The Ms. Q&A: Catharine MacKinnon Weighs in on the #MeToo Movement

As a gender and sexuality studies student, I have had many textual encounters with feminist theorist and attorney Catharine MacKinnon. Nevertheless, until recently, I always approached her with trepidation, considering her depiction of the sexual world as “apocalyptic”—until I found myself re-encountering her ideas in the most inopportune moment, in a sexual encounter that would leave me questioning much of my personal thoughts on sex and punishing myself for it for months. I was jarred that I had only thought of ways to theorize on the encounter instead of formulating a game plan to leave—a product of our culture that never believes survivors.

Eventually I found myself sitting across the table from a friend who asked the question: “What if Catharine MacKinnon was right?”

The question stuck and floated around my mind for months. I brushed up on MacKinnon and craved any input she would have on #MeToo. Considering MacKinnon’s achievements in advancing workplace sexual harassment law in this country, I believed that her thoughts were not only warranted, but needed—so I sought her out and asked her about them.

There are areas in which I depart from MacKinnon—for example, I believe that the key to this future is teaching young people, and especially young women, the importance of negotiating desire and pleasure in the #MeToo moment. But after our conversation, I realized why MacKinnon’s work had been lodged in my mind for months: unlike so many others, it validates many of my sexual experiences after coming out in college—scenarios in which affirmative consent technically exists, but the sex leaves one feeling violated, coerced or without pleasure. MacKinnon, in imagining a seemingly impossible form of equitable sex, helped me to find comfort in a potential future, not an apocalyptic future, in which we all get what we need and want.

The shifting of the tectonic plates of gender and sexuality may move at a glacial pace, unevenly and with widespread backlash, but the moment is still ripe, and these engagements must continue. As we move forward, deeper into the #MeToo moment and the conversation around campus sexual assault, it will be to critical to address these points where our feminist conversations intersect and diverge—to allow for spaces where we recognize that maybe MacKinnon was right.

Looking back at your work around sexual violence and sex equality over the last few decades, how do you see past feminist conversations as related to the current #MeToo movement?

Well, if sexual harassment in 2017 was still effectively legal as it was before we did the work in Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson, I rather doubt there would have been a Rose McGowan and Ashley Judd breakthrough moment. If the entire backdrop was that there still was no recognition of the harm of sexual harassment, if victims just had to live through it, if it had no name and was effectively legitimate because nothing made it illegitimate except for how it felt, it’s hard to imagine that there could have been a #MeToo movement.

What do you think made that particular moment in 2017 ripe for the #MeToo movement, then? Why now?

It’s always been ripe, honestly. It was the convergence of Ashley Judd being willing to allow the use of her name in accusing Harvey Weinstein, with Jodi Kantor’s excellent journalism and the fact that Judd is somebody whose credibility is not readily attackable and who wasn’t suing at the time. Together with the understanding that the casting couch has been the name for sexual harassment in Hollywood since Hollywood existed.

All that with one thing that made this the right moment. Those things could’ve happened at any time, but the election of Donald Trump, a perpetrator-in-chief, made resistance to sexual harassment be resistance to a fairly-widely despised and reviled person on the right. Before, resistance to sexual harassment involved critique of a widely-loved and respected person on the left, Bill Clinton. That made it very difficult for people to come forward. Opposition to sexual harassment as opposition to Donald Trump was something that a lot of people could get behind politically. It shifted resistance to sexual abuse from anti-liberal-libertinism to anti-right-wing-authoritarianism.

A lot of women, and some men, were appalled that the most qualified person in history to run for president didn’t win against the least qualified person to run—because she was a woman and when he was a sexual predator. A lot of people had to face the reality of sexual abuse and sex inequality and their relation to each other. Too, once it got rolling, many women wanted to express their solidarity with Ashley Judd and that group of women who extended the class politics of their complaints.

This became a movement of displaying just how powerful telling stories is— something you highlighted in your New York Times op-ed.

It did. It’s voice, pure and simple. But it needs public presence.

In the same New York Times op-ed, you wrote that today’s movement is “shifting gender hierarchy’s tectonic plates.” Can you expand upon that and touch on what you think are some of the greatest features and perhaps limitations of the movement?

We haven’t come close to limitations yet. Its possibilities include expanding and extending the truth-telling and institutional responses into the entire range of social organizations and social forces. The movement is shifting the ground underneath the law. When you change social norms and cultural views about what’s believable and what isn’t, what’s valuable and what isn’t, what matters and what doesn’t, what happens and what doesn’t, that necessarily becomes an input into the legal system.

The tectonic plates have to do with who counts, with the hierarchical arrangement in which women have counted for less, and the hierarchies within the group “women” devalue some women even more than others. Look— if the most credible women on the planet are white and middle-class— and look how such women have been treated, which is, in general, not well, from the standpoint of being seen as available for sexual abuse and not believed unless there were racist reasons for believing them when they accused a man of sexual abuse— if that’s the best we’ve got, it goes down from there. This movement is challenging this arrangement, taking it on squarely.

