The articles written by MacKinnon and Tisdale offer opposing views on the subject of pornography, while Nussbaum’s article attempts to mediate the two views. In this essay, I will reconstruct and give a critical evaluation of each of the three articles, after which I will give my own opinion on the subject: that Tisdale’s view on pornography is correct and that MacKinnon’s idea of pornography objectifying women is not effectively derived.
MacKinnon believes that pornography is the embodiment of our societies social structure, which is focused around male dominance. She defines pornography by saying that “in sexuality, life and art are each other, and therefore in this society of male dominance, pornography is reality; it is male dominance (409)”, a definition which she adopts from Andrea Dworkin.
Pornography is therefore not a moral issue, it is a political one; it is not about good and evil, it is about power and powerlessness. “In pornography”, she says, “women are there to be violated and possessed, men are there to violate and possess them, either on screen or by pen, on behalf of the viewer (408).” It is this definition of pornography that demonstrates precisely how it affects women: it turns them into objects.
The social implications of this effect, MacKinnon argues, are very negative and incredibly hard to change because, in a way, the law that governs pornography is in agreement with the ideology of pornography. She states that this law, called the Obscenity Law, is disguised as a gender-neutral law based on good and evil, when in actuality, it acts in the interest of male power (409). She believes that this is because it focuses on suppressing male arousal, which is in fact the very reason men are aroused by pornography.
According to MacKinnon, another problem with the Obscenity Law is the fact that one of the norms in our society involves that we “revolve around a set of parallel distinctions” (409). These parallel distinctions, MacKinnon argues, can be traced through the Obscenity law which, under male supremacy, implies that female is opposed to male in the following manner: “female is private, moral, valued, subjective; male is public, ethical, factual, objective”. She sees this as a large problem, because if a law that claims to be central to liberal morality imposes these gender concepts, then liberal morality actually expresses male supremacy (409).
Another issue that MacKinnon relates to pornography is freedom of speech. Because the First Amendment declares that everyone has the right to freely say what they want, MacKinnon argues that in our male dominated society, freedom of speech for men invisibly implies suppression of speech for women.
There is no room for change within the world of pornography for MacKinnon, because, as she says, it already is reality. Therefore, the only way the effects of pornography can be eliminated is to change the power structure that surrounds it; in other words, we must shift our society away from male dominance. Once this happens, the sexually arousing effects of male dominance, and thus the submission of women, will be eliminated (415).
MacKinnon’s article is very effective, in that it directly and boldly attacks issues with inventive and groundbreaking arguments. For example, when she expresses that pornography is a political issue, she does not merely cite other people’s work on the subject to back herself up. Instead she makes most of her own judgements, which she explains in meticulous detail. She doesn’t just attack the social structures of society; rather, she says what is wrong and what needs to happen for it to change. Her legitimacy as a Harvard lawyer certainly makes her arguments more convincing, as well as hard to counter-argue, due to her thorough understanding of the law.
Unlike MacKinnon, Tisdale does not believe that male domination (through violence or any other means) is the end of pornography (147). She agrees that pornography objectifies people, but so do many other things in our society, she says. Her example is professional football, where men are projected as objects of profit, harm and exploitation (419).
Tisdale argues that pornography is not reality, it is, just a distorted view of sexuality reality. Although this distorted view may at times project negative images, she argues that she would rather there be a distorted image of sexuality than no images at all (421). She also believes that pornography can have a very positive liberating effect on women, in that it frees sex from the traditional shackles of reproduction, marriage and the heterosexual couple which have all been very oppressive to women (158).
The most important difference between Tisdale and MacKinnon surfaces when we look at what Tisdale proposes we do about pornography. For Tisdale, unlike MacKinnon, pornography is a moral issue, because within pornography she sees that there are some things that are right and some that are wrong (422). She suggests that there is room for change within pornography. Tisdale uses pornography in Japan to illustrate her point. She says that while pornography in Japan used to be about rape and female submission, it has slowly changed and is becoming more female dominated (420). She thinks that instead of changing society in order to change pornography, women must make direct changes to pornography itself.
