Bizarre Bedfellows

Andrea Dworkin's ideological intercourse with the right.

The passing of Andrea Dworkin--feminist polemicist, anti-porn crusader, and loony extraordinaire--drew strangely admiring obituaries from several feminists who vehemently disagreed with her in life, including the self-identified "feminist pornographer" Susie Bright and the staunchly anti-censorship Nation columnist Katha Pollitt. Even odder were the plaudits from conservatives. In National Review, David Frum described a meeting with Dworkin in almost glowing terms. In her syndicated column, Maggie Gallagher wrote lyrically about the "gift" of mutual understanding that she and Dworkin had given each other "from the opposite ends of the political spectrum."

But the romance between social conservatives and the far-left feminist goes a long way back. It started in the 1980s, after Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon emerged as leaders of the feminist war on porn. The religious right saw an opportunity to harness this effort to its own crusade against smut. Some were particularly excited about the MacKinnon�Dworkin solution to that pesky First Amendment: Declare "pornography," loosely defined, to be a violation of women's civil rights.

An ordinance based on this concept, which would have allowed any aggrieved woman to seek the suppression of sexually explicit materials and to sue the producers and distributors, passed in Indianapolis in 1984 with strong backing from the right, including the anti-feminist doyenne Phyllis Schlafly. (The federal courts promptly struck it down on First Amendment grounds.) In 1986 Dworkin testified before the Attorney General's Commission on Pornography--a.k.a. the Meese Commission--offering a lurid account of the supposedly routine misogynistic sadism in porn and fielding such trenchant questions as whether an image of a woman performing fellatio on her knees would automatically qualify as female subordination.

Her "moving" testimony was singled out for warm praise by the then-obscure fundamentalist Christian psychologist James C. Dobson (now head of Focus on the Family). The conservatives apparently didn't care that their new anti-porn star didn't care for men or the traditional family, or that she saw life in "Amerika" as a slow-motion Auschwitz for women. Fortuitously, Dworkin and MacKinnon cared just as little that their new friends were very much in favor of female subordination, Biblical style.

This meeting of minds was far more than just a strategic alliance over pornography. Dworkin's general view of sexuality also found a strong resonance with conservatives. "In one respect at least," Frum wrote in his eulogy, "she shared a deep and true perception with the political and cultural right: She understood that the sexual revolution had inflicted serious harm on the interests of women and children--and (ultimately) of men as well."

Of course, Dworkin had little affection for the pre-revolutionary sexual standards dear to conservatives. She fully shared the radical feminist abhorrence of the nuclear family as the primary patriarchal institution. In her 1974 book Woman Hating, she advocated a utopian communal "pansexuality" that would include bestiality and incest--but probably not sexual intercourse as we know it. Two years later, in Our Blood, she opined that come the revolution, "men will have to give up their precious erections and begin to make love as women do together."

In her most notorious work, 1987's Intercourse, Dworkin flatly declared that intercourse itself was both an expression and a method of male dominance--at least in our "patriarchal" society, but perhaps inherently so, since penetration was a "violation of female boundaries." Her main beef with the sexual revolution was that it stole the thunder of women's liberation: Instead of rebelling against the "occupier," liberated women began, to Dworkin's horror, "calling intercourse freedom."

Dworkin's philosophy of sex found enthusiastic acclaim in Gallagher's Enemies of Eros, a 1989 book that got little attention in the mainstream press but was well-received on the right. Gallagher hailed Dworkin's discovery that "sexual intercourse is not intrinsically banal" and concluded that the feminist was on to a great truth: "In intercourse, a woman's femaleness is driven home to her, in her, over and over again without mercy." Dworkin's sad and fatal flaw, she concluded, was the failure to embrace that femaleness instead of clinging to a male ideal of personal autonomy.

Gallagher did not endorse Dworkin's condemnation of intercourse as such, but she did take an almost equally harsh view of most of the actual sex that goes on in the world today. "A man exploits a woman every time he uses her body for sexual pleasure while he is unwilling to accept the burden of paternity," she wrote.

"That is to say, single men (and frequently married men) exploit women almost every time they make love." That the woman might be equally unwilling to accept the burden of maternity is apparently either irrelevant or, pardon the pun, inconceivable: "His lover may consent fully, knowledgeably, enthusiastically to her exploitation. That does not change the nature of the transaction...any more than a woman's willingness to be sold into slavery would excuse a slave owner's willingness to buy."

The cadence, logic, and hyperbole of this remarkable passage are Dworkinian. For comparison, look at this excerpt from Intercourse: "Physically a woman in intercourse is a space invaded, a literal territory occupied literally; occupied even if there has been no resistance, no force; even if the occupied person said yes please, yes hurry, yes more."

Gallagher's qualified praise for Dworkin was echoed a decade later in F. Carolyn Graglia's anti-feminist rant Domestic Tranquility (1997). Graglia fully accepted Dworkin's view that sexual intercourse made a woman submissive and destroyed her independent selfhood; she merely lamented Dworkin's inability to accept that this was a good thing. She also believed Dworkin's view of sex as degrading and dehumanizing to women was basically accurate--for all sex outside a traditional marriage. Meanwhile, Dworkin gave an admiring blurb to Wendy Shalit's 1999 tract A Return to Modesty, which portrayed modern young women as grievously wronged by feminism and sexually liberated men.

The right's discovery of Dworkinism--an ideology whose chief hallmark is an obsession with the victimization of women, particularly sexual victimization, and an attendant demonization of men and denial of female agency--coincided with a remarkable shift in conservative rhetoric about gender. Earlier conservative critics of feminism, such as George Gilder in Sexual Suicide (1973), argued that women's liberation was bad for men, children, and society; liberated women were often depicted as self-centered, bossy, and arrogant. By the 1990s the chief model of conservative sexual politics was a "victim antifeminism" with women cast as victims and men bashed almost as gleefully as they are in feminist demonology. Even women who had abortions morphed from unwomanly harpies into tragic victims of "surgical rape," coerced by greedy abortionists and selfish boyfriends.

In the world according to Gallagher, Graglia, Shalit, and assorted others, men will be pigs if given half a chance--and have been given just such a chance by the weakening of traditional gender roles and sexual mores. Those old strictures, David Gelernter wrote in a 1996 article for Commentary, "protect[ed] the typical woman from the predatory interests of the typical man." On Crossfire in 1999, Human Events Editor Terry Jeffrey asserted that the sexual revolution had been "a war against women." The very day Dworkin's death was announced, a striking example of Dworkinian rhetoric appeared on the blog of the Independent Women's Forum, The Inkwell. The injuries sustained by military women in Iraq, Charlotte Hays wrote, were "state-sanctioned violence against women."

It was a strange romance, but perhaps a fitting one. Dworkin's focus on violent male abuse of women obscured the fact that in Western history, patriarchy far more commonly took the form of paternalism and special protections. It thus played straight into the hands of the paternalists. That was Dworkin's true "gift" to social conservatives.�

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

GET REASON MAGAZINE

Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online

  • Progressive Puritans: From e-cigs to sex classifieds, the once transgressive left wants to criminalize fun.
  • Port Authoritarians: Chris Christie’s Bridgegate scandal
  • The Menace of Secret Government: Obama’s proposed intelligence reforms don’t safeguard civil liberties

SUBSCRIBE

advertisement