Tom Joudrey has opinions about Andrea Dworkin, which are wrong. He wrote Queer-agenda paternalism: what radical feminism’s anti-porn campaign can teach us in Slate. It’s part of their series on radicalism.
After an intro paragraph on the Stonewall riots, Joudrey’s first move is of course to pull a Jordan Peterson:
In fact, a conservative penchant for rules and continuity animates nearly every item on today’s queer political agenda. Marriage was the coup d’état in the quest for regularity, for it offered, in Justice Kennedy’s words, “recognition, stability, and predictability.” LGBTQ advocates have since doubled down on this security agenda, visible in the proliferation of safe zones, trigger warnings, anti-bullying campaigns, meticulously elaborated protocols for verbal address, and labyrinthine nomenclatures of identity. Order is the order of the day. Those behind this agenda see themselves as spearheading radical transformation and fomenting inclusion, as though authentic autonomy reaches its freest expression by hewing to bureaucratic decorum. What I’m observing, put bluntly, is authoritarian conservatism tricked out as radicalism.
I grant, of course, that you will search mostly in vain for rock-ribbed Republicans on staff at the Human Rights Campaign or populating the bylines of Them. I’m speaking of a deeper conservatism that is positively Victorian in sensibility, one that construes queer lives as frail, delicate, and virtuous, and thus in need of institutions and protocols to protect them from the coarse utterances of a hostile public. But lest I be accused of misreading the zeitgeist of today’s self-styled radicalism, it may be useful to step back to examine a radical movement from recent memory—one that found itself, like today’s queer movement, in bizarre confederacy with a conservative zeal for supervision and censorship.
Not a bad troll. Calling SJWs conservative is sure to annoy them. Everybody knows they’re the real fascists. It says on Fox News. He’s reworded things, but this is literally the same thing white guys say about don’t be a victim and blah blah blah all the time.
He doesn’t say this, but one of his academic specialties is Victorian pornography. If Andrea Dworkin’s arguments were accepted, he’d be kicked out of queer academia.
Radical feminism, though born out of groups like the Redstockings in the late ’60s, really rose to national prominence in the 1980s by zeroing in on a single antagonist: pornography. Even before this period, pornography had already been indicted as a manifestation of the hate of women, and thus, an index of how deeply misogyny permeated the culture and structured the sexual division of labor. What was new, however, was the claim that pornography was the fundamental training ground for objectifying women—not a reflection of sex-based inequality, but its source. Men who masturbated to it, who fed and formed their fantasies by it, inextricably fused their desire with domination, then played out the script by abusing real women’s real bodies.
With formidable prose and ferocious conviction, Andrea Dworkin theorized that women’s emancipation could never ensue without addressing pornography’s power to enact, not just depict, subordination. In her 1981 polemic, Pornography: Men Possessing Women, she laid out the core of her argument.
Yes, she was fond of saying things like “the left cannot have its whores and its politics, too.” This is the Dworkin passage he quotes, calling it “the core of her argument”:
From the perspective of the political activist, pornography is the blueprint of male supremacy; it shows how male supremacy is built. The political activist needs to know the blueprint. In cultural terms, pornography is the fundamentalism of male dominance. Its absolutism on women and sexuality, its dogma, is merciless. Women are consigned to rape and prostitution; heretics are disappeared and destroyed. Pornography is the essential sexuality of male power: of hate, of ownership, of hierarchy; of sadism, of dominance. The premises of pornography are controlling in every rape and every rape case, whenever a woman is battered or prostituted, in incest, including in incest that occurs before a child can even speak, and in murder—murders of women by husbands, lovers, and serial killers. If this is superficial, what’s deep?
Except that’s not an argument at all. It’s her conclusion. The arguments are studiously ignored, so he can keep insisting the conclusions are over-the-top. His treatment of her arguments is glib:
Women, as Dworkin tells it, are mere marionettes twisted about by the pornographic page—docile, inert, silenced, and fungible. Passivity never looked so inevitable. With “radicals” like this, who needs patriarchy?
