A recurring theme of this blog, for years, has been that Andrea Dworkin was right about everything, and that rejecting her ideas has made feminism ineffective and pointless.
Michelle Goldberg decided to write about Dworkin in the New York Times today: Not the fun kind of feminist: How Trump helped make Andrea Dworkin relevant again. The first two paragraphs illustrate the problem:
For decades now, Andrea Dworkin has existed in the feminist imagination mostly as a negative example, the woman no one wanted to be.
An anti-porn, anti-prostitution militant in the feminist sex wars of the late 1970s and 1980s, she sometimes seemed like a misogynist caricature of a women’s rights activist, a puritanical battle ax in overalls out to smite men for their appetites. Dworkin never actually wrote that all sex is rape, a claim often attributed to her, but she did see heterosexual intercourse as almost metaphysically degrading, calling it, in her 1987 book “Intercourse,” “the pure, sterile, formal expression of men’s contempt for women.” Feminism would spend decades defining itself against her bleak, dogmatic vision.
Listen to the puritanical battle ax in overalls actually speak:
Obviously, people dislike Andrea Dworkin because she really gets at the emotional core of things in a way that everyone else is afraid to. The reasons ugly things happen…are ugly.
See here for what Dworkin actually said about whether sex was metaphysically degrading. It’s a lot more thoughtful than Goldberg makes it sound.
Goldberg lists some recent examples of people saying positive things about Dworkin or citing her as inspiration.
So what it is in Dworkin’s long-neglected oeuvre that has suddenly become resonant? Perhaps it’s simply because we’re in a moment of crisis, when people seeking solutions are dusting off all sorts of radical ideas. But I think it’s more than that. Dworkin was engaged, as many women today are engaged, in a pitched cultural battle over whose experiences and assumptions define our common reality. As she wrote of several esteemed male writers in a 1995 preface to “Intercourse,” “I love the literature these men created; but I will not live my life as if they are real and I am not.”
I think what distinguishes Dworkin’s writing is the effort she put into understanding how men think. This is the difference between Dworkin and the “sex-positive” liberal feminists. All this basically unconvincing “It’s fun to be a sex worker” stuff is about female psychology. Nuh-uh, we’re not traumatized. Indulging our desires is empowering. Etc. Sex positivity only makes sense by pretending male psychology doesn’t exist. It’s forbidden to talk about obvious things like how how sexually rewarding men for domination isn’t helping build a world where everyone’s free.
Dworkin was unapologetically angry, as so many women today are. Even before 2016, you could see this anger building in the emergence of new words to describe maddening male behaviors that had once gone unnamed — manspreading, mansplaining. Then came the obscene insult of Donald Trump’s victory. It seems like something sprung from Dworkin’s cataclysmic imagination, that America’s most overtly fascistic president would also be the first, as far as we know, to have appeared in soft-core porn films. I think Trump’s victory marked a shift in feminism’s relationship to sexual liberation; as long as he’s in power, it’s hard to associate libertinism with progress.
And so Dworkin, so profoundly out of fashion just a few years ago, suddenly seems prophetic. “Our enemies — rapists and their defenders — not only go unpunished; they remain influential arbiters of morality; they have high and esteemed places in the society; they are priests, lawyers, judges, lawmakers, politicians, doctors, artists, corporation executives, psychiatrists and teachers,” Dworkin said in a lecture she wrote in 1975, included in “Last Days at Hot Slit.” Maybe this once sounded paranoid. After Trump’s election, the Brett Kavanaugh hearings, and revelations of predation by men including Roger Ailes, Harvey Weinstein, Les Moonves, Larry Nassar and countless figures in the Catholic Church, her words seem frighteningly perceptive.
In other words, Michelle Goldberg just noticed something I’ve known since approximately age 8: the world is crawling with them, protecting them. The banality of evil.
Dworkin showed foresight in other ways. She defended Monica Lewinsky when the young woman was being treated like a joke, and she was unsparing in her disgust for Bill Clinton. She was intersectional before the word was coined. The “closely interwoven fabric of oppression” in America, she wrote in “Woman Hating,” meant that “wherever one stood, it was with at least one foot heavy on the belly of another human being.”
That doesn’t even do it justice. Andrea Dworkin told the truth about race, and I think THAT secretly explains as much of feminism’s discomfort with her as the “sex is rape” business.
In sex there is the suffering of those who can love, and the more terrifying despair of those who are loveless, empty, those who must “narcotize themselves before they can touch any human being at all.” These are the people who are the masters in a social and sexual master-slave hierarchy, and what characterizes them is that they “no longer have any way of knowing that any loveless touch is a violation, whether one is touching a woman or a man.”
In the United States, the cost of maintaining racism has been a loss of self-knowledge (and thus love) for those who refuse to know what they have because others suffer. What they have includes a sense of superiority that substitutes for a real identity. Maintaining racism has required an emotional numbness, a proud and fatal incapacity to feel, because that is the cost of purposely maintaining ignorance: one must block life out–the world around one and one’s own emotional possibilities.
