Lessons From Andrea Dworkin: On Creating the Feminist Movement We Need
I’m a fierce advocate for sexual assault education in my school. I’ve led a seminar on Title IX and consent, and am working with the administration to build curriculum on the issue. When I started constructing this curriculum, I came to an unsettling realization. I'd always thought that I was doing this work through a feminist lens; yet, when I paused to reflect on the language I used in the curriculum and trainings, I realized that much of it tried to call male students into the conversation, rather than act as a universal call to action. I minimized the connection between athletes and rape culture and always made sure we included a case study where a perpetrator was wrongfully accused. As I reflected on creating these materials, I realized that I did all these things to save myself from having an argument instead of creating a learning opportunity. Without knowing it, I was upholding the patriarchy by avoiding key parts of the issue for the sake of male students’ comfort.
This realization led me to ask myself an overwhelming number of questions: What are the consequences of creating a movement geared towards gaining male involvement as opposed to a movement that meets the needs of survivors? Do these two goals overlap or are they inherently different? Can I still call my curriculum a feminist effort when I’m compromising to cater to toxic masculinity? For the answers, I turned to an unapologetically loud activist in the fight to end violence against women: Andrea Dworkin.
In many of Dworkin’s books, and specifically in Pornography: Men Possessing Women, she argues that pornography is both dehumanizing to women and unavoidably linked to violence against them. In this work, Dworkin confronts men about their actions and the ways in which they have created and upheld a toxic society based on violence against women. Do I personally agree with her thesis in this book? No. However, while Dworkin’s ideas may be flawed, we can learn a lot from her attitude. She didn’t worry about her ideas being popular or the harsh criticism she faced. In fact, in the preface of her book Intercourse, she wrote, “I have never written for a cowardly or passive or stupid reader, the precise characteristics of most reviewers.” Instead, she focused on creating the movement she thought would be the most beneficial to survivors of sexual assault.
Dworkin didn’t try to make feminism trendy or more appealing; instead, her contributions were biting, radical, and definitely controversial. She didn’t sugar-coat her work to make it easier to swallow. In my mind, this starkly contrasts with today’s feminist movement. Feminism has become a fad. The feminism I see in the media consists of wearing t-shirts with catchy slogans and using language that skirts around the issues. As we’ve tried to make feminism more mainstream and trendy, we’ve minimized the importance and severity of the issues we’re fighting for. We spend more time emphasizing that “it’s not all men” than we do actually advocating for the cause and pushing for change. We play it safe instead of pushing for the radical. Dworkin’s stance on pornography was widely disliked. She believed that pornography enforced violence against women and therefore should be banned. Disapproval didn’t stop her from fighting. If there’s one thing we can learn from Dworkin, it’s that we have to be loud and forceful. Despite knowing how controversial her stance on pornography was, Dworkin partnered with lawyer Catharine MacKinnon to write the Antipornography Civil Rights Ordinance, which claimed that pornography was a form of sex-based discrimination and which allowed victims to go after makers and distributers of porn in court. And many states went on to pass the ordinance. In the end, the ordinance was blocked and deemed unconstitutional, but Dworkin persisted in her work. In this spirit, today’s feminists shouldn’t hide behind slogans and minimize the issues to make ourselves likable.
Andrea Dworkin was unpopular among men and even disliked by many feminist women. Many viewed her as an extremist and the embodiment of the stereotypical "sex-hating, man-hating angry feminist." While many of those criticisms were based on stereotypes, some were backed up by feminist values; through the lens of contemporary feminism, some of Dworkin’s ideas are at best approaching inherently unfeminist takes. Modern day feminism embraces sex positivity and female consumption of porn, and emphasizes that women should be able to choose how they act sexually for themselves.
Yet despite her unpopularity, Dworkin continued to share and spread her controversial topics with no shame or fear. She was unapologetically loud and herself, qualities that feminists can benefit from having. Just as feminism has suddenly become mainstream, it's highly possible that one day it will go back to being associated with the stereotype of hairy, man-hating lesbians. If that time comes, will you continue to label yourself a feminist and fight for gender equity? The answer should be yes. Just like Dworkin, we have to stick to our cause regardless of whether or not feminism is "trendy."
Andrea Dworkin once said, “Women's fashion is a euphemism for fashion created by men for women.” Let’s make sure that feminism doesn’t become a euphemism for a movement created by women for men. If we don’t, then we're minimizing ourselves, our voices, and our needs just like the patriarchy wants us to. I refuse to sacrifice the integrity of the feminist movement so men can be comfortable. While men play a key role in the fight to end sexual assault, this movement can’t and shouldn’t have to compromise its values to gain their support.
This piece was written as part of JWA’s Rising Voices Fellowship.