When Andrea Dworkin died earlier this month, writers from far-flung corners of the English-speaking world raced to honor her. Dworkin “insisted on reminding us that the sex industry took real women and abused and usually destroyed them,” wrote Linda Grant in Great Britain’s Guardian. The Independent‘s Yvonne Roberts called her “the necessary extremist who provoked others into making a stand.” “God rest Andrea Dworkin,” wrote Mindelle Jacobs in the Edmonton Sun. “If there is sex in the hereafter, I hope it’s the loving kind — not the violent, exploitative sort she experienced.”
If thinkers in Great Britain, Australia, and Canada regarded her passing as a seismic moment in the history of feminism, the reaction in the country of her birth was, Andrea who? Aside from a predictably purple op-ed eulogy by her colleague Catherine MacKinnon (“Only power did not underestimate Andrea Dworkin … the minions of the status quo moved to destroy her credibility and bury her work alive”), most intellectuals recalled her with a wistful sense of the tragic, as a powerful mind disfigured by violence early in life, whose legacy is a mere footnote in an era when you can click on Jenna Jameson from any hotel room in America.
It wasn’t so long ago that mainstream feminism took Dworkin’s porno panic for granted. When she placed dirty magazines and sexual battery within the same spectrum of atrocity, once-giant figures like Gloria Steinem nodded sagely. Robin Morgan put it most succinctly when she declared, “Pornography is the theory, rape is the practice,” but Dworkin was always feminism’s most compelling prosecutor. “With pornography, a woman can still be sold after the beatings, the rapes, the pain, the humiliation have killed her. … A photograph shields rape and torture for profit,” she wrote. And feminists reeled in a febrile tizzy.
Well, not all feminists. A motley collection of shitkicker dykes and oversexed red-diaper babies watched their sisters’ hysteria and yawned. They’d been buying Playboy on the down-low for years, but by Dworkin’s heyday in the 1970s and ’80s, they started their own cottage industry of fuck books and dirty movies, incurring the wrath of the very community they lived in. Some, like former On Our Backs editor Susie Bright, were inspired by Dworkin to look critically at pornography, but instead of dubbing it a scourge to be wiped from the earth, they thought, I can make better porn than this. They risked righteous censure in the pages of Ms. magazine, but by the end of the 1990s — aided by the Internet and the feminist defense of a certain horndog Democrat’s workplace dalliances — they had won the porn war, realigned feminism’s priorities in favor of child care and abortion rights, and gone from pariahs to icons of sexual adventure.
“I hope you never have children!” the woman shrieked, purple-faced. It was the mid-1980s, and budding porn star Nina Hartley was crossing her one and only picket line. Feminist activists marched up and down Shattuck Avenue, intent upon closing down the pornographic Nu Arts Cinema, and Hartley and a few of her colleagues arrived to strut into the lobby and boost the mortified morale of its patrons. She had never experienced such anger before, but she was determined to confront them: “I was making a point. That these people were assholes.”
Hartley was born and raised in the East Bay on a diet of leftist politics and grand theory, at a time when the prevailing liberal orthodoxy regarded pornography as inherently soul-killing. “I grew up in Berkeley, so I got a lot of Andrea Dworkin before college,” she says. “Before I had a lot of exposure to pornography, I had a lot of exposure to thinking about objectification and the male gaze and that sort of stuff. But I got into porn for a couple of reasons. I had very strong exhibitionist fantasies that I feared was unfeminist of me. But I kept going back to the feminist thought that it was my body, and my rules. … I firmly believe the movement gave me permission to live the life of my dreams. Now, because I chose sexuality as my dream, it rubbed a lot of people the wrong way. But I couldn’t let that stop me.”
Now, of course, Hartley is a twenty-year veteran of the adult industry, a rare phenomenon in a business that burns out players in a few years. She has directed and starred in countless movies, as well as writing erotica for the lesbian fetish magazine On Our Backs. But Hartley wasn’t just an ambitious skin star; like other porn pioneers in the Bay Area at the time, she regarded her work as inherently political, attending conferences of the National Organization for Women with fellow erotica mavens Carol Queen and Annie Sprinkle.
“It was like being in Alice in Wonderland,” she says. “There were ten of us standing around a bunch of people saying we don’t exist, that our views of our experience were wrong. When I said I had a good time in pornography, they said, ‘No, you don’t. You’re just so self-hating that you don’t know what you want.'”
