“The object is cultural transformation. The object is the development of a new kind of human being and a new kind of human community.” - Andrea Dworkin, Woman Hating (192)

About a decade ago, philosopher Martha Nussbaum wrote a searing critique of Judith Butler, titled “The Professor of Parody,” in which she argued that Butler’s work barely brought anything new or interesting to the table. Butler – and by implication, the whole queer theoretical tradition – was simply rehashing in more abstruse form ideas about the social constructed-ness of gender that had been put forward centuries ago by Plato and John Stuart Mill. Feminists, such as Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon, had already sufficiently updated these ideas for modern times, and queer theory more-or-less repeats their arguments with an added dose of philosophical window-dressing.

Having recently had the privilege to read some of Dworkin’s books, I think this point of view is partly right. Her early work – published in the aftermath of radical feminism’s 1970s zenith – did indeed prefigure many of queer theory’s insights in sharp and provocative ways. However, in the 1980s, her work took a turn in a different direction, positing a reading of gender and sexuality that reified the system of patriarchal oppression feminists have been struggling against, and therefore, (unintentionally) undermined the potential for transforming that system. In this context, queer theory can be read as an attempt to return feminism to its more radical, hopeful, and transformational incarnations. This essay will explore these themes by comparing two of Dworkin’s most well-known books, Woman Hating and Pornography: Men Possessing Women.

“Androgyny, Fucking, Community”

Woman Hating was Dworkin’s first published book, written during the apex of radical feminism in the early 1970s. Contemporary queer theorists often assume that Second Wave feminism (even in its most radical forms) was hopelessly essentialist, simplistic and trans/homophobic. Woman Hating destroys these assumptions; it is an astoundingly contemporary book that contains previews of many of the arguments queer theorists developed in the 1990s and 2000s.

Most feminists and queer theorists share a conception of gender as socially constructed, with the latter arguing – somewhat cautiously – that gendered behavior should not be taken to represent an internal essence of a person and the former positing more boldly that “‘man’ and ‘woman’ are fictions, caricatures, cultural constructs” (Dworkin, Woman Hating, 174). These two positions are basically the same: they denaturalize gender and conceptualize it as the product of social forces.

Where feminism and queer theory are assumed to differ is in their respective analyses of physical sex. Feminists have entrenched a clear distinction between sex and gender, conceptualizing gender as a malleable product of culture and socialization and viewing sex as natural, material and unchangeable. Queer theorists have exploded this dichotomy, extending the denaturalization of gender to sex and arguing that ideas about the sexed body form the basis for patriarchal claims about gender. For instance, if a female’s body is defined in terms of the vagina, and the vagina is interpreted primarily as an incubator for human fetuses, it then follows that a woman’s fundamental role in life is reproduction. This is the ideational basis for sexist politics that assigns the vast majority of childcare obligations to women and confines them to home and hearth. Implicit in queer theory, therefore, are the notions that physical sex can be interpreted differently (e.g. – what if the clitoris was viewed as the defining aspect of the female?), that it is just as socially constructed as gender, and that dominant discourses about the body form the foundation for sexism and misogyny.

While this relationship between sex and gender sometimes went amiss in Second Wave feminism, Dworkin duly recognized it in Woman Hating. She emphasized that the way we conceive of physical sex has huge consequences for gender politics: “If there are two discrete biological sexes, then it is not hard to argue that there are two discrete modes of human behavior, sex-related, sex-determined. One might argue for a liberalization of sex-based roles, but one cannot justifiably argue for their total redefinition” (175). Here, foreshadowing queer theory, Dworkin realizes that as long as we remain anchored in the binary view of sex, the fundamental reorganization of gendered life will be impossible because two categories of people, based on two bodily archetypes, will always be conceived as somehow essentially different, with correspondingly diverging roles in life. “Sex...[is] found to have been gender all along” (Butler, Gender Trouble, 8).

But even more interesting than Dworkin’s cognizance of this problem is her solution. In a striking chapter, titled, “Androgyny, Fucking, Community,” she outlines “another ontology, one which discards the fiction that there are two polar distinct sexes” (175). For Dworkin, the problems of sexism and misogyny can only be fully resolved by ditching the two-sexed model on which modern society is built and replacing “the traditional biology of sex difference with the radical biology of sex similarity” – by this, she means not that “there is one sex, but that there are many” (175). This very same argument would be made almost two decades later by genderqueer activists, who fight patriarchy by living the dream of a multi-sexed existence, a world in which sex and gender do not divide neatly into two and only two categories, and in which a multiplicity of sexed and gendered categories can proliferate. In this sense, Dworkin is prophetic in Woman Hating, recognizing that the struggle to end patriarchy will require “the development of a new kind of human being and a new kind of human community,” founded on the basis of the assumption that everyone has androgynous potential and a mix of masculine and feminine energies (192). Today’s genderqueers and gender anarchists may very well be what she was envisioning.

