FIGHTING TALKFrom New Statesman & Society
21 April 1995
Reprinted by permission of Michael Moorcock and Andrea Dworkin.
All rights reserved.
Michael Moorcock: You were born in Camden, New Jersey, in 1946, had an admired father, went to a progressive school, led the familiar bohemian life of the 1960's, were active in protest politics, were arrested and received unexpectedly brutal treatment--but not as brutal as being a battered wife, stranded in Amsterdam with your monstrous husband, a political radical. Pretty traumatic stuff, Yet you remain, I think, fundamentally an optimist.
Andrea Dworkin: Optimism is what you do, how you live. I write, which is a quintessential act of optimism. It sometimes means the triumph of faith over experience, a belief in communication, in community, in change, and, for me, in beauty. The power and beauty of language. I act with other women to create social change: activism is optimism. I've always believed in art and politics as keys to transformation. Emotional authenticity and, if you will, social progress towards fairness and equality.
I was happy as a kid, although my mother was sick with heart disease, and my younger brother and I were often parcelled out to various family members, separated from each other and my parents. I grew up very fast and very early in all ways. That means I was independent, I did what I wanted. I learned to have a private life when I was very young, and also at different times I had to take care of my brother and mother. I lived a lot on the streets with my friends. It was a big part of my life. My family was poor and all these circumstances meant that I didn't have a stable or middle-class upbringing.
My father was--and is--very special, even back then noticeably different from other fathers: extremely gentle and caring, respecting women and children, listening to us, responding intellectually and emotionally. He worked in what was considered here a woman's job, as a teacher, and he worked at the post office; so I didn't get to see him much. But he was the great heart in our family. It would be hard to overstate how much he had to do with teaching me about human rights and human dignity, also how to talk and how to think.
The progressive school was Bennington, which I went to on a scholarship. I went to neighbourhood schools until college. I didn't think much of them because they were intellectually constricting, demanded conformity, especially for girls. My political life began long before I was arrested for protesting against the Vietnam war. I refused to sing Christmas carols in elementary school and was isolated and punished for it--as well as having "kike" written on my drawings on the bulletin board. In sixth grade, I couldn't decide whether to be a lawyer or a writer. I wanted to change the abortion laws . . .
Michael Moorcock: Your first book was "Woman Hating" in 1974. To make some sort of living from your work, you took to public speaking. This led to "Our Blood", a collection of eloquent and finely written speeches, published in 1976. Where do you come from politically?
Andrea Dworkin: Both my parents were horrified by US racism, certainly by de jure segregation, but also by all aspects of discrimination--black poverty, urban ghettos, menial labour, bad education, the lack of respect whites had for blacks. My father was pro-labour; he wanted teachers to be unionised. He refused a management job at the post office. My mother was committed to planned parenthood, to legal birth control (it was criminal then) and to legal abortion. We had immigrant family members who were survivors of the Holocaust, though most of my mother's and father's families had been killed. So I grew up taking hate and extermination seriously. I read all the time, as much as I could. My mother often had to write me notes so that I could have certain books from the library. After the high school board purged the library of all "socialist" and "indecent" books, I found this cute little book they'd missed called Guerilla Warfare by Che Guevara. I read it a million times. I'd plan attacks on the local shopping mall. I got a lot of practice in strategising real rebellion. It may be why I refuse to think that rebellion against the oppressors of women should be less real, less material, less serious.
Michael Moorcock: You've been described as a radical visionary rather than a practical politician. Do you enjoy politics?
Andrea Dworkin: I find compromise not impossible but incomprehensible. When Catharine MacKinnon and I were trying to pass the civil-rights law recognising pornography as sex discrimination in Minneapolis in 1983, politicians kept talking to me about incinerators. I was bewildered. They'd vote for the civil-rights bill if legislator X would vote to put some incinerator somewhere--not in their district, I think. My eyes would glaze over. Then I'd become enraged. The trade-offs, the pay-offs, sometimes actual blackmail and bribery. I was good at holding the politician's feet to the fire, in private and in public; to excoriate them, to move their constituents, but from a basis of principle. That I can do. I have good practical instincts on where dominant structures are vulnerable. This requires a high tolerance for risk and conflict.
I've always considered writing sacred. I've come to consider the rights of women, including a right to dignity, sacred. This is what I care about. I don't want to give up what I care about.
Michael Moorcock: There's enormous substance and original insight in your work. Yet a book like "Right-Wing Women", a superb analysis of the kind of women presently very prominent in politics, is out of print in the US. Why?
