Men and Women: Who's Got the Power?

December 21, 1993|By JACK KAMMER

Catharine MacKinnon's latest book has reinvigorated the campaign to censor what some call pornography and others erotica.

In ''Only Words,'' the University of Michigan law professor and feminist theorist asserts -- without demonstrating -- that pornography is intertwined with a culture of violence against women. Frantically, repeatedly, she insists that a link between violence and pornography exists.

She offers no evidence, but the argument is familiar enough: Men have power and women have none, and pornography is an expression of male control of women. In some spheres of life, it may be true that men are disproportionately powerful, but not in sexuality.

Sex researcher Carol Cassell, in her book ''Swept Away,'' makes clear what Ms. MacKinnon attempts so feverishly to obfuscate: ''To be blunt,'' Dr. Cassell writes, ''sex has historically been a commodity. It's a valuable source of power. . . . Sexual power is . . . the female commodity.''

Similarly, in an interview in Cosmopolitan, author Nancy Friday acknowledges that ''women have always derived power from with- holding sex.''

But we don't really need experts and authorities to know the truth of sexual power. From personal experience most of us understand that if a woman in confrontation with a man threatens to ''cut him off,'' she is coercing him sexually. A man trying to control a woman typically uses a different tactic: The threat to ''cut her off,'' would more likely involve money -- men's traditional source of power.

When men misuse their economic power or wield it selfishly, women legitimately react in ways men may not like. One way is to fantasize about female economic power over men.

The movie ''9 to 5'' tells precisely that tale. Three female office workers indulge themselves in dreams of turning the tables on their chauvinistic male boss. Dolly Parton would like to lasso and hog-tie the man as if he were a rodeo animal; Jane Fonda would hunt him down on safari, kill him and mount his head as a trophy; Lily Tomlin's ''gruesome, horrible, real gory but kind of cute'' fairy tale has Bambi and Thumper laughing to see the boss poisoned and catapulted from his chair through his lofty office window. In the end, the women settle for humiliating and subduing their boss in a dog collar and chains.

Anyone who insisted that ''9 to 5'' glorifies and therefore exacerbates women's domination of men in business would be seen as dangerously misguided. It is precisely because women do not dominate their male bosses that the fantasy resonated so deeply with women who wish they did. Attempts to circumvent the First Amendment and censor ''9 to 5'' could have been supported only by those who failed to see that it expresses women's legitimate reaction to economic injustices perpetrated upon them -- or by those who profit from the injustices and cynically seek to keep them firmly in place.

By the same token, Ms. MacKinnon's efforts to suppress men's pictorial fantasies of reversing their sexual subjugation can be supported only by those who fail to acknowledge women's control of sex or by those who seek to preserve it. It's no mere coincidence that ''9 to 5'' and much male-oriented erotica both involve people locked in dog collars and chains.

Furthermore, one of men's most enduring ''pornographic'' fantasies isn't at all about reversing sexual control, but equalizing it. An archetype of male erotica is the woman who participates enthusiastically in sex, who loves male sexuality, who needs not to be cajoled, seduced or promised ulterior rewards.

Erotica portraying such joyful, egalitarian sex does not demean women any more than men are denigrated by stories of women and men working cooperatively in an office where men no longer think it is their right to have women fetch them coffee.

Ms. MacKinnon, capitalizing shamelessly on anti-male bigotry, would have us believe that erotica is harmful. Ironically, her greatest effect may be only to enhance men's need for what she wants to suppress. The more women accept arguments about the inherent cruelty, selfishness and danger of male sexuality, the more men will need to fantasize, possibly by resorting to pornography, about women who offer egalitarian, joyful, trusting sexual companionship.

A healthy approach to ''9 to 5'' was to understand its message about economic power. In the same spirit, we should resist the impulse to kill the pornographic messenger and undertake instead to frankly acknowledge and discuss sexual power.

Jack Kammer, a former executive director of the National Congress for Men, is a free-lance writer specializing in men's issues.

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