Speak up, resist the silence

Life and Death
February 13, 1998

Every woman I know with whom I have ever talked about this subject has been the object of unwanted sexual attention, harassment and violence by men, not just once but repeatedly, ranging from being flashed at on a bus or in other locations to being groped, force-kissed or otherwise man-handled. This is likely to be true of every woman you know, too. The sheer ordinariness of this experience, measured in terms of its vast incidence, is overwhelming and frightening: "In 1993 alone, there were 300,000 domestic violence calls to the police in New York." For the most part, unless some particularly gruesome crime occurs, this abuse is ignored -we do not like to think that our partners, parents, children, siblings or friends are either the victims or the perpetrators of such abuse. There is also a general sense of helplessness in the face of such abuse, a helplessness that makes it even harder for the victims to free themselves from abusive situations. This enables men to continue with their abuse and keeps women fettered to abusive scenarios.

"Before I was much over 18, I had been sexually assaulted three times," writes Andrea Dworkin. It is not this history but the fact that she writes about it that makes her extraordinary because, as she points out in Life and Death, as much as in her previous writings, the experience of being violated and battered teaches women that there is "no one to tell", that the degradation and abjection that accompany repeated assault render women "mute with trauma" in the face of a society unwilling to listen and act in response to such abuse. The role of silence in the continued acceptance of violence against and abuse of women as a normal phenomenon is therefore one of the major concerns of all the essays and speeches in Dworkin's third collection of writings. Its function, through the notion of the inadmissibility of certain evidence in front of the law courts for instance, is explored in the essay "In memory of Nicole Brown Simpson", in which Dworkin discusses the 17-year-long, publicly documented history of abuse this woman suffered before being killed - a fate, appallingly, more likely to befall battered women once they leave their abusive partners than while they stay.

It is against this, and other realities of abuse, that Dworkin, radical feminist and long-term campaigner in the fight against violence against women, writes. The structure of Life and Death, divided into four sections titled "Origins", "Emergencies", "Resistance" and "Confrontations", suggests the evolution from personal experience to politicised positioning often found in feminist work and much decried by malestream thinking. Dworkin writes harrowingly about her first 25 years or so, her difficulties with her cold, rejecting mother and her loving, "weak" father, her rapes, her abuse, her experiences of poverty, homelessness and exploitation. To suggest, however, that her writings in consequence endlessly replay those early experiences would be to individualise (and thus, ultimately, trivialise) Dworkin's experiences of abuse, which are but one instance of an all-pervasive phenomenon. It would also mean denying her sense of the urgent need to help women who are the victims of abuse. And it would ignore the fact that in a culture in which violence against women is ubiquitous, speaking out is a necessary and courageous act. Dworkin rightly celebrates speaking up: in "Remember, resist, do not comply" she details the ways in which breaking the silence about the abuse of women by men has resulted in changes to the law and to general perceptions about the abuse of women. But her representation is not one of progress; rather, it corroborates evidence from work done in Britain by Sue Lees (University of North London) and the Centre for Research on Abuse, Violence and Gender Relations at Leeds Metropolitan University, for instance, that the steady rise in the number of reports of rape and domestic violence has not been matched by increased conviction rates, which have, in fact, declined.

Dworkin centres several essays on specific cases of abuse, some possibly better known to an American than a British audience, which attracted significant media attention. The notoriety of these cases, usually caused by some particular controversy such as the race issue in the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas hearings and complicated by the high public profile of the males who stood accused, means that the reader is likely to have a view that Dworkin's representation may well challenge. Her work makes depressing reading for women - how, and how many, men can face it is difficult to answer. But some of the more vitriolic attacks on Dworkin's work may have their origin in the attacker's inability to confront the truths in her writings.

Dworkin writes for a general public who may be unfamiliar with -or are they/we? -the subject of the last two essays in her volume, which I found particularly disturbing: the abuse of Jewish women during the Holocaust and in contemporary Israel. Dworkin juxtaposes the erasure of Jewish women's fate during the Holocaust from the US Holocaust Memorial Museum with the production of "Holocaust pornography" in Israel. I did not know about this pornography in which the subject -violation and degradation of women -Jis the usual one of pornography but where the setting worsens the horror. Dworkin makes the point that the answers to the questions "Why do Israeli men like this? Why do they do it?" will "(either) tell us something new about the sexuality of men everywhere or it will tell us something specific about the sexuality of men who go from victim to victimiser". But in the main, the issue of what are the situation-specific factors that promote particular forms of violence against women or their representation is subsumed by the more general assertion of the "continuing war against women", as Dworkin terms it in her subtitle.

Dworkin writes in plurals and in the indicative, a style of writing that -as much as its content - has laid her open to attack from a range of quarters. She is not impervious to this: "I have said what men say about womenI In exposing the hate men have for women, it is as if it becomes mine. To say what they do is to be what they areI When they advocate rape, that is normal and neutral. When I say they advocate rape, I am engaging in the equivalent of blood libelI I slander them as if I invented the sadism, the brutality, the exploitation that they engage in and defend." Reactions to her work show that we can bear only so much suffering before a reluctance to face the pervasiveness of violence and violation sets in. Against the everyday ordinariness of the abuse of women, akin to Hannah Arendt's notion of the banality of evil, Dworkin insists on the need to act, asking: "Everybody's against wife battery, but who's prepared to stop it?" Silence is an answer, but it is not the answer.

Gabriele Griffin is professor of women's studies, Leeds Metropolitan University.

Life and Death: Unapologetic Writings on the Continuing War Against Women

Author - Andrea Dworkin
ISBN - 1 86049 360 2
Publisher - Virago
Price - £6.99
Pages - 1

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