Well, good news for you, Andrea: that is kind of exactly what happened to me this past weekend, when I tried to start a “conversation” (ha ha, yeah, um) about my feelings of alienation from radical feminism as such and also from the rhetorical and activist tactics of many radical feminists. With some radical feminists! Who – in a surprise twist that I could never possibly have predicted – kind of took exception to what I said! As they say, “you’re nobody until you’ve engaged in some kind of drawn-out fight about schisms within the feminist movement dating back at least to the early ’80s and which continue to be incredibly painful and divisive.” Oh, no, wait: what they say is, “don’t do that shit, ever.“
Alas! I did it anyway! It was terrible! And here, in the aftermath, what I realize is this: I really, REALLY need to answer all of these e-mails. Oh, but wait! What I also realize is this: I’ve been taking it up with the wrong people. I should have been taking it up with you.
This is hard to do, because people have been so shitty to you! (Also: YOU’RE DEAD? Yes, I know, but this is a rhetorical conceit: roll with it.) I’m not just talking about the anti-feminists and misogynists who slam you and paint you as Big Bad Feminazi #1; I’m not just talking about the many folks who abused you in various ways; I’m talking about us, self-described feminists, writers, folks who should know better. Like, when a woman publishes an account of being raped while drugged, and that account is hazy, messy, confused and seems to betray an extremely unhealthy mental state on the part of the writer (like, say, the account of a woman who’d been recently raped might), is it ever even remotely okay to be like, “well, perhaps she is just making it up for political or career reasons? Or BROUGHT IT UPON HERSELF, due to being such a bitch all the time?” I would argue that it is not! Yet that’s what we did to you, when you published that article in the New Statesman.
Anyway, Andrea: I am not one of those people. That whole spectacle made me sick. I can even tell you that you were the very first feminist whose work I ever read! It blew me away, and made me the tireless yammerer-on about gender and sex that I am today. I can respect much of what you were about: analyzing literary and pop-culture narratives from a feminist perspective, examining how sex (or, rather, heterosexual sex, in your work) is warped by misogyny and a culture of male domination, and refusing to back down from the fact that the rape and abuse of women, by men, happens, and happens often, and says something about the status of women in society, and needs to stop. All of that stuff matters to me. But, I have to tell you: you are just about the worst role model for a young feminist that I can imagine.
Let’s talk about that! Let’s, specifically, talk about sex! Or, in your preferred parlance, “fucking!” (Andrea, one of the many reasons I sneakily love you sometimes is that you dropped more f-bombs per page than any other Serious Theorist I know.) The “all heterosexual sex is rape” thing is a myth; you never said that. What you did seem to be arguing, and what many of your followers and colleagues have seemed to argue, is that in patriarchy, women are defined as existing for the use of men in sex, and that no woman can really, freely choose to have sex with a man, due to the number of societal pressures and power structures that make “having sex with men” the default and the other options untenable, stigmatized, and dangerous. The problem is that, as a young feminist, the “all sex is rape” thing and the other, less t-shirt-worthy theory seemed to be recommending the very same course of action, which was: don’t have sex with dudes.
That’s not going to work for me, Andrea! I have some vague idea as to how you worked it out in your own life: I know you identified as a lesbian, and your life partner was a man who identified as gay, and then later it came out that you were actually married to him, but your official position was that in your own life you did not have “intercourse.” I don’t hold it against any woman if she decides never to have sex again. That’s not my business. What I know is that I can’t be willfully celibate, and that I consider reclaiming and enjoying my sexuality both a vital way to heal from my rape (wherein my sexuality was used to degrade and subjugate me) and from the Madonna/whore split that keeps women from being whole people. I also know that I enjoy having sex with men, and that therefore what I need to work out is a way to do that while resisting old gender roles and subjugation to a male partner. You didn’t help me there, Andrea. You never gave me a way to resist. You told me all the bad stuff that might happen to me, but not how to create anything good.
