LETTERS FROM A WAR ZONE
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A part of this essay was published as an Afterword to both the British and German editions of Pornography: Men Possessing Women. In the United States, the whole essay was published in a small literary review. I wonder if even a thousand people had the opportunity to read it. It took me a year to find that small outlet. Looking back on this essay now, I can only say that I considerably understated the effects pornography has had on me; no doubt I was afraid of being ridiculed. I know some of the most brilliant, and certainly the strongest, women of my time, and there is nothing unique in pornography's effect on me.Writing is not a happy profession. The writer lives and works in solitude, no matter how many people surround her. Her most intensely lived hours are spent with herself. The pleasures and pains of writing are talked around or about but not shared. Her friends do not know what she does or how she does it. Like everyone else, they see only the results. The problems of her work are unique. The solution to one sentence is not the solution to any other sentence. No one else knows where she is going until she herself has gotten there. When others are contemplating the results, she is on her next project, all alone again. Her colleagues and competitors for the most part are dead. The work itself involves using the mind in an intense and punishing way. The solitude demanded by the work is extreme in and of itself. Others rarely live so alone, so self-created. She is not a male writer, which means that she cleans her own toilet and does her own laundry. If she is ruthless and singleminded, she does only her own portion of the housework, not his or theirs. The rewards of her work are in her work. There are no weekly wages, no health benefits, no promotions, no cost of living raises, no job descriptions. When she does actually earn money, it will be in a lump sum that must presumably last forever. If she becomes a "celebrity" or even "famous," she may gain easier access to print or to money but lose that honest sense of privacy without which even solitude is meaningless. As more and more people know her writing, they think they know her. Her writing goes out into the world brazen and intractable as she faces the blank page in what at best is a room of her own. Her mind and imagination grind on, facing life, facing knowledge, facing creation, while the world around her spits on or chatters about what she has already done and nearly forgotten. Writing is absolutely extreme, at once irredeemably individual and irredeemably social. No writer can explain how she does what she does so that another can replicate the process and come up with the same results; at the same time, only through reading brave and original writers can one learn how to write.
When I go into a bookstore, especially a women's bookstore, I try to stand the lives behind the books in a line: add up the years it took to write all those books, the days and hours spent, the minds used and used, the material resources gone through, the mental trouble, the difficulty of the lives, the sorrow, the great battles behind the books even before the battle for publication could begin. And also the pleasure. The pleasure of the writing, of moving from here to there, of going deeper, of seeing and knowing, of showing. Despite the sexual hysteria of our time, a woman writer's pleasure is not to be measured in orgasms but in writing. It is a pleasure that cannot be shared. The reader's pleasure is different and cheaper.
Each book in a writer's life is another circle of hell: and people choose hell because they love pleasure. A writer's hell is a writer's pleasure not because writers are simple-minded masochists but because writers, whatever their ideologies or protestations, are worldly: mired in time and meaning; not just entranced by the display of the material world or, in contemporary jargon, "the games people play," but infatuated and obsessed with the muck of real life. Writers are arrogant and greedy and ambitious in that experience is not enough, sensation is not enough, knowledge is not enough: one must remake it all, have it all one more time but in another way, a way that cannot be translated or described, only done and experienced . Writing is not one step removed from life; it is as intense and consuming as anything life has to offer. But love happens, earthquakes happen: one must decide to write. It is not an accident. It is willed and it sets one apart. Especially if one is a woman, one is set apart. It is in the privacy and the greed and the punishment of the writing itself that one is set apart.
In writing my new book, I experienced the most intense isolation I have known as a writer. I lived in a world of pictures--women's bodies displayed, women hunched and spread and hanged and pulled and tied and cut--and in a world of books--gang rape, pair rape, man on woman rape, lesbian rape, animal on woman rape, evisceration, torture, penetration, excrement, urine, and bad prose. I worked on the book for three years. After the first year a friend entered my room and remarked that she was more at ease in the local porn stores. A half a year later, the friend with whom I lived asked me quietly and sincerely to refrain from showing him any material I might be working on and also, please, to keep it out of any room other than my own. I have good and kind friends. Their nerves could not withstand even the glimpses they got. I was immersed in it.
Under the best of circumstances, I do not have pleasant dreams. I work while I sleep. Life goes on, awake or asleep. I spent eight months studying the Marquis de Sade. I spent eight months dreaming Sadean dreams. Let the men joke: these were not "erotic" dreams; dreams of torture are dreams of hate, in this case the hate being used against female bodies, the instruments of hate (metal or flesh) being used to maim. Only one woman understood me. She had worked as an editor on the collected volumes of Sade's work at Grove Press. After completing the editing of the first volume, she attended an editorial meeting where plans were being made to do a second volume. She explained that she couldn't stand the nightmares. "We should start making movies of your nightmares," the chief editor told her. They did.
