Last Days at Hot Slit: The Radical Feminism of Andrea Dworkin
Andrea Dworkin, eds. Johanna Fateman and Amy Scholder
Semiotext(e), $17.95 (paper)
When Andrea Dworkin died of heart disease in 2005, at age fifty-eight, U.S. feminism lost its most inflammatory voice. Between Woman Hating (1974), her transcultural examination of women in history and fairy tales, and Heartbreak (2002), her aptly-titled memoir of activism, Dworkin burned a path through the gender and culture wars. Unlike many of her fellow second-wave feminists, Dworkin’s crusade was more existential—and less pragmatic—than a fight for equal rights, equal pay, and a woman in every boardroom. She wanted to destroy patriarchy altogether, along with its kindred evils: capitalism, racism, homophobia, war, and, most urgently, rape. “The commitment to ending male dominance as the fundamental psychological, political, and cultural reality of earth-lived life is the fundamental revolutionary commitment,” she wrote in 1974. Her tone was combative. Gloria Steinem likened her to an Old Testament prophet; the critic Laura Miller compared her to Jonathan Edwards, the evangelist whose sermons of a wrathful God terrified colonial parishioners into suicide. Dworkin did have something of a preacher’s scorched moral indignation, an eloquence borne of her own experiences as a prostitute, rape survivor, and battered wife. And like any great firebrand, she did not brake for nuance.
Dworkin had something of a preacher’s scorched moral indignation, an eloquence borne of her own experiences as a prostitute, rape survivor, and battered wife.
Her death elicited mixed emotions. “Decorum requires accentuating the positive when speaking of the recently deceased,” read an op-ed by Cathy Young published in the Boston Globe nine days after Dworkin died. “Here, there is little positive to accentuate, except for a badly misused talent and a badly misdirected passion.” Few eulogists could resist a jibe at Dworkin’s appearance, which had become synonymous with what critics saw as her unappetizing and feral rhetoric. “Dworkin was a living visual stereotype—the feminist as fat, hairy, makeup-scorning, unkempt lesbian,” Katha Pollitt wrote in the Nation. “Perhaps that was one reason she was such a media icon—she ‘proved’ that feminism was for women who couldn’t get a man.” One analysis found that Dworkin’s physical appearance was mentioned in 61 percent of obituaries and postmortems.
Yet few could deny Dworkin’s seismic influence. She remains one of those rare public intellectuals about whom people have opinions without having read a word she wrote. The cocktail party synopses of her work—she hated men; all sex is rape; she was a humorless feminazi—is either untrue or true the way a funhouse mirror is true.
Last Days at Hot Slit, a new collection of excerpts from Dworkin’s speeches, nonfiction, and novels, aims to fumigate her toxic legacy. Almost fifteen years after her death, there is a rigor mortised quality to some of her ideas, a sense that she was at odds with the 1980s and is even more at odds with life now, as when she attacks pornography and implicates its consumers in rape. But Last Days also reveals a more measured writer than many might remember. Dworkin was a talented stylist, and however aggrieved or incensed her arguments, she expressed them with meticulous lucidity. And even occasional wit, as when she addressed a roomful of men in 1983: “Have you ever wondered why we are not just in armed combat against you? It’s not because there’s a shortage of kitchen knives in this country. It is because we believe in your humanity, against all the evidence.” The book also highlights Dworkin’s vulnerability, a trait that subsequent caricatures all but obliterated.
Indeed, Last Days at Hot Slit may find a more receptive audience today than Dworkin ever had during her lifetime. The last three years have seen the Women’s March and #MeToo, the tribulations of Hillary Clinton and Christine Blasey Ford. More women have been elected to Congress than ever before. More women are running for president than ever. Reassessments of Lorena Bobbitt and Monica Lewinsky—not to mention Shulamith Firestone and Valerie Solanas—have thrown clarifying light on recent decades’ folk tales. Ours is an era with an appetite for strong women and relentless, confrontational resistance. In this moment, then, it is possible that Dworkin will rise like some phoenix of female id, or the literary personification of that bygone rallying cry, “We’re mad as hell and we’re not going to take it anymore!” Perhaps the culture, with its many self-proclaimed “nasty women,” has finally caught up to Dworkin.
