Seeing feminists disavow Andrea Dworkin is extremely exasperating, but at least her work is getting some attention in the media, which will cause at least a few people to read and understand it. Apparently they know deep down that they’re fucking up. Isn’t it strange that Lauren Oyler’s review of the new Andrea Dworkin anthology begins with an apology? She explicitly chooses to focus on style over substance:
Apologies to Andrea Dworkin, who did not like book critics and who, fourteen years after her death, from myocarditis, at fifty-eight, is being subjected to a round of us again. “I have never written for a cowardly or passive or stupid reader, the precise characteristics of most reviewers,” she wrote in the preface to the second edition of “Intercourse,” the work that presented her alienating theory of heterosexual sex as a violation, “a use and an abuse simultaneously,” and “the key to women’s lower human status,” among other descriptions. “Overeducated but functionally illiterate, members of a gang, a pack, who do their drive-by shootings in print,” reviewers seemed to deny her the authority of her personal experience of rape, prostitution, and domestic violence, which they did not understand, and to wave aside the literary criticism in the book, which they also did not understand. “I will check back in a decade to see what you all think,” she wrote in a scathing letter to the Times, in 1987, responding to its pan of the first edition of “Intercourse.” “In the meantime, I suggest you examine your ethics to see how you managed to avoid discussing anything real or even vaguely intelligent about my work and the political questions it raises.”
To be fair, Dworkin herself wrote about her style, and Oyler comments on that. She actually includes a lot of detail about Dworkin’s life and the detail of her books. The reader learns that Intercourse is a work of literary criticism, which isn’t obvious from her reputation. But once we get past all that introductory stuff…
Reading Dworkin, I often find myself trying to contort into agreement, although ignoring what she said in favor of what you’d like her to have said is exactly what she asked people not to do. At the time she was writing, her injunctions to read her and take her seriously, and her exasperated efforts to clarify her intentions, were directed more at her detractors; now her defenders might be reminded to pay closer attention to the text. Ariel Levy, a writer for this magazine, in her introduction to the twentieth-anniversary edition of “Intercourse,” points out that the discomfort in reading Dworkin is that, “if you accept what she’s saying, suddenly you have to question everything: the way you dress, the way you write, your favorite movies, your sense of humor, and yes, the way you fuck.”
EXACTLY! Dworkin said, “This book is an action, a political action where revolution is the goal.” Left utopianism is dead. People read Andrea Dworkin and are shocked to encounter radical feminism. That’s what radical means, as opposed to liberal. If your politics don’t bring about great justice and make the sex better, what’s the point? Reading Dworkin, you have to question everything, because everything is fucked right now. This is called being clear-eyed about the scope of the problem. “The personal is the political” implies a lot more if your sense of possibilities includes revolution. Attachment to “problematic faves” isn’t some little problem. It’s THE problem. Your favorite movies and your sexual practices are politically incorrect, meaning they work to decrease the chances of The Great Revolution.
If male domination determines everything, even our language, believing Dworkin requires being as hopeful as she was: she wanted nothing less than a total reimagining of the world, a pursuit that even she engaged in only sometimes, with varying degrees of specificity. Her numbered lists for addressing rape, which she believed was a prerequisite for insuring the freedom of women, comprise a rigorous program of simple definitions and actionable recommendations; her suggestions for overhauling intercourse—which to her was not necessarily rape, though she said that rape is the prevailing model for intercourse, and the relentlessness of her thinking leaves few options not to interpret her that way—are mostly vague or absurd. When she says that men will have to “give up their precious erections,” it makes sense metaphorically—men should “renounce their phallocentric personalities, and the privileges and powers given to them at birth.” But she also seems to mean it literally, which without mandated surgical intervention is just not going to happen. She writes admiringly and at length about Victoria Woodhull’s materialist “female-first model of intercourse,” but although she insists that this is “not some silly role reversal,” it’s hard to see how requiring the woman to be “the controlling and dominating partner, the one whose desire determined the event,” is particularly different from what she calls the hollow swap of “equality.”
This is what Dworkin actually said, so the reader can judge the absurdity on their own:
The real core of the feminist vision, its revolutionary kernel if you will, has to do with the abolition of all sex roles – that is, an absolute transformation of human sexuality and the institutions derived from it. In this work, no part of the male sexual model can possibly apply. Equality within the framework of the male sexual model, however that model is reformed or modified, can only perpetuate the model itself and the injustice and bondage which are its intrinsic consequences.