Yes, though I often critique the movement, because of potential exclusivity for trans folk, or women of color who are going through different forms of sexual violence, but when you view the movement as something that has continual potential to expand and is not shrinking…

Well right, they are sexually assaulted, they are raped, and nothing is done about it—even more of nothing than for many others. It’s a familiar dynamic. That doesn’t make it “the same” as anything— except that being raped is being raped.

The best thing about the #MeToo movement, in my view, is that it’s not a membership organization. There’s no secret handshake or membership card. It is a hashtag, open and available to anyone who needs to say: “This happened to me, too.” The only inclusion and emphasis queries and critiques that can be brought would be on the media reporting on the #MeToo movement, which isn’t the movement. It’s the media reporting on it.

In terms of moving forward, you said previously that it’s a combination of the law and policy, and then the groundswell of people talking.

That is just one level of forward motion. A long list of legal and policy responses is clearly called for by the #MeToo movement.

For example, we saw a beginning response in the Bill Cosby trial, a shift in accepting testimony by more women victims, which is in fact a sex equality approach. The basic idea is that what was done to one woman was done based on her sex. That makes what happened to other women relevant. Although this was a criminal trial, where technically that can’t matter, you could say that the #MeToo movement changed the context within which that re-trial took place. It also reframed Bill Cosby’s sexuality as a distinctive sexual practice—namely, having sex with women who were knocked out cold.

Looking at it from a distance, in the first trial, his drugging women was seen as just his way of getting sexual access to them. That’s not it at all. It is a defined sexual preference: having sex with comatose women, as if they are dead. It is a sexuality, a script, a preference. Once that is clear, his predations on other women aren’t just general prior bad acts, but evidence of a very distinctive pattern. Once you see it that way, more evidence becomes potentially admissible.

The Bill Cosby trial became one of the more defining moments of #MeToo, but tell me how you think about the more tenuous discontents of the movement, such as the Aziz Ansari situation?

As I understand it, it isn’t a legal situation in that at least discrimination law doesn’t cover their relationship. But I’m on her side in this. She thought she had good reason to think that this was a good guy. And she kept on trying to make it possible for him to be that guy in their interaction. She kept telling him what she wanted and did not want. He kept ignoring it. He kept pressuring her. She kept wanting hard to believe that he was who she thought he was. She kept trying to make it come out right. Women do this a lot. Even after he pushed himself on her and into her, she gave him the chance to turn it around and create a reasonably mutually respecting interaction between the two of them. She kept giving him these opportunities. He kept blowing them. She just wanted it to come out right. She wanted it to come out right a lot because she respected him. She respected his work. He did have the power of celebrity over her. But she didn’t have to be there.

Some people are saying it’s just a bad date, or she could have walked out. You making your judgements about all of that is not the point of any of this. I can really see why she felt what she felt and why she did what she did, in the situation and after it. And then the roof fell in. Everybody went off into their “grey areas” and so on. But this is a perfectly acceptable and relevant part of the national conversation that the #MeToo movement has initiated.

A further nuance, because for so many people I know on campus, this was a situation that felt all too familiar. And it was another one of those moments that was like, “Yes! Thank you for giving us this language to talk about something that’s not okay.” 

Now, I’m going to do a small shift from away from #MeToo to your 1989 book Toward a Feminist Theory of the State. One section that strikes me is where you talk about sex-positivity as something that’s often a value judgement, and you have this invocation to seek how to end domination instead of seeking pleasure. Are these things that still resonate with you in the #MeToo moment?

I still agree with that critique. You are entitled to have pleasure in your life. It’s just that seeking it unaware of being set up to be dominated is not promising. Not taking inequality into account, its pervasiveness, is bound for disappointment or worse.

My essay “Rape Redefined” is a full-on assault on the consent idea as an intrinsically unequal concept. Having equal sex isn’t about “somebody proposes something” and “somebody else consents to it.” If you have a wonderful sexual interaction with somebody last night, you don’t say, “I consented.” It doesn’t live in that space.

Pleasure is not something you get when you “consented.” “Not raped” is what you get when you consented. That is a very limited concept of freedom. It doesn’t include equality either.

What would you say, in your words, is the next best step for #MeToo, in terms of strategies and solutions?

This isn’t up to me to say. This is a movement. There are no leaders. There is a need to come together and strategize, and a lot of us are doing that. But it’s something we do together as we move, rather than something you ask anyone and they answer.

Brock Colyar is an editorial intern at Ms. He is currently a journalism and gender and sexuality studies major at Northwestern University, where he founded a campus queer and radical feminist magazine and serves as a sexual health and assault peer educator. Much of his spare time is spent overthinking intra-feminist politics and Stevie Nicks. (Photo via Colin Boyle/The Daily Northwestern.)

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