For Dworkin, mothers are enforcers who ‘administer the electric shocks to punish rebellion,’ all in the name of self-defense. After all, a woman who questions patriarchy puts herself at grave risk.
Dworkin was born to a working-class Jewish family in Camden, New Jersey. “A cold, hard, corrupt city,” she calls it in Life and Death (1997), but also, auspiciously, the city of Walt Whitman. Her mother was often bedridden with heart disease; her father was at work more than at home, juggling two or three jobs to pay his wife’s medical bills. From an early age, Dworkin exhibited the anti-authoritarianism that became her hallmark. In “My Life as a Writer,” she explains:
I saw adults as gatekeepers who stood between me and the world. I hated their evasions, rules, lies, petty tyrannies. I wanted to be honest and feel everything and take everything on. I didn’t want to be careful and narrow the way they were. I thought a person could survive anything, except maybe famine and war, or drought and war. When I learned about Auschwitz, my idea of the unbearable became more specific, more informed, sober and personal.
Dworkin was “infatuated” with her mother, who, according to Dworkin, mistook her daughter’s independence for defiance. “I knew that she might really die, and maybe I would be the cause, as they all kept saying,” Dworkin wrote. “I had to make a choice: follow by rote her ten-thousand rules of behavior for how a girl must act, think, look, sit, stand—in other words, cut out my own heart; or withstand the threat of her imminent death—give up the hopes of her love or her friendship or her understanding.”
Their relationship informed Dworkin’s later understanding of how female submission is inherited. In her cosmology, mothers are sergeants, enforcers, guards, and flunkies who “administer the electric shocks to punish rebellion.” A mother’s role is to ensure her daughter’s adherence to conventional standards of feminine beauty and behavior, all in the name of self-defense. After all, a woman who questions patriarchy, or rejects a man’s advances, or opts out of the domestic chloroform of marriage and kids puts herself at grave risk. “In societies of whatever description, however narrowly or broadly defined, women as a class are the dulled conformists, the orthodox believers, the obedient followers, the disciples of unwavering faith,” Dworkin wrote.
She was determined to avoid the slow suicide of life in the suburbs. Arthur Rimbaud and Charles Baudelaire were early exemplars. She was carrying a volume of the latter’s poems when, at age nine, she was molested in a movie theater. “The commitment of the child molester is absolute, and both his insistence and his victory communicate to the child his experience of her—a breachable, breakable thing any stranger can wipe his dick on,” she wrote with characteristic frankness. That trauma became generative in Dworkin’s self-mythology, the taproot that heralded a lifetime of further rape and exploitation.
In high school, she took the bus into New York City, sometimes prostituting herself to pay the fare. She bought mimeographed poetry in Greenwich Village and read Allen Ginsberg, who represented the “anger and rebellion, but also the undifferentiated infatuation [Dworkin] felt for the world of possibility.” She enrolled at Bennington College in Vermont in 1964 but was disillusioned by a campus culture and curriculum that seemed designed to churn out mistresses for artists. During the winter break, she “took marginal political jobs in New York City and fucked for food and shelter and whatever cash [she] needed.” In 1965 she was arrested while protesting the war in Vietnam. She had a copy of Charles Olson’s poems with her when she was booked into the Manhattan Women’s House of Detention—as succinct a summation of Dworkin’s highbrow rebelliousness as one is likely to find. She was incarcerated for four days, during which time she was repeatedly strip-searched and subjected to invasive exams with a speculum.
Upon her release, she wrote a blunt account of her mistreatment and mailed it to the press. The New York Times and other papers picked up the story, and eventually the city launched a grand jury investigation. Dworkin left for Greece, where she had an affair with an army officer and wrote poems and novels in the vein of her idols Jean Genet, Henry Miller, and Antonin Artaud. “I didn’t think something was important simply because it happened to me, and certainly the world concurred,” she later wrote of that period. “I knew that from the world’s point of view, though never my own, I was trash, the bottom.”
‘If one survives abuse without permanent injury, the physical pain dims, recedes, ends. It lets go. The fear does not let go. The fear is the eternal legacy.’
