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Why Andrea Dworkin is the radical, visionary feminist we need in our terrible times

She was labelled a man-hater, anti-sex and ugly. But she predicted both the ascent of Trump and #MeToo – and her unapologetic attitude is more relevant than ever

Andrea Dworkin … prophetic

‘I can’t come here as a friend, even though I might very much want to.” These are the words of Andrea Dworkin, addressing an anti-sexist men’s organisation in 1983, in her acclaimed speech I Want a 24-Hour Truce in Which There Is No Rape. “The power exercised by men, day to day, in life is power that is institutionalised. It is protected by law. It is protected by religion and religious practice. It is protected by universities, which are strongholds of male supremacy. It is protected by a police force. It is protected by those whom Shelley called “the unacknowledged legislators of the world”: the poets, the artists. Against that power, we have silence.”

Dworkin, who died of heart failure in 2005 at the age of 58, was one of the world’s most notorious radical feminists. She wrote 14 books, the most famous of which was Pornography: Men Possessing Women (1981). Now her work is being revisited in Last Days at Hot Slit, a new collection of her writing.

Many of the articles written about her claimed Dworkin personified hate. The media often said she hated men, hated sex, hated sexual freedom and absolutely hated the left. In 1998, a writer in the London Review of Books saw fit to give his view on her appearance (“overweight and ugly”) and how her “frustration” at not having enough sex “has turned her into a man-hater”. Another wrote after her death that Dworkin was a “sad ghost” that feminism needs to exorcise and that she was “insane”.Andrea Dworkin, embattled feminist, dies at 58Read more

I knew the real Dworkin, and our decade-long friendship taught me far more about love than hate. “I keep the stories of the women in my heart,” she would tell me when I asked how she did the work she did and stayed sane. “They urge me on, and keep me focused on what needs to be done.”

She was motivated by an innate desire to rid the world of pain and oppression. Had more of us listened to Dworkin during her decades of activism, and taken her work more seriously, more women would have signed up to an uncompromising feminism, as opposed to the fun kind, the sloganeering sort you read on high-street T-shirts, that is all about individual “girl power” and being able to wear trousers, rather than a collective movement to emancipate all women from the tyranny of oppression.

We met in 1996. I was one of the organisers of an international conference on violence against women, and Dworkin was a keynote speaker. We hit it off immediately, as we had a similar sense of humour and a number of friends in common. A group of conference speakers went to dinner on the first night and we were raucously discussing our various wishlists of ways to end patriarchy. “Did you notice that we were ‘ladies’ when we came in, ‘guys’ when our order was taken,” said Dworkin the following morning, “and probably banned for life by the time we left?”

Feminist writer Andrea Dworkin.
Feminist writer Andrea Dworkin. Photograph: Jodi Buren/The Life Images Collection/Getty Images

In the early 1970s, Dworkin spoke of her own experiences of sexual abuse and violence at a time when few did. And in today’s climate of #MeToo revelations, we can see how far ahead of her time she was. “In the 1980s and 1990s, reading Dworkin became, for many, a discomfiting and exhilarating collegiate rite of passage,” reads a recent piece in the New York Times. “Her writing is a strident and raw look at the systemic bias affecting the everyday experiences of women.”

Dworkin’s 1983 book, Right-Wing Women, could have been about how Trump came to power. Although I doubt she would have been so quick to lay the bulk of the blame for Trump’s election on white women, her razor-sharp analysis of why so many women are attracted to a politics that despises their rights is more relevant today than ever. Her central theory is that the right exploits women’s fear and offers us a chivalrous protection. It reassures us that we do not need to change the status quo, but accept it, and take whatever access to power is available to us. Dworkin despaired at what has come to be known as “lean-in feminism” which focuses on the ability of individual, privileged women to climb to the top, and always said that until women at the “bottom of the pile” were liberated, none of us could be.

How refreshing her style of speaking and writing – intoxicating and unapologetic – is compared with the “fun-feminist” prose we see so often on modern bookshelves. Much of this writing focuses on self-help for disgruntled individuals, such as Caitlin Moran’s How to Be a Woman, which concentrates on laughing at sexism and having lots of larks. This, Dworkin would have said, is just another distraction from how women live “inside a system of humiliation from which there is no escape”.

We are living in terrible times for women. Thankfully, our resistance to the global pandemic of sexual and domestic violence is growing. But this resistance is being curtailed by a concerted attempt to silence women – just look at the inexorable rise of non-disclosure agreements to gag women speaking out about discrimination or harassment.

Dworkin would never be silenced. Reading her piece Dear Bill and Hillary, published in this newspaper in 1998, makes me wonder how we could not have seen that a man like Donald Trump would end up in power, and that sexual abuse scandals would dominate the media.

The new pornography is a vast graveyard where the left has gone to die. The left cannot have its whores and its politics, too.”

