I only met Andrea Dworkin once, in passing, at a Brooklyn cafe where I was parsing the Village Voice job listings and halfreading a Don DeLillo book that caught her eye. She was a large woman, powerful in presence even when seated. She had the same wild, Jewish hair and piercing, yet gentle eyes as my mother. Two smart women of the generation that broke out with what they used to call Women’s Liberation, they had learned not to fear their own intelligence no matter who they scared. All I knew about Dworkin was that she hated men, hated sex, wanted to help the government censor porn and hated my dick, which I so very much loved. In other words, I knew nothing of Andrea Dworkin except what others had said about her. That she was ugly and bitter, the personification of female resentment.
“DeLillo always almost gets it, enough anyway to keep me hoping his next book will finally deliver,” she said. I was reading Mao II, and this was before DeLillo finally did bring it home with Underworld, and so I learned that whatever ‘70s time warp she was stuck in, she certainly knew how to read. And then, to my surprise, I learned that she had a male partner, a slight, blond-haired man she introduced as John, who finally joined her before I returned to looking at my book, thinking, “What a hypocrite! She hates men and then sits down to coffee with some guy.” They held hands across the little table, talking easy and light with each other on an average weeknight in Park Slope 12 years ago.
“I am a radical feminist,” she said of herself, “not the fun kind.” Still a man-child when I met her, I hadn’t learned of the real power even ordinary men have when it comes to women. I was born in the early ‘70s, a part of the first generation to come of age after the sexual revolution – used to it, taking it for granted. We were all friends, boys and girls, and without children of our own, or serious jobs and responsibilities, “the patriarchy” seemed little more than some boogieman that timid, out-of-step feminists used to justify their own existence. And then, one by one through our early 20s, I watched as my lovers and friends sold themselves. They stripped or whored to get through school or just to buy dope. They settled for baby-daddies not worth their time, got beaten and stayed with their abusers because, “That’s just how guys are, it’s more complicated than it looks,” as if a bruise could be anything but what it is. I watched my sisters become what men wanted them to be. Men just like me. Because men can. Because decades after women’s liberation, everyday equality is still just a specter. I came to see why Andrea Dworkin is so feared she has to be maligned. I had to become a man to really read her.
Dworkin never said that all sex was rape, even if she saw how the cock is a weapon. She never, no matter how easily her provocations could be misread, claimed that men and women could not love each other. Care for each other. Dream out loud of a world where we don’t know each other by how we hurt each other. She was a philosopher. She didn’t smile when she wrote how women are hurt, beaten, raped. By men who love them. By men who hate them. By men. She wrote of sex without the giggle or sly nod women so often use to put men, and themselves, at ease. She left no easy out for the decent man to say, “Yes, all this rape is terrible – but not me.”
Uninterested in pleasantries, she was intolerant of women’s pain. She did not hate the victims of oppression, but the acts so mundane that no one had seen fit to mention them. The breaking of wives, the training of boys to “become men,” the male right to buy women’s bodies and painted smiles, pornography as “men possessing women.” When Hannah Arendt generalized the banality of Nazi evil, she was applauded. Dworkin applied the same principle to our intimate lives and was spit on. For hating rape they said she hated sex.
Gloria Steinem said, “Every century, there are a handful of writers who help the human race to evolve. Andrea is one of them.” Let that be her epitaph, for from her we can learn the measure of our own progress. Flawed, prone to over-extending simple truths, she was a giant.