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Phoenix Rises  by Susan G. Cole
Phoenix Rises

What Radical Feminist Andrea Dworkin Can Teach Us Today

In the U.S. and in Canada, the 1980s pornography debate created a huge chasm in the women’s movement.

You were either in Andrea Dworkin’s radical feminist camp and believed that violence against women was inextricably linked to pornography, or you sided with the “pro-sex” feminists who saw an anti-pornography campaign that abandoned sex workers and hinged on the idea that all women were victims. There appeared to be no in-between.

A new book on Dworkin’s ideas, life and work called Last Days at Hot Slit: The Radical Feminism of Andrea Dworkin (Semiotext(e)/The MIT Press) has given feminists of all stripes an opportunity to revisit the philosophies of one of the 20th century’s most dynamic and polarizing feminists.

Andrea Dworkin, the fiery radical feminist who was loved and loathed inside feminist circles during the 1980s and beyond, has risen from the ashes, re-igniting debates about her philosophies on violence against women.

In the few years following Dworkin’s death from a heart condition in 2005, it seemed inconceivable that the anti-pornography crusader and writer who became a lightning rod of the so-called feminist “sex wars” could ever be forgotten. She was larger than life, unapologetically fierce and the author of several feminist books, including the influential Woman Hating (1974), Pornography: Men Possessing Women (1981), Right-Wing Women: The Politics of Domesticated Females (1984) and Intercourse (1987).

As a long-time anti-pornography activist and writer who collaborated with Dworkin and others on pornography legal reforms, I emerged from the sex wars era believing that, despite Dworkin’s intellectual brilliance, she (and we) had lost the battle to make clear connections between pornography, masculinity, sexuality and violence against women.

What makes Last Days at Hot Slit so memorable is that it revives Dworkin’s exhilarating, rage-filled, brilliantly argued ideas by offering selections from all of her books

Dworkin remained, for the most part, forgotten or misunderstood. This was evidenced by the fact that Dworkin is still routinely labeled, even by some feminists, as “anti-sex” and “anti-male.” Then recently, two things happened to change Dworkin’s legacy. First, the #MeToo movement created a receptive audience for Dworkin’s cogent analysis of woman abuse, including her painfully explicit writing about being physically assaulted by her first husband and later, about being raped.

The second was that in March 2019, Johanna Fateman and Amy Scholder released a collection of Dworkin’s work, Last Days at Hot Slit: The Radical Feminism of Andrea Dworkin. The book pulls together work from all genres of Dworkin’s bibliography, including her fiction, literary criticism and her groundbreaking analysis of violence against women.

Fateman, a former member of the post-punk band Le Tigre and now an art critic for The New York Times, first read Dworkin in her early 20s. In the 90s, she was asked to contribute to a collection called Icon, a series of essays by artists writing about the people who inspired them. Fateman chose Dworkin, which, in turn inspired Scholder to suggest that they co-edit highlights from Dworkin’s writings.

“People raised their eyebrows when I told them about it,” Fateman recalled during our interview. “It’s not like it was so long ago that these were the issues that divided feminists. Most people are still alive and still have opinions.”

In fact, a quick look at the Twitter feed in the wake of the book’s release this spring confirms that Dworkin’s work still has vituperative opponents. For a 15-year period between 1975 and 1990, during which she published books on pornography as well as Intercourse, her radical assessment of sexuality, Dworkin was a source of inspiration as well as outrage. To her supporters, she was open, honest, steadfastly refusing to sugarcoat her views on violence against women. She maintained woman abuse was unremitting, widespread—an epidemic, she called it. Dworkin warned that ending gendered violence and sexual exploitation demanded a re-examination of how sex unfolds in patriarchal cultures. Sex was socially constructed, she insisted, in a way that embedded female subordination inside heterosexuality itself.

Dworkin was born in Camden, New Jersey in 1946 to Jewish parents. Her father was a teacher and socialist who inspired his daughter, who, in the sixth grade was punished for refusing to sing the Christmas song “Silent Night.” As a Bennington College student in 1965, Dworkin was arrested at a protest against the Vietnam War and went public about being mistreated during an “internal examination” while in detention.

In her influential book Pornography: Men Possessing Women Dworkin described how women were commonly abused in the making of sexually explicit materials. She believed that pornography was society’s primary sexeducator and that it fostered generations of men who considered it their right to control and abuse women. It was Dworkin who inspired Robin Morgan’s famous phrase, “Pornography is the theory, rape is the practice.”

To her supporters, she was open, honest, steadfastly
refusing to sugarcoat her views on violence
against women.

Dworkin’s radical ideas fomented an array of spurious claims from critics ready to assail feminists who went too far, and Dworkin was eventually reduced to a feminist caricature. She was too angry. She was a man-hating anti-sex harridan who identified as a lesbian. And she wore bulky overalls.

She also faced antagonism from inside the feminist movement, notably when she teamed up with American legal scholar Catharine MacKinnon to create a way to sue pornographers.

The Minneapolis Ordinance, as it came to be known, was an attempt to reframe pornography as a violation of women’s civil rights; it permitted those harmed by pornography to seek damages through civil suits. Several U.S. jurisdictions passed or attempted to pass similar ordinances, but they were either rescinded or eventually struck down as violations of free speech.

