Andrea Dworkin’s legacy lives on: A review of ‘Last Days at Hot Slit’

“Last Days at Hot Slit” provides a comprehensive view of some of Andrea Dworkin’s most powerful works, imagining a truly radical feminist vision of a world without dominance and subordination.

Image: MIT Press

Maligned in life and in death as anti-man and anti-sex, Andrea Dworkin believed writing “could move the earth and raise the dead — at least, the living dead.” According to her friend Dr. Catharine A. MacKinnon, the prolific Dworkin’s writing did just that.

In 2005, MacKinnon wrote that the radical feminist author “lived the stigma of being identified with women, especially sexually abused women,” “exposed the ugliest realities of women’s lives and said what they mean,” “saw through male power as a political system,” and “exposed the sexual core of male supremacy, the heart of the male darkness.” A courageous (and prolific) writer with a passion for justice, Dworkin rooted her feminism in the lives of the most downtrodden women. In a 1979 speech, she said:

“The purpose of theory is to clarify the world in which we live, how it works, why things happen as they do. The purpose of theory is understanding. Understanding is energizing. It energizes to action.”

Last Days at Hot Slit: The Radical Feminism of Andrea Dworkin, published in March and edited by Johanna Fateman and Amy Scholder, brings together Dworkin’s most impactful writings, including selections from Woman Hating (1974), Our Blood: Prophesies and Discourses on Sexual Politics (1976), Pornography: Men Possessing Women (1981), and Intercourse (1987), among other works and previously unpublished essays. The title of this collection comes from a postcard Dworkin wrote to her mother and father on April 3, 1973, in which she thanked her parents for their support and revealed the title of her upcoming book — Last Days at Hot Slit — which would, before its publication, be changed to Woman Hating.

One of the selections is an excerpt from a 24,000-word autobiographical essay titled, “My Suicide,” which, while written in 1999, was not discovered until after Dworkin’s death in 2005. In it, she discusses her struggles reconciling love and gender:

“I love a man. Paul. This is not easy for me. He’s on the rapist side. He comes from there. That’s his place of origin. He’s gendered and so am I. I don’t want to be but I am and he is too.”

Of the choices Fateman and Scholder made, “Goodbye to All This” is an especially critical selection — a brilliant, fiery essay, seething with Dworkin’s anger and humour. Taken from an unpublished manuscript, Ruins, written between 1978 and 1983, the piece criticizes “you swastika-wielding dykettes, all you tough dangerous feminist leatherettes, all you sexy, nonmonogamous (it does take the breath away), pierced, whipped, beaten, fist-fucked and fist-fucking wild wonderful heretofore unimaginable feminist Girls.” In other words, the self-described feminists who framed pornography, prostitution, and sadomasochism as empowering for women.

Indeed, one of the primary groups opposing Dworkin and MacKinnon in their work against pornography — aside from Hustler, Penthouse, and Playboy — was a group called FACT (the “Feminist Anti-Censorship Task Force”), established in 1984 “to oppose the enactment of Indianapolis-style antipornography laws.” In 1987, MacKinnon delivered a speech titled, “Liberalism and the Death of Feminism” at a conference — Sexual Liberals and the Attack on Feminism — in which she addressed FACT’s response to the antipornography ordinance she had crafted with Dworkin, saying:

“In an act of extraordinary horizontal hostility, FACT filed a brief against the ordinance in court as part of a media-based legal attack on it. They did what they could to prevent from existing, to keep out of women’s hands, this law, written in women’s blood, in women’s tears, in women’s pain, in women’s experience, out of women’s silence, this law to make acts against women actionable — acts like coercion, force, assault, trafficking in our flesh. Pornography, they said, is sex equality. Women should just have better access to it.”

MacKinnon added that those who opposed the ordinance included conservatives as well as liberals “who discovered that they liked speech — i.e., sex, i.e., women being used — a great deal more than they liked sex equality.” When opposition came from FACT, she said it was at that point that “the women’s movement that [she] had known came to an end.” In the brief opposing the Dworkin-MacKinnon ordinance, members of FACT asserted:

“The feminists of FACT have helped to transform the contemporary dialogue about pornography. That debate no longer pits victimized women and conventional moralists against pornographers and civil libertarians. FACT affirms that sexuality is, for women, a source of pleasure and power, as well as a realm of danger and oppression.”

