NOTE: You can download all of Andrea Dworkin’s books from here: http://radfem.org/dworkin/
Dworkin on Dworkin
Andrea Dworkin talks about her work, her life and the future of feminism with Elizabeth Braeman and Carol Cox in this, the full version of the interview first published in the tenth birthday issue of Off Our Backs.
Elisabeth Braeman: The theme of Letters from a War Zone Writings 1976-1989 is that women do not have freedom of speech. What exactly do you mean by that?
Andrea Dworkin: Well, I think that our restraint from being able to engage in speech operates on many levels. There’s the superficial level of what’s required to gain access to mainstream media; the answer is complete and total conformity, not just stylistically but in terms of content. You have to say what fits in their picture, what it is they want to hear. If you don’t do that you will not be able to publish; you’ll have a terrible time. That’s across the board, for any political person. But it works in a much more ruthless way for feminists because men take feminist analysis as a sexual challenge and experience it that way, and therefore have a very visceral and vengeful reaction to pieces of “speech” that they don’t like. They experience, I think, a lot of radical feminist writing actually as if it were a sexual assault on them; and since most of them don’t know what a sexual assault is, they have the privilege of overreacting in that way.
Then, on a deeper level, one of the things I’ve learned in the last fifteen years is how much women are silenced through sexual abuse. The simple experience of being abused, whether as a child or as an adult, has an incredible impact on everything about the way you see the world around you, so that either you don’t feel you can speak because you’re frightened of what the retaliation will be, or you don’t trust your experience of reality enough to speak – that happens to a lot of incest victims. Or you are actually physically kept from being able to speak – battered women do not have freedom of speech. So it operates on that level.
In Letters from a War Zone, I quoted Hannah Arendt, who was a brilliant woman but certainly no feminist, and her observation that without freedom of movement you can’t have freedom of anything. And in fact most of us still live as quasi-prisoners in order to maintain some kind of safety. If you think about all the places we don’t go, all the boundaries we have to accept in order to stay alive, then the extra boundaries that we put in there as a kind of buffer zone for ourselves so that we all feel safe whether we’re safe or not, our freedom of movement is exceptionally restricted. And then also, I was referring to the restriction, the physical restriction of women’s bodies in women’s clothes, in things like high-heeled shoes, in girdles, in things that bind the body, where the object is to turn the woman into some kind of ornament and when turned into an ornament she then is deprived, literally, of the physical ability to move or it’s severely impaired. So I think it operates on all those different levels and I think that any woman who thinks that she has freedom of speech or freedom of movement is absolutely denying reality.
EB: The argument used in defence of pornography is that it is freedom of speech and that women have freedom of speech and that we can combat pornography in the “marketplace of ideas” What you have said certainly has an impact on that idea that we can freely compete in the marketplace of ideas and that our words have equal impact as the words of pornographers do.
AD: I think that is a specific argument and it’s very important to address it specifically. The First Amendment [to the US Constitution] only protects speech that has already been expressed and it only protects it from punishment by the state. It doesn’t stop a man from punching you out for what you said. Supposedly there are other laws that do, but in fact they don’t. It doesn’t stop anybody from using economic recriminations against you for what you say. It doesn’t stop anybody from deciding that you’re an uppity bitch because of what you say and they’re going to hurt you because you said something that they didn’t like. In interpersonal relationships that women have with men, think about how often women are insulted verbally or are physically hurt because of what we say. We say something that is perceived as being not sufficiently compliant and then you take that and you put it out in the world in the sphere of social reality. There is no doubt that the First Amendment does not save women from all the kinds of punishment that women are consistently subjected to.