She returned to the United States, resumed her studies at Bennington, and then left again in 1968, this time for Amsterdam. She was interested in writing about Provo, a Dutch countercultural movement that used nonviolent tactics to provoke violent responses from authorities. She fell in love with one of the group’s members and married him. Thus began the period of rape and domestic torture Dworkin chronicled in “A Battered Wife Survives,” one of her most harrowing essays:
The memory of the physical pain is vague. I remember, of course, that I was hit, that I was kicked. I do not remember when or how often. It blurs. I remember him banging my head against the floor until I passed out. I remember being kicked in the stomach. I remember being hit over and over, the blows hitting different parts of my body as I tried to get away from him. I remember a terrible leg injury from a series of kicks. I remember crying and I remember screaming and I remember begging. I remember him punching me in the breasts. One can remember that one had horrible physical pain, but that memory does not bring the pain back to the body. Blessedly, the mind can remember these events without the body reliving them. If one survives without permanent injury, the physical pain dims, recedes, ends. It lets go.
The fear does not let go. The fear is the eternal legacy.
She escaped her abusive husband in 1971 and essentially lived on the lam for a year. She slept on floors, in communes, in half-abandoned movie theaters, in a deserted mansion on the German border, on a houseboat. A fellow expatriate, feminist Ricki Abrams, introduced Dworkin to feminist texts: Sexual Politics (1970) by Kate Millet, The Dialectic of Sex (1970) by Shulamith Firestone, and Sisterhood Is Powerful (1970) edited by Robin Morgan. In the basement of a Dutch nightclub where she was given a desk and a chair, Dworkin wrote Woman Hating. “[It] was not a book written out of an ideology. It came out of an emergency, written half underground and in hiding.”
The book premiered the provocative style that endeared Dworkin to many radical feminists while alienating women who prioritized civility. It is hard to imagine an activist today writing, for example, “We saw that we [women] were the ultimate house-niggers, ass-licking bowing, scraping, shuffling fools.” Or: “The female manifests in her adult form—cunt. She emerges defined by the hole between her legs.” But the book reveals the extent to which Dworkin’s critique was systemic from the beginning, rooted as much in race and economics as gender. She castigates middle-class white women who benefit from their status at the expense of women of color. “One cannot be free, never, not ever, in an unfree world,” she wrote, adding that any attempt to “hold onto privilege and comfort . . . is destructive, criminal, and intolerable.” For the rest of her life, she wrote and spoke of sexism as the foundational template for every other injustice.
Her next book, Our Blood (1976), laid the groundwork for the ultimately farcical anti-pornography campaign that consumed Dworkin for much of the 1980s and that made her a pariah to the left. “Men own the sex act,” she wrote; the language used to describe sex, the scenarios by which sex occurs, even sexual fantasies all bear the ancient copyright of male domination. And this domination is most concisely and repeatedly expressed as rape. For Dworkin, rape was as much an attitude, an aesthetic, as a literal assault:
Rape is also effectively sanctioned by men who harass women on the streets and in other public places; who describe or refer to women in objectifying, demeaning ways; who act aggressively or contemptuously toward women; who tell or laugh at misogynistic jokes; who writes stories or make movies where women are raped and love it; who consumes or endorses pornography; who insults specific women or women as a group; who impedes or ridicules women in our struggle for dignity. Men who do or who endorse these behaviors are the enemies of women and are implicated in the crime of rape.
One sees here flashes of who Dworkin became in the popular imagination: the militant who steamrolls over subtlety, who argues in absolutist terms, who sees no meaningful distinction between an off-color joke and rape.
Dworkin castigated middle-class white women who benefit from their status at the expense of women of color. For her, sexism was the foundational template for every other injustice.
In Pornography: Men Possessing Women (1981), Dworkin follows these lines of thought to their inevitable conclusion: “Pornography incarnates male supremacy.” Beginning in 1980, Dworkin and feminist legal scholar Catharine MacKinnon worked to develop an anti-pornography civil rights ordinance that would allow women harmed by adult entertainment to sue producers and distributors. Religious groups and conservatives supported the measure, which soured whatever goodwill Dworkin had left among her feminist cohort. The Minneapolis city council passed the ordinance only to see the mayor veto it. Indianapolis adopted the ordinance in 1984, although it was later declared unconstitutional and overturned. Other cities tried to pass their own versions throughout the decade. In 1986 Dworkin testified before the Attorney General’s Commission on Pornography (the Meese Commission) during which she again argued that porn impinges on women’s civil rights.
