By Andrea Dworkin

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Andrea Dworkin, once called “Feminism’s Malcolm X,” has been worshipped, reviled, criticized, and analyzed-but never ignored. The power of her writing, the passion of her ideals, and the ferocity of her intellect have spurred the arguments and activism of two generations of feminists. Now the book that she’s best known for-in which she provoked the argument that ultimately split apart the feminist movement-is being reissued for the young women and men of the twenty-first century. Intercourse enraged as many readers as it inspired when it was first published in 1987. In it, Dworkin argues that in a male supremacist society, sex between men and women constitutes a central part of women’s subordination to men. (This argument was quickly-and falsely-simplified to “all sex is rape” in the public arena, adding fire to Dworkin’s already radical persona.) In her introduction to this twentieth-anniversary edition of Intercourse, Ariel Levy, the author of Female Chauvinist Pigs, discusses the circumstances of Dworkin’s untimely death in the spring of 2005, and the enormous impact of her life and work. Dworkin’s argument, she points out, is the stickiest question of feminism: Can a woman fight the power when he shares her bed?


For M. S.
All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

"Easter 1916"

True rebels, after all, are as rare as true lovers, and, in both cases, to mistake a fever for a passion can destroy one's life.
No Name in the Street
He lost no time, got his belt undone, said "I could go through you like butter."

