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Sarah Ditum on Andrea Dworkin: Sex as terrorism

The Andrea Dworkin I discovered when I read Intercourse is not the cold and closed figure of liberal myth whose massive shadow squats in judgement over all our pleasures. She's angry - but also incredibly warm.

A blow-up doll is tossed around at a football match. Photo: Getty

 

When I read Margaret Atwood's 1985 novel The Handmaid's Tale, I identified Andrea Dworkin straight away. I hadn't so much as cracked the spine on one of Dworkin's works then – as a teenager in the 1990s, I grew up on the knowing bawdiness of Britpop and girl power, and I imbibed the understanding that the sex wars had been settled with Dworkin on the losing side, so I never read her. But I knew who she was and what she was supposed to stand for. The ecstatic feminists in Atwood's novel who pile smutty magazines and stripper tat onto bonfires in the "Manhattan cleanup" – those figures, I knew directly, were were the anti-porn campaigners like Andrea Dworkin and her lawyer ally Catharine MacKinnon. The Handmaid who narrates the novel, now part of the breeder class in the theocratic reproductive dystopia those feminists inadvertently helped to establish, mordantly reproaches her long-deceased radical feminist mother for the unintended consequences of these politics: "You wanted a women's culture? Well now there is one. It isn't what you meant, but it exists. Be thankful for small mercies."

In the generational model of feminism, where each wave must swallow the one before like a swarm of tiny cannibal spiders devouring the maternal body, Dworkin is that dismaying mother. She is despised by liberal feminists for her strategic alliances with conservative politicians in the service of her anti-pornography agenda. She is despised too by anti-censorship campaigners and, inevitably, by pornographers and misogynists. Dworkin has been thoroughly monstered, the specifics of her work and life demolished and replaced by a vague, hulking malevolence. So when I did finally read Intercourse (published 1987), I didn't recognise Dworkin at all – because the Dworkin of the writing is not the cold and closed figure of liberal myth whose massive shadow squats in judgement over all our pleasures. The Dworkin of the writing is furiously, transfixingly alive – and her life was, even by the dramatic standards of the second wave, profound in suffering, adventure and love.

She was born in 1946, the daughter of two Jewish immigrants in New Jersey, and was politically engaged from a very young age. She was also victimised: as a child she was sexually abused, then as a young woman she was sexually assaulted by police after being arrested on an anti war protest. She travelled to Europe, entered prostitution, married a violent man, escaped back to America. She was a lifelong political lesbian – and she married another man in 1995, gay rights campaigner John Stoltenberg. This surprising arrangement was, by all accounts, the tenderest of unions, the two of them both intellectual comrades and equal partners in affection. Intercourse is a book of all these parts: uncompromising, angry, ragingly intelligent, warm, and driven by an absolute conviction that women must be freed from their inferiority. And that freedom can only come from a fundamental reinvention of what we mean by human, because as long as civilisation has existed, the category "human" has been defined so as to make women insecure within it. Summarising the position of western philosophy, Dworkin identifies the foundational belief of patriarchal culture: "A human being has a body; and when it is violated, it is abused. A woman has a body that is penetrated in intercourse: permeable, its corporeal solidness a lie."

But the book opens, not with terse polemic, but with meticulous, intimate and unsparing readings of works by Tolstoy, Tennessee Williams and James Baldwin. This is itself surprising, but even more surprising is the attitude Dworkin takes to these writers. She does not prostrate herself before their greatness, nor does she treat them as idols to be smashed. Instead, she appoints herself the equal of both the works and the men, and in them she finds disturbing insights into the way patriarchy distorts the act of sex into an act of violence by which men assert their possession of women. "As long as men desire women for sexual intercourse, and women are used as sexual objects, regardless of laws and other public reforms, women's real status will be degraded," concludes Dworkin in her chapter on Tolstoy. Though she rarely flinched from using the state to achieve her political aims, her ultimate aim is always a transformation of the most intimate conditions.

As a work of literary criticism, Intercourse is vital. But Dworkin is not really interested in reading novels: instead, the project of Intercourse is the reading of "the fuck", as she bluntly calls it. Dworkin is frequently caricatured as being anti-sex – she never said "all sex is rape" but it's the statement most commonly ascribed to her. What Dworkin actually attacks in Intercourse is the use of heterosexual sex as a method of terror. What she asks is whether sex under patriarchy can ever be anything else. However, the mischaracterisation of her is illuminating because it confirms something that Dworkin herself observes: so naturalised is the belief that possession is inherent to sex, so total the eroticising of male power and female vulnerability, that even to imagine sex on equal terms is to be deemed an enemy of sex. "Critiques of rape, pornography, and prostitution are 'sex negative' without qualification or examination, perhaps because so many men use these ignoble modes of access and domination to get laid, and without them the number of fucks would so significantly decrease that men might be nearly chaste," she writes. And where this sexual domination intersects with racism, as Dworkin explores in the chapter Dirt/Death, the brutality multiplies.

