WRITINGS 1976-1989

Andrea Dworkin

Part IV

Letter From a War Zone


Copyright © 1986, 1988, 1993 by Andrea Dworkin.
All rights reserved.

Written at the invitation of feminists at Emma, Germany's premier feminist magazine, Letter From a War Zone has been published in German in Emma and in Norwegian in Klassekampen. It has never been published in English before.
Sisters: I don't know who you are, or how many, but I will tell you what happened to us. We were brave and we were fools; some of us collaborated; I don't know the outcome. It is late 1986 now, and we are losing. The war is men against women; the country is the United States. Here, a woman is beaten every eighteen seconds: by her husband or the man she lives with, not by a psychotic stranger in an alley. Understand: women are also beaten by strangers in alleys but that is counted in a different category--gender-neutral assault, crime in the streets, big-city violence. Woman-beating, the intimate kind, is the most commonly committed violent crime in the country, according to the FBI, not feminists. A woman is raped every three minutes, nearly half the rapes committed by someone the woman knows. Forty-four percent of the adult women in the United States have been raped at least once. Forty-one percent (in some studies seventy-one percent) of all rapes are committed by two or more men; so the question is not how many rapes there are, but how many rapists. There are an estimated 16000 new cases of father-daughter incest each year; and in the current generation of children, thirty-eight percent of girls are sexually molested. Here, now, less than eight percent of women have not had some form of unwanted sex (from assault to obscene harassment) forced on them.

We keep calling this war normal life. Everyone's ignorant; no one knows; the men don't mean it. In this war, the pimps who make pornography are the SS, an elite, sadistic, military, organized vanguard. They run an efficient and expanding system of exploitation and abuse in which women and children, as lower life forms, are brutalized. This year they will gross $10 billion.

We have been slow to understand. For fun they gag us and tie us up as if we are dead meat and hang us from trees and ceilings and door frames and meat hooks; but many say the lynched women probably like it and we don't have any right to interfere with them (the women) having a good time. For fun they rape us or have other men, or sometimes animals, rape us and film the rapes and show the rapes in movie theatres or publish them in magazines, and the normal men who are not pimps (who don't know, don't mean it) pay money to watch; and we are told that the pimps and the normal men are free citizens in a free society exercising rights and that we are prudes because this is sex and real women don't mind a little force and the women get paid anyway so what's the big deal? The pimps and the normal men have a constitution that says the filmed rapes are "protected speech" or "free speech." Well, it doesn't actually say that--cameras, after all, hadn't been invented yet; but they interpret their constitution to protect their fun. They have laws and judges that call the women hanging from the trees "free speech." There are films in which women are urinated on, defecated on, cut, maimed, and scholars and politicians call them "free speech." The politicians, of course, deplore them. There are photographs in which women's breasts are slammed in sprung rat traps--in which things (including knives, guns, glass) are stuffed in our vaginas--in which we are gang-banged, beaten, tortured--and journalists and intellectuals say: Well, there is a lot of violence against women but . . . But what, prick? But we run this country, cunt.

If you are going to hurt a woman in the United States, be sure to take a photograph. This will confirm that the injury you did to her expressed a point-of-view, sacrosanct in a free society. Hey, you have a right not to like women in a democracy, man. In the very unlikely event that the victim can nail you for committing a crime of violence against her, your photograph is still constitutionally protected, since it communicates so eloquently. The woman, her brutalization, the pain, the humiliation, her smile--because you did force her to smile, didn't you?--can be sold forever to millions of normal men (them again) who--so the happy theory goes--are having a "cathartic" experience all over her. It's the same with snuff films, by the way. You can torture and disembowel a woman, ejaculate on her dismembered uterus, and even if they do put you away someday for murder (a rather simple-minded euphemism), the film is legally speech.

In the early days, feminism was primitive. If something hurt women, feminists were against it, not for it. In 1970, radical feminists forcibly occupied the offices of the ostensibly radical Grove Press because Grove published pornography marketed as sexual liberation and exploited its female employees. Grove's publisher, an eminent boy-revolutionary, considered the hostile demonstration CIA-inspired. His pristine radicalism did not stop him from calling the very brutal New York City police and having the women physically dragged out and locked up for trespassing on his private property. Also in 1970, radical feminists seized Rat, an underground rag that devoted itself, in the name of revolution, to pornography and male chauvinism equally, the only attention gender got on the radical left. The pornographers, who think strategically and actually do know what they are doing, were quick to react. "These chicks are our natural enemy," wrote Hugh Hefner in a secret memo leaked to feminists by secretaries at Playboy. "It is time we do battle with them... What I want is a devastating piece that takes the militant feminists apart." What he got were huge, raucous demonstrations at Playboy Clubs in big cities.

