OTI Online
Volume 9, 1988

The Making of A Radical Feminist:
a Different Perspective on Andrea Dworkin
in an Intimate, Candid Interview


OTI: How did Andrea Dworkin become Andrea Dworkin?

AD: I come from a family with strong political principles and deep human rights convictions, so I was brought up thinking about human rights. My parents were the first generation born in this country, with father's parents from Russia and my mother's from Hungary. My parents were very concerned about racism, and the Holocaust was a central family experience as all of our European family was decimated by it. Our family talked all the time about the relationship between what happened to the Jews in Europe and what happened to Black people in this country.

My father was a school teacher at a time when only women taught school. It was a very poorly paid and very feminized profession. He also worked in the post office for supplemental income. We were poor and lived in one of those neighborhoods where the Jews are on one block, the Blacks on another, and the Irish Catholics are on another, but we all went to the same school. It was a very heterogeneous way to grow while at the same time very strongly rooted in American Jewish culture. I had a very hard life as a child, though I must say I was happy most of the time. Because my mother had heart disease, my brother and I were farmed out to different relatives and were separated a great deal. When you're a kid and your mother is very sick you grow up very fast. I had an unusual childhood, but i was helpful because it did a lot to prepare me for being a writer.

OTI: What about your role models? Were there any?

AD: My first role model was my father who is a very unusual man, being intellectual, honest and brave. One thing that amazes me is that people think that I think men are irredeemable. On the contrary, I think its incomprehensible that men behave the way they do, because my father was a very gentle, loving and nuturing parent. He served as both parents for my brother and myself and was also a person of extraordinary loyalty and kindness to my mother. So it was quite a shock to me when I went out into the world and found that other people didn't treat women the same way.

OTI: And your mother?

AD: When she was young, my mother was one of the earliest members of Planned Parenthood. It was one of her first and greatest passions, a real crusade. By the time I was in the sixth grade I knew women died from illegal abortions and that it was wrong, even though I didn't have the faintest idea what an abortion was.

I knew that I wanted to stop these deaths, only I didn't know how, but I thought that there were probably two ways. You could become a lawyer and brilliantly make the arguments that would change the laws; or you could become a novelist who wrote a book so incredible that people cried and couldn't stand it any more. Those are still the two things that interest me most, change through law and change through books.

My mother is also a model of extraordinary physical courage. Unfortunately, I've learned nothing from her. I have no physical courage at all.

OTI: What about literary influences?

AD: I started reading when I was very young. Most of my original influences are male writers, male political figures. An early "literary influence" was Allen Ginsberg. I read the poets that he liked, and then from those poets I got to Shelley, Byron and Keats, and when I found Rimbaud I was hooked for life. I liked the wild writers who broke all the rules, and even though I learned more from others, when I was younger I wouldn't read anyone who didn't have an apocalyptic message.

OTI: So would you say your politics came out of the literary tradition of dissidents saying "no" to societal rules or was it a singular theme coming from its own place?

AD: It came out of a variety of things. First, it really did come out of my family, so I was very surprised when they later viewed my politics as rebellious. I thought I was just doing what they had taught me to do. And also, by the time I was in the 6th grade, I knew I wanted to be a lawyer. That all changed when I got arrested and realized I didn't want to be in that courtroom as part of that system.

OTI: That was during the protests against the Vietnam War?

AD: It was one of the earliest at the beginning of 1965.1 was arrested at the U.S. Mission to the U.N. in a sit-in. Adlai Stevenson was the United States Ambassador to the U.N. Stevenson was a great liberal, but here he was, defending the war and being the front for American war policy around the world. I was so outraged that we blocked his entrance to the Mission. We were arrested, and I was sent to the Women's House of Detention. I can remember standing in court. They wouldn't let us sit down and, because we had been on a hunger strike in jail, we were very weak and very tired. They kept us standing there from nine in the morning until two in the afternoon.

OTI: That takes a great deal of physical courage . . .

AD: It was hard, it was awful. It was so horrible seeing what happened in the court that I didn't want to be a lawyer anymore. I wanted to become a citizen who knows how to challenge the law and I think that is really what I have become.