Andrea Dworkin: My novel Ice and Fire has never appeared in paperback here. For years, most of my work was officially out of print or simply unfindable. From when the civil-rights law was passed in Minneapolis until 1990, after I found a new publisher, Pornography could only be bought in northern California, via exceptionally resourceful distributors. There was a long period in the mid-1980's when it was easier to get virtually any book by me in English in Nigeria than in the US. Without belabouring any of this, I think these are the reasons: 1) In the US the pornography industry and the publishing industry see themselves as twin entities engaged in exercising and protecting the same rights in the same way. I stand against the pornography industry; the publishing industry sees me as an enemy. 2) My work is radical. A lot of people, especially the already comfortable, don't like it. Men especially object. Women don't want to be associated with work that brings out unambiguous hostility in men. 3) The left refuses to change, and in order to organise for the equality of women, the left must change. Even to consider, for example, the analysis in Right-Wing Women means reconceptualising what it would take to organise women politically.
Michael Moorcock: Having worked for porn publishers and knowing the trade pretty well, I felt your 1981 "Pornography: men possessing women" offered clear insights into what made me uneasy about porn. Like you, I am an anti-censorship activist, but I didn't like what porn "said". Did you begin with the view that porn is effective propaganda against women?
Andrea Dworkin: Like many women, I think, my life was different from my understanding. I didn't come to feminism until I was in my mid-20's. It's hard for younger women now to understand that women my age didn't have feminism as a movement or an analytical tool. I understood Vietnam right away. I understood apartheid. I knew prisons were bad and cruel, but I didn't understand why the male doctors in the Women's House of Detention essentially sexually assaulted me, or even that they did. I knew they ripped up my vagina with a steel instrument and told dirty jokes about women while they did it. I knew they enjoyed causing me purposeful pain. But there was no public, political conception of rape or sexual assault. Rape rose to being a political issue only when it involved false accusations made by white women against black men.
I prostituted on the streets for several years. I had no political understanding of that, nor even of my own homelessness or poverty. I was battered--genuinely tortured--when I was married, but I thought I was the only woman in the world this ever happened to. I had no political understanding that I was being beaten because I was a woman, or that this man thought I belonged to him, inside out. I came to pornography, which I had both read and used, just as I came to fairy-tales: to try to understand what each said about being a woman. There was the princess, the wicked queen or witch; there was O, there was the Dominatrix. I had somehow learned all that, become all of them; and figured I'd better unlearn some of this shit fast or I was going to be dead soon but not soon enough.
I once heard a pimp say he could turn any woman out but no one could make her stay on the streets. But what happens when you find the inside worse than the outside? What happens when the marital bed with your revolutionary lover/husband is worse than any two-second fuck in any alley? I was a believer in sexual liberation, but more important I had believed in the unqualified goodness of sex, its sensuousness, its intensity, its generosity. I've always loved being alive. I've no interest in suicide, never have had. The battering destroyed me. I had to decide whether I wanted to live or die. I was broken and ashamed and empty. I looked at pornography to try to understand what had happened to me. And I found a lot of information, about power and the mechanisms by which the subordination of women is sexualised. I want you to understand that I didn't learn an ideology. For me, it's been a living journey. I began to examine the use of force in sex, as well as the kind of sadism I'd experienced in prison. I had so many questions, why do men think they own women? Oh, well, they do; here are the laws that say so; here's how the pornography says so. Why do men think women are dirty? Why is overt violence against women simply ignored, or disbelieved, or blamed on the woman?
I read all I could and still found the richest source of information on women's lives was women, like me, who wanted freedom and were willing to fight for it. But a big part of the fight was facing facts; and facts had a lot to do with what men had done to us, how men used us with or without our own complicity. In pornography I found a map, a geography of male dominance in the sexual realm, with sex clearly defined as dominance and submission, not as equality or reciprocity.
Michael Moorcock: After "Right-Wing Women" and "Ice and Fire" you wrote "Intercourse". Another book which helped me clarify confusions about my own sexual relationships. You argue that attitudes to conventional sexual intercourse enshrine and perpetuate sexual inequality. Several reviewers accused you of saying that all intercourse was rape. I haven't found a hint of that anywhere in the book. Is that what you are saying?