Activism against pornography continued, organized locally, ignored by the media but an intrinsic part of the feminist resistance to rape. Groups called Women Against Violence Against Women formed independently in many cities. Pornography was understood by feminists (without any known exception) as woman-hating, violent, rapist. Robin Morgan pinpointed pornography as the theory, rape as the practice. Susan Brownmiller, later a founder of the immensely influential Women Against Pornography, saw pornography as woman-hating propaganda that promoted rape. These insights were not banal to feminists who were beginning to comprehend the gynocidal and terrorist implications of rape for all women. These were emerging political insights, not learned-by-rote slogans.

Sometime in 1975, newspapers in Chicago and New York City revealed the existence of snuff films. Police detectives, trying to track down distribution networks, said that prostitutes, probably in Central America, were being tortured, slowly dismembered, then killed, for the camera . Prints of the films were being sold by organized crime to private pornography collectors in the United States.

In February 1976, a day or two before Susan B. Anthony's birthday, a snazzy, first-run movie house in Times Square showed what purported to be a real snuff film. The marquee towered above the vast Times Square area, the word Snuff several feet high in neon, next to the title the words "made in South America where life is cheap." In the ads that blanketed the subways, a woman's body was cut in half.

We felt despair, rage, pain, grief. We picketed every night. It rained every night. We marched round and round in small circles. We watched men take women in on dates. We watched the women come out, physically sick, and still go home with the men. We leafleted. We screamed out of control on street corners. There was some vandalism: not enough to close it down. We tried to get the police to close it down. We tried to get the District Attorney to close it down. You have no idea what respect those guys have for free speech.

The pimp who distributed the film would come to watch the picket line and laugh at us. Men who went in laughed at us. Men who walked by laughed at us. Columnists in newspapers laughed at us. The American Civil Liberties Union ridiculed us through various spokesmen (in those days, they used men). The police did more than laugh at us. They formed a barricade with their bodies, guns, and nightsticks--to protect the film from women. One threw me in front of an oncoming car. Three protesters were arrested and locked up for using obscene language to the theatre manager. Under the United States Constitution, obscene language is not speech. Understand: it is not that obscene language is unprotected speech; it is not considered speech at all. The protesters, talking, used obscene language that was not speech; the maiming in the snuff film, the knife eviscerating the woman, was speech. All this we had to learn.

We learned a lot, of course. Life may be cheap, but knowledge never is. We learned that the police protect property and that pornography is property. We learned that the civil liberties people didn't give a damn, my dear: a woman's murder, filmed to bring on orgasm, was speech, and they didn't even mind (these were the days before they learned that they had to say it was bad to hurt women). The ACLU did not have a crisis of conscience. The District Attorney went so far as to find a woman he claimed was "the actress" in the film to show she was alive. He held a press conference. He said that the only law the film broke was the law against fraud. He virtually challenged us to try to get the pimps on fraud, while making clear that if the film had been real, no United States law would have been broken because the murder would have occurred elsewhere. So we learned that. During the time Snuff showed in New York City, the bodies of several women, hacked to pieces, were found in the East River and several prostitutes were decapitated. We also learned that.

When we started protesting Snuff, so-called feminist lawyers, many still leftists at heart, were on our side: no woman could sit this one out. We watched the radical boy lawyers pressure, threaten, ridicule, insult, and intimidate them; and they did abandon us. They went home. They never came back. We saw them learn to love free speech above women. Having hardened their radical little hearts to Snuff, what could ever make them put women first again?

There were great events. In November 1978, the first feminist conference on pornography was held in San Francisco. It culminated in the country's first Take Back the Night March: well over 3000 women shut down San Francisco's pornography district for one night. In October 1979, over 5000 women and men marched on Times Square. One documentary of the march shows a man who had come to Times Square to buy sex looking at the sea of women extending twenty city blocks and saying, bewildered and dismayed: "I can't find one fucking woman." In 1980, Linda Marchiano published Ordeal. World-famous as Linda Lovelace, the porn-queen extraordinaire of Deep Throat, Marchiano revealed that she had been forced into prostitution and pornography by brute terrorism. Gang-raped, beaten, kept in sexual slavery by her pimp/husband (who had legal rights over her as her husband), forced to have intercourse with a dog for a film, subjected to a sustained sadism rarely found by Amnesty International with regard to political prisoners, she dared to survive, escape, and expose the men who had sexually used her (including Playboy's Hugh Hefner and Screw's Al Goldstein). The world of normal men (the consumers) did not believe her; they believed Deep Throat. Feminists did believe her. Today Marchiano is a strong feminist fighting pornography.