Then, there was the whole porn thing. Yep: porn is pretty sexist, all right. At least, most of the mainstream heterosexual porn that I’ve seen is sexist. I, like you, oppose that sexism, as well as human trafficking and the abuse, rape, and coercion of women who perform in porn. But, curious fact: did you know that most films and narratives produced within a sexist society are sexist? And have an adverse affect on society by normalizing sexism, just like porn does? Also, that abuse, rape, and coercion of women happen even outside of the context of porn? Actually, I’m almost 100% certain that you do know about that last thing!
Yet, with you, it was nothing but porn, porn, porn, all the damn time. You were like Captain Ahab of the USS Jesus Christ, I Guess Captain Ahab Really Hates Porn. Porn caused violence, porn caused rape, seeing porn in and of itself was a form of abuse (like, if you were “forced” to see it by walking into a bodega where it was on sale or something) and you went after it with these laws that (a) gave governments increased power to persecute and marginalize the queer community, because obviously they were affected first and disproportionately by any obscenity laws or laws policing sexual expression, and (b) gave women the right to sue for damages “caused by porn,” thus making it seem as if porn itself had abused or assaulted them, instead of working to place the blame – and increased, more severe convictions – on their actual rapists. You took the blame off abusers, and put the blame on porn. And aided in the institutional oppression of queer folks in the process. Um, whoops?
Oh, and also? In your speeches about porn, such as “Pornography: The New Terrorism” (Jesus CHRIST) you described images from BDSM pornography as if they were representative of all pornography, when you had reason to know (because people were yelling at you about it) that this was not what all pornography was like, and was also a specific fetish which needed to be understood within its own context. Which was intellectually dishonest, and gave people a really easy way to discredit your arguments. Whoops, again!
Oh, and THEN, also! The BDSM folks got mad at you about it, and the ladies who were already kind of frustrated by the “don’t fuck dudes” stuff got mad at you about it, and feminism basically CAUGHT FIRE AND EXPLODED and you did NO work to understand what those people were saying, and in fact attacked some of them really, really harshly! WHOOPS!
Oh, and also? Remember all those women of color and working-class women who protested both sides, and were like, “making porn the central issue of the feminist movement takes emphasis away from the very real issues that affect our lives?” Ha ha, yeah, they had a solid point there! On my own behalf, if not yours, I would like to say: whoops.
But seriously, Andrea: let’s talk about sex, some more. Let’s talk, specifically, about how you minimized and glossed over women’s sexual agency and pleasure, and gave fuel to cultural conservatives by developing a rhetoric wherein women were giant babies who couldn’t make their own sexual choices and were, in fact, threatened by sex itself: an image of women as passive, helpless victims terrorized by men’s bestial desires that dates right on back to the Cult of True Womanhood, and gave preachers and right-wing pundits the opportunity to paint basically any sexual expression, regardless of content or intent, as “demeaning to women.” Even if women were actively and enthusiastically taking part in the “demeaning.” You painted us all as victims, focused almost solely on the most extreme forms of misogynist abuse (which, as basically anyone who knows me is aware, I abhor), used extreme, hyperbolic rhetoric irresponsibly, and didn’t really address more subtle forms of sexism in society or – as previously referenced – give us workable, practical ways to resist. Don’t believe me? Check this business out:
Bill Clinton’s fixation on oral sex — non-reciprocal oral sex — consistently puts women in states of submission to him. It’s the most fetishistic, heartless, cold sexual exchange that one could imagine.
Um, really? A blow job? The MOST HEARTLESS COLD FETISHISTIC AWFUL TERRIBLE NO-GOOD VERY BAD ACT YOU CAN IMAGINE? Seriously, lady: I can imagine worse. And I probably haven’t seen as much porn as you have.
