Andrea Dworkin passed away this weekend, leaving the world a richer place for the words she wrote, and a lesser place for the loss of her voice.
Shortly after I first read a book by her, in my senior year of college, one of my favorite professors described her work in terms I will never forget. She said “Andrea Dworkin articulates the primal scream.”
As Edward Munch had done with his paints, Andrea used words to express what is too often unspoken and unspeakable—the harm and the horror of cruelty inflicted on living beings by their contemporaries.
Andrea, like many of our world’s greatest leaders before her, had four things in great measure: a profound intolerance of inequality and harm; a deep love for people; a powerful drive to communicate truth; and an abiding optimism about the ability of men and women to be better to themselves and each other than they/we often were.
But in a world where Jesus is celebrated for having stood with the harmed and reviled, where Martin Luther King, Jr. is honored for having opposed discrimination and inequality, and where lip service is paid to the work of helping those in need, what Andrea got was mostly mockery and derision.
And why? Because she exposed and opposed the ways in which sex is used to devastate and devour. Because she talked about the battered, the raped, the used, the prostituted, and she never once minimized the harm done to harmed people—even when the circumstances of their lives made them and everyone else believe that they were worth exactly what they were subjected to.
If you have never read the work that Andrea devoted her life to creating, approach it with caution. It is difficult to read unflinching accounts of the ways in which people destroy other humans. It can be devastating to admit that our culture appears to thrive while the bodies and lives of many are treated as disposable commodities. And for many, it is overwhelming to see how inequality on the basis of sex can and does still permeate the institutions, relationships, customs, and mores that we are surrounded by and living out with our own experiences.
And, especially if you have never read her work, approach with caution the ways in which she, and her work, is discussed in the public sphere. Know that she is lied about. Know that her work is distorted, and reviled, and mocked. Know that women, especially, can make easy money by articulating scorn for her, and by positing themselves as “pro-woman” but “anti-Andrea Dworkin.”
If you are critical of the status quo, if you are suspicious of the power of the media, if you doubt that your interests and the interests of billionaires like Rupert Murdoch are one and the same, then you ought to approach discussions about Andrea Dworkin with a healthy skepticism. For more than anything, Andrea Dworkin was known for her critique of pornography, and while consumers experience pornography in ways that are deeply private and deeply personal, pornography is a multi-billion dollar a year business, and pornographers are driven by profit to nurture the myth that human sexual freedom depends on the ability of powerful people to do whatever the hell they want with the lives and bodies of the powerless.
If you keep an open mind, as you think about freedom, and sex, and dignity, you will likely come to the same conclusion that Andrea did: your freedom and your well-being, and the health of your children and your community, does not depend on the ability of sexually abusive people to freely and wantonly profit from the sexual use and harming of other human beings.
We all deserve a world in which sex is not used as a tool for oppression. Our daughters and our sons, no less than us, merit freedom to live life unbound by rigid and punishing obligations dictated by our gender. This is part of what Andrea Dworkin understood, and part of what she articulated.
And I will be eternally grateful for the work of her lifetime.
Kaethe Morris Hoffer