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Sex, Gender, and Sexuality: The TransAdvocate interviews Catharine A. MacKinnon

 

Catharine A. MacKinnon is a lawyer, teacher, writer, theorist, and activist. She is the Elizabeth A. Long Professor of Law at the University of Michigan and James Barr Ames Visiting Professor of Law at Harvard Law School (long-term). She holds a B.A. from Smith College, a J.D. from Yale Law School, and a Ph.D. in political science from Yale.

 

Professor MacKinnon specializes in sex equality issues in political theory and under international and domestic (including comparative and constitutional) law. Her work on sex inequality, focusing on sexual violation, has had a substantial impact on law and culture in the United States and internationally. Professor MacKinnon practices law, consults on legislation, litigation, and activism. She is among the most widely-cited legal scholars in the English language and the most widely-cited woman.

The following interview occurred over a series of emails between November 2014 and March 2015 and is part of an ongoing TransAdvocate series on feminism.

I always thought I don’t care how someone becomes a woman or a man; it does not matter to me. It is just part of their specificity, their uniqueness, like everyone else’s. Anybody who identifies as a woman, wants to be a woman, is going around being a woman, as far as I’m concerned, is a woman.Catharine MacKinnon

Cristan Williams: In a world that largely appeals to an asserted natural binary sex essence, trans people and feminists alike have made some observations. The following three quotes touch on this experience. Would you please comment on the experience these three are discussing?

I always thought I don’t care how someone becomes a woman or a man; it does not matter to me. It is just part of their specificity, their uniqueness, like everyone else’s. Anybody who identifies as a woman, wants to be a woman, is going around being a woman, as far as I’m concerned, is a woman.Catharine MacKinnon

Cristan Williams: In a world that largely appeals to an asserted natural binary sex essence, trans people and feminists alike have made some observations. The following three quotes touch on this experience. Would you please comment on the experience these three are discussing?

Andrea Dworkin, Radical Feminist: “Hormone and chromosome research, attempts to develop new means of human reproduction (life created in, or considerably supported by, the scientist’s laboratory), work with transsexuals, and studies of formation of gender identity in children provide basic information which challenges the notion that there are two discrete biological sexes. That information threatens to transform the traditional biology of sex difference into the radical biology of sex similarity. That is not to say there is one sex, but that there are many. The evidence which is germane here is simple. The words ‘male’ and ‘female,’ ‘man’ and ‘woman,’ are used only because as yet there are no others.”[1]

Catharine MacKinnon: Andrea’s critique of the bipolar sex/gender binary as rooted in the lie of natural determination is an analysis we have always shared.

Sandy Stone, Trans Feminist: “What I am saying is that one of the ways that people justify oppressing people of any alternative gender or sexuality is by saying that the social norm is natural. That is, it originates in the authority of Nature itself. In other words, it comes from god, an authority to which to appeal. All of this is, in fact, a complete fabrication, a construction. There is no ‘natural‘ sex, because ‘sex’ itself as a medical or cultural category is nothing more the momentary outcome of battles over who owns the meanings of the category. There is a great deal wider variation in genetics than most people except geneticists realize, but we make that invisible through language. The way we make it invisible through language is by having no words for anything except male and female. One of the ways our culture erases people is by not having words for them. That does it absolutely. When there’s nothing to describe you, you are effectively invisible.”[2]

MacKinnon: Actually, masculinity and femininity — terms that refer to the social, meaning gender, rather than the natural, meaning sex — are recognized in several disciplines as being a series of continua that overlap for more variation than they don’t. But the point made in the quotation is a good one, since there is no relation between the biology of sex and the meanings socially enforced on it, other than the very real consequences of the social system of sexual politics that does that forcing. This does, of course, raise the question: if it is all a social construction, why intervene in the biology of sex? That is a real political question, not a challenge to individual people’s decisions about the social presentation of their bodies, which in my opinion do not have to be justified.

