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The Prisoner of Sex

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Dworkin at an anti-porn demonstration in New Orleans (Stoltenberg, with mustache, is at right), mid-eighties.  

Dworkin elicited intense reactions from people—they didn’t just disagree with her, they hated her. To her detractors, she was the horror of women’s lib personified, the angriest woman in America—large, furious, ranting. And it wasn’t all a concoction. She really did say that romance is “rape embellished with meaningful looks” (in a speech she gave in Bryant Park at a “Take Back the Night” march in 1979) and that “men are shits and take pride in it” (in her memoir, Heartbreak). She really would yell at her audiences: “The First Amendment was written by slave traders!”

Dworkin wasn’t big on compromise, and she wasn’t one for looking on the bright side. 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. She had little sympathy for anyone with too weak a stomach to dwell with her in the darkness. “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.”

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, 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 started to cry. 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.

Like many members of the women’s 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.”

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.

More bad things happened there. She ran out of money and turned some tricks. For a time, she had a passionate romance with a man in Crete—“We’re so much joined in the flesh that strangers feel the pain if we stop touching,” she wrote—but somehow she left her beloved perch above the “gem-like surface” of the Aegean 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. 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.”


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