Dworkin is a queen of contradictions. "The characterisations of me in public are pretty much the opposite of the way I am," she tells me in a low, breathy voice. "I'm pretty hedonistic." She is a lesbian who has lived with a man for more than 20 years. She is a famous writer who can't find a publisher and even now has her work rejected, when she can bear to try submitting it, by the New Yorker and the New York Times. (Her landmark works, Woman Hating , and Pornography: Men Possessing Women , are out of print in English.) She is a presumed man-hater who says breezily: "I don't hate men. Not that they don't deserve it. It's just not in my nature." In fact, all that turns out to be consistent and predictable about Dworkin is her commitment to fighting pornography, a battle she has waged for more than 20 years. Pornography, Dworkin says, hurts women, and must be stopped.
Pornography has come a long way since the demure postcards of beestung beauties in the early century. As women have made ever more inroads toward sexual equality, there has been a corresponding rise in the brutality of pornography, Dworkin believes. "I think the explosion of pornography is retaliatory," she says. "Men can't tolerate the ambiguity of what might be equality, and they experience it as anti-sexual. Pornography creates a society where all women are whores. It's the ultimate in democratisation of misogyny. That's the real backlash that's happening now, not the feminist one, but a backlash of threat and violence." She concludes: "It's very hard to tolerate the hostility of men to your presence."
Dworkin has no small experience of male hostility to her own presence. In the Sixties she was arrested at a Vietnam war protest. Just before she was borne away to the Women's House of Detention in Manhattan, a building 13 storeys high, packed mostly with young black women, many of them prostitutes, Dworkin gave a parcel she was carrying, a bag of going-to-jail necessaries, to a "funny little woman" for safekeeping. That lady turned out to be the writer Grace Paley. While Dworkin was detained, she was subjected to a cruel, damaging internal examination. After a few days of wandering around Manhattan mute from shock, Dworkin found Paley, and Paley convinced her to take her story to the press. Overnight, Dworkin's semi-torture became a news sensation, plastered in the papers, trumpeted by television crews. The Women's House of Detention, "a notorious downtown Bastille", was eventually closed down - and Dworkin found herself rejected by her family, who were humiliated by their daughter's public scandal; and barraged by obscene mail from men who were excited by it. Dworkin then lived in Holland for five years, where she was married to a batterer, and finally escaped, she says, "not because I was afraid he was going to kill me, which he could have, but because I realised I was going to kill him". These years formed the genesis of her activism against pornography, but Dworkin resents any implication that her hard luck has clouded her objectivity. "I am always asked this question - can I be objective?" she says defiantly. "I've never heard Elie Wiesel asked if he can be objective about the Nazis, I've never heard Solzhenitsyn asked if he can be objective about the gulag." Dworkin is angry, but her anger sounds more like sadness than rage. She strokes her blue-eyed cat Sam, and says, scornfully: "As if not paying attention to rape and wife battery were some kind of objectivity."
We walk upstairs, and Dworkin shows me her bedroom, which is airy and feminine, with burgundy swag curtains, an armchair, an exercise bike and a big white duvet. Then she takes me across the hall and shows me Stoltenberg's bedroom. "I believe couples should have separate bedrooms," she confides sotto voce. Then we go up one more flight of stairs to her study. Above the fireplace, neatly stacked, are columns of CDs - Miles Davis and Reba McIntyre, Garth Brooks; mostly country and blues. Walls of shelves are dotted with quirky postcards, and contain her books: her novels, Ice & Fire and Mercy; and her non-fiction, Intercourse, Letters from a War Zone and others, in English and foreign-language editions. Framed photographs of Stoltenberg lurk here and there, as well as one of Gertrude Stein. A Cabbage Patch doll sprawls amiably on one shelf, "a present from John," she explains. Above her desk, stacked with books she is reading to research her book Scapegoat, which examines the similarity of anti-Semitism and misogyny, is a Xerox of alleged rapist William Kennedy Smith, with a rifle target centred on his head. A headline above it reads: DEAD MEN DON'T RAPE.
Which of her books is most likely to be remembered, I ask her - a harmless enough question - but her answer surprises me in its force. "I see my books as a body of work, in my opinion of singular importance, and deeply disrespected in a way that is savagely unfair." Dworkin especially resents the critical dismissal of her work because she believes that women not only benefit by her writings, but need them. In her lecture career, she meets many young women on college campuses and at battered women's centres who despair that they cannot find her books in bookshops. "One woman showed me a dog-eared copy of my book Woman Hating that had been read by upwards of 200 women," Dworkin says. It is not she who is out of touch with the real concerns of the women today, she maintains; it is her critics, especially the female critics. "People don't understand the tyranny of media," she explains. "The few women that the media will allow in have to think about male approval, and their own success - and their writing reflects that." Naomi Wolf, she says, is a coward; and she and others who diminish the pervasiveness of discrimination against women have a complacency that most young women do not share. "We're in a war that we're losing," Dworkin says. "If women don't decide their own lives matter, then their own lives won't matter." And so, when critics dismiss her books, Dworkin puts the blame squarely on sexism. "There's a double standard for women writers that's contemptible." Her books, Mercy and Intercourse should last, Dworkin says. "But," she adds, "they won't."
In the face of resounding critical rejection and contempt, Dworkin admits that, lately, she feels discouraged. "I have less confidence now than I ever have had," she says. This year, after many years of effort, she at last found a publisher for a book she wrote with her collaborator, the Michigan lawyer Catherine MacKinnon, chronicling their efforts to pass anti-porn bills in several American cities. One of the readers of the manuscript sent Dworkin and MacKinnon a letter lauding their accomplishments in combating pornography. "It made me feel sick," Dworkin says. "I feel we have accomplished so little." The bills she and MacKinnon sought to enforce were passed in Minneapolis and in Indianapolis only to be vetoed or lost in appeals.
Despite the doubts and the resentments, Dworkin says she still considers herself an optimist. "All writers are," she says. And she still lectures in the United States, Canada, and any place where women in need call her, and can pay a reasonable fee. "People want me to shut up, but I won't. I believe social change is possible; that's why I'm an activist."
Change, though, comes slowly."Pornography is a multi-billion-dollar industry, and they spend a lot of moneylobbying for laws that protect them," Dworkin says. "They see me as their enemy." To those who argue that pornography is a harmless diversion for consenting adults, Dworkin retorts: "It's a social plan for the destruction of women. I call it the war room for sexual abuse: How do you hurt her? What are the ways in which you destroy her? That's what I think pornography is and does." To those who suggest that many women freely choose to work in pornography, and should not have their livelihood tampered with, Dworkin counters: "Most of the women in the pornography trade are victims of childhood sexual abuse. If the pornography industry had to depend on having a supply of women who had food and shelter and were treated kindly, there wouldn't be an industry."
Pornography, she says, is all the more pernicious because it has been normalised. "Increasingly, people either think it's OK, or they accept that it's there and they don't want to look at it." Dworkin considers this phenomenon of blase acceptance resonant of Hitler's campaign against the Jews. "When anti-Semitism becomes normal, violence against Jews becomes easy; and when woman-hating becomes the norm, then killing and other forms of sexual abuse of women become easy," she says. "And I think that's what's happening."Reuse content