A Review of Letters From A War Zone
by Andrea Dworkin, New York: E.P. Dutton, 1989
Review by David A. Orthmann
Copyright © 1995. All Rights Reserved.
In this provocative collection of writings, Dworkin advocates nothing less than a "politics of confrontation" (p. 325) as a means of changing the socially subordinate status of women; yet, she is fully aware of the "difficult" and "costly" (p. 325) nature of such a strategy. Engagement in radical feminist praxis is not the stuff of a safe, quiescent existence, but rather one in which the individual's identity and relationship to the world and others is in a state of flux, and physical safety often at risk. Taking chances is necessary, she asserts, because the oppressive reality of patriarchy, especially in the form of sexual violence against women, cannot be tolerated; it must be faced squarely, understood in its complexity, and actively opposed, time and time again, in both public and private.
Far from what her critics might label a simple diatribe against male supremacy, Dworkin's analytical skills are evident throughout the book. She insists that any discussion of women's subordinate place in society include the "basic metaphysical assumptions about the nature of women: what we are, what we want, what we have the right to, what our bodies are for, and especially to whom our bodies belong" (p. 136). Unfortunately, the aggregate of these assumptions is that women are biologically suited only for sex, reproduction, and domestic service; accordingly, it is considered a biological imperative for men, as individuals, in groups, and in institutions, to exercise direct control over women's bodies.
The presumption of a natural relation between the sexes that follows from the belief in men's superior and women's inferior instincts allows males social, civil, and economic power and leaves females with limited rights and lacking in physical autonomy and self-determination. It also serves as a justification for sexual violence on a massive scale. Rape, battery, incest, sexual harassment, and sexual slavery are practiced with near impunity and scarcely regarded as noteworthy because there is no such thing as violating a being that is not fully human. "That women exist to be used by men is, quite simply, the common point of view, and the concommitant of this point of view, inexorably linked to it, is that violence used against women to force us to fulfill our so-called natural functions is not really violence at all. Every act of terror or crime committed against women is justified as sexual necessity and/or is dismissed as utterly unimportant" (p. 200).
In Dworkin's judgment, pornography is a primary means of transmitting the deleterious fusion of violence, sexuality, and dominance. Many men accept as gospel the notion that force or coercion in sex is both pleasurable and legitimate because pornography says it is so. In a typical pornographic scenario, women initially say no to and actively resist male sexual advances; in the end, however, the brute force required to make them submit is a turn-on. Testimony given in the safety of feminist circles reveals the extent to which pornography inspires and educates men in the sexual abuse of women. "...pornography was used to accomplish incest and then the child would be used to make pornography; the pornography-consuming husband would not just beat his wife but would tie her, hang her, torture her, force her into prostitution, and film her for pornography; pornography used in gang rape meant that the gang rape was enacted according to an already existing script, the sadism of the gang rape en- hanced by the contributions of the pornograph- ers. The forced filming of forced sex became a new sexual violation of women" (p. 315).
The opposition to male sexual violence against women expressed by Dworkin in Letters From A War Zone is relentless, knowing, personal, political, and intolerant of ignorance and indifference. She consistently reminds us that it is not enough to acknowledge that many men act in sexually violent ways; rather, it must be understood that these abuses are the normal, commonplace, and systematic defenses of a patriarchal order in which "women's fundamental condition is defined literally by the lack of physical integrity" (p. 139) of their bodies. She urges a commitment to feminism that is not centered around the right to individual success but instead cuts across lines of race, class, and sexual orientation to demand "the elimination, not the containment, of rape, battery, incest, prostitution, and pornography" (p. 325), because genuine equality cannot coexist with these actions.
To order Letters From A War Zone directly from Amazon.com at discount, click here.