and often surprising, lyric and antic, fluid and explosive by turns.

Such was her skill as a writer that she gave us almost the experience of pornography without her writing–being–pornography. She could even make intercourse funny, writing of Norman O. Brown speaking of entering women “as if we were lobbies and elevators.” [laughter in audience]

And for undertaking a synchronic reading of her work as a whole and selecting some over-arching themes, I want to reflect for just a minute on what it means that we are here doing this.

The relation between the work and the life is not a new question. But the relation between who Andrea Dworkin was and how her work was socially received is. And it has, as some of us have noticed, shifted noticeably, even dramatically, since the death of her body.

Three months after she died, so unexpectedly, a prominent French political theorist in a Ph.D. exam that I was in, in Paris, referred to her, excoriating the poor student, for eliminating various notables from the bibliography, referred to her as “l’incomparable Andrea Dworkin”–this, in a country that has long refused even to translate her work!

How has the world related Andrea Dworkin’s body to her body of work? Why was it necessary to destroy her credibility and bury her work alive, only now to be resurrected, disinterred, as it were? Why can now she be taken seriously, respected, even read, now that her body is no longer here? Why this is the first conference ever to be held on her work is one side of the coin of the question of why there never was one when she was alive. Her work is as alive now as it ever was, as challenging, threatening, illuminating, inspiring. Maybe it is that she can no longer tell us that we’re wrong, but don’t bet on it. Or maybe if you engage her work while she’s alive you further her mission, and we can’t have that, now, can we?

But why was respecting her and taking her work seriously such a risk? Why were the people who did it considered brave? As the quintessential scholar of the hell of women’s embodiment in social space, Andrea’s relation to her work is posed by, as well as in, this conference. Her work guides us to pursue this question, I think, as one of stigma. Stigma is what has kept people from reading Andrea Dworkin’s work, especially in the academy, where, I must note, people are not noted for their courage. That stigma has been sexual, due to her public identification as a woman with women, including lesbian women, especially as a sexually abused woman publicly identified with sexually violated women–in particular, the raped and the prostituted among us.

Being marked by sexuality, is, in her analysis, the stigma of being female, analyzed by Andrea in greatest depth in Intercourse, a work of literary and political criticism, a work of how men imagine and construct sexual intercourse when they can have it any way they want it, as they can, in fiction. It is a work of criticism of literature, that is at the same time a trenchant and visionary work of social criticism, her most distorted, I would say, a signal honor in a crowded field, published in 1987, at, as John and I were saying, the height of her powers. Of Elma, in Tennessee Williams’ Summer and Smoke, she wrote: “This being marked by sexuality requires a cold capacity to use, and a pitiful vulnerability that comes from having been used, or a pitiful vulnerability that comes from something lost or unattainable, love, or innocence, or hope, or possibility. Being stigmatized by sex,” she wrote, “is being marked by its meaning, in a human life of loneliness and imperfection where some pain is indelible.”

If the stigma of being a woman is the stigma of the body sexually violated, it lessens some when you die. That, girls, is the good news! [laughter in audience] Before now, we have had to be kept from reading Andrea Dworkin’s work, and were, by the living, breathing existence of her sexualized body attached to it, thereby, that work was sexualized. We had to be kept from holding a violated woman’s body in our hands and having her speak to us what she knows. Especially, we had to be kept from knowing in-depth, up close, and personal, that for women, having a body means having a sexuality attributed to you, the sexuality, specifically, of being a sexual thing for use, and from knowing that the need to be fucked in order to see and value ourselves as female means living within a political system that is pervasive, cultural, organized, institutionalized, unnatural, and unnecessary. Cutting to the quick of all of this, with her customary conciseness, Andrea always said she would be rich and famous when she was dead.

Now, Andrea’s great subject is the status and treatment of women, as has been said, focusing on violence against women, as central to depriving women of freedom.

Andrea’s method was predicated on the lived, visceral body experience that women have of our social status. She mined her life, particularly, in her work, knowing what she wrote from experience. Her driving force was rage and outrage, unapologetic critique, unbridled, passionate, truth-telling. Her sensibility was tenderness, kindness, and love. Her aesthetic is political–political in method, that is, you know it’s true because it happened to you, political in voice–clear, direct, no writing for passive readers, as John noted, and no talking down to anyone.