They believed one way to address the problem of pornography was to appropriate it for women and make it a source of empowerment, rather than victimization. In the brief, feminist journalist Ellen Willis is quoted:

“Pornography can be a psychic assault, both in its content and in its public intrusions on our attention, but for women as for men it can also be a source of erotic pleasure. A woman who is raped is a victim; a woman who enjoys pornography (even if that means enjoying a rape fantasy) is in a sense a rebel, insisting on an aspect of her sexuality that has been defined as a male preserve. Insofar as pornography glorifies male supremacy and sexual alienation, it is deeply reactionary. But in rejecting sexual repression and hypocrisy — which have inflicted even more damage on women than on men — it expresses a radical impulse.”

To sexual liberals, when produced and reproduced in video form, male sexual violence becomes “free speech.” This view was an ongoing source of anger for Dworkin, who wrote, years earlier in “Goodbye to All This”:

“Goodbye to stupid feminist academics who romanticize prostitution and to stupid feminist magazine editors who romanticize pornography and fetishism and sadomasochism. And especially goodbye to stupid feminist writers who romanticize rituals of degradation and symbols of inferiority. Oh, and incidentally, goodbye to all you feminists who go to bars and concerts but won’t buy books. Goodbye to all this, all them, all you.”

Her radical feminist vision began in Woman Hating: A Radical Look at Sexuality, in which Dworkin discussed gynocide, pornography, and the possibility for establishing human community through androgyny. Like other radical feminists, she did not want to uphold polarized definitions of masculinity and femininity, but rather to abolish the version of gender Dworkin viewed as the sexual and social basis for male supremacy. She wrote:

“We want to destroy sexism, that is, polar role definitions of male and female, man and woman. We want to destroy patriarchal power at its source, the family; in its most hideous form, the nation-state. We want to destroy the structure of culture as we know it, its art, its churches, its laws: all of the images, institutions, and structural mental sets which define women as hot wet fuck tubes, hot slits.”

Because sexism is rooted in the conflicting definitions of masculinity and femininity (too-commonly understood as the essence of maleness and femaleness), radical feminists like Dworkin have rejected these stereotyped roles that harm men and women alike.

Femininity under patriarchy turns women into passive objects — crippling and weakening them; making them smaller and binding their bodies. In Woman Hating, Dworkin wrote that “not one part of a woman’s body is left untouched, unaltered” — that the man-made myth of femininity pressures women into fashioning themselves into prettified corpses, passive objects to be looked at, more dead than alive:

“No feature or extremity is spared the art, or pain, of improvement. Hair is dyed, lacquered, straightened, permanented; eyebrows are plucked, penciled, dyed; eyes are lined, mascaraed, shadowed; lashes are curled, or false — from head to toe, every feature of a woman’s face, every section of her body, is subject to modification, alteration. This alteration is an ongoing, repetitive process. It is vital to the economy, the major substance of male-female role differentiation, the most immediate physical and psychological reality of being a woman. From the age of 11 or 12 until she dies, a woman will spend a large part of her time, money, and energy on binding, plucking, painting, and deodorizing herself.”

Before a more humane, life-affirming notion of human beauty can emerge, Dworkin observed, “[a] first step in the process of liberation (women from their oppression, men from the unfreedom of their fetishism) is the radical redefining of the relationship between women and their bodies.” Freeing and liberating the body, then, as Dworkin reasoned, would require women to “stop mutilating their bodies and start living in them.”

Dworkin’s famed 1983 speech, “I Want a Twenty-Four-Hour Truce During Which There Is No Rape,” is included in the collection, which challenges men to make equality a part of their everyday interactions with women in public and private:

“Equality is a practice. It is an action. It is a way of life. It is a social practice. It is an economic practice. It is a sexual practice. It can’t exist in a vacuum. You can’t have it in your home if, when the people leave the home, he is in a world of supremacy based on the existence of his cock and she is in a world of humiliation and degradation because she is perceived to be inferior and because her sexuality is a curse.”

