Andrea Dworkin – Pornography, Prostitution, and a Beautiful and Tragic Recent History

This is an edited version of a speech by Andrea Dworkin to University of Minnesota, 1999.

“… We had a class of activists, thinkers, people who organised in the community, and students who wanted to be activists and thinkers… These folks decided that the buying and selling of women was no longer something that would be done with impunity. Catherine MacKinnon and I created a civil-rights law that allowed women harmed by pornography, including the women in it, to sue pornographers and distributors…

The first time he vetoed the civil-rights bill he claimed that it would violate the constitutional rights of pornographers, which superseded in importance the speech rights of women and children who were shut up by pornography. Someone takes a woman or child and they tie them up or invade their body, they hurt them, they take pictures of it and they sell the pictures. And, in our system of law, the pictures are speech and the women and children in the photographs are less than nothing. There only value is what a pimp can get for them in the open market.

… Many people came to understand what the cost is to women as citizens, as human beings, on this planet… More women are for sale; the pornography industry is so huge that no one is surprised anymore when pornography is made in their town or down the street. Whether the pornography is made out of adult women or children, there is no doubt that the women and children like it – the adult women have made the choice that they want to be hung from a tree, which is what they have been hoping for their whole adult lives; it is their greatest ambition. But virtually all of those adult women were put in pornography as children; they were photographed  and prostituted as children. One cannot separate the women and the children just  as one cannot untie these two branches on the tree of sex exploitation and abuse.

… It was the first time that anyone had tried to make the woman in the photograph part of the issue. She is human… And it turned out that there were survivors everywhere, including in our class… I never go into a room where I don’t know there are survivors of pornography and prostitution… What a dirty, dirty woman she is. What dirty, dirty things she has done.

The politics of feminism are necessary. One  cannot just say, it’s bad, it hurts, stop it, don’t do it anymore, not good, bad; woman hanging from a tree, bad, circle with a diagonal line through it, do not do it. But women in general do not even have as much authority or place or recognition in this society as a traffic sign would have that signals caution. Being part of a political movement is one way of developing real authority. Authority has to happen on the ground in the real world or it is not happening. You can go to a lecture and hear words with many syllables flowing by, and feel good or righteous or sad on leaving. And it is good that you are moved, but that does not help her. Feminism is not a lifestyle. It is not a party. If you think that everything is all right and women are equal, you do not need feminism, you do not need a political movement… If everything right now is fine, forget about politics. Watch television, do whatever is interesting but not disturbing.

The act that one talks about women’s rights means in part that women do not have the rights women need…

… Women found out that if the axe-murderer were actually standing where we could see him and if got all these axe murderers  and put them away – which is definitely part of the program – we would not have cut the rape rate very much, nor would we have cut the murder rate of women very much, nor would we have cut the assault rate very much. These are intimate crimes, which is to say that a woman thinks he knows her, and she is grateful because everyone wants that, and he thinks she belongs to him. But he doesn’t know her, nor does he have to, because he has power over her. The power is not just physical; the power is also legal, which is to say this legal system does not help women who are being hurt. It does not… Why do we talk about keeping the streets safe and then ignore women who are trying to get themselves through another night, whether it’s to avoid being beaten up or whether it’s to get drugs or whether it’s to fill a pimp’s money quota. What it is doesn’t matter; it really doesn’t matter… Most women are not there… I don’t think so.

When one looks or reasons, it turns out that there are reasons all over the world… And women are – actually, girls are – easy targets. So-called girl power does not change that. She puts on her miniskirt and does her hair and she is the same dumb bitch when she walks out on the street as all those young men like to sing about in their songs. That’s why she needs a political movement.

One needs a political movement because something has to change and what has to change is not individual. It’s not something an individual can change without holding hands with someone else and someone else and then another person after that. And in the collectivity of person-to- person, each person cannot do everything, but every person can do something. That is why one has a political movement: because a political movement makes it possible for people to do the thing they can do in a context that gives the doing meaning; because people then can give as much as they can give o what they know, of what they think; because people can give materially. No one has to – or can – do everything… She cannot fix herself so it can’t be fixed. But of course a lone woman cannot fix it.  Men did not just start selling women. It did not start yesterday and it will not end tomorrow.

… Political activism brings knowledge.

One cannot know the enemy, whoever that enemy might be, simply by serving him. One also needs the clarity and the knowledge that comes from defying him – as a movement. Battered women are the most defiant women on the face of the earth. And they get punished for it because they are defiant as individuals. What they do not get is a way out. And prostituted women have been though not even to deserve a way out.

