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The Prisoner of Sex

A victim of abuse as a child, briefly a prostitute as a young woman, Andrea Dworkin married a gay man and spent three decades fighting hypersexualized America. She lost.


Andrea Dworkin, April 20, 1990.  

When John Stoltenberg, the widower of the feminist writer and anti-pornography activist Andrea Dworkin, the woman whom Gloria Steinem called the feminist movement’s “Old Testament prophet,” first met his spouse, he remembers feeling “like we had walked off a cliff.” 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. Dworkin and Stoltenberg both considered themselves gay. “She said, ‘I met someone,’ ” remembers Dworkin’s lifelong agent, Elaine Markson, “ ‘and it’s a man.’ ”

It was 1974. “There was a party at the apartment where I was staying,” says Stoltenberg. “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 clarity that I couldn’t imagine life without her.” Now, 31 years later, almost to the day, he has been forced to. Dworkin died on April 9 at the age of 58 in her bed in the Washington, D.C., apartment she and Stoltenberg had moved to about a year ago. They’d moved from New York so he could take a job as the managing editor of AARP The Magazine. (When we met, Stoltenberg had a red rubber bracelet on his wrist that said I LOVE SOCIAL SECURITY.) Friends say Dworkin had loved their previous home, a Park Slope brownstone, but it had become difficult for her to manage its stairs because of severe osteoarthritis in her knees, exacerbated by years of obesity.

Their big, bright apartment in D.C., in a Deco building with a vaguely old-Hollywood feel, is all on one level, so it was easier for Dworkin to get around, and she had started to settle into the area. She’d been reaching out to other writers and had gone to dinner at Christopher Hitchens and Carol Blue’s apartment, where Dworkin and Stoltenberg were joined by the former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum and his wife, Danielle Crittenden. “Andrea had fun that night—she had wicked fun,” says Stoltenberg. They found common ground talking about how much they hated Bill Clinton and how they thought he was a rapist.

Friends say Dworkin felt clear-headed 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 her knees, but Dworkin had just finished a proposal for a book of literary criticism. In her bedroom, on the worn red chair she used to sit on, Stoltenberg has left untouched the yellow legal pad on which she’d been taking notes: “Use against Hemingway, Hitler and Bush,” it says in red pen. “The real America hates war.” Her desk is in another room, where there is a poster that says DEAD MEN DON’T RAPE.

“We had no idea she was near death,” says Stoltenberg, who is wearing black jeans and a black sweater and has the sunken eyes of a man in mourning. “I forbade her to die first. I mean, that’s kind of a joke—if you knew Andrea, you knew that was just a dare.” He laughs. “They never tell you when you fall in love with somebody that the odds are that one of you will go first. I’ve been trying to remember when I realized—it had to have been in the first year or two—that my life’s work . . . what John Stoltenberg is here for . . . ” He starts to sob. “I’m sorry . . . is to make sure that her life’s work be done. I’ve done other things—things I like to do, things I’m good at—but I have never conceived of my life’s work other than as the home, the rock, the means, the support, the harbor, the net, the comfort, the embrace, whatever was needed so she could go on. ’Cause I figured it out real early that she was brilliant. I knew I was in the presence of somebody who had greatness.”

When most people think of Andrea Dworkin, they think of two things: overalls and the idea that all sex is rape. This is the popular interpretation of her 1987 polemic Intercourse, and while she didn’t exactly say that, she didn’t exactly not say it either. She wrote that intercourse is a “means of physiologically making a woman inferior,” which is pretty easy to take issue with, but then she also wrote that “in fucking, the deepest emotions one has about life as a whole are expressed, even with a stranger, however random or impersonal the encounter. Rage, hatred, bitterness, joy, tenderness, even mercy, all have their home in this passion, in this act,” which is pretty right on.

Once she found a home for her rage in the anti-pornography sect of the women’s movement, Dworkin became America’s least likely superstar—a kind of inverted sex symbol. 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.

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