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Transitioning but Not Transcending: Dispelling the Distortions of Andrea Dworkin’s Work
Part I of a series
A shortened version of this essay series appeared in a post to the Andrea Dworkin Archival Project Facebook page on March 23, 2023. However, based on multiple comments received, I have edited the original thoughts to clarify my points. I am taking great care with each source.
The present analysis reorients the focus, as the initial thoughts began with a discussion of John Stoltenberg’s The End of Manhood: A Book for Men of Conscience, first published in 1993. My reasoning for the previous thoughts regarding Stoltenberg was because Nikki Craft suggested we could make a post that talked about a certain excerpt Stoltenberg had sent her in 1997. The excerpt was titled “What Should a Man of Conscience Do When He Fucks Up?” Looking at that excerpt, we thought it was both interesting and ironic, given certain peculiar things Stoltenberg has done. She thought—as did I—that Stoltenberg’s 1993 writing had relevance to his rewriting of Dworkin after her death, the distortions we must dispel. We still think so.
That initial post to the ADAP page had to do most explicitly with that excerpt connected to a continuing discussion of Stoltenberg’s claims about Andrea Dworkin being a “trans ally.” My point in that piece was not to write a definitive critique in the span of a single Facebook post. Nor did I see it as necessary to include every Dworkin quote used in every secondary source.
My contribution has differed in raising information typically excluded from the existing accounts—including Stoltenberg’s. I composed the post as I did thinking others would read Stoltenberg’s article cited in the piece. I did not exclude what Dworkin wrote in Woman Hating: A Radical Look at Sexuality to hide it from readers. On the contrary, in recent years especially, the passages on transsexualism happen to be some of the most widely cited from her book—though least understood.
If “trans ally” readers end up reading nothing else of Dworkin, then they read that fragment from Woman Hating isolated from her later work. The extended form of my thoughts, in this series, differs in explicitly dealing with the secondary sources, in detail—and with some critique. Here I provide the specific Dworkin quotes used—and noting those not used—to better illustrate the issues.
Transitioning but Not Transcending
Men erase; misogyny distorts; the intelligence of women is still both punished and despised.
- Andrea Dworkin, Right-wing Women1
Nikki Craft has discussed John Stoltenberg’s rewriting of Andrea Dworkin in two previously republished essays on the Andrea Dworkin Archival Project Facebook page. For context, the reader may refer to “The Worst Kind of Betrayal” (February 28, 2016) and “Altering Andrea” (March 7, 2016).2 I say republished, because Craft first published these both as notes on Facebook, but that function has since been removed. I find them valuable in terms of existing information on the circumstances of Stoltenberg’s editorial changes to Dworkin’s work.
In this first part of the series, I will be analyzing Stoltenberg’s “Andrea Dworkin Was a Trans Ally,” published by Boston Review in 2020.3 Stoltenberg’s piece argues that Dworkin would be a “trans ally” today—and that she had been one in all of the decades that he knew her. He had made this claim before, most notably in 2016, when he participated in self-declared “trans historian” Cristan Williams’s Conversations Project for TransAdvocate.
Stoltenberg’s primary text for the claims he has made is Dworkin’s Woman Hating, published in 1974, specifically a paragraph from the section on transsexualism. Dworkin writes:
There is no doubt that in the culture of male-female discreteness, transsexuality is a disaster for the individual transsexual. Every transsexual, white, black, man, woman, rich, poor, is in a state of primary emergency […] as a transsexual. There are three crucial points here. One, every transsexual has the right to survival on his/her own terms. That means that every transsexual is entitled to a sex-change operation, and it should be provided by the community as one of its functions. This is an emergency measure for an emergency condition. Two, by changing our premises about men and women, role-playing, and polarity, the social situation of transsexuals will be transformed, and transsexuals will be integrated into community, no longer persecuted and despised. Three, community built on androgynous identity will mean the end of transsexuality as we know it. Either the transsexual will be able to expand his/her sexuality into a fluid androgyny, or, as roles disappear, the phenomenon of transsexuality will disappear and that energy will be transformed into new modes of sexual identity and behavior.4 [emphasis added]
Stoltenberg includes this entire passage in his piece. Readers typically emphasize the first part, the sentence where Dworkin writes “every transsexual is entitled to a sex-change operation, and it should be provided by the community as one of its functions.” However, they usually do not look closely at the ending of the passage. When Dworkin says “the phenomenon of transsexuality will disappear” as sex roles disappear, transsexualism would cease to exist via social change. Or, as she also writes, it would become a “fluid androgyny,” but transsexualism would not be perpetuated. Transsexualism presents a transitional state in Dworkin’s analysis, “an emergency measure,” not the end point.
