A review of Last Days at Hot Slit—The Radical Feminism of Andrea Dworkin edited by Johanna Fateman and Amy Scholder. (Semiotext(e), March 2019) 408 pages.
In my 2016 book Porn Panic!, I traced today’s anti-free speech, identity-preoccupied Left back to its roots in the pro-censorship, anti-sex feminism of the 1970s/80s and, in particular, to the writing of Dworkin and her sister-in-arms Catharine Mackinnon. Although I dealt in passing with Dworkin’s writing, as well as works from the contemporaneous liberal feminists who opposed her, I opted to focus more on her successors, especially Gail Dines, a Women’s Studies professor who has established herself as one of today’s preeminent campaigners for the censorship of sexual expression. At a time when feminism seems to be moving in an increasingly censorious direction, a new anthology of Dworkin’s writing, Last Days at Hot Slit, published earlier this year, offers a useful insight into the writing and thinking of one of the movement’s most influential, radical, and controversial writers.
Last Days at Hot Slit was the early working title for Dworkin’s 1974 polemic, Woman Hating, the first of a dozen books Dworkin published (of which three were fiction). This new collection—curated by Johanna Fateman and Amy Scholder—includes extracts from most of these, as well as a selection of other sources including a postcard to Mom and Dad dating from 1973, and a letter to the same recipients in 1978. In trying to understand Dworkin, I’ve discovered, these personal insights are every bit as important as the trenchant political writing that made her notorious.
Dworkin is best known as a fierce campaigner against pornography, which she accused of complicity in the oppression of women. Along with Catharine Mackinnon, a lawyer, she worked tirelessly to discredit and ban pornography—by which they meant any sexual depiction of women, portrayed in any medium. Dworkin, Mackinnon, and their followers (the “Macdworkinites”) ruffled feathers on the Left by forming alliances against pornography with the Christian Right and the Reagan administration, at the very moment feminists were uniting to defend Roe v Wade from these same powers. This political realignment catalysed a damaging internecine split in the feminist movement into its “anti-sex” and “sex-positive” tendencies.
Dworkin and Mackinnon created the language and the methodology of pro-censorship feminism. In their hands, feminism was subtly twisted from a declaration of female agency and power into an insistence on feminine weakness—a view now established as a salient aspect of mainstream feminist thinking. In their formulation, women were so weak and downtrodden that the establishment must step in to defend them from pornography. This development dismayed liberal feminists. In a 1994 brief filed in opposition to an LA fire department directive prohibiting sexual harassment in the workplace, the campaigning group Feminists for Free Expression wrote:
It is ironic that just as women are finally making inroads into such male-exclusive venues as handling a skyscraper construction crane, a hostile corporate takeover attempt, and an Air Force fighter plane, we are being told that we cannot handle dirty pictures, and certainly that we would never enjoy them.
The Macdworkinites opposed obscenity laws, which were based on a community standard they considered too permissive. They instead opted for a “civil rights” approach to censorship, arguing that displays of sexual expression were themselves harmful to women. They drafted a pro-forma law, the Antipornography Civil Rights Ordinance, which they encouraged city and state legislatures to adopt. This was far more draconian than obscenity law, because it defined pornography so broadly and subjectively as to include any potentially sexual expression, and because it handed the power of censorship to any “concerned citizen.” Any woman, using the law, could claim to have been harmed, and then take legal action: against a producer of pornography, a television company, or a bookshop. Their law was adopted in parts of the United States, but was later struck down under the First Amendment. However, their initiative enjoyed greater success in Canada, where it was adopted as a part of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982. As if to demonstrate the unintended hazards to which the slippery-slope of censorship can lead, two of Dworkin’s own books were banned in Canada in 1994, under the very law she had helped to create.
While Mackinnon was usually presented as the hard-headed legal mind of the duo, Dworkin was the ideologue, the rebel, the brilliant-but-flawed propagandist. The feminist activist Gloria Steinem, interviewed by Democracy Now! in 2005 after Dworkin’s death called her “… our Old Testament prophet raging in the hills, telling the truth.” This backhanded compliment is revealing in a number of ways. Dworkin certainly raged, and her declamatory rhetorical style is very much that of the religious preacher. “It’s hard to imagine,” Steinem continued, “anyone else who was simultaneously more clear and more misunderstood than Andrea, more fierce and more vulnerable.”
