When I read Andrea Dworkin's Our Blood in the early Eighties I was impressed, but it was her Right-Wing Women which convinced me that a substantial new voice had joined those of the other innovative feminists I admired. With its brilliant insights into the Right's anti-feminism, why women often choose conservative politics contrary to their specific interests, the book offered an advance in feminist political thinking almost as radical as Sexual Politics.
It wasn't only Dworkin's intellectual brilliance, originality of thought or analytical powers which made her my heroine - it was her eloquence, the persuasiveness of her language, her willingness to take all kinds of risks, to ask questions most of us would rather not ask and be brave enough to propose answers. Like Bea Campbell, she was a genuine left-wing radical thinker, at least as original as Orwell and sometimes as quirky, and just as inclined to get up the noses of the established Left. Her critics were prepared to disagree with her rather than villify her until Pornography: Men Possessing Women really upset them. In it, she argued that porn was an issue of equality and sexual exploitation.
Like Dworkin, I'd campaigned for civil rights in the Sixties and Seventies. I'd fought for the abolition of censorship practices which banned Lady Chatterley, Ulysses, The Well of Loneliness and The Naked Lunch. I went to court and risked jail in defence of free speech. I was part of a movement which achieved the Race Relations Act, legal abortion and all kinds of egalitarian advances. When I eventually met Andrea in the mid-Eighties, we discovered much common experience. We'd known "street-life", the realities of the sex and drug trades, the protest movement. We'd both been arrested and discovered powerlessness in the hands of brutal authority which, you learn, actively hates you. We had also come up against puritans like Mrs Whitehouse and ferociously opposed their definitions of obscenity and their efforts at censorship.
Apart from a perverse enthusiasm for rowdy cowboy music, it was probably this shared experience which made my wife Linda and me become such firm friends with Andrea and her companion of 20 years, the writer and civil rights activist John Stoltenberg. Dworkin's radicalism came directly from personal experience of being a seriously battered wife in Amsterdam, without support from family or friends. She's known the despair and terror which makes you do almost anything for even a moment's release. As a result, she has earned an extraordinary grass-roots constituency amongst poor women. While she has successfully discouraged attempts to deify her, she hasn't been able to control a vicious demonisation which began when the likes of Playboy saw her as a threat to their fortunes and invoked the American Civil Liberties Union.
Dworkin's analysis of porn as propaganda and exploitation contained no references to obscenity or conventional sin. A Bill she and Catharine MacKinnon, a lawyer, prepared defined pornography in terms of civil rights, not obscenity, arguing that it led to violence against women in the way that racial propaganda leads to violence against minorities. The Baby Boomer liberal notion of porn as a safety-valve was questioned and ideas about its social value reversed. Dworkin asked why pictures of Asian women bound and hanging in trees (Penthouse) were "speech" and how they were "free". When she suggested, in Intercourse, that the conventional sex act might contribute to sexual inequality, a great many reviewers reacted as if she'd proposed mass castrations.
Dworkin argues that sexuality can be confused with power, how pleasure can be confused with power. I'm by no means a New Man, and have no background of abuse, but all my life I've been conscious of the unequal condition of women and wanted men, including myself, to stop hurting women. Dworkin gave logic, insight and language to those feelings. Yet currently she is being so successfully caricatured that the New York Times, The Nation or the president of the ACLU will cheerfully print lies about her and misquote her wildly but refuse her any right to reply. Liberal publishers forbid their editors to buy her books; much of her best work (including Right-Wing Women) is out of print.
Her first novel, Ice and Fire, drew heavily on her own experience, containing a moving testament to her love for one particular individual. But it was Mercy which really confused her critics. Much of that novel, too, is auto- biographical. It is perhaps the most harrowing fiction I've read. Its violence and depiction of sexual abuse is vivid. It is, in the end, about systematic rape. Some critics chose to see Dworkin as a hypocrite writing porn while condemning it. They hadn't understood Pornography. She wasn't talking about "obscenity", she was talking about men possessing women, about power and its abuses, about propaganda and the profit motive.
In her writing and in person, Andrea Dworkin is consistent, logical, courteous and respectful of others. She has deep, committed loyalties, warm friendships, and persists courageously in the unfashionable idea that human society, even human nature, is somehow perfectable.
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