OTI: Was it this prison experience that radicalized you?

AD: When I went into the House of Detention I was 18 years old. It was a notorious and very brutal prison. Twelve floors of women who mostly had done nothing. Before I went into jail, a male protester who had been arrested and convicted for everything including theft and rape (he was a real piece of work) somewhere along the line had become a pacifist and a nonviolent activist. He was being very Gandhi-like when he said to me, "This is a really rotten place you're going to, so be quiet and remember everything. When you come out you can do something about it if you remember." So I went in there with that assignment in my head. I can remember sitting there with a group of women who had been arrested, and one policewoman pointed at me and said "Watch her. The quiet ones, they're the dangerous ones." She could see I was watching, remembering. All the women were given internal examinations. You were body searched constantly and they claimed that they were looking for heroin. They looked for heroin in every orifice of your body. Also, they said they had to give you a medical examination for syphilis. They never gave anybody a Wasserman but two doctors gave me an internal examination that totally brutalized me. It was a rape.

They were male doctors, very sadistic, having a good time laughing and joking. It's been 20 years and I haven't forgotten one detail of it. I started hemorrhaging shortly after. I was only there for four days. When I got out of jail I was still bleeding and, being a woman of my generation, there was a lot I didn't know, so I kept trying to convince myself it was my period. After about the 15th day I knew this wasn't my period so I went home to my parents. They were furious with me for being arrested. My mother's reactions were terrible and my father was more concerned for her health than mine. I was very badly hurt. That was the last time I was home. I never again was a child in my parents' house.

At some point, years later, the prison was closed, and I've been told that I had something to do with it. I was forced to testify before the grand jury. The D.A., the famous Frank Hogan, came to see me the night before I testified. Mr. Integrity himself said, "Cooperate with us, do what you're supposed to do and we won't hurt you." So there I was with this grand jury of 30 people looking down at me and this district attorney asking me questions like who do you live with? have you had sex? do you smoke dope? He'd say, "Have you ever slept with a man?" and I'd talk about the rats in my cell at the prison.

The person I remember most was this funny little guy who was the personal assistant to Nelson Rockefeller. He was sent down to tell me that it was all going to be all right, they were going to deal with it.

He had drawings of a new prison that was like a camp site for girls. He said to me, "I swear to you Andrea, I'm going to show you that the system works." One day he was just voted out of existence. Gone, along with all his little drawings of camp. But I did learn how the system works—it was an education.

OTI: It seems that you also learned how to challenge power.

AD: I found that it is always better to fight than not to fight, always no matter what.

OTI: How did the pornography issue come into your life?

AD: It came from the prison experience. Originally, the book that I started on por- nography was about prisons. One of the consistent things in literary pornography is that the woman is always kept in something that is in fact a prison. Certainly my experience in the Women's House of Detention was a direct experience of sexual sadism. I saw those doctors enjoy what they did to me. I know they got sexual pleasure from it. When I came out of jail I had a lot of questions and no way of answering them. One of the questions was, why does it matter if a woman's a virgin or not, because everyone kept asking if I was a virgin. It was as though, if you are a virgin, then something had been done to you; but if you're not, then nothing's been done to you. The prison's view was that anybody who wasn't a virgin didn't have anything to complain about.

OTI: Do you see any relationship between pornography and Nazism? Did modern sexual sadism begin with the Holocaust?

AD: It certainly didn't begin there, but there is a contemporary celebration of sexual sadism that's very much related to the Holocaust. There's an entire European generation of people our age who were raised by the Nazis. A massive amount of pornography was produced by those people, who grew up under the Nazi system of thought, which had a widespread influence on how people comprehend cruelty and pain.

At some point between Hitler's speech and the Jews on the trains to Auschwitz somebody would have had to intervene. Hitler came to power legally, he was voted into power. Goebbels spent a decade using the courts in the Weimar Republic the way the pornographers use the courts here to insist on their rights of free speech. The Weimer Republic was the closest thing to the kind of society we have here. Free speech protections were very strong. Goebbels was taken into court time and time again for libel, for whatever people could think of to stop him from doing what the hell he was doing and the courts usually came out on his side. The democratic court in a democratic society said his right to free speech had to be protected. Now at what point did speech cause genocide? Because with the Nazis there is a relationship between speech and genocide.

