“Men want women to be objects, controllable as objects are controllable… Adult men have made their seedy pact with and for male power…and no matter how afraid [they are] of…other men, [they have] taken a vow – one for all and all for one – and [they] will not tell”
- Andrea Dworkin, Pornography: Men Possessing Women (65-66)

“Men are shits and take pride in it”
- Andrea Dworkin, Heartbreak: The Political Memoir of a Feminist Militant (146)

In my previous post, I argued that Andrea Dworkin’s Woman Hating cold be seen as a proto-queer theoretical text. But in my reading of Pornography: Men Possessing Women – which is considered to be Dworkin’s magnum opus – I found that the kind of feminism she developed later on in her life does not sit very comfortably with modern trends in queer, feminist, and gender theory.

Pornography – what is it about?

In Pornography, Dworkin provides a sharp and lucid portrayal of the power men hold over women in Euro-American societies. She argues that masculine power is established, firstly, through the subliminally propagated notion that “men have [a] self and…women…by definition, lack it” (13). This male self has “the right to take what it needs,” and if resistance is encountered, physical strength is used to ensure that it can gets what it wishes. Importantly, Dworkin emphasizes that men are not a priori stronger than women, but that the difference in strength between the sexes is at least in part the result of socialization: “in the raising of women, physical strength is undermined and sabotaged. Physical incapacity is a form of feminine beauty” (14). Thus, the socially created absolute physical strength of men over women functions as a pillar of domination and gives men a stick with which to terrorize women (and each other).

Male dominance also relies on “the power of naming,” through which men are accorded the right to “define experience, to articulate boundaries and values…to control perception itself” (19). For example, the use of masculine pronouns or the word “man” to refer to humans-in-general signals that women are excluded from the category of humanity. Furthermore, systems of money and property, as they have stood for much of recorded history, clearly empower men: “in many parts of the world, the male right to own women…is still absolute,” and with money, men can buy “women, sex, status, dignity, self-esteem, recognition,” etc… (19). Ownership of women, in turn, “licenses [men to do] whatever [they] wish” to the women they buy: her body belongs to him for his own sexual release, to beat, to impregnate” (19). And sexuality is defined on this basis:

“…the male, through each and every one of his institutions, forces the female conform to his supremely ridiculous definition of her as a sexual object. He fetishizes her body as a whole and in its parts. He exiles her from every realm of expression outside the strictly male-defined sexual or male-defined maternal.” (22)

Sexual power is thus established as “authentically originat[ing] in the penis,” as centered on the sexual objectification, abuse, humiliation, and violation of women (24). In this system, sex is interpreted as being essentially about force and violence, and sexual freedom is defined “as men doing what they want” (99). Pornography is a literary, artistic, and cinematic genre that reflects and propagates this misogynistic system of values. Dworkin is often misread as arguing against erotic art in general, which is not the case, as she clearly points out that:

“The word pornography does not mean ‘writing about sex’ or ‘depictions of the erotic’ or ‘depictions of sexual acts’ or ‘depictions of nude bodies’ or ‘sexual representations’ or any other such euphemism. It means the graphic depiction of women as vile whores…The word pornography, derived from the Ancient Greek porne and graphos means ‘writing about whores.’ [In Ancient Greece], Porne mean[t]…specifically and exclusively the lowest class of whore, which…was the brothel slut available to all male citizens.” (199-200)

Thus, when discussing pornography, Dworkin refers to all those depictions of sexuality that propagate the pillars of male domination described above, e.g. – the idea that men have a self and women do not, that men can legitimately use physical power to terrorize women, that they can possess women’s bodies, and that sexual satisfaction is achieved through force and violation enacted upon these owned and enslaved bodies. Pornography must be opposed, Dworkin contends, because it is a reflection of misogyny and because it will teach a new generation of men to treat women as their property, as their whores.

Problems of Rationality and Collective Action

Despite the conceptual clarity and power of Dworkin’s vision, I believe that there are fundamental problems with her framework for analyzing gender relations, which make it difficult to reconcile Pornography with the queer theoretical tradition. Put simply, Dworkin implies that the adoption of patriarchal and misogynistic values is a rational choice that virtually all men make at a very young age. This dynamic is then extended to the collective level, where men consciously form a pact to take ownership of women’s bodies and to treat them as non-humans, as “chattel property” (102). Basically, Dworkin contends that all men are basically in league with each other, conspiring to put women in their place.

