The Dworkin Whitewash


What's with all the posthumous adulation of loony feminist extraordinaire Andrea Dworkin? The New York Times gives Dworkin's sister-in-censorship, law professor Catharine MacKinnon, a platform to celebrate the late writer/activist as a Nobel Prize-caliber genius, misunderstood by the world and maligned by "minions of the status quo" (such as, presumably, American Civil Liberties Union president Nadine Strossen, who coined the brilliant term "MacDworkin" to describe the duo and their followers). The Boston Globe published an equally glowing eulogy by Wheelock College professor Gail Dines (my own considerably more jaundiced view runs on Monday). I was especially taken aback when the usually reasonable Ann Althouse, University of Wisconsin law professor and blogger, decided to "honor" Dworkin with this tribute. Althouse notes that in contrast to the "blatantly partisan" feminists who flocked to Bill Clinton's defense when he was accused of sexual misconduct, "Dworkin, for all her overstatements and wackiness, was truly devoted to feminism as an end." All right, so Dworkin was nonpartisan in her demonization of men and male sexuality ("What needs to be asked," she notoriously told a British writer on Clinton's dalliance with Monica Lewinsky, "is, Was the cigar lit?"). That's a good thing? And what is this "feminism" she was dedicated to, anyway? It certainly wasn't liberal feminism, anti-censorship feminism, or pro-sex feminism, all of which she despised.

The bottom line:

Whatever her defenders may say, Dworkin was a relentless preacher of hatred toward men ("Under patriarchy, every woman's son is her betrayer and also the inevitable rapist or exploiter of another woman"— Letters from a War Zone, 1989, p. 14). Yes, she apparently had genuine and even warm affection for some men in her own life, and spent her last 20 years with a male companion she eventually married (John Stoltenberg, a MacDworkinite feminist and practically a poet of male self-loathing). But no one would absolve a male misogynist on the grounds that he loved his mother and sister, or had a devoted wife who embraced his ideology.

Whatever her defenders say, Dworkin was anti-sex. No, she may not have ever written the actual words "All sex is rape" or "All sexual intercourse is rape." But she did extensively argue, in particular in the 1987 book, Intercourse, that (1) all heterosexual sex in our "patriarchal" society is coercive and degrading to women, and (2) sexual penetration may by its very nature doom women to inferiority and submission, and "may be immune to reform." A chapter from the book, filled with such insights as, "Intercourse is the pure, sterile, formal expression of men's contempt for women," can be found here. (Again, if a male writer had written book after book arguing that women were evil creatures whose sole purpose in life is to sexually manipulate and destroy men, would we spend a lot of time quibbling over whether he actually used the phrase, "All women are whores"?) In the 1976 book, Our Blood (p. 13), Dworkin had this to say about a feminist transformation of sexuality: "For men I suspect that this transformation begins in the place they most dread—that is, in a limp penis. I think that men will have to give up their precious erections and begin to make love as women do together." (Gee… can you say "castrating"?)

It's sadly obvious that this supposedly bold and visionary prophet was, in actuality, insane. (Among other things, she described the Caesarian section as "a surgical fuck" by "the new rapist, the surgeon.") So why the praise? Is this really little more than slightly over-the-top rhetoric in defense of the oppressed? Is challenging the very existence of sexual intercourse really a wonderfully bold and provocative idea, as even pro-sex feminist and frequent Dworkin target Susie Bright seems to think? Why the lack of stigma against anti-male bigotry?

In her Times op-ed, MacKinnon complains that Dworkin's brilliant ideas have been "marginalized." Clearly, they haven't been marginalized enough; and that's bad news for women, men, and feminism.

By the way, the best critique of MacDworkinism can be found in Daphne Patai's outstanding 1998 book Heterophobia: Sexual Harassment and the Future of Feminism. I leave you with Patai's observation: "Cultivating hatred for another human group ought to be no more acceptable when it issues from the mouths of women than when it comes from men, no more tolerable from feminists than from the Ku Klux Klan."

UPDATE: Today's New York Times, in the Week in Review section, features a piece on the praise bestowed on Dworkin by some conservatives. Actually, one of the curious aspects of Dworkin's "legacy" is the extent to which appropriating her language helped social conservatives attack freedom and equality for women without appearing anti-woman. I recall Terry Jeffrey of Human Events, a few years ago, saying on the late, unlamented Crossfire that the sexual revolution was "violence against women." And just the other day at the blog of the Independent Women's Forum, Charlotte Hays referred to women being wounded in combat in Iraq as "state-sanctioned violence against women." In a way, it makes sense. The MacDworkinite focus on violent male abuse of women completely obscured the fact that at least in Western history, patriarchy far more commonly took the form of paternalism and special protections for women. Thus, this ideology played straight into the hands of the neo-paternalists.

UPDATE, again: My Boston Globe column on Dworkin is now online.