Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Why Does John Stoltenberg Call Andrea Dworkin a Trans Ally?

This photo of Andrea Dworkin and John Stoltenberg was found here.
[I have revised this piece since published on 4/22.  Julian, 4/26/2020]


In recognition of the fifteenth anniversary of the passing of the great Andrea Dworkin, her life partner, John Stoltenberg, recently wrote a piece published online at the Boston Review. You may read it here (or see the URL in the notes): "Andrea Dworkin Was a Trans Ally."(1)

I fully appreciate and understand where John is coming from; I share his concern about any ideology or actions that aim to generate bigotry, systemic and interpersonal discrimination, or replicate any incarnation of social supremacy. Like John, I believe Andrea would have passionately opposed such efforts. Unlike John, Andrea would have done so anywhere she found it.

I find the title as well as the content of Stoltenberg's new article problematic in a few ways. Stoltenberg applies a label on Andrea to stick silence to sentiments. Her empathy for the oppressed is established. But there are no public declarations of support for trans agendas, specifically. She wasn't "anti-male" and I don't think she would be "anti-trans", nor should she be labeled as such. But you can't affix absence to affection. You ought not cut terms from a battle not hers and paste them on someone so battle-scarred. I know he appreciates that mislabeling is not cool.(2) I am calling on John to carefully state where she stood and to not misappropriate something she wrote about when her own theory work was problematic, including to her. (More later.)
Additionally, I don't see his article addressing whether Andrea was or was not a trans ally. It is about ideas and values: hers, his, and his interpretation of terms some radical feminists sometimes use. His article blurs distinctions, especially Andrea's. Far more seriously, the piece obfuscates what terms Andrea's public work required to convey meaning to incite action in service to revolutionary feminist change. In each of these ways, I feel, he is making a mountain out of a mole hole, disrespecting her in the process. Stoltenberg has said he was naive when approving a publisher's title to his 2014 article, "Andrea Dworkin Was Not Transphobic."(3) How long must naivete nestle in his defensive arsenal? Only a great deal of privilege allows that term to never expire. And this: did Andrea request to be posthumously placed in the middle of a political-polemical battle not chosen by her?

Reader, it gets worse.

John identifies usage of the phrase 'real woman' as a moral affront to what Andrea worked for and valued. At the same time, he neglects to highlight a concern, a nightmare, abundantly evident to her in life under patriarchy that, I believe, most of radical feminism holds central in its theory and activism: womanhood is not chosen; it is enforced. It has a body; the body is female. Andrea graphically described the violence against her, her body, a female one. She described what is done to millions of girls and women, every one female. Noticing this connection (and how does one not?), does not render Dworkin, nor anyone else enduring and bearing witness to the same atrocities, a sex essentialist. As I shall illustrate, it is the most central theme, addressed in dozens of speeches and articles, and in all of her books. I saw her speak several times, I've read her books. This is what I heard:

It is against the female body that male supremacy most egregiously and systematically expresses itself in order to maintain male dominance as natural, God-given, eternal, and inevitable. It is against the female body that intercourse as violence and violation occurs most normally. It is against the female body that patriarchal force is unleashed: brutal, sadistic, bone crushing, and murderous. Through all of her work, Andrea addresses this explicitly: the violence is against the woman's breasts, her uterus, her vagina. What I hear most deeply, most fiercely, in radical feminists' angry opposition to essential elements of trans politics, in part, is this: You are making that understanding seem crazy and immoral. And increasingly verboten. John isn't helping. Patriarchy makes men's treatment of women—for Andrea, for radical feminism, the stubbornly human beings with a female form—intimately oppressive. Her words express this point far better than mine.
The acts of violence depicted in pornography are real acts committed against real women and real female children. (Letters from a War Zone, p. 11)

The woman's material reality is determined by a sexual characteristic, a capacity for reproduction. The man takes a body that is not his, claims it, sows his so-called seed, reaps a harvest—he colonializes a female body, robs it of its natural resources, controls it, uses it, depletes it as he wishes, denies it freedom and self-determination so that he can continue to plunder it... (War Zone, p. 118)
...I have also learned much about male power from [women], once I cared enough about women as such to realize that male power was the theme my own life had led me to. I know male power inside out, with knowledge of it gained by this female body. (War Zone, p. 64)
Now, this repulsion is literal and linear: directed especially against her genitals, also her breasts, also her mouth newly per­ceived as a sex organ. It is a goose-stepping hatred of cunt. The woman has no human dimension, no human meaning. (Intercourse, p. 9)
What is stunning and outrageous to me is that stating this aloud is controversial, unless to menthen it is still outrageous while expected and unremarkable. John, many radical feminists, and anyone who is familiar with her know this: Andrea valued naming conditions as she saw them, full voice. Mincing words or verbal tip-toeing were anathema to her. She hated words being put in her mouth or taken out context. Yet John's representation of her edits out this most incisive fact: Materially, the Venn diagram consists of one circle.