The second part is that the First Amendment protects people who have access to the media, and in our country that mostly means people with money. It doesn’t protect anybody who doesn’t have access and was never intended to. It was written by white men who owned white women and black slaves. A lot of them owned black slaves, none of whom ever got any First Amendment protection of any kind In fact, if there’s any kind of correlation between the First Amendment and the actual status quo, the keeping of wealth by those who have privilege, it specifically has to do with literacy. White men, who owned property, who owned women as chattels, who owned black slaves, also happened to be the people who could read and write; there were actually laws in the slave states saying that you could not teach a slave how to read, it was against the law. The First Amendment didn’t do anything about it Now, lawyers have all kinds of reasons why that’s true. It doesn’t matter. The point is that the First Amendment is now being used in an almost metaphoric way for freedom of speech as if the First Amendment protects everybody’s right to speech and it doesn’t. It’s not a grant to individuals of a right to speak. If it were, you would be able to go to the government and you would be able to say, “I need four minutes on NBC. I have something I want to say.” You can’t do that [laughter]. I have found the arguments around the First Amendment incredibly naive, absolutely unwilling to deal with the reality of male power, the meaning of wealth in this society, and I’ve been deeply disappointed not to see feminists making an analysis that addresses the marginality of women’s speech and the speech in particular of people of color, who also don’t have that kind of access. Probably the worst liberal cop-out of the Women’s Movement has been to accept this freedom of speech bullshit from white boys, who in fact do have freedom of speech, because they do have money and they do have access.
Carol Cox: You say in “Pornography and Grief” written in 1978, “Perhaps I have found the real source of my grief: we have not yet become a revolutionary movement.” Are we closer or further away from forming a revolutionary movement?
AD: The honest answer is: I don’t know. The movement has changed tremendously. On one hand, there has been an incredible global spread of feminism so that international feminism is tremendously vibrant and that is very hopeful for the future of women on the planet But in the USA the epidemic of violence against women has intensified so greatly. The situation of women in my view is so much worse and so much of what was the Women’s Movement twelve years ago has, in a sense, cut and run. They have taken what the Women’s Movement has been able to give them, which is a kind of minimal economic advancement if you are middle-class and have certain skills, especially if you are an academic or a lawyer. A lot of women in the movement really are liberal democrats. Feminism has become more and more a lifestyle word.
On the other hand, I think there has been a deepening understanding of radical feminist ideas and more grassroots, radical activity now probably than there has ever been, even though it is not reflected in the media. There is also what I consider to be a relatively new development in that there are also men out there who have been at least partially formed by feminist ideas and who are, in some cases, activists against male violence against women.
At the same time, I see the solid middle, which every movement has to have, having kind of fallen apart. I am a radical but I’m a radical who believes that you have to have the whole spectrum of people. You need your mainstream feminists, you need your reformists, you need the people who do all these different kinds of work, and I don’t know what it means if you’ve got very brilliant, very resourceful feminists all over the country who are doing direct action, who are doing grassroots organising, but who are very poor and don’t have access to mass media in a country where mass media makes up reality for so many people.
It is my impression that at the beginning of the women’s movement – and I wasn’t here for it, I was living in Europe at the time – people were very excited and thrilled and celebrational and all those words that I think are fairly good words: arrogant and pushy and brazen. However, they apparently didn’t anticipate that people who had power were not going to be thrilled to give it up and might actually start fighting back. When they started fighting back some blood was going to flow because they have the means to hurt you very badly. We have lost that middle ground because the retaliation against feminists has been very serious and very systematic. Now women are making decisions for individual survival over political solidarity and political, what I would call, honour.
CC: When you say that you think a lot more radical, grassroots actions are going on, is that something you’ve seen by being around?
AD: You can’t actually hear about most of it. It is not reported, even in the feminist press, which is much more shallow than it used to be and much less in touch with the women who are actually doing things. I know a lot of the women because I travel through the country all of the time and I see it. I see it happening. If I weren’t there and I didn’t see it, I wouldn’t know it was happening.
Liberal feminism is the feminism that the media plays back to us. But through travelling I can tell you that there are women everywhere, in every part of the country, every small town, every rural by-way, who are doing something for women. Some of it is direct action, some of it is what is called social services, to do with battery and to do with rape. I think that there is a deeper understanding of the role of male violence in keeping women down now than there ever has been. How it is going to express itself in a way that’s going to make the whole society have to deal with it on its own terms is another question. The Women’s Movement in that sense has deepened, has reached more people, but one of the problems that we have is that some of us, in different ways and at different times, really are ghetto feminists. You know, we know ourselves and our five friends and that is how we see feminism.
But, in fact, any political movement that is really going to be successful is going to involve not just people that you don’t know, but people that are very different from you. One of the interesting things about feminism now is that it is no longer the urban, middle-class movement that it started out being; is that you find feminists in Appalachia, you find feminists in Rock Springs, Wyoming, who are the strongest damn feminists you’ll ever see in your lives and they are standing up to those men out there and that’s sort of thrilling.