… That could be the answer. Twenty-five ago I would have said that the information about violence against women was not in the popular domain; that people do not know the vocabulary, this language; that they do not know that all of this abuse stuff is true… This is not like missing a terrorist who could be anywhere, any time, any place. This is like missing something that you and your buddies are doing. What they meant was that beating your wife was no crime…

As a political matter one needs to understand how male dominance works. It does work; it is a system – it has parts and pieces that move in certain ways under certain circumstances. Understanding the system of male dominance requires that one takes one’s experience outside of oneself so that the experience can be scrutinised:  so that one can see how those who hurt do it and where they themselves are vulnerable to attack. Yes, attack. feminism is the politics of anti-abstraction. The men who hurt you have to be seen objectively as well as known intuitively; and in addition every woman standing on a street corner is your problem. When you see a prostituted woman, you have to know that you are not free, whatever your status in this male-over-female hierarchy.

The ways in which men control women are changing. It used to be marriage and the church that controlled women or allowed men to control women. Along with the legal system, they were institutions of male dominance that really mattered. But now those institutions have been rendered ineffective or less effective. What is happening before your very eyes is that the pornography industry has managed to legitimise pornographised sexuality and to make it the duty of every woman to perform sexually as a prostitute. Partly, the voyeurism of the pornography industry changes the way women are seen. This includes how we see ourselves. Partly, there is an increasing cruelty of touch. ‘Sensual’ is a word that has virtually fallen out of usage when people talk about sex and few people know what it means anymore. Women have been chattel property for a long time; but now prostitution becomes the clearest expression of what it means to be a woman, to be sexual, and to be owned, but to think one is free.

A prostituted woman can be owned by a dozen men a night but she cannot be herself. Sex becomes depraved because she is the lowest object or commodity. She has sex over and over again with men she does not know or like; her body and mind have to tolerate that kind of punishment. The mind tries to help: it leaves, watches, induces numbness but does not stay integrated with the body. She can feel her mind hovering in the room near the ceiling in a corner. She tries to get rid of him as fast as she can. Fundamentally, that is what prostitution has in it for women… One cannot get very high on that, because it feels like a form of dominance in a world in which women are constantly demeaned. Women are supposed to be passive, but the prostitute is not passive: she went out, took that guy by his penis, and he pulled out his money. There is nothing passive about that, so she is different from other women,  the ones who won’t talk to her when they see her on the streets, the women who think she deserves exactly what she gets.

Most women now are treated as whores; and so are girls growing up, as if their sexuality  should be a sexuality of sexual service. It’s important to think about the ways in which women have been colonised, because it all has to do with our own bodies. We may also be hurt when men send ships and drop bombs and do all the other really exciting things they do when one takes the remote away from them. But since women are usually hurt by male intimates or acquaintances, and since the hurt takes place in our bodies, it becomes important to realise that the training to accept the hurt is hand-delivered by a man or men to the body of a girl. Sometimes the mother is the instrument through which girls are trained to accept pain and humiliation. In childhood, for most women who are prostituted, the training begins with incest or child sexual abuse, often called molestation. Incest is the boot camp for prostitution. Incest makes a prostituted consciousness as well as the compliant and knowing body: a human body in which there is a recognition that you do this and you get a reward, you do this and you get punished, including the loss of what passes for love. I personally am sick of hearing people being sentimental about children while they are buying and selling them or supporting the trade in children or the so-called privacy of the child rapist.

But one cannot help the children without dealing with the second-class, socially inferior status of women… Women and children are in the same place at the same time, and being a woman is foreshadowed by being a child.When a woman is being hurt, there is a likelihood that a child is being hurt. A child can be hurt by a woman; the woman may be half-perpetrator and half-victim, half-battered, half-raped. In families where there is abuse, women and children are on the bottom, and the guy in the newspaper whose sad story is being told when he has killed his wife, children, and himself is painted as a tragic human being, not a mass murderer. The woman and children are not mourned; the man is the one human being in the story. The man is not seen as a bad human being but as a hurt human being, an injured human being. And he may be injured and hurt, but he does not get to kill women and children because of that. What a radical idea…

People hate certain ideas, sometimes with justice, sometimes with no justice… Not enough people are willing to march for women and children even now. Women, and increasingly children, need to be desirable to men, need to conform, need to self-police the body by making it a wanted object. One does this because one has learned to do it and thinks it is the right thing to do. One does not see the consequences, except when another woman gets hurt, one says, well she was dressed like that, of course it happened to her. This is called denial. And when women are prostituting on street corners they look like what they are doing: to the unprostituted woman, the street-corner women look different, even if one strives to be a sexual object.But women all share a lot: women have all been used in sex; even if a woman has loved truly and greatly, she will also have experienced exploitation or force or manipulation or emotional abuse.