I have disturbingly discovered, over the last decade and a half, that a prerequisite for operating acceptably in white-dominated liberal queer spaces, academic and otherwise,(4) is the silencing of Andrea Dworkin specifically, and radical and lesbian feminists more generally. Those are places I have increasingly avoided due to my disdain for the prevailing ideologies and anti-feminist practice.

You cannot rationally read Dworkin and come away denying that in her worldview and in her experience, melded to the experiences of millions of women, this is realised: male means man, men are male; female means woman, women are female. She didn't shy away from saying so in academic or social circles. She didn't indulge Western theorists who value sexual diversity more than women's liberation, who think by multiplying genders we arrive at new form of freedom. There is no such charge toward metastatic metamorphosis. In the time she was alive, Andrea never articulated a hierarchy in which female women oppress trans women. Female women were, to her, a class of actual (read: real) women: 'women', unmodified by any prefix.

Unabashedly reciting those four passages above will not be tolerated in many settings influenced by the suppositions essential to liberal sex and gender theory. As Women's Studies has shifted to Gender Studies, radical feminist perspectives have been branded a violation of anti-discrimination policy, grounds for dismissal. Those courageous radical feminists who insist on naming the reality they and Andrea experienced, are losing their reputations, their careers, and their safety. Alarmingly, they are being doxed, deplatformed, threatened, and terrorised. About this, thus far, John is silent.


In Stoltenberg's article and in others by him published after Andrea's death, he resurrects chapter nine from section four from her first feminist book, Woman Hating (1974). From "Androgyny: Androgyny, Fucking, and Community," the passage prior to the one in his article:
Transsexuality can be defined as one particular formation of our general multisexuality which is un­able to achieve its natural development because of ex­tremely adverse social conditions. (p. 186)
Following her discussion of transsexuality, Dworkin went on to discuss transvestism in the context of an erotically repressive society:
Transvestism is costuming which violates gender imperatives. Transvestism is generally a sexually charged act: the visible, public violation of sex role is erotic, exciting, dangerous. It is a kind of erotic civil disobedience, and that is precisely its value. Costuming is part of the strategy and process of role destruction. We see, for instance, that as women reject the female role, they adopt “male” clothing. As sex roles dissolve, the particular erotic content of transvestism dissolves. (p. 187)
In that chapter, she also wrote uncritically about stigmatised and/or abusive interpersonal contact existing in an erotically repressive society. From the introduction to the section:
Homosexuality, transsexuality, incest, and bestiality persist as the "perversions" of this "human nature" we presume to know so much about. They persist despite the overwhelming forces mar­shaled against them—discriminatory laws and social practices, ostracism, active persecution by the state and other organs of the culture—as inexplicable em­barrassments, as odious examples of "filth" and/or "maladjustment." (p. 174)
In the conclusion, she adds: "We must refuse to submit to the fears engendered by sexual taboos." (p. 192) In 1989, in an interview, Dworkin addressed theorising with unknown and unintegrated knowledge; theory she would abandon and critique.(5)

Once known and integrated, from Pornography: Men Possessing Women (1981) to Heartbreak (2002), she never again speaks of core or peripheral issues in the terms John most utilises: there is no call for an expansive multiplicity of gender; multisexuality ceases to matter; a focus on fictive and static sex roles becomes increasingly astigmatic; the liberators of sexual taboos are revealed to be predators; she ditches androgyny as salvation. She bids a griefless goodbye to all this.

Transsexuality, too, disappears, save for two mentions in the Dworkin-MacKinnon antipornography ordinance: "The use of men, children or transsexuals in the place of women..." and, "[a]ny man, child, or transsexual who alleges injury by pornography in the way women are injured..."(6) About this, John said: "I merely want to point out that Andrea understood in a profound way that a person could be subordinated like a woman without having been assigned female at birth..."

"Subordinated like a woman." Not as a woman. The ordinance brought awareness to the fact that the pornographers can treat anyone like shit, the way women, most often and most centrally, are treated like shit. A girl, a woman: from birth to death. It is clear that Andrea and Catharine, in this radical legal mechanism for ending sex-based discrimination, did not equate being a transsexual with being a woman or a man. For the purposes of their ordinance, reflecting life as they knew it, 'women' were unto themselves as an oppressed sexual-political class.


