An anti-war activist and anarchist in the late 1960s, Dworkin became a radical feminist and published ten books on radical feminist theory and practice. During the late 1970s and the 1980s, Dworkin gained national fame as a spokeswoman for the feminist anti-pornography movement, and for her writing on pornography and sexuality, particularly in Pornography: Men Possessing Women and Intercourse, which remain her two most widely known books.
Though she described her Jewish household as being in many ways dominated by the memory of the Holocaust, it nonetheless provided a happy childhood until the age of nine when an unknown man molested her in a movie theater. When Dworkin was 10, her family moved from the city to the suburbs of Cherry Hill Township, New Jersey (then known as Delaware Township), which she later wrote she "experienced as being kidnapped by aliens and taken to a penal colony". In sixth grade, the administration at her new school punished her for refusing to sing "Silent Night" (as a Jew, she objected to being forced to sing Christian religious songs at school).
Dworkin began writing poetry and fiction in the sixth grade. Throughout high school, she read heavily, with encouragement from her parents. She was particularly influenced by Arthur Rimbaud, Charles Baudelaire, Henry Miller, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Che Guevara, and the Beat poets, especially Allen Ginsberg.
Soon after testifying before the grand jury, Dworkin left Bennington to live in Greece and to pursue her writing. She traveled from Paris to Athens on the Orient Express, and went to live and write in Crete. While in Crete, she wrote a series of poems titled (Vietnam) Variations, a collection of poems and prose poems that she printed in Crete in a book called Child, and a novel in a style resembling magical realism called Notes on Burning Boyfriend -- a reference to the pacifist Norman Morrison, who had burned himself to death in protest of the Vietnam War. She also wrote several poems and dialogues which she hand-printed after returning to the United States in a book called Morning Hair.
After living in Crete, Dworkin returned to Bennington for two years, where she continued to study literature and participated in campaigns against the college's student conduct code, for contraception on campus, for the legalization of abortion, and against the Vietnam War.
After she left her husband late in 1971, Dworkin spent a year caught in the Netherlands, where she says her ex-husband "attacked, persecuted, followed [and] harassed" her, beating her and threatening her whenever he found where she was hiding. She found herself desperate for money, often homeless, thousands of miles from home and family, later remarking that "I often lived the life of a fugitive, except that it was the more desperate life of a battered woman who had run away for the last time, whatever the outcome". For a while, she was a prostitute. Ricki Abrams, a feminist and fellow expatriate, sheltered Dworkin in her home, and helped her find places to stay on houseboats, a communal farm, and deserted buildings. Dworkin tried to work up the money to return to the United States.
Abrams introduced Dworkin to early radical feminist writing from the United States, and Dworkin was especially inspired by Kate Millett's Sexual Politics, Shulamith Firestone's The Dialectic of Sex, and Robin Morgan's Sisterhood is Powerful. She and Abrams began to work together on "early pieces and fragments" of a radical feminist text on the hatred of women in culture and history, including a completed draft of a chapter on the pornographic counterculture magazine Suck, which was published by a group of fellow expatriates in the Netherlands.
Dworkin later wrote that she eventually agreed to help smuggle a briefcase of heroin through customs in return for $1,000 and an airplane ticket, thinking that if she was successful she could return home with the ticket and the money, and if she was caught she would escape her ex-husband by going to prison. The deal for the briefcase fell through, but the man who had promised Dworkin the money gave her the airline ticket anyway, and she returned to the United States in 1972.