For that reason, in this country there is “an emotional poverty so bottomless, and a terror of human life, of human touch, so deep” that most Amerikans lack “the most elementary and crucial connections.” Missing especially is any connection between sex and the complexity of identity; a vital connection without which the fuck is an exercise in futility, going from nowhere to nowhere, no one fucking nothing.
Even the youth seem “blighted,” “a parody of locomotion and manhood.” Despair and violation (each no less terrible for being unconscious) and narcotized touch predominate; and the young appear “to be at home with, accustomed to, brutality and indifference, and to be terrified of human affection.” This is the sexuality of those who risk nothing because they have nothing inside to risk. “Of rending and tearing there can never be any end,” thinks one character in Another Country about life in this country, “and God save the people for whom passion becomes impersonal.”
Passion becomes impersonal when there is no person inside, no complex human being who is willing to know and to feel. It is not knowledge of someone else that makes passion personal; it is knowledge of oneself. Self-knowledge creates the potential for knowing a lover in sex.
The phase “turned tricks as a broke, bohemian young woman”…wow.
Still, the resurrection of Dworkin’s work and reputation is in some ways quite strange, because her contemporary admirers tend to reject her central political commitments. Dworkin, who’d turned tricks as a broke, bohemian young woman, wanted to outlaw prostitution and pornography, and in the 1980s she made an alliance with the religious right to push anti-pornography legislation. There is no sympathy for such a bargain in feminist circles today, where it’s mostly taboo to treat sex work as distinct from any other kind of labor.
Yet the renewed interest in Dworkin is a sign that for many women, our libidinous culture feels neither pleasurable nor liberating. “Me and my peers, we believed in this sort of fairy tale, that there was a line of demarcation that was very clear between rape and nonconsensual acts, and consent,” said Fateman. “We knew where the line was, and everything on the side of consent was great, and it was an expression of our freedom. But that’s not the experience of sex that a lot of people are having.”
Moira Donegan, the writer best known for creating an online list of alleged sexual abusers and harassers in media, recently wrote an appreciative reappraisal of Dworkin occasioned by “Last Days at Hot Slit.” “It should not be hard to say that heterosexuality as it is practiced is a raw deal for women and that much pornography eroticizes the contempt of women,” she wrote. “It should not be hard to say any of this. But it has become hard.”
Thank God Almighty that it finally says so in the newspaper.
Even though Dworkin was, y’know, right about everything since a long time ago, she’s a “dead end.”
Taken literally, much of Dworkin’s writing dead ends in despair. She insisted on being credited for her hard-earned knowledge of the world, but would dismiss other women’s testimonies — particularly about their enjoyment of sex — that contradicted her ideology. “The quality of the sensation or the need for a man or the desire for love: These are not answers to questions of freedom; they are diversions into complicity and ignorance,” she wrote.
Here’s the context for that quote, by the way:
There is no analogue anywhere among subordinate groups of people to this experience of being made for intercourse: for penetration, entry, occupation. There is no analogue in occupied countries or in dominated races or in imprisoned dissidents or in colonialized cultures or in the submission of children to adults or in the atrocities that have marked the twentieth century ranging from Auschwitz to the Gulag. There is nothing exactly the same, and this is not because the political invasion and significance of intercourse is banal up against these other hierarchies and brutalities. Intercourse is a particular reality for women as an inferior class; and it has in it, as part of it, violation of boundaries, taking over, occupation, destruction of privacy, all of which are construed to be normal and also fundamental to continuing human existence. There is nothing that happens to any other civilly inferior people that is the same in its meaning and in its effect even when those people are forced into sexual availability, heterosexual or homosexual; while subect people, for instance, may be forced to have intercourse with those who dominate them, the God who does not exist did not make human existence, broadly speaking, dependent on their compliance.
The political meaning of intercourse for women is the fundamental question of feminism and freedom: can an occupied people–physically occupied inside, internally invaded–be free; can those with a metaphysically compromised privacy have self-determination; can those without a biologically based physical integrity have self-respect?
There are many explanations, of course, that try to be kind. Women are different but equal. Social policy is different from private sexual behavior. The staggering civil inequalities between men and women are simple, clear injustices unrelated to the natural, healthy act of intercourse. There is nothing implicit in intercourse that mandates male dominance in society. Each individual must be free to choose–and so we expand tolerance for those women who do not want to be fucked by men. Sex is between individuals, and social relations are between classes, and so we preserve the privacy of the former while insisting on the equality of the latter. Women flourish as distinct, brilliant individuals of worth in the feminine condition, including in intercourse, and have distinct, valuable qualities. For men and women, fucking is freedom; and for men and women, fucking is the same, especially if the woman chooses both the man and the act. Intercourse is a private act engaged in by individuals and has no implicit social significance. Repression, as opposed to having intercourse, leads to authoritarian social policies, including those of male dominance. Intercourse does not have a metaphysical impact on women, although, of course, particular experiences with individual men might well have a psychological impact. Intercourse is not a political condition or event or circumstance because it is natural. Intercourse is not occupation or invasion or loss of privacy because it is natural. Intercourse does not violate the integrity of the body because it is natural. Intercourse is fun, not oppression. Intercourse is pleasure, not an expression or confirmation of a state of being that is either ontological or social. Intercourse is because the God who does not exist made it; he did it right, not wrong; and he does not hate women even if women hate him.
