Last Days at Hot Slit: The Radical Feminism of Andrea Dworkin
Edited by Johanna Fateman and Amy Scholder
MIT Press, 2019, 408 pp.
I suspect we are legion, we white women who first read Andrea Dworkin while cresting or just tipped past our teens. I was one, and Johanna Fateman, co-editor of Last Days at Hot Slit: The Radical Feminism of Andrea Dworkin, was another. “To read Dworkin at eighteen,” writes Fateman in the introduction, “was to see patriarchy with the skin peeled back.” Dworkin’s work presents male supremacy at its goriest and most sadistic by focusing on eroticized brutality, the habitual violence of men the world over who are, at this moment and every moment, “shoving it into her, over and over,” often when the “her” is unwilling, or when she’s a child—and sometimes until she dies, or after she’s dead, or both. This viscera is what makes Dworkin’s writing so compelling, and so repellant. For her, terror was a necessary tactic; she saw herself first and foremost as a political actor crafting “weapon[s] in a war . . . strategically, with a militarist’s heart.” Dworkin’s first publication, Woman Hating (1974) opened with an enduring mission statement: “revolution is the goal. [This book] has no other purpose.”
Fateman and co-editor Amy Scholder are adroit, sensitive handlers of this volatile material. Last Days at Hot Slit provides a service by virtue of its inclusion of previously unpublished pieces and excerpts from out-of-print books, but there’s also great skill behind the respectful, honest depiction of Dworkin’s fraught development as an intellectual. She was massively talented and occasionally brilliant but in the 1980s, her thinking became recursive and compulsive, caught on the snag of itself, and her writing suffered accordingly. Because she was a militant, she could not allow hesitation, uncertainty, or ambivalence—the very experiences that lead theorists to new insights. The stakes were too high: one moment of vacillation might cost her the war. “In her singular scorched-earth theory,” Fateman writes, “pornography is fascist propaganda” and prostitution “the bottom rung of hell.” Both had to be eliminated completely before women could be free, as would intercourse as we know it. But through this volume’s skillful curation, the writer who pledged herself to severity and absolutism is revealed to be a complex, contradictory figure.
When I was a college student, it was Dworkin’s unequivocal words that lavishly tended to my most nightmarish, inchoate impressions of what women’s existence entailed. Here was a writer who referred to a molested child as “a breachable, breakable thing any stranger can wipe his dick on,” who wrote “it is impossible to use a human body in the way women’s bodies are used in prostitution and to have a whole human being at the end.” She claimed that, “for men, their right to control and abuse the bodies of women is the one comforting constant,” and then elaborated on how frequently and unrepentantly they used that license. Was this what the world was truly like? I wondered. And is this what the world—meaning men, the dominant class everywhere on the planet—has in store for me? More than Firestone or Millett or Steinem, it is Dworkin who still leaves an indelible mark. Her crushing visions were irrefutable and inconceivable in equal measure, or at least irrefutable by me, inconceivable to me, a small-town girl who was more or less a virgin.
In Last Days’ introduction, Fateman writes that she originally distanced herself from Dworkin’s politics “with the kind of clean, capricious break that youth affords,” but I think she’s being a little hard on herself. Dworkin’s champions have long accused critics and mere non-adherents alike of spurning her out of pure misogyny, but because she traffics in extremes, she drives away many who are better than that. Perhaps it takes years of practice to be able to dismantle the militarized edifice of her books. To extend Dworkin’s preferred metaphor, successfully negotiating her work is like deactivating a bomb. If you can’t deactivate it, you should run away. The only other option is to blow up.
I thought a lot about Andrea while I sold sex shows on the internet, years ago, and I’m using her first name now because that’s how I thought of her then and, frankly, still think of her—with a sense of tremendous intimacy. Webcamming continues to be the most unpleasant variation of sex work I’ve tried, in part because of the ways anonymity emboldens people. “What’s your biggest dildo?” some guys would ask right away, and I’d hold up one of the medium-sized ones, hoping they wouldn’t notice what else lay on the bed beside me, though they usually did. This was in the mid-2000s when anal sex was trendy, especially ATM (taking something from inside an ass and putting it directly into a mouth). “Heel fucking” also enjoyed a long stint of popularity on my site—an American platform that mainly hosted girls working in the former Eastern bloc, with occasional guest appearances from homegrown porn stars—and while it was possible to fake sliding the spike of a plastic stripper shoe into an anus, faking vaginal insertion was more challenging.
This was the tail end of the porn era David Foster Wallace characterized as enthusiastically “vile”: “in nearly all hetero porn now there is a new emphasis on anal sex, painful penetrations, degrading tableaux, and the (at least) psychological abuse of women.” Flirting with outright Dworkinism, he speculated these films were mainly made “not for men who want to be aroused” but “for men who have problems with women and want to see them humiliated.” Of course, Dworkin maintained that for the vast majority of men, those desires are one and the same. (It’s a bit on-the-nose that these words come from a man who tried to push his girlfriend from a moving car. I quote him here because he is still a respected voice in spite of this established abuse, and I worry my own recollection of the cultural trends won’t be convincing enough.)
