A life without compromise
There was a time, not so long ago, when Andrea Dworkin thought her life was over. Just more than four years ago, she wrote an article for New Statesman magazine about being drug-raped in a hotel room in France.
She had been drinking a Kir Royale in the bar, she wrote, when she started feeling sick and weak.
She made it back to her hotel room, where she was brought dinner by a waiter — the same waiter who had served her her drink — and passed out. When she woke five hours later, she was bleeding internally, bruised and disoriented.
“I couldn’t remember,’’ she wrote, “but I thought they had pulled me down toward the bottom of the bed so that my vagina was near the bed’s edge and my legs were easy to manipulate. I thought that the deep, bleeding scratches, right leg, and the big bruise, left breast, were the span of a man on top of me. I had been wearing sweatpants that just fell right down.’’
The hardest thing to cope with, she said, was the not remembering: she couldn’t be certain what had happened. “They took my body from me and used it,” she wrote, and ended, “I am ready to die.”
Her account of her drug-rape was questioned by some feminists. Why, people asked, had she not called a doctor, or reported the rape to the police? How could she be sure of the details of the attack when, by her own admission, she had been unconscious for several hours?
And, most strikingly, why did Dworkin, a radical feminist, run through a checklist of reasons she might have been raped — a list she might otherwise have dismissed as a catalogue of myths about rape victims. “I blame me no matter what it takes. I go down the checklist: no short skirt; it was daylight; I didn’t drink a lot even though it was alcohol and I rarely drink, but so what? â€¦ I didn’t drink with a man, I sat alone and read a book, I didn’t go somewhere I shouldn’t have been â€¦ I wasn’t hungry for a good, hard fuck that would leave me pummelled with pain inside.’‘
Dworkin’s account of her rape, like much of her writing (including the feminist texts Pornography: Men Possessing Women and Intercourse), polarised opinion. People believed her, or they didn’t; they were either with her, or they were against. “It was unbearable being disbelieved by my so-called sisters,’’ she says.
Dworkin was in London recently to visit friends and to find a British publisher for her autobiography, Heartbreak: The Political Memoir of a Militant Feminist, published in the United States two years ago.
Given that the past four years have seen her professionally and, to some extent, personally out in the cold, it is an unexpectedly uplifting and hopeful book, a reflective and often funny journey through a life that charts her love of music, literature, rebellion and women.
The myths that surround Dworkin — that she is hard, aggressive, a man-hating misery — contradict the reality. In person, she is shy, softly spoken and courteous, with a cracking sense of humour. (The critic John Berger described her as “the most misrepresented writer in the Western world’‘.) She is principled to the point where she will lose friends and alienate colleagues rather than sacrifice an inch of ground.
She has a dark sense of humour. During the Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky scandal, when Dworkin was having bitter rows with Clinton’s feminist supporters, she told me, “What needs to be asked is, was the cigar lit?’’
Does she now lose much sleep over George W Bush? “He needs to go. Half of the American people want him out.’‘
Even so, she figures she is still more unpopular than the president in the US, mainly for her stance against pornography, interpreted by many as an assault on the first amendment (freedom of speech). To libertarians and pornographers, her name has become synonymous with censorship and rightwing, Christian ideals, but Dworkin denies links with either camp.
“The power of the state and of the moral right seduced many feminists,’’ she says, “but I would never compromise my principles. They use the language of obscenity and decency, not women’s equality.’‘
Dworkin has written 13 books to date, first achieving notoriety with Pornography in 1979 and, until the drug-rape, was a regular on the feminist lecture circuit. Her life, as well as her work, has been shaped by sexual violence: she was assaulted in a cinema at the age of nine, and her former husband was physically abusive. She says she first learned about “social sadism” from listening to her aunt, a Holocaust survivor.
She wrote Heartbreak in four months. Was this because it had been inside her all along, bursting to be written? “My other books were written with blood, sweat and tears,’’ she says. “This one almost just appeared, like a gift.’’
So what does the future hold? There are moments in Heartbreak that show us Dworkin at her most raw and emotional. “I have a heart easily hurt,’’ she writes. “Apartheid broke my heart. Apartheid in Saudi Arabia still breaks my heart — I don’t understand why every story about rising oil prices does not come with an addendum about the domestic imprisonment of women in the Gulf states. I can’t be bought or intimidated because I’m cut down the middle. I walk with women whispering in my ears.’’
Elsewhere, there is a sentence that reads almost like an epitaph: “I think I’ve pretty much done what I can do; I’m empty; there’s not much left, not inside me.’’ But Dworkin wrote this two years ago, and she isn’t giving up yet. “I thought I was finished,’’ she says, “but I feel a new vitality. I want to continue to help women.’’ — Â