I'm referring, of course, to Andrea Dworkin, who died last year, leaving many mixed feelings behind her.
I'll be reading from Dworkin's work— yes, you read that right! — on Jan. 28th, at the San Francisco Public Library, at an event in homage to writers who died the past year:
Writers Remembered 2006
A Celebration of the Writers Who Died in 2005
January 28, 2006
1 - 4 PM
Koret Auditorium, Main Library
Dworkin and I had a history as political adversaries, the opposite ends of radical feminism. Still, I always thought we had some unique things in common. She had to be the only other person in the world besides me who would step off a plane in any country and say, “What does the pornography look like here?” We both found porn to be a prescient cultural lens.
When I looked at BAE this year, I wondered... how many of the authors in this story collection were directly influenced by AD? How many were inspired to 'roll their own' after sampling her wares? I looked at their names and saw that at least half of them must remember rather vividly being on the wrong end of the AD's firing squad.
I decided to ask all of them, "What— if anything— of Dworkin's influence made a difference with you?"
Sera Gamble: “The Clay Man”
Here’s the thing: I don’t remember the days. AD's first book came out before I was born. While you were facing the firing squad, I was teething. I guess I have inherited your legacy.
For a time, I was “stripping my way through college,” as they say. Most men were polite, the occasional man was rude – but the ones that really bugged me kept sitting me down and trying to explain to me that I was being exploited.
Every couple of weeks some earnest guy would lay it out for me. I didn’t believe I was being exploited at all – I was setting my own hours, making decent money, and my boss supplied a giant dude who watched to make sure my physical boundaries weren’t violated. I felt like I was having a big adventure.
I kept asking these men – where are you getting this? And they didn’t know where they got it. They’d just heard this “theory of sex work” and done their part to assume it was gospel.
Finally, in a Women’s Studies class, I read Dworkin. I was like, you’ve got to be fucking kidding me. But obviously she wasn’t. Those earnest guys? They thought they’d help, maybe even educate me by spouting the “feminist” view to the confused young stripper.
I grew up not really understanding why older people, of my parents’ generation, were so dismissive of “feminists.” I assumed they were struggling with the basic idea of gender equality, but what they were struggling with was this one loud woman’s view of things.
Dworkin represented so radical an opinion that most people could barely relate to it beyond feeling attacked. But somehow she came to define the whole idea of feminism for many people. Sadly, as often happens, the shrillest voice in the room got heard by the most people.
My copy of Whores and Other Feminists is dog-eared. I read as much of that “sex-positive” stuff as I could find – and then I started writing my point of view. I got up on my own little soap-box and let loose: that all this victim-y talk was offensive to me, and that trying to “protect” women by limiting their sexual freedom was such a blindingly bad idea that the only truly shocking thing was that we were even still talking about it.
I’m older now, and I’ve climbed off the crate. But I am still interested in these issues, still trying to figure out what feminism really is, what it means, if I even am a feminist, why it matters so much to me.
I guess this means that Dworkin had a whopping effect on me. Sometimes the journey of a lifetime begins with one lady pissing you off.
Tom Perrotta: “Little Children: A Novel”
Andrea Dworkin gets a direct mention in "Little Children." My main character, Sarah, was a feminist in college, and wrote a paper called "The Normalization of Abuse: Patriarchy and Marital Rape" under the influence of Dworkin and McKinnon.
The irony is that, for all of her hard-line feminist training, Sarah finds that she still clings to certain romantic fantasies about love and sex that her college self would have laughed at.
I'm not sure Dworkin had much of a direct influence on me, even as someone to be challenged. If you were a straight man, it seemed like you had to basically give up sex to get on her good side. As with joining the priesthood, that seemed like a pretty high price to pay.
Stephen Elliott: “Bad Education”
You know, I don't think Dworkin affected me much. As a former sex worker I've always been pro-sex work, pro-pornographer, pro-prostitution. So I've been on the opposite end of her. I believe in freedom first, then ideas, then legislation.
I was fortunate to start writing erotica after the infamous pornography wars had died down, so the biggest influence on me was the explosion of erotica anthologies that fed my newfound desire to write smut.
Would this explosion have happened without such a heated discussion about sex, what it is, what it means? I did not have the visibility at that point to be on any end of a firing squad, but I loved watching the cultural shit go down -- like a really hot mud-wrestling match between tough-ass women.
