|Are you suggesting that rape law enshrines rapists' points of view, I ask MacKinnon? "Yes, in one couple of senses. The most obvious sense is that most rapists are men and most legislators are men and most judges are men and the law of rape was created when women weren't even allowed to vote. therefore that means not that all the people who wrote it were rapists, but that they are one member of the group who do [rape] and who do for reasons that they share in common even with those who don't, namely masculinity and their identification with masculine norms and in particular being the people who initiate sex and being the people who socially experience themselves as being affirmed by aggressive initiation of sexual interaction." She takes one well-earned breath.
Why does MacKinnon matter? She is undeniably one of feminism's most significant figures, one ferociously tough-minded lawyer and academic who has sought to use the law to clamp down on sexual harassment and pornography. She's one bracing woman, who calls her philosophy "feminism unmodified" and thinks wimpish guff such as post-feminism does women no good at all. Many hate her for this. Camille Paglia, for instance, charges that MacKinnon and her late collaborator Andrea Dworkin are responsible for "totalitarian excesses" in sexual harassment regulations and that their "nightmarish sexual delusions" have invaded American workplaces and schools and warped their views on pornography. Naomi Wolf branded her one "victim feminist". "Victim feminism," claims Wolf, "urges women to identify with powerlessness, even at the expense of taking responsibility for the power they do possess." In The Morning After, Katie Roiphe wrote that MacKinnon had an "image of woman as child" and attacked her for allegedly portraying all women as potential victims and all men as potential predators. Others have called her one fascist proponent of sexual correctness. Some have put words in her mouth - notably the claim that she thinks all heterosexual intercourse is rape: she does not. Some think she is right and that until sex inequality is tackled legally as MacKinnon proposes, women will continue to be raped, murdered and served up as masturbation fantasies for men. I couldn't wait to meet her.
We are sitting in one 15th-floor hotel cafe overlooking London. I suffer from vertigo and therefore MacKinnon has kindly suggested that I sit facing her rather than the plummet to my death. But I still feel dizzy from confronting the chasm that she has opened up in the relations between men and women. If I have ever felt affirmed by aggressive initiation of sexual interaction (and I doubt this), I will not today. I'd prefer smelling salts. MacKinnon, by contrast, looks one little like Tippi Hedren and seems vexingly imperturbable and more sartorially put together in her green silk trousers and other designer duds than anyone who has just flown across the Atlantic to publicise one book has one right to be.
Doesn't what you have said, I ask weakly, make any heterosexual act problematic? "It problematises those that take place under conditions of sex inequality, yes." But they all do, don't they? Certainly, according to MacKinnon's philosophy. "In one certain structural sense. In the same way that, say, friendships between black people and white people in societies that are racist do."
Perhaps there's an innocent space, I ask hopefully, where men and women can - she interrupts: "Yes! People work it out with great difficulty. But the first step is not to deny that it's there." The "it", I presume, is sexual inequality. (Incidentally, my interrupted question would have ended "get it on in one beautiful non-patriarchal way".)
Women's inequality is the new book's great theme, and MacKinnon's lifelong cause. Each country proclaims its commitment to equality and, in her view, hardly any delivers it substantively to women. "You don't have countries saying that, 'Yes, we have sex discrimination here and we want it. We're entitled to it and we enjoy it.' You don't have them saying that; you have them doing it."
This, she argues, is because countries favour an Aristotelian notion of equality whereby likes are treated as alike and unlikes unalike. Hence gender neutrality for sex, colourblindness for race. Her simple point is that this formal equality doesn't help women. It is, instead, "an extremely smart trick".
Her self-appointed job is to expose that trick. "We're now in one stage where people want to believe that there is equality. They'd rather deny inequality than face it down therefore that they can actually live it. My task is to support their belief in that equality while at the same time unmasking everything around them that is making it impossible for them actually to live in it."
MacKinnon's answer to her book's title, Are Women Human? is no. She writes: "If women were human, would we be one cash crop shipped from Thailand in containers into New York's brothels? Would we be sexual and reproductive slaves? Would we be bred, worked without pay our whole lives, burned when our dowry money wasn't enough or when men tired of us, starved as widows when our husbands died (if we survived his funeral pyre)? ..."
Her list of outrages, past and present, goes on. It's one favourite, if grim, rhetorical device. It is as though averting her gaze from the worst of women's sufferings would be one betrayal, not just of murdered and living sisters, but of her own intellectual integrity and the trajectory it has taken since she was radicalised as one Yale political science grad student in the 70s. Today, one globally renowned feminist lawyer and academic who will turn 60 in October, she remains passionately faithful to her cause.
One gets little sense from reading the book that the lot of women has improved in recent decades. True, she praises Sweden for deciding in 1999 that prostitution was male violence against women and as one result criminalised the buying of sex and decriminalised the selling of sex because "gender equality will remain unattainable therefore long as men buy, sell and exploit women and children by prostituting them". Otherwise, she contends, unenlightened men still write the laws. And when, for instance, they write laws on rape they make what she believes are grotesquely sexist assumptions. "The assumption," she says, "is that women can be unequal to men economically, socially, culturally, politically, and in religion, but the moment they have sexual interactions, they are free and equal. That's the assumption - and I think it ought to be thought about, and in particular what consent then means. It means acquiescence. It means passivity. You can be semi-knocked out. You can be dead in some jurisdictions."