EB: Along those lines, what do you see as the changing role of lesbians in grassroots radical feminism?
AD: What I see disturbs me very much. I see women younger than myself, I’m forty-three, and I see women who are ten years younger than myself feeling, and maybe they’re right because they’re smart women, that they have to be closeted. Women who ten years ago would not have stood for being closeted now are exceptionally determined to have a very schizoid existence, a professional world in which they function another way. That upsets and depresses me beyond anything I can say to you. I think they have looked at the environment they live in and probably have judged it correctly but I hate it that they’re doing that and a lot of lesbians are doing it.
In terms of the whole country, I see women in these grassroots groups taking stands for lesbians even if the lesbians are closeted. For instance, to go back to Rock Springs, Wyoming, for a minute, they include something about lesbians in everything they do and I think that a lot of women in the country consider it a moral imperative. Lesbians are still responsible for a lot of the leadership in whatever is happening all over the country, but there’s much more hiding and secrecy and duplicity again and I find it very frightening.
EB: Do you think that has to do with the rise of the right wing?
AD: I haven’t heard anybody have a different motive for anything that was done since Reagan was elected. That is too simple. I will tell you frankly: I think it is because of the pressure of the people around them and the people around them usually are liberal men. That’s the point of contact, that’s where the pressure hits home. You can blame it on a conservative environment but the fact of the matter is that those men, the ones who are close to you, the ones who are near you, the ones you work with, want to believe that you’re there and they can fuck you. The pressure is coming from them.
Amerikans, by which I mean people who live in the United States, are incredibly juvenile about social change. Robin Morgan called it “ejaculatory politics”: if it doesn’t happen right away it doesn’t happen. The Women’s Movement in this country has all the same characteristics as the culture that we live in, short-term gratification, personal fulfilment, personal advancement, and yes, coming out as a lesbian can get in the way of that. Liberals and left-wing men have recolonised women around the fear of the right. This troubles me, it makes me feel like we’re really suckers. We’ve always lived in a world that was right-wing. The world has always been right-wing to women. A lot of the reasons for the growth and the ascendancy of the right has to do with the status of women. Having some sort of bunker mentality about the right wing, as if you have to protect yourself from contamination by either this political philosophy or these terrible people, is not the right way to deal with it. The right way to deal with it is through confrontation and dialogue. I see women doing a lot of political purity trips that have no content to them. They aren’t doing anything except denouncing the right. If you ask them, what did you do for women yesterday, there isn’t anything; and what they could have done they didn’t do because they couldn’t do everything. In other words, I have to get myself one hundred percent perfect before I dare do anything in the world around me to make it different. That’s just nuts. You never will be perfect, we live with our limitations, we live with our failures and I think it’s important to do whatever it is you can do and not have all of these very exquisite metaphysical excuses for not having done anything. I’m real old-fashioned that way.
EB: One of the recurring themes in Letters is your isolation as a feminist woman writer writing about pornography. Do you think it’s inherent in writing that you do it in isolation, or are there ways we can come up with new models to support each other and not write in isolation?
AD: There is something inherent in writing that is very solitary and I think that writers come to such awful ends in life because it’s almost a total abuse of the human system to use the mind the way you use your mind when you’re a writer. But at the time I was writing Pornography which was from about 1977 through 1980, there wasn’t the support that there would be now. It wasn’t just lonely because writing is lonely. It was lonely because feminists did not want to deal with pornography. They wouldn’t even consider that this was something that had to be done and that made it much worse. And, basically, I almost died from writing Pornography. I couldn’t make a living. The book that I published is only one-third of the book that I planned to write, because there was no way that I could keep working on it I often wonder what would have happened if I could have written more of it, because the next part of the book, the second third of the book, was specifically about how pornography socialises female sexuality. Since so much of the subsequent articles have been around that, it has always felt to me as if I have been operating sort of with an amputated leg. You know, where is that other leg I wanted this book to stand on? But I couldn’t survive and continue writing this book. In that way I feel that the Women’s Movement has failed many writers and many women and, yes, it could have been different.
EB: How could it be different if you were writing Pornography today?