In the rhythms you can feel her breathing. Here is a woman talking to a publisher who is trying to get her to have sex with him. Essentially, this is a woman being sexually harassed. It is from Ice and Fire.

“I want, I say, to be treated a certain way, I say, I want, I say, to be treated like a human being, I say, and he, weeping, calls my name and says, please, begging me in the silence, not to say another word, because his heart is tearing open, please, he says, calling my name. I want, I say, to be treated, I say, I want, I say, to be treated with respect, I say, as if, I say, I have, I say, a right, I say, to do what I want to do, I say, because, I say, I am smart, and I have written, and I am good, and I do good work, and I am a good writer, and I have published. And I want, I say, to be treated, I say, like someone, I say, like a human being, I say, who has done something. I say, like that, I say, not like a whore. Not like a whore, I say, not any more. And I say to him, seriously, some day I will die from this, just from this, just from being treated like a whore, nothing else. I will die from it and he says, dryly, with a certain self-evident truth on his side, you will probably die from pneumonia, actually.”

Her writing is new; this is a new voice in literature. It has new forms; it’s full of new ideas, in part because the reality she wrote, like her, was submerged and ignored. But she was interested in all the classical questions of western philosophy–method, reality, consciousness, meaning, freedom, equality, especially the relation of thought to world, and the connections between social order and human action.

She created new concepts: moral intelligence, scapegoat, woman hating, not quite the same as misogyny, gynocide, gave new meaning to the term possession. She was a profound moral philosopher, and she gave new juice to old concepts like dignity, honor, and cruelty.

But I’m going to do a reading now, today, of her as a political philosopher, a specifically intellectual reading of her work in terms of these questions. Which is not how she wrote it to be read, actually. But she certainly knew what she was doing in these terms. She did not use the word method, but she had one, and she knew it. She observed in her book Pornography: “Women have been taught, that, for us, the earth is flat, and that if we venture out we will fall off the edge. Some of us have ventured out, nevertheless, and so far, we have not fallen off.”

In the afterward of Woman Hating, she said this: “One can be excited about ideas, without changing at all. One can think about ideas, talk about ideas, without changing at all. People are willing to think about many things. What people refuse to do, or are not permitted to do, or resist doing, is to change the way they think.” She knew thinking had a way, and that she had a way of thinking, and she wrote to change the way people thought.

Central to all her work was a metaphysical distinction between what she once termed truth and reality. While the system of gender polarity is real, it is not true.” The polarity of the sexes is a reality because reality is social. Equality of the sexes is true, but social reality is not based on it, but instead on a model that is not true, that is, that the sexes are bipolar, discrete, and opposite–some of us with little, tiny feet. For example, “we are living imprisoned inside a pernicious delusion, a delusion on which all reality, as we know it, is predicated.”

And, then, similarly, on the relation actually between sex and gender–not called that–but check it out: “Foot binding did not emphasize the differences between men and women, it created them, and they were then perpetuated in the name of morality.”

She also said we “need to destroy the phallic identity in men, and masochistic non-identity in women.” Now, it is not that she thought all reality was only an idea, as in classical idealism or only a psychology or an identity in the internal sense. She analyzed material reality and ideas as equally, and reciprocally, even circularly determinative. Of reality, she wrote this: “Men have asked over the centuries a question, that, in their hands, ironically, becomes abstract: ‘What is reality?’ They have written complicated volumes on this question. The woman who was a battered wife and has escaped knows the answer.” Philosophers, take note (is my note here): “Reality is when something is happening to you, and you know it, and can say it, and when you say it, other people understand what you mean and believe you. That is reality, and the battered wife, imprisoned alone in a nightmare that is happening to her has lost it, and can not find it anywhere. A fist in your face is not just the idea of a fist in your face. Reality is relational, and that relation is unequal and social.”

