‘One of Those Serious Women’

Andrea Dworkin’s Radical Feminism
Andrea Dworkin (Stephen Parker / Alamy Stock Photo)

When I was thirteen, I decided it was time to be a feminist. In my family, this wasn’t really something that needed to be announced, but nonetheless I felt compelled to claim the label as my own. From this point on, I would be buying the manifestos about patriarchy with my allowance money, thank you very much.

My boyfriend—also, of course, a feminist and at fourteen, a year more radical than I—told me that women shouldn’t be ruled by men’s oppressive beauty standards, which I interpreted as a directive to stop shaving my legs. Wanting to be both a good feminist and a good girlfriend, I complied. And then I wore knee socks for the better part of a year because I hated the way my shins looked, but I didn’t want to disappoint him or the movement.

I hadn’t heard of Andrea Dworkin then, but I did know that feminism was mostly about body hair and righteousness. As I got a little older and started shaving again, I learned that thinking about feminism this way was absurd, out of touch. Feminists weren’t mean and hairy and fat. They were sexy and played in bands and wore baby-doll dresses and smeary, dark lipstick. Thus liberated, I hit the thrift stores in search of lace-lined slips, hopeful that now I was doing it right.

The new collection of Dworkin’s writings Last Days at Hot Slit, edited by Johanna Fateman and Amy Scholder, is an exhilarating reminder that however you’re currently doing feminism, it’s probably wrong.

The book samples Dworkin’s writings from 1973 to 1999, including personal letters, speeches, and excerpts from her nonfiction and fiction. It also features previously unpublished material like the vicious and hilarious “Goodbye to All This,” a burn book of a breakup letter to her sex-positive fellow travelers.

Dworkin’s writing is forceful, unapologetic, pleasurable without making its author seem likeable. She describes herself, pointedly, as “one of those serious women.” What Last Days reveals, according to its editors, is that Dworkin shaped our current world without ever being recognized or appreciated as Great, in the ways that Great Men traditionally are, and it’s hard to disagree with them. We get our ideas of how we’re supposed to be—shaven or not, angry or otherwise—from somewhere, and one of those places is her work.

Dworkin puts her own lived experience as a woman front and center. She writes about rape, and she writes about her rapes. She writes about domestic violence, and she writes about the husband who beat her. In her essays, you can feel her rage that these things happened to her, but also her anger that bodily trauma has, by necessity, become the focus of her creative output.

This isn’t the kind of writing she wanted to do.

As a girl, Dworkin’s heroes were male writers (Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Genet, Ginsburg) who flaunted their excess and debauchery, and in her more autobiographical pieces, you can sense the kind of urban, European, bourgeois-skewering writer she thought she’d grow up to be. The disappointment that she did not, could not, live this way because she was a woman suffuses all her writing. How does someone go from wanting to live in the gutter, drunk on life and its excesses, to wanting to ban pornography? Because of fear, a fear created and sustained by men. As she put it in A Battered Wife Survives, “The fear does not let go. The fear is the eternal legacy.”

Dworkin was a serious woman, but she also writes about having fun, especially during sex or while roaming around New York or having sex while roaming around New York. It’s some of her saddest writing to me, because it carries the deepest sense of loss. In her autobiographical novel Mercy, while describing a woman she longs for, she captures the rollercoaster of sexual longing: “I want to want; I like wanting just so it gets fulfilled and I don’t have to wait too long; I like the ache just long enough to make what touches it appreciated a little more, a little drama, a little pain.”

But there never seems to be just a little pain.

Dworkin was a Bad Girl, ditching school, fighting with (or sleeping with) her teachers, and then she was a Hurt Girl, doing drugs and turning tricks, and then she was an almost Dead Girl, and then she couldn’t be a Bad Girl anymore.

 

Dworkin’s basic point was not, as her critics had it, that all heterosexual sex is rape, but that the experience of sexual intercourse varies according to one’s respective biological reality.

To read Andrea Dworkin in 2019 is to experience whiplash as you vacillate between twin poles of “…duh” and “WHAT?!?” Half of her once-inflammatory points have become commonplace truisms; the other half are more out-of-bounds now than when she proposed them. On issues like rape and domestic violence, her prose is vivid as ever, but her insights as a thinker can be obscured by their success. “All women live in constant jeopardy, in a virtual state of siege” was a mind-blowing claim in 1975; now it’s a Teen Vogue tweet.

She writes without concern for her critics, otherwise known as “every asshole who thinks that what will heal this violent world is more respect for dead white men.” She notes that “Women cling to irrational hatreds, focused particularly on the unfamiliar, so that they will not murder their fathers, husbands, sons, brothers, lovers, the men with whom they are intimate.... Fear of a greater evil and a need to be protected from it intensify the loyalty of women to men who are, even when dangerous, at least known quantities.” She declares (re: Leo Tolstoy, Kōbō Abe, James Baldwin, Tennessee Williams, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and Gustave Flaubert), “I love the literature these men created but I will not live my life as if they are real and I am not.” And she proclaims, “Given the structure of power politics and capital in Amerika, it is ridiculous to expect the federal government to act in the interests of the people.” Any of these sentences (barring the conscientious misspelling of America) and many others would be right at home in our current discourse. Reading them can make you feel like Dworkin, had she lived until today, would be doing some form of victory lap.

But the sections from On Pornography and Intercourse are a reminder of all she didn’t win. When I encounter women discussing porn these days, it’s as a helpful marital aide or fun diversion. The kind of mainstream pop feminists who would hesitate to recommend a mascara that wasn’t “cruelty-free” have no problem sharing porn faves. Dworkin’s vision of an anti-porn left lost profoundly to her pro-porn comrades, but nowadays there’s hardly even an anti-porn right. Instead there’s a pro-porn White House and the rest of us seem unable or unwilling to judge. “Pornography is the holy corpus of men who would rather die than change,” Dworkin writes. Men who would rather die than change seem to be running the world, while some of the rest of us try to see if we can imagine a sexual ethics more noble and sweeping than “well, she didn’t say no at the time” and/or “we paid cash.” 