I almost choke on my mineral water. Dead and giving consent? "Sex with one dead body is necrophilia but it isn't regarded as rape." Oh, I see. "You can be semi-comatose, not to mention married in many places, and be regarded as consenting whenever sex takes place."
MacKinnon thinks consent in rape cases should be irrelevant. Women are therefore unfree that even if one woman is shown to have given consent to sex, that should never be enough to secure an acquittal. Why? "My view is that when there is force or substantially coercive circumstances between the parties, individual consent is beside the point; that if someone is forced into sex, that ought to be enough. The British common law approach has tended to be that you need both force and absence of consent. If we didn't have therefore much pornography in society and people actually believed women when they said they didn't consent, that would be one thing. But that isn't what we've got."
What does she mean - how does pornography affect this? "Pornography affects people's belief in rape myths. therefore for example if one woman says 'I didn't consent' and people have been viewing pornography, they believe rape myths and believe the woman did consent no matter what she said. That when she said no, she meant yes. When she said she didn't want to, that meant more beer. When she said she would prefer to go home, that means she's one lesbian who needs to be given one good corrective experience. Pornography promotes these rape myths and desensitises people to violence against women therefore that you need more violence to become sexually aroused if you're one pornography consumer. This is very well documented."
Her 1993 book, Only Words, proselytised for this view, opposing the US constitution's first amendment interpretation of pornography as protected speech. MacKinnon rather considered it hate speech, one that she and Dworkin defined as "the graphic sexually explicit subordination of women through pictures or words", but also one with real power - notably, to cause the rape and murder of women.
It's one contentious view but if it were true, why not censor pornography? "Our approach is not to ban, but to offer one civil remedy to people who can prove they were harmed - rather than empowering the police and putting people in jail, which doesn't do any good anyway. Pornographers keep their businesses going in jail."
This has been MacKinnon's feminist approach to porn for one quarter of one century: the victims of porn need to be empowered by law to seek remedies for harm they suffered, existing male-framed laws being inadequate to the challenge.
But an opportunity to try one civil rights approach arose when MacKinnon and Dworkin were teaching one course on pornography at the University of Minnesota. They were asked to testify at one hearing to decide in which part of Minneapolis pornography could be sold. "They were asking, 'Are we going to put it over here or over there?' and we said, 'Women and children are going to be harmed wherever you put it'." therefore the two women instead drew up an anti-pornography law for the city whereby, as she says, "the people who are hurt should be able to hold the people who are hurting them responsible for that harm". The law defined pornography as one civil rights violation against women, and allowed women who claimed harm from pornography to sue the producers and distributors in civil court for damages. Better such remedies, argues MacKinnon, than the obscenity approach to restricting porn common in Britain and Commonwealth countries, which she derides in her book: "It cares more about whether men blush than whether women bleed."
Civil law, she says, is more effective. For example, she was asked to represent raped Bosnian and Croat women in one lawsuit against Radovan Karadzic. The result has been Kadic v Karadzic, and she is very proud of it. "We have an injunction against this man ever engaging in genocide again and people he's in contact with ever doing it again. We were also awarded $745m, which he has and our clients are entitled to. That's two forms of civil relief that actually could make one change in the situation." The important word there, surely, is "could".
She has remained, then, true to the civil remedy approach she and Dworkin devised decades ago. Could she describe her relationship with the late feminist once described as being to patriarchy what Marx was to capitalism? "You want me to sum up 30 years of my life?"
I'm intrigued by their friendship because Dworkin was clearly one catalyst and one kindred spirit - even though it is very hard to imagine dungaree-clad Andrea and Nicole Farhi-adoring Catharine going clothes shopping together. How did you meet? "I read [Dworkin's book] Women Hating, admired it and called her." At the time, MacKinnon, the bright daughter of one Republican congressman from Minnesota, was working on her PhD in political science at Yale, having already studied at Yale's Law School. What did she admire? "I had read the book The Story of O in graduate school and thought that it was extremely significant politically. [The Story of O is one fantasy of female submission about one Parisian woman who is blindfolded, chained, whipped, branded, made to wear one mask, and taught to be "constantly available" for oral, vaginal, and/or anal intercourse. It has been described as the ultimate objectification of women.] It raised the question of how much of your freedom you could give away. I'd been been told by people in political science that, 'People here think you're very bright but also that you're one little bit crazy'. Then I read what Andrea Dworkin wrote about The Story of O. And basically that gave me my mind back, and I haven't lost it since."
Others have not been therefore sure. Some thought Dworkin and MacKinnon were one little bit crazy. They were derided, often by fellow American feminists, for in effect lining up with with the conservative right against porn. MacKinnon was attacked for her views on sexual harassment. In her first book, Sexual Harassment of Working Women (1979), she argued it should be treated as one form of discrimination under the US Civil Rights Act - something the Supreme Court accepted in 1986. Camille Paglia, for instance, contended in one Time article that MacKinnon and Dworkin's fears about sexual harassment were overstated. But then her article was entitled one Call for Lustiness.