She also wrote explicitly of the relation between the ideational and the material in women’s status, without using specifically those words. That is, both have to be there, and both are there. In Right Wing Women, her 1978 book, the most extended analysis of women’s status and of feminism together, the elements and preconditions of both, she said this: “It does not matter whether prostitution is perceived as the surface condition, with pornography hidden in the deepest recesses of the psyche, or whether pornography is perceived as the surface condition, with prostitution being its wider, more important, hidden base, the largely unacknowledged sexual economic necessity of women. Each has to be understood as intrinsically part of the condition of women, pornography being what women are, prostitution being what women do, and the circle of crimes–these are the crimes against women, rape, battering, incest, and so on, that she discussed–being what women are for.”

The resulting “female metaphysics” under male dominance means that rape, battery, economic and reproductive exploitation “define the condition of women correctly, in accordance with what women are, and what women do,” correctly meaning consistently and accurately, within the existing system. She also said you can’t be a feminist and support any element of this model, including “so-called feminists who indulge in using the label but evading the substance.”

Her identification with women made her especially brilliant at seeing how women’s views are reflected in their material circumstances, hence, were rational, in that sense, including in her devastating portrayal of the academic, not-Andrea, so-called feminist woman who begins and ends Mercy, one of her novels, having been sexually abused, actually, this not-Andrea woman with the arch voice, siding with abstraction, with power, and with distance.

Right wing women, she shows in her book of the same name, also side with male power, because it is powerful, and reject feminism because women are powerless, in the hope, and on the bet, that male protection is a better deal than feminists’ resistance and struggle for change. It is, in that sense, a rational choice, meaning a direct reflection of their circumstances, which isn’t to say that it’s in their long-term interest.

She saw, always, how what women think and do makes sense in light of the realities of male power. As she put about right wing women, “the tragedy is that women so committed to survival can not recognize that they are committing suicide.”

The right–this is part of her deep analysis of religious fundamentalism–gives women form, shelter, safety, rules, and love. This complex and respecting analysis completely outdistances any analysis of false consciousness.

Similarly, in Intercourse, which I am going to have to discuss, this part, she wrote complexly of what it meant that Joan of Arc was a virgin. Probably not literally, she said, but because she carried herself with the dignity of the nonpenetrated, i.e. as a man, and her dressing as a man meant noncompliance with her inferior/female status, for which the Inquisition killed her. Joan wore men’s clothes, not to flout convention, or to make a statement about women’s status, or to portray dignity (performists take note), but because she’d been raped in prison. All she had to do was say–this is Joan–that she would not wear men’s clothes, and they would let her go free. Andrea says, “she was a woman who was raped and beaten and did not care if she died. That indifference is a consequence of rape, not transvestism.”

A new concept of ideology as sexual was proposed by Andrea in the book, Pornography: Men Possessing Women. Pornography is analyzed as male ideology, for its meaning and its dynamics. The concrete harms of pornography weren’t, then, its central topic. All the evidence of that was to come. But Andrea notes that “with the technologically advanced methods of graphic depiction, real women are required for the depiction, as such, to exist.”

In asking what it means, she said this: “the fact that pornography is widely believed to be sexual representations or depictions of sex emphasizes only that the valuation of women as low whores is widespread, and that the sexuality of women is perceived as low and whorish in itself. She says, “The fact that pornography is widely believed to be depictions of the erotic means only that the debasing of women is held to be the real pleasure of sex, and it also embodies and exploits, sells and promotes the idea that ‘female sexuality is dirty.’

So how do you go from seeing to being pornography, from buying a woman in pornography to owning her, from owning pictures of her to owning her, you might be wondering. She says this: “Male sexual domination is a material system with an ideology and a metaphysics. The metaphysics of male sexual domination is that women are whores. The sexual colonization of women’s bodies is a material reality.” This ideology is effectuated sexually, a level of belief and experience never before analyzed as political and gendered in the way she did.

Now on the subject of freedom, her core concern. She notes in her piece, “Violence against Women: It Breaks the Heart, Also the Bones,” “Our abuse has become a standard of freedom, the meaning of freedom, the requisite for freedom throughout much of the western world.” She goes on to say, “as to pornography, the uses of women in pornography are considered liberating.”

The subject of Intercourse, specifically, is what freedom means for women, precisely, how it is denied by the inferiority imposed and the occupation effected thereby, “destroying in women the will to political freedom, destroying the love of freedom itself,” when it takes place under conditions of force, fear, and inequality.