Dworkin’s anti-porn battle resulted in some of her most cringeworthy pronouncements—speeches and prose that inspired caustic, often willful mischaracterizations of her oeuvre, and that established her as a thinker prone to hyperbole and bombast. “Pornography is the holy corpus of men who would rather die than change,” she wrote. Reluctant to let such an overblown statement go unaccompanied, she followed it with the trump card of analogical argument: Nazism.
[Pornography is] Dachau brought into the bedroom and celebrated, every vile poison or dungeon brought into the bedroom and celebrated, police torture and thug mentality brought into the bedroom and celebrated—men reveal themselves and all that matters to them in these depictions of real history, plasticized and rarefied, represented as the common erotic stuff of male desire. And the pictures and stories lead right back to history—to peoples enslaved, maimed, murdered—because they show that, for men, the history of atrocity they pretend to mourn is coherent and utterly intentional if one views it as rooted in male sexual obsession.
For Dworkin, there is no blameless fantasy dimension to pornography, no benign voyeurism. There is only brute exploitation and the material damage done to women. Nor is there the possibility of women who genuinely enjoy consuming or appearing in pornography. Dworkin would likely counter that such women, victims of a phallocentric Stockholm syndrome, are experiencing false consciousness. That argument was musty in the post-counterculture era of sexual liberation; it is almost offensive in 2019, when women in porn are entrepreneurs, and sex work is recognized as legitimate, self-determined labor rather than the last resort of dead-end people.
When she wrote that ‘violation is a synonym for intercourse,’ and implied that vaginal penetration is a kind of imperialism, Dworkin consigned herself to a fatal misrepresentation: ‘all sex is rape.’
Dworkin’s worldview also left little space for male sexual pleasure that is not predicated on violence or subjugation. Men, by virtue of possessing a penis (and note that, for Dworkin, all men have penises), are guilty of abuse, or stand in some proximal relation to abuse, or will if one only waits long enough. Dworkin’s usual clarity evaporates into a haze of language on the matter. Words such as metaphysics recur, and readers are expected to understand what she means. And in this expectation lies enormous potential for misinterpretation. When she wrote in Intercourse (1987) that “violation is a synonym for intercourse,” and implied that vaginal penetration is a kind of imperialism, an occupying force, she consigned herself to a fatal misrepresentation, even by her own allies. That idea was metabolized as “all sex is rape.” Dworkin spent the rest of her career refuting, renovating, or denying that tagline, but never outlived it.
What she meant, if we take her word for it, is that sex based on aggression—that is, sex in which male desire and the male orgasm are paramount—violates women. The problem is that in almost thirty years of writing and lecturing, Dworkin presented few examples of sex not tinged by male dominance and oppression. By her definition, sex reifies male supremacy. “Since men have no other criteria for worth, no other notion of identity, those who do not have phalluses are not recognized as fully human,” she wrote. Her moral calculus stripped away all anecdotal or circumstantial evidence to the contrary; rendered the intricate reciprocities of gender into Manichean laws of nature; and reduced lust, seduction, romance, and marriage to a desolate and incontrovertible equation: men control everything; women are controlled. In Dworkin’s words: “All personal, psychological, social, and institutionalized domination on this earth can be traced back to its source: the phallic identities of men.” Yet even her own life betrayed that reality is always more complicated: in 1998 Dworkin married her longtime friend, gay writer and editor John Stoltenberg, with whom she had a relationship of loving mutual support seemingly absent of male domination.
‘The subtext was clear: Who would want to rape Andrea?’