Monique Wittig, Radical Feminist: The ideology of sexual difference functions as censorship in our culture by masking, on the ground of nature, the social opposition between men and women. Masculine/feminine, male/female are the categories which serve to conceal the fact that social differences always belong to an economic, political, ideological order. Every system of domination establishes divisions at the material and economic level. Furthermore, the divisions are abstracted and turned into concepts by the masters, and later on by the slaves when they rebel and start to struggle. The masters explain and justify the established divisions as a result of natural differences. The slaves, when they rebel and start to struggle, read social oppositions into the so-called natural differences. For there is no sex. There is but sex that is oppressed and sex that oppresses. It is oppression that creates sex and not the contrary. The contrary would be to say that sex creates oppression, or to say that the cause (origin) of oppression is to be found in sex itself, in a natural division of the sexes preexisting (or outside of) society. The primacy of difference so constitutes our thought that it prevents turning inward on itself to question itself, no matter how necessary that may be to apprehend the basis of that which precisely constitutes it.[3]

MacKinnon: I’ve always agreed with this position (other than the part about apprehending the basis of what precisely constitutes it, because it is not constituted outside of society) and opposed the ideology so described, in law and otherwise. The questions it raises, again, are, if “sex creates oppression,” how does changing from one sex to another oppose that oppression? If “there is no sex,” how do we describe the gain and stake in changing it?

Williams: I think most contemporary trans people are chiefly concerned about being comfortable in their own bodies and dealing with the lived consequences of coming face-to-face with an imposed politic which attempts to define their experience for them. For trans people, our bodies are contested in the sense of being “real” and certainly any identities which reference the contested body will likewise become politically contested as well. Janice Raymond, the author of The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male (1979) contested the bodies of trans people thusly:

[T]he transsexual becomes a synthetic product. Synthetic parts, such as chemical hormones and surgical artifacts of false vaginas and breasts, produce a synthetic whole. Furthermore, the fact that transsexuals are synthetic products is one clue to their future demise.

Religious media make similar assessments:

Removal of genitals and attachment of artificial ones… does not change reality. The removal constitutes mutilation and the construction of artificial organs with no reproductive function does not alter the gender or sex of the person. In addition, even the physical appearance must be sustained by massive doses of synthetic hormones.

I think that trans people from decades past who were told by doctors to lie to everyone about their trans history certainly weren’t presenting any significant challenges to the questions you raise. However, the arc of history is bending towards trans people owning their lived experience and even celebrating it in the face of a male supremacist culture. This change has certainly challenged social structures which seek to reify a natural sex binary. By the 1970s, trans people began challenging anti-crossdressing ordinances across the nation which affected not only trans people, but the non-trans population as well. We are now seeing a world in which the President of the US recognizes trans people in a State of the Union address and journals such as Nature are publishing articles which assert:

The idea of two sexes is simplistic. Biologists now think there is a wider spectrum than that… Biologists may have been building a more nuanced view of sex, but society has yet to catch up. True, more than half a century of activism from members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community has softened social attitudes to sexual orientation and gender. Many societies are now comfortable with men and women crossing conventional societal boundaries in their choice of appearance, career and sexual partner. But when it comes to sex, there is still intense social pressure to conform to the binary model.

“To be a woman, one does have to live women’s status. Transwomen are living it, and in my experience bring a valuable perspective on it as well.” – MacKinnon

While the media might discuss the implications of pregnant trans men, I think trans people are at least as critical of gender roles as non-trans people and certainly when it comes to challenging institutionally sexed roles, trans people can be a wrench in the gears of patriarchy.

I’m going to guess that many who read this article are new to the idea of “sex” as “sex class.” Some might also be unfamiliar with the notion that while biology and bodies are real, the notion of a natural sex binary is culturally constructed. Would you talk about how you first encountered these radical feminist ideas and how you first reacted to them?

MacKinnon: I generally agree with the analysis above but consider women and men to be sexes. I don’t think it adds anything to the understanding that has existed that these are social groups, for at least forty years, to call them sex classes. I don’t know why women and men being socially defined groups is coming as a revelation to anyone. It was obvious to all of us in the early women’s movement that what we live as “woman” is a social construction of male supremacy, and that the notion that it is based in nature is its most pernicious delusion. Kate Millett’s book, Sexual Politics, published in 1969, could not be clearer on this point. My particular question was OF WHAT is sex socially constructed? The answer I gave, and still believe, is sexuality. Sexuality is itself not biological, but social, so the constructing is also the constructed, which makes sense since there is no place outside society. Transpeople are doing their best to live and be loved under conditions in which people still pervasively believe the lie that gender is sex-based, meaning biologically-determined.

 First published at http://www.transadvocate.com/sex-gender-and-sexuality-the-transadvocate-interviews-catharine-a-mackinnon_n_15037.htm
Catharine MacKinnon

Catharine MacKinnon (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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