Porn again

By ANITA DIAMANT  |  May 31, 2006

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During an interview the day after the debate, Dworkin talked about her goal in writing Pornography. “I wanted to and I hoped I did create a time bomb and plant it in the innards of the system with parts of it going off at different times, creating some breach in the male supremacist system, creating the chance to give women a creative approach to freedom.”

Even if their bombs are made of words and ideas, agents provocateurs are rarely popular people. Dworkin’s book – far more than her presence or her Radcliffe speech – elicits defensiveness, and not only from men. Her attempt to expose the depth and breadth of male power by defining the meaning of pornography is an impressive artifact of anger that is frightening both in form and content.

It is written in a scream and moves at a fevered pace. It hammers away in repetitive, almost hypnotic prose at the organization of life under which “male sexuality is the unifying thematic and behavioral reality of male sexuality,” and under which women exist as men’s prey. It tells us that the fear women individually experience on a daily basis is part of a coherent system that terrorizes us, that no one is immune from or above this system. This is a difficult insight to accept – especially if you’re used to thinking of yourself as a self-conscious, non- or anti-sexist man, or as a self-controlled, successful heterosexual woman. Perhaps in some ways our resistance to her ideas is a measure of their power to reveal unpopular truth.

Still, it is a theoretical book, an abstract book. And the strength of a theoretical approach is also its weakness. Dworkin’s distance allows her to challenge assumptions – for instance the belief that women who pose for Playboy are expressing themselves or an authentic, uncoerced form of female sexuality. But her detachment also does violence to experience by flattening it into a behaviorist diagram.

Dworkin’s book boils down all female experience to one ugly image taken from an issue of Hustler magazine, which she describes in brilliant detail. In it, a woman is tied, spread-eagle, on the hood of a car. Two men carrying rifles have just “bagged” this “trophy.” The picture is captioned, “Beaver Hunters.” “This photograph elaborates the physical power of men over women,” writes Dworkin. “Terror is finally the content of the photograph, and it is also its effect on the female observer.”

It is a powerful image, one that blows a hole in the wall of choices that individual women and men build between themselves and the world of sexual violence that they cannot escape. Even in resisting our culture, we are, inevitably, part of it.

Still, we want to ask of the image, “How am I like the woman on the hood of the car and how did I get trapped?” “How am I the man with rifle and who gave it to me?” Even more important, in terms of individual change, “How do I resist becoming part of that image? What are the alternatives?”

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Related: Saluting the enemy, Parody flunks out, Flashbacks: June 2, 2006, More more >
  Topics: Flashbacks , Politics, Political Policy, Harvard University,  More more >
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