Madison Radio Interview: Andrea Dworkin

Below is an interview with Andrea Dworkin concerning the Wisconsin Coalition Against Sexual Assault's decision to rescind the agreement they made with her to have her speak at their conference in September of 1996. Dworkin was interviewed by Arlene Zaucha for a show on WORT listener-sponsored radio 89.9 FM, in Madison, Wisconsin. The interview was conducted October 7, 1996. Parts of it were broadcast Sunday, October 13, 1996, on "Her Turn," a WORT women's radio program hosted by Arlene Zaucha. This is the unedited , unairedversion. of the interview.

Arlene: Why don't you tell me what happened?

Andrea: Well, there's a long story and then there's the short story. The short story is that yes, I got a letter of invitation from WCASA sent to me by Jody Reddington, who was described as Education and Training Specialist, and Michael Morrill, Rape Crisis Center Education Coordinator. They asked me if I would come and speak at their Training Institute, which I understood to be a collection of people who work against sexual violence and sexual assault from all over Wisconsin. I got back in touch with them, told them I'd be happy to do it. We worked out all of the details over the phone. Everything on my part was very much done to try to facilitate the situation for them. In other words, they were having this conference, they had a certain time of the day that they wanted it to occur. I try not to do anything at 10:15 in the morning or 9:30 to 10:15 [laughs], but I agreed. And we then agreed that I would fax them a contract. It's a contract that I've drawn up and that I've used for years and that universities accept and it's a very good contract and a very fair one. Then they would fax it back to me signed because I couldn't make travel and hotel arrangements without having that commitment. I expected to get it back within a day and that didn't happen. I got a call from Jody Reddington saying we're just trying to get some things solved, just hold on, I'll be sending it back in a couple of days. I came home one night from being out, doing various things, and found a message on my machine from a man who identified himself as Louis Fortis. He said that under no circumstances would I speak at this conference because of my views on the First Amendment and because of my so-called notoriety--and that also that he would see to it that I would not be paid any money for doing any such thing. No money would go from them to me under any circumstances and if I wanted to call him back about any of this he left a number. I did call him back and I asked him who he was. I think he had identified himself as being on the board, but I asked him again. I asked him whether he was representing his own point of view or the community's point of view and he said he was representing his own point of view. I said, Do you then understand that what you're telling me is that you're using sheer, naked power, nothing else, to see that I don't speak to this group of people? Do you understand that? And he said yes, he did. That was the extent of our conversation. I told him I thought what he was doing was very wrong, especially in light of what appeared to be his beliefs about free speech. I believe that I told him that he didn't know anything about my views on the First Amendment and that was the end of the conversation. I said to him that I hoped he'd really think about what I had said to him about what it means to use power in this way. I then later, either that night or the next day, received a call from Michael Morrill, who left me a message saying to call him if I wanted to, that he wanted to talk to me about this and I did that. He told me that Fortis and the board, or the members of the board, apparently it was a small meeting, an executive session, had decided to retract this invitation. They had wanted to lie to me about the reasons why. They had wanted to tell me that the money wasn't available to pay a speaker and he [Michael] had demanded that they tell me the truth about why I wasn't being invited. I thanked him very much for that because I think that this happens a lot and that people do lie about it quite a lot. My response to Michael was that I felt that he had done a very good and brave thing by insisting that they be truthful. Then I marked it as something that just wasn't going to happen and people started organizing locally about Louis Fortis's, I think, very bad and wrong use of his power. Then it becomes different because then you have people standing up for you and standing up for the fact that an injury has been done to you. I would say that I certainly had a verbal agreement with WCASA that I would come and speak.