Perhaps the word I’ve encountered most frequently in descriptions of Dworkin’s writing is “disturbing,” and on reading Last Days at Hot Slit, I would agree. But to this adjective, I would add “hypnotic,” “dreamlike,” and at times even “psychedelic.” Her writing is frequently reminiscent of the beat generation of writers influential during her youth in the 1960s and ’70s. She could be savage and poetic and highly readable (almost regardless of the content), and her aggressively percussive prose sometimes resembles a tribal drumbeat. I was reminded more than once of Hunter S. Thompson, and even more of Hubert Selby Jr’s Last Exit to Brooklyn, which trampled the conventions of grammar to capture the vernacular of working class Brooklyn. Dworkin makes use of Aldous Huxley in this characteristically brutal passage:
And in the midst of this Brave New World, how comforting and familiar it is to exercise passionless cruelty upon women. The old-fashioned values still obtain. The world may end tomorrow, but tonight there is rape—a kiss, a fuck, a pat on the ass, a fist in the face.
The violence of this kind of writing certainly reveals her ferocity, but it also reveals the paradoxical vulnerability Steinem identified. I began the collection expecting to feel irritated, but I finished it with feelings of sadness.
Dworkin’s best-known works are probably Pornography: Men Possessing Women (1981) and Intercourse (1987), both of which feature heavily in this collection. I expected Pornography to resemble Gail Dines’s 2011 work Pornland (Dines clearly tries to model herself on Dworkin), and when I reviewed Dines’s book in Porn Panic, I made a list of its multiple factual errors, misrepresentations, and logical fallacies. Pornography, however, offers no such opportunity. Dworkin doesn’t deal in facts; as the Old Testament prophet of Steinem’s description, she is unapologetically contemptuous of facts. What preacher worth their salt would bother trying to prove the existence of an angry, vengeful God, only to watch their argument be picked apart by sceptics?
In the extract from Pornography, I found only two factual claims worth noting. The first is a familiar myth, that has become a standard talking point among anti-pornography campaigners: that the industry is “larger than the film and record industries combined.” She provided no figures or reference for this, and why would she? This claim is clearly ludicrous: annual box office revenue was in the multiple billions in the 1980s. Accurate porn industry numbers are hard to come by, but even by 1998, Forrester was still estimating the business to be worth less than $1 billion. But this has not prevented its uncritical repetition by her disciples, including Dines, who blithely asserted that pornography is now “bigger than Hollywood.” Dines is not as skilled in the art of propaganda as Dworkin was, and so unwisely attempts to quantify this claim by stating that the industry is worth $100 billion (a suspiciously round number). She even provided a source, which turns out to be an anti-pornography campaigner’s website.
The other claim in Pornography is that the etymology of the word (from ancient Greek) reveals it originally meant “writing about vile whores.” This is broadly correct (although “vile” is her own colourful interpolation). She pointed out that, in ancient Greece, the porneia were the lowest class of prostitutes and, having established this interesting point, Dworkin delighted in it and, in her inimitable style, placed it front and centre in her case against pornography—a repetitive, unhurried chant that consumes pages:
The word pornography does not have any other meaning than the one cited here, the graphic depiction of the lowest whores. Whores exist to serve men sexually. Whores exist only within a framework of male sexual domination. Indeed, outside that framework the notion of whores would be absurd and the usage of women as whores would be impossible. The word whore is incomprehensible unless one is immersed in the lexicon of male domination. Men have created the group, the type, the concept, the epithet, the insult, the industry, the trade, the commodity, the reality of woman as whore. Woman as whore exists within the objective and real system of male sexual domination. The pornography itself is objective and real because women are so regarded and so valued. The force depicted in pornography is objective and real because force is so used against women. The debasing of women depicted in pornography and intrinsic to it is objective and real in that women are so debased. The uses of women depicted in pornography are objective and real because women are so used. The women used in pornography are used in pornography. The definition of women articulated systematically and consistently in pornography is objective and real in that real women exist within and must live with constant reference to the boundaries of this definition. The fact that pornography is widely believed to be “sexual representations” or “depictions of sex” emphasizes only that the valuation of women as low whores is widespread and that the sexuality of women is perceived as low and whorish in and of itself…
In the male system, women are sex; sex is the whore. The whore is porne, the lowest whore, the whore who belongs to all male citizens: the slut, the cunt. Buying her is buying pornography. Seeing her is seeing pornography. Seeing her sex, especially her genitals, is seeing pornography. Seeing her in sex is seeing the whore in sex. Using her is using pornography. Wanting her means wanting pornography. Being her means being pornography.