The difficulty of articulating such a noble and sweeping sexual ethics, however, can be seen in the selections from Intercourse, which are by turns reasonable and bizarre. Dworkin’s basic point was not, as her critics had it, that all heterosexual sex is rape, but that the experience of sexual intercourse varies according to one’s respective biological reality. This revelation is sane enough and mundane enough that I once heard sex columnist Dan Savage express a variation of it on a parenting podcast. (“If every time you said ‘yes’ to sex, you got f****d, you would say yes less often.”)

But Dworkin’s insistence on the primacy of intercourse as the defining feature of female life is where she loses me. Again and again, she describes the mechanism of heterosexual sex as the crucial fact that shapes us, as women, forever: “Intercourse remains a means or the means of physiologically making a woman inferior, communicating to her cell by cell her own inferior status, impressing it on her, burning it into her by shoving it into her, over and over.”

I get what she means, but that’s not the story I would tell about my own body and how it shaped my politics.

Nothing I have experienced in the realm of sex, personally, has radicalized me half as much as getting pregnant, bearing children, and being a mother. Dworkin sees women as being, in essence, the space which is entered and violated. But we are also, in birth, the space which is exited, and let me tell you, that’s no picnic either, particularly in “Amerika.” Trying to find health insurance while pregnant and being told that I had a disqualifying “pre-existing condition” communicated to me my inferior status far more powerfully than intercourse ever did. The primacy of Dworkin’s lived reality shapes her world and the fact that she chose not to have children shapes it, too. For her, womanhood begins—but also ends—in the heterosexual sex act itself, not any of its varied consequences.

Overall Dworkin’s attitudes toward motherhood in the book are, to be generous, mixed. She nods briefly to the importance of universal preschool, and she describes in passing the strong stay-at-home moms of her youth—but her hatred of her own mother and lionizing of her father permeate the latter half of the collection. She has strong positive memories of her father watching television news on Sunday mornings, debating the issues of the day, forming her intellect and moral character. Whether her mother was in bed resting her weak heart or doing the breakfast dishes while this was going on is left to the reader’s imagination.

 

Dworkin’s last essay is the most painful to read. It includes a description of her last sexual assault, the one that most people, including her friends, had a hard time believing.

Dworkin died in 2005, at the age of fifty-eight from an inflamed heart. Controversial as always, she had spent the ’90s as a fierce critic of Bill Clinton for his personal and political failings with women, a far-out stance at the time but one that seems far more defensible today than, say, Gloria Steinem’s. Her life was one of provoking the many and inspiring the few, and maybe those lives are never easy or comfortable.

Dworkin’s first selection in the book, from Woman Hating (1974), is her most hopeful and ambitious. She is young, she is bold, she’s been hurt, but she knows what it will take to build an equal world. “One cannot be free, never, not ever, in an unfree world, and in the course of redefining family, church, power relations, all the institutions which inhabit and order our lives, there is no way to hold onto privilege and comfort,” she writes.

Dworkin’s last essay is the most painful to read. Titled My Suicide, it includes a description of her last sexual assault, the one that most people, including her friends, had a hard time believing. But it’s also an apology of sorts, an admission that she is selfish. That she is a “trembling piece of shit.” Dworkin wants women sexually, she has a “flat-out appetite now,” but feels unable to touch them due to her own psychological limitations. “Touching is even harder than talking and I’m buried alive.”

She feels like she let down young women. That the revolution she dreamed of is out of reach, partially at least, through her own failure. That she is “dull and tired and sick of life.” She asks the God she sometimes believes in to forgive her for wanting to die. The idea that Dworkin’s work could reach a new generation of feminists seems unimaginable, most of all to her.

 

Just as my journey to militant feminism was prompted by an offhand comment by a slightly older boy, my brush with Riot Grrrl was prompted by an offhand comment by a slightly older girl. I can’t remember her name anymore, just the ease with which she asked, “Do you know L7?”

Through our brief acquaintance, I learned about zines and girl bands and the kind of feminism where you show your shaven legs through ripped tights. Two of the most iconic bands of this era were Hole and Bikini Kill, and they provided to me what I don’t think anyone provided to Andrea Dworkin—a way to be angry and young and loud and female without having to be a French male poet. Courtney Love, the lead singer of Hole, famously played pornographer Larry Flynt’s wife in the hagiographic film made about him. Kathleen Hanna from Bikini Kill started another band called Le Tigre with Johanna Fateman, one of the editors of Last Days at Hot Slit.

I hadn’t heard of Dworkin in middle school, but even after I heard of her, I didn’t read her until this collection showed up on my doorstep. All the same, I was living in a world that she described and helped create. A world that’s changing, in some ways. A world where a woman still can’t write about her ideas without writing about her body.

Last Days at Hot Slit
The Radical Feminism
of Andrea Dworkin

Edited by Johanna Fateman
and Amy Scholder
MIT Press, $17.95, 408 pp.

Published in the May 3, 2019 issue: 

Dorothy Fortenberry is a playwright and screenwriter. She is currently in her third season as a writer and producer on Hulu’s award-winning adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale. Her play Species Native to California recently received its world premiere at Iama Theatre in LA. Other plays include Partners, Mommune, and Good Egg. Her essays have been featured in publications including Real Simple, Pacific Standard, and the Los Angeles Review of Books.

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