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Interview by Andrea Dworkin with Gail Dines and Rhea Becker
SOURCE: "A Conversation With Andrea Dworkin," in Sojourner, Vol. 15, No. 10, June, 1990, pp. 17, 19-20.
In the following interview, Dworkin comments on pornography and contemporary feminist protest.
[Gail Dines:] Why did you have to go to England to get Letters from a War Zone published originally?
[Andrea Dworkin:] I can give you the reasons I know. In the United States the pornographers and the publishers see themselves as having identical interests—legal, social, and economic interests. In the United Kingdom that is not the case. Pornographers are still regarded as pimps and sleazeballs even though the consumers are your regular males, normal citizens. Publishers still see their responsibility as being to publish writers, and it has been in that kind of a social environment that I get published. People will say, "Whether we agree with you or not, you are a fine writer, therefore we will publish you."
It looks to me like pornography is getting worse, acts of violence are getting worse, and the younger the assailant, the more vicious and violent the act. But what I've found with a lot of women is, "Oh, pornography? We've dealt with the pornography question. Can't Dworkin give it a rest?" Do you agree that pornography is getting worse?
I think there's a certain detached objective way in which you can say it's not getting worse; it never gets worse in the sense that it has always been primarily about rape, sadism, and humiliation. I mean, what's worse than the Marquis de Sade? What is worse is that it is much easier to use real people in the production of the sadistic and humiliating pornography, and also that there are no limits on the kind of pornography that can be publicly displayed and sold. What we're seeing is a complete saturation of the society with pornography that grows more and more sadistic. What we know is that men become very quickly desensitized to whatever it is in pornography that arouses them to begin with. So that Playboy, alas, is losing subscriptions. I don't think it is because of our activism, in which case the pornography industry would be growing smaller in size, but because these men become desensitized and need more violent pornography.
Many of my students tell me they spend their Friday nights at gross-out parties. That is, you rent four or five of the worst slasher films, get drunk, and watch the movies throughout the night. Slasher films prime these kids at age fourteen or fifteen, then a bit later they become the real pornography consumers.
Statistics now indicate that boys are getting younger and younger when they first consume pornography. So very young adolescents see pornography and use it and have it as their primary source of sex instruction. And since there's really no limit on what's on the newsstands, it's not as if they're seeing what used to be called "soft-core" pornography. They're seeing the whole range of pornography, and because video pornography is so accessible, what they see is even more vivid and makes an even greater impression than the static pornography of the magazines. So it really is a very desperate situation, if you understand that pornography is—as I have come to think of it—the DNA of male supremacy. So if you want to do something about male supremacy, you had better understand that we have to do something about pornography. The average age of rapists, of course, is also going down, congruent with the consumption of pornography.
From what I read in news reports, it seems more and more men are filming rapes—and not just for making a fast buck by selling the film. But they keep it—the actual incriminating evidence that they committed a rape. I'm beginning to wonder if we've reached the point where there's no separation between media and reality, that the two are completely fused; that men need documentation of what they did because then it becomes real; that they're so trained to be voyeurs that it is now coded into their sexuality.
It's a vast question. I think that it's true, as you put it, that the form of pornography has become a part of male sexuality, but in a way you can say that the technology is taking over because the alienation is closer to complete. In fact, touching an actual human being is almost anticlimactic. The video is more real; the photographs are more real.
For me, the ethical basis of the issue has always been that if the person next to you in bed or in life is not real, it is impossible for the person down the street to be real to you. If you do not understand the humanity of the person you are with, you can't understand humanity, period. So what we have is a new generation of men who have been raised on these dead women, these pressed, flat cadavers of sexuality, and who are in fact behaviorally tied to two-dimensional, painted, leg-splayed, unreal, unhuman, dead women.
Also, as Jane Caputi points out in her book, The Age of Sex Crime, serial killers often kill women before they are able to ejaculate. They want the woman to be like the one in the picture.
I don't think that it's uncommon, but I know one serial killer that we were trying to deal with in Minneapolis who had killed—I can't remember the numbers, but it was in double digits—Native American women, and after he had killed them, he posed them like the pictures in pornography. Let all those academic women or men tell us that pornography has nothing to do with this; that's crazy. It has everything to do with it.
One of the most surprising developments in the feminist antipornography movement in recent years was the appearance of FACT [Feminist Anti-Censorship Task Force]. What do you think of this development?
For me, it wasn't FACT in particular, but the initial organizing of the s/m lesbians that did it for me, which preceded FACT by several years. FACT, for me, was a kind of inevitable aftershock of the s/m lesbians, because to me feminism is the antidote to sadomasochism. And to have sadomasochism proclaimed as a feminist practice of liberation is the ultimate mind-fuck.