… Then, if the guy is a little hostile and a little worried because he penetrated this dirty thing, he will take it out on the woman… There is something fundamentally wrong with the way a woman’s life is valued. That devaluation is what allows one to accept that the lives of prostituted women are nightmares of insult and injury and that those lives need not be changed.

This question of being dirty really does matter.There is a long history of the woman as dirt and sexual abuse as such being conjoined. And the prostituted woman is the dirtiest woman because she is the most purely sexual woman. When one sees her, one is looking at. And when one sees her and is looking at sex, one is looking at dirt. That is why prostituted women are treated the way they are treated, including inside the women’s movement. That is why it is almost impossible for women who have not survived prostitution to align themselves or the freedom of women who are prostituting now or who have prostituted. The sense of contamination through association is very deep. The prostituted woman is sex. There are no qualifying clauses. She must be left there to die, because i she is worth anything than male dominance is wrong. If one comes to the conclusion that male dominance is wrong, two things can be done: one can stay quiet or one can say tell people that male dominance is wrong. If one tells people that male dominance is wrong, those people might expect one to do something and one might expect them to do something. There are activists who work year in and year out doing everything they can think to do; but there are not a lot of them.

… Say feminists win victories. Say feminists win a lot of victories in going up against the so-called sex industry – pornography, the international trafficking in women, home-grown prostitution. Say feminists can create places of safety and education and refuge for prostituted women. I feminists can do those things, one is looking at three hundred to four hundred years. This trafficking in women is the largest slave trade that the planet has ever seen. It is larger than the slave trading of the middle passage. It is larger than any race-based slave trading. I am not measuring suffering. I mean to measure the dimensions of the problem. Selling women makes more money than anything else…

One gets nowhere without taking a first step and a second one and a third one. It is damned hard because every single minute the industry that buys and sells women and children is getting bigger, and more and more women and children are getting hurt… Since the overt attack on pornography, there has been enormous noise about how repressed everyone is who opposes the injury of women in and because of pornography. Those who accuse feminists of being repressed think they know because they measure sex against the photographs that they buy at the store – video store, adult store, magazine store, bookstore, movie theatre – or the pornography they download from the internet.

There are choices to be made. One choice is to buy one’s sex; another choice is to be one’s sexuality inside one’s humanity. One never has the right to buy another human being and through one’s consumption make that human being do something repugnant, from being an object to having violence used against the body.

The way to look at that three hundred to four hundred years is that one can have an impact on that woman who is on the street corner being sold, hurting  not because she wants to be hurt but because she has been deemed worthless except as a sexual convenience for men. There is no humanity in that. There is no dignity in that. No matter how hard those who have been prostituted try to bring meaning and dignity to lost years, it cannot be done.

I am asking everyone here to start organising again… Do direct action against targets that sell woman hating – one has a responsibility to close those targets down no matter how many there are, how mammoth the ambition seems. There is talking and writing and picketing. There is using one’s freedom of speech to video men who use sex stores and live sex outlets and strip clubs. The only thing required for these kinds of actions to the belief that the planet belongs to women, to women as much as men. The men are despoiling our planet by the ways in which they are humiliating and hurting women and children. If one has a right to be here and live here, one has the right not to be treated like garbage, as if women were nothing but receptacles for a male sex act. If one believes that prostituted women are worthless, do nothing. Things will stay the same except that the so-called sex industry will get bigger, big enough to touch every woman, whatever her presumed status.

Say no, Organise. Stand up to the political establishment that protects the so-called sex industry. If the law does not adequately recognise the worth of women, it has to be changed… It had to be changed. Now it has to be changed again to recognise women’s equality… Fight for women’s rights,”


One comment – this is about and for all the prostituted class, not just street-based prostitutes.

2 responses to “Andrea Dworkin – Pornography, Prostitution, and a Beautiful and Tragic Recent History

  1. Pingback: Andrea Dworkin - Pornography, Prostitution, and a Beautiful and Tragic Recent History | #Prostitution #Pornography (french & english) |

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