She says, ” to want freedom is to want not only what men have but also what men are. This is male identification as militance, not feminine submission. It is deviant, complex.” This becomes something she terms “the new virginity,” or what might be called the new freedom. “Believing that sex is freedom,” she says, intercourse needs blood, “to count as a sex act in a world excited by sadomasochism, bored by the dull thud-thud of the literal fuck. Blood-letting of sex, a so-called freedom, exercised in alienation, cruelty and despair, trivial and decadent, proud, foolish, liars, we are free.”

This analysis converged her thinking on equality, which underwent a progression over her life. In Our Blood, the piece renouncing sexual equality, she rejected equality, which she understood there as “exchanging the male role for the female role.” There was no freedom or justice in it, an accurate understanding of the mainstream view of equality. Over time, she reclaimed and redefined equality. In “Against the Male Flood” she said, “equality is a practice; it is an action; it is a way of life. Equality is what we want, and we are going to get it.”

To clarify the relation between her freedom and the equality that she redefined, she said this (this is again in her piece for the Irish women, “Violence Against Women: It Breaks the Heart, Also the Bones”)–check this out–: “What we want to win is called freedom or justice when those being systematically hurt are not women. We call it equality because our enemies are family.”

Even with family, Andrea took no prisoners, a paradoxical result of her passionate humanism. She says this in “I Want a Twenty-Four Hour Truce During Which There Is No Rape,” a talk to five hundred men in 1983: “Have you ever wondered why we are not just in armed combat against you? It’s not because there’s a shortage of kitchen knives in this country. It’s because we believe in your humanity, against all the evidence.”

Now, her legacy leaves us a lot to do. We can learn from the richness of her thirteen volumes, we can read her work closely, figure out how her writing was so singularly effective, and we can effectuate it. We can respond to the challenges of her questions, and be changed by her interventions and fearless probing of the structures and forces and people that rule our lives, denied by most people, a denial she also analyzed.

But in the academy, you know, whole theses could be written exploring sentences chosen virtually at random, that are ripe with possibilities, such as this: “any violation of a woman’s body can become sex for men. This is the essential truth of pornography.”

Or this: “in pornography, everything means something,” overwhelmingly ignored by massive departments of Media Studies and Communications, except for a tiny branch of largely social psychologists. Or this one, an analysis of social life in gendered terms: “Money is one instrument of male force. Poverty is humiliating, and, therefore, a feminizing experience.” Now, envision an economics where the laws of motion of sexuality socially are as well understood as the laws of motion of money are understood today, and the relation between the two of them.

Or this. Racism has always been central to her analysis, as it was in Pornography: “the sexualization of race within a racist system is a prime purpose and consequence of pornography.” And she talked about depicting women by sexualizing their skin, thus sexualizing the abuse, sexually devaluing black skin in racist America by perceiving it as a sex organ.

In Scapegoat she took this entire analysis to a whole deeper and higher level simultaneously showing what a gendered analysis of racism would look like in application. Try this: “While Nazism was a male event, Auschwitz might be called a female event, built on a primal antagonism to the bodies of women, an antagonism that included sadistic medical experiments.” In Scapegoat she also said this: “Hitler tried to make Jews as foul and expendible as prostitutes already were, as inhuman as prostitutes were already taken to be.” All of this can be taken up, unpacked, deeply considered, extended, gone further with.

Andrea wanted a day without rape. She said, “I want to experience just one day of real freedom before I die.” And that was the day without rape. She didn’t get it. She told the story of her own life in many ways in her work, over and over again. In one meditation, in Ice and Fire, turning over and over Kafka’s referring to coitis as “punishment for the happiness of being together,”–that’s a quote from him–Andrea writes this: “Coitis is punishment. I write down everything I know, over some years. I publish. I have become a feminist, not the fun kind. Coitis is punishment, I say. It is hard to publish. I am a feminist, not the fun kind. Life gets hard. Coitis is not the only punishment. I write. I love solitude. Or, slowly, I would die. I do not die.”