Such attitudes were precisely what led Deborah Sundahl and Nan Kinney to create On Our Backs, the very name of which was meant to piss off the uptight womyn who ran Off Our Backs, the feminist magazine collective that articulated so much of the lesbian agenda of the time. But they also launched it in reaction to Playboy, Hustler, and other boring, male-oriented skin mags. “What we created was not pornography,” says Sundahl. “Pornography is the adult industry. It’s male-dominated and very formulaic. When we set out, it was our mission to break that formula. We had all body types and ages, and role-playing. Of course, it was lesbian, so some of the women were the men.”
Current On Our Backs editor-in-chief Heather Findlay was just going through college when the magazine first debuted, and she recalls how it immediately filled a gap in lesbian self-image. “I used to meet lesbians in bars, and you’d come home afterward and talk about who you met,” Findlay says. “And people would say, ‘Is she an On Our Backs or an Off Our Backs lesbian? Would she like pornography, or is she repressed and likely to go to the next Take Back the Night march?”
It took five years of rejection by collective bookstores around the country, but eventually the antiporn feminists had to grudgingly accommodate their nastier compatriots. To this day, some feminists still reject the need to gawk at naked girls or tie yourself up as authentically feminist. “I think it’s a real fringe group that are interested in that sort of thing,” says Mills College emeritus professor Diana Russell, who helped start one of the first feminist antipornography groups in the ’70s. “It’s very imitative of male pornography, but trying to cut out the violence, have it be gentler and so on. … It’s sort of like Playgirl, thinking that somehow maybe more liberated women would want what men want. I think it’s a false ideology, that that’s what most women want.”
But the march of time has left Russell and her colleagues increasingly isolated. When Dworkin and MacKinnon drafted a law empowering women to sue pornographers for allegedly inspiring their abuse, they triggered a backlash from writers around the country, including feminists such as Betty Friedan. The law was adopted by Indianapolis and other cities, but found unconstitutional in 1986. Dworkin’s persona became increasingly erratic, culminating in her 1999 claim that a Parisian hotel staff had drugged and raped her, a claim so many people found implausible that they wondered about her emotional stability. Young women began to find Dworkin’s anger tiresome; partly as a result of her own efforts, their lives weren’t filled with the abuse she suffered, and so they regard sex more cavalierly.
Now, antiporn feminists increasingly turn to born-again Christians in their search for allies, as Russell did at a visit to Southern California’s Vanguard University last year. “I actually showed pornography in their chapel, and their professor prayed about it afterwards,” Russell says. “And I must say, I was very touched, I talked to them for about two hours afterward. … They were receptive to my politics, and I didn’t have any problem with their position.”
The “sex positive” feminists may have won the debate about pornography, but their victory brought its own share of problems. On Our Backs was made to be naughty, but pornographic imagery has become so ubiquitous that the magazine’s staff is struggling to figure out how to shock people. “When people think about On Our Backs, they think about a mag that was put out to piss people off,” Findlay says. “We were born out of the battle between the pro- and antiporn feminists, and when we won the war, we had to figure out a way to stay transgressive.”
Some On Our Backs veterans think the very need to be transgressive is an outdated reaction to the puritanism of the larger culture, and the new frontier is “sacred sexuality.” “San Francisco’s stuck in the whole transgressive, sexual outlaw thing,” says Sundahl, who now lives in Santa Fe and teaches couples how to find the G spot. “That died ten years ago. It hasn’t continued to evolve, creatively or sexually. … What’s new is a whole spiritual sexuality.”
Nina Hartley still worries about Christian fundamentalism, but spends her days trying to make porn stars eligible for membership in the Screen Actors Guild. But Hartley’s biggest fear is the mediocrity spawned by her own success. As pornography infiltrates the larger culture, and its iconography spreads to commercials, pop stars, and advertising departments, Hartley worries that the entertainment industry is taking once-searing images, stripping away the imagination, and reducing them to logos and brand names. Record company executives push recycled pimp culture and think they’re being edgy, while girls wear ho gear at the mall. Andrea Dworkin died convinced that pornography cultivated such extreme emotions that men would be driven to commit unspeakably brutal acts; Hartley worries that pornography is just getting boring. “The biggest problem,” she says, “is dumb porn.”