Some vaguely third wave sentiment about agency is all he’s got, really. Of course it’s a misrepresentation of Dworkin.
Dworkin on “inevitable passivity”:
The sex-class system cannot be undone when those whom it exploits and humiliates are unable to face it for what it is, for what it takes from them, for what it does to them. Feminism requires precisely what misogyny destroys in women: unimpeachable bravery in confronting male power. Despite the impossibility of it, there is such bravery: there are such women, in some periods millions upon millions of them. If male supremacy survives every effort of women to overthrow it, it will not be because of biology or God; nor will it be because of the force and power of men per se. It will be because the will to liberation was contaminated, undermined, rendered ineffectual and meaningless, by antifeminism: by specious concepts of equality based on an evasion of what the sex-class system really is…
The sentimental acceptance of a double standard of human rights, responsibilities, and freedom is also the triumph of antifeminism over the will to liberation; no sexual dichotomy is compatible with real liberation. And, most important, the refusal to demand (with no compromise being possible) one absolute standard of human dignity is the greatest triumph of antifeminism over the will to liberation. Without that one absolute standard, liberation is mush; feminism is frivolous and utterly self-indulgent. Without that one absolute standard as the keystone of revolutionary justice, feminism has no claim to being a liberation movement; it has no revolutionary stance, goal, or potential; it has no basis for a radical reconstruction of society; it has no criteria for action or organization; it has no moral necessity; it has no inescapable claim on the conscience of “mankind”; it has no philosophical seriousness; it has no authentic stature as a human-rights movement; it has nothing to teach. Also, without that one absolute standard, feminism has no chance whatsoever of actually liberating women or destroying the sex-class system…
No liberation movement can accept the degradation of those whom it seeks to liberate by accepting a different definition of dignity for them and stay a movement for their freedom at the same time (Apologists for pornography: take note). A universal standard of human dignity is the only principle that completely repudiates sex-class exploitation and also propels all of us into a future where the fundamental political question is the quality of life for all human beings. Are women being subordinated to men? There is insufficient dignity in that. Are men being prostituted too? What is human dignity?
Further, Dworkin wrote Right Wing Women, about how women use their agency to compromise with patriarchy in exchange for the promise of safety:
If sex oppression is real, absolute, unchanging, inevitable, then the views of right-wing women are more logical than not. Marriage is supposed to protect them from rape; being kept at home is supposed to protect them from the castelike economic exploitation of the marketplace; reproduction gives them what value and respect they have and so they must increase the value of reproduction even if it means increasing their own vulnerability to reproductive exploitation (especially forced pregnancy); religious marriage–traditional, correct, law-abiding marriage–is supposed to protect against battery, since the wife is supposed to be cherished and respected. The flaws in the logic are simple: the home is the most dangerous place for a woman to be, the place she is most likely to be murdered, raped, beaten, certainly the place where she is robbed of the value of her labor…
Right-wing women, who are less queasy in facing the absolute nature of male power over women, will not be swayed by the politics of women who practice selective blindness with regard to male power. Right-wing women are sure that the selective blindness of liberals and leftists especially contributes to more violence, more humiliation, more exploitation for women, often in the name of humanism and freedom (which is why both are dirty words to them).
This is all dismissed by Joudrey, as, y’know, weak passive woman stuff. No white man has ever expressed that view of feminism before, of course.
But but…what about the good porn?
Dworkin’s radicalism was actually radically reductive, capable of seeing only trauma, wounds, gouges, damage, and submission. Rich layers of self-discovery, spontaneous play, comedic deflation, ironic winking, campy self-awareness, queer pleasure—all these got buried under an avalanche of accusations of harm. Offering a dissenting interpretation, as Ellen Willis, Gayle Rubin, and many other feminists did, meant being branded a collaborator in carrying out the carnage. More importantly, Dworkin’s analysis vilified the symbolic realm—language, images, pictures, narratives—in ways that made imagining new possibilities of pleasure and identity impossible.