OTI: There is a relationship between speech and action but there is also the responsibility of the people who are listening to the speech to decide whether or not to act. How much can you control?

AD: I'm just saying people who talk about freedom of speech refuse to understand the power of speech to get people to act. But pornography in our society isn't something that can be characterized as just speech. Pornography is the photographic documentation of a crime against someone. Most pornography is deeply violative of a woman's integrity. Some is just objectifying, most of it has elements of sadism or violence in it and some shows outright torture. There is nothing in this society that enables us to do anything about any part of that continuum. Pornography also generates crimes of violence against women. It creates bigotry, hostility, and aggression against women. It causes attitudes and behaviors o sex discrimination, which is, goddam it, illegal. In addition, in this country if a woman is raped and the rape is filmed (which is happening more and more) the films are protected speech and can't be taken off the market. You couldn't find a better example of the courts saying speech matters and a woman's life doesn't.

OTI: But who makes the distinctions, Andrea? I'm sure that that's the question that's always thrown up to you, because there is a fine line between what is considered erotic and what is considered pornographic.

AD: I think the Ordinance will become the solution in the future because women are either going to solve this problem or women are going to be destroyed by the pornography industry. We developed a bill that is a civil bill. It's not a criminal bill, so the police have no power at all to make any decisions of any kind. Under the bill there is a very specific definition of pornography. It's very concrete and risks missing some pornography in order not to be misunderstood or misinterpreted. So first there's the definition of pornography which the material has to actually meet; then there are four circumstances under which a woman or someone else who has been hurt (primarily women) could bring civil suits against pornographers, exhibitors, distributors and sellers. The burden of proof is on her. If she's been coerced into pornography, she should be able to hold the people who coerced her civilly responsible. She should be able to get the pornography off the market. The civil liberties people say she can't touch the pornography. We say the pornography is part of what violates her. It's a part of her rape.

OTI: In a recent interview in ON THE ISSUES, attorney Harriet Pilpel was quoted as saying: "You cannot possibly, in my opinion, prohibit something because it is repulsive to you or puts in a degrading light one group or another. That's the same argument that was made in favor of suppressing 'The Merchant of Venice' because Shyiock as depicted would aid the cause of anti-Semitism. It's the same argument that's been made about suppressing material which shows the Italians or French or anyone else in a hostile light. Of particular interest, with reference to the Indianapolis case, is that it was tried in the lowest Federal Court before a young woman judge. It was her first case. She was appointed by President Reagan, yet she wrote a most impressive opinion dealing with freedom of the press and she decided that the Indianapolis Ordinance was unconstitutional under our federal free press guarantees. The case was appealed by the appropriate Federal Court of Appeals, which also wrote a superb opinion agreeing with the District Court. The Supreme Court upheld the lower court's decision.

So, we have two wonderful lower court decisions approved by the United States Supreme Court in essence."

AD: Let's look at these "wonderful decisions". Sarah Evans Barker, a Reagan judge, said in her decision that sex discrimination is never more important than free speech. There have been other decisions that said you can't have advertisements that say "men only". That's a First Amendment Right, that's words. You're not allowed to put up a sign that says "whites only". That's words, that's the First Amendment. There are certain kinds of discrimination that have been found to be more important than the First Amendment right or free speech. So the judge was wrong. That was that wonderful decision. It was then appealed and the judge who wrote the next wonderful decision is Frank Easterbrook, who is a right wing libertarian, appointed by Ronald Reagan. What he said was that he accepted the premises of the Indianapolis Legislation. He said that pornography promoted injury and insult, promoted rape and assault, caused women to have lower pay in the marketplace and that that proved its power as speech and, therefore, it was protected. He then made analogies to the Holocaust and said that when you live in a free world you take your chances, sometimes very bad things happen. That was his wonderful decision. When pornography is attacked as male dominance, the right-wing jurists protect the pornography and say to hell with women's rights. This is what Pilpel's saying is wonderful.