Intercourse is a work in search of a way to free human sexuality from this cruelty – an especially intractable entanglement, because not only does sex take place within the patriarchal coding of men as superior and women as inferior, but furthermore, the individuals participating in the fuck understand it to reaffirm that structure whenever it takes place. When women are not seen as human, intercourse enforces their status as objects:

 

"In other words, men possess women when men fuck women because both experience the man being male. This is the stunning logic of male supremacy. In this view, which is the predominant one, maleness is aggressive and violent; and so fucking, in which both the man and the woman experience /maleness/, essentially demands the disappearance of the woman as an individual; thus, in being fucked, she is possessed: ceases to exist as a discrete individual: is taken over."

Dworkin is absolutely clear that a world in which rape and prostitution exist is one in which it would be delusional for women to mistake sex for liberation. Some radical feminists have taken from Dworkin's analysis the belief that sex under patriarchy is always a form of submission, and must be resisted as such, and Dworkin sometimes seems to believe this too: "How to separate the act of intercourse from the social reality of male power is not clear," she says. But she also offers hopefulness for sex, and even more importantly, hopefulness within it. In her reading of James Baldwin in particular, she identifies the possibility of sex in which each party recognises the other as fully human and, rather than dominating the other, makes himself vulnerable (the sex in Baldwin is sex between men) to the peril of being known by another: "fucking can be a communion, a sharing, mutual possession of an enormous mystery." It is an ideal of sex as something not "taken" from another but shared with them, a moment of contact through which both parties can be changed.

This is not some conservative call for the sanctity of monogamy. Instead, sex is sanctified as a moral exchange between two who may be partners or may be strangers, but who must recognise both each other and themselves as equal in humanity, and equally liable to be transformed through their intimacy. As the epigraph from Yeats has it, "All changed, changed utterly:/A terrible beauty is born." And ultimately, the most radical part of Intercourse is Dworkin's belief that change is possible, even if most people are reluctant to acknowledge it: "We refuse to recognise out possibilities because we refuse to honour the potential humans have, including human women, to make choices. Men too make choices. When will they choose not to despise us?" Right now, the answer to that question appears to be "not any time soon". In the excellent introduction to the 2006 edition, Ariel Levy (author of Female Chauvinist Pigs) points out ruefully that "with the possible exception of the Shakers, it is difficult to think of any American movement that has failed more spectacularly than antipornography feminism."

And as Levy points out, it was a costly failure. The fissure between the crudely named "sex positive" and "sex negative" factions of feminism remains raw and vituperative, while the triumph of raunch culture makes the prospect of a world without pornography laughably unlikely. Even an hour without pornography would be a big ask when female objectification is the principle visual mode of our culture. Dworkin hoped that her work would eventually become a museum piece – like the testament of the Handmaid in the epilogue of Atwood's novel, where it's discovered in a future time of sexual equality and treated by scholars as the arcane product of an incomprehensible civilisation. In some ways, Intercourse does feel like a relic, but not because its author's hopes have been realised. Rape, prostitution and pornography continue. What appears quaint is Dworkin's faith that these could ever be dismantled – the tendency now is increasingly to believe that humans are as we are, and all we can hope for is the amelioration of our worst habits.

Even before she died (at the absurdly early age of 58), feminists seemed keen to tidy Dworkin away. She was troublesome and unruly, in appearance as well as rhetoric. She has been accused of setting feminism back, and of making it unappealingly confrontational. But from where I stand now, it seems to me that it isn't Dworkin who failed feminism, but us who failed her. Her analysis is clear and essential, and though it was rejected, it has never been comprehensively answered. Feminists need to regain the radicalism of Intercourse. Even if you believe that prostitution and pornography are fundamentally acceptable, the challenge of Dworkin is to explain why they should exist – rather than merely accepting their current existence as an argument for their continuation. We are creatures of culture and Intercourse is the promise that we are not doomed to the endless replication of misogyny, but can reinvent that culture in new and better shapes. Intercourse the book is a paradigm of intercourse the act as Dworkin wishes it to be: an encounter between equals (Dworkin and her sources) that creates new states and possibilities in both. "Habits of deference can be broken," writes Dworkin, "and it is up to writers to break them. Submission can be refused; and I refuse it." 

