A highly controversial author and activist,
Dworkin is a leading radical feminist and member of the contemporary women's movement. Her provocative investigations into the cultural origins of misogyny and sexual violence have generated contentious debate among feminists, academics, politicians, and free speech advocates. A forceful spokesperson against pornography, Dworkin calls attention to the sexual myths that perpetuate the role of women as degraded objects of male gratification and exploitation. Alternately revered and reviled for her firebrand polemics and castigation of mainstream feminists, Dworkin has exerted an important influence on public discourse surrounding the modes, extent, and human cost of male-dominated sexuality and female oppression.
Born in Camden, New Jersey, Dworkin was raised in a liberal Jewish home. While still in grade school, Dworkin expressed her desire to effect social change as a writer or lawyer. Her early literary interests were shaped by the writings of Arthur Rimbaud and Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and later Virginia Woolf, the Brontës, George Eliot, and revolutionary Che Guevara. Politically active by age eighteen, Dworkin was arrested at an antiwar rally in New York City in 1964. While jailed at the Women's House of Detention, she was sexually assaulted during an invasive body search, prompting her to lead a public demonstration upon her release. Dworkin attended Bennington College in Vermont, where she earned a bachelor's degree in 1968 after a one-year leave of absence in Greece. Dworkin's writing first appeared in the privately printed volumes Child (1966), a book of poetry produced in Crete, and Morning Hair (1968), a collection of poetry and prose. Disillusioned by American involvement in Vietnam, Dworkin moved to the Netherlands for a five-year period after graduating from Bennington. During this time she endured a physically and emotionally abusive marriage to a Dutch man, whom she escaped in 1971 with the help of intervening feminists. Returning to the United States in 1972, Dworkin supported herself as a waitress, receptionist, secretary, salesperson, factory worker, and prostitute, and was periodically homeless. She was eventually hired as an assistant to poet Muriel Rukeyser while working on her first book, Woman Hating (1974), which she began in Amsterdam. Dworkin was also active in feminist demonstrations and established herself as a powerful speaker at the National Organization for Women's Conference on Sexuality in 1974.
During the 1980s, Dworkin joined forces with Catharine A. MacKinnon, a law professor at the University of Michigan, to campaign for anti-pornography legislation. Together they authored an important civil rights ordinance in Minneapolis that recognized pornography as a form of sexual discrimination. The ordinance was passed in 1983 and became a model for similar legislation in other American cities and Canada. Dworkin also appeared before the Attorney General's Commission on Pornography in 1986. Her research and lobbying resulted in Pornography: Men Possessing Women (1981) and Pornography and Civil Rights (1988), a collaborative volume with MacKinnon. A frequent lecturer at feminist gatherings and contributor to numerous periodicals, Dworkin also published the book-length studies Right-Wing Women (1983) and Intercourse (1987), the nonfiction collections Letters from a War Zone (1988) and Life and Death (1997), the novels Ice and Fire (1986) and Mercy (1990), and the autobiographical Heartbreak (2002).
The primary subjects of Dworkin's critical studies and fiction—sexual abuse, pornography, and female subordination—are introduced in her first book, Woman Hating. In this work, Dworkin examines the socialization of gender roles and misogyny through analysis of fairy tales and pornographic writings. Such cultural artifacts, according to Dworkin, represent a continuum through which hierarchical heterosexual relationships are prescribed from childhood through adulthood. Her examination of sources ranging from "Snow White" to Pauline Réage's The Story of O demonstrates that women are consistently portrayed as weak, submissive, and despised. These themes are expanded upon in Pornography and Intercourse. In Pornography, Dworkin examines the content, social context, and effects of pornography as a tool of male domination over women. Dismissing claims that pornographic writings and images fall under the protected category of free expression, Dworkin asserts that pornography is an exploitative medium of mass propaganda by which the ideology of male supremacy is transmitted. Drawing attention to the victimization of real women who perform in pornographic films, Dworkin contends that the creation of pornography is inseparable from the degradation of women it falsely portrays as fantasy; thus the production of pornography embodies its harmful effect. In Intercourse, Dworkin discusses the physical act of heterosexual intercourse as the quintessential manifestation of male hegemony and female inequality. According to Dworkin, male penetration during copulation signifies possession of the woman, rendering impossible the notion of female liberation or selfhood, as she is compelled to submit to male desire as occupation. Incorporating analysis of religious and legal strictures governing female sexuality and texts by Leo Tolstoy, Kobo Abe, James Baldwin, Tennessee Williams, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and Gustave Flaubert, Dworkin maintains that—for women—the manipulative, demeaning experience of sexual intercourse precludes mutual respect or integrity.
