Only Words

In ONLY WORDS, MacKinnon distills years of thinking and writing about pornography into three essays, “Defamation and Discrimination,” “Racial and Sexual Harassment,” and “Equality and Speech.” In 1984, the city of Indianapolis adopted an anti-pornography ordinance based largely on a model drafted by MacKinnon and the feminist theoretician, Andrea Dworkin. The next year, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals found the ordinance to be unconstitutional because it violated First Amendment protections of free speech and free press.

ONLY WORDS is, in a sense, MacKinnon’s answer to the Court’s ruling, and some of the arguments made here are by now fairly familiar: pornography directly contributes to sexual crimes, increasing their frequency and their level of violence; women who act in pornographic films do so against their will and suffer severe degradation; pornography deprives all women of their right to free speech, in effect silencing them through humiliation and intimidation. In ONLY WORDS, however, MacKinnon also attempts to combat the Court’s constitutional rationale not simply by arguing that pornography is neither speech (to MacKinnon, because its object is to stimulate sexual acts, pornography is sex) nor free, but through an analysis that finds protection of pornographers in direct conflict with the Fourteenth Amendment’s promise of equal protection of all citizens (i.e., including women) under the law.

ONLY WORDS grew out of a series of lectures MacKinnon presented in 1992, a fact which perhaps helps to account for the book’s frequent—and startling—use of the language and imagery of pornography. Whether or not readers agree with MacKinnon’s point of view, they cannot help but be affected by her skillful assault on their sensibilities.