Writing about Andrea Dworkin, the radical feminist author and activist who died on April 9, is no easy task. Decorum requires accentuating the positive when speaking of the recently deceased; here, there is little positive to accentuate, except for a badly misused talent and a badly misdirected passion.
Still, with Dworkin's admirers hailing her as a titan of modern feminism, obituaries describing her as a controversial but noble crusader against pornography and violence, and even some of her feminist critics paying homage to her alleged achievements, it's important to set the record straight.
To put it plainly: Dworkin was a preacher of hate. Her books are full of such declarations as, "Under patriarchy, every woman's son is her potential betrayer and also the inevitable rapist or exploiter of another woman." ("Patriarchy," of course, covers contemporary Western societies.) "Male sexuality, drunk on its intrinsic contempt for all life, but especially for women's lives, can run wild." "Hatred of women is a source of sexual pleasure for men in its own right."
In Dworkin's world view, the Marquis de Sade and Jack the Ripper seem to be representative of all men (though she made an exemption for some men in her own life). Meanwhile, women who defend their right to enjoy heterosexual sex are branded "collaborators, more base than other collaborators have ever been: experiencing pleasure in their own inferiority."
Dworkin's defenders insist that she has been unfairly maligned as equating all heterosexual sex with rape when she merely assailed male sexual dominance. Yet in her 1987 book, Intercourse, Dworkin argued that penetration itself is a form of "occupation" and "violation of female boundaries," however enthusiastically enjoyed by "the occupied person." She wrote that "intercourse remains a means or the means of physiologically making a woman inferior" and is "the pure, sterile, formal expression of men's contempt for women." "All sex is rape" is fairly accurate shorthand for these ravings.
While allowing that intercourse could survive under gender equality, Dworkin was skeptical ("intercourse itself may be immune to reform"). In the 1976 book Our Blood, she proclaimed, in language too blunt to be reproduced here, that the feminist transformation of sexuality requires male impotency—though how she would achieve this goal remains unclear.
Dworkin's admirers laud, and wildly exaggerate, her role in the battle against domestic violence and rape; if she deserves "credit" for anything, it's helping infect feminist activism on these important issues with anti-male bigotry and paranoia. Her biggest "contribution" to the women's movement was to redirect a lot of its energy into a futile, divisive crusade against pornography.
While Dworkin spoke passionately on behalf of women who are battered and raped, her advocacy was undercut by her bizarre claims—for instance, that the high rate of Caesarean sections in the United States is driven by the sexual sadism of doctors. Her melodramatic assertion that the everyday life of women in our culture is an "atrocity" could only trivialize real atrocities. Her depiction of all women as perpetual victims–"Being female in this world is having been robbed of the potential for human choice by men who love to hate us"—is profoundly demeaning.
On some level, Dworkin deserved compassion as a troubled woman with a history of sexual and physical abuse. Unfortunately, she took her battle with her private demons into the public square, and ended up doing far more damage to feminism than any right-wing cabal. (Ironically, some right-wingers eagerly embraced not only Dworkin's antiporn zeal but her argument that sexual liberation has hurt women.) Men, too, have been casualties of a climate in which a Vassar College official could tell Time magazine that a false rape charge might be a beneficial consciousness-raising experience for male students.
Critics of radical feminism have been often accused of exaggerating the importance of a handful of male-haters in the movement. Yet Dworkin was never relegated to the lunatic fringe where she belonged: Her texts have been widely assigned in women's studies courses, and prominent feminists from activist Gloria Steinem to philosopher Martha Nussbaum have offered their praise, treating her hatemongering as extremism in defense of the oppressed. I prefer the view that hate is hate.
Even "pro-sex" feminist Susie Bright, a frequent target of Dworkin's, now gushes that she "loved it" that Dworkin dared to "attack the very notion of intercourse" and name men as the problem. If this is feminism, no wonder it's become an f-word.
Andrea Dworkin is dead. Maybe feminism won't live again until it has exorcised her sad ghost.