Now, the longer version [laughs], although that already sounds very long. The longer version is that a former student at the University Wisconsin at Madison who had organized my speaking at the university once before, Chris Grussendorf, wanted to organize my coming to Madison to speak again long before WCASA ever got in touch with me. She and I had settled on a date of September 26th. The WCASA conference was the 4th and 5th of September, I think. We did everything that we knew how to do to prioritize the WCASA conference and to make it possible for them to bring me, including trying to think of changes of dates, concerns about where money would come from for both groups, what writing grants would be like. So, in point of fact, actually two lectures were destroyed not just one, through this move of Louis Fortis and the executive board [that] was part of making this decision. I think that's really horrible, I think it's really vicious.

Arlene: How were your interactions with Linda [Selk-Yerges, the Secretary of the Board of Directors at WCASA] and Erin [Thornley, the Executive Director at WCASA]?

Andrea: I didn't speak to Linda, but I did speak once to Erin. She answered the phone when I called and we had a very pleasant conversation. She certainly never suggested that there was anything wrong or that there was any problem. I think we said pleasantry sort of things about that we would see each other and that this was going well.

Arlene: When I interviewed them, one of the things that the secretary of the board [Linda] said was that at this executive [meeting] three of the executive committee members wanted you to come. Louis, she did say, was the person who, well, the way she phrased it on the tape was "raised the red flag." So they instructed Erin to make some phone calls. They wanted to do some reading from your work and then they came to the decision and the way Linda put it was "we're a business, it was a business decision." Do you want to comment on that?

Andrea: I think there are two dimensions of that I need to comment on. The first one, of course, is the ethical, political one of "We're a business, it was a business decision." Actually, rape prevention work shouldn't be run that way, it can't be run that way. It has to do with finding ways not only to help women who have been raped to survive and to go on, but as the letter of invitation says: ending rape, I mean, that is our goal, to end rape. So the notion that it's a business before it's anything else, I think, is very wrong. The second thing is that as a business decision it's a little screwy because I, it's a little uncomfortable for me to talk about, but I fill halls wherever I go and people come to hear me speak because I'm good at it and original and I say things that people want to hear and want to think about. So as a business decision, if that's what it was, it was a damn stupid one.

Arlene: I think she meant that in two ways. During the interview she sort of indicated that it was an expense that they just couldn't afford and then in the letter they faxed me later she said that "controversy surrounding Ms. Dworkin could jeopardize fund-seeking efforts as well as current organizational funding [laughs]." Do you have a comment on that?

Andrea: Well, my understanding from my conversation with Michael Morrill was that Louis Fortis did threaten them that if they brought me there he, Mr. Fortis, would bad-mouth them (that was the word that Michael used) to the point where they wouldn't be able to get funding. So I would say that it's because of a specific threat made by a specific individual that they would be economically endangered. By somebody who said, "I am going to do you harm unless you do what I want you to do and what I want you to do is not to have her come here." Aside from that it doesn't really make much sense. Somebody did send me the letter that WCASA sent out defending themselves. I was extremely offended and insulted by the notion, which I think is very clear in it, that I live by controversy, I seek out controversy, controversy is a form of greed for me. I am very disciplined in working for women and what I do is that I don't let controversy stop me from working for women. That's very different from, say, look at a '60s political radical like Abbie Hoffman who did seek out controversy. I don't live that way, I have a different mode of behavior and a different sense of responsibility. I think it's just exceptionally unfair to suggest that because there is controversy about me that that is a reason not to have me speak. To be told this by somebody, essentially, who claims to be speaking in the name of civil liberties, as a civil libertarian, which is the way Mr. Fortis identified himself to me, it's beyond hypocrisy. It's close to being sinister.

Arlene: Now, your work has often been interpreted, reinterpreted, misinterpreted I bet you would say--interpreted as censorship. Can you address that and clarify that to people who maybe are listening and who have heard some of those sound bites that think your work means banning pornography and censoring pornography?