 

This essay is part of the New Statesman's "Rereading the Second Wave" series. Read the other essays hereYou can read Andrea Dworkin's account of her rape here.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

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Bertie Carvel's diary: What would the French think about infidelity to Doctor Foster?

The joy of debuting a new series, Rupert Murdoch's squeamishness and a sting in the tail.

According to the adage, the first thing an actor does when he gets a job is to go on holiday. And so, having finished our sold-out run of James Graham’s Ink at the Almeida and with the show (in which I play a young Rupert Murdoch) about to transfer into the West End, I’m packing my bags.

But before I can skip town, I’ve one more professional engagement: the press launch of series two of the BBC drama Doctor Foster, which we finished filming at Christmas. I’ve now seen the final cut of all five episodes, and I’m excited to share it with an audience. There’s no substitute for seeing other people’s reactions at first hand, especially with a show that got people talking so much first time around, and it’s electric to sit in a cinema full of expectant journalists and commentators and feel the room respond. Nothing beats this: to put so much into making a thing and then experience an audience’s unmediated, reflexive reaction. When it goes well, you feel that you’ve shared something, that you’ve all recognised something together about how things are. It’s a unifying feeling. A sort of bond.

Cheating spouses

Handling the interviews has been tricky, when there’s so little one can say without giving the plot away. (The first series began with Suranne Jones’s character Gemma, a GP, suspecting her husband Simon of having an affair.) What’s more, lots of the questions invite moral judgements that I’ve tried my best to avoid; I always think it’s really important not to judge the characters I play from outside, but simply to work out how they feel about themselves, to zero in on their point of view. There’s a sort of moral bloodlust around this show: it’s extraordinary. People seem to want to hear that I’ve been pilloried in the street, or expect me to put distance between myself and my character, to hang him out to dry as a pariah.

While I’m not in the business of defending Simon Foster any more than I’m in the business of attacking him, I am intrigued by this queer mixture of sensationalism and prurience that seems to surface again and again.

Shock horror

Oddly enough, it’s something that comes up in Ink: many people have been surprised to find that, in a story about the re-launch of the Sun newspaper in 1969 as a buccaneering tabloid, it’s the proprietor who considers dropping anchor when the spirit of free enterprise threatens to set his moral compass spinning.

I’ve never given it much thought before, but I suppose that sensationalism relies on a fairly rigid worldview for its oxygen – the SHOCKERS! that scream at us in tabloid headlines are deviations from a conventional idea of the norm. But what’s behind the appetite for this sort of story? Do we tell tales of transgression to reinforce our collective boundaries or to challenge them?

For me there’s a close kinship between good journalism and good drama. I’m reminded of the words of John Galsworthy, who wrote Strife, the play I directed last summer, and who felt that the writer should aim “to set before the public no cut-and-dried codes, but the phenomena of life and character, selected and combined, but not distorted, by the dramatist’s outlook, set down without fear, favour, or prejudice, leaving the public to draw such poor moral as nature may afford”.

So when it comes to promoting the thing we’ve made, I’m faced with a real conundrum: on the one hand I want it to reach a wide audience, and I’m flattered that there’s an appetite to hear about my contribution to the process of making it; but on the other hand I think the really interesting thing about the work is contained in the work itself. I’m always struck, in art galleries, by how much more time people spend reading the notes next to the paintings than looking at the paintings themselves. I’m sure that’s the wrong way around.

Insouciant remake

En route to the airport the next morning I read that Doctor Foster is to be adapted into a new French version. It’s a cliché verging on racism, but I can’t help wondering whether the French will have a different attitude to a story about marital infidelity, and whether the tone of the press coverage will differ. I wonder, too, whether, in the home of Roland Barthes, there is as much space given to artists to talk about what they’ve made – in his 1967 essay, “The Death of the Author”, Barthes wrote that “a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination”.

No stone unturned

Touring the villages of Gigondas, Sablet and Séguret later that evening, I’m struck by the provision of espaces culturels in seemingly every commune, however small. The French certainly give space to the work itself. But I also notice a sign warning of a chat lunatique, so decide to beat a hasty retreat. Arriving at the house where I’m staying, I’ve been told that the key will be under a flowerpot. Lifting each tub in turn, and finally a large flat stone by the door, I find a small scorpion, but no key. I’m writing this at a table less than a yard away so let’s hope there won’t be a sting in this tale.

Ink opens at the Duke of York Theatre, London, on 9 September. More details: almeida.co.uk

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear