Something rings of a tautology or, at the very least, a contradiction in the piece Sexuality by Catherine MacKinnon. In the piece, she argues that sexuality is the primary source of women’s oppression globally. As radical feminists are known to do, she takes an extremely macro approach to the study of gender inequity as it relates to sexual oppression and concludes, rather prematurely, that the sexual objectification of women occurs “…first in the world, then in the head, first in visual appropriation, then in forced sex, finally in sexual murder…” Women are universally oppressed because men make sexual slaves of them. End of story.
MacKinnon also critiques neo-liberal individualism. This is a respectable radical feminist critique. Any thoughtful person will surely attest that the individualized, experience-oriented, saturated, and conspicuously commodified nature of our free market system is inherently inhumane. Women bare the brunt. They are, for example, the victims of bad global policy, such as the Global Gag Rule, implemented to control women’s sexual behavior abroad with policies we rule unconstitutional here. They are the victims of global economic inequities perpetuated by free trade. They represent an alarming percentage of the poor and constitute the majority of labor used in producing those whistle clean Nikes on your blood stained feet.
These sentiments I share with radical feminists. I am a rabid anti- neo- liberal myself. What I take issue with, and the thesis of this discussion, concerns two problematic assumptions.
Let me first take issue with the conflation of neo-liberal individualism and simple personal testimony. The latter, of course, does not warrant claims of false consciousness or justify accusations that said testimony perpetuates neo-liberalism. In fact, I argue that this kind of blatant silencing represents the bourgeois agenda of privileged feminists like MacKinnon. Storytelling is perhaps as ancient as homo sapien sapien herself. Glorifying the self above all others is much different than telling a story. When you construe some stories as irrelevant, however, you lose credibility.
Radical feminists routinely accuse sex work advocates of perpetuating the neo-liberal individual. The most common complaint slung at sex worker advocates is that we assume one individual experience represents its whole, even in our repeated demands to the contrary. In this way, we are feminist cheerleaders for standpoint epistemology, the antithesis of neo-liberalism. As Dorothy Smith expressed when she advocated for sociological research from the point of view of the researcher and as women of color like Patricia Hill-Collins and bell hooks expressed when they demanded the stories of black women be told, we demand that all sex workers be allowed voices. Multiple voices do not preclude feminists from critiquing overarching social structures. Indeed, the two are not mutually exclusive.
Second, MacKinnon assumes sexual exploitation to be a universal experience of women and a universally practiced means of controlling women. Her analytical starting point is, of course, sexuality. She impressively argues that patriarchy, as a systemic oppressor, entitles men to women’s bodies. Women are enslaved sexually through rape, marriage, sex work, and the beauty industry through a system of patriarchy as opposed to any individual choice. I must (with the help of Judith Butler) unfortunately point out that, stated thus, systemic sexual oppression causes global gender inequity, which causes, err, systemic sexual oppression. This argument is a tautology.
My major annoyance with MacKinnon’s piece, even beyond unsound logic, is that even in her extreme focus on women’s sexuality, what becomes rendered invisible is just that. The majority of the article is a critique of men’s sexuality as if it were homogenous. Variations at a micro-level are moot or otherwise irrelevant for this brand of feminism, which I think is unfortunate. Moreover, the issue of “men controlling women’s sexuality” is of keen interest to me for two reasons. First, no sex worker would deny that customers often seek to explore their sexualities. In the case of female identified women working for male identified customers, obviously what’s being expressed in terms of sexuality is male desire. So what?
Second, when MacKinnon’s ruminations on the systematic oppression of female sexuality are applied to my work as a sex worker, the argument crumbles. The majority of heterosexual sex work I perform has nothing whatsoever to do with my sexuality. The majority of my sex work may or may not be interesting, pleasurable, exciting, fulfilling, worthwhile, titillating, enlightening, or earthshattering, but it sure as hell ain’t my sexuality. Sex does not necessarily order sexuality and I think it is to the great disadvantage of this piece that MacKinnon argues otherwise.
Responding to a quote by the editors of Power of Desire in which they claim sex to be “a central form of expression, one that defines identity and is seen as a primary source of energy and pleasure,” MacKinnon states, “This may be how it “is seen,” but it is also how the editors, operatively, see it. As if women choose sexuality as definitive of identity. As if it is as much a form of women’s “expression” as it is men’s.”
The argument here is, simply, sex and sexuality belong to men. What then, I ask, does MacKinnon define as authentic female sexuality?
Again, I appreciate the macro level analysis of sexist structures, I really do. But individuals are not completely alienated from agency. In fact, MacKinnon herself identified as heterosexual and, at one point in her life, was engaged to a man. How is it that MacKinnon escaped the system she so vehemently critiqued as pervasive and illusive? I suppose she’d probably argue that her situation was unique. You may even get a personal testimony out of her.