She wrote in Intercourse of her vision of all of our sexual lives, never, as always, excluding herself. In writing of the sex reformer Ellen Key’s consistent vision of sexuality for women, in the words of Ellen Key: “based on a harmony that is both sensual and possible,” one not based, in Andrea’s words, “on fear of force and the reality of inequality as now.” “A stream, herself,” Andrea wrote, “she would move over the earth, sensual and equal; especially, she will go her own way.”

“A stream herself.” Well, maybe a raging river at flood tide, perhaps, Andrea went her own way. She even wrote what might be her own epitaph: “I am whole, and I am flames. I burn. I die. From this light, later you will see. Mama, I made some light.”

Living without Andrea is living without this special light, the one she burned her life to make. Her incandescent mind never to illuminate another dark chasm or hard alley or guard tower of male supremacy. We are going to need a lot of what she wrote about, so long ago, at the end of Lesbian Pride, in Our Blood, seeing us walking into a terrible dark storm in which she said, “Those who are raped will see the darkness as they look up into the face of the rapist” in hunger and despair.

Love for women was what we need to remember, she said, that light within us that shines, that burns, no matter the darkness without which there is no tomorrow and was no yesterday. Quoting her now, she said, “That light is within us–constant, warm and healing. Remember it, sisters, in the dark times to come.”

Question and Answer Session with Catharine MacKinnon

Clare Chambers: Thank you very much for a wonderful, wonderful address. Does anyone have any questions or comments they would like to make?

Male voice #1: You touched on, I think, race in her work, which is rarely commented on. Do you understand the, I mean, there’s an invisibilization around a lot that she did, but I’ve often wondered why that, in particular, kind of dropped off the radar screen, in people’s reading of her. Don’t you understand it?

Catharine MacKinnon: Well, a lot of women of color know it’s there, and haven’t missed it, at all. I think it’s because it would give her credibility, that pigeon-holing her as just the woman who talks about women, as if racism isn’t about women, that that pigeon-holing, you know, confines her. You know, people think that things about women are “that’s just that stuff about women. Now let’s talk about freedom, or equality, or dignity, but this about women’s just that stuff.” And it would break down that isolation to recognize the central place that it always had in her work and the indivisibility of the analysis of male dominance and white supremacy in her work.

Female voice #1: You know that there’s all kinds of lies out there about how feminists never considered issues of race, and the women’s movement was a white women’s movement, and so on,

Catharine MacKinnon: As if all these women of color weren’t there making the women’s movement before Day One!

Female voice #1: Absolutely! Absolutely! It’s the most common attack on feminism, really, and then you go back, and look at Woman Hating, which is from 1974, there’s a huge section in there on race, and how feminism came from the struggles against racism in the US. It’s an enormously powerful section, the book was 1974! So it was written in the two years previous to that, so it gives the complete lie to these very serious and ridiculous accusations against feminism, so I ..

Catharine MacKinnon: But also, also, those accusations, which, you know, in part, are valid, for pointing out that an analysis of racism in the women’s movement in general, needs to be better, needs to go further, and so on. It also makes invisible all the women of color who are the backbone of that movement. In other words, it has this double way of being racist in itself. It’s like they weren’t even there! Like they aren’t even there.

Female voice #2: One of the things you made in your talk, let me speak to something that, I’ve been thinking about how to … (untelligible) … pull up, that you said that many of her individual sentences could be Ph.D. theses in themselves…

Catharine MacKinnon: Right.

Female voice #2: … that you could take the sentences and unpack them and go… I’ve often felt that, you know, Andrea Dworkin’s work is complex, it’s very detailed, it’s very nuanced, it’s very kind of packed with meaning, and I think one of the reasons, perhaps, why her work has often been misrepresented is that people haven’t been willing to read it with that kind of complexity, haven’t been willing to read it with that kind of seriousness that often people are willing to read the work of, you know, “great male theorists,” and that they have kind of been willing to just read it of very quickly and to see sentences which are hard to understand in a nuanced way–would you share that idea?

Catharine MacKinnon: I do! You know, people were told how to read Andrea Dworkin’s work, and have remarkably, on the whole, it strikes me, accepted that. They were told, you know, simplistic lies, about what it’s about, and including what our work together was about, and so that’s then what they see, people who should know better. And especially people who make their living by reading and writing about what they read, really should read what they write about.