Andrea: Well, first of all, I've published twelve books and all those books are acts of speech. Most of the people who talk about censorship tell us that they would protect Hitler, they would protect white supremacists, they would protect any kind of garbage in the world. But that somehow or another when my speech is suppressed I deserve it, I sort of deserve it. The question about censorship, I think, is not a real question. I think it's propaganda. Catharine MacKinnon and I drafted an ordinance, which is a civil rights law--a civil law, not a police-enforced law--that defines pornography as a violation of the civil rights of women, and it articulates certain causes of action--things that if they happen to women, women could go into court and sue the pornographers or the people who made a profit off of their bodies. That fell squarely in the realm of allowing people who have been silenced by oppression and by the abuse of power to have some kind of recourse in this society. It's an idea that many people have found a good one and that law reviews are constantly publishing articles about. Many of those articles are saying, "Yes, we want to do this or we want to do something like this." Part of what we drafted as a law has already become law through judicial decisions. For instance, our law covers the use of pornography as a form of sexual harassment in the workplace, which is especially relevant when women are in what have been all-male jobs. It's a kind of harassment that is used to drive women out of the workplace. That part of our law has already been upheld in one sexual harassment case. So there's nothing that we have done that in any way increases police power, that sanctions prior restraint, which is actually the legal definition of censorship. In other words, I make a law that says you can't use the word "gray" and if you use the word "gray" I'm going to send the police in and they're going to arrest you and if you're found guilty you go to jail. This is nothing like that, this says that the plaintiff, the person who's bringing a lawsuit, has to prove that the harm was done to her, the burden of proof is on her. Obviously, the material already has to be distributed in the world before it can do that harm. So that's a very important point. The second point I'd like to make about that, if I could, is that when my book Pornography: Men Possessing Women was published in 1981 it said absolutely nothing about legal remedies of any kind about pornography. It was an analysis of the power dynamics in pornography. That book was labeled as being an act of censorship by people who were defending the pornography industry. So that those of us who oppose the industry are always called censors while those who want the industry to be strong and well and survive and make money tend to claim the mantle of civil liberties, although they rarely have earned it.

Arlene: Why do you think your work has been so threatening? It really has been the focus of a lot of hate; you're like a lightening rod with some of this controversy. Why do you think your work is so threatening that it's caused that kind of response?

Andrea: Well, you know, I don't know. It's very uncomfortable and unpleasant and unhappy for me. The notion, which I think is implicit in this WCASA letter, that somehow or another I enjoy this, or I benefit from this, is completely wrong. There is no way in which I benefit from essentially losing two opportunities to talk to people in Wisconsin. I don't benefit from that. I think that my work challenges the status quo, the things that people take for granted about the relationships between men and women. I think that because it concentrates on the ways in which men exert power over women it's had important and wonderful consequences and also terrible and difficult consequences. The important and wonderful consequences have been that people are approaching rape and battery and prostitution and pornography with a real insistence on understanding them as acts of exploitation and acts of oppression. The really bad and difficult consequences are that people are enormously angry with me, which hurts me a great deal, both sort of psychologically and certainly economically. I think that there's a heightened discourse about what is and what isn't fair and I think people are terribly afraid of change and my work is very insistent that change has to happen.

Arlene: I interviewed our local Rape Crisis Center director and she admitted that a lot of our rape crisis centers' anti-rape programs really have not addressed the pornography issue, haven't really incorporated services for victims of pornography and prostitution. I wonder if you could address that?

