Only Words

Only Words

by Catharine A. MacKinnon
     
 

When is rape not a crime? When it's pornography—or so First Amendment law seems to say: in film, a rape becomes "free speech." Pornography, Catharine MacKinnon contends, is neither speech nor free. Pornography, racial and sexual harassment, and hate speech are acts of intimidation, subordination, terrorism, and discrimination, and should be legally treated

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Overview

When is rape not a crime? When it's pornography—or so First Amendment law seems to say: in film, a rape becomes "free speech." Pornography, Catharine MacKinnon contends, is neither speech nor free. Pornography, racial and sexual harassment, and hate speech are acts of intimidation, subordination, terrorism, and discrimination, and should be legally treated as such. Only Words is a powerful indictment of a legal system at odds with itself, its First Amendment promoting the very inequalities its Fourteenth Amendment is supposed to end. In the bold and compelling style that has made her one of our most provocative legal critics, MacKinnon depicts a society caught in a vicious hypocrisy. Words that offer bribes or fix prices or segregate facilities are treated by law as acts, but words and pictures that victimize and target on the basis of race and sex are not. Pornography—an act of sexual domination reproduced in the viewing—is protected by law in the name of "the free and open exchange of ideas." But the proper concern of law, MacKinnon says, is not what speech says, but what it does. What the "speech" of pornography and of racial and sexual harassment and hate propaganda does is promote and enact the power of one social group over another. Cutting with surgical deftness through cases of harassment in the workplace and on college campuses, through First Amendment cases involving Nazis, Klansmen, and pornographers, MacKinnon shows that as long as discriminatory practices are protected as free speech, equality will be only a word.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In her most cogent and accessible book to date, feminist legal scholar MacKinnon lashes ``absolutists'' who maintain that all forms of expression, including pornography and hate propaganda, should be constitutionally protected. MacKinnon counters that pornography and hate messages ``do the same thing: enact the abuse.'' Porn, she argues, subordinates and degrades women and incites sexual harassers, wife beaters, child molesters, rapists and clients of prostitutes. MacKinnon, a Univeristy of Michigan law professor, believes that we need to balance First Amendment concerns for free speech with Fourteenth Amendment protection of equality. She advocates ``a new model for freedom of expression . . . in which free speech does not most readily protect the activities of Nazis, Klansmen, and pornorgraphers, while doing nothing for their victims.'' And she hails two recent decisions by Canada's Supreme Court which bolster the rights of persons harmed by pornography or hate propaganda. (Sept.)
Library Journal
MacKinnon, a professor at the University of Michigan Law School and the author of numerous works (e.g., Toward a Feminist Theory of the State , LJ 8/89), is one of the nation's foremost proponents of feminist legal theory. Her latest work, a collection of three essays, is a polemic against pornography and its protection under the First Amendment. The first essay presents a highly emotional attack against pornography that would have benefited from a definition of terms and fewer unsubstantiated assertions and assumptions. The other two essays compare and equate pornography and sexual harassment with racial discrimination and abuse; they are more reasoned and provide cogent material for discussion of gendered aspects of the legal system. This book will create controversy among legal scholars and feminists. Recommended for both legal libraries and women's studies collections.-- Sharon Firestone, Coll . of Law Lib . , Arizona State Univ., Tempe
Kirkus Reviews
Three passionate, intellectually fascinating essays, each arguing an aspect of the case that sexual words and pictures may by their nature be bannable, even though they may also be Constitutionally protected speech—by University of Michigan law professor and noted feminist legal scholar MacKinnon (Feminism Unmodified, 1987, etc). In "Defamation and Discrimination," MacKinnon argues that "pornography is sex" and that American law irrationally treats it as a possible cause of individual injury—that is, purely as a matter of true or false content—rather than as a sui generis act of "sex discrimination based on conditions of sexual inequality"; and she holds that, like other kinds of action speech (saying "You're fired," advertising "for whites only"), pornography should be banned. In "Racial and Sexual Harassment," MacKinnon declares that "if ever words have been understood as acts, it has been when they are sexual harassment" in the workplace, but she regrets that, recently, courts have weakened this confluence by overturning universities' restraints of racial and sexual speech on campus and by dismissing a sexual-harassment complaint made by a female shipyard worker because the harassment consisted in having been shown pornography, which is a form of speech protected by the First Amendment. In "Equality and Speech," MacKinnon makes explicit many of the contradictions she's been suggesting in the earlier essays; she argues that "the law of equality and the law of freedom of speech are on a collision course in this country" and must be meshed—for example, by considering "group defamation" as "the verbal form inequality [or group discrimination] takes." AlthoughMacKinnon's passionate conviction sometimes causes her ideas to elide and her logic to blur, the ideas are original and gripping, her references are wide-ranging, her legal logic is provocative—and her latest is must reading for anyone interested in either fairness or free speech.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780674639331
Publisher:
Harvard University Press
Publication date:
09/28/1993
Pages:
160
Product dimensions:
5.46(w) x 7.81(h) x 0.71(d)

What People are saying about this

Anyone inclined to dismiss anti-pornography legislation as zealotry, or as short-sighted interference with individual rights, should read Only Words. MacKinnon states her case in prose that is as distinctive and as trenchant as Orwell's.

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