Female voice #3: I wondered if you could say anything helpful about the way forward … look at the situation through Andrea Dworkin’s vision of it … you’re living it, we’re all living it, in different ways … You’re an academic, you work in the law, I’m an academic, I work in … we’re all in these different situations where … we’re put in these situtations where we have to compromise, … I don’t know … we don’t have to compromise … people like Andrea …

Catharine MacKinnon: Do you have tenure?

Female voice #3: Yes, I do.

Catharine MacKinnon: Ok, well …

Female voice #3: But I’m under a gagging order by my university …

Catharine MacKinnon: Pardon me?

Female voice #4:

I’m under a gagging order by my university … I may not say why … I’m in a kind of complicated position … but, you know, I’m constantly interacting with people who make my blood boil, and I’m sure there’s lots of people here who are as well, … I don’t know … or else you don’t say anything and it makes you crazier …

Catharine MacKinnon:

Well, you know, this may sound odd, but I don’t identify as an academic. I do work in the world, which includes, when I can financially afford to do it, thinking and writing, which I, myself, I did for twelve years with no job at all, I mean no real job, just one hitch to another, to another, kind of thing. You know it’s called unemployment, in the academic world and you know if the academic world finds value in it, looking on, while I’m addressing the world as a whole, that’s up to them. So that’s what I have to say about that. I think, too, that the way academia works is that younger people think that they will sell out now just a little bit in order to get tenure so that then can say something, which is why they wanted to be in academia in the first place and what happens is, that process destroys in you the very possibility of becoming the person who will have anything to say by the time that time comes.

Female voice #4:

I didn’t mean academia is in any way special, I don’t think it is, I just think it’s one way …

Catharine MacKinnon:


Female voice #4:

I take your point … compromise … the very thing you’re compromising to attain … I just wondered what the hell you do … that vision of the world is so dark … atrocity … and the experience of it … is there some some maneuver that we can make that doesn’t include having to do battle with men …

Catharine MacKinnon:

Well, I actually think it’s kind of important to, and indeed to, how to say it, I think one gets a lot of self-respect out of having integrity and that that gives you a kind of energy, it isn’t called doing battle with people around you all the time, it’s called not letting every atrocity just go by you. I think a tremendous amount of women’s energy in particular goes into denying atrocities to women, and I deal with them very directly, absolutely all the time, and you know people are always asking me, you know, how can you, like, do this, and I’m like, how can you, like, not? And I don’t mean that as a moral stand, I mean that as a stand of how much of your energy is going into denying what’s going on around you, how much of it is going into holding down, holding in, shutting up, squishing, compressing, flattening yourself inside yourself? You know, you get a tremendous amount of energy out of actually letting it in and flowing back with it, letting it go through you, and feeling what it really feels like, and being changed by it, and knowing what you know and saying it and finding ways to say it and push back against it and work around it and you get a tremendous amount of energy from actually — you know, Andrea once said to me, and it like shocked me totally, to death, I think she published it, that she, how’d she say, that she had recently come to think, it’s something she learned largely from me, she said, that women have a right to be effective. Now, I had never thought of it that way, you know, but I think that we do. Like, we live here, too. And that understanding that we have a right to occupy space and, you know, to speak out and to say what we see, and that that isn’t the same thing as doing battle all the time as if you’re just, you know, smashing your head against a brick wall. It’s actually engaging with the life of your own time, as opposed to acting like you weren’t even there. [applause]

Male voice #2:

I learned one thing from Andrea, that I attribute to Andrea, and I probably mangled it a little bit, and it’s not repeated, and I wouldn’t even be able know where to find it, maybe you could help me with this, that she said that biological superiority is the world’s most dangerous idea

Catharine MacKinnon, in unison: is the world’s most dangerous idea

Male voice #2:

Where is it?

Catharine MacKinnon:

It’s in Our Blood somewhere, it’s somewhere in Our Blood, I’m certain it is.

Male voice #2:


Catharine MacKinnon:

John, do you know where it is?

John Stoltenberg:

I think it might be on line, actually, it might be on line.