There are two things here you have to understand. The first is that the Indianapolis Ordinance had a different definition of pornography than the Minneapolis Ordinance, a much narrower definition targeting only violent and sadistic pornography. These courts said that the pornography was more important than women's lives while acknowledging that pornography did all the harm to women that we said it did. Now, the only other people who have been treated this way in the U.S. legal system are Blacks back when slavery was upheld.

The other thing that these decisions did was to find a new legal way to make women chattel. What these decisions did was to say women belong to men as speech. Real women being sexually violated or hurt in pornography legally belong to men as "speech". If women are speech, men can do whatever they want to them. Women don't have rights that are independently theirs as long as we can characterize the abuses of them as speech. It's a staggering setback for women's rights.

OTI: Then this is the thinking behind your attacks on free speech and the pornographers, and the basis for the attacks on you for being a censor?

AD: The argument isn't just that I or other feminists are for censorship, it's that we're trying to take these people's sexuality away from them. When they're talking about censorship of speech it's almost a euphemism. What they mean is censorship of their sexuality and their sexuality is based on dominance and submission.

OTI: But are you trying to censor that?

AD: Well, they're saying we're trying to censor that.

OTI: Are you?

AD: Other people call it revolution.

OTI: What do you call it?

AD: Nobody can tell me that when a woman is gagged and hung from something that this is an expression of free speech. Nobody can tell me that the use of her body in those ways can be a protected right of speech for anyone. Pornography is a significant practice that helps to silence women in society. It's a practice of terrorism, it's a practice of intimidation, it's a form of making you know your place in society. It has incredible effects on the people who have power over women; the people who hire us, fire us, give us grades in school and, in general, also rape us, batter us, commit incest against us and force us into prostitution. Pornography says that all those activities of sexual abuse are legitimate and that we like them, enjoy them, and have a good time when they do those things to us.

OTI: Perhaps pornography represents the Madonna/whore construct. In prostitution and incest, women are either whores or victims. Sexual pleasure is not the issue.

AD: No, I think that here we find one of the few remaining distinctions between Right and Left in this country (since I think there is no real political Left anymore in America). The Right despises the prostitute, but wants to save her through Christ. There is a recognition of her suffering in one way or another. The Left wants prostitution to be a legitimate way of life for women.

OTI: Because it's their choice of what to do with their bodies?

AD: That's the rap, but I think what's really underneath it is a deep hatred of women that says that's all women are worth. The rap says when a woman spends her life being a prostitute, her life is not wasted because she's a working woman. Like Blacks picking cotton is working, because they're doing something appropriate. Remember that senator from California, George Murphy, who said that Mexicans are the best people to pick things in the fields because their backs are closer to the ground? In this sense, it's natural for women to be prostitutes.

OTI: So the Left has nature and appropriateness and the Right has God.

AD: Yes. And they're not distinct. These people can fight each other forever but the fact of the matter is that God and nature say the same things about women. That doesn't leave us with much, which is why we need feminism, which is neither Right or Left, but, theoretically at least, about us from our point of view.

OTI: Many people (liberals in particular) see you as going to bed with the right wing on the pornography issue. How do you respond?

AD: I'm not a liberal but I know the problem with liberals and liberal feminists is that they will not deal with the realities of power, or the realities of woman hating in the world.

Aside from the fact that we have no actual alliance with anyone on the right, have never taken any money, have not gotten any help, that the bill was developed in Minneapolis which is an exceptionally progressive city by any standard, aside from all of that, a rapist doesn't say to a woman "Excuse me, what are your politics?" The 16- year-old could be a Reagan fan, but when a pimp picks her up off the street and puts her in pornography, she's a woman. It's one of the great challenges of feminism to deal with the fact that women of all political persuasions are treated as women whether they understand it or not.

OTI: But it goes beyond that. Aside from the sexual degradation and minimization of women, there's the money involved. You're talking about a 10-billion-dollar-per-year industry that sells sex and sells it big.

Do you feel that you failed in your struggle against pornography because the Ordinance was declared unconstitutional?

AD: I feel frustrated and I feel angry but we certainly didn't expect anything else. We're not Alice in Wonderland. We didn't think the courts who uphold the power disparity between men and women were going to say "Oh thank you, you've shown us the way."

