Andrea Dworkin in 2000. Feminists have started invoking Ms. Dworkin, who died in 2005, in a spirit of respect and rediscovery.CreditCreditColin McPherson/Corbis, via Getty Images
By Michelle Goldberg
Feb. 22, 2019, 171″For decades now, Andrea Dworkin has existed in the feminist imagination mostly as a negative example, the woman no one wanted to be.
An anti-porn, anti-prostitution militant in the feminist sex wars of the late 1970s and 1980s, she sometimes seemed like a misogynist caricature of a women’s rights activist, a puritanical battle ax in overalls out to smite men for their appetites. Dworkin never actually wrote that all sex is rape, a claim often attributed to her, but she did see heterosexual intercourse as almost metaphysically degrading, calling it, in her 1987 book “Intercourse,” “the pure, sterile, formal expression of men’s contempt for women.” Feminism would spend decades defining itself against her bleak, dogmatic vision.
So it’s been striking to see that recently, feminists have started invoking Dworkin, who died in 2005, in a spirit of respect and rediscovery. The cultural critic Jessa Crispin castigated contemporary feminists for their wholesale abandonment of Dworkin’s work in her 2017 book “Why I Am Not a Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto.” Rebecca Traister listed Dworkin’s “Intercourse” as one of the books that inspired her 2018 best seller “Good and Mad.” The Wing, the network of fashionable women’s co-working spaces and social clubs, sells enameled pins of Dworkin’s face.
A new anthology of Dworkin’s work, “Last Days at Hot Slit,” is out this month, edited by Johanna Fateman and Amy Scholder. (“Last Days at Hot Slit” was a working title for a version of the manuscript that became Dworkin’s first book, “Woman Hating.”) Reading Dworkin now, Fateman wrote in a recent essay in The New York Review of Books, “beyond the anti-porn intransigence she’s both reviled and revered for, one feels a prescient apocalyptic urgency, one perfectly calibrated, it seems, to the high stakes of our time.” (Fateman, an art critic who used to be in a band, Le Tigre, with Riot Grrrl icon Kathleen Hanna, is also working on an experimental nonfiction book based on Dworkin’s life.)
[Listen to “The Argument” podcast every Thursday morning, with Ross Douthat, Michelle Goldberg and David Leonhardt.]
So what it is in Dworkin’s long-neglected oeuvre that has suddenly become resonant? Perhaps it’s simply because we’re in a moment of crisis, when people seeking solutions are dusting off all sorts of radical ideas. But I think it’s more than that. Dworkin was engaged, as many women today are engaged, in a pitched cultural battle over whose experiences and assumptions define our common reality. As she wrote of several esteemed male writers in a 1995 preface to “Intercourse,” “I love the literature these men created; but I will not live my life as if they are real and I am not.”
Dworkin was unapologetically angry, as so many women today are. Even before 2016, you could see this anger building in the emergence of new words to describe maddening male behaviors that had once gone unnamed — manspreading, mansplaining. Then came the obscene insult of Donald Trump’s victory. It seems like something sprung from Dworkin’s cataclysmic imagination, that America’s most overtly fascistic president would also be the first, as far as we know, to have appeared in soft-core porn films. I think Trump’s victory marked a shift in feminism’s relationship to sexual liberation; as long as he’s in power, it’s hard to associate libertinism with progress.
And so Dworkin, so profoundly out of fashion just a few years ago, suddenly seems prophetic. “Our enemies — rapists and their defenders — not only go unpunished; they remain influential arbiters of morality; they have high and esteemed places in the society; they are priests, lawyers, judges, lawmakers, politicians, doctors, artists, corporation executives, psychiatrists and teachers,” Dworkin said in a lecture she wrote in 1975, included in “Last Days at Hot Slit.” Maybe this once sounded paranoid. After Trump’s election, the Brett Kavanaugh hearings, and revelations of predation by men including Roger Ailes, Harvey Weinstein, Les Moonves, Larry Nassar and countless figures in the Catholic Church, her words seem frighteningly perceptive.”