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|This photo of Andrea Dworkin and John Stoltenberg was found here.|
In recognition of the fifteenth anniversary of the passing of the great Andrea Dworkin, her life partner, John Stoltenberg, recently wrote a piece published online at the Boston Review. You may read it here: “Andrea Dworkin Was a Trans Ally.”
When I found the article, I was immediately perplexed. I wondered what John thought about the title, for one thing. I don’t assume he chose it. Authors often don’t. I find it provocatively anti-feminist and anti-Dworkin. It does something Andrea never asked to have done: be placed in the center of a political, polemical battle she did not choose to engage with. The title also obfuscates the focus of the piece. And the piece itself obfuscates what Andrea’s work was all about. I’ll illustrate this and will then address how he highlights passages of her work about transsexuality that fell by the wayside as she moved through her life as a prolific writer and powerful activist.
Stoltenberg’s article identifies some of Andrea’s early beliefs and values, expressed primarily in her first feminist work, Woman Hating.
The discovery is, of course, that “man” and “woman” are fictions, caricatures, cultural constructs. As models they are reductive, totalitarian, inappropriate to human becoming. As roles they are static, demeaning to the female, dead-ended for male and female both. Culture as we know it legislates those fictive roles as normalcy. (Dworkin, Woman Hating, p. 174)
We are, clearly, a multisexed species which has its sexuality spread along a vast continuum where the elements called male and female are not discrete. (p. 183) (italics in the original)
After Andrea’s death in 2005, I became increasingly concerned that she and the radical politics I learned from her were being misappropriated by some to argue—in the name of radical feminism—for a biologically essentialist notion of “real womanhood.” To my mind, this was a betrayal of a fundamental insight I learned from Andrea, and referenced throughout my work, that male supremacy is premised on the equally fictitious biological essentialism of “real manhood.”
[Some radical feminist's] reactionary insistence on a biological boundary around the category “real woman” plays right into the male-supremacist agenda that wants, more than anything, to secure the borders of the category “real man.”
The bold is mine in all cases to highlight a discursive style and content I’ll address more directly later.
I’m not familiar with a radical feminism that believes ‘womanhood’ or ‘manhood’ is acultural or apolitical. What John is stating, to my read, is that some people (we aren’t told how many, where, over what time period) state things in the name of radical feminism that he believes would be abhorrent to Dworkin’s values, as a woman and as a Jew. I don’t disagree with him on this point. And this is not new. It’s over fifty years old, in fact. We may be familiar with some of the more persistent and pernicious statements polluting status quo media: radical feminism is allegedly anti-male, for example. Or, radical feminism, and Dworkin particularly, are allegedly anti-sex. These lies have been refuted innumerable times, explicitly so by Andrea herself. (She has also pointed out the many ways in which being “pro-sex” amounts to being pro-patriarchal.) Unsurprisingly, there have been people who have identified as radical, feminist, liberal, or conservative, who have been anti-male or anti-sex, or pro-sexist sex, who may also have promoted this conflation. As John well notes, she wholeheartedly opposed any expression of biological superiority. As we shall later see, however, she did not oppose the conflation of being a woman with having a female body. Before moving into places of disagreement, I’ll note what I believe most of us ‘here’ agree on:
John, Andrea, and many others who have fought against men’s violence against women acknowledge that gendering children is wrong; that hierarchical gender is unjust; that pretending women and men are discreet or polar opposites is nonsense. I think we agree on this as well: anyone who chooses or reveals an identification with women or girls may be targeted by male supremacists, violently. Anyone who is put in the position of a woman, politically, economically, or sexually, is at risk for patriarchal violence. Anyone ‘found out’ to have a body that is viewed by male supremacists as female or ‘not male enough’ is vulnerable to being raped and murdered. Especially if you’re poor. Especially if you’re poor and Black. Dworkin addressed all of this.
As we move forward, let’s keep in mind Andrea’s refutation of biological superiority is never divorced from her central fury: Men rape women. It is normal. And it is celebrated. This was the problem she fought to end. So when writing about Andrea’s work, it would be disrespectful to state that her core agenda was organised around refuting a sex binary. After the late ’70s, that’s entirely John’s terrain.
What is disturbing is his article can’t hold together if we replace what he posits as her central concern with, well, her central concern: what happens to human beings made into women who have female bodies? In John’s piece, it appears women’s female bodies are invisibilised. What’s more, John doesn’t criticise the generators and proponents of queer theories that are anti-revolutionary, pro-status quo, pro-patriarchal, misogynist, and racist. A lot has to be muted if you refuse to speak to what most concerned Andrea.