Before she left Amsterdam, Dworkin spoke with Abrams about her experiences in the Netherlands, the emerging feminist movement, and the book they had begun to write together. Dworkin agreed to complete the book — which she eventually titled Woman Hating — and publish it when she reached the United States. In her memoirs, Dworkin relates that during that conversation she vowed to dedicate her life to the feminist movement:
In New York, Dworkin worked again as an anti-war organizer, participated in demonstrations for lesbian rights and against apartheid in South Africa. The feminist poet Muriel Rukeyser hired her as an assistant (Dworkin later said "I was the worst assistant in the history of the world. But Muriel kept me on because she believed in me as a writer.) Dworkin also joined a feminist consciousness raising group, and soon became involved in radical feminist organizing, focusing on campaigns against violence against women. In addition to her writing and activism, Dworkin gained notoriety as a speaker, mostly for events organized by local feminist groups. She became well-known for passionate, uncompromising speeches that aroused strong feelings in both supporters and critics, and inspired her audience to action, such as her speech at the first Take Back the Night march in November 1978, and her 1983 speech at the Midwest Regional Conference of the National Organization for Changing Men (now the National Organization for Men Against Sexism ) entitled " I Want a Twenty-Four Hour Truce During Which There Is No Rape"
Dworkin and Stoltenberg were married in 1998; after her death, Stoltenberg said "It's why we never told anybody really that we married, because people get confused about that. They think, Oh, she's yours. And we just did not want that nonsense."
In February 1976, Dworkin took a leading role in organizing public pickets of Snuff in New York City and, during the fall, joined Adrienne Rich, Grace Paley, Gloria Steinem, Shere Hite, Lois Gould, Barbara Deming, Karla Jay, Letty Cottin Pogrebin, Robin Morgan, Susan Brownmiller in attempts to form a radical feminist antipornography group. Members of this group would go on to found Women Against Pornography in 1979, but by then Dworkin had begun to distance herself from the group over differences in approach. Dworkin spoke at the first Take Back the Night march in November 1978, and joined 3,000 women in a march through the red-light district of San Francisco (Brownmiller 391-392).
In 1979, Dworkin published Pornography: Men Possessing Women, which analyzes (and extensively cites examples drawn from) contemporary and historical pornography as an industry of woman-hating dehumanization. Dworkin argues that it is implicated in violence against women, both in its production (through the abuse of the women used to star in it), and in the social consequences of its consumption by encouraging men to eroticize the domination, humiliation, and abuse of women.
Dworkin and MacKinnon, however, continued to discuss civil rights litigation as a possible approach to combating pornography. In the fall of 1983, MacKinnon secured a one-semester appointment for Dworkin at the University of Minnesota, to teach a course in literature for the Women's Studies program and co-teach (with MacKinnon) an interdepartmental course on pornography, where they hashed out details of a civil rights approach. With encouragement from community activists in south Minneapolis, the Minneapolis city government hired Dworkin and MacKinnon to draft an antipornography civil rights ordinance as an amendment to the Minneapolis city civil rights ordinance. The amendment defined pornography as a civil rights violation against women, and allowed women who claimed harm from pornography to sue the producers and distributors in civil court for damages. The law was passed twice by the Minneapolis city council but vetoed by Mayor Don Fraser, who considered the wording of the ordinance to be too vague. Another version of the ordinance passed in Indianapolis, Indiana in 1984, but overturned as unconstitutional by the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in the case American Booksellers v. Hudnut. Dworkin continued to support the civil rights approach in her writing and activism, and supported anti-pornography feminists who organized later campaigns in Cambridge, Massachusetts (1985) and Bellingham, Washington (1988) to pass versions of the ordinance by voter initiative (cf. Life and Death, pp. 90–95).