I think any analysis of violence owes Dworkin, no matter how much people agree or disagree with the specifics of her argument. I love that I have to trouble myself about the dark sexuality and pseudo-violence in my work: to ask where it comes from, what it feeds on, what it feeds, if it's going to engender bad things.
What I sincerely appreciate about Dworkin is that she never dropped the bullhorn about how heinous rape and sexual violence are, when our culture continually encourages a bystander syndrome about such things.
Vinnie Rose, aka Mr. Sleep: “Beatings R Us”
Hahaha....you're kidding right? I do a site that's a paean to unrestrained degeneracy... what would you think I'd think of Dworkin? In response to her comment that every act of heterosexual sex is an act of rape, I usually said then as I say now: And...?
James Williams: “The End”
I found Dworkin's political stand offensive, threatening, and repellent. It's dangerous to women as well as to men, dangerous to free speech and free thought, dangerous to intimacy, dangerous to trust, dangerous to individual liberty, dangerous to creativity— dangerous, in fact, to the lives and well-being of me and nearly everyone I love, value, and respect.
I see a similarity between Dworkin's positions and those propounded by Janice Raymond in her infamous 1979 book The Transsexual Empire. Raymond was (is, I suppose) also an intelligent women who seemed to have been born on the wrong side of the bed and had it in for a whole population of people she neither agreed with nor made any serious effort to understand.
In her book, she asserted that transwomen were merely men who were so antifeminist and determined to take over women's lives that they were ready to sacrifice their genitalia to do so; that medical and psychological professionals who helped them were in on the conspiracy or abetting it; and that transmen were simply traitorous women.
Though some of her manifesto was justified by the infant state of transgender identity studies at the time (The Harry Benjamin International Gender Dysphoria Association was formed the same year her book was published, and Benjamin's own seminal book The Transsexual Phenomenon had been published only a decade earlier), she retracted none of it when her book was reissued in the mid or late 1990s.
Both Raymond and Dworkin took some highly individual concern they could see expressed somewhere in society— and generalized so broadly they ended up talking in cartoon terms about cartoon issues.
They became radical social fundamentalists and missed the moon for their self-interested fascination with the finger. In Patrick Laude's terms, they replaced "the awesome depths of the Mystery with a flat surface of barren forms," and found such fault with opinions that differed from theirs, that in excoriating tolerance and diversity they became self-idolators. By solidifying and identifying with their egos they became merely brutal fanatics.
Again, quoting Laude, "The enemy of fundamentalists is always 'outside,' never 'within,' which allows the soul to 'play God' and judge and destroy whatever resists its totalitarian reduction."
Gwen Masters: “15 Minutes”
I was first introduced to Andrea Dworkin's work about ten years ago, when I wrote an article on feminism in college. I was completely taken aback by her.
It took quite a bit of research to get past what was being said about her versus what she actually said. That was an education in and of itself, when I learned the depth of how words can be taken completely out of context, and how those with the power of the media can flip a story in whatever direction they please.
I came to respect Andrea Dworkin, even if I did not agree with her on many issues. I respected her for having the fortitude to stand up for what she believed in, even if it meant she would be vilified for it. I think she knew that was happening, weighed her options, and decided speaking out was more important than giving a damn about mudslinging.
By attacking her, her critics simply proved her points. How satisfying!
The best thing I took away from her work was this: It is more important to be relevant than to be popular. I try to remember that when it comes to my own work. Do I want to say something? Or do I just want to be popular? I've decided that I want to say something. And it is a harder road to walk, but it is a much more satisfying one.
Bianca James: “Paradise City”
Dworkin was before my time. I came of age in the bay area reading books by people like Susie, or Carol Queen, in lieu of Dworkin. My first paid sex-writing job was writing fiction for Barely Legal when I was twenty, thanks to my mentor who'd held a job at Hustler in the early nineties. I never faced any resistance from my friends or family for doing it- even my mom thought it was funny.
Bob Vickery: “High Risk”
I’ve only had a nodding acquaintance with Dworkin’s writing. Her issues about the exploitation of women in pornography don't have much relevance to me as a writer of gay male erotica.
However, the relevance comes in when her issues of power imbalance in porn are given a wider context.
Before I first started writing erotica (in the early 1990's), I noticed that most of the gay stroke stories I read revolved around power imbalance (the cop and the criminal, the jailer and the prisoner, the sergeant and the raw recruit, the executive and the mail room clerk, etc.).
