The Radical Style of Andrea Dworkin
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.”
Out of the fray emerged the idea that she believed all sex was rape, which, along with her frizzy hair, dumpy overalls, and uncompromising positions on sex work and sadomasochism, came to epitomize radical feminist hostility throughout the nineteen-eighties and nineties. Dworkin was widely regarded as sexless and “anti-sex,” feminism’s image problem incarnate, hated by various denominations of liberals and—except when she was campaigning against pornography—conservatives alike. Though she tempered her contempt for establishment stupidity with a naughtily blunt sense of humor and a deep-down belief that people could examine their ethics and change, her reputation always preceded her work, and she knew it. Foregrounding her shrewdness as a reader—or her pathos as a human being—didn’t much help. While she was working on “Intercourse,” one colleague told her to include a “prechewed” introduction “to explain what the book said,” which she did, sardonically. Others advised her to use a pseudonym.
A new anthology of Dworkin’s writing, “Last Days at Hot Slit” (Semiotext(e)), edited by Johanna Fateman and Amy Scholder, suggests that the drastic, fringe ideas she promoted, despite the personal and professional consequences, might seem less threatening today. It’s also an opportunity to reassess her style. The collection brings together writing from Dworkin’s major books, including extracts from her two novels, “Ice & Fire” (1986) and “Mercy” (1990), as well as one from “My Suicide,” a twenty-four-thousand-word unpublished autobiographical essay from 1999, which Dworkin’s longtime partner, John Stoltenberg, a gay man and an activist, found on her computer after she died. Dworkin was a lucid, scarily persuasive writer, and much of this material reflects her argument, in “Pornography: Men Possessing Women,” that “Everything in life is a part of it. Nothing is off in its own corner, isolated from the rest.” The anthology is as much an account of Dworkin’s life as it is a presentation of her work; her project was to show how misogyny and violence against women were, like women themselves, “real,” a favorite word, and from an early age she offered up her own experiences as evidence. When she was a freshman at Bennington College, she was arrested at a protest against the Vietnam War and taken to jail, where she was subjected to a brutal pelvic exam that left her bleeding and traumatized; at the urging of Grace Paley, a fellow-protester whom Dworkin looked up in the phone book afterward, she reported her story to the newspapers, prompting a grand-jury hearing. The jail was eventually shut down.
Between this galvanizing incident—which shamed her parents back in New Jersey—and the publication of “Woman Hating,” nearly ten years later, Dworkin worked as a prostitute, moved to Amsterdam to write about the anarchist movement Provo, and married an activist, who violently abused her. She left the marriage, crediting her escape to a feminist, and vowed to “become a real writer and . . . use everything I knew to help women.” The process of writing “Woman Hating” showed her just how much she knew; experiences like hers, with “male dominance in sex or rape in marriage,” weren’t yet “part of feminism” in the early nineteen-seventies. Perhaps anticipating the mocking, vitriolic dismissal she would encounter throughout her life, Dworkin sets out her intentions in the very first sentence, with her trademark clarity and purpose: “This book is an action, a political action where revolution is the goal.” What’s more, it certainly was not “academic horseshit.”
The latter claim is correct; the former, for those appraising Dworkin, may have been a little too convincing. What’s so exciting to watch, reading “Last Days,” is not her political trajectory but the way her style crystallized around her beliefs. Dworkin saw being a writer as “a sacred trust,” which many of her peers had violated for money, and inextricable from that dedication was her love of texts and her faith in their power. Even as she acknowledged that she worked “with a broken tool, a language which is sexist and discriminatory to its core,” she aimed 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.” Her sentences barrel forward, strong-arming the reader with unlikely pauses or abrupt images; they force “you to breathe where I do, instead of letting you discover your own natural breath.”
You could call this a masculine way of writing, if you believe in that kind of distinction. It’s almost like revenge, a contradiction of her rejection of mere “equality”: “there is no freedom or justice in exchanging the female role for the male role.” In her preface to the second edition of “Intercourse,” Dworkin describes the book’s style in terms of domination, using the same phrases that she applies to intercourse itself. Of the male authors she analyzes, she writes, “I use them; I cut and slice into them in order to exhibit them.” The exhibition is affecting. Though the book is organized by broad themes—“Repulsion,” “Stigma,” “Possession”—Dworkin is most at home in the specific, when she’s conducting extensive close readings in the mode of an old-school literary critic. For those who associate her with a pungent misandry, it can be a surprise to find that her scorn, insofar as it exists, is grounded in considered surveys of Bram Stoker, Kōbō Abe, James Baldwin, Tennessee Williams, and Isaac Bashevis Singer, among others. In a chapter on virginity, she turns to D. H. Lawrence, for whom “virginity was ‘her perfect tenderness in the body.’ ” Then, in a little more than a page—which includes three block quotes—she compares his attitude, unfavorably, with that of Sophie Tolstoy, before bringing in a dash of Calvino to prove that, “in the male frame, virginity is a state of passive waiting or vulnerability . . . she counts when the man, through sex, brings her to life.” It is Lawrence’s ideal “phallic reality” that leads her to one of the book’s central questions: “To what extent does intercourse depend on the inferiority of women?”
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.”
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.”
The baroque logic of Dworkin’s arguments is usually balanced by the straightforward conviction that she gave them on the page. For Dworkin, “the favorite conceit of male culture” was to replicate “in its values and methodology the sexual reductionism of the male. . . . Everything is split apart: intellect from feeling and/or imagination; act from consequence; symbol from reality; mind from body.” Dworkin’s style worked against this; her best writing employs a precisely layered mode of argumentation in which no part can be separated from the rest. Her prose has a swift, natural fluidity that reveals a holistic view of humanity; on a single page she brings together close readings of novels, historiography, etymology, political crusading, and philosophical meditations that themselves would be at home in a (great) novel. In “Last Days at Hot Slit,” the selection from “Intercourse” includes a beautiful delineation of free will that builds to an optimistic demand that men more considerately exercise theirs:
There has always been a peculiar irrationality to all the biological arguments that supposedly predetermine the inferior social status of women. Bulls mount cows and baboons do whatever; but human females do not have estrus or go into heat. . . . Only humans face the often complicated reality of having potential and having to make choices based on having potential. . . . We have possibilities, and we make up meanings as we go along. The meanings we create or learn do not exist only in our heads, in ineffable ideas. Our meanings also exist in our bodies—what we are, what we do, what we physically feel, what we physically know; and there is no personal psychology that is separate from what the body has learned about life. Yet when we look at the human condition, including the condition of women, we act as if we are driven by biology or some metaphysically absolute dogma. We refuse to recognize our possibilities because we refuse to honor the potential humans have, including human women, to make choices. Men too make choices. When will they choose not to despise us?
Baboons do whatever! 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.
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.
After Dworkin’s death, Gloria Steinem, a longtime friend, likened her to “an Old Testament prophet.” The comparison still rings true, and not only because, as Steinem had it, Dworkin “was always warning about what was about to happen.” Dworkin’s positions have also formed a set of principles that feminists approach as a general guide but rarely find appropriate to adopt as hard-core devotees. 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. When she writes, in “My Life as a Writer,” of having “to give up Baudelaire for Clausewitz,” she’s referring to a choice she made in “Intercourse,” but there she doesn’t abandon the canon; she merely sacrifices an uncritical reverence for it. This is not much of a loss at all. “The very fact that I usurp their place—make them my characters—lessens the unexamined authority that goes not with their art but with their gender,” she wrote, of the male authors she studied. “I love the literature these men created; but I will not live my life as if they are real and I am not.” ♦