Sexual politics | Dworkin

Happy Women’s History Month! What better way to celebrate than with some uncomfortable conversation and a self-perpetuated guilt trip? To kick things off, here’s a mini-introduction to some angry 70’s fem discourse.

Andrea Dworkin was a second-wave radical feminist who poured the majority of her activism into exploring the politics of sex, particularly vocal within the anti-pornography movement. Although controversial and institutionally unsuccessful, her passion and its subsequent texts served a crucial role in shaping the rhetoric of today’s feminism. Many of the issues addressed in her work exist outside of the ideological spectrum she fell to the unfavorable side of, and many of these issues are far from exclusive to the time period in which they were published, or to the culture their author belonged to.

Last week I came across her “Our Blood: Prophecies and Discourses on Sexual Politics”, and it’s definitely a read I’d recommend, albeit with some caution.

Even with the outdated-ness of certain pieces of information introduced throughout this collection of unsettling essays, the validity of the arguments at their cores still stand. Like when she uses the then-legal status of marital rape in U.S law to help “[lay] out the dimensions of the rape atrocity”, it’s pretty easy to focus on those general dimensions than to get caught up in the detail itself (however, ignoring it completely would be a mistake; marital rape, legal or not, is a present phenomenon that still relates to the dynamics of sex Dworkin discusses). She also claims sexual assault in the U.S is “on the rise” in order to add a sense of urgency to that same chapter’s thesis (calling for a reconstruction of the systemic processes that handle perpetrators and treat victims). While questionably true during her era and definitively false during ours, talking about the magnitude of rape itself, nevermind whatever trend its rates are following at the moment, invokes an emotional reaction, a desire to take action, really, limited to no time period.

Such strong responses are also partly owed to the explicit language Dworkin uses in her dissection. I’ve scanned my little notepad of scribbled down quotes, an image I’ve included at the end of this piece, but some of the most resonating to me:

“There is no freedom or justice in exchanging the female role for the male role.” p.12.

According to Dworkin, the male sexual model is a dynamic of dominance vs. submission in which the civil, economic, and sexual identities of men can all be traced back to. For equality to be achieved, then, there would have to a complete destruction of sex roles, not a mere promotion to mimic them. To adopt the language and customs of male sexuality would be to perpetuate the very oppression such “personal accommodation” could never destroy.

“Rape, then, is the logical consequence of a system of definitions of what is normative.” p.46.

In one of her more controversial bits, Dworkin suggests the polarity of gender roles (men being aggressive and women being passive) leaves rape to be the exemplary act of men embracing social norms, rather a surprising act of deviance. Phallocentric identity, men defining themselves and their pride by their penises, has fostered the legitimacy of that dynamic. Dworkin emphasizes the inferior associations to femininity which strengthen that relationship, as not only an explanation for the root causes of rape, but a general “acceptance” of it.

This chapter/essay was far too short to adequately explain such a radical assertion (and justification for it was entirely absent), so although I couldn’t take it as seriously as the author might’ve hoped, this was still a particularly painful grain of salt to take.

“As women, we learn fear as a function of our so-called femininity.” p.55.

Our identities, our perceptions, our personal experiences themselves are all subject to the larger influence that is culture. If a culture operates in mind of male supremacy (Dworkin argues this is the reality across the globe), the identities, perceptions, and personal experiences it defines will, on all levels, reflect the “gender class system” that positions male capacity above, at the expense of, women. Courage is her focus here; its innateness in men and rejection towards women ultimately lead back to phallic identity being the foundation of humanness (so, then, the core of women’s invisibility). In other words, women’s invisibility is the lack of qualities (she quotes Aristotle there), since characteristics worth any attention or respect are reserved for men. Like courage! If women are unable to experience courage, since the culture that influences them reserves such a trait for men and punishes those who try to escape that culture’s “enforced code”, then women are left with fear.

“…it is an agony to be fully conscious of the brutal misogyny which permeates culture, society, and all personal relationships.” p.78.

This idea is often cited as a possible explanation to why women reject feminism. Dworkin implies such resentment is a product of self preservation, a willful ignorance strengthened by the very conditions feminists wish to eradicate. To overcome this veil between sisters, the author proposes an establishment of values rooted in an honest rejection of male notions.

Our Blood is full of other soundbites worth the time to read and reflect, and below are some of the ones that struck me (I apologize for the handwriting in advance– let’s call it passionate, not chicken scratch, yeah?).

Too many second-wave feminists, especially the radical ones, have been written off as crazy or some other bullshit. This delegitimization is no accident, and I encourage you to look into your role, conscious or not, in preserving it. Reading the very ideas you’ve learnt to laugh at is a good start, especially if those ideas have provided you the ability, the means, the protection to access them. We owe a lot to our feminist predecessors, women and men alike, so let’s make sure we don’t half ass our thanks to ’em.


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  • Reply
    June 21, 2017 at 8:29 PM

    In the half century since Kate Millett wrote “Sexual Politics,” have we moved closer to gender equality, or further away?

  • Reply
    March 31, 2017 at 8:01 PM

    It is similarly unimaginable that a book offering a feminist critique of leading contemporary novelists would gain the kind of cultural traction achieved by “Sexual Politics,” with its analyses of Norman Mailer and Henry Miller.

  • Reply
    Robert A Hardin
    March 21, 2017 at 3:37 PM

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