Somehow, John identifies focusing on ‘real women’ as a problem while neglecting this concern, this nightmare, an abundantly evident experience of live under patriarchy that every radical feminist I have ever read or known, holds central in theory and action: it is against the female body that male supremacy most egregiously expresses itself in order to maintain men’s dominance and male dominance, as natural, God-given, eternal, and inevitable. It is against the female body that patriarchal force is unleashed: brutal, bone crushing, and murderous. Through all of her work following Our Blood, Andrea addresses this explicitly. The violence is against woman’s breasts, against her uterus, against her vagina. The latter is what her book Intercourse is all about. Necessarily. Not because female bodies are made for phallic punishment. But because patriarchy makes men’s treatment of women—the social beings with a female form, intimately violating and oppressive. What is stunning and outrageous is that stating this is controversial to anyone radical and feminist! Why doesn’t John acknowledge this?
In Andrea’s work, there was never a disembodied woman. In her view, womanhood is not chosen; it is enforced. It has a body; the body is female. She graphically described the violence against her, her body—a female one. She described what is done to millions of girls and women, every one female. Noticing this connection (and how does one not?), does not render Dworkin a ‘sex essentialist.’ Why does John seem not to notice this?
While critical of radical feminists who use a term like “real womanhood,” he forgets to mention the preponderance of trans and queer activists, and sexual liberals who are neither, who speak about trans women being “real women.” He only objects if radical feminists use the term emphatically, it seems. Also, he states the “fundamental problem with radical feminism’s obsession with biologically defining the category woman is that it unwittingly enables a politics that is profoundly reactionary.” What of the trans activists and allies who argue there is scientific evidence that being transgender is biological not social reality? For example, that it is a result of the behavior of genes and hormones. And that transgender identity has its roots in utero? And that there are brain differences that show gender is not just social? Stoltenberg’s unfairly distributed criticisms of some radical feminists reveals a bias. An anti-feminist one.
Another radical feminist objection to liberal queer and trans discourse is pretending the problem isn’t male supremacy and female subordination. Those terms are meaningful descriptors of reality. To say otherwise is not only fucking absurd, it is damned dangerous. Linguistically skirting around the matter by refusing to use terms like ‘female’ to mean woman and ‘male’ to man is a discursive mind-fuck. Avoiding naming the problem is very far from radical feminist practice. Such avoidance was never Andrea’s practice. And such avoidance would not be respecting her central value of truth-telling. But the avoidance has become John’s practice. Avoidance of naming this reality is, I have found, a requirement to operate acceptably in liberal queer spaces. Speaking these very passages would not be tolerated in many liberal academic circles. Guess who wrote them?
The woman’s material reality is determined by a sexual characteristic, a capacity for reproduction. The man takes a body that is not his, claims it, sows his so-called seed, reaps a harvest—he colonializes a female body, robs it of its natural resources, controls it, uses it, depletes it as he wishes, denies it freedom and self-determination so that he can continue to plunder it… (Letters from a War Zone, p. 118)
There are dirty names for every female part of her body and for every way of touching her. (Intercourse, p. 214)
A lot of the faculty preyed on the nearly all-female student body… (Life and Death, p. 25)
I didn’t want to write the female suicide’s poem; nor did I want to write another male-inspired lyric celebrating the sewer. I wanted to resist male dominance for myself and to change the outcome for other women. I did not want to open my legs again, this time in prose. (Life and Death, p. 28)
This is Andrea’s language, not some radical feminists who are allegedly betraying her. So why does his article come across as disagreeing with what Andrea wrote? Why is his focus being presented as essentially identical to hers? It has to do with the fact that the pieces of her theory she abandoned are the pieces he has held onto most passionately. What he highlights has profound meaning for him in his work. I get that, I understand it, and I appreciate it. But let’s not conflate his work with hers.
When John writes, “Andrea’s vision for the future: a society in which everyone is free from gender polarity and from the social hierarchy that reifies and requires it. This was the capital-T truth,” he is diligently misleading the reader. (This is far from the first time.) He is not representing what Andrea fought for in her activist life.: he knows as well as anyone, she fought for women, the female kind. Not because she was ‘transphobic’ but because female women were, to her, ‘women.’ John’s views about this are not similar.
We find a discussion about transsexuality in chapter 9 of Woman Hating. The one time. In his article, John quotes a lengthy passage from the chapter, titled: “Androgyny: Androgyny, Fucking, and Community.” He relays some of her views. Andrea describes it as “a condition of primary emergency…” She also states, “[E]very transsexual has the right to survival on his/her own terms. That means that every transsexual is entitled to a sex-change operation, and it should be provided by the community as one of its functions…” And, “[C]ommunity built on androgynous identity will mean the end of transsexuality as we know it.” You can read the rest of it for yourself. But the passage of hers before the one he quotes is this:
Transsexuality is currently considered a gender disorder, that is, a person learns a gender role which contradicts his/her visible sex. It is a “disease” with a cure: a sex-change operation will change the person’s visible sex and make it consonant with the person’s felt identity. Since we know very little about sex identity, and since psychiatrists are committed to the propagation of the cultural structure as it is, it would be premature and not very intelligent to accept the psychiatric judgment that transsexuality is caused by faulty socialization. More probably transsexuality is caused by a faulty society. Transsexuality can be defined as one particular formation of our general multisexuality which is unable to achieve its natural development because of extremely adverse social conditions. (Woman Hating, p. 186)
One formation: there are others. Following the passage about transsexuality, she goes on to discuss transvestitism.
