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 It also features previously unpublished material like the vicious and hilarious “Goodbye to All This,” a burn book of a breakup letter to her sex-positive fellow travelers.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.