Of course, this is the essay that leads up to “I think Hillary should shoot Bill and then President Gore should pardon her,” so this is an odd line with which to take offense. For the record, I do think Clinton was, pretty much, a misogynist! Yet it’s precisely this construction that makes me so mad sometimes: refusing to acknowledge that maybe, sometimes, you give a dude head because you like him, or because you like doing that, and instead portraying a consensual BJ as an act of unspeakable violation.
And, of course, in that very essay, you get around to calling Hillary “pathetic” and not a real feminist any more because she hasn’t denounced or left her husband, AS IF THAT WERE ANY OF YOUR BUSINESS, and as if that didn’t give more fuel to the by-then-already-popular pastime of openly misogynist or concern-trollish Hillary-bashing. Andrea Dworkin: I THINK YOU ARE KIND OF A CONCERN TROLL, is what I think. In your version of feminism, what concerns us is passing judgment on the choices of other women, while we assume that we know what is going through their heads at all times, which is, of course, “I am oh so very victimized by men” or “oh, how I love to assist men in victimizing women.”
And it’s that, really, that led me away from radical feminism, and specifically away from your work. It’s the lavish, intricately detailed, lovingly rendered descriptions of hate-sex, rape, and bodily harm to women. It’s the endless parade of martyrs in your work. It’s the “Andrea Dworkin suffers for your sins” shit you pulled so often. It’s saying stuff like, “I’m a radical feminist, not the fun kind.” (Ha ha, yeah, fun sucks! Joy couldn’t possibly be a way to resist patriarchal oppression!) It’s naming books stuff like Woman Hating and Heartbreak and Our Blood, the fetishization of suffering as feminist purity, and the refusal to really address the fact that sexism can be subtle, subliminal, non-violent, and just as if not more damaging and difficult to analyze and resist due to that fact. Here is another quote of yours I came across:
“He is the conjurer who takes the smoking ash of real death and turns it into stories, poems, pictures, which celebrate degradation as life’s central truth. He is the illusionist who paints mutilated bodies in chains on the interior canvas of the imagination so that, asleep or awake, we can only hallucinate indignity and outrage. He is the manipulator of psychological reality.”
The thing is, Andrea, you were talking about The Oppressor. I read this, and the only person I think of is Y-O-U. Asleep or awake, we can only hallucinate indignity and outrage, if we buy into your theory of gender relations. We accept, if we accept your work, degradation as life’s central truth.
Oh! My goodness! It appears that this – in what is a completely surprising occurence with no precedent in either the history of feminism or in my own personal life – has become a heated conversation! To the extent that I’ve made it so, I take responsibility for that. Here are a few statements in regard to this that I’d like folks to hear, up front, before entering the war zone:
1. Everyone who reads this blog is entitled to call me out for statements or theoretical points that are based on privilege. Everyone who reads this blog is entitled to disagree with me. I take critiques of my privilege or theory seriously. I am furthermore aware that this is a contentious and painful debate, and that there are probably several areas in the post that deserve serious critique. I would appreciate it, and do appreciate those who have written careful critiques thus far.
2. For reasons of accountability and objectivity, I am not editing the post itself (except to add this) and publishing every comment in this thread except for random threatening Internet-stalker stuff, and doing my best to respond to them. [EDIT: Ha ha, not any more! Because the thread got too long to keep up with and respond to, and also literally almost as soon as this note went up folks started doing more and more of the following:]
3. Insofar as possible, please refrain from the following: slut-shaming (and this can take the form of framing “sex with men” as a choice that necessarily precludes “ending violence against women”), name-calling, condescending to or passing judgment on the personal choices of other women, and revoking other women’s Feminist Membership Cards or claiming access to the One True Feminism. This, in case you are curious, can take the form – and often does! – of acting as if a fellow feminist’s agreement, disagreement, or decision to criticize or support of the theory of one Andrea Dworkin invalidates both her commitment to the movement and everything else she has ever done. [EDIT: Jesus.]
4. Thanks for engaging.