Andrea Dworkin and her supporters claim she has been a victim of a smear campaign from opponents who distort and mischaracterize her claims about sex. The best way to get to the truth, of course, is to go to the source and examine what Dworkin actually wrote. Unfortunately for Dworkin, once you sit down and read her work in-depth she comes across as far more bizarre than even the occasionally out-of-context quotes from her writing make her appear.
Consider her 1974 book Woman Hating, for example, which includes endorsement blurbs from Gloria Steinem and Kate Millet. Although there are numerous problems with the book, this essay will focus on chapter 9 of that volume, “Androgyny: Androgyny, Fucking, and Community,” which incorporates many common radical feminist ideas and tries to take them to their logical conclusion.
The fundamental concept which drives Dworkin’s thinking here is that the sexes are fiction, and an oppressive fiction at that,
The discovery is, of course, that “man” and “woman”are fictions, caricatures, cultural constructs. As models they are reductive totalitarian, inappropriate to human becoming. As roles they are static, demeaning to the female, dead-ended for the male and female both (Dworkin 1974, p. 174).
Now at some level, this is an idea which many people might agree with.
Certainly roles and models of behavior can be restrictive; the role for women which largely excluded them from working outside the home, for example, was unnecessarily restrictive. But Dworkin is not attacking the specific content of roles but of the very idea of roles themselves.
In its place, she wants to substitute what she calls an androgynous ethic. She tries to defend this androgynous ethic by claiming that there are no biological differences between “men” and “women” which would make any classification by sex possible, and then conclude that therefore any sort of sex-based roles whatsoever are unwarranted.
Before looking at the implications of this idea, it might help the reader to consider the sort of evidence (or lack thereof) that Dworkin tries to marshal for this claim that there it is wrong to divide human beings into one sex or another.
First, she notes that since there are numerous similarities between men and women’s bodies, even in the sex organs, and some religious texts talk about androgynous gods or people, “there is no reason not to postulate that humans once were androgynous — hermaphroditic and androgynous, created precisely in the image of the constantly recurring androgynous godhead” (Dworkin 1974,
This claim, that once all human beings were hermaphroditic, is absurd nonsense. There is simply no physical evidence for this claim. The oldest physical evidence of both homo sapiens and other primates clearly indicates the presence of sexual dimorphism.
Second, Dworkin attempts to get great mileage from marginal cases. Women on average are shorter than men, but on the other hand, there are some very tall women. Does this mean that height is completely independent of sex? No, but in Dworkin’s book, it does.
Finally, Dworkin cites questionable sources for all sorts of nonsense about human sexuality. She cites Robert T. Francouer, for example, on the presence of hermaphroditic behavior in animals which seems reasonable enough until Dworkin goes on to cite and agree with Francouer’s claim that not only is parthenogenesis (pregnancy resulting from an unfertilized egg) not only possible in human beings but in fact common. In fact, although parthenogenesis does occur naturally in some species of insects, reptiles and birds, it is all but impossible for it to occur in mammals because, unlike other animal classes, genetic contributions from both sperm and egg are required for fetal development in mammals.
[Update: the above paragraphs may give Dworkin too much credit for accurately summarizing Francouer. To be clear, parthenogenesis does occur in human beings. The result, however, is typically benign ovarian tumors rather than a viable fetus. In a fascinating 2017 paper in Medical Hypotheses, researchers noted a handful of cases in which a parthenogenetically activated oocyte or sperm fused with a normally fertilized embryo, resulting in offspring that had multiple cell lines. The authors add, however, that despite “two ambiguous and inconclusive reports on specialized journals, a non-chimeric, clinically normal, human parthenote (i.e., a healthy individual entirely derived from a single parthenogenetic-activated oocyte), has never been reported in the scientific literature.”]
A multi-sexed species?
From this “evidence,” Dworkin concludes homo sapiens is a “multi-sexed species, which has its sexuality spread along a vast fluid continuum where the elements called male and female are not discrete” (Dworkin 1974, p.183). As such, all sexual relations must be redefined to break from this false man/woman dichotomy. This has implications for a variety of sexual behaviors.