Andrea Dworkin

Decades ago, Dworkin spoke out vociferously against liberal feminists who defended Clinton against allegations of sexual abuse and misconduct simply because he claimed to support the US anti-violence-against-women movement. “Male politicians’ policies in respect of women are important, but sexual harassment is an issue, too. You don’t say it’s OK for the leader of your country to be having his cock sucked, by someone half his age, while he is in the people’s house,” she wrote. “I care about how men in public life treat women.” How prophetic that is when 20 years later we have a president who talks openly about how his fame means he can “do anything” to women – even “grab them by the pussy”.

And then there is the thorny issue of pornography. Alongside the legal scholar and feminist author Catherine MacKinnon, in 1983 Dworkin came up with the Dworkin-MacKinnon Anti-Pornography Civil Rights Ordinance, which would have given those directly harmed by pornography a right to civil recourse, enabling the victims to sue porn producers and distributors. The inspiration for the approach was Linda Lovelace, the star of Deep Throat, who had announced that she had been forced into making the film and raped during its production.

The ordinance, while supported by anti-pornography feminists in the US, UK and elsewhere, proved generally unpopular and eventually died a death. But, says the anti-porn author Gail Dines: “Dworkin’s work takes on greater significance in light of the #MeToo movement, which has made visible the routine sexual violence that has long been kept under wraps … [It] was more accurate than even she could have known: the dominant culture still avoids facing the reality of pornography’s role in making men’s sexual domination of women ‘hot’.”

Dworkin was the first second-wave feminist to write in detail about how beauty practices both came from and feed into women’s oppression. “Plucking the eyebrows, shaving under the arms … learning to walk in high-heeled shoes,” she wrote in Woman Hating, “having one’s nose fixed, straightening or curling one’s hair – these things hurt. The pain, of course, teaches an important lesson: no price is too great, no process too repulsive, no operation too painful for the woman who would be beautiful.”

So-called feminist pornographers are a fairly recent phenomenon, but Dworkin would have had no patience with the notion that porn could be made in an ethical way. I imagine she would have seen it much like the leftist arguments that porn should be protected as “free speech”. “The new pornography is a vast graveyard where the left has gone to die,” she once said. “The left cannot have its whores and its politics, too.”

Media critic … Andrea Dworkin.
Media critic … Andrea Dworkin. Photograph: Bettmann/Bettmann Archive

Months before she died, I introduced Dworkin to some Guardian editors, as she was becoming increasingly distressed by being unable to get her work published in the US. One of the pieces commissioned as a result of that meeting was about living with pain and disability. In the last email I received from Dworkin, she told me how positive her experience was dealing with those who recognised her worth. “I have never – I mean never – had the experience of editors I work with treating me with this kind of respect. I appreciate it so much.”

Dworkin was sadly prophetic about heterosexuality. The campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez (described recently as “the acceptable face of feminism”) cited Dworkin’s analysis of sexual relations between men and women. “There is a brilliant Dworkin quote about this,” she said. “Women are the only … group that shares a bed with their oppressor.”

In 1988, Dworkin was widely pilloried for describing sexual intercourse as “mandatory”, arguing that men claim an inalienable right to penetrate women during sex, and that this is one of the tools of patriarchy. Just last month, however, during a case in the high court, a judge was asked to consider imposing an order preventing a man from having sex with his wife because she now lacked the mental capacity to give consent. He said: “I cannot think of any more obviously fundamental human right than the right of a man to have sex with his wife.”

We had many a conversation about her earlier life. Although admirable, it always made me feel sad that Dworkin felt she owed such a debt of gratitude to the women’s movement, because feminists had helped her in her early days to escape a very violent marriage. Although I kept it from her, some feminists were deeply unkind about Dworkin, with one high-profile writer once telling me: “Andrea does the movement no favours – she’s a loose cannon and looks awful.”

The visceral hatred towards Dworkin acted as a warning to women not to engage with a radical type of feminism. However, we need it more than ever right now. Rape convictions are as rare as hen’s teeth; revenge porn is a daily reality for many women and girls; and trafficking of women into the sex trade is endemic. One investigation into major pimping gangs in England found that police were happy to blame the victims for their fate. The soft feminism most prevalent today is inadequate for the climate of misogyny that women are being forced to endure. The focus, particularly of young and university-based women, on individual identity and lifestyle choice will not withstand the onslaught of the men’s rights movement.

The truth about Dworkin is everywhere, but so is the distortion of her work and of her politics. In 1998, I visited Dworkin in her Brooklyn home. We were talking about the latest attack on her by pro-pornography feminists, which had clearly upset her. “I have a feeling that after my death I might be finally understood.” I asked what she meant. She did not expand.

Our lengthy conversations, which I miss more with every passing year, would be full of laughter and passion, but always with the cloud of impending doom hovering. Dworkin got it so right when she told me, only months before she died: “Women will come back to feminism, because things are going to get far, far worse for us before they get better.”