But what is really striking, in retrospect, is how these radical arguments eerily resonate with that most quintessentially American conservative rhetoric: Calvinism. Calling to mind colonial-era preacher Jonathan Edwards, Dworkin howled with fiery wrath against pornography by summoning lurid images of brutality and agony. With depravity so total, of course men and women would need to be rescued from their own fetid imaginations and debauched choices. Here, finally, enters the implicit plea for imperious oversight, for a policing institutional force to shelter the damsel in distress.
This kind of porn celebration looks ridiculous side-by-side with Pornhub. About the “imagination” thing:
Rather than making “new possibilities impossible”, this is what Andrea Dworkin’s husband had to say about it:
Or is sex good to the extent that it transcends power inequities—to the extent that sex between two individuals mitigates the power disparity that they bring with them from the social context? In theory, two people might approach a particular sexual encounter either as a ritual celebration of the social power differences between people in general and between them in particular or as a personal act of repudiating all such power inequities. Someone whose sexuality has become committed to celebrating the political status quo would consider sex good to the extent that its scenario achieves actual and lasting physical sensations of power inequity—through dominance, coercion, force, sadomasochism, and so forth. But someone who chose actively to resist the political status quo would consider sex good to the extent that it empowers both partners equally—and to the extent that they succeed together in keeping their intimacy untainted by the cultural context of sexualized inequality. The political question is tough, but it’s important to remember that it is a political question, and that “What is good sex?” is a question about the relationship between the social structure and the particular sex act….
Let’s assume that there exists an authentic erotic potential between humans such that mutuality, reciprocity, fairness, deep communion and affection, total body integrity for both partners, and equal capacity for choice-making and decision-making are merged with robust physical pleasure, intense sensation, and brimming-over expressiveness. Let’s say that some people have actually already experienced that erotic potential and some people have never. Let’s say, further, that the experience of this erotic potential occurred quite against the odds—because given the prevailing social values about sex, it could not have been predicted that two people would ever find out that this erotic potential exists. Everything about the cultural context would seem to predict that sexual meetings would be tainted with or steeped in shame and guilt, hierarchy and domination, contempt and repulsion, objectification and alienation, sexually crippling incidents from childhood, or simply emotional absence from each other. But as luck would have it, a few folks happen upon an erotic potential that is actually rooted in the same values that bring kindness and exuberance and intimacy to the rest of their life. So then the question becomes: How does anyone pass along their knowledge of that potential to other folks on the planet—how do they express it, show it, communicate it—without having to sleep with everyone?
Returning to Joudrey, this is how he concludes, after noting that radical feminists and right-wingers agreed on pornography:
Just as paranoia over the harm wrought by pornography once mobilized authoritarian impulses to stifle expression, fearmongering today threatens to convince LGBTQ people of their brittle breakability and the necessity of institutional surveillance. An authentic radicalism must defy priggish codes of propriety and mawkish pleas from self-righteous do-gooders. Queer words and images should be prized for their creative, disruptive force, not muzzled or edited into party-line scripts. That’s the tragic irony here: Enlisting paternalistic bureaucracies to enforce radicalism is the surest way to paralyze queer dissidence.
To which Andrea Dworkin would’ve responded: “The First Amendment was written by slave traders.”
So what he’s saying is: don’t be a pussy. Political correctness is the new totalitarianism. Politeness and respecting people is for losers. Being bad is good. The narcissism of the artist above all.
It’s some Jordan Peterson concern trolling.
What would actually be radical is a society that meets people’s emotional needs to the point that pornography doesn’t substitute for real human relationships. A society in which people’s material needs are met so they don’t have to use their “agency” to dissociate while people fuck them. A society in which treating people like things is anathema.
The pleasure of submission does not and cannot change the fact, the cost, the indignity, of inferiority.
Sure, it’s not hard to find examples of ridiculous queer jargon and “political correctness” (my favorite is people getting offended by niggardly). But why are we talking about that by way of some dude trying to bury Andrea Dworkin while rewording right-wing talking points and also calling liberals conservatives?
I think “demisexual” is a dumb word, but I don’t think Tom Joudrey is the person to have an honest conversation about it with. Don’t expect radicalism from the Washington Post (owner of Slate).