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Catharine MacKinnon

One night, when he arrives from work late to discover that she has done nothing about dinner, he punishes her with the announcement that he will not speak to her for two weeks and proceeds to mark the calendar. Women remained employed largely in their capacity to serve as secretaries, receptionists, nurses, typists, telephone operators, research assistants.

These arrangements made the sexual subjugation of women in offices and on factory floors inevitable.

It has been tireless and unyielding. As far back as the 19th century, women were occasionally able to reap monetary damages through the courts if men touched them inappropriately in public, but tort law was an inadequate means of addressing harassment claims, MacKinnon believed, because it personalized injuries that were inflicted socially and ecumenically. Lawyers who had tried to apply the civil rights statute to these claims had largely failed, in part because courts struggled to process what was essentially discriminatory about a practice that could theoretically victimize anyone: How could you ever know that a woman was subject to harassment because she was a woman, rather than, say, an individual who happened to be female?

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Pornography: An Exchange | by Catherine A. MacKinnon | The New York Review of Books

The case was Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson and it had little nuance. In it a bank teller had charged that a company vice president had coerced her into having sex with him repeatedly, that he had touched her in public and raped her. Here the court ruled unanimously that harassment resulting in a hostile work environment was discriminatory and unlawful.

In a recent essay in The New York Times , MacKinnon celebrated the MeToo movement, acknowledging that it was able to achieve what sexual harassment law, despite its sporadic victories, could not: a unified movement against an intractable brand of predation. Accusers were suddenly believed. Transforming a privilege of power into a disgrace so despicable that not even many white upper-class men feel they can afford to be associated with it took decades of risk, punishment and work, including legal work.

Catharine A. MacKinnon and Durba Mitra Discuss Sexual Harassment in the Age of #MeToo

It was legal recognition that broke the rule of impunity that the more power a man has, the more sex he can exact from those with less power. Destroying the legitimacy of what women previously just had to live through required effective legal intervention based on recognition of the reality that this practice of inequality is sexual and gender-based.

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Despite the inadequacies of the legal system, this breakthrough was a precondition for this moment of cultural transformation. It is something of a miracle when anyone claiming sexual violation is believed, even if it takes multiple accusers.

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But the odds of being believed are irrelevantly improved by any kind of privilege — be it race, ethnicity, religion, class, celebrity status, nationality, caste, sexuality, age, gender, or combinations of these. The prominence of the harasser stokes media interest, too, although anyone who sexually harasses women is plenty big to his targets.

As stunning as the revelations have been to those who failed to face the long-known real numbers, the structural and systemic underbelly of this dynamic has only begun to be revealed. Working for tips in a restaurant to make anything close to a living wage, for example, largely requires women in effect to sell themselves sexually. The entertainment industry commodifies the sexuality of the women in it. The fact that so many of the exposed harassers in the entertainment field subjected their victims to a pornographic spectator sexuality, masturbating over them in real life like consumers do over women in pornography, is no coincidence.

Pervasively normalized, this is what an endemic abuse looks like.

In its fundamental dynamics, sexual harassment turns real work into a form of prostitution.