Friday, May 13, 2005

Andrea Dworkin, 1946-2005: Agreement and Disagreement

(Leather Life column published in Lavender Magazine, Issue #260, May 13, 2005)

Militant feminist Andrea Dworkin died recently. With her anti-male, anti-SM and anti-pornography reputation, readers of this column might think I’d have problems with many of her ideas.

Not necessarily. I always thought her worldview was extreme, hyperbolic, overblown—and angry, very angry. I still think so. But if one can look beyond all that, one finds that she had a keen intellect and interesting powers of analysis. A lot of what she said makes a certain amount of sense.

Dworkin was an extreme personality who attracted extreme responses—responses often based on misunderstandings, misinterpretations or misconceptions. To comment fairly one must actually read her words, rather than relying on what others said about her and her writings.

Among Dworkin’s areas of activism were domestic abuse, rape and pornography. She considered them hate crimes against women. To her they represented three interrelated manifestations of the same societal disease—the abuse, enslavement, subordination and dehumanization of women by men in a patriarchal society.

My response: That same patriarchal society also victimizes gay men in some of the same ways as women.

Take domestic abuse, something with which Dworkin and I both have firsthand experience. Anyone, of any gender and any preference, can find themselves in an abusive relationship. Too often they will find it difficult to extricate themselves, and they will find the law-enforcement and legal systems adding to their problems instead of helping to solve them.

Rape is an extreme form of sexual abuse. In Dworkin’s view it is used by men to control women, to keep them in their place. She wrote in her memoir, Heartbreak, that she was “struck by how prisons were the only places in which men were threatened with rape in a way analogous to the female experience.” I beg to differ—gay men also get raped (and not just in prisons), both by other gay men and by (supposedly) straight men. It’s physically and psychologically devastating for a man, too.

I start disagreeing with Dworkin, or at least questioning her, on the topic of pornography. She wrote Pornography: Men Possessing Women, and that book title is a good distillation of her analysis: pornography is not much different than domestic violence or rape, except that it keeps on going. Men can use, abuse, torture, maim, rape and dehumanize a woman to the point of killing her—and then they can continue the abuse through pictures of the victim, even after the victim herself has long been thrown away.

Here, my view is quite different. Certainly there are male porn stars who are abused by boyfriends or managers—or, even worse, who bottomed in bareback porn and paid for it with their lives. That’s both tragic and an outrage.

On the other hand, gay male porn doesn’t have a built-in caste system involving two genders, one always on top and the other always on bottom. For gay men, therefore, erotic images need not be exclusively about dominance, dehumanization and control—we are men looking at pictures of other men. There is an element of seeing ourselves in the pictures and celebrating ourselves, our brothers and our sexuality. That’s quite different from the dynamic that outraged Dworkin.

As for Dworkin’s reputation for being rabidly anti-SM—maybe I just haven’t found the proper book of hers yet, but every time I’ve seen the words “sadistic” or “masochistic” in her writing, she’s not talking about dungeon play. She’s talking about real-life, non-consensual, abusive human interactions.

There is no shortage, however, of other feminists who condemn SM and say that it is impossible for a woman to engage in SM without completely degrading herself and replicating yet again the male-dominant/female-subordinate paradigm of the current patriarchal society.

A man can voluntarily play at giving up his power, so the logic goes, because he knows that when the play is over he will be able to claim his power once again. A woman, however, knows on some level that she is only playing at having power—when the scene is over she will be like Cinderella after the ball, her power gone, the carriage turned back into a pumpkin and the ball gown turned back to rags.

That theory does not necessarily correlate with my experiences in the leather/BDSM community—a community built on respect, trust, honor and especially equal valuation for everyone: women, men; all races and ethnicities; het, gay, lesbian, bi, trans; dom or sub. We know the difference between safe/sane/consensual SM play and abuse, and we do not tolerate abuse.

And leather/BDSM, along with the rest of the queer community, has to a large degree thrown away many of society’s patriarchal conventions because we found that they didn’t serve our interests.

Look at the principles to which Dworkin devoted her life. Then look at the present state of leather/BDSM and the rest of the queer community. You’ll see more agreement than disagreement.

MN Leather Pride announces four-part Spirituality Roundtable

Based on the success of the Leather Spirituality Roundtable held during last year’s Minnesota Leather Pride celebration, the Roundtable this year is being expanded to four sessions taking place during May, June and July.

On Tuesday, May 17, the first Roundtable topic will be “Roles and Relationships” in the leather community. The second Roundtable discussing “Rituals, Protocols and Conventions” will take place Tuesday, June 21, and will be followed the next evening by a special guest Roundtable presentation: “Mr. Burke: Master/slave Relationships” on Wednesday, June 22. The fourth Roundtable, on Tuesday, July 19, will be about “Sparking the Future.”

All Spirituality Roundtables will be held at the Bolt Underground, 513 Washington Ave. S. in Minneapolis, from 7 to 9:30 P.M. Roundtables on Tuesdays are free; admission to the special Wednesday Roundtable is $5 (or free with this year’s Minnesota Leather Pride dog tag).

These events are in addition to more than a full week of other Minnesota Leather Pride activities happening in June and coinciding with the Twin Cities GLBT Pride Celebration.

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