In The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male, published in 1979, Janice G. Raymond writes “the problem of transsexualism would best be served by morally mandating it out of existence.” Raymond argues that both perpetuating transsexualism’s medical-technical methods and having it “legally mandated out of existence” would not be reasonable courses of action. Rather, she argues there should be necessary limits placed on the surgical and hormonal interventions, coupled with “other legislation that lessens the support given to sex-role stereotyping, which generated the problem to begin with.”5
Both Dworkin and Raymond argue for transforming the social situation by “changing our premises” about sex-role stereotyping. Both radical feminists regard transsexualism, particularly its medicalized form seen in the West, as transient. If transsexualism is “an emergency measure for an emergency condition,” as Dworkin puts it, then transgenderism is the needless perpetuation of that emergency—now being institutionalized by the state.
This reading presents a problem for those arguing Dworkin would support transgenderism now, almost fifty years later, as she “supported” transsexualism in 1974. By today’s standard, regarding transgenderism as something transitory, to be done away with, would clearly be considered “transphobic.” Nobody who sees it as such would be considered a “trans ally” in the sense that being a “trans ally” has been construed.
Throughout Stoltenberg’s piece, he argues “TERFs”—though he spares us the word—have argued for “real womanhood” and “real manhood.” He misrepresents what has been termed the “gender-critical feminist” (read: feminist) position as defining the sexes by sex-role stereotyping. According to Stoltenberg:
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 to argue—in the name of radical feminism—for a biologically essentialist notion of ‘real womanhood.’ To my mind, this was a betrayal of a fundamental insight I learned from Andrea, and referenced throughout my work, that male supremacy is premised on the equally fictitious biological essentialism of ‘real manhood.’6
Here is Stoltenberg’s critique of the feminists whom he charges with “biological determinism”:
The fundamental problem with radical feminism’s obsession with biologically defining the category woman is that it unwittingly enables a politics that is profoundly reactionary. In falsely framing the reality of male supremacy as being based in biological ‘fact’ about ‘real womanhood,’ it completely misses the point about how male supremacy actually functions to construct the category ‘real manhood.’ That lethal reality happens transactionally, not anatomically. It happens when would-be real men rape; it happens when would-be real men batter; it happens when would-be real men buy sex; it happens when would-be real men consume pornography. Male supremacy is explicable not by biology but by belief in the delusion of ‘real manhood’ and the concomitant insatiable urge to belong to it the only way one can: by committing acts that violate and subjugate others.7
Stoltenberg cites from two of Dworkin’s early essays, also from the 1970s: “The Root Cause” (1975) and “Biological Superiority: The World’s Most Dangerous and Deadly Idea” (1977). For Stoltenberg, the first informs his view that sex always already exists as an idea produced by gender polarity, never being a natural reproductive category separate from social meaning. The second one is a critique of biological determinism being a way of defining groups as superior and inferior and creating scapegoats.
“Biological Superiority” does not even reasonably apply to women slandered as “TERFs” asserting there exist recognizable differences between women and men. The radical feminist analysis has always noted differences in the lives of women and men as two distinct social and political classes with diverging interests. By contrast, transgenderism denies these differences in favor of a pretense of similarity that cannot resolve sex-class antagonism by scalpel and syringe, much less by magic word. Radical feminism would be charged as “biologically essentialist” on the basis of even seeing differences between women and men, though such a charge makes no sense. Read another way, Stoltenberg’s continued idealization of “multisexuality” seems far more akin to liberal individualism, close to sexual liberalism, than remotely compatible with radical feminism.