The common thread was one (weaker) character being coerced, physically or psychologically, into having sex with a more powerful character. Stories like that generally don’t do anything for me.
When I started writing my own stroke stories I set up scenes where the characters usually were pretty evenly matched; there may be tension in my stories, but there is never coercion. The characters enter into the sex for a variety of reasons, usually with gusto and enthusiasm, and in almost every instance, the power balance is evenly distributed (or, if not, at least it doesn’t become successfully exploited by the more powerful character).
I wrote a story once, "Driving," that of all my stories, most played with the issue of power imbalance. An out-of-work construction worker (I seem to have a thing for those guys) is forced to take a job as chauffeur to a wealthy older man. The older man tries to use his money and power to pressure the chauffeur into sex. The chauffeur refuses, quits his job, and later meets his ex-employer in a gay bar. Only when the two can meet on the chauffeur’s terms, where he’s riding in the back seat of the car issuing orders to the other man, will he let the situation become sexual.
Rachel Kramer Bussel: “The End”
I find it hilarious that I’m even answering this question. When I was a teenager, I’d certainly have given you a very, very different answer, from today. You can still find my name on the Andrea Dworkin supporters’ website—I did some coding or something for them when I was in college at UC-Berkeley in the mid-90's.
When I was growing up, I read a lot of Dworkin’s work and it made so much sense to me. I wanted to go back in time and be a 70's feminist.
On the other hand, I was just starting to come of age and hadn’t discovered sex or porn yet. When I did, it complicated things. I couldn’t see how you could live with the perpetual anger of an us-against-them mentality— meaning men versus women.
That being said, some of the things I learned from her and MacKinnon, the critique of privacy as a safe haven for women, the ways women are objectified across the board, were and are fascinating and important.
In the end, AD became a caricature of herself, in part because of her extreme divisiveness. There was never a sense of trying to form a common ground among feminists, which I think could have fostered a greater understanding of her work.
There’s a generation now of post-Dworkin feminists who’ve reclaimed so many arenas of sexuality, from burlesque to stripping to porn to erotic writing, and I’m honored to be a part of that.
Donna George Storey: “Ukiyo”
I’m forty-four now, which puts me at the end of the baby boom generation. I’m old enough to remember the excitement of “women’s liberation,” but not lucky enough to have been in the thick of it.
I consider myself a feminist, but I always felt a little behind the curve. I picked up a copy of Dworkin’s Intercourse in Japan in the mid-eighties (which was probably stocked for English conversation study and I’m sure most of the guys who bought it were pretty disappointed!)
I remember being impressed at her boldness, although I did not agree with all of her points, as I was just learning to appreciate the enjoyable parts of intercourse. Dworkin, Kate Millet, and Robin Morgan and all the feminist writers who pushed the envelope gave the rest of us an exciting sense of possibility of what we could think and say.
The repressive anti-porn phase, where Dworkin climbed into bed with Moral Majority, was useful in a different way because it helped me to articulate, at least to myself, why I wanted to be part of an open dialogue on the erotic.
I believe that the only way for women to become empowered sexually is for them to take an active role in creating the images and the fantasies that express our desires and experiences—that is, talking back to the traditional porn industry.
The other day at a holiday party I was telling someone about my forthcoming story in Best American Erotica 2006 and he said, “Well, I hope you don’t get type-cast as an erotica writer.” I was dumbstruck because this seems like such an outdated response. The existence of BAE, going strong after more than a decade, is itself proof that erotica is taken seriously as literature.
But to be realistic, I’m sure many more people out there still consider sex as unworthy of intelligent and serious (which can also be playful) attention. I disagree, and that’s why a nerdy, voted most-likely-in-the-class-to-become-a-librarian, good girl like me feels inspired and compelled to write on sexual themes. Whether Dworkin’s ghost would allow it or not, I believe any man or woman who “speaks the unspeakable” and tests taboos is carrying on the spirit of feminism.
I haven't actually decided WHAT to read at the library memorial event. Some of AD's poetry? Her fascinating stories about being mentored by Allen Ginsberg? Her super-violent, Sadeian passages from her novels? I'm not looking to do something mean or comical; I want it to be incisive, and powerful. I'm looking for the double-edge. Add that to the fact that we only have three minutes each! Any of you close readers of AD who have a suggestion, let me know!