I call upon John to stop inferring that her radicalism is epitomised in a pre-feminist section of Woman Hating and a colonialist chapter in her second book, Our Blood (1976), in which she unpacks the prevailing philosophy of gender, and, alarmingly, posits Columbus as a radical hero. (pp. 97, 110). I believe her radicalism, her mission, is found elsewhere. From the introduction to Woman Hating:
This book is an action, a political action where revolu­tion is the goal. It has no other purpose. It is not cerebral wisdom, or academic horseshit, or ideas carved in granite or destined for immortality. It is part of a process and its context is change. (p. 17)
If John is to reference Andrea's work, he must unsilence her on what mattered most to her. To not do so is misappropriation in the name of radical profeminism. We know he's familiar with the practice. From John's article: "After Andrea’s death in 2005, I became increasingly concerned that she and the radical politics I learned from her were being misappropriated by some..." I call on John to just as resolutely hold himself accountable.

Following her death, it has been sad to see the degree to which John's political trajectory follows a different orbit. I've been outraged to see the ways he's obscured Andrea's. This is my view of their respective work at this point. In the Venn diagram, his circle is the one in many colors; hers is totally eclipsed.

What follows is some of John's work.(7) I believe this is where his passion isin discussions about gender like this:
Think of a color wheel. And don’t think of one with colors segmented by lines like a pinwheel; think of one where the colors blend and blur into one another as they do in the infinitely circular rainbow that is the visible spectrum:

                        Figure 1: Color spectrum wheel
I submit that for any individual, what we think of as sex and gender is actually more like a point somewhere on a color wheel (rather than a point somewhere on a linear continuum with two ends, each of which supposedly represents two poles of a binary).
Reader, that work was not hers.

Perhaps Andrea didn't establish a public position one way or the other in such battles because of the time in which she wrote. Mindful of her empathy and compassion for oppressed people, there's simply no evidence of her being a trans ally as I've heard the term used.(8) I say that without satisfaction or derision. I'm stating a fact. As a point of reasonable comparison: if, forty years ago, an out heterosexual man wrote affirmatively about the lesbian, bi, and gay community and had done nothing since to support LGBTQ+ challenges to, and survival within, an outrageously heterosexist society, should he be considered an ally? I hope we'd all conclude the answer must be no. Here, John is the ally; Andrea was the analyst.

What white peopletrans, queer, and otherwisecan do to honor Andrea is to read all her books and fight to end white and male supremacy in all of its manifestations, in every theory and every practice.

Andrea's views are best expressed in her own work on her own terms. Not that they can't be discussed and debated. Not that we can't wonder what position she'd take on any given issue. I can't count how many times I wondered: What Would Dworkin Do? Unfortunately, since death, she's had people who identify in many ways, embracing different ideologies, with various political agendas, metaphorically tugging, tugging on each arm, trying to make a case that she stood firmly on one side or the other of the fierce trans debate. Defended she must be, but not in indefensible ways. Andrea Dworkin fought hard enough in the war zone. Let her rest, with gifts given, in power and peace.

1. "Andrea Dworkin Was a Trans Ally" (2020):

2. John makes an assumption that 'transsexual' and 'transgender' are synonymous terms. Many of us under the Western queer banner know that to be false. For example, there are queer and trans people of color and Indigenous Two-Spirit and queer people who reject the authority, agendas, and appropriations part and parcel of white gender and sexual politics. There are radical feminist transsexuals who do not identify as transgender for political reasons. The 'trans' moniker, that appears in the title of John's article, in fact, is often used in or by LGBTQIA communities as an umbrella term that includes many people, among whom some ID transsexual, some ID transgender, and many who identify as neither: it may also include folks who are gender fluid, gender non-conforming, and non-binary. Sometimes 'trans*' is synonymous with 'queer.' If he doesn't know this, he should, before trying to identify Andrea as a "trans ally". He, as a gay man, is also not positioned to make the claim. Trans-identified people are, especially trans women and trans men of color. His lack of accountability, if not knowledge, to radical and feminist transsexuals reveals allyhood with only some letters in our alphabet. See note 8 for more.

3. After writing this post, I found an archived article by John titled "Andrea Dworkin Was Not Transphobic." (2014) I had recalled and likely read it when released but couldn't find it. Once tracked down, I was engaged by the comments. They pertain so directly to this discussion that I want to link to them here, with particular shout outs to Morag and Lil Z:

4. The spaces I have operated in socially and academically have been white majority and led, or Anglo and Western theory dominated. When we who are white speak of feminism and queer politics, it generally means "white" but without stating so. I am aware of communities, perspectives, and agendas of color. Analysis of the complex challenges, not the least of which is Western and Anglo colonisation in culture and thought, is beyond the scope of this piece about Andrea Dworkin and John Stoltenberg and his use of her writings about sex not race.