In her testimony and replies to questions from the commissioners, Dworkin condemned the use of criminal obscenity prosecutions against pornographers, stating, "We are against obscenity laws. We do not want them. I want you to understand why, whether you end up agreeing or not" (285). She argued that obscenity laws were largely ineffectual (285), that when they were effectual they only suppressed pornography from public view while allowing it to flourish out of sight (285-286), and that they suppressed the wrong material, or the right material for the wrong reasons, arguing that "Obscenity laws are also woman-hating in their very construction. Their basic presumption is that it's women's bodies that are dirty" (286). Instead she offered five recommendations for the Commission, recommending (1) that "the Justice Department instruct law-enforcement agencies to keep records of the use of pornography in violent crimes" (286), (2) a ban on the possession and distribution of pornography in prisons (287), (3) that prosecutors "enforce laws against pimping and pandering against pornographers" (287), (4) that the administration "make it a Justice Department priority to enforce RICO (the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act) against the pornography industry" (287), and (5) that Congress adopt federal anti-pornography civil rights legislation which would provide for civil damages for harm inflicted on women. She suggested that the Commission consider "creating a criminal conspiracy provision under the civil rights law, such that conspiring to deprive a person of their civil rights by coercing them into pornography is a crime, and that conspiring to traffic in pornography is conspiring to deprive women of our civil rights" (288). Dworkin compared her proposal to the Southern Poverty Law Center's use of civil rights litigation against the Ku Klux Klan (285).
Dworkin also submitted into evidence a copy of Boreman's book Ordeal, as an example of the abuses that she hoped to remedy, saying "The only thing atypical about Linda is that she has had the courage to make a public fight against what has happened to her. And whatever you come up with, it has to help her or it's not going to help anyone." Boreman had testified in person before the Commission, but the Commissioners had not yet seen her book (289).
In 1987 Dworkin published Intercourse, in which she extended her analysis from pornography to sexual intercourse itself, and argued that the sort of sexual subordination depicted in pornography was central to men's and women's experiences of heterosexual intercourse in a male supremacist society. In the book, she argues that all heterosexual sex in our patriarchal society is coercive and degrading to women, and sexual penetration may by its very nature doom women to inferiority and submission, and "may be immune to reform."
Citing from both pornography and literature—including The Kreutzer Sonata, Madame Bovary, and Dracula—Dworkin argued that depictions of intercourse in mainstream art and culture consistently emphasized heterosexual intercourse as the only kind of "real" sex, portrayed intercourse in violent or invasive terms, portrayed the violence or invasiveness as central to its eroticism, and often united it with male contempt for, revulsion towards, or even murder of, the "carnal" woman. She argued that this kind of depiction enforced a male-centric and coercive view of sexuality, and that, when the cultural attitudes combine with the material conditions of women's lives in a sexist society, the experience of heterosexual intercourse itself becomes a central part of men's subordination of women, experienced as a form of "occupation" that is nevertheless expected to be pleasurable for women and to define their very status as women.
Such descriptions are often cited by Dworkin's critics, interpreting (sometimes even falsely quoting) the book as claiming that "All heterosexual intercourse is rape," or more generally that the anatomical machinations of sexual intercourse make it intrinsically harmful to women's equality. However, critics such as Cathy Young point out that numerous statements in the book, such as "Intercourse is the pure, sterile, formal expression of men's contempt for women," are difficult to misinterpret. It is frequently noted that Dworkin focused, and some argue slightly obsessed upon the male role in human sexuality in her writing, and furthermore may have had at least a marginal tendency to demonize male sexuality in her writing.
Dworkin rejected that interpretation of her argument, stating in a later interview that "I think both intercourse and sexual pleasure can and will survive equality" and suggesting that the misunderstanding came about because of the very sexual ideology she was criticizing: "Since the paradigm for sex has been one of conquest, possession, and violation, I think many men believe they need an unfair advantage, which at its extreme would be called rape. I do not think they need it." (For discussion of the controversy, see: Intercourse)
Dworkin's short fiction and novels often incorporated elements from her life and themes from her nonfiction writing, sometimes related by a first-person narrator. Critics have sometimes quoted passages spoken by characters in Ice and Fire as representations of Dworkin's own views. cf. Dworkin, however, wrote "My fiction is not autobiography. I am not an exhibitionist. I do not show myself. I am not asking for forgiveness. I do not want to confess. But I have used everything I know – my life – to show what I believe must be shown so that it can be faced. The imperative at the heart of my writing – what must be done – comes directly from my life. But I do not show my life directly, in full view; nor even look at it while others watch" (Life and Death, 15).