I suggest to you that transformation of the male sexual model under which we now all labor and “love” begins where there is a congruence, not a separation, a congruence of feeling and erotic interest; that it begins in what we do know about female sexuality as distinct from male – clitoral touch and sensitivity, multiple orgasms, erotic sensitivity all over the body (which needn’t – and shouldn’t – be localized or contained genitally), in tenderness, in self-respect and in absolute mutual respect. For men I suspect that this transformation begins in the place they most dread – that is, in a limp penis. I think that men will have to give up their precious erections and begin to make love as women do together. I am saying that men will have to renounce their phallocentric personalities, and the privileges and powers given to them at birth as a consequence of their anatomy, that they will have to excise everything in them that they now value as distinctively “male.” No reform, or matching of orgasms, will accomplish this.
I’m an autistic man, so I’m supposed to be the one with impaired social imagination. It’s hard to believe that people like Lauren Oyler can’t read and understand this passage. See where she says “they will have to excise everything in them that they NOW value as distinctively male?” She’s talking about affection and feelings, something that probably makes you gay or something, amirite? Get it? You can’t be all ready to punish fuck somebody and have the right mind state for what she’s talking about.
Oyler just says it’s “never going to happen” because she has a lower opinion of men’s capacity for goodness than Andrea Dworkin. It’s like a conservative man speaking through her.
Let’s get back to Ariel Levy’s quote about questioning everything including, yes, how you fuck. The implicit audience for that sentence is, like, the sisterhood of feminist readers, who know what people are really doing in bed because they talk amongst themselves. Maybe they’ve all been through Cat Person things?
Well, I have a different source of insight into the horrors of people’s bedrooms: my dad came home and complained about work all the time. He was a domestic violence/child abuse social worker for the Navy. Obviously there were enough cases for him to stay busy and stressed out. It was the 1990s, so he had a pager for when he had to go to the hospital in the middle of the night. I was friends with the kid down the street, whose mom worked at the photo developer place, so she knew my dad from work. Get it? None of my friends knew that my 7th grade math teacher left mid-year because her husband was beating her. So obviously the community is TOTALLY FULL of that stuff, but it’s forbidden to really acknowledge it and take in the implication that it’s people you know. So I call bullshit when people read Andrea Dworkin and say it’s not like that.
But, elsewhere, only splitting hairs can justify the generalizations to which she sacrifices possibility. The next paragraph begins with the assertion that, because of our position, women cannot make the same choices as men: “Being female in this world is having been robbed of the potential for human choice by men who love to hate us.” If that’s true, one wonders how she managed to live the way she did: married to a gay man, writing genre-bending feminist polemics. In Dworkin’s conception, objectification is more or less inevitable but can never be reclaimed as empowerment or chosen, unlike what many third-wave and contemporary feminists might believe.
Does anyone powerful ever use the word “empowerment?” No. It just means doing mental gymnastics to go along with it when you know better, which is why Dworkin used words like “collaboration.” “Empowerment” is a word for helping people not feel bad about their actual powerlessness.
It’s not squeamish to say that some of her arguments are not simply uncomfortable but offensive, almost strategically so. She compares violence against women to the Holocaust, with women who value heterosexuality being “collaborators” and pornography akin to Goebbels’s anti-Jewish propaganda; the difference, she notes, is that “the Jews didn’t do it to themselves and they didn’t orgasm. . . . Of course, neither do women; not in life.” In an essay on Nicole Brown Simpson, she juxtaposes violence against women and spousal abuse with racist police brutality and then performs a similar sort of childish qualification to imply that, actually, one of these is worse: “On the same day the police who beat Rodney G. King were acquitted in Simi Valley, a white husband who had raped, beaten, and tortured his wife, also white, was acquitted of marital rape in South Carolina. . . . There were no riots afterward.” These hyperbolic comparisons sap the power from her painstaking explanations elsewhere of the uniqueness of women’s position and the way it “intersects” with class and race. Departing from reality to emphasize women’s place in it—splitting, against her own instruction, a symbol from its context—only makes her thinking seem lost.
Trying to make Dworkin sound like she’s undermining intersectional thinking is especially egregious. To me, it’s very conspicuous how much Dworkin’s actual writing is about race, and how seldom anyone discusses that fact. Dworkin was using phrases like “refuse to know what they have because others suffer” before “privilege” became the term du jour. Unpopular opinion: feminism rejects Dworkin because her writing makes white feminists squeamish.
The beautiful Jewess ravaged and dragged through the streets by her hair is still enticing, still vibrantly alive in the pool of sexual images that mystify the Jewish woman. But the Nazis in reality created a kind of sexual degradation that was–and remains–unspeakable. Even Sade did not dare imagine what the Nazis created and neither did the Cossacks. And so the sexualization of the Jewish woman took on a new dimension. She became the carrier of a new sexual memory, one so brutal and sadistic that its very existence changed the character of the mainstream sexual imagination.