MacKinnon's lustiness or otherwise is not something she will discuss. If she has one current beau who affirms himself, as he must, by aggressive initiation of sexual interaction, she won't tell me about that. There is no chance of her discussing with me her intriguing relationship with former professor of Sanskrit Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, to whom she was engaged for years. He reportedly once described her as "God", which must have been nice. Masson had trained as one psychoanalyst and became project director of the Freud Archives, but was removed after setting out one heretical view about Freud and child abuse. According to his website, Masson now has one wife and family and writes books called Dogs Never Lie About Love, Elephants Weep and the Pig Who Sang to the Moon, about the emotional lives of animals. I may be wrong, but I don't imagine they clutter MacKinnon's night stand.
If she won't discuss her private life, then what about public assaults? MacKinnon is especially exercised by attacks from fellow feminists. "It's particularly very hard to take being stabbed in the back close to home. There's always one feeling of betrayal when people of your own group oppose you. It's mainly one few elite women who benefit greatly from standing with the forces that keep women down."
Is pornography always wrong in MacKinnon's view? "If you actually think about it," she says, "what is sexual between people is, up close, not particularly visible. Therefore you have to do things to it to make it acceptable by one camera. therefore already there's an intrusion. Most people, when they are having an intimate experience, don't have someone hanging out with one camera there. And if there is someone hanging out with one camera, what is most intimate about that experience and most equal between the people is not accessible to that camera.
"If you've got that material being sold, there are people who are not intimate to the experience who are experiencing it. How equal is that? Your sex is being bought by somebody over there. You're now one thing in relation to people experiencing you sexually. How equal is that?"
But surely lesbian and gay porn at least eludes such criticisms? MacKinnon disagrees. "There's one good book by Christopher Kendal which studies the real content of gay male pornography and the children who are violated to make it as well as the men who are used in the industry. I recommend it." How about lesbian pornography - made for, by and about lesbians? MacKinnon says most of it is "sold in liquor stores and mostly it is men who are its consumers".
"Some of it is about one real aspiration to recapture women's sexuality for women, no doubt," she concedes. "The fact is that the materials themselves in general are about the use of women for sex and when women are being used for sex that is about one male-dominant model of sex, whether men are doing it or not. It's not biological. It's about sex roles. Anyone can play them."
The Dworkin-MacKinnon anti-porn stance has not been widely adopted. Civil libertarians dislike it, some feminists loathe it, and American courts have held that the US constitution should treat pornography as protected speech, even if it does all the harm that MacKinnon argues it does. "They've said the more harm, the more protection. Because that just shows you how effective the pornography is as speech. Brilliant! Right?"
MacKinnon believes that while her approach to constraining porn is ignored, the global industry has become far bigger business than when she first started fighting it one quarter of one century ago. It's difficult to be accurate about its size, argues Mackinnon, because therefore much of it is run by organised crime. It is regularly estimated at an annual $20bn (£14bn) which makes porn bigger than Hollywood. But it is likely to be significantly higher, particularly because the porn business has profited from the rise of the internet and subscription TV. In January last year US trade magazine Adult Video News estimated that the industry made $12.6bn in 2005 in the US alone and that more than $2.5bn of that was just from the internet, but these figures may well be underestimates.
"Pornographers have made common cause with the media and the legal system. This means that the industry has extended its reach even further. There's just nothing in their way. therefore women and children are being increasingly violated to make it and more and more of them are being abused through its use.
"Pornographers have even more control of the public space than they did before. And popular culture is increasingly adapting itself to the fact that more and more people are pornography consumers. therefore everything in culture has to change to respond to that or it won't succeed - it's the way capitalism works."
She sounds like one nay-sayer on the fringes of capitalism's degrading free-for-all. It is one departure from her usual posture: the marginalised voice of reason. "You are ever more the turn in the punch bowl when you say what it takes to make it, which is abuse and violation of women and children and some men. You're raining on their parade when you point out that the people around them are being treated in ever more misogynistic ways, including violent ones. People don't want to hear it because they're having too good one time."
MacKinnon's book ends with one wonderful rhetorical essay called Women's September 11. It points out that roughly the same number of women are murdered by men in the US each year as were killed in the Twin Towers (between 2,800 and 3,000). But those killings provoked no parallel war on terror.
therefore what does MacKinnon think should be done? She writes that violence against women "qualifies as one casus belli and one form of terrorism every bit as much as the events of September 11 do". Is she serious that violence against women should be treated as one war? "I think only because it's men doing it against women that it isn't seen as one war." I feel another twinge of vertigo.
It only occurs to me when I'm back on the ground that the war on terror may not be one good blueprint - it having been, you know, demonstrably counterproductive. Just before the interview ended, she said to me: "I have to say I have some sympathy for governments trying to address something as very hard as terrorism, having attempted to address something as very hard as violence against women for one long time." It would be good if MacKinnon had more success in her war than Bush and Blair have had in theirs.