In the same year, the New York Times Book Review published a lengthy letter of hers in which she describes the origins of her deeply felt hatred of prostitution and pornography ("mass-produced, technologized prostitution") as her history of being violently inspected by prison doctors, battered by her first husband and numerous other men.
In 2000, she published Scapegoat: The Jews, Israel, and Women's Liberation, in which she compared the oppression of women to the persecution of Jews, discussed the sexual politics of Jewish identity and anti-Semitism, and came to endorse a version of lesbian separatism, calling for the establishment of a women's homeland (with "land and guns") as a response to the oppression of women.
In June 2000, Dworkin published controversial articles in the New Statesman and in the Guardian, stating that one or more men had raped her in her hotel room in Paris the previous year, putting GHB in her drink to disable her. Her articles ignited public controversy when writers such as Catherine Bennett and Julia Gracen published doubts about her account, polarizing opinion between skeptics and supporters such as Catharine MacKinnon, Katharine Viner, and Gloria Steinem. Her reference to the incident was later described by Charlotte Raven as a "widely disbelieved claim," better seen as "a kind of artistic housekeeping. Emotionally fragile and in failing health, Dworkin mostly withdrew from public life for two years following the articles.
In 2002, Dworkin published her autobiography, Heartbreak: The Political Memoir of a Feminist Militant. She soon began to speak and write again, and in interview with Julie Bindel in 2004 said, "I thought I was finished, but I feel a new vitality. I want to continue to help women." She published three more articles in the Guardian and began work on a new book, Writing America: How Novelists Invented and Gendered a Nation, on the role of novelists such as Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner in the development of American political and cultural identity, which was left unfinished when she died.
When a newspaper interviewer asked her how she would like to be remembered, she said "In a museum, when male supremacy is dead. I'd like my work to be an anthropological artifact from an extinct, primitive society. She died in her sleep on the morning of April 9, 2005, at her home in Washington, D.C. The cause of death was later determined to be acute myocarditis. She was 58 years old.
Dworkin's uncompromising positions and strident style of writing and speaking, described by Robert Campbell as "apocalyptic, earned her frequent comparisons to other speakers such as Malcolm X (by Robin Morgan, Susie Bright, and others). Gloria Steinem repeatedly compared her strident style to the Old Testament prophets; Susan Brownmiller recalls her Take Back the Night speech in 1978:
Many of Dworkin's early speeches are reprinted in her second book, Our Blood (1976). Later selections of speeches were reprinted ten and twenty years later, in Letters from a War Zone (1988) and Life and Death (1997).
Her attitude and language often sharply polarized debate, and made Dworkin herself a figure of intense controversy. After her death, the conservative gay writer Andrew Sullivan claimed that "Many on the social right liked Andrea Dworkin. Like Dworkin, their essential impulse when they see human beings living freely is to try and control or stop them — for their own good. Like Dworkin, they are horrified by male sexuality, and see men as such as a problem to be tamed. Like Dworkin, they believe in the power of the state to censor and coerce sexual freedoms. Like Dworkin, they view the enormous new freedom that women and gay people have acquired since the 1960s as a terrible development for human culture. Cathy Young complained of a "whitewash" in feminist obituaries for Dworkin, argued that Dworkin's positions were manifestly misandrist, and stated that Dworkin was in fact insane. Other feminists, however, published sympathetic or celebratory memorials online and in print. Catharine MacKinnon, Dworkin's longtime friend and collaborator, published a column in the New York Times, celebrating what she described as Dworkin's "incandescent literary and political career," suggested that Dworkin deserved a nomination for the Nobel Prize in Literature, and complained that "Lies about her views on sexuality (that she believed intercourse was rape) and her political alliances (that she was in bed with the right) were published and republished without attempts at verification, corrective letters almost always refused. Where the physical appearance of male writers is regarded as irrelevant or cherished as a charming eccentricity, Andrea's was reviled and mocked and turned into pornography. When she sued for libel, courts trivialized the pornographic lies as fantasy and dignified them as satire."