Heterosexuality – Out
Of course, heterosexuality has to go. Dworkin defines heterosexuality to mean specifically “ritualized behavior built on polar role definition”–i.e. almost all male/female sexual behavior today–and writes,
Intercourse with men as we know them is increasingly impossible. It
requires an abortion of creativity and strength, a refusal of responsibility and freedom: a bitter personal death. It means acting out the female role, incorporating the masochism, self-hatred, and passivity which are central to it. Unambiguous conventional heterosexual behavior is the worst betrayal of our common humanity (Dworkin 1974, p.184).
This is not to say that “men” and “women” can’t have sex, but that “androgynous [sex] … requires the destruction of all conventional role-playing … of couple formations…”
What does this mean? As Dworkin notes, homosexual sexual relationships
are far closer to her version of androgyny because “it is by definition
antagonistic to two-sex polarity” (Dworkin 1974, p.185). But even
it is too polarizing for Dworkin because many homosexuals have sex only
with other homosexuals. Instead what Dworkin wants to see is some sort
An exclusive commitment to one sexual formation, whether homosexual or heterosexual, generally means an exclusive commitment to one role. An exclusive commitment to one sexual formation generally involves the denial of many profound and compelling kinds of sensuality. An exclusive commitment to one sexual formation generally means that one is, regardless of the uniform one wears, a good soldier of the culture programmed effectively to do its dirty work. It is by developing one’s pansexuality to its limits (and no one knows where or what those are) that one does the work of destroying culture to build community (Dworkin 1974, p.185).
Dworkin doesn’t explicitly say it, but monogamy is clearly one of those “cultur[ally] programmed” views that would have to be discarded to experience “many profound and compelling kinds of sensuality.”
One of the “pansexual” activities which Dworkin lauds is bestiality. As Dworkin puts it,
Primary bestiality (fucking between people and other animals) is found
in all nonindustrial societies. Secondary bestiality (generalized erotic relationships between people and other animals) is found everywhere
on the planet, on every city street, in every rural town. Bestiality
is an erotic reality, one which clearly place people in nature, not
above it (Dworkin 1974, p.187-8).
Of course, many people might point out that is precisely what is wrong with bestiality, but Dworkin will not be deterred,
Needless to say, in androgynous community, human and other-animal relationships would become more explicitly erotic, and that eroticism would not degenerate into abuse. Animals would be part of the tribe and, with us, respected, loved, and free (Dworkin 1974, p.188).
Another sexual practice that today is condemned but would be celebrated in this pansexual utopia is incest. Again it is best to simply quote from Dworkin,
The parent-child relationship is primarily erotic because all human
relationships are primarily erotic. The incest taboo is a particularized
form of repression, one which functions as the bulwark of all other
repressions. The incest taboo ensures that however free we become, we
never become genuinely free. The incest taboo, because it denies us
essential fulfillment with the parents whom we love with our primary
energy, forces us to internalize those parents and constantly seek them…
The incest taboo does the worst work of the culture: it teaches us the mechanisms of repressing and internalizing erotic feeling — it forces us to develop those mechanisms in the first place; it forces us to particularize sexual feeling, so that it congeals into a need for a particular sexual “object”; it demands that we place the nuclear family above the human family. The destruction of the incest taboo is essential to the development of cooperative human community based on the free-flow of natural androgynous eroticism (Dworkin 1974, p.189).
A few paragraphs later, Dworkin makes it explicit that she seeks nothing less than the destruction of “the nuclear family as the primary institution of the culture” (Dworkin 1974, p.190).
The above statements do not explicitly talk about sex with children, and perhaps they could be construed as dealing only with adults. Dworkin, unfortunately for her, does not end her chapter on androgyny before making it explicit that this does indeed apply to children as well. Exhorting women to take power and transform the world into an androgynous system, Dworkin counsels that children too must be liberated. What would children’s liberation look like,
As for children, they too are erotic beings, closer to androgyny than
the adults who oppress them. Children are fully capable of participating
in community, and have every right to live out their own erotic impulses (Dworkin 1974, p.191-2).