In 1999 Dworkin, then fifty-two, went to Paris to work on a new book. At the hotel bar, she was served a kir royale laced with sedatives. She stumbled back to her room, where she was raped allegedly by the bartender and a room service waiter. She blacked out. When she came to, she discovered gashes on her right leg, a bruise on her left breast. She returned to the United States and published an account of her rape in the New Statesman (it also appeared in the Guardian and in the Globe and Mail). Those who cared enough to comment questioned Dworkin’s allegations, citing contradictions and inconsistencies. As Leah McLaren wrote in the Globe and Mail:
Why . . . after waking up bleeding uncontrollably, didn’t she go directly to a hospital? Why did she never go to the police? Why do her ‘huge, deep gashes’ become ‘scratches’ in the next paragraph? How, if the door was dead-bolted as she says, did the waiter first manage to get into her room? . . . But the most discrediting part of Dworkin’s story is certainly her decision not to take action against her alleged perpetrators. Presumably, a Paris waiter and bartender are still out there, happily drugging and raping female hotel guests. Does Dworkin, who once publicly vowed to use all of her knowledge ‘on behalf of women’s liberation’ really care so little about the safety of her sisters?
The rape and the public skepticism around it—about which radical feminist Julie Bindel wrote: “The subtext was clear: Who would want to rape Andrea?”—devastated Dworkin. “My Suicide,” an unpublished essay drafted soon after the event and found on her hard drive after her death, evokes her isolation and anguish:
I want to live, but I don’t know why. I don’t want more violence to my body, even by me. But I can’t bear knowing what I know, in all regards. I ask God to forgive me. Forgive all my stupidities and cruelties. Please don’t let there be karma because I don’t want to have to do this again. . . . Please let me die now.
This incident, late in Dworkin’s short life, was a tragic dramatization of what she had written twenty years earlier, in Our Blood: “Any woman can be raped by any group of men. Her word will not be credible against their collective testimony. A proper investigation will not be done.”
There has been a cultural shift in the two decades since Dworkin’s rape in that Paris hotel room, though a long road remains. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony during the Brett Kavanaugh hearing in 2018 echoed Anita Hill’s testimony from 1991, but it was also a relitigation—maybe even a kind of exorcism—of decades of similarly humiliated, defamed, and muzzled women. And what happened to Ford—the decorous stagecraft of ostensibly impartial men who decided that her trauma was not believable enough—was the latest in an endless replay of male demagoguery. One of Dworkin’s most compelling insights was that fascism starts at home. If you can control women, you can control the political fate of everyone else. “If you are afraid of the ascendancy of fascism in this country . . . then you had better understand that the root issue here has to do with male supremacy and the control of women; sexual access to women; women as reproductive slaves; private ownership of women,” she wrote in 1983. This still encapsulates much of the GOP’s legislative agenda today.
If her polemics were often excessive to the point of camp, Dworkin’s ability to trace the awful vitality of sexism is still resonant.
Dworkin was more than the writer of alarming misandrist screeds that critics made her out to be. At her best, she looked with ultraviolet clarity at how much women are forced to endure, to accept, to apologize for, to clean up, to sacrifice, to suffer just because they are women. She understood that a woman’s lot in life is often permanent and has the vivid pathos of a scar. “Women die, mourning not the loss of their own lives, but their own inexcusable inability to achieve perfection as men define it for them,” she wrote. In Dworkin’s case, she died having been largely renounced by the women she dedicated her life to championing. Most of her books were out of print; publishers were not keen to see new work; invitations for speeches and lectures had slowed. She was dismissed as an extremist or a fringe figure—or, worst of all, a “pitiable figure,” per her obituary in the New Criterion.
Yet time has smoothed many of Dworkin’s rough edges. As her overheated rhetoric cools, what is left is the singlemindedness of a woman who courted disgrace, harassment, and mockery in pursuit of liberation. If her tactics were flawed and her polemics often excessive to the point of camp, her ability to trace the awful vitality of sexism is still resonant. “Equality is a practice,” she wrote. “It is an action. It is a way of life. It is a social practice. It is an economic practice. It is a sexual practice. It can’t exist in a vacuum.” Last Days at Hot Slit reintroduces her as a revolutionary thinker unafraid to be the stereotypical “angry woman.” Indeed, she embraced that role. She was an artist of rage, alternately poetic and ridiculous, incisive and messy, compelling and tedious.
“I really hope that we don’t treat anyone else in the future as shoddily, as horrifically as we treated Andrea,” Bindel wrote. The terrible truth, of course, is that we will, and as long as that is the case, Dworkin remains necessary.