Feminists do not actually hate men and want to castrate them. But if ever a feminist maybe sometimes seemed to hate men and seemed to want to castrate them, that feminist would be Andrea Dworkin.
Dworkin is infamous for her anti-porn stance and her extreme rhetoric. She did not actually say, “Heterosexual sex is rape,” a quote often attributed to her. But she did say, “Physically, the woman in intercourse is a space inhabited, a literal territory occupied, literally occupied even if there has been no resistance, no force; even if the occupied person said yes please, yes hurry, yes more.”
That sure sounds like she thought women couldn’t meaningfully consent to sex with men. She also argued that “men as a class are moral cretins.” Males, in this view, are morally compromised fools and borderline rapists. Dworkin, you could safely conclude, is not a men’s rights activist.
But that conclusion would be hasty. Because way back in 1978, Dworkin took her anger and her inflammatory rhetoric and unleashed them, not on men, but on people who hated men. The essay, Biological Superiority: The World’s Most Dangerous and Deadly Idea, isn’t attacking the idea of male biological superiority. It’s attacking the idea of female biological superiority. The piece is a rebuke to lesbian separatists who argue that, in Dworkin’s paraphrase, “men are biologically inferior to women; male violence is a biological inevitability; to eliminate it, one must eliminate the species/race itself.”
Dworkin finds this idea horrific. To see men as biologically inferior to women is, in her view, to embrace the logic of murder and genocide.
“Has powerlessness driven us mad, so that we dream secret dreams of a final solution perfect in its simplicity, absolute in its efficacy?…Is there no haunting, restraining memory of the blood spilled, the bodies burned, the ovens filled, the peoples enslaved, by those who have assented throughout history to the very same demagogic logic?”
She goes on to quote Himmler. Women who see men as innately lesser, she says, are trodding the same path as the Nazis.
It’s more than a bit shocking to see Dworkin, of all people, condemning misandry in such apocalyptic terms. But it does make sense in a way. Radical feminism, of the kind that Dworkin helped to inspire, has been strongly committed to the idea that gender is not a biological truth but a social construct.
That’s the reasoning, for example, behind Elinor Burkett’s recent piece in the New York Times, in which she criticizes Caitlyn Jenner for saying ““My brain is much more female than it is male.”
Burkett believes there is no biological basis for gender. Therefore, Jenner’s effort to explain her sense of herself as a woman is labeled as retrograde and confused. The commitment to gender as a social construct doesn’t create sympathy for people with other gender expressions, in this case. It provides a pretext for policing them, which is why Dworkin was able to reject biological determinism while also supporting movements to police sex workers.
But if Dworkin’s “Biological Supremacy” fits with Burkett in some ways, it also raises some questions. Would Burkett, or other radical feminists, agree that touting female supremacy is equivalent to Nazism?
For the most part, the consensus left view of misandry, or hatred of men, is that it doesn’t exist. Prejudice against women is backed up by historical, institutional and social inequities; misogyny is a live, powerful force. Expressions of antipathy towards men, the argument goes, are just individual irritations; they lack systemic oomph. Misandry has no theoretical weight or explanatory power, the left says. It’s a chimera.
Dworkin doesn’t think it’s a chimera, though. She doesn’t use the word “misandry,” but it’s clear she thinks hatred of men is a real evil, one that can take you down the slippery slope to mass murder.
“It is shamefully easy for us to enjoy our own fantasies of biological omnipotence while despising men for enjoying the reality of theirs,” she insists. “And it is dangerous—because genocide begins, however improbably, in the conviction that classes of biological distinction indisputably sanction social and political discrimination.” Misandry is for her every bit as awful and explosive as misogyny. Both potentially lead to the ovens.
Dworkin’s often accused, with some justification, of seeing women as perennial and iconic victims. Women are the ones who suffer first, last and always. That’s a position that can end up erasing the ways that some women can, and have historically, oppressed trans people, or black people, or sex workers or other marginalized groups.
But in refuting the idea of female supremacy, Dworkin is emphatically arguing that women can be oppressors. Women can hate; women can marginalize and persecute.
Rejecting hatred of men leads Dworkin to what is essentially an intersectional feminist insight. The recognition that the oppressed can also be oppressors could, for example, create an opening to acknowledge, for example, the ways in which fears about white women’s safety has been used to justify violence against black men (as Vron Ware discusses).
Dworkin actually seems to be saying that there is no single axis for violence and marginalization. Instead, she concludes, if you consider the doctrine of female superiority, “Nothing offers more proof—sad, irrefutable proof—that we are more like men than either they or we care to believe.” When it comes to violence, no gender has an exclusive birthright.
Dworkin is a polarizing figure —and this essay only emphasizes the extent to which she was determined to make everyone as uncomfortable as possible. I can’t imagine many radical feminists are eager to follow up on Dworkin’s equation of misandry and the Holocaust. Nor are men’s rights activists, or for that matter intersectional feminists, likely to be eager to embrace her as one of their own.
But Dworkin, who always (and often infuriatingly) embraced the roles of martyr and outcast, would probably be pleased to have discommoded so many.
“All of my life, I have hated the proscribors, those who enforce sexual conformity,” she writes. “Biological Superiority” warns of the dangers of putting people in boxes, both in its impassioned argument, and in its reminder that even when you’re sure you know where a thinker stands, she can still surprise and irritate, and maybe inspire.
Noah Berlatsky edits the comics and culture site the Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics 1941-1948.