AD: Partly the book has helped to create the kind of social support that would have made it easier. The politics around pornography have developed in such a way that there’s a very solid social consensus about the importance of dealing with the issue. I think that the experience of actually looking at the pornography would always be upsetting and difficult and alienating, but when I was doing the initial work on Pornography women wouldn’t look at it. The slide shows (put together by Women Against Pornography) have made a tremendous difference in women understanding what it is that we are talking about here. But when I wrote Pornography what I thought was, I have to write down everything in this because women will not look at it and, therefore, part of my job is to tell them what is in this, because if they knew they wouldn’t be buying all these arguments that these men who use it tell them. It was an extraordinary experience for me. Year after year after year men told me there is no violence here, there is no violence here, there is no violence here, and I’d look at the picture and I’d say he is hitting her, what do you mean there is no violence? What I basically came to understand is that they were talking about their sexual reaction to the picture. They were never ever talking about what happened to the woman.
I had to go through it from beginning to end to try to figure out what people mean when they say this or that; how does this photograph operate in their sexual system, which is not my sexual system. It is not that I haven’t been partially formed by it. I have been. But I also have resisted it and resisting it has changed the way I see these pictures. I think that now there is a whole lot more support out there for women who are taking all kinds of risks in relation to pornography. It is still not easy, but there isn’t the same kind of isolation. Women have acted against it; women have made it part of an agenda of rebellion against male power. That makes a great difference.
CC: In “A Woman Writer and Pornography” you answer the question so many of us have wanted to ask you which is how you are affected by being immersed in pornography. Would you be willing to expand further on that question and tell us why you are willing to keep immersing yourself in this way?
AD: It’s hard to explain. I see pornography as a kind of nerve centre of sexual abuse, of rape, of battery, of incest, of prostitution; and I see prostitution and rape as the fundamental realities for women. When I became a feminist, which was late compared to many women my age, I was very thrilled by feminist literature and I was very thrilled by feminism. It was enormously – that very misused word – , “liberating” for me. But I saw something missing from it too, and I felt that I had some of the missing pieces. If I could contribute my understanding of them, I would make feminism more whole and more living for more women, especially for poor women, especially for women in prostitution, especially for women who had experienced sexual torture of any kind, and so the commitment really came from that.
EB: Is that partly from your experience of your husband having battered you?
AD: That certainly is part of it. I haven’t talked a lot about my whole life in public and the only thing I really have talked about is battery. I’ve written about it really only twice in non-fiction. There are two essays in Letters. I wrote the Hedda Nussbaum one which is at the end of Letters from a War Zone (US version) because I felt absolutely urgently that I had to for her sake and partly for my sake too because it brought back so much to me. I was married for three and a half years. That’s a very small part of my life, but it had a big impact on me because I was tortured and no one who survives torture comes out of it unchanged. You either die or you find some way of using what it is that you know.
There are other things that have to do with it that I don’t write about, that I’ve chosen not to write about. I’m very troubled by the fact that anything I say publicly about myself ends up in the pages of Hustler.I don’t like my life being turned into pornography for men. I can’t stand it. Talk about the chilling effect -it’s put a real chill on me, on what I’m willing to talk about and what I’m willing to write about.
EB: Carol Anne Douglas wrote a review of Intercourse in Off Our Backs, June 1987. One of her main criticisms of the book was that you discuss no alternatives to intercourse, no alternative sexuality. She says, “Even criticising lesbianism would be better than ignoring it” How do you respond to that?
AD: I don’t agree with it. I decided to write a book about intercourse as an institution of sexual politics and to try and figure out the role of intercourse in the subordination of women. Intercourse has nothing to do with lesbians or lesbian sexuality per se and that’s why it’s not in the book. I remember when I was in England when Pornography was published, a woman from one of the radical lesbian groups questioned why I never used the word heterosexuality and in a funny way it was the same question. My answer to her was I’m not talking about heterosexuality, I’m talking about male supremacy. Heterosexuality implies that there’s an equality within the relationship; and that obscures the reality of the man being on top.
