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The Prisoner of Sex

Another of Dworkin’s closest friends had a different take on the matter of Dworkin’s sexuality: “In 30-plus years of knowing her, I’ve never heard of a single romance with a woman—not one.”

Many of Dworkin’s friends did not find out that she and Stoltenberg were legally married until they read her obituary in the newspapers. “We hated being called husband and wife,” he says. “When pressed, we would say ‘spouse.’ Spouse or life partner are words that we used.” Friends knew, of course, that the two had lived together for more than 30 years, but there are various reasons why Dworkin would not have wanted her marriage to a man to be public information. For one thing, there was the matter of her being a lesbian.

Dworkin spoke about this many times. At a rally for Lesbian Pride Week in Central Park in 1975—when she was already living with Stoltenberg—she said, “This love of women is the soil in which my life is rooted.” She went on to talk about “erotic passion and intimacy” among women, and a “wild, salty tenderness,” but this is harder to get your head around if you are familiar with her oeuvre. In her writings, there are too many smoldering descriptions of heterosexual sex to count, but the mentions of lesbianism are either bloodless—“There is pride in the nurturant love which is our common ground”—or funny: “Q: There are a lot of rumors about your lesbianism. No one quite seems to know what you do with whom. A: Good.” (As she wrote in a satiric piece called “Nervous Interview.”)

MacKinnon says, “Lesbian is one of the few words you’ve got to make a positive claim about identifying with women, to say I’m with women. It doesn’t necessarily mean without men. Women are socially defined sexually as an inferior class. Lesbian is a sexual word; that’s why it’s stigmatized. In addition to her history and feelings, that’s a lot of why Andrea identified by it, I think.”

Stoltenberg, however, continued to have romances with men throughout his marriage. “Yeah, I did have male lovers. Sexual partners. Companions,” he says. “Yeah. I think as regards Andrea and me, neither she nor I had a concept of sexual faithfulness, but we had a strong conception of truth-telling. The betrayal was never the sex, the betrayal was not telling the truth.”

I ask if he and Dworkin had a sexual relationship. He thinks about it for a minute, and then his face contorts with pain, and when his voice returns it’s a whisper. “We were really close.”

With the possible exception of the Shakers, it is difficult to think of an American movement that has failed more spectacularly than anti-pornography feminism. In the late seventies, when a prominent faction of the women’s-liberation movement—including Brownmiller, Dworkin, Audre Lorde, Robin Morgan, Grace Paley, Adrienne Rich, and Gloria Steinem—turned their attention to fighting pornography, porn was still something marginalized, as opposed to what it is now: a source of inspiration for all of popular culture. (See Jenna Jameson, almost any reality-television show, Brazilian bikini waxes, and go from there.) In her new book, Women’s Lives, Men’s Laws, MacKinnon puts it like this: “The aggressors have won.”

If the anti-porn crusade was a losing battle, it was also a costly one: It divided, some would say destroyed, the women’s movement. The term “sex-positive feminist” was coined by women who wanted to distance themselves from the anti-porn faction. Of course, all feminists thought they were being “sex-positive” and fighting for freedom, but when it comes to sex, freedom means different things to different people. Screaming fights became a regular element of feminist conferences in the eighties, and perhaps the single most divisive issue was the Dworkin-MacKinnon ordinance.

The anti-porn feminists were Dworkin’s chosen people—the like-minded few who experienced her rage as righteous, instead of threatening. Usually. Even within her sororal battalion, Dworkin was frequently at the center of conflict. “She courted it,” says Brownmiller. “She would hang herself on her own cross.”

“She lived with me for a while—she had nowhere to stay; that’s the way it was in those days,” says the writer Grace Paley, now 83, to whom Dworkin dedicated Woman Hating. “I really stuck with her for a long time and then we got into a fight about something really stupid, and I have to say it could be more her fault because I don’t get mad at people. I think she went through a very hard period, and I always felt I wasn’t there for her because of this dumb fight.”

“She could be difficult,” says Robin Morgan, one of Dworkin’s best friends. “The same ferocity of intellect could turn against you—very fast, you could become them.”

Morgan, still luminous at 64, is a former child star, editor-in-chief of Ms., one of the few guests of Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show ever to walk off in the middle of an interview, a poet, the author of twenty books, and a great coiner of slogans for the movement: “Pornography is the theory, rape is the practice,” was one of hers; so too was “The personal is political.” “That became rather well known,” she says drily, drinking wine in front of the fireplace in her West Village apartment. “But for me it was always very true.”

Dworkin, by contrast, put up a wall between herself and the world. “I used to say to her, ‘You’re a funny, funny, hilarious person, but you never let it through in your public persona. You never let the incredible gentleness and vulnerability of yourself through, and so consequently people see this fierce person living totally in her head.’ ” Morgan had a nickname for Dworkin: Creampuff. “Because she was so fragile.”

Morgan describes Dworkin as a “high maintenance” friend. “At one point, in 2001, she was barely out of the hospital, and she and John were having difficulties. She called me one afternoon, and she said, ‘I have to leave him and I have to come right now and stay with you, and I know your apartment is so small, but I simply must.’ And I said, ‘Andrea? Do you remember what happened this morning?’ ”

The date was September 11. “At that moment, my garden was filled with friends who had walked up here to the West Village, covered with ash, and were sort of throwing up and crying. I said, ‘Andrea, I cannot be here for you this time.’ She was pissed at first, but she did forgive me.”