Like most writers, Andrea Dworkin thought her work was underappreciated in her lifetime. Like very few of them, she was right. Dworkin the persona—the mythical figure, the inverted sex symbol—eclipsed Dworkin the writer in the public imagination. There are many more people who have strong feelings about her than there are people who have actually read her work.
If this is the first book of hers you've encountered, brace yourself—she had a voice like no other. Perhaps the most prominent quality of Dworkin's writing is its ferocity: its relentless intellectual and ideological confidence, its refusal to collapse into what Dworkin called "the quintessential feminine pose." Though she bragged she used "language without its ever becoming decorative or pretty," there is elegance as well as aggression in Dworkin's sentences. She had a particular gift for conveying abstract concepts through acute, unusual metaphors. "It's not as if there's an empty patch that one can see and so one can say, 'There's my ignorance; it's about ten by ten and a dozen feet high and someday someone will fill in the empty patch,'" she wrote in her memoir, Heartbreak. (She was talking about male writers.) She could be lyrical in her descriptions; Bessie Smith's voice "tramped through your three-dimensional body but gracefully, a spartan, bearlike ballet." And she could be very funny. Of a grade-school teacher who gave her trouble, Dworkin says, "I knew I'd get her someday and this is it: eat shit, bitch. No one said that sisterhood was easy."
But when most people think of Andrea Dworkin, they think of two things: overalls (her uniform) and the idea that all sex is rape. That was the notorious interpretation of Intercourse by many when it first came out in 1987, and as Dworkin put it in her preface nine years later, the book is "still being reviled in print by people who have never read it, reduced to slogans by journalists posing as critics or sages or deep thinkers, treated as if it were odious and hateful by every asshole who thinks that what will heal this violent world is more respect for dead white men." Intercourse is an inventive, combative, and wildly complicated piece of work, and to imagine that all there is between these covers is the assertion that all sex is rape is about as sophisticated as reducing Proust to a pile of madeleine crumbs.
But you don't have to be an asshole—or even a journalist—to take issue with some of what Dworkin said. Fury and drama characterize her rhetorical style, extremism her ideas, and Intercourse is perhaps her most radical work. "Am I saying I know more than men about fucking? Yes, I am," she tells us. And in a typical Dworkin flourish, she refuses to leave it at that; she gives her reader no room to soften her meaning through misinterpretation.
"Not just different: more and better," she writes, "deeper and wider, the way anyone used knows the user." There is not a doubt in her mind that she's right, and she consciously rejects a writing style that is placating or solicitous: she's not that kind of girl.
She begins with an exploration of several (very different) male writers' depictions of female sexuality. We are shown, gently at first, forcefully as her text builds momentum, how much of literature positions women as not fully human or as filthy. With characteristic swagger, Dworkin compares Intercourse to Dante's Inferno, its spiraling structure descending into ever deeper circles of hell. If Dworkin's own vision of sex and society is extreme, we soon remember that so too is the context within which she writes. "The normal fuck by the normal man is taken to be an act of invasion and ownership undertaken in a mode of predation: colonializing, forceful (manly) or nearly violent; the sexual act that by nature makes her his." There is the Bible to teach us this, of course, but then there is also Tolstoy, Freud, Mailer, and so on. From these texts Dworkin extracts the belief system we know—but sometimes like to forget—has governed gender relations in the West throughout the course of our history: that women are entities to be taken and possessed—walking, talking currency.
Dworkin asseverates an alternative, a way of representing and having sex that dissolves boundaries and offers not only intimacy but merged humanity . . . a kind of magic, fleeting selflessness. "There is no physical distance, no self-consciousness, nothing withdrawn or private or alienated, no existence outside physical touch. The skin collapses as a boundary—it has no meaning; time is gone—it too has no meaning; there is no outside." In these passages, Dworkin is a poet of erotic love, an incarnation that would shock those who have her figured as the embodiment of antisex. The profound passion she envisions does not even require an enduring emotional tie: "In fucking, the deepest emotions one has about life as a whole are expressed, even with a stranger, however random or impersonal the encounter," she writes. There is room for escape, she suggests, even in the here and now, even in the country she refers to as Amerika (more on this later), from the erotics of power differential.
But if one finds this kind of sublime sexual release specifically in relinquishing control, what then? What does it mean to be aroused by dominance in the societal context Dworkin describes? And if it turns us on, do we care?
The way women have eroticized sexual possession is of great interest to Dworkin, of course. "The experience of sexual possession for women is real and literal," she writes, "without any magical or mystical dimension to it: getting fucked and being owned are inseparably the same; together, being one and the same, they are sex for women under male dominance as a social system." She may not have been saying all sex is rape, but clearly she was suggesting that most sex is something damn close when you live in a patriarchy . . . and where else are we to live? In this world, which is the only world that exists, "critiques of rape, pornography, and prostitution are 'sex-negative' without qualification or examination, perhaps because so many men use these ignoble routes of access and domination to get laid, and without them the number of fucks would so significantly decrease that men might nearly be chaste."
