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LIFE AND DEATH: Unapologetic Writings on the Continuing War Against Women. By Andrea Dworkin . The Free Press: 267 pp., $23

March 16, 1997|DAVID FUTRELLE | David Futrelle edits a media column for the online magazine Salon, www.salonmagazine.com

To read Andrea Dworkin is to enter into an alternate universe.

In her Amerika--yes, she still spells the word with a K--we live in the midst of an obscene, unending war: the war of the sexes. Women live, she says, "under martial law . . . in a situation of emergency . . . under a reign of terror . . . brutalized by 'pimps' and pornographers and just plain ordinary men."

These dramatic phrases are not, to Dworkin, simply examples of poetic license, the sort of boilerplate bellicosity that can give spice to an otherwise tepid political speech--Dworkin believes "the war against women is a real war. There's nothing abstract about it. This is a war in which his fist is in your face."

Readers familiar with Dworkin's work will find very little in "Life and Death," her newest collection of essays, that is new or surprising. In the writings contained within it--some originally given as speeches at feminist gatherings, others reprinted from magazines and journals and even the pages of this newspaper--Dworkin plays variations on the themes she's explored in her previous books: pornography, prostitution, rape and violence against women.

These are all serious subjects--indeed, in some cases, deadly serious--but Dworkin's reflexive rhetorical overkill, her unrelenting outrage, serves to cloud rather than clarify the issues. And by collapsing the distinctions between real life-and-death issues (rape, brutality) and what are at worst trivial annoyances (Playboy centerfolds), she manages to trivialize all she touches.

"Intercourse and Pornography: Men Possessing Women" may indeed have been, as her publicist rather perversely puts it, "seminal works," but "Life and Death" is, for the most part, Dworkin by-the-numbers.

At the heart of "the continuing war against women" that Dworkin refers to in her subtitle is, of course, pornography. Far from being a "superficial target," as some might claim, pornography is "the DNA of male dominance" or (to change the metaphor) the "Pentagon" of male violence. "Pornographers train the soldiers; then the soldiers go out and do the actions on us," she writes. "We're the population that the war is against."

It's often said that pornography leads to rape--an assertion that seems to most free-speechers a little simplistic. To Dworkin, though, the issue is even simpler than that: Pornography, in effect, is rape, no different from "any other historically real torture or punishment. . . ." Pornography isn't fantasy--"pornography happens." Dworkin may be the only person alive who believes that the letters in Penthouse Forum are real.

This conflation of pornographic pictures and real-world rape is typical of Dworkin's style. She carefully elides the distinctions between all that she opposes: Pornography is prostitution, prostitution is rape and rape, finally, is not altogether distinct from normal sex. "You cannot separate the so-called abuses of women from the so-called normal uses of women," she writes. "Men use sex to hurt us. An argument can be made that men have to hurt us, diminish us, in order to be able to have sex with us. . . ."

In Dworkin's view, women live in a charnel house of torture and degradation--most just don't realize it yet. "When one thinks about women's ordinary lives and the lives of children, especially female children, it is very hard not to think that one is looking at atrocity--if one's eyes are open," Dworkin tells her readers. "We have to accept that we are looking at ordinary life; the hurt is not exceptional; rather, it is systematic and it is real."

Given such high stakes, it's hardly surprising that, to Dworkin, "free speech fetishists" seem as bad as street pimps and snuff pornographers. Indeed, she is enthusiastic in abusing her foes, describing them as "gutless wonders," "male supremacists" and worse--the sort of people who can work up hypocritical sympathy for a murdered girl even though they "would not really mind her being beaten to death once she was an adult."

In one extraordinary essay, she suggests that male writers who challenge her views are no better than serial killer Marc Lepine, the brutal misogynist who gunned down 14 women in Montreal a little over seven years ago. "It is true that not every man picks up a semiautomatic gun," Dworkin writes, "but a lot of them don't have to, because they have pens." The pen, it seems, is indeed mightier than the sword.

Dworkin's reflexive name calling serves as a kind of substitute for reasoned argument. She asserts; she does not prove. She proclaims; she does not support her proclamations with anything beyond anecdotal evidence. (Her most compelling "evidence" comes from statements given at a public hearing she helped to organize.)

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