Dworkin's semi-autobiographical novels, Ice and Fire and Mercy, give vivid expression to the conclusions in her nonfiction. Ice and Fire relates the experiences of an unnamed young feminist from Camden, New Jersey. She grows up in a working-class Jewish neighborhood, goes to college, marries an abusive husband, and eventually settles in New York City where she lives in squalor, prostitutes herself, and is brutalized by various men while attempting to write a book. After much difficulty locating a publisher, the protagonist finally gets her book into print, though it flounders due to its spiteful publisher and poor sales. Dworkin's alter ego in Mercy, also a young woman from Camden, is named Andrea. The first-person narrative documents a long history of horrific sexual abuse inflicted upon its protagonist, beginning with her molestation in a movie theater at age nine. Andrea is sexually assaulted by sadistic prison doctors, raped and mutilated by her husband, and repeatedly violated while living a bohemian existence in New York City. Her rage finally gives way to retributive violence, leading her to firebomb sex shops and assault homeless men while envisioning an international guerilla war on men. The narrative action is framed by a prologue and epilogue, both entitled "Not Andrea," in which Dworkin parodies her liberal feminist and academic detractors. Dworkin's views on the political, cultural, and physical subjugation of women are further elaborated in the essays, columns, and speeches collected in Our Blood (1976), Letters from a War Zone, and Life and Death. In the nonfiction work Right-Wing Women, written during the early years of the Reagan administration, Dworkin attempts to explain the appeal of the Republican Party for women, despite its opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment and other legislation to enhance the well-being of women. According to Dworkin, fear of male violence compels many conservative women to relinquish their autonomy for the security of traditional sex roles that demand passivity and subservience. The book was in part an attempt by Dworkin to distance herself from the anti-pornography advocacy of anti-feminist, religious, and conservative groups such as the Moral Majority.
Dworkin's compelling examination of sexual politics and pornography is the subject of divisive controversy in academic, political, and feminist circles. Though praised by some for her insightful, groundbreaking analysis of cultural misogyny and sexual exploitation, her detractors typically object to her abrasive presentation. Critics frequently complain that Dworkin's bombastic rhetoric distorts and sensationalizes the substance of her findings while alienating much of her audience. Critics also condemn Dworkin's interchangeable use of literal and metaphorical statements and her tendency to construct sweeping generalizations based on overstated or anecdotal evidence. Dworkin's vigilant condemnation of pornography has also been censured by feminist activists, especially those reluctant to challenge First Amendment rights. However, Dworkin's focus on pornography as a Fourteenth Amendment infringement—instead of an obscenity issue, a strategy formulated with MacKinnon—is considered an important legal maneuver for anti-pornography advocacy. Dworkin is less appreciated as a novelist. While some reviewers commend her visceral evocation of sexual violence, most fault her for simplistic prose, undeveloped characters, an overt feminist agenda, and graphic sexuality that some reviewers assert resembles the pornography she decries. Eschewing theoretical abstractions and the insular ideological battles of academic feminists, Dworkin has won many supporters for her willingness to address distasteful and often overlooked aspects of sexual abuse. A formidable independent thinker and activist, Dworkin is regarded as an influential contemporary feminist.