Tisdale uses an entirely different method of attack then MacKinnon. While MacKinnon attacks the institution of male dominance and pornography, Tisdale attacks MacKinnon’s views and therefore produces a paper that is necessarily different in style. While Tisdale is just attacking what MacKinnon has written, MacKinnon interprets the entire realm within which we live, a far more daunting task. MacKinnon must employ complex words and structure to clearly express her views on a broad and complicated topic: the organization of our society. This is not to say that Tisdale’s paper is less significant then MacKinnon’s, just that her limited scope requires little more than a few good arguments and a casual writing style.
Nussbaum, in her article, also directs her arguments towards MacKinnon. She begins her article by expressing the validity of MacKinnon’s work, specifically her fight for legal justice. She acknowledges the positive effects of MacKinnon’s pioneering concepts, such as the concept of the hostile work environment (432). She agrees that there are many problem with the First Amendment in terms of free speech, and that the Obscenity Law is not adequate in protecting women from abuse (433).
She also, however, has some interesting objections. First of all, she says that MacKinnon fails to make the connection between morality and legality, an important connection because of how many things that are considered bad, that are not necessarily illegal. This is a weak objection because it is clear that MacKinnon is fighting against things like rape and physical abuse – acts that are illegal. The second objection she makes is that it is too difficult to assess the harm caused by pornography because one cannot perform a controlled experiment on the subject.
This is a stronger argument, as it would be impossible to obtain a control group in our society that has not been impacted by the male dominant nature of our society – whether they know it or not. Nussbaum’s third objection attempts to show why MacKinnon’s rejection of pornography limits the arguments MacKinnon can use against it. However, this attempt is weak because she actually contradicts herself, first stating that people reenacting sexual acts are not misinterpreting pornography, and then showing that they, in fact, are. Lastly, Nussbaum objects that, if pornography were made a legal issue, she would not trust judges to be in charge of whom gets targeted by the law. This is a very weak objection because it comments on the legal system, and not at all on MacKinnon’s idea.
Nussbaum’s paper does not effectively mediate between MacKinnon and Tisdale’s views because she does not seem to be able to pinpoint what MacKinnon’s ideas really are. This is shown in her objections, which do not deal with the root of what either MacKinnon or Tisdale are saying.
I agree with Tisdale that pornography is not inherently bad, but there are things that I believe must be changed. While I agree that pornography is a distorted depiction of reality, I also believe that it is a recognizable depiction. Because I feel that there are elements of truth in pornography, perhaps it could be used to better understand sexuality, its role in our society, and how it needs to change. Finally, I agree with MacKinnon’s idea of legal change, but I don’t agree that pornography should be eliminated completely.
MacKinnon is correct when she says that pornography objectifies women. There is, however, something wrong with how she explains this idea. She states that, for men, watching sex allows them to experience their sexuality (409). She also says that women as objects come from the fact that it is the image of women that get projected in pornography. She says that pornography creates this accessible object, which turn men on because she is being watched, and enables men to form ideas about her sexuality. She reiterates this with the accusation that “men have sex with their image of a woman” (409).
I do not think MacKinnon has any right to say this. She is not a neurobiologist, she is not a man and – more importantly – she is not all men. She also seems to be discounting things like physical stimulation and the arousal of anticipation. She is basing her assumption that pornography objectifies women on something that she seems to have come up completely apriori and – in my opinion – this is a huge mistake.
MacKinnon thinks that pornography is sexual reality. She calls for a change in the social construction of society in order to eliminate and alleviate the harm caused by pornography. Tisdale views pornography as a distorted view of reality. She would rather have this distorted view than no view at all so she calls for a direct change, by women, to pornography itself. Nussbaum attempts to mediate between the two views and fails, because she only deals with articles on a superficial level. I agree with Tisdale that pornography is a distorted view of reality and that their needs to be change within pornography. While I agree with MacKinnon’s view that pornography objectifies women, I disagree with the way she arrives at this conclusion, and I feel it lessens the credibility of her other arguments.