OTI: But you raised an extraordinary challenge that continues to be addressed and that's a wonderful thing.

AD: Absolutely. You have to go into the courts. When Blacks were fighting for civil rights and equality, they went into segregationist courts for 50 years before there was a major success in 1954 with Brown vs. Board of Education.

You have to go to where the power is. You have no other way of dealing with the power that is being used against you except to confront it where it is and to try to find a way to explode its contradictions. That's one of the things that the Ordinance does. It doesn't just challenge the pornographers, it challenges this legal system that says it's against pornography but in effect has been protecting it. I mean, the obscenity law is the formula for legal pornography.

OTI: Let's talk about sexuality. Don't you think that sexuality as it is constructed in this society is mechanistic and adolescent? One could say the sexuality of a Penthouse or Hustler is not so much sadistic as it is simplistic and mechanistic.

AD: What you're saying is certainly true, but the turning of a person into an object is an integral part of creating a system of violence.

The issue of objectifying women is exceptionally important. We can't look at any form of systematic violence against people based on race, sex, or any hierarchical value, where people are not first turned into objects. The fact that with women this is done through something that is sexually arousing and pleasing doesn't change the reality. It just makes it deeper and more important because the responses to the object become physiological responses that are sexual and sex itself becomes synonymous with dominance.

OTI: Some feminists are trying to reconstruct what it means to be a woman and defining it in terms of the male establishment. There are some who believe sado-masochism is a form of liberating self-expression.

AD: We grow up in a sado-masochistic society, we learn to eroticize power dif- ferences between men and women, we learn to eroticize being powerless as women. Obviously some women have learned to eroticize being sadists as well, although not very many. A political defense of it is something else. To say that sado-masochism opposes the world instead of being a part of the world as usual is deeply destructive and a total mind fuck for women.

OTI: A lot of radical lesbian/feminist political argument against heterosexuality is that it is impossible to have any equity in heterosexual relationships because of the power differentials between men and women. There is an attempt through lesbian sexual politics to find equality in sexuality. Do you personally think that's possible?

AD: It's not my way of approaching it. I have never felt that lesbians per se were exempt from any of the power hierarchies that men and women also experience. I think that being powerless is not good for people, it hurts and damages them. So when you put two people who are powerless together, you don't necessarily get more equality except that they've both been hurt. Sometimes you get strength, and sometimes you get political conviction and commitment. Sometimes for the women themselves there is a tremendous sense of freedom and integrity but this is no panacea. You solve the problem out in the world or you don't solve it at all. People may find many personal islands in their own lives where they can experience some kind of reciprocity, and mutuality. I think some women find it with some men but it's very hard because in the real world inequality exists.

OTI: So the separatist argument is not for you.

AD: It's never been a convincing argument. I really do see it as the ultimate personal solution and in that sense I reject it. I think that there has to be a complete change in gender. I don't think gender is real, I think gender is constructed. I am about ultimately redistributing power, and the redistribution of power means taking masculinity away from men. So when men say "feminists want to castrate us", in a sense they're right. We see the artifice of gender and radical equality demands the kind of institutional change that will ultimately destroy gender. That's what I hope, that's what I work for.

But the problem here is that a lot of women (especially as things get harder over time) think that you just envision a better world and you carry that vision around in your head and things are better because you have a better attitude. What I see is that you destroy male power or male power destroys you. There is no way to the other side of the destruction of gender without actually destroying gender. In other words, the institutions of male power are real and this is a real fight. I think there is real value in social conflict towards change but women avoid social conflict.

OTI: They avoid it because they are economically psychologically and financially so dependent on the people who are in power, who are men. How do you fight an enemy who has outposts in your head? How do you sell the idea of revolution and freedom to women who are now making 60 thousand dollars a year and don't give a damn about this stuff because they've got it made?

AD: If there's been any kind of split in the women's movement over the issue of pornography, it's been between rich and poor. Pornography is an issue that has mobilized poor women; the kind of women who have been in pornography or prostitution, the women who have been incest victims or homeless. Women all over the country who make the 60 thousand dollars a year also control the media in the women's movement. They are the ones who are saying, "Shut up, we really don't want the stigma of this issue on us." Whereas, the poor women are saying, we have no escape from the impact of what pornography means in our lives. It's a real rich/poor issue.

