Objects of Lust, but Never Lusty

February 15, 1994|By JOANNE JACOBS

San Jose, California -- Romance is back, and its Cupid is Catharine MacKinnon.

Our nation's leading sexual counter-revolutionary, the feminist law professor and her followers are not merely ideological prudes, as so many people think. They are neo-romantics, dedicated to recreating the traditional images of male passion and female purity on which so many of our romantic notions are based.

Twenty-five years ago, ''liberated'' women rejected those images and began seeing themselves as independent, intelligent and sexual beings, capable of deciding what they wanted in life and getting it. Women proclaimed their orgasms as evidence of female sexual potency. (Naomi Wolf, the apostle of ''power feminism,'' still won't shut up about her superior sex life.) Coy was out; diaphragms were in.

Sleeping Beauty woke up. Rapunzel got a haircut and a ladder. Snow White thanked the prince, but passed on the palace for a chance to make partner in the queen's law firm (Stepmother, White, Huntsman, Grumpy and Levine).

Isn't it unromantic?

By contrast, MacKinnonites prefer the traditional romantic view: A woman is a pure being, whose spiritual love is not corrupted by fleshly lusts. She is dependent on her man, acts foolishly and hopes for love to conquer all, but doesn't make any phone calls. She faints a lot. (Or, in the modern-day version, passes out.)

They deny the existence of powerful women who express their own desires, make their own decisions and live with the consequences.

In their view, women are fragile, sensitive and vulnerable, like ''sweet Alice,'' who ''wept with delight'' when Ben Bolt ''gave her a smile and trembled with fear at [his] frown.''

The MacKinnonites are not partial to the tuberculosis school of romantic poetry, in which pale, dying, young men are the ne plus ultra (according to themselves). They find their philosophical home in the canon of ripped-bodice romance fiction, where a woman has sex only because she's overpowered by the passionate male, since she would never initiate such an icky act.

The man, of course, must be strong, aggressive, controlling, cruel, arrogant and hawk-nosed. His gaze is burning, icy or, remarkably, both.

MacKinnonites don't insist on the hawk nose and thermally abnormal vision, but other than that, they agree that women are passive, while men are passionate, that women are childlike while men are powerful. Just as in the bodice rippers, women don't desire sex with men; they have

it because they are forced to, either directly by rape or indirectly by patriarchal society.

The Antioch College sex code, which requires males to ask for and obtain verbal consent for every sexual act -- May I place my hand here? May I move my hand in a rhythmic fashion?, etc. -- exemplifies the view that sex always is initiated and decided by men; women are objects of lust but never lusty.

The MacKinnonites also subscribe to the romantic conceit that every glance, every gesture, every word, every touch, every image, indeed every breath, is fraught with deep meaning. Sexual messages crackle along invisible wires, inaudible to some, but overwhelming to the exquisitely sensitive woman.

What does that sound like?

Sexual harassment.

In her book, ''Only Words,'' Ms. MacKinnon describes a completely sexualized world (pornographic, she calls it) in which words and images are identical to acts. They are acts. ''I love you'' is love. ''I want you'' is sex.

Actually, ''I want you'' is rape, in all likelihood, since heterosexual sex and rape are virtually the same thing. ''Romance . . . is rape embellished with meaningful looks,'' as Andrea Dworkin puts it.

A true romantic, Ms. MacKinnon believes passion always overwhelms reason. The male is swept away by an erotic picture, a story or dance. Like those shot by Cupid's arrows, he can't be held responsible for his actions under the grip of this desire, and the female can't be held responsible for her inaction.

I wonder about the future if men and women accept this view of male power, aggression and lust, and female weakness, passivity and purity.

''Man is the hunter; woman is his game,'' wrote Tennyson, sounding very MacKinnonish. He went on:

''Man for the field and woman for the hearth:

Man for the sword and for the needle she:

Man with the head and woman with the heart:

Man to command and woman to obey . . . ''

Joanne Jacobs is a columnist for the San Jose Mercury News.

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