'There is always one problem for a woman: being believed," the American feminist Andrea Dworkin once wrote. In the case of her own career, this problem is a serious and central one -- and for good reason.
Take her graphic account of being drugged and raped in a Paris hotel room last year. The article, which first appeared in The New Statesman on June 5 and was later reprinted in The Guardian and in The Globe and Mail, elicited barely a peep from the international media. Its sensational tone and confessional content conspire to leave the critical reader speechless.
In the story, Dworkin alleges that at some time in 1999, in an unnamed "European city" she was served a sedative-spiked kir royale in a hotel and subsequently raped in her room by the waiter and the bartender. (In the original version, Dworkin identifies the city as Paris and the date as May 19.) A few hours after conking out alone in her room, Dworkin reported that she awoke to find a bruise on her breast and blood gushing from gashes on her upper thighs. "I had literally no memory of what the man and the boy had done," she states paradoxically.
Like much of Dworkin's work, the essay throws down a gauntlet: Believe this horror story, it says, or you are scoffing in the face of rape victims everywhere.
I am suspicious of Dworkin's story. This is not because I doubt that women are raped and beaten to death by men every day. This is not because I am not a feminist. I am skeptical of Dworkin's tale because, over the years, she has required readers to accept her accounts on faith rather than proven facts.
Andrea Dworkin is, arguably, America's most famous radical feminist theorist. She is best known for her 1987 book, Intercourse,which argued that heterosexual intercourse is an inherently violent act, akin to rape. If you've attended university in the past decade or so, you're probably familiar with the Dworkin-inspired slogan: Penetration is Violation.
Unlike many of her more moderate feminist colleagues, Dworkin does not advocate equality between the sexes (she thinks women need their own sovereign country), nor is she a pacifist (she believes all women have a moral right to kill their male abusers). Dworkin is an interesting mind; she is also a bloodthirsty political extremist.
From the start, autobiography has played an important part in Dworkin's career. She was one of the first feminist writers to publicly come forward as a victim of male abuse. Dworkin has written that she was first raped at the age of nine. She claims to have occasionally prostituted herself on the streets of New York as a youth, in return for bus fare back to her family home in an affluent New Jersey suburb. Dworkin also reported that in 1965, after being arrested during an anti-Vietnam war demonstration, she was violently assaulted by two male prison guards. Then there was her marriage to an abusive, unnamed "assassin" who burned her breasts with cigarettes and beat her with a plank.
There are many unnerving details about these early confessions of abuse. In Dworkin's more detailed accounts of battery, she alternates between the first and second persons, as in, "'It's your fault,' he shouts as he is battering in the door, slamming your head against the floor." The result, for the reader, is complete confusion between fact and nightmarish fiction.
Only once, it seems, has anyone ever questioned Dworkin's history. According to a recent report in The Guardian, Newsweek once asked that she either publish anonymously or provide medical or police records to support an article about her abuse by an ex-husband. (Dworkin claims that she visited a hospital and complained to the police as a result of the beatings.) Dworkin said she asked Newsweek "when the freedom of speech I kept hearing about was going to apply to me." The piece ended up being published in the Los Angeles Times.
Dworkin's most recent autobiographical nightmare scenario is full of inconsistencies and logical gaps. Why, for instance, after waking up bleeding uncontrollably, didn't she go directly to a hospital? Why did she never go to the police? Why do her "huge, deep gashes" become "scratches" in the next paragraph? How, if the door was dead-bolted as she says, did the waiter first manage to get into her room?
Why, when she called her New York feminist gynecologist of more than a decade, did the doctor doubt her story? Why did her life partner, John, a gay man, disbelieve her as well?
A few months after returning home, Dworkin writes, obesity-related illness left her wandering the streets of New York delirious with fever. Isn't it possible she may have been afflicted with a similar illness that evening in Paris?
But the most discrediting aspect of Dworkin's story is certainly her decision not to take action against her alleged perpetrators. Presumably, a Paris waiter and bartender are still out there, happily drugging and raping female hotel guests. Does Dworkin, who once publicly vowed to use all of her knowledge "on behalf of women's liberation" really care so little about the safety of her sisters?
While rape victims are often reluctant to be further violated by questioning and disclosure, surely this rule cannot apply to Dworkin, who chose to write about her experience in The New Statesman -- coincidentally, just as she's publishing her first book in several years.
So now that she's got our attention, let's hope Dworkin will finally provide her readers with some evidence to back up her claims. Either that, or retire and let the credible feminist thinkers take over.