Do we believe that "most women are not distinct, private individuals to most men"? (Still?) Is voluntary intercourse instigated by female lust and desire something so uncommon? Are abuse and plunder the norm, mutual satisfaction the exception so rare it proves the rule?
Your answer to these questions—and to many others Dworkin poses in this book—will depend on the experience of sex you've been lucky or unlucky enough to have. But the value of the questioning itself is substantial.
Dworkin's profound and unique legacy was to examine the meaning of the act most of us take to be fundamental to sex, fundamental to human existence. As she puts it, "what intercourse is for women and what it does to women's identity, privacy, self-respect, self-determination, and integrity are forbidden questions; and yet how can a radical or any woman who wants freedom not ask precisely these questions?" You may find in reading Dworkin's work that many of her questions have never even crossed your mind.
If you disagree with her answers, you may still find yourself indebted to her for helping you discover your own.
Dworkin's description of her own sexual history is often grim, and given the title of the book you are about to read—and the premise that the personal is political—we are right to consider this. Though she stated "I am not an exhibitionist. I don't show myself," in her book Life and Death, she also wrote "I have used everything I know—my life—to show what I believe must be shown so that it can be faced."
Dworkin was molested or raped at around age 9; the details, in her writing, and according to her closest friends, are murky, but something bad happened then. In 1965, when Dworkin was 18 and a freshman at Bennington College, she was arrested after participating in a march against the Vietnam War and was taken to the Women's House of Detention in Greenwich Village, where she was subjected to a nightmarish internal exam by prison doctors.
She bled for days afterward. Her family doctor looked at her injuries and cried.
Dworkin's response to this incident was her first act of purposeful bravery: she wrote scores of letters to newspapers detailing what had happened, and the story was reported in the New York Times, among other papers, which led to a government investigation of the prison. It was eventually torn down, and in its place today is the idyllic flower garden at the foot of the Jefferson Market clock tower on Sixth Avenue in Manhattan.
Like many members of the women's liberation movement, Dworkin started out as an antiwar activist and found her way to feminism when she became disillusioned with the men of the New Left. She wrote about the experience in Mercy, a book of "fiction" about a girl named Andrea, who, like Dworkin, was from Camden, New Jersey, and was molested at around 9, protested the war, and was jailed and sexually assaulted in a New York City prison. "I went to the peace office and instead of typing letters for the peace boys I wrote to newspapers saying I had been hurt and it was bad and not all right and because I didn't know sophisticated words I used the words I knew and they were very shocked to death; and the peace boys were in the office and I refused to type a letter for one of them because I was doing this and he read my letter out loud to everyone in the room over my shoulder and they all laughed at me, and I had spelled America with a 'k' because I knew I was in Kafka's world, not Jefferson's, and I knew Amerika was the real country I lived in." (In some of her books, Dworkin's writing echoes with the influence of the Beats. Allen Ginsberg was an early mentor who later became a nemesis of Dworkin's because she despised his sexual pursuit of underage boys.)
Because she wanted adventure and experience, and because she wanted to escape all the media attention following her battle against the prison, and because her family—her mother in particular—was deeply ashamed that she had been jailed, Dworkin decided to leave Amerika for Europe when she was 19.
She took the Orient Express from London to Athens, which she described as a "sordid" trip, during which she gave all her money to a woman named Mildred who promised to pay her back when they arrived but didn't.
Strangely, Dworkin "never held it against her," despite the fact that this Mildred-induced pennilessness led Dworkin to start sleeping with men for money. She made it to Crete, where she created a temporary home for herself perched above the "gem-like surface" of the Aegean. The dazzling beauty and utter foreignness of Dworkin's surroundings seemed to free her. In a place where one is literally a stranger, there can be an ecstatic sense of liberation from wondering why one has always felt so strange in what is supposed to be home.
Dworkin wrote constantly, producing a book of poems (called Child) and a novel (Notes on Burning Boyfriend, named after the pacifist Norman Morrison who had burned himself to death in protest of the Vietnam War), which she self-published on the island. She had a passionate romance with a Greek man; "we're so much joined in the flesh that strangers feel the pain if we stop touching," Dworkin wrote. But ultimately the allure and the money ran out, and Dworkin returned home to complete her studies.
After graduating with a degree in literature, Dworkin returned to Europe, this time to Amsterdam, because she was interested in the Dutch countercultural "Provo" movement. But her life took an awful and unexpected turn when she met and married a Dutchman, an anarchist, who beat the living shit out of her.
Years later, Dworkin's comrade Susan Brownmiller, the author of the radical feminist classic Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape, spoke out against Hedda Nussbaum's complicity in the murder of her daughter, Lisa Steinberg. (Lisa was abused to death by her father, Nussbaum's husband, Joel Steinberg.) In response, Dworkin published a piece in the Los Angeles Times called "What Battery Really Is," in which she tried to explain her experience—Nussbaum's too, she asserted. "When I would come to after being beaten unconscious, the first feeling I would have was an overwhelming sorrow that I was alive. I would ask God please to let me die now. My breasts were burned with lit cigarettes. He beat my legs with a heavy wood beam so that I couldn't walk. I was present when he did immoral things to other people. I didn't help them. Judge me, Susan."