Younger lesbians I've spoken to tell me that there is no place for them, particularly on campuses, if they are not practicing sadomasochism. Has this been your experience as well?
I travel widely, as you know. I travel throughout the country, through Canada and in many parts of Europe. And I have only found the s/m lesbians to be strong in New York, Boston, and San Francisco. I think it's actually a very narrow phenomenon. I think it's a media-supported phenomenon. You've got this one little reed instrument playing and suddenly we've got amplification and it makes it sound as though you've got a five-thousand-piece orchestra. But it's not. Part of what has happened in the feminist community is that the feminist media has come to distort real experience as much as the mainstream media does. It's a mirror, but it's more like a funhouse mirror than a real mirror.
In spite of the s/m movement, it seems to me that women are still organizing against pornography.
There's a huge women's movement in this country—there's a huge women's movement all over. There's all this grassroots activism. The pornography issue has brought many women of different ideologies to a feminist perspective on male dominance. And it has also broadened the movement in that women who were excluded by virtue of race and class before now see pornography as one of their main issues. It's an issue of poverty. It's an issue of exclusion. It's an issue of sexual exploitation, the kind of sexual exploitation that the poorest women in this society experience. So what I see is this division among women where there's this reactionary old-guard feminism that has circled all of its wagons around so that everybody talks only to each other, and then there's this much broader feminism that the news media choose to ignore.
So the radical movement is outside the universities.
Absolutely. And one of the great disappointments is that women's studies movements have become so reactionary. The only regret that I feel in my life as a feminist is that in the first few years of being on the road I worked so hard for the establishment of women's studies departments. Now I think, "Why?" I thought it was so important then. So much had been lost, so much had been suppressed, and if we had women's studies departments, then we would have had that material. But what the women who have these positions of safety are choosing to do is to bury alive books like Kate Millett's Sexual Politics and Shulamith Firestone's The Dialectic of Sex. They don't teach them. They have allowed these fundamental feminist texts to go out of print.
It's interesting how the antipornography ordinance that you wrote with Catherine MacKinnon has been regarded. People say, "If it's not going to wipe out pornography, then we're not interested in the law." Yet I've not heard any of these same people argue that we should tear down the rape laws because we can't be sure they're not going to be used improperly. Battle lines have been drawn regarding pornography. Why?
This might sound really shallow, but I think that the reason is because pornographers fight back. Pornography is a locus of male power and the thing that has terrified feminists about fighting it is that it's real. It's real, it's specific, it's organized, it's institutional. In political terms that means it's good target, you can find it. But what is frightening about it is that you had better be serious. You had better be willing to put your life on the line if you are going to fight it, and that's very different from what liberal feminists had in mind.
Do you think other countries are going to have more success than us in fighting pornography? Right now, Clare Short, a member of Parliament in England, is trying to pass legislation similar to the ordinance you drafted. [In the United States, the civil rights ordinance has been passed by some city councils and public referendums, but it has been ruled unconstitutional by the courts].
Clare Short is one of many women who are trying to do something. Women Against Violence Against Women has of course been active for a long time, and there's a new group, called "Campaign Against Pornography and Censorship," which is essentially trying to get the Minneapolis legislation passed in England. They have a very good, clear program, which is to enact legislation that recognizes pornography as sex discrimination.
But don't forget, also, that the other issue is that in England there are laws against racial hatred. They're very specific. Most Americans don't even know about them. They say you cannot say this, this, or this, because it incites racial hatred. And then it lists all the media in which you cannot say all these very specific things. Now the Liberals and Labour Party people have supported these laws in the United Kingdom so they have very little basis for refusing to support laws that do something about sexual hatred. And in fact, the Campaign Against Pornography and Censorship has gotten the National Committee on Civil Liberties in England to endorse what is essentially the Minneapolis ordinance because they convinced the membership that pornography acts as a force that subordinates women in society and therefore denies us our civil liberties. And every country in Europe that was occupied by the Nazis has laws against race hate and against speech that encourages genocide.
So the National Committee on Civil Liberties in England has actually endorsed the Minneapolis legislation.
Not by that name, but it is the same legislation. And in New Zealand, the Ministry for Justice has recommended passage of a similar law. In Germany, essentially the same bill has been endorsed by the Social Democrats and is being studied by the other parties. I think we'll see antipornography legislation passed in a lot of Western democracies.
Would you like to add anything?
Just that I am proud of the women I work with and how extraordinary they are. And I think that they are going to endure, and that we are going to win.
This section contains 2,045 words
(approx. 7 pages at 300 words per page)