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The Prisoner of Sex


Dworkin in her twenties, 1972.  

These experiences formed the basis of Dworkin’s worldview. She wrote about them in her first book, Woman Hating, 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 very difficult to relate to Dworkin’s world, with its incessant images of nuclear war and the Holocaust. Sometimes, when you are reading her work, it can be almost impossible to reconcile the world around you with the world on the page.

But for many of the women who would show up to hear her lectures, these were the mundane details of life as a woman who’d been battered or molested or raped. 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.” For them, Dworkin was a savior goddess, a knight in shining armor, and part of that armor was fat. Dworkin would stand before her followers onstage, huge and hollering, an evangelical, untouchable preacher for the oppressed.

Dworkin was a one-dimensional public persona, but she was a nuanced writer, with a 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 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 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.”

Another surprise about Dworkin, given her reputation as an anti-sex man-hater, is how frequently and passionately she wrote about men—male writers, male lovers, male family members (her father in particular, whom she frequently referred to in conversation as “thatdearsweetwonderfulman,” as if it were his title). And she wrote about sex constantly. To say that she was anti-sex misses the point: She was obsessed with sex. Book after book, page after page of “cunt,” “fucking,” “penetration,” “penis,” “sucking,” “balls,” and so on. Often, Dworkin was offering lurid, excruciatingly precise accounts of something sexually hideous, as in this description of her uncle: “He stuck his penis down the throats of at least two of his children when they were infants—I assume to elicit the involuntary sucking response.” Another writer might simply have called him a child molester.

Dworkin’s treatment of sex was frequently garish and grim, but sometimes—whether or not she intended it to be—her writing on the subject was much more ambiguous. The writer and sex radical Susie Bright has pointed out that Dworkin’s first novel, Ice and Fire, is an undeniable retelling of the Marquis de Sade’s Juliette. Dworkin hated De Sade; she devoted an entire chapter to his personal and literary crimes in one of her most famous books, Pornography: Men Possessing Women (in which she asserted, “He both embodies and defines male sexual values”). In that same book, Dworkin described in painstaking detail the goings-on in various examples of smut, including the book Whip Chick: “Pete fucks Cora. She has the bum suck her ass, then her cunt while Pete fucks her in the ass. After all have come, Cora orders the bum to clean Pete’s genitals.” This goes on for pages. Sometimes, when you’re reading Dworkin, it can be difficult to determine whether you are supposed to be offended or masturbating.

Dworkin herself would say that this kind of a reaction was evidence of a mind that’s absorbed the propaganda of the patriarchy and eroticized the subjugation of women. “If, for example, she writes about a violent rape and a reader finds it arousing, it means that the socialization process she writes about—the sexualizing of the domination of women and our own annihilation—has worked,” says Catharine MacKinnon, with whom Dworkin famously crafted legislation that would allow people to sue pornographers for damages if they could show they’d suffered harm from pornography’s making or use. In the eighties, their ordinance was twice passed in Minneapolis and vetoed by the mayor. It passed in Indianapolis but was overturned by federal courts. That legislation still serves as a foundation of a Canadian supreme-court ruling on obscenity that has been used to attack gay bookstores and even to ban Dworkin’s own work.

Dworkin was a sexual utopian, and the republic she imagined still has at least one citizen. 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. Dworkin’s dissection of gender in that book, 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 that 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 planet Earth, “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.”

In addition to his magazine editing, Stoltenberg was himself an anti-pornography activist, 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 says. “I said, ‘Think of yourself as being Janesexual. Or Robbiesexual. 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.

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