- The Guardian, Friday 15 April 2005
But there was a much more important moment when Jenni Murray asked yesterday what Dworkin had actually achieved in her life. It was acknowledged that while pornography was on the increase, at least we could discuss it now. But what no one said, and what no one wrote in Dworkin's obituaries, was this: Dworkin's true legacy has been that far too many young women today would rather be bitten by a rabid dog than be considered a feminist.
"Since the 1970s," said this paper's obituary, "Dworkin symbolised women's war against sexual violence." Rape, paedophilia and domestic abuse needed, and obviously still need, to be hounded out of our society. How brilliant that there was someone willing to stand up and talk about it - to say to the world: "This has happened to me, and it happens to a lot of women and it has got to stop." But Dworkin's radical writing and hugely controversial - practically melodramatic - ideas not only pushed the argument as far as it could go, but pushed it off the cliff of credibility.
Dworkin achieved fame for her stance against pornography. As the film editor of Scarlet magazine (Britain's sex mag for women) and a self-proclaimed lover of porn, one could imagine that I was dead against everything she had to say on this matter. But that's not true. Elements of her arguments are tenable, and I agree that the makers of porn should have a legal incentive to create pornography that does not abuse. People should not be able to incite violence towards women, in the same way that people are not allowed to incite racial hatred.
But the problem with Dworkin's attitude to porn sums up everything that can now be held against her. Her definition of porn and what is considered harmful is hugely misleading. In Pornography: Men Possessing Women, Dworkin used the word pornography knowing that it was different from society's understanding of the term. It was not just sex between adults recorded to inspire erotic and sexually arousing feelings; it was any sex act that involved degradation of women in a sexual context. "Pornography is a celebration of rape and injury to women ... " and by her definition, it was.
The deliberate blurring of these definitions is Dworkin's fundamental error and led ultimately to her malignment and the ease with which (male-led) society was able to demonise her. But it got her good headlines at first and if you court such controversy you play a very dangerous game. Dangerous not only for yourself, but for the women you claim to represent.
Dworkin redefined sex workers as helpless, passive victims - whereas before they were viewed as fallen, evil women. Linda Marchiano (Lovelace), famous for her role in Deep Throat, the seminal 70s porn film, was her cause célèbre. This young and pretty star had been coerced into making the film by her abusive husband Chuck Traynor. Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon helped her bring a civil rights suit in 1984.
But as Ana Lopes, founder of the British Sex Workers Union and a committed feminist, explains: "That has not changed the conditions under which women perform sex work. It has done nothing to improve their lives. On the contrary, they [radical feminists] have been a huge barrier to sex workers' empowerment and self-organisation. Sex workers need the support of advocates and allies in order to gather enough resources to stand up for their rights successfully. The women's movement is one of the most obvious allies - but if feminists are busy protesting against prostitution and pornography as a concept, it is clear that sex workers cannot count on their help."
The radical feminist view of the late 20th century is so similar to the moral Victorian view of the 19th century. It is, as Natasha Walter writes in her book The New Feminism, "an alarmist cocktail of horror and fury, with little interest in finding pragmatic ways to reduce women's abuse". A perfect example is the objection to tolerance zones for street walkers. Radicals tend to froth at the mouth at evidence that well-lit safety zones reduce the risk of attack. They would never allow anything that might facilitate prostitution full stop, regardless of how many lives you could improve in the short term.
When young women put on the Dworkin x-ray specs for a moment, they see female victims everywhere - not just in the sex industry. Women who like porn, any women who has been seduced by a man, women in the gym, women who wear make up ... and any of us who do not see the penis as a "symbol of terror" must have been brainwashed by misogynist culture. "We ingested it as children whole, had its values and consciousness imprinted on our minds as cultural absolutes," Dworkin wrote in Woman Hating in 1974.
But when a woman is portrayed as a victim, even when she is not, and certainly does not feel like one, you not only insult her but you alienate her as well. The idea that a sexually active and interested woman is merely fulfilling man's fantasy, and there to serve him, is outrageous. Again to quote Walter: "Unless [we] acknowledge the confidence and pride women have often felt within hetero sexual culture ... [we] run the risk of reducing women's potential power."
Heterosexual culture, like pornography, is not a bad thing in itself. Dworkin might not have actually said "all men are rapists" but she did have the slogan Dead Men Don't Rape above her desk. Blanket and extreme arguments help no one.
And now, back to the rabid dog scenario. Feminism today is practically taboo again. When you mention the word, pretty eyes widen in horror. "But I actually like men," my friends still say, "and I want to be seduced." Women of all classes don't want to be associated with a movement defined by the likes of Andrea Dworkin, and sadly that is what the movement - something once so beautiful and extraordinary - has been allowed to become.
There have been numerous feminists - Walter, Erica Jong, Naomi Wolf - with alternative views; feminists who see beyond sex as the primary motivation, feminists who are more interested in female poverty, and feminists who want to create an articulate dialogue with men, but they are often overlooked by the mainstream. Perhaps this is a male-dominated cultural move, and the myth of Dworkin is perpetuated by those with something to lose, but she made it so easy for them. And she didn't complain as the hijacking took place.
But many women do want an alternative. More crucially, women need an alternative. Recent statistics showed that rape convictions are down to 5.6% of all rapes reported. This is worse today than ever before, having fallen from 32% in 1977. Currently, emergency services receive a call every minute of every day about domestic violence. There are headline cases every week about women sacked for being "too old and too ugly" to do their job, or receiving a great deal less than their male counterparts. We should be out on the streets protesting, but how can you rally the troops when the very notion of female solidarity sends a man-hating spirit of fear down the spines of all the women you know.
We need a real, modern, intellectual and rebranded feminism. But first of all we need a new name. I've seen T-shirts saying "I'm a feminine feminist", or people declaring themselves to be "pro-porn feminists", or, even better, a "muffragette". But really we need something that takes us out of the battle of the sexes, that turns this into a basic human rights issue. We need to be equalists or equalitarians. I haven't found the perfect word yet, but I'm working on it.