The Telegraph

Saturday 27 May 2000

'I was taught to be too nice to boys'

Feminist Andrea Dworkin is known as a relentless scourge of men. But Michael Shelden found her more vulnerable than he imagined HER critics like to portray Andrea Dworkin as a bullying, puritanical crank who thinks all men are rapists and pornography addicts. Among other things, she has been called "North America's most overwrought, man-hating feminist" and an "emotional Marat in the feminist Reign of Terror against men".

Michael Shelden
The Daily Telegraph/Electronic Telegraph (London, UK)

Andrea Dworkin- official site

Feminist Andrea Dworkin is known as a relentless scourge of men. But Michael Shelden found her more vulnerable than he imagined HER critics like to portray Andrea Dworkin as a bullying, puritanical crank who thinks all men are rapists and pornography addicts. Among other things, she has been called "North America's most overwrought, man-hating feminist" and an "emotional Marat in the feminist Reign of Terror against men".

Given this fearsome reputation, I suppose that any man might think twice about agreeing to interview Dworkin after dark in an obscure part of Brooklyn. But the woman coming towards me on this rainy evening does not look like an avenging feminist on the warpath. In fact, she is so unsteady on her feet that she seems on the point of collapsing, and I rush forward to escort her into the little café where we've arranged to meet.

When, after much effort, she is properly seated, she smiles weakly and says, in a soft, polite voice: "Please, don't make fun of me in your piece. I've been ill."

Indeed, she has. At the end of last year, she sat down on the pavement in Greenwich Village - a part of New York that she knows well - and could neither get up nor recognise where she was. Feeling faint, she sat there in the cold while people walked past her as though she were merely another homeless person down on her luck. Finally, a stranger took pity on her and rang for an ambulance. Dworkin spent a month in hospital.

"I had bronchitis, pneumonia, a large blood clot and several smaller ones. They kept me off my legs for so long that now I'm having trouble using them again."

After bringing her something to drink, I look closely at her and, at the risk of sounding like a pushy man, encourage her to seek further medical care.

"I know," she says plaintively, pushing a tangled mass of hair aside from her sweaty brow. "My father left me some money in his will last year - not a lot of money, but some - and I've decided that I must use it to help myself get well."

Quite simply, the biggest problem seems to be the sensitive subject of Dworkin's weight: a woman of average height, she must weigh more than 20 stone. At the age of 54, she is clearly paying the price of having struggled for years to control her obesity. Now, the question at stake is not the trivial - and usually sexist - one of appearance, but the crucial one of health.

Unfortunately, for years critics have used her weight problems to attack her ideas, calling her names and suggesting that her looks have influenced her views of men and sex. She has been ridiculed as Mount Dworkin, and the chronically loud-mouthed Camille Paglia once complained: "Dworkin pretends to be a daring truth-teller, but never mentions her most obvious problem, food."

A college dropout, Dworkin has made her career as a scholar entirely on her own and, unlike Paglia, has never received any university support. After a quarter of a century spent writing about women's issues and defending women against various forms of discrimination, she could use a little help from a sympathetic sisterhood at this time of personal crisis. But, aside from letters and flowers, there is little sign that her fellow feminists have intervened to help her survive an obviously serious medical problem.

She blames herself for neglecting her health and for not reaching out to friends. She has just finished nine years of work on a controversial new book - Scapegoat: the Jews, Israel and Women's Liberation - and says that the burdens of research and writing took a heavy toll.

"I cut myself off from others, and was perhaps ungenerous to my friends. I became desperate to finish the book and put everything else aside for it. I was running short of money and time, and both my health and my social life suffered as a result."

In the popular imagination, Dworkin may have a reputation for toughness, but in person she is very subdued. For two hours, we talk over coffee and she rarely raises her voice above a soft murmur.

In truth, she acts like a defeated woman, unsure of herself and uncertain of her accomplishments. That is quite a change from the radical character of the Seventies and Eighties, who routinely berated men for treating women like objects. In such provocative books as Woman Hating, Intercourse and Letters from a War Zone, she made the case that being female means living with the constant danger of violence from men who rape, abuse, imprison and assault women with extraordinary frequency. She travelled the world campaigning for better laws against rape and for a better awareness of the sexist attitudes towards women.

But she has been vilified for so long by her many enemies, and her views have been distorted so often, that she seems to have lost not only her health but her enthusiasm for her work.

