The Prisoner of Sex

Andrea Dworkin, April 20, 1990.Photo: Elsa Dorfman

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.

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

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.”

Dworkin in her twenties, 1972.Photo: Courtesty of John Stoltenberg

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.

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.”

Dworkin and Stoltenberg at home in Brooklyn, 2003.Photo: Courtesy of John Stoltenberg

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.

The Prisoner of Sex