catharine mackinnon and media obfuscation

Recently I saw this Makers video about Catharine MacKinnon.

The students I work with, if they know who MacKinnon is well enough to have an opinion, have a critical opinion of both her as a well known anti-pornography feminist, widely believed to have asserted that “All sex is rape.” She didn’t, and neither did Andrea Dworkin. It turns out this belief was created by the creators of sexually explicit media, who clearly have a vested interest in lambasting and sidelining any argument against them.

All that contempt my students (and probably many of you, and for a long, long time I too) experience in response to these names is, it turns out, largely a product of an intentional effort by powerful corporate forces to discredit feminism as a voice in the mainstream discourse about the media. Reading their work, I can’t agree with them, but nor can I have contempt for them, in the face of their intellectual and moral integrity.

And yet. Despite this – and understanding the ACTUAL, deeper, more complex argument about rape culture and the eroticisation of female submission – I did not get so far as knowing that it was MacKinnon’s work that incorporated sexual harassment as a form of sex discrimination.

And here’s the thing: MacKinnon is an alumna of this institution where I work, and she was a major force in creating the legal paradigm that informs a major portion of my job. And yet EVEN *I* was not aware of her role.

In 2011, the Office of Civil Rights issued a Dear Colleague letter specifying that sexual assault is a form of sexual harassment, and sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination and therefore constitutes a violation of Title IX, which entitles girls and women access to all programs and resources available to boys and men in schools that receive federal funding. Here is her work, showing up in PDF form in my email, as a letter from the OCR. Basically it said, “Dear Emily, an alumna says hi, and PS don’t screw up too badly because there’s probably another student in your aegis who will go on to be just as much of a hellraiser who gets some shit done.”

I could feel ashamed of myself for not knowing about MacKinnon’s role already, but instead I think I’m more justified in feeling really pissed and frustrated with the world that has taught me. I’m a person who actively seeks out a wide range of information, so my ignorance is not for want of either understanding or curiosity.

That the myth of MacKinnon has made more of an impact that the truth, speaks, I think, to the nature of media: we attend to what holds our attention, remember that feel true, what matches the world as we already know it. The anti-sex termagant archetype is an easy fit with the world. The idea of sexual harassment as a civil rights violation is more challenging, because of the same cultural infrastructure that makes the termagant idea so comfortable.

So, basically, fuck the media. Fuck it all the hell.