"When people don't like what you have to say, they demonise you by attacking you as an extremist or a lunatic or by making fun of your personal life. They will do everything but engage in an honest discussion of your ideas. After these attacks are repeated often enough, everyone starts believing the lies told about you."

Two of the major lies are that she thinks that all sex is rape, and that all pornography must be banned.

"Penetrative intercourse is, by its nature, violent. But I'm not saying that sex must be rape. What I think is that sex must not put women in a subordinate position. It must be reciprocal and not an act of aggression from a man looking only to satisfy himself. That's my point."

Violence is her common theme, and it is violence in pornography that most upsets her. She doesn't advocate state censorship, but she does think that women should have the right to sue anyone who markets the abuse of women as entertainment.

"We are bombarded with pornographic images of women being raped, bound and gagged, hanged, beaten, tortured in endless ways and then we're told that these images are a form of free speech protected under the law. But these aren't forms of speech. They are fantasies for men who hate women and want to see them hurt.

"This kind of pornography has to be resisted because it leads to real violence. What the images are saying is: 'Let's try it on paper first. If it looks good or easy on paper, then why not think of doing it for real?' That's the message to men, and somebody has to say that it's wrong, and that women have a civil right to fight it in the courts."

Whether she's right or wrong, Dworkin is always fascinating to read because, unlike some feminists, she relishes debate and enjoys the free play of ideas. Her new book is full of provocative notions about the complex relationships between state violence and the social violence directed against women.

There is a war between the sexes, she argues, but it's neither tame nor innocent. As she points out, the horrific numbers of women subjected to various kinds of abuse around the world - from domestic violence in the West to female infanticide in Asia and "honour" killings in certain parts of the Arab world - is evidence of a brutal conflict that too many people prefer to ignore.

Dworkin has seen more than her share of that conflict. She grew up as a young misfit on the streets of New York, occasionally prostituting herself for a bus fare home to New Jersey.

Imprisoned in the Sixties for protesting against the Vietnam War, she was violated in the New York Women's House of Detention. "Two doctors and a speculum," she explains grimly, saying that they forced her to undergo her first internal examination and "tore me up inside".

She has been stalked and threatened by strangers who loathe her ideas. For years, she has been inundated with hate mail and must be careful about revealing her address in New York.

She was once in love with a handsome man from Crete, but that was long ago and the good romance was soon overshadowed by a bad marriage. As a battered wife in the early 1970s, she was forced to flee her husband. There were no children, and the man has long since disappeared. But she still wakes up at night with fears of being battered and says that her husband "hurt me more than I ever knew was imaginable".

Perhaps understandably, she has not only avoided marrying again but has declared a preference for lesbianism. Yet one of the many apparent contradictions in her life is that for 20 years she has lived with a man, John Stoltenberg, who is gay. They maintain separate bedrooms, but are devoted to each other and John has done as much as anyone to nurse her through her present illness.

Far from hating men, Dworkin has a long list of those who have been adored and valuable influences in her life. She was much closer to her father - a teacher in New Jersey - than to her mother (who was an invalid), and was devastated by his death last December. She was also close to her only sibling, her brother, Mark, who died of cancer a few years ago.

One of her problems, she says, with a rare flash of humour, is that she was taught to be too nice to boys.

"When I was 11, my mother told me that when I played games with boys, I must let them win. But I soon discovered that it's pretty hard to keep losing at checkers. You really have to apply yourself to lose and I just wasn't good at losing."

Though she seems to have lost some of her old fighting spirit, she is not ready to give up the battle yet, and is still eager to explain herself.

With an unexpected burst of passion, she says: "It's absurd to say that I hate men or that women in general should hate men. After all, we give birth to male babies. We cannot pretend that men don't exist, but it does seem reasonable to expect that we should not have to live in fear of them.

"We have been taught to seek their approval and we have been very forgiving of them when they mistreated us or betrayed us. But we have to insist on our dignity. If men want to live with us, they must treat us like human beings. Like equals. If they hurt us, we must fight back."

Indeed, Dworkin jokes that she is a "lapsed pacifist" because she is not shy about telling women to use any means necessary to stop abuse.

"If a woman cannot stop a man from hurting her, except by hurting him back, even to the point of killing him, then she has to defend herself and do what she must. We expect men to defend themselves, so why not expect it of women?"

But what about her own future? Can she regain her health and continue the good fight?

"If some of my fellow feminists would do a little more," she says, with a wink, "I could do a little less."

© Copyright of Telegraph Group Limited 2000.