5. Dworkin goes on to explicate this statement. Without Apology: Andrea Dworkin's Art and Politics (1998), by Cindy Jenefsky. Page 139, Note 1: (a UK source)

Cindy Jenefsky writes:
In my 1989 interview with Dworkin, she indicated she no longer agrees with suggestions proposed at the end of the book. "I think there are a lot of things really wrong with the last chapter in Woman Hating," says Dworkin. When asked about her discussion of incest in particular, she made reference to several factors which influenced this part of her writing. First, at the time she wrote this part of the book, she was taking care of a child who had been incestuously abused, and even though she had talked with police in Holland about the prevalence of incest there, she says there was a gap between her intellectual analysis and her personal experience. It was only through writing and getting responses to Woman Hating that her subjective experience—not just about the incest, but about wife battery and pornography as well—was validated by others and that she began to understand incest as a form of sexual abuse. She also made reference to being influenced by "years of reading Freud and trying to figure out abstractly what all this was about," especially in the absence of publicly available information about the prevalence and character of sexual abuse. Finally, Dworkin also noted that even though feminists and pornographers were moving in different directions at the time Woman Hating was written, they still shared common roots in the counterculture and sexual liberation movement. Dworkin, interview with the author, 1989.

6. Regarding the ordinance, see Pornography: Men Possessing Women, tenth anniversary edition (1989), new introduction, p. xxxiii. See also, the Massachusetts ordinance (1992):

7. "The Sex/Gender Binary: Essentialism" (2015):

8. "Becoming an Ally to Queer and Trans People of Color (QTPOC)": Also, see the first paragraph in "11 Ways To Be A Trans* Ally, According To Transgender People Themselves" (2015):

May my white male privilege serve this call to honesty and integrity.


  1. As noted atop this post, I WELCOME YOUR COMMENT! If if doesn't appear, it's because of a Blogger glitch I'm working on resolving. It's not because I'm not approving it! Until that's resolved there's this option: you may email me your comment — — and I'll copy and paste in full, unedited, in the comments section. Just let me know what name or moniker you want to have with it. Thank you. :)

  2. This furious little hash of wobbly conceits and metaphors is based solely on the demonized vision of JS called up by the TITLE of his piece.

    I took it down from comments on your piece in a forum because I hadn't read either article, I'd had a verbal fit.

    The member who posted the article there witnessed the tail end before I cleaned up, tho, and suggested I share it here.

    With that caveat, an unsourced character assassination:

    Andrea was one of the women who - decades before the odious preciousness of #NotAllMen - taught me that there are #NoExceptionalMen.

    It addresses the same defensiveness by refusing to praise men whose behavior suggests or indicates respect for women. From men who simply did not rape,hit,or infantilize women, to consistent and outspoken male allies - only a context of oppression gives their non-conformity the gloss of superiority.

    [This is a more easily corrected form of the same astigmatism that makes everyone hold women who, say, legislate against women, more accountable than men.]

    There are, of course, exceptional human beings. Charismatic leaders of every stripe, dedicated social reformers who acquire enough attention or agency to affect some degree of change, activists who affect what people can see and understand : for better or worse these are exceptional people. Skills, intelligence, ambition, & charisma are neutral powers.

    Dworkin and Stoltenberg were exceptional people promoting the kind of awareness that changes not minds but imaginations - in this case, awareness of the female condition.

    Feminism is aimed at the collective imagination of an entire species arrested at a evolutionary stage which threatens its survival.

    Sorry. Anyway, there is nothing exceptional about Stoltenberg’s energy now.

    But he is an exceptional, singular, opportunist - trading on his unique history, the cache of inevitable perception as “an exceptional man,”
    ... and most of all speaking with perverse “authority by association” for Andrea Dworkin.

    Reimagining, reframing, twisting the essence of a woman who lived and spoke and fought from the every day ground zero rubble of female lives in patriarchy, its sexual entertainment, publishing, and marketing industries ...

    He is the personification of the misogynist betrayal and cooptation of feminism -
    preaching the seductive malignancy of gender fundamentalism from a stolen pulpit.

    All in all, an unexceptionally corrupt performance.

    Dworkin’s name is the *only* thing he brings to the party: slandering her name is the only distinguishing feature.

    That can only offend those with genuine respect for her work, so maybe we’re not so much being bated by his first Transevangelist sermon, but overhearing his maiden speech in the House of Lords.

  3. Thank you, Judith. I found your comment incisive and helpful. I thought this juxtaposition was very effectively stated:

    "Dworkin and Stoltenberg were exceptional people promoting the kind of awareness that changes not minds but imaginations - in this case, awareness of the female condition" with this: "But he is an exceptional, singular, opportunist - trading on his unique history, the cache of inevitable perception as “an exceptional man,” ... and most of all speaking with perverse “authority by association” for Andrea Dworkin.

    We'll see how accountable he is and to whom and what changes in his work feminist accountability produces.