The Dworkin Legacy

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Andrea Dworkin’s recent death surprised me. Reading the notification, I recalled her strident writings, her angry lectures and her brash personal presentation. She was a frightening and influential icon in the early days of feminism. Anti-porn to the core, and by extension anti-sex, she presented women as forever defending themselves from men’s lustful urges. Though she arrived amid the sexual revolution of the sixties, she was decidedly Victorian in her views about sex.

And women (and many men) listened! Who would vote for something that caused harm to women and children? Dworkin’s anti-pornography platform appealed to women who were on the brink of accepting or rejecting their sexual power. Even as we chose to say “Yes” to sex, we could not ignore warnings from anti-sex feminists that men’s sexuality was dangerous. Many of us folded. We agreed that viewing sexually explicit material (though few of us ever dared to see any of it) was degrading to women and a threat to the security of the couple bond. We thanked our mates for not being ‘that kind of man’ and forgot about porn altogether, except perhaps to worry privately with other women about the wolf in the woods.

Now, in the new millennium, watching porn is like masturbating. We all do it, but we don’t talk about it. We do not want to get caught doing either, and when we ARE caught there’s often hell to pay, just as we feared. Couples veer off course over this issue. Assumptions play heavily in the drama. For instance, while she assumes that he is not watching porn (for political reasons, or because — she believes — it is tantamount to cheating), he assumes that she knows he both views porn and masturbates (often simultaneously).

When Dworkin-influenced women discover their partner’s erotic pastime, they feel betrayed and abandoned. Body image issues further obscure the situation when she compares her body to those on the Internet…some hard acts to follow. She wonders why she alone is not enough and questions her desirability. She wonders why her beloved mate would not confide this private sex to her, and she questions the solidity of their bond.

Often, I enter the scene here. Either gender may call me, desperate for help in de-escalating what is quickly challenging their whole relationship. Following therapy, many couples remark that, oddly, confronting and exploring the many meaningful layers of pornography moved them to a deeper, more authentic, and sexier place.

But in the beginning, it just feels rotten for everybody. Therapy begins by acknowledging the enormity of the emotional turmoil the discovery has caused, and reaffirming the couple’s stable relationship. Once everyone understands gender differences in regards to visual stimulation (guys like the stuff a lot and we tend not to understand the fascination) and once we learn to speak openly about sex, the problem becomes more manageable. Women’s ‘porn’, from high budget Hollywood sizzlers like Unfaithful to sappy romantic bodice rippers, is absolved of sin because of the safe plot lines. Women are soothed by relationships, and if we can say we are watching character development while our men can claim to be only watching smut, then our titillation is noble and theirs is base. We are so easily judgmental about lust. It is important that we alter our perspective on this issue for the sake of our relationships. Think about it: if we women are successful in eliminating all of our men’s erotic turn-ons, we ‘win’ sexless mates. Talk about shooting ourselves in the foot!

What we women must do, instead, is open ourselves to exploring erotic stimulation, whether with fantasy, erotica (the sanitized term for porn) or actual sex, partnered or solo. Women are often less visually cued than men are, but we are no less excitable or interested. We need to foster our own and our mate’s interest in sex and get out of our own way regarding political correctness. We need to seek out images in film and literature that arouse us, too. We need to demand and support pornography that we like. Perhaps most importantly, we need to accept differences in how we experience desire and fulfillment. It is not in anyone’s best interest to make sex or desire our enemy.

Finally, as we learn to accept sex in its diverse and glorious forms, we can risk speaking sexual words, thoughts, and feelings. This is what heals a rift caused by confronting our societal over-reactions to pornography. If we can talk about the hard stuff, surely we can talk about the hot stuff, too. And that’s the carrot. We face our fears and risk vulnerability in our search to understand another human being. In response, intimacy builds and love and sex can flow freely again.

Andrea Dworkin connected patriarchy and porn, and she opened a discussion that had not previously been dared. Unfortunately, she got confused between sex-ist and sex-ual. Pornography got a bad rap. Research repeatedly proves that pornography does not cause violence to women. Sex is not our enemy, nor are men. It is our fear of sexual power that trips us up. Desire can no more be controlled or owned than can love. Better to let it flourish and thus stay so acutely tuned in to its rhythms that it defines our lives as couples bound by our mutual appreciation for the sex we share.

Farewell, Ms. Dworkin. You made us look critically at how we experience desire and arousal, and we owe you a debt of gratitude for that. You represented the extreme of radical feminism, showing us where the edges were. You symbolized an era in which we came to terms with our views (and viewings) on sex. Fortunately, you were mistaken that we needed to live in fear and distrust. We know now that we live together better when we share and encourage desire, rather than retreating to separate camps where we measure and analyze our sexual responses for their sinister intentions. Perhaps your passing will mark the end of an era where women feel righteous about controlling sexual desire and instead embrace it as a human privilege. Perhaps a new message will emerge to replace the fear and loathing you engendered – a message that celebrates desire.