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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 511

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In 1981 Dworkin published a book called Pornography: Men Hating Women. This book, more than any others that she later published, brought her to the attention of the general public. In it Dworkin firmly rejects the view that pornography is a form of expression and argues that it is an issue that should even be debated as worthy of the protections given to freedom of speech by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

To consider pornography a free-speech issue would be, in her opinion, to gloss over the horror of what pornography really is. Liberals who oppose censorship and defend access to pornography on the grounds of freedom of speech do not understand, she contends, what pornography is all about: the violent hatred of men against women, behavior comparable to terrorism. In its turn, the terrorism of pornography leads to further harmful acts by particular men against particular women, including rape and spousal abuse. Just as important, Dworkin took pornography to be a means for men in general to harm women in general, by confining them to a “sexual underclass” within society.

Together with law professor Catharine A. MacKinnon, Dworkin actively tried to influence public policy concerning pornography. In the early 1980’s, the two proposed antipornography ordinances for the cities of Minneapolis and Indianapolis that would have enabled women to bring civil lawsuits against those involved in the pornography industry. Defining pornography as “the graphic, sexually explicit subordination of women,” these ordinances classified pornography more as a type of discriminatory behavior against women than as a form of expression. Although such measures would not have banned pornographic movies and magazines, they would have provided women the opportunity to bring charges against pornographers on the grounds their activities were a violation of women’s civil rights.

Although many women supported Dworkin in her efforts to win approval for these ordinances, others, including those belonging to the Feminist Anti-Censorship Task Force, criticized her efforts. They claimed that antipornography regulations might ultimately have harmful consequences for women by playing into the hands of antifeminist groups interested in suppressing feminist sexual imagery and speech.

Both of Dworkin’s and MacKinnon’s attempts to bring about antipornography measures were unsuccessful. The Minneapolis ordinance was not enacted. The Indianapolis ordinance was locally approved; however, in 1986 it was found by a federal court to be unconstitutional. In its decision concerning American Booksellers Association, Inc. v. Hudnut, a court ruled that the ordinance did not clearly demonstrate that pornography was a form of behavior, rather than a form of speech deserving free-speech protection.

In 1988 Dworkin published a collection of lectures and essays under the title Letters from a War Zone. This volume documents her struggle to gain access to mainstream media such as The New York Times and the Washington Post in order to defend her antipornographic views. Because these papers and others would not publish her, she became, in her view, a victim of censorship at the hands of public guardians of the freedom of speech. Dworkin continued writing until her death in 2005 at the age of 58.


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Andrea Dworkin was born to left-wing Jewish parents. Inspired by the peace movement of the 1960’s, Dworkin participated in a number of antiwar demonstrations. It was at one of these demonstrations that she had the experience that changed her life. At eighteen she was arrested and taken to the Women’s House of Detention. Her treatment there was brutal: bullying, harsh internal examinations, and authoritarian contempt left her emotionally and physically scarred. Released after four days, Dworkin hemorrhaged vaginally for two weeks. She spoke out publicly about her trauma in an attempt to find out why any woman should be humiliated in so sexual a way. Her marriage to a Dutch anarchist awakened her to the reality of sexual violence in relationships; he beat her severely until she escaped from him with the help of feminist friends. She was an intelligent, educated woman who had been graduated from Bennington College, but she could not prevent herself from being hurt.

Dworkin described her childhood as one that taught her to defy convention. As a Jewish child, she refused to sing Christmas carols such as “Silent Night” at school. When her brush with the law and her nightmarish marriage left her horrified by the status of women, she took action.

Woman Hating: A Radical Look at Sexuality, Dworkin’s first major work, echoes the pain of her personal experiences of misogyny. Later books, such as Our Blood: Prophecies and Discourses on Sexual Politics and Intercourse, go further into the implications of the sexual act itself. Dworkin analyzed the historical perceptions of rape and possession and of the biology of sexual contact. She also studied pornographic magazines in an attempt to understand how women are demeaned by pornography. Since many critics, such as one reviewer from the London Review of Books, found Dworkin’s lack of makeup, her unflattering clothes, and her heaviness to be unattractive, Dworkin had to relate to a double standard of beauty that does not apply to male writers, no matter how polemic they may be. As do other feminist writers, Dworkin enlightend women about gender roles in society. Dworkin died at her home in Washington, D.C. in 2005.


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Many mainstream feminists contest Andrea Dworkin’s extreme sexual politics that, in her own words, deal with “the morbid side of the women’s movement.” Dworkin may be best known for the statement, inaccurately attributed to her, that “All heterosexual sex is rape.” Her writings do reveal two controversial beliefs: first, that the prevailing bipolar conceptualization of male/female gender is based on inaccurate and destructive “fictions, caricatures, cultural constructs”; and second, that “[t]he governing reality for women is that there is no escape from male violence, because it is inside and outside, intimate and predatory.”

Much of Dworkin’s activism focused on the issue of pornography, which she saw as one of the ways in which antiwoman violence is taught and supported, through pornography’s depiction of women as sexual objects. In 1983, Dworkin and Minnesota lawyer Catharine A. MacKinnon drafted a Minneapolis ordinance that defined pornography as “a systematic practice of exploitation and subordination based on sex.” Carefully detailing those materials and actions fitting under this definition, the ordinance would outlaw pornography because it “diminish[es] opportunities for equality of rights . . . guaranteed to all citizens under the Constitution and laws of the United States.” Although the ordinance was twice vetoed by the mayor of Minneapolis, different versions resulted in court battles throughout the United States and Canada.

Dworkin’s writings included Woman Hating (1974), Intercourse (1987), Letters from the War Zone (1993), and several articles on spousal abuse “in solidarity with Nicole Brown Simpson,” whom many believed to have been abused and perhaps murdered by her former husband, football star O. J. Simpson. Dworkin died at her home in Washington, D.C. in April, 2005.