The concentration camp woman–emaciated with bulging eyes and sagging breasts and bones sticking out all over and shaved head and covered in her own filth and cut up and whipped and stomped on and punched out and starved–became the hidden sexual secret of our time. The barely faded, easily accessible memory of her sexual degradation is at the heart of the sadism against all women that is now promoted in mainstream sexual propaganda: she in the millions, she naked in the millions, she utterly at the mercy of–in the millions, she to whom anything could be and was done–in the millions, she for whom there will never be any justice or revenge–in the millions. It is her existence that has defined contemporary mass sexuality, given it its distinctly and unabashedly mass-sadistic character.
The Germans had her, had the power to make her. The others want her, want the power to make her. And it must be said that the male of a racially despised group suffers because he has been kept from having her, from having the power to make her. He may mourn less what has happened to her than that he did not have the power to do it. When he takes back his manhood, he takes her back, and on her he avenges himself: through rape, prostitution, and forced pregnancy; through despising her, his contempt expressed in art and politics and pleasure. This avenging–the reclamation of masculinity–is evident among Jewish and black males, though it is in no way limited to them. In fact, in creating a female degraded beyond human recognition, the Nazis set a new standard of masculinity, honored especially in the benumbed conscience that does not even notice sadism against women because that sadism is so ordinary…
It is her image–hiding, running, captive, dead–that evokes the sexual triumph of the sadist. She is his sexual memory and he lives in all men. But this memory is not recognized as a sexual fact, nor is it acknowledged as male desire: it is too horrible. Instead, she wants it, they all do. The Jews went voluntarily to the ovens.
Oyler is “offended.” About the Nicole Brown Simpson thing, Oyler invokes “intersectionality” but forgets that it comes from black women talking about things like hostility to their issues from black men. Especially at the time she was writing, when marital rape was allowed, it’s not unreasonable and certainly not “childish” to emphasize the nobody-giving-a-fuck. Lorena is a great reminder of how we thought about domestic violence recently:
The combination of endorsement and disavowal in this passage is confusing:
In the reconsiderations of Dworkin that have proliferated in the past couple of years, since Donald Trump was elected and #MeToo made it fashionable to express skepticism or hatred of men, a positive, if qualified, consensus has coalesced around her work. Fateman, describing the excitement she felt when she discovered Dworkin at eighteen and saw “patriarchy with the skin peeled back,” followed by her dutiful disagreement with Dworkin in the years afterward, now calls herself a “different kind of loyalist.” In “Good and Mad,” Rebecca Traister’s 2018 assessment of women’s anger, Traister laments that Dworkin wasn’t around to see #MeToo—but she also notes that Dworkin was “wrong” about a lot. Contemporary essays praising second-wave strategies like militant celibacy and political lesbianism invoke Dworkin implicitly, even as their authors shy away from occupying her staunch positions. “I won’t be swearing off sex anytime soon,” Nona Willis Aronowitz writes, in a Times editorial titled “Don’t Let Sex Distract You from the Revolution,” “but as I battle this latest iteration of private and public misogyny, I’ll be channeling the focused rage of the celibates.”
These sentiments, which sever intellect from feeling or mind from body, are decidedly not Dworkinesque, and the ease with which we’ve pulled out what is useful or prophetic about her work suggests that we’re still not reading her writing the way she would read it: closely, actively. Her weaknesses are congruent with her vision of the world’s totalizing interconnectedness; they flow from her awareness of the trade-offs—beyond precious erections—that revolution might require. Dworkin sacrificed her comfort, her reputation, and to some extent herself for her writing. What she never gave up was style. She called on culture to serve politics, but understood that political writing need not sound like it was written by a politician.
Since the second wave, “questioning everything” has become a prominent mode of feminist critique, as has a willingness to consider culture in political texts and politics in, say, book reviews. But, without the sort of rigor that Dworkin brought to both, neither strategy is particularly effective.
She admits that the contemporary feminist consensus is based on dissociation. In other words, being traumatized by the patriarchy is the prevailing condition. Because it’s just like Dworkin said it is.
If the patriarchy happened to men, we’d definitely go to war, and there’d probably be some horrible punishment for writing essays about how it’s empowering to get assfucked by the enemy. It just wouldn’t be acceptable. Women in Rojava actually do take up arms against the patriarchy. It’s a human possibility.
“Empowerment” nonsense just trivializes how hard it actually is to say “Fuck this. I don’t deserve this. I won’t tolerate this ever again.” There’s very little support for it. Seeing the real thing makes vocal feminists uncomfortable.
This problem is not unrelated to how few people are vegan. It’s something you can do to stop participating in one of the most gratuitously horrible parts of capitalism. It basically asks that you buy different stuff when you go to the store. If everyone who was in a position to, did, the impact on the environment and human health would surely be good. You don’t have to actually do anything scary like fight Nazis with guns. Very few people are vegan. Vegans are about as popular as Andrea Dworkin. They expose the fact that some things are simple: if something is bad, don’t do it. It might sound simplistic and childish, but it’s actually profound. Albert Einstein says: