Redeeming Radical Feminism: Andrea Dworkin and Augustine in Conversation

Andrea Dworkin’s Radical Feminist Vision         

Can intercourse exist without objectification?[1]

Gloria Steinem considered Andrea Dworkin “the feminist movement’s ‘Old Testament prophet: raging in the hills, telling the truth,’ as she understood it to be.”[2] Conceding the extreme polarity of such a figure as Dworkin, Steinem’s characterization nevertheless implies both the content and audience of Dworkin’s beliefs. Like the Israelites whom the Old Testament prophets exhorted, Dworkin’s audience is oblivious to the evil and abuses surrounding them, and in which they are judged complicit. And like the Old Testament prophets, Dworkin is not happily received.

Writing in the late 1970s as a part of the women’s liberation movement, Dworkin refused the blind adherence to a particular political party or ideology. Her anti-pornography work with the conservative mayor of Indianapolis, Indiana, alienated her from many other mainstream feminists and was eventually cause for a split in the ideologies of feminist parties.[3] In the preface to her book Intercourse, Dworkin drolly comments on the suggestion by her colleagues to publish the book under a pseudonym, mocking the journalists who were sure to review her book as “odious and hateful by every asshole who thinks that what will heal this violent world is more respect for dead white men.”[4]

Dworkin’s focal question is hidden within this passing ridicule: “what will heal this violent world?” Recognizing the power imbalances and pervasiveness of domination and control at the expense of human (typically female) individuality, integrity, and flourishing, Dworkin, in her anger and mockery, never diverges from that central question. The bluntness and crassness of her book ought not deter the reader from recognizing Dworkin’s deep concern as well as her deep awareness of the gravity of female inferiority and dehumanization.[5] That said, Intercourse is, by Dworkin’s own description, a “formal model [of] Dante’s Inferno . . . [moving] in descending circles . . . as in a vortex each spiral goes down deeper.”[6] In her own words, “Intercourse conveys the density, complexity, and political significance of the act of intercourse.”[7]

Though her description sounds relatively benign at this initial juncture, the downward spiral is catalyzed almost immediately and plummets sharply. Dworkin’s book is not simply an engagement with the idea of intercourse as a positive, but rather with the (typically) negative ramifications of sexual experiences “without exception . . . based on dominance” for a woman’s metaphysical and ontological identities.[8] The aggressor in this diminution of female identity and dignity is male dominance, and the liminal prospect is that “the end of male dominance would mean . . . the end of sex.”[9]

Though she writes from an atheist or even anti-theist background, Dworkin recognizes in sex the kind of inherent morality present with which reckoning is required. Describing the sexual escapades of a male character in Tolstoy’s work the Kreutzer Sonata, Dworkin writes of the main male character that:

He valued the absence of any moral dimension to sex as freedom. This absence especially signified the inferiority of the woman, because relations with a human on the same level as oneself always have a moral dimension (which does not mean that one is morally good, only that one is morally accountable).[10]

Right off the bat, and central to Dworkin’s argument, is her belief that morality is an inherent personal and societal responsibility. The denial of moral imperatives does not render morality unnecessary, but rather almost ensures abuse and the inferiorization of the other person affected by the first person’s rejection of the moral dimension. Three central motifs, women as objects, men as exploiters, and the moral dimensions inherent in relations with humans of equal dignity, orient the book and will later pave the way for dialogue between the rhyming of Dworkin’s text and Augustine’s City of God.

Mapping Augustine Onto Dworkin

Sexual intercourse requires objectification and therefore is exploitation.[11]

Libido Dominandi and Power

Dworkin invokes Tolstoy’s Kreutzer Sonata to articulate the sort of desire present in this society of domination/exploitation and subordination/objectification. Dworkin writes of the main male character in Tolstoy’s work as an embodiment of this type of male domination:                  

Long before he had touched a woman, this depravity, this exploitation, was rooted in his mind, a form of torment. He was tormented by “woman, not some particular woman but woman as something to be desired, woman, every woman, woman’s nudity” . . . This impersonal something was at the heart of his desire: objectlike, not human and individual; not someone in particular but a body...something to have.”[12]

Augustine’s description of the earthly city maps perfectly onto Dworkin’s exegesis of Tolstoy. The desire experienced by this man is not desire for another as an other, but rather is the desire to possess, the desire that objectifies in its search to own and control. Further, that this exploitation was “a form of torment” emphasizes that the dominating, in Augustine’s earthly city, are themselves dominated, perhaps even tormented, by their desire for domination. Still, for Dworkin, women are not reduced to non-culpable victims of the system of domination. This rings true for Augustine, too—there are no innocent bystanders in the City of Man, even if it is true that women experience the effects of the City of Man more markedly. Dworkin writes of woman in this situation of inequality and man’s desire to own, that woman “is this danger, has this power, dominates [man], directly as a consequence of her inequality, the meaning of which is in her reduction to a sexual object.”[13] Dworkin names this sort of “fall” in the actions of woman as the “dynamic of revenge of the powerless through sensuality.”[14]

The sensual power of women over men is due, first, to the desire of men for an other body—not an other person, but for the thing, for possession of the thing. Living as a recipient of this kind of desire renders woman participative in her own objectification: being seen as an object, she participates in the perpetuation of that objectification, because it is the only power she has. Though it is a significantly weaker power than that of the dominating men, it is a power of some sort—though both the power to dominate physically (man) and the power to dominate sensually (woman) are manifestations of power only in the earthly city; such impulses to control, to possess, to dominate, and to manipulate are not part of the schema of the heavenly city.

Ultimately, however, the ruling passions of the earthly city can neither be breached nor overcome before the personal and individual reality is confronted. “As long as men desire women for intercourse, and women are used as sexual objects, regardless of laws and other public reforms women’s real status will be low, degraded.”[15]

Though intercourse is certainly a political act with societal ramifications, in the route to healing, personal precedes political. Augustine affirms this in citing the first sin as a fall of the soul which affects the body, not initially the other way around. This means that the soul of each individual, too, is the primary mover in the desire to control, possess, and dominate. A political or societal referendum cannot change the individual soul without the soul’s own intention. The personal healing precedes and supports the political healing. Written negatively, “no rights to hold government office or other public positions of civil or professional power will change [woman’s] status so long as she is exploited in sex.”[16] The personal, in the soul as well as in the physical lived-out reality, is paramount in the issue of domination and objectification: “...ownership of the body was not an abstraction; it was concrete and it came first.”[17]

The subordinate status of women, the societal rejection of her ontological worth and metaphysical presence, is rooted in this ownership of her body in the act of intercourse. No matter if she is raped or if it is consensual, the nature of intercourse, the physicality of it, is the same in both situations—and, in the city ruled by domination and dominated by its own libido dominandi, ownership is nearly always the driver of such experiences. Possession rules intercourse because domination rules individuals, and the libido dominandi rules the earthly city. Thus, intercourse, with its imbalanced power dynamics of male superiority and female subordination, results in that “[man] is calloused to [woman’s] well-being because her well- being is not compatible with his fucking—and it is the fucking he wants, not the woman as a person.”[18]

Until the nature of intercourse is reckoned with as such, woman’s status and perceived dignity will continue to suffer; her well-being will be irrelevant in a city wholly concerned with the power of and lust for domination.

Passion vs. Love

Dworkin’s explanation of the passion of intercourse affirms Augustine’s notion of the passions as extremist caricatures of the virtues from which they stem. A vice is not a wholly different essence from the virtue, rather, it is warping of a virtue. This means that the healing of a vice is not pure eradication, but rather healing of the warped nature. Dworkin writes of passion that “passion, wanting to burn, races against love, which may stop. Not being the same, they create urgency and desperation.”[19] This passion is desire undisciplined and unordered by the virtue of love, rendering passion “not the same” as love. Allowing this misalignment of passion to rule, “urgency and desperation” arise. Intercourse, “skinless-ness,” by Dworkin’s description, is a male desire for an “escape route from mental self-absorption into reality,” for “the world, connection, contact, touch, feeling, what is real, the physical, what is true outside [man’s] frenetic self-involvement . . . [and] the convulsions of [man’s] passionate self-regard.”[20] Dworkin writes in striking alignment with Augustine’s notion of the catalyst for Original Sin: “He wants love, but on his own terms.”[21]

This likely unintentional allusion to Original Sin affirms that the reality of society as Dworkin sees it is in fact the reality of Augustine’s so-called earthly city. “Unable to transcend ego,” man sets the terms for love, ultimately unable to rise out of his own self-love and self- worship, and thus rendering himself god.[22] Man (and woman, in a particular and different way) is “alienated because of [his] self-absorption.”[23] The desire for possession and control in intercourse is in fact alienating; because this type of union is not the virtuous flowering of its created intention, it cannot unify, it cannot do anything but alienate. The nakedness of intercourse, “naked . . . [interiorly] too, being stripped of ego and greed,” is warped by ego and self-absorption into an alienating activity, one that has severe metaphysical ramifications for the woman subordinated, as well as for the man who subordinates.[24]

Reordering Power

Still, though there are ramifications for the dominating (man), who is himself dominated by libido dominandi, the ramifications for woman are more acute.

As the God who does not exist made her, this lesser privacy, this lesser integrity, this lesser self, establishes her lesser significance: not just in the world of social policy but in the world of bare, true, real existence.[25]       

The effects of this libido dominandi are real for man and for woman, but woman’s reality is to suffer the subordinate role in the power imbalance that characterizes intercourse. This role of subordination is affirmed in Genesis 3 as well as by Pope Saint John Paul II in Mulieris Dignitatem:                                     

The threat [of the consequences of the Fall are] more serious for the woman, since domination takes the place of “being a sincere gift” and therefore living “for” the other . . . This “domination” . . . is especially to the disadvantage of the woman.[26]

Genesis 3, also, explains the state of humanity and woman’s subordination as a consequence of the Original Sin of Adam and Eve: “To the woman [God] said: I will intensify your toil in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children; yet your urge shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you” (Gen 3:16). This power imbalance results in that women not only desire for their men, who rule over women, but according to Dworkin, manifests in that “men need inequality in order to fuck.”[27] The entrance of sin into the world bases male and female relationships on inequality, which is manifested most pointedly in intercourse. In order for there to be equality in intercourse, “men [would] also need to be chaste.”[28] Dworkin imagines this reordering of power in order to combat imbalanced dynamics in sex and in the world as, in one aspect, “giving the woman power over intercourse [and thus] giving her the power to be equal.”[29] Dworkin sees woman’s humanity as requiring sexual sovereignty—however, this power or sovereignty is not equal to the misuse of power by males in sex.


Dworkin sees the reality of the effects of intercourse as affirmative of and thus promoted by the community of male dominance.[30] The meaning of intercourse in the City of Man is defined by man, not woman; “the community has rules; and the rules of the community protect male power.”[31] The intended meaning of intercourse in the City of Man is always power, control, and domination, because the community wants it that way. The meaning of this for woman is a rejection of woman’s identity as human:

Knowing one’s own human value is fundamental to being able to respect others: females are remade into objects, not human in any sense related to freedom or justice—and so what can females recognize in other females that is a human bond toward freedom? Is there anything in us to love if we do not love each other as the objects we have become? Who can love someone who is less than human unless love itself is domination per se?[32]

Dworkin emphasizes here the result of the objectification of a human: woman is not simply objectified in the eyes of the objectifier; she becomes an object to herself, in her own eyes, and likewise the women around her become objects. Can an object love? Can an object love another object? The primary vocation of a human to love is ripped from woman. This objectification becomes a “metaphysical acceptance of lower status in sex and in society” for woman, so much so that she participates complicitly in her own objectification, “[politically] collaborating with his dominance.”[33] This “initial complicity” leads to “acts of self-multiplication, self-diminishing, self-reconstruction, until there is no self, only the diminished, mutilated reconstruction.”[34] The ramifications of objectification extend so far as to render woman an object, and to render the individual woman virtually self-less.

The Problem of Sex

Ultimately it is not a matter of what sex is evil and what sex is good; which kind is corrupting and which kind is sanctifying. An Augustinian examination of sex and the sexual desire behind it does not so easily define sexual desire as a positive, or even as possibly sanctifying.[35] Thus the character of sex itself, always, at least for men, a flowering of that initial unsanctifiable sexual desire, is always nebulous. Dworkin’s arugment is not that far from Augustine’s— that sex is not inherently holy is not a new claim, even if it might be the minority position. And certainly Dworkin realizes this:

In Amerika, there is a nearly universal conviction—or so it appears—that sex (fucking) is good and that liking it is right: morally right; a sign of human health; nearly a standard for citizenship. Even those who believe in original sin and have a theology of hellfire and damnation express the American creed, an optimism that glows in the dark: sex is good, healthy, wholesome, pleasant, fun.[36] 

In “Amerika,” the one thing unable to be critiqued is sex, unabashedly and uncontroversally reigning as “Good.” And so, we have two factors determining the “goodness” of the sex act. First, and initially, we have sexual desire—desire which, for Augustine, is not able to be made wholly holy in this world, and for Dworkin, is most often (if not always) aroused by objectification, not “love” or “beauty.” Second, we have the “outside forces” of industry: the porn industry, the prostitution industry, both explicit and real, as well as the implicit industries they produce: a culture that rapes women over and over again though consumption of pornographic images; an intellectual milieu that considers violent pornography as necessary free speech, essentially positing the desires of men as more important than the degradation and pain of women; a sea of consumers of pornography which incites desire for prostitution, which leads to what is often in pornography depicted—rape, which, because of its capitalistic background and backing, commodifies woman to the point that she is no longer a Who but a What, and the highest dignity of a What is its price tag; its lowest dignity, by identity, is usable; usable however the consumer wants.

There is no sex act apart from these two factors. There is no redeemed sex, certainly not for Dworkin. Even for Augustine, that sanctification occurs within Christian marriage, and even then sexual desire and sex itself are ordered towards healing, not fully healed themselves.

This is the gravity of the problem at hand and speaks in part to the conundrum Dworkin faces in routing a path to remedy. Furthermore, Augustine’s own conception of mitigating these issues is not so simple and easy. There is no cute answer to the problems of the violence of sex and sexual desire. Nevertheless, Dworkin attempts to offer some hope in the form of self-knowledge, and Augustine in gratitude. It is the merging of these two notions, or better yet, the co-identifying of these two dispositions, that—only theologically— offers a genuine path to healing.

Self-Knowledge as Gratitude                                             

Here we return to Dworkin’s original question: “can intercourse exist without objectification?”[37]  For both Dworkin and Augustine the answer seems clear: in this current state of things (Dworkin), in the modus operandi of the earthly city (Augustine), no. The particularities in instances of systematic domination on which Dworkin expounds fill in the broad strokes Augustine paints of the earthly city. While Dworkin never explicitly states that there was or could have been a state of male and female sexual relations not characterized by domination and subordination, she certainly implies it in her citation of the role of self- knowledge. Self-knowledge perhaps allows some mitigation of the imbalanced power dynamics seemingly inherent to sex. Given that a mitigation is possible means that, even in Dworkin’s conception, these power dynamics are neither wholly inherent nor ontologically necessitated.

Dworkin writes that with the grace of “conquering the fear of [self]-knowledge,” “fucking can be communion, a sharing, mutual possession of an enormous mystery.”[38]  This self-knowledge may be mapped on to Augustine’s schema of the Two Cities as a sort of knowledge of one’s fallen state, of one’s potential for runaway passion for domination, for lust to control and lust to possess. Self-awareness of these disordered tendencies, a realization deeper than a superficial acceptance of the status quo, allows for the actualization of the potential to transform “violent feeling . . . into tenderness.”[39]  This is exactly Augustinian—the warped desire is not eradicated or stomped out, but is rather realized, healed, and, in its healed form, actualized. This healed desire is “the passion [that is] gentle in that it does not destroy.”[40]

Augustine’s conception of self-knowledge is worded differently than Dworkin’s: for Augustine, healing the passions of the libido dominandi rests on gratitude. The character of this gratitude is penitential; it takes the form of sacrifice. The body is subordinate to the soul, and so just as the soul initiated the sin that the body actualized, so too must the soul “lose the ‘form’ of worldly desire and . . . be ‘re-formed’ by submission to God.”[41] This re-formation takes place in the sacrifices of the body, disciplined by temperance, “so that we may not offer our bodily powers to the service of sin as the instrument of iniquity.”[42] Further, these sacrifices of the body must be directed towards God, they are “acts of compassion . . . intended to free us from misery and thus bring us to happiness—which is only attained by that good . . . the true good, [God].”[43] It is this penitential character that de-conforms an individual from the libido dominandi and the power structures made and supported by it.

Augustine’s Vision

Not to us, Lord, not to us, but to your name give glory.[44]

Augustine’s construction of the healing of societal domination is cast in his consideration of the relationship between virtue (excellence) and piety. A person’s life in general, Augustine writes, “cannot be right without a right belief about God.”[45] The freedom of a person is only truly free and free from the lust for domination, the yoke of that lust for domination, in the right posture before God. This posture, however, walks a fine line: the freedom characteristic of human nature is problematic. Power necessitates freedom, and thus the freedom of a person always has the potential of the “slippery slope”[46] down to the lust for and wielding of power; and yet, it is only this correct posture to God that offers one felicity; only “participation in him brings happiness to all who are happy in truth and not in illusion.”[47]

Still, just as true happiness is only possible in right relation to God, so too is true virtue (excellence) only attainable with true piety;[48] true excellence is impossible except for worship of the true God. True worship, or true piety, stands in stark contrast to the posture of those who wield power and are overcome by the lust of domination. In true piety, it is gratitude that is the refreshment of the social body,

And [man] ascribes whatever there is that may be pleasing in himself entirely to the mercy of God...offering thanks for faults amended, and pouring out prayers for the amendments of faults that still remain.[49]

In genuine piety, one “believes in God and hopes in him, [and] is more concerned about what he finds displeasing in himself than what (if anything) is pleasing, not so much to himself as to the Truth.”[50] The posture of true piety is one of gratitude, gratitude wholly oriented to Truth, and one of self-reflection and awareness of his own faults. This kind of self-mortification is opposite of the sibi placentas, the self-pleasers, whose worship is the antithesis of gratitude, and whose piety is centered on self-referential praise and delight in his own virtue, a kind of complacency. The character especially of certain inhabitants of the City of God on earth, the martyrs, is that “they did not rest on that glory, as if they had attained the goal of their own virtue. They ascribed it all to the glory of God, whose grace had made them what they were.”[51] Augustine’s vision is a vision of humility, a posture of both thanksgiving and of a sort of penance, as “in this life [passion] cannot wholly be rooted out from the heart, because even those souls which are making good progress are not exempt from the temptation.”[52] While the temptation may never cease on this earth, there is still a degree of “true virtue, springing from true devotion,”[53] practicable for the faithful. The witness of the martyrs reveals this alternative to the libido dominandi. “What else was there for them [the martyrs] to love save glory?”[54] Without true piety, there is nothing for a person to love; there is no place for glory except in self-glorification, self-love above all else.

Augustine’s vision thus recognizes that power and domination are both investments of the state and in turn serve the state’s interests. The interest of the state are not, however, so evidently the interests of domination: “the angel of darkness masquerades as an angel of light” (2 Cor 11:14). The distinguisher, however between the angel of light and the angel of darkness, is in the presence or lack of true gratitude. This gratitude is constitutive of true worship; thus, the question becomes, “what kind of observances of religion and devotion are we to believe that they [the good angels] wish to see in us?”[55] Augustine answers this question himself: “Thus the true sacrifice [the true and perfect sacrifice] is offered in every act which is designed to unite us to God in a holy fellowship.”[56] Recognizing true gratitude can be difficult, however; it looks like one should worship the empire, that empire which, in modernity, cites freedom, sexually and monetarily, which cites open mindedness and tolerance, which cites justice as its endgame. And yet, it is this modern earthly city that ultimately loves glory; the ends of all their citations of goodness are glory or prestige, self-glory or pleasure-seeking. This “worship” is ultimately a demonic worship, in that it is a worship in full assent to fake gods and truths.