Dworkin's reports of violence suffered at the hands of men sometimes aroused skepticism, the most famous example being the public controversy over her allegations of being drugged and raped in Paris. In 1989, Dworkin wrote an article about her life as a battered wife in the Netherlands, "What Battery Really Is," in response to fellow radical feminist Susan Brownmiller, who had argued that Hedda Nussbaum, a battered woman, should have been indicted for her failure to stop Joel Steinberg from murdering their adoptive daughter. Newsweek initially accepted "What Battery Really Is" for publication, but then declined to publish the account at the request of their attorney, according to Dworkin, arguing that she needed either to publish anonymously "to protect the identity of the batterer" and remove references to specific injuries, or to provide "medical records, police records, a written statement from a doctor who had seen the injuries." Instead, Dworkin submitted the article to the Los Angeles Times, which published it on March 12, 1989.
Some critics, such as Larry Flynt's magazine Hustler and Gene Healy, allege that Dworkin endorsed incest. In the closing chapter of Woman Hating (1974), Dworkin wrote that "The parent-child relationship is primarily erotic because all human relationships are primarily erotic," and that "The incest taboo, because it denies us essential fulfillment with the parents whom we love with our primary energy, forces us to internalize those parents and constantly seek them. The incest taboo does the worst work of the culture ... The destruction of the incest taboo is essential to the development of cooperative human community based on the free-flow of natural androgynous eroticism" (Dworkin 1974, p.189). Dworkin, however, does not explain if "fulfillment" is supposed to involve actual sexual intimacy, and one page earlier characterized what she meant by "erotic relationships" as relationships whose "substance is nonverbal communication and touch" (188), which she explicitly distinguished from what she referred to as "fucking" (187).
Dworkin's work from the early 1980s onward contained frequent condemnations of incest and pedophilia as one of the chief forms of violence against women, arguing that "Incest is terrifically important in understanding the condition of women. It is a crime committed against someone, a crime from which many victims never recover. In the early 1980s she had a public row with her former friend Allen Ginsberg over his support for child pornography and pedophilia, in which Ginsberg said "The right wants to put me in jail," and Dworkin responded "Yes, they're very sentimental; I'd kill you. When Hustler published the claim that Dworkin advocated incest in 1985, Dworkin sued them for defamatory libel; the court dismissed Dworkin's complaint on the grounds that whether the allegations were true or false, a faulty interpretation of a work placed into the "marketplace of ideas" did not amount to defamation in the legal sense.
Other critics, especially women who identify as feminists but sharply differ with Dworkin's style or positions, have offered nuanced views, suggesting that Dworkin called attention to real and important problems, but that her legacy as a whole had been destructive to the women's movement. Her work and activism on pornography—especially in the form of the Antipornography Civil Rights Ordinance—drew heavy criticism from groups such as the Feminist Anti-Censorship Task Force (FACT). Dworkin also attracted criticism from sex-positive feminists, who emerged largely in opposition to the feminist anti-pornography movement during the 1980s, as Dworkin was becoming prominent on the national stage. Sex-positive feminist critics criticized her legal activism as censorious, and argued that her work on pornography and sexuality promoted an essentialist, conservative, or repressive view of sexuality, which they often characterized as "anti-sex" or "sex-negative." Her criticisms of common heterosexual sexual expression, pornography, prostitution, and sexual sadism were frequently claimed to disregard women's own agency in sex or to deny women's sexual choices. Dworkin countered that her critics often misrepresented her views, and that under the heading of "choice" and "sex-positivity" her feminist critics were failing to question the often violent political structures that confined women's choices and shaped the meaning of sex acts.
Feminist journalist and writer Cathy Young criticized what she called Dworkin's "destructive legacy" and described Dworkin as a "sad ghost" that feminism needs to exorcise.