The Political Memoir of a Feminist Militant

Andrea Dworkin

Jeff Feels…

“I would rather suck dick than have sex with Andrea Dworkin,” says Al Goldstein, the founding father of Screw Magazine. Goldstein might soon be going to jail on charges of harassing a former employee,
so he may get the chance to try at least one of those options. But
readers of Dworkin’s new memoir, Heartbreak, may wonder if Goldstein
isn’t missing the point. More than anything, this book reminds me of
the New Yorker cartoon in which a wife asks her husband: “You haven’t
said anything for ten years. Is anything wrong?”

It’s been fourteen years since Andrea Dworkin published a book, so some
of our younger Ruthless Readers may not even know who she is. Along
with law professor Catharine McKinnon,
Dworkin made waves two decades ago by claiming that pornography
violated women’s civil rights. Not only did dirty pictures encourage
sex discrimination (including rape), they were sex discrimination, and
they deserved to be covered-or covered up-by the same civil-rights laws
that dealt with bias on the job. While McKinnon argued points of law,
Dworkin became the street fighter of the pair, speaking on college
campuses and attracting a small but dedicated band of young groupies.

By the mid-Eighties, Dworkin and McKinnon were the feminists men loved
to hate-but maybe we shouldn’t have bothered. The only success they
ever achieved was getting a single “civil rights” ordinance passed in
Indianapolis (of all places), which a federal court quickly threw out.
Meanwhile, their ideas sparked a catfight that almost destroyed the National Organization for Women,
and by end of the Eighties the anti-censorship faction was firmly in
charge of what was left of NOW. Those setbacks pretty much spelled the
end of anti-porn feminism in America. By eliminating Dworkin’s appeal
as a hate figure, they also brought a quick end to her 15 minutes of

Unpopular views plus bad writing don’t equal huge sales, and some of
Dworkin’s most important work (including her 1979 classic, Pornography:
Men Possessing Women) is now out of print. Like those early books,
Heartbreak is no literary masterpiece, and it may already be headed for
the remainder bin. But believe it or not, it’s worth reading. Dworkin’s
first sentence promises an intimate memoir: “I have been asked,
politely and not so politely, why I am myself”. She doesn’t quite
answer that intriguing question, but her rambling narrative evokes the
heady days of Sixties and post-Sixties radicalism-a lost world that
most of us wouldn’t want to live in, but one that shaped the world we
live in now.
One of the earliest surprises in Dworkin’s book comes from her days as
a student activist at Bennington College in Vermont. In those days
Bennington was a women’s school, with tough parietal hours to keep
boyfriends at bay:

From 2 a.m. to 6 a.m. the houses in which the students
lived were girls only. One could have sex with another girl, and many
of us did, myself certainly included. But the male lovers had to
disappear: be driven out like beasts into the cold mountain night, hide
behind trees during the hour of the wolf, and reemerge after dawn. The
elimination of parietal hours was a huge issue, in some ways as big as
the war?It was law and order versus personal freedom, and I was on the
side of personal freedom.

Dworkin’s demand for “personal freedom” eventually got
her expelled?and that’s not the only irony of this strange woman’s life
story. If you think man-hating feminists are wrong about everything,
Heartbreak will make you think again. A few of chapters may make your
head spin, in fact. Not many people know that Dworkin shares a godson
with her former idol, the Beat poet and gay liberationist Allen Ginsberg,
or the story behind their split in the early Seventies. To hear Dworkin
tell it, their final encounter went something like this:

On the day of [my godson’s] bar mitzvah newspapers
reported in huge headlines that the Supreme Court had ruled child
pornography illegal. I was thrilled. I knew that Allen would not be. I
did think he was a civil libertarian. But in fact, he was a pedophile.
He did not belong to the North American Man-Boy Love Association out of
some mad, abstract conviction that its voice had to be heard. He meant
it. I take this from what Allen said directly to me, not from some
inference I made. He was exceptionally aggressive about his right to
fuck children and his constant pursuit of underage boys…

Ginsberg told me that he had never met an intelligent person who had
the ideas I did. I told him he didn’t get around enough. He pointed to
the friends of my godson and said they were old enough to fuck. They
were twelve and thirteen. He said that all sex was good, including
forced sex…

Referring back to the Supreme Court’s decision banning child
pornography he said, “The right wants to put me in jail.” I said, “Yes,
they’re very sentimental; I’d kill you.” The next day he’d point at me
in crowded rooms and screech, “She wants to put me in jail.” I’d say,
“No, Allen, you still don’t get it. The right wants to put you in jail.
I want you dead.”

Whose side are you on now? Are you surprised?

Speaking of NAMBLA,
the release of Heartbreak is nicely timed to complement the latest
mind-blowing abuse scandals in the Catholic Church. And it’s easy for
free-speech fans to forget that Dworkin spent her career pushing two
ideas, not one. She claimed that sexual violence against women and
children was incredibly widespread, even routine? and that banning
pornography was the right way to put a stop to it. Do those two
opinions make her crazy-or only half-crazy?

But this is water under the bridge, and Dworkin knows it. As if her
agenda weren’t tattered enough in 1990, the following decade brought us
DVD players, Internet smut, riot-grrl feminism, and President Bill Clinton.
You’d be heartbroken, too. It’s a sign of her complete irrelevance that
she now refuses to use the World Wide Web, or even get an email
address. After all, cyberspace is the ultimate smut bazaar. If you felt
the way Dworkin does about pornography, you wouldn’t touch a modem with
a ten-foot pole.

Still, the author seems less bitter than you might expect. (Maybe all
that lecture-circuit money helped soften the blow. I just hope she got
out of the stock market in time.) She hints that this book is her swan

I think I’ve pretty much done what I can do; I’m empty; there’s not
much left, not inside me. I think that it’s bad to give up, but maybe
it’s not bad to rest, to sit in silence for a while.

But the book’s cool, distant delivery sometimes slips-especially
when Dworkin describes her enemies in the feminist movement, the women
who eventually took her down:

There were so-called feminists who published in Playboy, Hustler, and
Penthouse and penned direct attacks on feminists fighting pornography
and prostitution. There were women labeled feminist who wrote
pornographic scenarios in which the so-called fantasies were the rape
of other feminists, usually named and sometimes drawn but always

That brings us back to Screw magazine. Al Goldstein
isn’t the first man (or woman) to argue that only ugly women become
radical feminists. A look at the jacket of Heartbreak convinces me he’s
wrong. Andrea Dworkin wasn’t born wearing overalls, and she can
probably afford a tube of lipstick. So the image on the book’s back
flap must be the woman Dworkin has chosen to become: the Pillsbury Earth Mother whose photograph makes Goldstein’s dick go instantly limp. (That’s the point, Al. Don’t you get it?)

But close the book, and you’re confronted with a very different
picture. The cover photo shows Dworkin as she was some time in the
early Seventies, at the high noon of Women’s Liberation. She is dark
and smoldering, her hair unkempt and–can I be imagining this?–a touch
of mascara on her lashes. She holds a cigarette to her lips, her eyes
cast down intently on something in front of her. I like to think she’s
writing a devastating press release, or a powerfully argued manifesto
to persuade the world that some male chauvinist pig needs his balls cut
off. Andrea Dworkin was always wrong–but thirty years ago she was wrong
and Ruthless, and she was sexy as all hell.