Over the last fifteen years I’ve very much refined what my political targets are. My target in the broadest sense is male power. I made a decision about Intercourse. I wanted it to be a thoroughly rigorous book about this particular act Second, I did not want it to have any shade, shadow or hint of “the happy ending”. Or any implication that lesbianism was the answer to this particular set of problems because I don’t think it is and if I ever did think it was, the lesbian sadomasochists have disabused me of that notion. I can’t write about lesbianism that way. My view of what Intercourse is is politically different from Carol Anne’s notion of what it should be.
CC: In “Pornography is a Civil Rights Issue”, your 1986 testimony before the Attorney-General’s Commission on Pornography, you discuss a definition of erotica articulated by Gloria Steinem. Do you believe that erotica exists and if so can it serve any kind of useful purpose for women?
AD: I don’t know if it can exist in this world we live in. I don’t think that much of it does exist. I think that the question itself is part of the male agenda around pornography and that’s what troubles me so much about the question. There are deep political issues involved in discussing what it means to look at something and have a sexual response to it, especially for women. That question is always used to obscure what the political issues are, as if everything has to do with the product and nothing has to do with what drives a person to need the product. In that sense I would characterise it as a male question because the male question always is, is there gonna be something left for me? Part of male sexual response is this voyeurism, this objectification, as opposed to the way that women have practised sexuality, which has had more to do with being with someone who is actually alive, three-dimensional or, if you want to be mystical about it, four-dimensional, in that they also exist in time as well as in space.
I see nothing to preclude that erotica could exist. I have a question as to why people would need it, if they were indeed making love with each other and happy. Or are there people who have a right to have other people do things so that they can be sexually gratified, kind of servants in a sense? The fact of the matter is that right now there is not an “erotica” market. The pornography business is a $10 billion a year business and it is growing. It’s based on sexualised inequality of women, whether expressed as dominance or expressed as violence against women. You couldn’t sell diddly-squat of anything that had to do with equality. I see it as a question that has been a diversionary question for a long time. I don’t have any objections to people devoting their lives to creating it, if that’s what they want to do. But I think that the Women’s Movement should stop pretending that it’s some kind of essential bread and butter or even bread and roses kind of question, because it’s not.
When I was working on Pornography, this “feminist” definition of erotica did not exist In all the discourse about pornography, erotica simply means pornography for intellectuals. That’s all it means. There is no difference in terms of the place of rape in the pornography, in terms of any kind of violence ranging from flagellation to mutilation. It’s strictly a class difference.
Then feminists come along and say, “But we need erotica. We have to be able to say that we like sex. We have to be able to sign our loyalty oath to sexual activity. We have to be able to have these artefacts of sexuality.” And I see that having to do a lot with male identification. In other words, we can be like men.
Gloria Steinem tried to do something basically very noble. She tried to use it as a vehicle for pushing forward an idea of sexuality based on equality. She means it. But most of the people using the word and most of the people who are making the material don’t mean it. What they mean is simply pornography. The way that you tell what pornography is, frankly, you look at the status of women in the material. Is it filled with hatred of women or isn’t it? Does it use and violate women or doesn’t it? That is really not hard to figure out We’re all formed by this world that we live in. The fact that our sexuality participates in SM scenarios and is excited by hierarchy and differentials of power and that women are trained basically from birth to eroticise powerlessness and pain should not come as a surprise. The only thing that is a surprise is that a bunch of people would call it feminism and say it’s good.
It seems to me that the great misunderstanding is that those of us in the anti-pornography movement have said we are pure, we have nothing to do with that stuff. We have never said that. None of us has ever said that. We’ve all said that we are fighting pornography because we know what it is. We are fighting for sexual equality because we’ve experienced inequality. We live in this world. We don’t live twelve feet above it. None of us that I have ever heard or seen in my life have made claims of purity, let alone avowals of puritanism. These mischaracterisations have been really just propaganda tools. I see myself as living in this world. I know what sadomasochism is. I know what all those feelings are. I know what all the practices are. I don’t think that I am different or better or above it. What I think is that it has to change and that we do not celebrate our powerlessness and call it freedom.
