Friday, August 29, 2008

Two Worries for MacKinnon

I’ve been reading Catharine MacKinnon’s Feminism Umodified, and had a couple of ideas. One was in response to a bit from the great talk, “Desire and Power”.

“Similarly, to say that not only women experience something – for example, to suggest that because some men are raped rape in not an act of male dominance [over a victim in a female social role?] – only suggests that the status of women is not biological. Men can be feminized, too, and and they know they are when they are raped.’ (56)

MacKinnon seems to be claiming that a man, when raped, is always raped as feminine, i.e. his experience of the rape or the status of the rape is as of woman’s experience or status in society. This just seems to me quite false. Surely, if there are such things as the social role of woman and the social role of man, then there are socially womanly characteristics in a man’s experience of being raped – powerlessness, enforced silence, passiveness, penetrability, perhaps being taken as sexually available regardless of one’s own interests. But there must be distinctly male characteristics of this experience, and I think these are socially, and not (or not just) biologically male characteristics. Men are probably more likely to be believed than women when they report being raped, but they presumably still fail to report some rapes. I think (and MacKinnon should think) that this would typically be for socially male reasons – a desire not to be seen as powerless, not to be treated as a victim. If a man is ashamed of being raped, I imagine it is not typically shame at being ruined, as a woman might be socially pressured to feel. It would typically be shame, again, for distinctly male reasons – failure to overcome one’s rapist, for instance. This is a small point, though.

Another, bigger problem with MacKinnon’s theory is that it seems incapable of explaining that rape, child molestation, incest, prostitution, and pornography (and even in some cases job- and pay- discrimination) are taboo and frowned on. If the dominance of man over woman is best evidenced in society by male-female sexual violence, and feminism is necessary because, among other things, the dominance of man would go unchallenged except by feminism, then why is it that non-feminist forces suppress male-female sexual violence, even to the extent that they do? The equality principle can’t explain these taboos, on her interpretation of how it is accepted in society, since MacKinnon wants to say that the deleterious function of the equality principle is that women and men are often too unlike, especially with respect to their proneness to sexual violence, to be treated as likes. I imagine MacKinnon might say that there aren’t any (or very many) non-feminist forces suppressing male-female sexual violence, but I would disagree. This suppression is preached in church, enshrined in the law (even if the law isn’t systematically enforced), and acknowledged, at least in cases other than pornography, by society’s male-dominated moral discourse (a discourse which MacKinnon apparently believes also to be male in its characteristic social role). The force of this suppression is non-trivial. It is not as if there is a clear explanation of these phenomena that MacKinnon’s theory just can’t countenance; I think these facts really are difficult to explain. What seems to be the case, then, is that there are social forces other than feminism that combat at least some of the more pernicious effects of male dominance. (We might, alternatively, take the above to suggest that male dominance is not, in fact, expressed in those instances of sexual violence which (male) society seems to disapprove of, but I think this would be too severe.) Isolating what these forces are might be of considerable use to feminism. What forces guide the church, the law, and male moral discourse to oppose sexual violence? How, if at all, can feminism put these forces to its own use?

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