But the nightmares were the least of it. The reading itself made me physically sick. I became nauseous--if I were male, I might dare to say full of fear and trembling and sick unto death. The President's Commission on Pornography and Obscenity (1970) reported this as a frequent effect of pornography on women and then concluded that pornography had no harmful consequences. Personally I consider nausea a harmful consequence, not trivial when the life involved is one's own. I became frightened and anxious and easily irritable. But the worst was that I retreated into silence. I felt that I could not make myself understood, that no one would know or care, and that I could not risk being considered ridiculous. The endless struggle of the woman writer to be taken seriously, to be respected, begins long before any work is in print. It begins in the silence and solitude of her own mind when that mind must diagram and dissect sexual horror.
My work on Sade came to an end, but not before I nearly collapsed from fatigue: physical fatigue because I hated to sleep; physical fatigue because I was often physically sick from the material; mental fatigue because I took on the whole male intellectual tradition that has lionized Sade; but also moral fatigue, the fatigue that comes from confronting the very worst sexual aspirations of men articulated by Sade in graphic detail, the fatigue engendered by sexual cruelty.
The photographs I had to study changed my whole relationship to the physical world in which I live. For me, a telephone became a dildo, the telephone wire an instrument of bondage; a hair dryer became a dildo--those hair dryers euphemistically named "pistols", scissors were no longer associated with cutting paper but were poised at the vagina's opening. I saw so many photographs of common household objects being used as sexual weapons against women that I despaired of ever returning to my once simple ideas of function. I developed a new visual vocabulary, one that few women have at all, one that male consumers of pornography carry with them all the time: any mundane object can be turned into an eroticized object--an object that can be used to hurt women in a sexual context with a sexual purpose and a sexual meaning. This increased my isolation significantly, since my friends thought I was making bad jokes when I recoiled at certain unselfconscious manipulations of a hair dryer, for instance. A male friend handed me a telephone in an extremely abrupt way. "Don't you ever push that thing at me again," I said in real alarm, knowing whereof I spoke. He, hating pornography, did not.
I had to study the photographs to write about them. I stared at them to analyze them. It took me a long time to see what was in them because I never expected to see what was there, and expectation is essential to accurate perception. I had to learn. A doorway is a doorway. One walks through it. A doorway takes on a different significance when one sees woman after woman hanging from doorways. A lighting fixture is for light until one sees woman after woman hung from lighting fixtures. The commonplace world does not just become sinister; it becomes disgusting, repellent. Pliers are for loosening bolts until one sees them cutting into women's breasts. Saran Wrap is for preserving food until one sees a person mummified in it.
Again, the nausea, the isolation, the despair. But also, increasingly, a rage that had nowhere to go, and a sense of boredom through it all at the mindless and endless repetition in the photographs. No matter how many times women had been hung from light fixtures or doorways, there were always more magazines with more of the same. A friend once said to me about heroin: "The worst thing about it is the endless repetition." One can say the same about pornography, except that it goes beyond anything that one can repeatedly do to oneself: pornography is what men do to women. And the mundane world in which men live is full of doorways and light fixtures and telephones, which may be why the most pervasive abuse of women takes place in the home.
But the worst effect on me was a generalized misanthropy: I could no longer trust anyone's enthusiasms, intellectual, sexual, esthetic, political. Underneath, who were they and would the woman hanging in the doorway matter to them? I felt as if I had walked out on to a sandbar not knowing it to be a sandbar, thinking it merely the shore. Time passed and the sea crept up all around, and I did not see it because I had learned to hate the shore. If I swam and swam and swam to save myself, what would I find if I reached the shore? Would there be anyone there? Or would it be desolation? A smartass remark about pornography was desolation. A trivialization of pornography was desolation. An enthusiasm for pornography was desolation. A detachment from pornography was desolation. An indifference to pornography was desolation. Men made clever small talk. Women did not know. It took everything I had sometimes to dare to talk to a friend about what I had seen. I had been a hopeful radical. Now I am not. Pornography has infected me. Once I was a child and I dreamed of freedom. Now I am an adult and I see what my dreams have come to: pornography. So, while I cannot help my sleeping nightmares, I have given up many waking dreams. As a worldly writer--mired in time and meaning, infatuated and obsessed with the muck of real life--I decided that I wanted women to see what I saw. This may be the most ruthless choice I have ever made. But in the privacy of writing, it was the only choice that gave me the pleasure of writing, that greedy, arrogant pleasure: it was the only choice that enabled me to triumph over my subject by showing it, remaking it, turning it into something that we define and use rather than letting it remain something that defines and uses us. Writing is not a happy profession. It is viciously individual: 1, the author, insist that I stand in for us, women. In so doing, I insist on the ultimate social meaning of writing: in facing the nightmare, I want another generation of women to be able to reclaim the dreams of freedom that pornography has taken from me.
"A Woman Writer and Pornography," first published in San Francisco Review of Books, Vol. VI, No. 5, March-April 1981. Copyright © 1980 by Andrea Dworkin. All rights reserved.
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