Liberals refuse categorically to inquire into even the possibility that there is a relationship between intercourse per se and the low status of women. Conservatives use what appears to be God’s work to justify a social and moral hierarchy in which women are lesser than men. Radicalism on the meaning of intercourse–its political meaning to women, its impact on our very being itself–is tragedy or suicide. “The revolutionary,” writes Octavio Paz paraphrasing Ortega y Gasset, “is always a radical, that is, he [sic] is trying to correct the uses themselves rather than the mere abuses…”
With intercourse, the use is already imbued with the excitement, the derangement, of the abuse; and abuse is only recognized as such socially if the intercourse is performed so recklessly or so violently or so stupidly that the man himself has actually signed a confession through the manner in which he has committed the act. What intercourse is for women and what it does to women’s identity, privacy, self-respect, self-determination, and integrity are forbidden questions; and yet how can a radical or any woman who wants freedom not ask precisely these questions? The quality of the sensation or the need for a man or the desire for love: these are not answers to questions of freedom; they are diversions into complicity and ignorance.
But this is not a “dead end.”
Women have also wanted intercourse to work in this sense: women have wanted intercourse to be, for women, an experience of equality and passion, sensuality, and intimacy. Women have a vision of love that includes men as human too; and women want the human in men, including in the act of intercourse. Even without the dignity of equal power, women have believed in the redeeming potential of love. There has been–despite the cruelty of exploitation and forced sex–a consistent vision for women of a sexuality based on a harmony that is both sensual and possible…
Shere Hite has suggested an intercourse in which “thrusting would not be considered as necessary as it now is…[There might be] more a mutual lying together in pleasure, penis-in-vagina, vagina-covering-penis, with female orgasm providing much of the stimulation necessary for male orgasm.”
These visions of a humane sensuality based in equality are in the aspirations of women; and even the nightmare of sexual inferiority does not seem to kill them. They are not searching analyses into the nature of intercourse; instead they are deep, humane dreams that repudiate the rapist as the final arbiter of reality. They are an underground resistance to both inferiority and brutality, visions that sustain life and further endurance.
They also do not amount to much in real life with real men. There is, instead, the cold fucking, duty-bound or promiscuous; the romantic obsession in which eventual abandonment turns the vagina into the wound Freud claimed it was; intimacy with men who dread women, coital dread–as Kafka wrote in his diary, “coitus as punishment for the happiness of being together.”
..The role of fear in destroying the integrity of men is easy to articulate, to understand, hard to overstate. Men are supposed to conquer fear in order to experience freedom. Men are humiliated by fear, not only in their masculinity but in their rights and freedoms. Men are diminished by fear; compromised irrevocably by it because freedom is diminished by it…
…But women are supposed to treasure the little grain of fear–rub up against it–eroticize it, want it, get excited by it; and the fear could and does keep millions quiet: millions of women; being fucked and silent; upright and silent; waiting and silent; rolled over on and silent; pursued and silent; killed, fucked, silent. The silence is taken to be appropriate. The fear is not perceived as compromising or destroying freedom. The dictators do flourish: fuck and flourish.
“You don’t have to be afraid that Andrea Dworkin is going to take your pornography away.” That says it all.
Yet Fateman suggests that it’s precisely because Dworkin lost the sex wars so decisively that we can now see beyond her most extreme rhetoric. “You don’t have to be afraid that Andrea Dworkin is going to take your pornography away,” Fateman said. That opens up space to consider the rest of her work, and the price she paid for refusing so categorically to make herself appealing to men.
“For a woman writer to thrive (or, arguably, to survive) in these current hard times, forgiveness and love must be subtext,” Dworkin wrote in the “Intercourse” preface. “No. I say no.” It’s in part this “no” that women are celebrating when they celebrate Dworkin. To treat her writing with curiosity and respect is itself a way of demonstrating indifference to male opinion. “I’m a radical feminist,” she once said. “Not the fun kind.” She’s back because these aren’t fun times.
Revolution or reform? While porn might get us through lonely nights, the sex positive people stand in the way of asking whether we can do better.
I think maybe Andrea Dworkin didn’t reckon with the repetition compulsion very much. She, herself, unambiguously preferred human dignity. I wonder what Dworkin would’ve said about the empirical fact, from “Everybody Lies” by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, that women on Pornhub are seeking out “abuse of women” porn at higher rates than men.
If the patriarchy happened to men, it’d be like, this is war. We wouldn’t even tolerate traitors who did mental gymnastics writing about how getting assfucked by the enemy is liberating. We’d want to restore our honor, not eroticize submission. The patriarchy is a system of violence, yes?
By forbidding consideration of the male perspective in the name of women’s agency and empowerment, sex positivity forbids itself from understanding why men aren’t afraid of it.