It is the Eucharist and the Passion of Christ which always bear witness to truth, which cut through the distortions and self-glorification character of the earthly city, precisely because there is no vested interest. The sacrifice of Christ on the Cross is wholly God-oriented; it is a sacrifice by the God who has everything and needs nothing, and thus it is the sacrifice which gives everything. Nothing can co-opt the Cross, it rather points to a perspective infinitely greater than all the many vested interests of the earthly city. It is finally Augustine’s hermeneutic of suspicion which, in the light of the Cross and the Eucharist, is able to see the truth of all things as they are. In the Eucharist, there is no other place to go, no confusion between the angel of light and the angel of darkness, no accidental vested interests masquerading as truth, because there is no other place that is wholly self-gift.

Thus, from an Augustinian perspective, the Eucharist is the final answer to the problem of the libido dominandi and its dictatorship in the modern, earthly city. Without the Eucharist, there is no Truth, no transcendent being to whom one has to thank. Without the Eucharist, glory, power, and virtue are entirely self-referential and can only self- referential because of the lack of the true Other, the Other who gives his whole self out of love, not out of any vested interest. The balm to the wound of domination, and particularly the domination of women in their vulnerable state, is true thanksgiving, true gratitude, and true posture towards God. Only in the Eucharist are vested interests re-formed to self-gift, and only in true worship of the true self-gift is a genuine alternative to the corrupted earthly city possible.

[1] Intercourse, 177.  

[2] Ibid., xix.

[3] Ibid., xxi.

[4] Ibid., xxix.

[5] Dworkin’s language is a little richer than some our readers might be used to, but it is frequently used in a technical (albeit idiosyncratic) sense. Therefore, despite the possible offense to the reader, we have decided to retain it throughout.

[6] Ibid., xxx.

[7] Ibid., xxxiv.

[8] Ibid., xxxii.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., 13, emphasis mine.

[11] Ibid., 24.

[12] Ibid., 14.

[13] Ibid.. 19.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid., 21.

[16] Ibid.,

[17] Ibid., 172.

[18] Ibid., 23.

[19] Ibid., 39.

[20] Ibid., 42.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid., 38.

[25] Ibid., 154.

[26] Mulieris Dignitatem 10.

[27] Intercourse, 20.

[28] Ibid., 28.

[29] Ibid., 173.

[30] Ibid., 99.

[31] Ibid., 100.

[32] Ibid., 259.

[33] Ibid., 178.

[34] Ibid.

[35] See Augustine “On Marriage and Concupiscence,” see also John Cavadini “Feeling Right: Augustine on the Passions and Sexual Desire.”

[36] Intercourse, 84.

[37] Ibid., 177.

[38] Ibid., 76.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Ibid., 77.

[41] Civ. Dei 10.6.

[42] Ibid.

[43] Ibid.

[44] Ibid. 10.24.

[45] Ibid. 5.10.

[46] Ibid. 5.19.

[47] Ibid. 5.11.

[48] Ibid. 5.19.

[49] Ibid. 5.20.

[50] Ibid.

[51] Ibid. 5.14.

[52] Ibid.

[53] Ibid.

[54] Ibid.

[55] Civ. Dei 10.1.

[56] Ibid. 10.6.

Andrea Dworkin and Jim Haynes appearing on television programme After Dark hosted by Anthony Clare on 21 May 1988, (c) Open Media Ltd 1988; Source: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0.


Hope Brannon

Hope Brannon is a 2020 theology major graduate from the University of Notre Dame. She now is an actor in Chicago.

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