Andrea Dworkin, 1946-2005 Rating: NNNNN
To people who knew only the public person, feminist activist and theorist Andrea Dworkin, who died last month in Washington, was fearsome. To those of us who had the chance to talk personally to her, she was gentle, open and deeply wounded - largely by the insults hurled her way.
Those came courtesy of the confrontational things she said and wrote about how gender power relations play themselves out in sex. Male dominance and female submission, she argued, were hard-wired into the dynamic of normal heterosexual relationships. It's no coincidence that common sexual parlance has it that the penis penetrates vagina. Why not, she wondered, say that the vagina swallows the penis? Because sex doesn't work that way under the patriarchal regime.
Pornography, she insisted, was patriarchy's sex manual, its primary propaganda, turning users on to male power and female powerlessness.
Reactions to this kind of thinking ranged from unease to pure loathing. So no wonder even the strongest feminists have been playing chicken with male sexuality. Rape is about power, we kept saying, not sex. Really? So how come rapists don't just hit us? How come they keep shoving broomsticks and bottles into us to humiliate us? And how come almost every rapist stays hard during the attack? Dworkin liked to ask those kinds of questions.
If you googled her right after her death, you reached site after site spewing hate toward her - much of it based on untruths about her viewpoint - but once the hostility subsided, relatively respectful obits referred to her as someone whose time had passed. She was brilliant and absolutely essential, was the grudging consensus, but only in her time - the 70s and 80s.
No one in the new millennium, it seems, wants to hear her argument that women getting fucked by men are collaborators in a perfect system of female oppression. And no one wants to hear an analysis of sexuality as defined and debased by pornography.
This I'm learning the hard way in a series of public appearances alongside porn star Ron Jeremy at various college campuses around the U.S.
This is not the first time I've done the debate circuit with a porn icon. I travelled in the mid-80s with Screw publisher Al Goldstein to universities across Canada. But it was different then. When Goldstein spoke, crudely and abusively, the frat boys smiling smugly as they leaned against the back wall of the hall literally withered. There was no such thing as Internet porn, and the female students were there to shout back at Goldstein.
In 2005, there are thousands of men screaming for the smart and very user-friendly Jeremy, you can get digital porn at the press of a TV button, and the young women in the audience are wearing I Love Ron T-shirts.
I'm guessing you're wondering why I do this. It's obvious I'm not going to shut down the industry, but I do see it as a way to get porn users - not necessarily bad people - to think about the material and look at it in a different way.
I like to point out how even in the so-called just-sexual-entertainment products that Jeremy calls harmless, their hero uses his dick as a weapon. "In the movie Fascination," I say by way of example, "as Ron is fucking one woman, she starts to talk too much, so he shuts her up by ramming his erect penis into her mouth."
This is greeted with raucous cheers from the crowd for their fave porn star.
"Hear that sound?" I stare them down. "That is the sound of contempt for women."
Ron's retort during his rebuttal? "The part about me putting my dick in her mouth to shut her up?" Pause. "Yeah, I did that."
More rhapsodic cheers. It's as if I've said nothing, and I feel invisible. In that moment, I imagine - fantasize, better - that there are maybe 10 people in the room freaked out by these developments.
And I know that Dworkin's perilous arguments are no anachronism, that her theory - fact, as I'm experiencing it all over America - is as present-tense as cybernet sex dolls.
She was one of the best public speakers on the planet. Go to www.andreadworkin.net/memorial/, click on Andrea Dworkin Speaks and listen to Nikki Craft's tiny, perfect memorial, a 60-second loop of Dworkin speaking over a series of intense beats. It's just 60 seconds, just one sentence - "And if you continue to believe / that this is a matter of debate / I am going to tell you / how many women will die / during the course of that debate." You can hear the cadence and the thunder that made Dworkin such a prophet.
She would have really shaken those kids up.