Andrea: Yes, I would be happy to. I think that's true. I do think that dealing often, for instance, with a battered woman is very different from dealing with a prostituted woman in many ways; dealing with a rape victim is different from dealing with a battered woman. But what is true is that because of the viciousness of the arguments around pornography--and I must maintain that the viciousness is really not coming from us; we're not calling people names, we're not stopping them from having jobs, that's not what we're doing. We're trying to raise these ideas about what is happening to women in this industry. And because it's such an incendiary topic for many people, it has been true that rape crisis centers--the only thing we've really asked of them is, Ask questions about the role of pornography in rape on your intake forms. You know, have a question about it so that we can start to get real information from rape victims about the role of pornography in their rapes. We have a lot of it, but the more that we can get, the better off we are. If we find out the problem somehow or another isn't a real problem then we will know that. The information that we have now is that pornography figures in the carrying out and the planning and the execution of a great many rapes. I will say that rape crisis centers have been reluctant even to do that one thing, which is to ask about the role of pornography in rape in that victim's experience. Now, there will be many rapes in which she will have no knowledge of the role of pornography even if the rapist has used it. Since we know that that many women are raped or beaten in their homes there are many rapes in which women actually have quite a lot of knowledge about the use of pornography in rape.

Arlene: Well, I guess I promised that we wouldn't talk for too long, so I should let you go soon. But I wondered is there any chance that you would still work with WCASA and come to Wisconsin?

Andrea: Well, first of all, I've been to Wisconsin several times and feel as if I have a relationship with many people there. I would never sort of cross Wisconsin off of my map of the world or place I would want to be. I feel very, I don't know what the word is, I mean really touched and really moved and really proud that people have been standing up about this. Not just for me, I think for all of us; but it's a hard thing to do and I am very grateful to them. So what I would say is that what I feel now is an obligation to those people who have stood up for me in this situation. And they are the ones who have made certain demands about Mr. Fortis being fired, about an apology being extended to me. I would feel obligated to basically insist on the conditions that they are insisting on. I think that that's only fair. Wherever I go, for instance, when I was going to come speak to the WCASA rape prevention conference I felt an obligation to the organizers of that conference and now I feel an obligation to the organizers of the protest. The only way that I can really express that is to stand behind the demands they're making. So that's what I would do.

Arlene: Just two more quick questions, I guess. Was there anything else you wanted to comment on that I didn't touch on during the interview?

Andrea: I think that there's always an intent, when women make money from the work that they do, to suggest that there's something very greedy and very awful about that. So I just want to say that I make my living--most of it--lecturing, not writing. I don't make anything resembling not only what Ted Koppel or Jack Kemp makes, but I don't make half of what Christie Heffner makes. So I think that WCASA's effort to suggest that because money is involved here there is something wrong with me is very dishonorable. I think women should be treated with respect around their work and that includes being paid. And we made every effort between the women who were trying to bring me to the university and the people at [...break in tape...] I made every effort to make the fees as low as I could and that's just the plain truth.

Arlene: I guess I want to ask you, but just what are you going to be up to next? Do you have any plans, are you writing?

Andrea: Well, I've been working on a book now for several years and one of my problems is, you see, what writers tend to do, certainly what I do, is that every amount of money I make goes to buy me time to work on my writing. I will have a book published in March 1997 by the Free Press called Life and Death. It's a collection of essays and speeches. People in Madison and other parts of Wisconsin can open this book and see what they missed because of Mr. Fortis's actions. There are some really nice speeches in the book. I think that they sort of show what I do that maybe sometimes other people don't do. So I'm going to continue to try to work on the book that I have been working on and at the end of October I'm going to go out to Portland, Oregon, and do a benefit for the Council for Prostitution Alternatives. [The CPA] is a group that has programs to get women who want to leave prostitution out of it and get them shelter and food and work and all those things that we need. And then I will be going to a conference in Brighton, England, which is about sexual abuse and its impact on women's rights of citizenship throughout the world. I think that it's a very important conference. It's a very important subject--so that's my immediate future.

Arlene: Sounds great.

Andrea: Yeah, well, I hope it will be. I'm looking forward to it and I feel very sorry that I didn't get a chance to come and speak at the WCASA conference. I would have liked that.

Arlene: A lot of us are sorry, too. We're going to cross our fingers and hope you're still coming in the future.

Andrea: Thank you very much.

Arlene: Anything else?

Andrea: No, just that I wish all my friends there well and I hope that I'll see them soon.

Arlene: Great. Thanks.