This passage is representative of Dworkin’s writing. It goes on like this for page after page, poetically, rhythmically repeating, rising and falling. But enlightening? Rarely, if ever. Dworkin’s writing expressed no doubt, and never attempted to justify itself. It was a statement of absolute, irrefutable, undeniable truth, as seen through the eyes of Andrea Dworkin.
In the 1995 introduction to Intercourse, she stated this explicitly:
And specifically, am I saying that I know more than men about fucking? Yes, I am. Not just different: more and better, deeper and wider, the way anyone used knows the user… the authority behind the book—behind each and every choice—is mine.
There is no need for objectivity or evidence or doubt. The truth was revealed not discovered, and she was determined to announce it. It was not open to question her because she left no space for questions. Like the Old Testament prophet hectoring her society and everyone in it for their moral turpitude, she was supremely confident, for the truth came from within her, and the truth was the word of Dworkin. Over and over again, her arguments relied upon vast, unexamined generalisations. Her viewpoint was her experience, and her experience was the definitive experience of every woman, ever. In Intercourse, she described men as occupiers, and women as the occupied. Her reasoning was nothing more than the fact that penises enter vaginas; that vaginas are holes, and that sex is therefore, ipso facto, an act of violation:
…there is a slit between the legs, and he has to push into it. There is never real privacy of the body that can coexist with intercourse: with being entered.
The thrusting is persistent invasion. She is opened up, split down the center. She is occupied—physically, internally, in her privacy.
Intercourse is both the normal use of a woman… and a violative abuse… And it is recognised that the use and abuse are not distinct phenomena but somehow a synthesized reality… Intercourse in reality is a use and an abuse simultaneously…
She, a human being, is supposed to have a privacy that is absolute; except that she, a woman, has a hole between her legs that men can, must, do enter.
There seems to be no room in this bleak analysis for love, for tenderness, or for intimacy. And while Dworkin did not explicitly state (as widely rumoured) that all sex is rape, she repeatedly described intercourse as merely an instrument or an expression of male power. She saw sex, domination, and the (universal) contempt men have for women as one and the same: “Intercourse,” she bluntly affirmed, “is the pure, sterile, formal expression of men’s contempt for women.”
One of the awkward facts that Dworkin’s position must accommodate is that many women enjoy being penetrated. Naturally, those who entertain the occupier must be collaborators, and so were treated with a mix of contempt and pity.
What does it mean to be the person who needs to have this done to her: who needs to be needed as an object; who needs to be entered; who needs to be occupied; who needs to be wanted more than she needs integrity or freedom or equality? If objectification is necessary for intercourse to be possible, what does that mean for the person who needs to be fucked so that she can experience herself as female and who needs to be an object so that she can be fucked?
Dworkin stated her points at great length, forcefully and repeatedly, with great rhetorical verve and artistry, and without reference to a shred of substantiating evidence. Her fundamental point—that women have had no social role other than being the victims of a totalitarian male system—was axiomatic in her work, and so it required no justification. All her reasoning (and there is little in the way of reasoning to be found in her writing) stemmed from this. Pornography is bad because men oppress women, as is prostitution, as is intercourse itself. Dworkin appeared to have created the blueprint for later feminist thought, in which to question the central assumption of male dominance is akin to blasphemy. She didn’t acknowledge or attempt to explain why a system designed by men to subjugate women should produce so many outcomes unfavourable to men (for example, men have a significantly lower life expectancy, and are far more likely to be imprisoned, neither of which is normally seen as an indication of privilege). Nor did she consider that the power women have to to sell sex may be seen as a right or a privilege rather than a mode of oppression, because she didn’t recognise a world in which women have any agency whatsoever.