Andrea Dworkin: No, I wasn't saying that and I didn't say that, then or ever. There is a long section in Right-Wing Women on intercourse in marriage. My point was that as long as the law allows statutory exemption for a husband from rape charges, no married woman has legal protection from rape. I also argued, based on a reading of our laws, that marriage mandated intercourse--it was compulsory, part of the marriage contract. Under the circumstances, I said, it was impossible to view sexual intercourse in marriage as the free act of a free woman. I said that when we look at sexual liberation and the law, we need to look not only at which sexual acts are forbidden, but which are compelled.
The whole issue of intercourse as this culture's penultimate expression of male dominance became more and more interesting to me. In Intercourse I decided to approach the subject as a social practice, material reality. This may be my history, but I think the social explanation of the "all sex is rape" slander is different and probably simple. Most men and a good number of women experience sexual pleasure in inequality. Since the paradigm for sex has been one of conquest, possession, and violation, I think many men believe they need an unfair advantage, which at its extreme would be called rape. I don't think they need it. I think both intercourse and sexual pleasure can and will survive equality.
It's important to say, too, that the pornographers, especially Playboy, have published the "all sex is rape" slander repeatedly over the years, and it's been taken up by others like Time who, when challenged, cannot cite a source in my work.
Michael Moorcock: What do you say to committed feminists who disagree with your approach to pornography and say porn is merely one manifestation among many of a problem with deeper roots?
Andrea Dworkin: I say solve the problem you think is more urgent or goes deeper. Pornography is so important, I think, because of how it touches on every aspect of women's lower status: economic degradation, dehumanisation, woman hating, sexual domination, systematic sexual abuse. If someone thinks she can get women economic equality, for instance, without dealing in some way with the sexual devaluation of women as such, I say she's wrong; but I also say work on it, try, organise; I will be there for her, as a resource, carrying picket signs, making speeches, signing petitions, supporting lawsuits for economic equality. But if she thinks the way to advance women is to organise against those of us who are organising against sexual exploitation and abuse, then I say I don't respect that; it's horizontal hostility, not feminism. Women willing to let other women do the so-called sex work, be the prostitutes, while they lead respectable professional lives in law or in the academy, frankly, make me sick. I concentrate my energy, however, on uniting with women who want to fight sexual exploitation, not on arguing with women who defend it.
Michael Moorcock: You have been wildly and destructively misquoted. I've been told that you hate all men, believe in biological determinism, write pornography while condemning it, have been censored under the very "laws" you introduced in Canada and so on. I know these allegations have no foundation, but they're commonly repeated. Do you know their source?
Andrea Dworkin: Playboy, Penthouse, Hustler and lobbying groups for pornographers. Some of the lobbying groups call themselves anti-censorship, but they spend so much time maligning MacKinnon and myself that it is hard to take them seriously. And it seems to be only defending pornography that brings them out. I would define illiteracy as the basic speech problem in the US, but I don't see any effort to deal with it as a political emergency with constitutionally based remedies, such as lawsuits against cities and states on behalf of illiterate populations characterised by race and class, purposefully excluded by public policy from learning how to read and write. Fighting MacKinnon and me is equivalent to going to Club Med rather than doing real work.
Michael Moorcock: What's your position on free speech?
Andrea Dworkin: I don't think the British understand US law. Here, burning a cross on a black person's lawn was recently protected as free speech by the Supreme Court. It's obviously a big subject, but the First Amendment, which keeps Congress from making laws that punish speech, doesn't say, for instance, that I have a right to say what I want, let alone that I have a right to say it on NBC or CBS. After I have expressed myself, the government isn't supposed to punish me. But women and people of colour, especially African-Americans, have been excluded from any rights of speech for most of our history. In the US it costs money to have access to the means of speech. If you're a woman, sexual assault can stop you from speaking; so can almost constant intimidation and threat. The First Amendment was designed to protect white, land-owning men from the power of the state. This was followed by the Second Amendment, which says, ". . . and we have guns". Women and most blacks were chattels, without any speech rights of any kind. So the First Amendment protects the speech of Thomas Jefferson, but has Sally Hemmings ever said a word anyone knows about? My own experience is that speech is not free; it costs a lot.
Michael Moorcock: What do you think about the current shift to the right in US politics?
Andrea Dworkin: Here, in blaming and shaming the oppressed, the powerless, the left colludes with the right. There's no reason to look to the left for justice, so people look to the right for order. It's pretty simple. The victory of the right also expresses the rage of white men against women and people of colour who are seen to be eroding the white man's authority. The pain of destroying male rule won't be worse than the pain of living with it.
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