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The Prisoner of Sex

Dworkin and Stoltenberg at home in Brooklyn, 2003.  

And Dworkin’s friends could forgive her for her anger because of what it had earned her. “This is dangerous but I will say it: I think Andrea was like our Malcolm. And people who—feminists, even—raised their eyebrows at her supposed extremism or her intransigence or her fire took secret glee from that. In the same way that the black community grieved horribly and openly when King was assassinated, but when Malcolm was killed? Even some of the people who said, ‘Well, he was always violent,’ they were devastated,” says Morgan. “Remember where Malcolm X came from? Malcolm had been a pimp, Malcolm had been a hustler, Malcolm had been a drug addict. It’s the militant voice, it’s the voice that would dare say what nobody else was saying . . . and it can’t help but say it because it is speaking out of such incredible personal pain.”

On June 2, 2000, Dworkin published an extremely disturbing piece in Britain’s Guardian. She describes sitting in the garden of a Parisian hotel in 1999, drinking Kir royales and reading a book on French Fascism, when she suddenly felt “sort of sickish or weakish or something, and all I could think about was getting to my bed and not making a fool of myself in public view.” She managed it, but felt sure her drink had been drugged. Then—somewhat oddly—she ordered room service. “Then a boy was in the room with dinner. He had served me the second drink. I tried to get up and I fell against the far wall because I couldn’t stand. I signed the cheque, but could barely balance myself. I fell back on to the bed. I didn’t lock the door. I came to four or five hours later. I didn’t know where I was. The curtains hadn’t been drawn. Now it was dark.” She goes on to describe cuts on her leg, a strange bruise on her breast, and internal pain. “I hurt deep inside my vagina,” she wrote, which made no sense to her because “in my own life, I don’t have intercourse. That is my choice.” Her language is fevered and murky. “I thought I had been drugged and raped, but I felt confused,” she wrote. “I couldn’t remember, but I thought they had pulled me down toward the bottom of the bed so that my vagina was near the bed’s edge and my legs were easy to manipulate.” Ultimately, she felt certain that “the creatures drugged and raped me.” The last line of the piece was “I’m ready to die.”

In response to this article, Susie Bright wrote on her blog, “By the time you finish reading it, you know she has finally completely lost her mind.” Bright was no friend of Dworkin’s—they had clashed over the years on various issues (porn, stripping, fisting)—but she wasn’t the only one who found Dworkin’s account hard to accept. “John looked for any other explanation than rape,” Dworkin wrote in the Guardian. “He abandoned me emotionally.”

“I thought they were gonna split up over that,” says Nikki Craft, a close friend of Dworkin’s who managed her Website.

Stoltenberg, for his part, says, “It wasn’t that I didn’t believe her, it was that I didn’t want it to be true. I didn’t want that to have happened. I completely concede that she may have understood that as not believing her, but I was trying to find possibilities that would have exempted her from this. She’d been raped enough.”

To not believe a woman who says she has been sexually assaulted is, of course, one of the worst things you can do, according to feminist doctrine. It is something Dworkin wrote and yelled about over and over: the unwillingness of the lucky, the unharmed, to believe the grievous, nightmarish harm that befalls the unlucky. “It’s as if the story is too weird, too ugly, too unsightly for an educated woman to believe,” she once wrote.

But this story proved too weird for even some of Dworkin’s closest allies. Two of her friends, both important feminists who have written extensively about rape, told me they have serious doubts about the veracity of her account and were more worried that she was having a mental breakdown than that she’d been raped.

Robin Morgan says simply, “I wish that piece had never been published.”

Dworkin blamed the rape for her ill health. In another article for the Guardian—published after her death—she wrote, “Doctors tell me that there is no medical truth to my notion that the rape caused this sickness or what happened after it. I believe I am right: It was the rape. They don’t know because they have never looked.”

The friday night before Dworkin died, she and Stoltenberg were watching Will & Grace. “It happened to be one that I didn’t like very much and I knew what was going to happen, so I left her in her bed,” he says. (Stoltenberg has his own bedroom at the other end of the apartment.) Dworkin had been taking a great deal of medication for pain. She had undergone knee surgery in both legs and had had bariatric surgery in an effort to reduce her weight, which was dangerous for her heart and terrible for her knees; by the end of her life, she was quite thin. Her medications included Percocet, fentanyl patches, methadone, and, for three years, Vioxx—since called off the market because it may cause heart attacks and strokes. Stoltenberg had taken Dworkin to the emergency room the Sunday before her death because of an “ebb and flow of symptoms” that they attributed to drug interaction. The doctors could find nothing wrong. On the coroner’s report, the cause of Dworkin’s death is listed as “pending.”

Stoltenberg rushed home from work on Friday afternoon after he called and found out that she had fallen down in the apartment. “I asked her if she wanted me to sleep with her, and she said very much. I got up around six A.M., and I left her sleeping in bed; she was sleeping very soundly. I tried to wake her, actually, but she didn’t wake up, and I thought, Oh, that’s so great.” A deep, untroubled sleep was, for Dworkin, exceedingly rare.

Sometime before eight o’clock, he felt something and went in to check on her. She had just stopped breathing. “She was warm to her fingertips,” he says. “I know she died in her sleep, peacefully; there was no struggle, there was no pain. It was the last thing I could do for her.”

Ariel Levy’s Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture will be published in September by the Free Press.