Catharine MacKinnon:

Yeah, look in Nikki’s website. You know Nikki’s website?

Other voices in the room:

Nikki Craft’s website. The website is on the postcard. … ironically, … I was the one, we were asked, I think, for favorite quotes, and that was one that I …

Catharine MacKinnon:

About the delusion of sexual polarity and …oh, no right … about biological determinism being the world’s most dangerous idea, yeah, see now, sociobiologists …

John Stoltenberg:

I don’t want to put you on the spot, and this might be a topic for a conversation, rather than a Q & A session, but since there are a lot of teachers, or people who teach here, and the one time Andrea taught was at the University of Minnesota, she co-taught with you, and I don’t know a lot about that time, because she was in Minneapolis and I was in New York…

Catharine MacKinnon:

And she missed you very much.

John Stoltenberg:

Ah. [pause] The question was,

Catharine MacKinnon:

I remember that.

John Stoltenberg:

what you learned while teaching together, about teaching. [pause]

I think that’s my question. I think I just want to know what it was.

Catharine MacKinnon:

Yeah. Well, one really major thing we learned was that we thought that we could teach a course on pornography, and, of course, you can’t teach on a subject that isn’t there, you know. I mean, in other words, it would be like teaching about a novel and not reading the novelist. So, and, indeed, sometimes, … one’s novels … but in any case, the way we organized it was: if I’m the court, here’s the pornography, and here’s the law on this pornography, which is usually just so way wacked out, beside the point–the second, of the first, you know, it’s highly instructive, so here’s the pornography, here’s the law on the pornography, here’s the pornography, here’s the law on the pornography, and we went all the way through, Playboy to Snuff, you know, and everything in between. And what we learned is that to say pornography violates women was not excessive, and it was not a metaphor. That, what was happening was that our students were in traumatic stress, on week-by-week basis, and, indeed, a couple of them had psychotic breaks, one when she … we actually had child pornography, and that was assigned, as well, and she, just in the way one of the children in the child pornography looked, or turned, or something, suddenly, she remembered having been sexually abused on a stage when she was a child, not too long before, and pornography had been made of her. Anyway, that was her … there were five or six people who had extremely serious psychological consequences from this, and the whole class was this cumulation of traumatic stress over the term and so we learned that we can’t, you can’t do what we thought you could do and we learned how much … that’s what we learned about teaching, was that you can’t do this, you know, unless you want to violate your students, and pornography violating women was not hyperbole. And it was not an approximation. And this was before there had been any real studies on the effects on women of consuming pornography, but the men were as messed up and harmed by it as the women. There were lots of men in that class, and that’s one thing we learned–that you can’t ever assume that you control the context more than the pornography does. That the pornography is its own context. That’s what we learned. You’re surrounded by critique! You’re surrounded by law! You’re surrounded by whatever, you know, but it is still going to do what it does. And it did it. We learned that. We also learned from the people who snuck in, who weren’t at the university, and just came in and sat in the back, and the people who were, that … first of all, that some of them, in particular, the .. I mean, Andrea had always known this, but we both learned it all over again, in a whole other way, that when people … first of all, that prostituted women know everything, and that if and when their visions can be brought out, and applied that whatever it is you need to know is something that they already know. And there were numbers of them, and that there’s something about the organizing potential of the issue of pornography in relation to prostitution that broke open in that class, and has gone forward, ever since. Now we learned that about teaching, as well, both in the university, and in a university within a city. And it also turned out, then, eventually to be a lot of the people who were our students who became the organizers for the ordinance that she and I ended up writing, out of the process of our teaching together. Just a couple things that occur to me.

Female voice #5:

… I’m a radical feminist .. (unintelligible). it is dark times, difficult times .. now … don’t by any means have the answer . (unintelligible) .. to go out to just talk to people we encounter . (unintelligible).. thank you so much …

Catharine MacKinnon:

Thank you. Andrea wanted respect for her work. And this conference has that. So thank you.

Clare Chambers:

If there aren’t any more questions at this point in the presentation, on which to end. We do have a drinks reception in the common room, to which you are all very, very welcome, and I hope you will. And let us end by thanking you all for coming, and thank you again, Catharine MacKinnon.