Though I used “a” and “an” a moment ago while referring to body parts, what I mean is mine. The shows were solo, and without a man to do things to us, we, the site’s “models,” did things to ourselves. I was twenty-one and lived alone in a two-bedroom apartment with my computer, immersed in these demands. The bleak universe captured in Dworkin’s writing has never felt nearer or realer to me than it did during this time. It seemed men didn’t understand women had bodies like their own: sensitive in predictable places, with nerve endings and pain receptors and intimate vascular tissues that weren’t hard to tear. To see ignorance in place of malice was an overly generous reading but I couldn’t make sense of it any other way. “Have you ever wondered why we are not just in armed combat against you?” Dworkin asked a group of 500 ostensibly receptive men in 1983 when she spoke at a conference “for Changing Men.” “It is because we still believe in your humanity, against all the evidence.”
Men’s routine inability to recognize women as fellow humans, fundamentally like themselves, is the bedrock of Dworkin’s philosophy. But what I tried to attribute to a lack of education or empathy, she rightly framed as the result of vehement, collective, and persistent refusal. Dworkin claimed that when a woman looks at especially violent pornography, she’s either overcome by fear or else “she entirely dissociates herself from the photograph: refuses to believe or understand that real persons posed for it.” But I was the real person posing, so I attributed the (unconscious) dissociation to men, to absolve them of their tastes and make it more bearable to share the world with them.
I didn’t want to believe in malevolence, and I didn’t always have to. One regular client, after I asked, spent hundreds of dollars worth of time speculating about why he always asked me to enact a scene of anal rape. Another, whose proclivities were forgettable, told me I’d helped him want to stay alive after a failed suicide attempt. A third, in his late teens, kept me company for hours each night, distracting me from the verbal abuse with inside jokes. An inability to admit the possibility of heterosocial tenderness is part of what makes Dworkin’s work so suffocating.
Because of my past, reading Last Days at Hot Slit felt like going through the journal of a close family member. There is much I remember alongside much I hadn’t read before, much that hurts and angers me, and much that I appreciate. Dworkin’s words are as sewn into me as are certain songs or smells. For every moment I see her as a comrade (in her hatred of incarceration, her mistrust of police) there is one when I see her as an enemy: for the degrading, almost gleefully cruel way she wrote about prostitutes after she herself traded sex for food and housing; for her mystifying attempt, with the help of Catharine MacKinnon, to expand the reach of Amerika’s (her preferred spelling) courts. What a subsequent decade of sex work and simple aging taught me was that the answer to my youthful inquiry of “is this what the world is really like?” is yes and no; yes, for some women, or even yes, sometimes, for all, but the world is not only this.
I wish I could argue with her about this now, though it’s well established that Dworkin despised my kind of thinking. The epilogue of her second novel, Mercy (1990), is a scornful rejection of nuance written from the point of view of a lesbian academic who subscribes to “a self that is partly obscured, partly lost, yet still self-determining, still agentic.” (This is meant to indicate a cowardly, anti-feminist, patriarchal-collaborator’s line of thinking.) Dworkin found nothing of value in any challenge or criticism, not even when it came from (former) friends. As Fateman points out, Dworkin refused to “directly engage with the positions of her feminist adversaries,” which made it much easier to smear them—and she did, viciously.
Last Days debuts “Goodbye to All This,” an ugly, agonized, and previously unpublished work from 1983, written in the wake of the divisive Barnard Conference on Sexuality in 1982, which Dworkin’s group, Women Against Pornography, picketed. In the essay, Dworkin derides by name those whose politics most deeply wounded her, many of them lesbian activists. Less than ten years before, in Woman Hating, Dworkin praised “erotic civil disobedience” and extorted readers to cast off the shackles of sexual taboos. But here, she unleashes the full force of her scorn on the “pierced, whipped, bitten, fist-fucked and fist-fucking, wild wonderful heretofore unimaginable feminist Girls.” “It’s nice to see girls get what they want,” she practically spits. “It’s astonishing to see girls want what they get.”
Perhaps this is not evidence of self-contradiction but change. In 1995’s “My Life as a Writer,” Dworkin describes herself as an intellectually curious child who “did not like boundaries” and “saw adults as gatekeepers.” In Woman Hating, she cites Julian Beck’s words: “I am an anarchist. I dont sue, I dont get injunctions. [sic]” Yet she went on to claim, while writing with MacKinnon in Pornography and Civil Rights (1988) that “women and children are being raped because” the Marquis de Sade’s books (among many other materials) are still read, and she coauthored a law designed to remove such works from circulation by suing booksellers into bankruptcy. Canonical works were hugely influential throughout her girlhood and beyond—“I had been brought up in an almost exclusively male literary tradition,” she explains in the preface to Our Blood (1976)—yet she later claimed “that art, those books, would have robbed me of my life.” Why only “would have”? What saved her from the fate that awaits the rest of us? “My own view,” she wrote, neatly excising the rhetorical complications of a self that would be self-determining, still agentic, “is that survival is a matter of random luck.”