To support this contention, she cites Shulamith Firestone’s argument from The Dialectic of Sex, arguing that the development of misogynistic mindsets originates in early childhood and that it is basically the result of a decision by boys to prioritize their own physical safety. The young boy is given two options: “Be the mother – do the housework – or be the father – carry a big stick. Be the mother – be fucked – or be the father – do the fucking. The boy has a choice” (49, emphasis added). And since “men are distinguished from women by their commitment to do violence” (53), the boy will inevitably experience the father’s physical aggression towards his mother, himself and others. He will thus realize his mother’s powerlessness, her degraded role in the family and in society. On the basis of these perceptions, he will conclude that “it is safer to be like the father than like the mother,” he will become a man to “escape being [a] victim” (51). The adoption of a misogynistic worldview and the process of becoming a man is therefore portrayed by Dworkin as a rational choice that the young boy makes for his own physical health and self-preservation. And this choice ends up forming “the basis for his adult behavior” (66).

Dworkin then goes on to claim that these choices for self-preservation are subsequently transferred to the collective level: the individual rationality that men possess as boys continues to be expressed by virtually all adult men as a group. For instance, in Dworkin’s view, the point of homophobia is to shield “men from rape by other men” (61). Since “male sexuality is expressed as force or violence, men as a class…enforce the taboo against male homosexuality to protect themselves from having that force or violence directed against them” (60). “Men as a class” are thus imputed with the ability to make collective rational choices, geared towards the preservation of the extant misogynistic/patriarchal system: “Adult men have made their seedy pact with and for male power…and no matter how afraid [the individual man] is of those other men, he has taken a vow – one for all and all for one” to protect and uphold the common values and desires of men (66).

But can we assume that collective agreement and action by virtually all men – billions of them – is possible? Queer theorists have critiqued Second Wave feminists’ presumptuous attempts to speak for “all women,” and I believe that this would also apply to any attempts to speak on behalf of “all men.” Can it really be said that all men have a tacit agreement with each other, that they have common values and desires, and that they work collaboratively to make them a reality? Are social contracts amongst all members of a particular gender practically tenable? I would argue that they are definitely not. While men may discuss values, agree with each other, and collectively implement decisions as a gender in fairly small groups (e.g. – in college fraternities), there are far too many men in the world for collective thinking, contracts and choices to be made. Dworkin almost makes it seem as if men as a group consciously choose to create the kind of social structure that promotes violence against women.

Moreover, can it really be said that, prior to this collective agreement between adult men, virtually all boys make individual decisions to adopt a misogynistic framework, on the basis of protecting themselves from their fathers’ violence? Dworkin offers little evidence to support this view and the reader is left to evaluate it largely on the basis of its “commonsensical” appeal, e.g. – men are more violent than women, and therefore, it follows that the majority of violence in the family will come from fathers. But does it make sense to claim that the adoption of demeaning ideas about women is a rational (cost/benefit) choice? Do individuals actually think that way about gender issues? Should we be assuming this level of rational thinking among human beings, especially very young ones?

Overall, I believe there is reason to doubt the empirical value of Dworkin’s two central assumptions: (1) that most boys individually choose to become violent and misogynistic in order to protect themselves against their fathers’ violence, and (2) that men as a group collectively agree on and implement commonly-held gynocidal values. There is no way of actually knowing if the decision to become a misogynist is a rational one (that would require going into the minds of most young boys while they are growing up) and it is impossible to imagine a consensual and collective contract among all men to oppress women. Despite the intuitive plausibility of these ideas, it is unlikely that social dynamics actually work in this way.

Can men change?

Another problem with Dworkin’s way of viewing the origins and maintenance of a misogynistic system is that it makes changing the system seem like a virtually impossible task. Indeed, in contrast to Woman Hating, Pornography contains hardly any ideas about how misogyny, patriarchy, and sexism can be overcome. And indeed – the theoretical framework that Dworkin develops makes change seem very unlikely: boys make conscious decisions to become sexists at a very young age, in response to a practically inevitable phenomenon (the father’s violence). Once made, this decision is fixed, agreed upon, and further ossified at the collective level. How can we even conceive of men being changed, if their development into misogynists is viewed as a practical inevitability, an act of individual self-preservation and collective will?