Transvestism is costuming which violates gender imperatives. Transvestism is generally a sexually charged act: the visible, public violation of sex role is erotic, exciting, dangerous. It is a kind of erotic civil disobedience, and that is precisely its value. Costuming is part of the strategy and process of role destruction. We see, for instance, that as women reject the female role, they adopt “male” clothing. As sex roles dissolve, the particular erotic content of transvestism dissolves.
And bestiality: “Bestiality is an erotic reality, one which clearly places people in nature, not above it. The relationship between people and other animals, when nonpredatory, is always erotic since its substance is nonverbal communication and touch.” (p. 188)
And incest: “The incest taboo does the worst work of the culture: it teaches us the mechanisms of repressing and internalizing erotic feeling—it forces us to develop those mechanisms in the first place.” (p. 189)
In the 1974 book, she wrote uncritically about each of these cultural practices or manifestations of a society founded and dependent on male dominance. In the conclusion, she adds:
We must refuse to submit to those institutions which are by definition sexist—marriage, the nuclear family, religions built on the myth of feminine evil. We must refuse to submit to the fears engendered by sexual taboos. (p. 192)
Here, Dworkin theorises about sexual taboos and ends up on ground she soon wants distance from. Why? Did she not stand by this one-chapter analysis? She did not. How can one say this? Because in her last seven solo books, she never again speaks of a core or peripheral problem in such terms. There are many themes she has repeated but not these. She bids good-bye to a focus on static and fictive sex roles, talk of multisexuality, and the loosening of sexual taboos as liberatory. After Woman Hating, bestiality and incest are never spoken of uncritically. And transsexuality never again appears in her work.
There is no other way to reconcile this fact: from Pornography: Men Possessing Women (1981) to Heartbreak (2002), she never again mentions the terms in bold above as the problem; she never again posits Androgyny as a solution. Rather, she develops and expands upon other portions of Woman Hating: about misogyny and how male supremacy wages war, organised, controlled, and regulated by men (only ever with male bodies) against women (only ever with female bodies), most especially through sexual violence.
From 1981 onward, gender is seen by Andrea as a system of dominance within male supremacist society. Sex is not a binary, it is a hierarchy. Sex and gender are not spoken of as political ‘difference.’ And “male dominance” and “female subordination” are perhaps the most affective terms she has. She didn’t shy away from using them as do so many liberal queer theorists who value diversity more than liberation, who think diversifying gender is a form of freedom. She advocated no activist program or political campaign that centered on the creation of more sexual or gendered categories. She didn’t organise around the existence of being or becoming transgender, pansexual, poly, fluid, or agender. She articulated no hierarchy in which cis women oppress trans women. (She never used the terms “cis” or “trans.”) She held no position on what is now termed “queer rights” beyond speaking passionately about lesbianism, theorising the relationship between homophobia and anti-Semitism, and making connections between anti-lesbian/anti-gay acts and the imperatives of male supremacy.
I wish John would stop stating that the work she soon critiqued is the work that is most representative of her values. I wish he would own what is his and what is hers. I wish he would unsilence her on these matters. About those topics she put forth in chapter 9, she was later regretful and critical. How can we know this? She said so. From Wikipedia, in the section on Woman Hating:
The last section of the book she explores Androgyny in myths and religions across the globe to “discern another ontology, one which discards the fiction that there are two polar distinct sexes.” She was not alone in this endeavor. Dworkin’s exploration exists in a Western literary lineage that includes Orlando, by Virginia Woolf, and Woman on the Edge of Time, by Marge Piercy. In the final chapter, she examines sexual similarities, hermaphroditism, parthenogenesis, pansexuality, homosexuality, transsexuality, transvestism, bestiality, incest, the family, and children. About this chapter she reflects on her own theorizing as problematic, existing outside of girls’ and women’s lived experience: “I think there are a lot of things really wrong with the last chapter of Woman Hating,” said Dworkin in an interview with Cindy Jenefsky for her book, Without Apology: Andrea Dworkin’s Art and Politics. She identified factors which influenced the chapter: ‘years of reading Freud and trying to figure out abstractly what all this was about’… [A]t the time Woman Hating was written, [there were] roots in the counterculture and the sexual liberation movement.”
I believe Andrea’s views are best expressed in her own work. Not that they can’t be discussed and debated. But since she died she’s had people metaphorically tugging on each arm, trying to make a case that she stood on one side or the other of the trans politics debate. I maintain she never took a position one way or the other. Beyond Woman Hating, there’s no evidence of her being an ally. (If, thirty years ago, I wrote affirmatively about the Deaf community and have done nothing since to support Deaf people’s challenges to an ignorant society, would I be an ally?
So many of us wonder, “What Would Dworkin Do?” But she didn’t live to address contemporary queer and trans politics. What her allies can do is defend her work and the meaning of it. And fight male supremacy.
“An activist and writer at the blog, A Radical Profeminist”.
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