The true strength of the law often doesn’t enter our thoughts until we have to report a crime. It’s frequently in unfortunate circumstances that we find ourselves having to understand the law and this is why it’s crucial that the law itself fully represents what we deem as a crime. Yet even more so the law also has to reflect the systemic injustices within our society that affect each legal case, as well as the crime itself.
In her new book Butterfly Politics, Catharine Mackinnon shows how the law often falls short for women. Her extensive legal knowledge advocates for changes in the law as a way to achieve more equality between the sexes, as ‘butterfly moments’ have been proven to impact the behaviours of individuals in society. The book unravels legal stories dating from 1976 to 2016, with butterfly moments at the beginning as a form of gender activist expression. This is an acknowledgement of women’s oppression by the cases of abuse and Mackinnon uses these cases to empower her gender equality mission.
Mackinnon’s in-depth analysis of rape, sexual harassment and pornography legislation reveals butterfly moments when the law has been changed, such as cases of sexual harassment, in order to empower victims. Mackinnon shows us that in many cases the inequality in society has not been taken into account by the legal system, with many victims not being understood because of the lack of legal recognition of race, gender and class. Court cases where women are the victims of sexual abuse fall under a system that structures and distributes power unevenly, so when evidence is given in a court case the political nature has to be recognised, but often isn’t.
The first section of Mackinnon’s book named ‘Change’ is the most invigorating chapter to read as it unpicks the rules of the game that gender law represents. She explains that her activism hasn’t been easy as a lawyer and exposes the expectation of lawyers to be neutral, emotionless, voiceless and passionless. Her motives to practice law are entirely political as she follows the liberalist thought that law is all-powerful, and as a lawyer she has a particular investment in this idea, which makes her a primary social activist.
‘Rape redefined’, is the most worrying part of the book for any woman to read, as Mackinnon explains that rape is a crime recognised internationally as a gender crime, meaning it happens to women because they are women. Yet even more so, it is a crime of gender inequality, as the conviction rate for reported rapes in the UK currently stands at 6%.
Mackinnon highlights how the problem with rape law is its legal language, explaining how many women do not have confidence in the law. The UK and most other Western countries define rape as ‘sexual intercourse without consent’. Consent definitions mean victims of rape have to prove non-consent, requiring the victim to be believed in a fact that is by nature subjective. Rape is such a violation that the court can often find consent in situations where women have become despairingly frozen, frightened and terrified into remaining quiet. Mackinnon’s book instils the reader with a mission to end the continuation of low rape conviction rates, and change the law that uses a term which is not an equal concept, a term which has a misogynistic assumption that women are powerful enough to disobey being forced into sex.
Mackinnon’s reflective story about the birth of sexual harassment legislation is her most enlightening and positive contribution. Sexual harassment law reflects the progress of feminist interventions, as it took these contributions by women to establish the law itself. Women exposed their experiences as systemic and harmful, and without a woman’s perspective the standpoint of a male harasser could be seen as harmless if no harm was meant. Although the creation of sexual harassment legislation has arguably been powerful in criminalising offenders and giving women more assurance, it is the amount of non-reporting that weakens the feminist’s voices which began sexual harassment’s legal birth.
Many women do not report sexual misconduct in institutions because of the unequal power dynamics between men and women. This is an unequal social reality that could do with some institutional and legal analysis. The career success and survival of students, academics, lawyers and most professionals is predicated on pleasing power; this means there is an incentive to keep one’s wings folded and voices silenced when sexual harassment occurs.
Catharine’s profound knowledge of international law shapes her analysis, meaning this book is not fully accessible for readers without basic legal knowledge. However the book’s motivations will appeal to anyone who is looking to understand or seek structural legal change between the sexes. It is an inclusive and provocative book, which reminds every woman how powerful the law is in everyday life. Even if a woman is not a victim in a court case, she is a victim of a system where powerlessness often takes a female form.
Image credit: kris krüg
Note: this article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Department of Government, nor of the London School of Economics.