In 1980, when I read Ordeal, I understood from it that every civil right protected by law in this country had been broken on Linda's prostituted body. I began to see gang rape, marital rape and battery, prostitution, and other forms of sexual abuse as civil rights violations which, in pornography, were systematic and intrinsic (the pornography could not exist without them). The pornographers, it was clear, violated the civil rights of women much as the Ku Klux Klan in this country had violated the civil rights of blacks. The pornographers were domestic terrorists determined to enforce, through violence, an inferior status on people born female. The second-class status of women itself was constructed through sexual abuse; and the name of the whole system of female subordination was pornography--men's orgasm and sexual pleasure synonymous with women's sexually explicit inequality. Either we were human, equal, citizens, in which case the pornographers could not do to us what they did with impunity and, frankly, constitutional protection; or we were inferior, not protected as equal persons by law, and so the pimps could brutalize us, the normal men could have a good time, the pimps and their lawyers and the normal men could call it free speech, and we could live in hell. Either the pornographers and the pornography did violate the civil rights of women, or women had no rights of equality.

I asked Catharine A. MacKinnon, who had pioneered sexual harassment litigation, if we could mount a civil rights suit in Linda's behalf. Kitty worked with me, Gloria Steinem (an early and brave champion of Linda), and several lawyers for well over a year to construct a civil rights suit. It could not, finally, be brought, because the statute of limitations on every atrocity committed against Linda had expired; and there was no law against showing or profiting from the films she was coerced into making. Kitty and I were despondent; Gloria said our day would come. It did--in Minneapolis on December 30, 1983, when the City Council passed the first human rights legislation ever to recognize pornography as a violation of the civil rights of all women. In Minneapolis, a politically progressive city, pornography had been attacked as a class issue for many years. Politicians cynically zoned adult bookstores into poor and black areas of the city. Violence against the already disenfranchised women and children increased massively; and the neighborhoods experienced economic devastation as legitimate businesses moved elsewhere. The civil rights legislation was passed in Minneapolis because poor people, people of color (especially Native Americans and blacks), and feminists demanded justice.

But first, understand this. Since 1970, but especially after Snuff, feminist confrontations with pornographers had been head-on: militant, aggressive, dangerous, defiant. We had thousands of demonstrations. Some were inside theatres where, for instance, feminists in the audience would scream like hell when a woman was being hurt on the screen. Feminists were physically dragged from the theatres by police who found the celluloid screams to be speech and the feminist screams to be disturbing the peace. Banners were unfurled in front of ongoing films. Blood was poured on magazines and sex paraphernalia designed to hurt women. Civil disobedience, sit-ins, destruction of magazines and property, photographing consumers, as well as picketing, leafletting, letter-writing, and debating in public forums, have all been engaged in over all these years without respite. Women have been arrested repeatedly: the police protecting, always, the pornographers. In one jury trial, three women, charged with two felonies and one misdemeanor for pouring blood over pornography, said that they were acting to prevent a greater harm--rape; they also said that the blood was already there, they were just making it visible. They were acquitted when the jury heard testimony about the actual use of pornography in rape and incest from the victims: a raped woman; an incestuously abused teenager.

So understand this too: feminism works; at least primitive feminism works. We used militant activism to defy and to try to destroy the men who exist to hurt women, that is, the pimps who make pornography. We wanted to destroy--not just put some polite limits on but destroy--their power to hurt us; and millions of women, each alone at first, one at a time, began to remember, or understand, or find words for how she herself had been hurt by pornography, what had happened to her because of it. Before feminists took on the pornographers, each woman, as always, had thought that only she had been abused in, with, or because of pornography. Each woman lived in isolation, fear, shame. Terror creates silence. Each woman had lived in unbreachable silence. Each woman had been deeply hurt by the rape, the incest, the battery; but something more had happened too, and there was no name for it and no description of it. Once the role of pornography in creating sexual abuse was exposed--rape by rape, beating by beating, victim by victim--our understanding of the nature of sexual abuse itself changed. To talk about rape alone, or battery alone, or incest alone, was not to talk about the totality of how the women had been violated. Rape or wife-beating or prostitution or incest were not discrete or free-standing phenomena. We had thought: some men rape; some men batter; some men fuck little girls. We had accepted an inert model of male sexuality: men have fetishes; the women must always be blond, for instance; the act that brings on orgasm must always be the same. But abuse created by pornography was different: the abuse was multifaceted, complex; the violations of each individual woman were many and interconnected; the sadism was exceptionally dynamic. We found that when pornography created sexual abuse, men learned any new tricks the pornographers had to teach. We learned that anything that hurt or humiliated women could be sex for men who used pornography; and male sexual practice would change dramatically to accommodate violations and degradations promoted by the pornography. We found that sexual abuses in a woman's life were intricately and complexly connected when pornography was a factor: pornography was used to accomplish incest and then the child would be used to make pornography; the pornography-consuming husband would not just beat his wife but would tie her, hang her, torture her, force her into prostitution, and film her for pornography; pornography used in gang rape meant that the gang rape was enacted according to an already existing script, the sadism of the gang rape enhanced by the contributions of the pornographers. The forced filming of forced sex became a new sexual violation of women. In sexual terms, pornography created for women and children concentration camp conditions. This is not hyperbole.

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