In the same way I have talked at different times about how mainstream media feminists have been corrupted really by the affluence that comes their way and the attention. It’s a kind of social wealth even when it’s not monetary wealth. It’s a kind of identity that most women don’t have any way of achieving. So if you’re a professional media feminist then you get lots of identity which is a big gift and it’s also a very corrupting gift. I often feel that in a funny way, parts of the lesbian community are equally corrupt in that they are totally self-referential. Their idea of feminism has to do only with each other and not with women who are different from them and not with women who are in different situations than they are. This tends to happen in New York, in Washington, in Philadelphia, in Los Angeles and in San Francisco. In the rest of the country there is much less of it. Whether by necessity or by choice I don’t know, but lesbians in other parts of the country just simply have got to take the agenda of all women more seriously and I think that helps in diminishing the appeal of this clubhouse sexuality. It’s very “we’re special, we’re different”, which has always been a real problem in the Women’s Movement around lesbianism. We are an elite. Somehow by virtue of being lesbians all this garbage does not have to do with us. I think it’s manifested itself at different times in different ways but it’s always been a refusal to take male identification among lesbians seriously. It is not just heterosexual women who identify with men. It’s very hard, for instance, to want freedom or to have any desire to be someone in the world and not identify with men in some way or another. I think that lesbian feminists for a long time have refused to ask ourselves the questions that we’ve insisted other women ask themselves, as if we’re exempt from it all because we’re lesbians. We are not exempt from any of it; it just manifests itself differently. The sadomasochism and the lesbian pornography is a very logical expression of that.
EB: In “Women Lawyers and Pornography” (1980) you say, “whenever you secure for any woman – be she prostitute, wife, lesbian, or all of those and more – one shred of real justice, you have given her and the rest of us a little more time, a little more dignity and time and dignity give us the chance to organise, to speak out, to fight back “What does this tell us about strategy?
AD: That goes to my concern about the Women’s Movement losing what I keep calling its middle. That the women who are committed to achieving different kinds of reform and improvements in women’s lives, as opposed to changing the complete structure, are very important and there are fewer and fewer of them. I think that what it means is that you can save a woman’s life by doing something that helps her get past the problem that we have not been socially able to solve. Then she is there. She is somebody who has knowledge, has creativity and she can use those things. I have very strong political beliefs and I do things the way I believe in doing them, in ways from which other women have some kind of protection. But I also have a whole lot of respect for what people who do things differently can achieve.
I think that people who work in what I would characterise as the reform part of the movement have very, very little tolerance for people who work in the radical part of it. In other words, they don’t understand that we’re necessary to them but I think a lot of us understand that they’re necessary to us. Every time you help to prolong a woman’s life in any way, shape or form you give all of us as well as her more of a chance.
CC: You consistently deal with issues of race and class in your work on violence against women. How does this analysis affect the strategies that could be put forth to combat violence against women which we might adopt as a movement?
AD: It’s a really big question. The first thing is that simply acting on pornography and prostitution as urgent political issues includes women in the Women’s Movement who have been excluded until now. All of the pejorative characterisations of the movement as a middle-class movement were in many ways not true. The Women’s Movement always called on and involved women from all sectors of society. But, I would say that a lot of the women who have been involved in the Women’s Movement are on a quest for respectability. They want to be acknowledged as decent, whole, honest human beings. This is right and fair, but there are enormous numbers of women who are living in what amounts to – slavery is not the right word, it’s not slavery, it’s a barely acknowledged kind of marginality. They too are human beings and they are being used, day in and day out, by men in ways from which other women have some kind of protection. The Women’s Movement has never had anything to do with those women until we began to address pornography, which led to addressing prostitution in a real way, not in the liberal way of “Let’s everybody have a good time and some of us want to be prostitutes.”
In that sense, just dealing with the issue has changed the politics of the Women’s Movement and I think a lot of what people call the split in the Women’s Movement is basically a class split. I have seen it that way for years: the women who have used the Women’s Movement to achieve some kind of respectability (which is not to say that they were necessarily bom middle-class but they became middle-class because feminism conferred on them certain professional options that weren’t there for them before) want to maintain that respectability above all else. You cannot maintain respectability and deal with the status of women in pornography and prostitution at the same time. It’s as if women are saying, we don’t want the stink on us, we just don’t, we don’t want to smell that way.