OTI: What about the fact that the pornography industry helped fund the pro-choice movement?

AD: That's very upsetting. The pornographers have always been politically smart and Hefner bought a lot when he gave money to various parts of the women's movement. He bought loyalty for a very long time, but the legal fight of feminists for the right to abortion went down the wrong track. Right now, since Roe vs. Wade, we have abortion protected under a constitutionally inferred right to privacy. We never fought it out on the basis of sex equality and that's the only way we're ever really going to have it. What the pornographers used their money to do was to get the women's movement to fight it out on a legal basis that also protects pornography. The right to have an abortion and the right to read pornography in your own home (a man's home is his castle) are protected under the same legal rulings. The few dissenting voices in the women's movement who said this is wrong are really getting screwed. But that's changing now. Nobody any longer thinks that the pornographers have women's rights at heart. People say that we may lose the right to abortion. What we need is to have reproductive rights established as a fundamental civil right, not as an inferred right of privacy but as a right of sex equality

OTI: What is your vision for the feminist movement in the future?

AD: I think we have a resistance movement now, not a revolutionary movement. We have a movement of people who are resisting male dominance and trying to survive day by day. They are trying to forge an understanding of how it works, and at the same time, trying to leave clues behind for another generation which is finally going to do it right and blow the whole fucking thing up, I hope.

OTI: Then what, blow it up, then what?

AD: We're all so tired. It takes a lot to sustain the struggle. All those blows to self esteem that begin when you're so young, when you're taught second class status, when you're taught that you're really not worth very much. Then there is the egregious and systematic sexual abuse that women undergo starting from childhood. Ours is a population of political people who have been hurt in these ways. How do such people find the strength and the conviction to fight for equality?

To me the word "equality" is not a sterile word; it has a whole lot of resonance, going back to the French Revolution which was the first revolution for real equality.

It's amazing to me how little attraction the word "equality" really has for people. How they so deeply get their pleasure from forms of inequality of all kinds. It seems to me that if a society had real equality, the forms of sensuality that would exist between people would be deeper and richer and more various, less fetishized and alienated.

With pornography, we're talking about the Left defending commodity capitalism in all of its forms so that when you defend free speech, what it means in this country is that you're defending the right of the people who have money, who have been able to buy speech, over the rights of the people who have been disenfranchised from the system. The Left is defending NBC's right to do what it wants, defending the rights of all the multinational corporations to do what they want.

OTI: Where does all of this leave or lead us?

AD: It makes me think a lot about the future and what's going to happen to us. I wonder if anything that we've done over these years is going to survive in any form, because in fact we don't control most of communications. You can watch yourself being written out of it as you live. I fear for what's going to happen to what we found out. I would hate for another generation of women to have to begin inventing the wheel all over again. I think we have found out a lot, contributed a lot, understood a lot despite everything that's been done to try to make us think that we have accomplished nothing. I don't know how much time we all have anyway, none of us know that, but I just hope that somehow we've managed to short circuit male dominance so that more generations of women don't have to be a population of raped people. I don't want women to have to suffer.

It's extraordinary to me that feminists do on some level have a deep commitment to reproductive rights, but don't have the same commitment to stopping rape. They think that they can clean up after it, want to help the people who are hurt by it, but they don't think they can stop it and if your goal isn't to stop it then you'll accept it as an inevitability. This is the difference between radical and liberal. I think that liberal feminists say we have to make our way in this world very much as it is, and radical feminists are saying we have to transform this world, we cannot make our way in it as it is, and I think radical feminists are right.

People criticize me by saying I dwell too much on the horrible things that happen to women. I started out being Utopian but got beaten down by rape and battery. When you are part of a movement for social change, part of what you're doing is trying to pass information on in ways that will ensure that women won't be hurt in the same ways that you were hurt. You try to make life easier for them and then with that relief, that escape, that burden that's no longer on their backs, they should be able to run farther and faster than ever before.

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