These experiences formed the basis of Dworkin's world-view. She wrote about them in her first published book, Woman Hating, which came out shortly after her return to the states in 1974. And in some way or other, these nightmarish pieces of her reality were picked over, deconstructed, and retold in everything she ever wrote. If you have never experienced such things, it can be difficult to relate to Dworkin. Sometimes, when you are reading her work, it can seem almost impossible to reconcile the world around you with the world on the page. Dworkin knew this. "Middle-class women, including middle-class feminists, cannot imagine such marginality," she wrote. "It's as if the story is too weird, too ugly, and too unsightly for an educated woman to believe."
Much of society is set up specifically to assist people in their process of ignoring the horrors of the world. Dworkin's agenda was the opposite.
Though she was herself middle class, educated, eligible for an easier life—there were other options open to her besides prostitution, for instance, when she was short of cash in Europe—Dworkin was drawn to the dark side in her writing and in her life. "The worst immorality," she wrote, "is in living a trivial life because one is afraid to face any other kind of life—a despairing life or an anguished life or a twisted and difficult life."
Of course for many people, there is little choice. For the women who had been battered or molested or raped who read her books or came to her lectures, Dworkin was a savior goddess, a knight in shining armor. Dworkin offered an unmitigated conception of the victim—a word, she said, that had a taint, but shouldn't. (There was no such thing for Dworkin as a "prostitute," for example, there were only "prostituted women.") She would stand before her followers onstage, huge and hollering, an evangelical, untouchable preacher for the oppressed.
To borrow Gloria Steinem's language, Dworkin became the feminist movement's "Old Testament prophet: raging in the hills, telling the truth," as she understood it to be. Robin Morgan, the woman who edited the women's movement's bible Sisterhood Is Powerful and coined feminist slogans like "porn is the theory, rape is the practice," has compared Dworkin to Malcolm X. "People who—feminists, even—raised their eyebrows at her supposed extremism or her intransigence or her fire took secret glee from that," Morgan told me in 2005, shortly after Dworkin's death. "When Malcolm was killed, even some of the people in the black community who had said, 'Well, he was always violent,' they were devastated. Remember where Malcolm X came from? Malcolm had been a pimp, Malcolm had been a hustler, Malcolm had been a drug addict. It's the militant voice, it's the voice that would dare say what nobody else was saying . . . and it can't help but say it because it is speaking out of such incredible personal pain."
There were other feminists who were as zealous in their conviction that pornography was "the undiluted essence of anti-female propaganda," as Susan Brownmiller once put it, but nobody else could elicit the same disgust and fascination from the public as Andrea Dworkin—they didn't have her overalls or her anger; they weren't as big. People didn't just disagree with Dworkin, they hated her. To her detractors, she was the horror of women's lib personified, the angriest woman in America.
With the possible exception of the Shakers, it is difficult to think of an American movement that has failed more spectacularly than antipornography feminism. In the late 1970s, when a prominent faction of the women's liberation movement—including Brownmiller, Dworkin, Steinem, Morgan, Audre Lorde, the writer Grace Paley, and the poet Adrienne Rich—turned their attention to fighting pornography, porn was still something marginalized, as opposed to what it is now: a source of inspiration for all of popular culture. (Consider Jenna Jameson, implants, almost any reality television show, Brazilian bikini waxes, thong underwear, and go from there.) In her recent book, Women's Lives, Men's Laws, Dworkin's friend and colleague Catharine MacKinnon put it like this: "The aggressors have won."
If the antiporn crusade was a losing battle, it was also a costly one: it divided, some would say destroyed, the women's movement. The term "prosex feminist" was coined by women who wanted to distance themselves from the antiporn faction. Of course, all feminists thought they were being prosex and fighting for freedom, but when it comes to sex, freedom means different things to different people. Screaming fights became a regular element of feminist conferences in the 1980s, and perhaps the single most divisive issue was an ordinance crafted by Dworkin and MacKinnon.
In 1983, when MacKinnon was a professor of law at the University of Minnesota and Dworkin was teaching a course there on pornography at MacKinnon's invitation, the two drafted a city ordinance positioning porn as a civil rights violation. Their legislation, which would allow people to sue pornographers for damages if they could show they had suffered harm from pornography's making or use, was twice passed in Minneapolis but vetoed by the mayor. Dworkin and MacKinnon were subsequently summoned by the conservative mayor of Indianapolis, Indiana, and their legislation was signed into law in 1984 by a city council opposed to core feminist goals like legal abortion and the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. It was soon overturned by federal courts, but many feminists never forgave Dworkin and MacKinnon and antiporn feminists in general for getting in bed with the right wing.
Dworkin was accused of being a man-hater even by some members of her own movement. And she didn't write or make speeches with an eye toward mitigating this perception. In a speech she gave in Bryant Park at a "Take Back the Night" march in 1979, she called romance "rape embellished with meaningful looks." In Heartbreak she wrote, "men are shits and take pride in it." But in fact the most significant person in Dworkin's life was a man: her husband. John Stoltenberg remembers feeling "like we had walked off a cliff" when he first met Dworkin. As if the force of their connection had rendered the world weightless beneath his feet. He was 29 and she was 27, and they started talking out on the street in the West Village after they'd both walked out of a benefit for the War Resisters League because they thought the protest songs were sexist. They started spending most of their time together.