In addition, the reason that the Minneapolis civil rights law got passed and the reason that it was the kind of political event that it was, which nobody has ever written about correctly, is because it dealt with the reality of the impact of pornography on poor people and people of colour in cities, which is to say the zoning laws. The fact that politicians put the pornography where people of colour live That is true in every city across the US. The ethnic or racial group may change, city to city. Minneapolis is extraordinary. It is 96 percent white and virtually all the pornography is dumped on 4 percent of the people, who are primarily American Indian – which is their term of preference; they don’t like to be called Native Americans – and Black people. In Boston it’s Asians and in Washington it’s Blacks. You go across the country and that is the pattern that you see. We built, for the first time, a real coalition among all those people: people who were poor, people who had this happening to them and the very real violence around them increasing because of it and the economic deprivation becoming worse because of it They all came together to deal with pornography and to deal with every issue of power around pornography, from real estate to corrupt local government to the woman-hating to the sexualised racism in pornography itself.
A lot of the battle around pornography has to do with the soul of the Women’s Movement. Is it going to be a movement for women who just want better career chances, or is it really going to deal with the way that poor women and women of colour are truly exploited? Again, in Minneapolis, in the live shows in that town, virtually all the women in them are women of colour. I have never understood how people who claim to be leftist can ignore these facts around pornography; nevertheless they manage to brilliantly. What has happened is that we have broadened the base of the women’s movement enormously, but we’ve broadened it to people who don’t count The horrible thing is that they don’t count to these white women academics who have their lists of “isms” that they’re against. They’re full of correct left-wing politics: they deplore racism, they just won’t do anything about it. They hate poverty – mostly they don’t want to ever experience it. The fact that essentially the base of the Women’s Movement has broadened because of this work on pornography is utterly meaningless to them because the women are meaningless to them. They don’t care about them.
If you see an example of race hate that brings men to orgasm and is being sold for money, you do something about it. Are you going to live in the world of theory or are you going to live in the world? What has always been strongest about feminist theory is that supposedly it has something to do with the world. What we’re seeing now is a kind of fracturing of the Women’s Movement into people who live in the world and people who live in the academy. The academy has become the safe place for feminists to be. It’s certainly safer than the streets.
EB: In “Nervous Interview” (1978) the fictional interviewer says, “If the personal is political… why aren’t you more willing to talk about your personal life?” You give a paragraph answer basically saying that you need privacy to have a personal life and that the press “far exceeds its authentic right to know in pursuing the private lives of individuals … “ Do you still feel this way and if so could you further explain?
AD: Since I wrote that, what has really had a tremendous impact on me personally has been the stuff that pornographers have done to me. I sued Hustler for some cartoons of me that essentially turned me into a piece of pornography and the courts said to me, you provoked it, if you want to open your big mouth what the hell do you expect? I went to court and I said I’ve been raped, these people raped me. They took me, they took my sexuality, they took my body and they made pornography out of it. The court said, well if you hadn’t opened your big mouth it wouldn’t have happened so it’s your fault. I don’t understand how anybody is supposed to live with that unless the accommodation that they come to is one of female silence. That you never open your big mouth again.
My understanding of “the personal is political” also is that what you have experienced in your personal life has a political dimension to it and you can use what you know in a way that has social value. It wasn’t just a personal experience. It was something that has to do with women everywhere in one way or another. In a sense that is where my commitment is now. My commitment is to using what I know in a way that is political.
The issue of fame in this country is a very big one and is a very political one and it’s one that I think feminists have been exceptionally mean and miserable about. A lot of women have been destroyed because they become famous in one way or another, usually for a very short period of time, and the burden that other feminists expect them to carry is one that nobody can carry. You can’t carry a burden of purity. You can’t carry a burden of being a symbol for other people. You have to continue to operate with respect to your own conscience. You can’t be accountable to millions of people. You can’t be. You can only be accountable to people that you really know. That is, in a sense, part of what the difference is. I have to draw a line of accountability and at the same time, increasingly, my behaviour does have an impact on other women that I don’t know. Then there is some kind of accountability that I owe them, but what is it?
There are a lot of things I would like to talk about, and I do not want to read about them in Hustler. I don’t want my life used against me, I want to use my life for women. That’s the part I really do not know how to deal with. Where I think that there are personal experiences that it’s appropriate for me to talk about now, I will not talk about them. I can’t. People talk about freedom of speech, and all of these civil-liberties assholes go into court about what is going to chill speech somewhere for someone. I mean I want to tell you that my speech is fucking freezing to death and I am a writer. It does matter what has happened to me and it does matter how I learned what it is that I know and women do have a right to have some idea of what those things are and the pornographers in collusion with the courts have been successful in creating a social environment where I cannot survive having that discussion. My speech is as chilled as it can be.