Some critics claimed Dworkin believed all women were victims and all men were doomed to be rapists. Those who believed pornography to be an issue of free speech were also appalled by Dworkin’s ideas. In a political culture that celebrated individualism, many considered sexuality to be the last bastion of individual expression and argued that, in a culture that repressed the unfettered expression of female sexuality, the female orgasm itself was a political statement—no matter how it was triggered.

“I think Dworkin was badly misinterpreted as someone who thought that male sexuality was irredeemable, that men were irredeemable, and that there was no way to have sex that was not coercive and was not rape,” Fateman says. “People thought she thought that, and she didn’t.”

There were also political radicals who felt that Dworkin’s views represented an all-out assault on free expression. Dworkin and her supporters were accused of siding with right-wing opponents of erotica as well as pornography—at a time when the political right was ascending in frightening ways. Many in the gay and lesbian community worried that, as “sex radicals,” gay pornography would be the first to be targeted in a clampdown on pornography depicting violence. (And as the Little Sisters Book and Art Emporium vs. Canada case would prove, they were right to worry.)

It was Dworkin’s belief that the female orgasm was not
a radical act if sexual pleasure was constructed
by the values of pornography.

Hot Slit reminds us of what Dworkin actually believed, not what her opponents claimed she did. Dworkin was against state censorship, for example, which was why she and MacKinnon developed an ordinance under which pornographers who violated women’s rights could be sued. In Dworkin’s exceptional book, Right Wing Women, excerpted in Hot Slit, Dworkin analyzed the reasons that right-wing politics appealed to many women. She came to her conclusions by talking to rightist women, attending their conventions and reading voraciously from their works. Dworkin pursued the idea that right-wing women believed that traditional roles would keep women safe. This applied even to the most ambitious and assertive of them. Dworkin’s analysis of outspoken anti-feminist crusader Anita Bryant is heartbreaking; it was her abusive husband/manager Bob Green who forced the former singer to promote his anti-gay campaign. Whether analyzing the right’s anti-Semitism, racism or classicism, Dworkin remained steadfastly empathetic.

On the subject of female sexual empowerment, it was Dworkin’s belief that the female orgasm was not a radical act if sexual pleasure was constructed by the values of pornography. When it came to internalizing violence against women, there was no escaping it, she argued, even in the privacy of our bedrooms. While Fateman remains a fan, she doesn’t embrace all of her subject’s ideas.

Of Dworkin’s criticism of sexual practices like BDSM, Fateman believes there is no point in dismissing whole areas of sexuality that people want to explore. And she’s careful to remind feminists today that the pornography industry of Dworkin’s era didn’t include the variety of woman-powered sex materials available today.

Through it all, Dworkin never dismissed men as the enemy. In 1983, she gave an electrifying speech (the power of her oratory was second to none) at a conference of the National Organization for Changing Men that drew 500 men. After she catalogued the frequency of sexual assault and the breadth of its impact on all races, ages and classes, she said to the audience, “Have you ever wondered why we are not just in armed combat against you? It is because we still believe in your humanity.”

What makes Last Days at Hot Slit so memorable is that it revives Dworkin’s exhilarating, rage-filled, brilliantly argued ideas by offering selections from all of her books. It is also the product of two women from a generation that doesn’t carry the sex wars baggage. Johanna Fateman’s gobsmacking introduction offers a clear-eyed assessment by someone who wasn’t on one side or the other. She has an appreciation for the context in which Dworkin lived and worked and views Dworkin as a writer of enormous power, one who invented her own fictional style and fought her editors for the right to pursue it.

This steady approach has made the book a hot item. It has helped, Fateman adds, that there is a new contingent of activists dissatisfied with the slow softening and commercialization of feminist ideas.

There is a new contingent of activists
dissatisfied with the slow softening and
commercialization of feminist ideas

“People are responding to her voice—the uncompromising tone of her writing,” Fateman explains. “They think she’s a little bit of a corrective to where things are in the U.S., where feminism feels very watered down and commodified.

She brings us back to first principles and readers find it refreshing.”

Fateman believes feminists are ready to read Dworkin’s fiction, as well as her non-fiction, with a new set of eyes, including Fire and Ice, an excruciatingly explicit novel about a woman who is repeatedly victimized. The editor admires the extent to which Dworkin emerged in her 20s as a feminist fully formed.

“In Woman Hating [which, incidentally, Dworkin originally wanted to title Last Days at Hot Slit], she showed she was radical even before she discovered feminism,” Fateman says. “All at once it clicked for her. There was no gradual radicalization. She starts out that way and then gets more developed and detailed. She was not afraid.

“People need that. They need someone to go first. They need someone who is courageous enough to break the silence so that other people can speak. And she was one of those people,” Fateman says.

You don’t have to agree with Andrea Dworkin to appreciate her importance as an intellectual powerhouse. Radical ideas help us think. They sharpen our instincts. They are disrupters in all the best ways, challenging our tendency to want easy answers to profoundly disturbing life circumstances.

I once asked Dworkin how she defined freedom. “The blank page,” she said with a smile.

Her response demonstrated her passion for expression and was evidence of her positive outlook. For all her rage, and her laser-focus on the trauma of sexual violence, she believed change was possible.

“There’s this flame of hope in her that is unbelievable,” Fateman says. “I keep thinking, ‘How

can you, of all people, have that hope?’ It kind of saves her. But you have to read her to see that.” 

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