For Dworkin, equality, freedom, and justice were inseparable — one cannot be truly equal while seen as essentially inferior to another, sexually and socially. Nor can one be an equal to another person who derives freedom and pleasure from the other’s bondage and pain, as exemplified in the routine sexualized torture of women, which pornographers profit from globally.

When confronted with the question of sexual equality, Dworkin rejected the notion that women could only be either the same as men or different from men. She believed that “to be equal where there is not universal justice, or where there is not universal freedom is, quite simply, to be the same as the oppressor.” In her view, without justice and freedom, “equality” becomes empty — a mimicking of the oppressor that fails to address the root cause of one’s own oppression. Right wing politics has defined women as subordinate to men using “nature” and religion to justify the inequality of the sexes — a view in which, as MacKinnon once wrote: “Man fucks woman; subject verb object.”

In response to the right, the left has worked to give women opportunities to subordinate and violate others, therefore making them more “like men” under the present system. Women are either allowed to dominate or be subordinate. It is only a reversal, an imitation, falsely thought to be revolutionary: Woman fucks man; subject verb object. The left-wing emphasis on sameness and the right wing emphasis on difference happen on men’s terms, where men still define women in both cases. While the left has presented male-centred sexual behaviour, defined by aggression, dominance, subordination, and violence, as the path to women’s liberation, this notion of gender equality not only remains empty, but also upholds sexism.

A truly radical feminist vision of the world envisions the absence of dominance and subordination, without either man or woman ruling over the other — a world without oppression or tyranny. Sexuality would no longer be contained genitally, alienated and distorted by the dominant, pornographic, male-supremacist framework for male and female sexuality. Rather, it would exist for the whole self in relation to others, marked by sensuality and sensitivity, without the desire for dominion over others or a realm of conqueror and conquered. In her 1974 speech, “Renouncing Sexual ‘Equality,’” Dworkin said:

“There is no freedom or justice in exchanging the female role for the male role. There is, no doubt about it, equality. There is no freedom or justice in using male language, the language of your oppressor, to describe sexuality. There is no freedom or justice or even common sense in developing a male sexual sensibility — a sexual sensibility which is aggressive, competitive, objectifying, quantity oriented. There is only equality. To believe that freedom or justice for women, or for any individual woman, can be found in mimicry of male sexuality is to delude oneself and to contribute to the oppression of one’s sisters.”

Founded upon male dominance and female subordination, gender itself would no longer exist as we know it. Instead, humans would express individual personalities, liberated from socially imposed gender stereotypes.

Dworkin wanted more than mere reformation — she wanted our understanding of love and sexuality to be revolutionized. Then, perhaps for the first time, we could discover our true humanity “in tenderness, in self-respect, and in absolute mutual respect.” In regard to her critics who believed she thought all sex was rape, she reflected:

“If you believe that what people call normal sex is an act of dominance, where a man desires a woman so much that he will use force against her to express his desire, if you believe that’s romantic, that’s the truth about sexual desire, then if someone denounces force in sex it sounds like they’re denouncing sex. If conquest is your mode of understanding sexuality, and the man is supposed to be a predator, and then feminists come along and say, no, sorry, that’s using force, that’s rape – a lot of male writers have drawn the conclusion that I’m saying all sex is rape.”

Last Days at Hot Slit provides readers with a selection of Dworkin’s more widely recognized speeches and writings, which, in the present as in the past, can raise consciousness toward true human freedom through the abolition of all hierarchies of sex, race, and economics. “Freedom is not an abstraction, nor is a little of it enough,” she once wrote in her 1987 book Intercourse. “A little more of it is not enough either.” Dworkin achieved her vision, laid out in her first book, tenfold, as all her work constituted “an action, a political action where revolution is the goal.”

Donovan Cleckley holds a BA in English and Interdisciplinary Studies from the University of Montevallo and is completing an MA in English at Tulane University. His research focuses on sexual politics and the history of the global women’s movement. Learn more about his work at donovan-k-cleckley.com.

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