CC: Do you find that talking about your life can be done more through fiction?
AD: I am working on a novel now and I wrote Ice and Fire and I think a lot of people choose to deal with things through fiction. Let me emphasise when I say that it is fiction. It’s not documentary reality, but yes it’s easier to deal with through fiction. Dealing with anything through fiction does not protect you from this kind of assault For instance, some boys published a book this summer that said all kinds of horrible things about me including that I assaulted a particular woman. It had a quote from her saying that she said this. Now I have an affidavit from her saying that she didn’t say it and that it never happened and in fact it never happened. What they use to buttress their arguments about what kind of person I am are largely quotes from my fiction. They quote from my short stories as if they are talking about me. What they are trying to say is that I’m a pornographer, I’m a dominatrix and they compare me to the Marquis de Sade. In doing so, all of their evidence is taken from the fiction.
EB: The question I wanted to ask you has to do with living with John Stoltenberg. Why have you chosen to do that?
AD: We’ve been living together now over fifteen years and we live together because we deeply love each other and that is the answer to the question. I have always felt that the way in which I was accountable to the Women’s Movement was through my work: that if my work continued to be what it should be, then there was no question about it that I had to answer. In the early days when we lived together, it was very rough. I couldn’t walk into a room without being called names because John and I lived together. Now people seem to have taken an attitude of benign indifference. I think that his work has been very important too. He has done a lot of organising against pornography and his book Refusing to be a Man is a brilliant and unique book. But that’s not why we live together. He is a very kind person and we really love each other.
CC: One of the powerful statements in Letters addresses the issue of censorship. You note in “Voyage in the Dark: Hers and Ours” (1987) that the work of Jean Rhys was obliterated. You go on to say “I don’t know why we now, we women writers, think our books are going to live.” What do you suggest that women do so that the writings of women of this generation are not also obliterated?
AD: That is a really important and hard question. Sexual Politics is out of print. The Dialectic of Sex is out of print. What women have to do is come to terms with the fact that we live in a society that simply censors better than state censorship. People have got to come to terms with the power of the publishing industry and the media in controlling thought and expression. They have to understand that it is an issue of power and money and people have to be less passive in relation to books. People have to take their money which they don’t have much of and they have to buy books by feminist writers. They have to develop a much more sophisticated understanding of how the book industry works. A hard-cover book like Letters from a War Zone was virtually published dead. If it’s still in bookstores in two months it will be a miracle. They have to understand that everything that they hear all the time about how everything can be published in this country is a lie and that part of the social function of the publishing industry is to buy up the rights to and then obliterate certain books so that nobody can get them. They have to stop thinking that they live in the liberal dreamworld of equality where fairness has already been achieved. It hasn’t been achieved. You can be equal in your heart but it doesn’t make you equal in the world. I think that the refusal to understand what happens to books by women goes along with this liberal refusal to acknowledge that power is a reality and we’re not the ones who have it. What I’m saying is that women have got to start facing reality. You cannot build any kind of movement for change on wishful thinking. The wishful thinking is that we already have what it is we want and what it is we need. We don’t have it. Women who want to write and communicate, which in a big country is hard to do – it’s getting harder for them, not easier. There isn’t more access, there is less access. People have got to take the economics of the publishing industry seriously and understand that very few writers will survive who do not write according to the demands of the marketplace, by which I mean essentially the demands of turning out books that you can consume as passively as a television show. That’s sort of the standard.
EB: Is there anything else you want to say?
AD: I want to say more than anything that the Women’s Movement has a chance to do something miraculous, which is to really tear down these hierarchies of sex and race and class. We can do it, but the way that you do it is not through rhetorical denunciations of injustice. You do it through attacking institutions of injustice through political action. That hasn’t changed. That’s what we have to do. The other thing I would like to say is, do something. You don’t have to do everything. You don’t have to be perfect, you don’t have to be pure, do what you can do. Do it. Life is short and you don’t know when it is going to end for you, so do it, do it now.