It was 1974. "There was a party at the apartment where I was staying," Stoltenberg told me. "She was there, and I think we were dancing, and then I think I passed out because I had had a lot to drink. And this could be a little bit of revisionism, but I remember coming to consciousness with a clarity that I couldn't imagine life without her." Thirty-one years later, almost to the day, he was forced to. Dworkin died of heart failure on April 9, 2005, at the age of 58 in her bed in the Washington, D.C., apartment they shared.
At the time of her death, Dworkin felt clearheaded enough to write for only a few hours a day, the toll of a lifetime of insomnia and all the pain medication she was taking for severe osteoarthritis, but she had just finished a proposal for a book of literary criticism. When I went to visit the apartment in early May, Stoltenberg had left untouched the yellow legal pad on which she'd been taking notes: "Use against Hemingway, Hitler and Bush," it said in red pen. Above her desk was a poster that read DEAD MEN DON'T RAPE.
John Stoltenberg says Dworkin's first book, Woman Hating , "saved my life." When he met Dworkin, Stoltenberg considered himself gay, and does to this day, although he preferred the word queer before it got trendy. (Stoltenberg had sexual relationships with other men throughout the course of his life with Dworkin; monogamy was not part of their deal. After Dworkin's death, Stoltenberg fell in love with a man, who is now his domestic partner.) Dworkin's dissection of gender in Woman Hating, her assertion that "'man' and 'woman' are fictions, caricatures, cultural constructs . . . reductive, totalitarian, inappropriate to human becoming," was to Stoltenberg a revelation, and he quoted that passage in a book he published in 1989 called Refusing to Be a Man, which he dedicated to her.
Stoltenberg did his own riff on her theme, writing about a version of Earth where the inhabitants "find amazing and precious . . . that because everyone's genitals stem from the same embryonic tissue, the nerves inside all their genitals got wired very much alike, so these nerves of touch just go crazy upon contact in a way that resonates completely between them. 'My gosh,' they think, 'you must feel something in your genital tubercle that intensely resembles what I'm feeling in my genital tubercle.'" His ideal world is a place where people "have sex. They don't have a sex." Whereas here on this planet, "we are sorted into one category or another at birth based solely on a visual inspection of our groins, and the only question that's asked is whether there's enough elongated tissue around your urethra so you can pee standing up." In Refusing to Be a Man, instead of saying "boy," Stoltenberg sometimes refers to a little male as a "child-with-a-penis."
Stoltenberg was himself an antipornography activist for many years, and he used to facilitate "Pose Workshops" at colleges, in which male students were asked to assume the positions in which women are photographed for pornography—legs spread, pelvis raised, and so on. "I would try to help people understand what was wrong with the language of sexual orientation: bisexual, homosexual," he told me. "I said, 'Think of yourself as being Jane sexual. Or Robbie sexual. It's not about gender, it's about a person.'" When he met Dworkin, it didn't matter to Stoltenberg that he was gay or that she didn't have enough elongated tissue around her urethra to pee standing up.
Many of Dworkin's friends did not find out that she and Stoltenberg were legally married until they read her obituary in the newspapers. "We hated being called husband and wife," Stoltenberg says. "When pressed, we would say 'spouse.' Spouse or life partner are words that we used." Friends knew, of course, that the two had lived together for more than 30 years, but there are various reasons why Dworkin would not have wanted her marriage to a man to be public information. For one thing, there was the matter of her being a lesbian.
Dworkin spoke about this many times. At a rally for Lesbian Pride Week in Central Park in 1975—when she was already living with Stoltenberg—Dworkin said, "This love of women is the soil in which my life is rooted." She went on to talk about "erotic passion and intimacy" among women, and a "wild, salty tenderness," but this is harder to get your head around if you are familiar with her oeuvre. In her writings, there are too many smoldering descriptions of heterosexual sex to count, but the mentions of lesbianism are either bloodless—"There is pride in the nurturant love which is our common-ground"—or funny: "Q: There are a lot of rumors about your lesbianism. No one quite seems to know what you do with whom. A: Good" (as she wrote in a satiric piece called "Nervous Interview"). Catharine MacKinnon told me, "Lesbian is one of the few words you've got to make a positive claim about identifying with women, to say I'm with women. It doesn't necessarily mean without men. Women are socially defined sexually as an inferior class. Lesbian is a sexual word; that's why it's stigmatized. In addition to her history and feelings, that's a lot of why Andrea identified by it, I think." Another of Dworkin's closest friends had a different take on the matter of Dworkin's sexuality: "In 30-plus years of knowing her, I've never heard of a single romance with a woman—not one."


On Sale
Nov 7, 2006
Page Count
352 pages
Basic Books

Andrea Dworkin

About the Author

Andrea Dworkin was the co-author, with Catharine A. MacKinnon, of civil rights legislation recognizing pornography as legally actionable sex discrimination. She wrote eleven books, including Pornography, Heartbreak, and Scapegoat. She died in April 2005 in Washington, D.C. Ariel Levy is a contributing editor at New York magazine, and the author of Female Chauvinist Pigs. She lives in New York City.

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