Implicit in her vision is an attempt to broaden feminism’s appeal and universalize its message – another mainstay of queer theory. By challenging the idea that the subject of feminism should be “women,” Judith Butler called attention to what is lost by conceptualizing feminism exclusively in terms of winning rights for the female-bodied. Such a foundation may lead to essentialist and exclusionary definitions of what it means to be a woman, might encourage separatist agendas that reject any engagement with society, and could foster an “us-vs.-them” mentality in which feminism pits men against women without realizing the ways in which men can are oppressed by the gender system as well. In Woman Hating, Dworkin seems to be aware of these issues, and thus, lays out a feminist agenda that could potentially be applicable to all, that aims to end gender and sexual repression in general, at the same time as fighting specifically to end violence against women. For instance, prefiguring Julia Serano, Dworkin recognizes that misogynistic violence is not just aimed at people who are labeled “female” but also at anyone who is identified as “feminine,” regardless of their sex. On the basis of this assertion, she envisages a potentially productive alliance between feminists and gay men:

“The homosexual is the queer, asshole, cocksucker, faggot; the woman is the hole, hot wet fuck tube, hot slit or just plain ass. He thrives on pain and so does she… the parts they play in the sadomasochistic script are the same…[and] it is not hard to see that the struggle for gay male liberation and women’s liberation is a common struggle: both mean freedom from the stigma of being female… Women and homosexual males are united in their queerness, a union which is real and verifiable” (89-90).

Make no mistake, the feminism in Woman Hating is very much about ending oppression and violence against women (as the harrowing chapters on Chinese foot-binding and Euro-American witch hunting attest). But Dworkin realizes that feminism should not stop there, that it should outline an ambitious agenda for complete social transformation, and that it should seek to (re)construct the gendered order on the basis of androgyny instead of gender binarism. Sounding exactly like Kate Bornstein, Dworkin makes clear that “androgyny…may be the one road to freedom open to women, men, and that emerging majority, the rest of us” (154).

This is not to say that major differences do not exist between the approach outlined in this book and modern-day queer theory. For instance, Dworkin expresses enthusiastic support for incest, bestiality and sex with children, arguing that “the destruction of the incest taboo is essential to the development of cooperative human community based on the free-flow of natural androgynous energy” (189) and that “in androgynous community, human and other-animal relationships would become more explicitly erotic…” (188). She also develops her case for androgynous community and the potential for a multi-sexual society on the basis of scientific evidence about chromosomes, hormones, and intersexuality. Modern genderqueer theory tends to take a more phenomenological approach, focusing on individuals’ experience of being outside the gender binary, rather than seeking “objective” scientific proof that such an experience is biologically possible. Finally, Dworkin commits the cardinal sin of Second Wave feminism, stating that the “analysis in [Woman Hating] applies to the life situations of all women” (23). One wonders whether a book that starts with an analysis of Western fairy tales (Snow White, Cinderella etc…) and Western pornography would be relevant to women in Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, who have never been exposed to these cultural productions? Since the 1970s, feminists have indeed become a lot more sensitive to the difficulties of speaking on behalf of “all women.”

But despite these and other differences, Woman Hating is – at its core – queer through and through. Dworkin’s approach to the relationship between sex and gender, her undermining of the sex/gender binary, her commitment to a liberating and socially transformative androgyny, and her attempts to universalize feminism’s appeal all sit very comfortably with the queer theoretical tradition. Isn’t it about time we recognized Andrea Dworkin as one of the mothers of queer theory?

Part II of this post, where I analyze Dworkin's later work, will be posted on Below the Belt in a fortnight. In the meantime, please feel free to start a discussion in the comment box below!

***For More Information***
While her books are, unfortunately, quite hard to find, there are plenty of websites where you can access Andrea Dworkin's work. For more on radical feminism, I recommend Alice Echols' Daring to be Bad, which also reveals further unacknowledged connections between radical feminism and queer theory. On queer theory, Judith Butler's Gender Trouble remains an excellent introduction. For a more contemporary discussion, check out the recently released Feminism is Queer by Mimi Marinucci.

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