This problem is compounded by Dworkin’s pessimism about the existence of non-misogynistic men, whom she makes out to be almost as rare as unicorns:

“An absence or repudiation of masculine aggression, which is exceptional and which does exist in an eccentric and miniscule minority composed of both homosexual and heterosexual men, distinguishes some men from most, or to be more precise, the needle from the haystack.” (57)

So what kinds of solutions for ending misogyny and gender fascism are conceivable, if non-misogynistic men are so few and far between that they are barely significant? While Pornography offers hardly any concrete solutions to the problem, Second Wave feminism has given us an idea of what a response to men, as a gender that is unlikely to change, would look like. For instance, Valerie Solanas outlined a plan for eliminating the male sex in The SCUM Manifesto, and a score of theorists (such as Mary Daly and Sheila Jeffreys) have advocated a quasi-permanent female separatism from all male influence. Dworkin herself, in a book titled Scapegoat: The Jews, Israel, and Women’s Liberation, argued that the proper response to global misogyny is to establish a women’s homeland with “land and guns” – like the Zionists did in Palestine.

Thus, not only are there empirical problems with Dworkin’s approach to gender issues – it also leads to ethically impoverished responses to sexism whereby the only way to get rid of oppression is to eliminate men, completely separate oneself from them, or take up arms. This is what happens when gender relations are portrayed as ossified and unchangeable – when the oppressors, rather than the systems of oppression, are imbued with rationality, consciousness, and intentionality.

A Queer(er) Conception

In my view, therefore, Dworkin’s approach to gender in Pornography is incompatible with queer theory. It is an essentialist view that undermines the possibilities for changing gendered behavior, since it posits that misogyny and sexism are rationally chosen at a very young age, reinforced through macro-collective agreement in later-life, and extremely difficult to undo. A queer theoretical perspective would be different from this in several important ways.

Firstly, the adoption of a misogynistic worldview would not be conceived as the result of a rational cost-benefit analysis, derived from experiencing the seemingly inevitable violence of the father. Instead, the young person would be conceptualized as coming into contact with social discourses about men and women, and thereby, acquiring ideas about what they are really like and beginning to see oneself as a gendered being. In that sense, queer theory does not assume that most fathers are violent (or that most mothers are non-violent), and it sees the process of gender construction as heavily influenced by the ideas that are dominant in society.

In seeking to understand why many men are misogynists, queer theorists would most likely argue that it is because social discourse is misogynistic, because it contains demeaning ideas about women’s bodies, intellectual abilities, and personalities. It is therefore not necessary to assume that the decision to become misogynistic is the result of some internal rational calculus – rather, practically everyone drifts into misogyny by virtue of their membership in sexist society. I do not think that becoming a sexist is a rational, conscious, purposeful decision – at least not at the individual level. And if such decisions do exist, they occur in the context of having already been socialized into believing certain things about men and women “in general.”

Secondly, having understood that misogynistic mindsets originate in the way that gender is socially constituted, it is then irrelevant whether or not men get together and collectively agree to oppress women, because social discourse already ensures that women will be oppressed. Indeed, we do not need to imagine hypothetical and unrealistic “social contracts” among all men to oppress women because such an action would not even be needed to ensure the subjugation of women. The ideas that are dominant in society ensure that nearly everybody will be a participant in that subjugation, that it will be embedded in social interactions, and (re)enforced by social institutions.

Finally, conceptualizing gender oppression as the result of system-level social discourses inspires different kinds of solutions for gender progress. Instead of requiring the elimination of men or separation from them, changing social discourse will lead to the possibility of changing men and changing gender. Queer theory invests the human subject with an ability to change for the better, and in that sense, it enables us to imagine a differently gendered world – and one that is not created as such through violence or separatism. In Pornography, Andrea Dworkin’s vision is devoid of this impulse.


Overall, the conceptions of gender relations outlined in Woman Hating and Pornography could not be more different. The former takes a revolutionary approach to gender and sexuality, calling for a complete overthrow of the binary gender system as it stands today. People are conceptualized as changeable, as having the capacity to transform themselves and to end the gender system as we know it today.

These ideas are not found in Pornography. Instead, this work is so firmly rooted in analyzing the misogynistic system – as it stands today – that it fails to provide any alternatives. Dworkin conceptualizes men as evil, unchangeable creatures who are rationally, intentionally, consciously and collectively crushing women. Unfortunately, with such a portrayal, the scope of conceivable solutions for ending misogyny and patriarchy can only be very narrow.

***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.

Creative Commons License