Andrea Dworkin, a Startling and Ruthless Feminist Whose Work Is Back in the Spotlight
Books of The Times
In wartime, no strategy is off the table, and the militant feminist Andrea Dworkin was fighting a war — one she didn’t choose, she said, but one that the patriarchy had foisted on her. She was determined to show how women could never be free as long as they lived in a world that was structured by men’s ambitions, men’s needs, men’s desires.
Dworkin, who died in 2005 at 58, knew that in fighting this battle she would confront the problem that any woman faced whenever it was a case of her word against his: how to be believed. Being conciliatory and ingratiating, submitting oneself as sweet and quiet and ultimately harmless — those were precisely the kinds of tactics with which an individual woman, conditioned to survive on men’s terms, might obtain a reprieve but not respect.
So Dworkin decided early on to take a page from the enemy’s playbook. “My only chance to be believed is to find a way of writing bolder and stronger than woman-hating itself — smarter, deeper, colder,” she wrote in a 1995 essay. “I would have to write a prose more terrifying than rape, more abject than torture, more insistent and destabilizing than battery, more desolate than prostitution, more invasive than incest, more filled with threat and aggression than pornography.”
The hallmarks of Dworkin’s writing are all there: the confident strut; the incantatory repetition; the startling, belligerent language; the ruthless whittling down of options to a single, irrevocable point (“my only chance”). This was someone who thought deeply and read widely and was preoccupied with questions not only of justice but also of style. “Last Days at Hot Slit,” a new anthology of Dworkin’s work, shows that the caricature of her as a simplistic man-hater, a termagant in overalls, could only be sustained by not reading what she actually wrote.
The editors, Johanna Fateman and Amy Scholder, present a chronological selection from Dworkin’s books, essays, novels and unpublished fragments, making it clear that her “restless output,” as Fateman puts it in her excellent introduction, amounted to much more than saying that all sex is rape. Dworkin herself never wrote that, though she did deem a common sex act tantamount to colonialism: “The woman in intercourse is a space inhabited, a literal territory occupied literally.” Her verdict on pornography was even more extreme, equating fantasies of domination and submission with a fascist wish-fulfillment — “Dachau brought into the bedroom and celebrated.”
Such categorical edicts were what Dworkin became known (and lampooned) for, though they also happened to be the least interesting aspect of her work. A new generation of feminists have reclaimed her, seeing in Dworkin’s incandescent rage a source of illumination, even as they bristle at some of her specific views. As Moira Donegan states it succinctly in a recent essay for Bookforum, Dworkin’s “inflexible opinions” on pornography and sex work have “fallen dramatically out of fashion;” Rebecca Traister, who cites Dworkin as an inspiration in her book “Good and Mad,” says the same. The Times columnist Michelle Goldberg suggests that Dworkin’s adamant refusal to seek approval from men expands the terms of a circumscribed discussion: “To treat her writing with curiosity and respect is itself a way of demonstrating indifference to male opinion.”
Dworkin composed her work from a personal place, but she didn’t contain her experience in anecdote; she extrapolated, she deduced, she pronounced. She wrote as a woman, as a child who was molested by a stranger, as a battered wife. “I used my life in every decision I made,” she explained of her process. “It was my compass.”
She described the experience of domestic assault as “being buried alive,” channeling this sensation into her work, lending it a certain airlessness but also infusing it with an existential urgency. The women’s movement in Dworkin’s unyielding universe was no mere lifestyle choice; it was a matter of life and death. “The clarity of the survivor is chilling,” she wrote. “She sees through the social strategies that have controlled her as a woman.”
Her own clarity meant that she was finding connections everywhere, moving with inexorable determination as she methodically built her case against the monstrous order of things. “Now, I have laid out the dimensions of the rape atrocity,” she states on one page, before delivering an indictment of “the dating system” on the next. Instead of the word “sign,” with its soft, vague connotations, she was inordinately fond of the word “signet,” with all the official sanction it implied.
To make fine distinctions was to evade responsibility and, in her stark moral universe, commensurate with complicity. In 1983, addressing an audience of left-wing men, she pointedly asked: “Why are you so slow to understand the simplest things; not the complicated ideological things. You understand those.”
In her book “Pornography,” she was especially scathing on progressive men who linked sexual libertinism with women’s emancipation, seeing them as no better than conquistadors in hipster attire. (Two decades after her marriage ended, she described her abusive ex-husband as “the former flower child I am still too afraid to name.”) For all their critiques of capitalism, these men seemed remarkably untroubled when the commodity was women. “The dirty little secret of the left-wing pornography industry is not sex but commerce,” she wrote, in one of her typically cutting asides.
Dworkin published two novels — “Ice and Fire” (1986) and “Mercy” (1990) — that are excerpted here; written in wildly divergent styles, they covered overlapping autobiographical ground. After all, if male novelists could return to the same subject over and over again, why couldn’t she? “Mercy” includes a darkly funny list of alternative (and unprintable) titles of famous books by famous men: “They just never seem to get over the miracle that it’s them in a big man’s body doing all the damage; Look, ma, it’s me. Volume Twelve.”
In her first book, “Woman Hating” (whose original working title was “Last Days at Hot Slit”), Dworkin appended an afterword titled “The Great Punctuation Typography Struggle,” a river of lowercase text in which she decried her publisher for filling the previous pages with “garbage: standard punctuation.”
It’s so over-the-top that at first it seems like a lark — or, since this is Dworkin, just another example of her resolve to see oppression everywhere. Soon, though, it turns into a more searching exploration of what her confrontational approach might challenge her readers to do. “Not to think about different things,” she writes, “but to think in different ways.”
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