It’s the determined denial of an active, wily, strong, and subversive self that weakens Dworkin’s work to the point of breaking. She insisted her writing was about women, but it was about men: what they do, why they do it, and which lies they use in their defense. Women couldn’t be subjects, only faceless victims, and they were described as emptier still when they failed to live up to Dworkin’s politics. According to her, when “happy hooker[s]” and wives and other “militant conformist[s]” find themselves subjected to male violence, it “is akin to nailing the coffin shut: the corpse is beyond caring.”
Consequently, portions of her writing are ghastly, maybe even unforgivable in their misogyny. “One does not violate something by using it for what it is,” she wrote in Pornography: Men Possessing Women. “A whore cannot be raped, only used.” In 1993’s “Prostitution and Male Supremacy,” a speech not included in Last Days, Dworkin assumed the mantle of an imagined “john” and said that “the prostituted woman” is “nobody real, I don’t have to deal with her . . . She is perceived as, treated as—and I want you to remember this, this is real—vaginal slime. She is dirty; a lot of men have been there. A lot of semen, a lot of vaginal lubricant. . . . Her mouth is a receptacle.” Dworkin imagined herself a champion for prostitutes when she wrote this: someone fighting “for” them by telling the truth about their lives. But the only people who ever spoke to me like were faceless free chatters hiding behind disposable screen names. When I started seeing clients in person instead of online, no one ever said anything so hateful—and I don’t know how I could trust or organize alongside a woman who would. By articulating the internal monologue of the world’s worst women-hater, she became his mouthpiece.
How do you talk about patriarchy without saying exactly what it wants to hear: that women are abject, disadvantaged, fragile, unable to protect ourselves? We still haven’t figured that out, though early discussions about this predicament took place while Dworkin was alive and hard at work. (They impacted her in no discernible way.) In the 1990s, academics like Renée Heberle and Sharon Marcus began to seriously reexamine feminist orthodoxy around pornography, sexual assault, and the use of the legal system to respond to rape. Fixating on sexual violence risked establishing it as the moment that, in Heberle’s words, defined “women’s possibilities for being in the world.” And treating sexual violation as inescapable, omnipresent, and shattering almost inevitably encouraged women to “turn to the very social and political institutions which continue to represent public patriarchy”—meaning the courts, the law, the state. A reliance on men to adjudicate and prohibit rape impeded women’s ability to believe they could devise their own strategies of response.
Even now, feminists cling to what Heberle described as the mistaken belief that if we can make “society understand the truth about itself,” it will transform, and the preferred method of trying to force that understanding is through routine, graphic exposure of our sexual wounds. But patriarchal institutions aren’t moved by the petitions of suffering women. On the contrary, such spectacles confirm and reify the institutions’ obscene power. (Kavanaugh’s hearing and subsequent confirmation is a useful recent example.)
What would it mean to deny that the power to stop rape lies exclusively in the hands of men, to begin a reversal of old narratives about female powerlessness and absolute male prerogative? These are the narratives Dworkin depicted so evocatively when she wrote passages like those in Mercy: “I’m just some bleeding thing cut up on the floor, a pile of something someone left like garbage, some slaughtered animal that got sliced and sucked and a man put his dick in it and then it didn’t matter if the thing was still warm or not because the essential killing had been done.” She invested her life in these depictions, and the commitment atrophied her revolutionary instincts. In her stern but ultimately toothless address to the aforementioned conference of feminist-allied men, she did not threaten her listeners with retaliatory murder for their gender crimes but rather implored them for twenty-four hours without rape: “one day of respite, one day off . . . how could I ask you for less—it is so little.”
That was in 1983, and her sense of hopeless resignation never let up. In “My Suicide,” Last Days’ final entry, she writes of her abusive ex-husband, “I wish someone would help me out. . . . I’m pathetic. I can’t do it myself. . . . I’m treated like the world’s hardest bitch but I can’t finish off that particular beast.” She rhetorically asks if there isn’t “a secret world of women assassins” who could kill him for her: “the worst thing is how they rape us because we’re part of a group but we have to fight back as individuals.” If she’d ever strayed from the militant’s path, she might have found the sort of camaraderie for which she seemed to yearn.
“My Suicide” is heartbreaking, saturated with the sorrow that lies beyond disappointment and dismay: the pain that’s left when you’re too emotionally exhausted to feel a sensation invigorated by expectation or even anger. “Please help the women,” reads the second-to-last line. It’s a prayer to a “ruthless” god who may not even be capable of mercy. She just couldn’t imagine a future in which women help ourselves.
Charlotte Shane is a co-founder of TigerBee Press, an independent publisher based in Brooklyn.