Her disdain for scientific reasoning is made most clear by its absence throughout her work. Occasionally she went further, and explicitly indicated disdain for rationality. At one point, she suggests that “[m]ale power expressed in pornography is autistic,” and points out that most autistic children are male. I have noted in recent years that groups singled out for attack by feminist campaigns, such as gamers and “incels,” typically include a high proportion of autistic members. Increasingly, autism is recognised as “extreme maleness,” and it is perhaps unsurprising that people with an aversion to men in general will have a particular dislike of autistic men.
There is a widely suspected link between autism and science: a physicist friend suggests that most people in Physics (the most abstract of the sciences) fall somewhere on the spectrum. Science requires an attention to detail, a quest for underlying explanations, and an aptitude for obsessive pattern-seeking for which autism may be a benefit rather than a curse. This triple intersection of men, autism, and science is perhaps the concentration of the factors that Dworkin —in common with many of the feminist thinkers who followed her—loathed.
In her book Right-Wing Women, Dworkin sneered at scientific language, writing, “While gossip among women is universally derided as low and trivial, gossip among men… is called theory, or idea, or fact.” She wilfully ignored that “theory” has a far more precise meaning in science than “gossip.” A scientific theory must be underpinned by data, and carefully reasoned. It is notable that in modern social science, the word “theory” has been stretched to allow thinking at the level of guesswork and dogma. In this, and other ways, Dworkin was often unintentionally prescient.
As one reads through Last Days at Hot Slit, Dworkin’s viewpoint, which is obvious, becomes less interesting than the woman herself. Why was she so angry and hateful? Why did she despise sex and men with such a peculiar intensity? Her contradictions provide food for interesting if inconclusive speculation: in a long, posthumously published autobiographical essay entitled “My Suicide,” she wrote of her love for her father, and how she “… stopped loving my mother, one of the great accomplishments of my life. To stop loving your mother creates a cold place in your heart and you write from there.” By her late fifties, shortly before her untimely death at 58, her pain and unhappiness had become obvious. Her vivid description of being drugged and raped in Paris is profoundly upsetting to read, and one’s sadness for her only deepens when we learn that this incident was widely dismissed as fantasy, even by her own supporters.
Ultimately, Dworkin represents a quandary for contemporary feminists. Her excesses can cause embarrassment to those eager to uncouple the movement from accusations of bitterness and misandry, and yet her passionate fury and unquestionable influence made her an unignorable pioneer of radical feminist thought. In the introduction to Last Days at Hot Slit, Johanna Fateman suggests that the “… ascendance of the third wave [of feminism in the 1990s] signalled her definitive defeat,” but this seems to ignore Dworkin’s illiberal stamp on more recent, more conservative waves of feminism. In Porn Panic!, I documented the steep rise of pro-censorship feminism in the current decade; this has targeted far more than pornography, and has attacked sexual (and allegedly misogynistic) expression in any form. Activists like Anita Sarkeesian have suggested that the very existence of online free speech is a fundamental threat to women, and feminists have been some of the most strident campaigners for social media networks to “take more responsibility” for content they deem harmful to women.
I don’t agree with Fateman that Dworkin lost; I think she won. Even “sex-positive” feminism looks unlikely to survive the cultural trauma of the #MeToo movement—most feminists now apparently accept Dworkin’s assertion that all “problematic” sexual behaviour, from a clumsy pass to forcible rape, must be stamped out with the same uncompromising zero tolerance. Meanwhile, the wave of “feminist” and “ethical” pornographers, far from legitimising pornography, instead attack the “corporate, male-owned” pornography mainstream, which mostly caters to that terrible demographic, the straight, cis male. These new pornographers no longer defend pornography on principle (as liberal feminists used to do), but agree with Dworkin that most of it is reprehensible and harmful by its very nature. Rather than embrace the freedom of female sexuality, they try to mandate what women ought to find erotic, and counterpose this healthy pornography against the vast weight of material that they claim (falsely) only appeals to men.
Reading this collection is recommended—because, while feminists still generally keep Dworkin at arm’s length, the modern movement contains far more of her than they care to admit. Her legacy may be illiberal and uncompromisingly pessimistic, but it is more relevant to the furious debates about sex and sexuality than ever.
Jerry Barnett is a technologist, author, and campaigner who for some years has written about, and opposed, the rise of censorship. His book Porn Panic! documents recent moral panics against free expression that have arisen on the identitarian Left. He runs the Sex and Censorship page on Facebook and you can follow him on Twitter @PornPanic