Dworkin’s 1977 critique does not seem reasonably applicable to women concerned about forced closeness being imposed upon them by men who lay claim to womanhood. In that essay, Dworkin discusses lesbian separatists, whom she encountered, who saw men as biologically defective. They even hated women who, at any point, engaged with men, especially sexually—which included Dworkin. To her, these women perpetuated a belief, one of “biological superiority,” that served to reinforce human oppression. Reading the essay, one may struggle to see how Stoltenberg neatly maps it onto radical lesbian feminists like Raymond. Not seeing men as women does not equate to seeing men as inferior and women as superior. Only somebody who completely ignores women in favor of caricatures would believe so. Acknowledging differences between the sexes, in real biological and social terms, does not automatically result in a hierarchy. The denial of human difference has not been proven to reduce oppression as much as camouflage it. Stoltenberg’s misrepresentation of female critics of transgenderism as “biological essentialists” is therefore nonsensical. Transgenderism itself exhibits qualities of biological determinism, minus the biology and plus more idealism, as Kajsa Ekis Ekman critiques in her recently published On the Meaning of Sex: Thoughts About the New Definition of Woman.8
Claims of “biological determinism,” also worded as “biological essentialism,” have been repeatedly used to misrepresent women’s concerns. Instead of thinking critically about transgenderism, as male critics often especially fail to do, Stoltenberg repeats decades-old slander used against radical feminists. According to Raymond, whom “trans allies” have branded a “biological essentialist,” there are differences, but they do not have to be rooted in biology to matter. She writes:
Men, of course, have defined the supposed differences that have kept women out of such jobs and professions, and feminists have spent much energy demonstrating how these differences, if indeed they do exist, are primarily the result of socialization. Yet there are differences, and some feminists have come to realize that those differences are important whether they spring from socialization, from biology, or from the total history of existing as a woman in a patriarchal society. The point is, however, that the origin of these differences is probably not the important question, and we shall perhaps never know the total answer to it. Yet we are forced back into trying to answer it again and again.9
Raymond does not sound like a “biological essentialist”; rather, she sounds like a feminist, what transgenderism essentially opposes and desires to dismember and devour. Men have continued making women answer the question of whether men can be women or not. But there are differences that are important between women and men. Raymond adds:
No man can have the history of being born and located in this culture as a woman. He can have the history of wishing to be a woman and of acting like a woman, but this gender experience is that of a transsexual, not of a woman. Surgery may confer the artifacts of outward and inward female organs but it cannot confer the history of being born a woman in this society.10
* For an especially insightful critique of the ongoing misrepresentation of radical feminists, including the charge of “biological determinism,” see Tania Lienert, “On Who Is Calling Radical Feminists ‘Cultural Feminists’ and Other Historical Sleights of Hand,” Radically Speaking: Feminism Reclaimed, ed. by Diane Bell and Renate Klein (North Melbourne, Australia: Spinifex Press, 1996), 155-168.
Stoltenberg has argued a parallel between “the male sex” and “the Aryan race,” which appears in Refusing to Be a Man: Essays on Sex and Justice, his 1989 collection of essays. In “How Men Have (a) Sex,” he writes:
The idea of the male sex is like the idea of an Aryan race. The Nazis believed in the idea of an Aryan race—they believed that the Aryan race really exists, physically, in nature—and they put a great deal of effort into making it real. The Nazis believed that from the blond hair and blue eyes occurring naturally in the human species, they could construe the existence of a separate race—a distinct category of human beings that was unambiguously rooted in the natural order of things. But traits do not a race make; traits only make traits. For the idea to be real that these physical traits comprised a race, the race had to be socially constructed. The Nazis inferiorized and exterminated those they defined as ‘non-Aryan.’ With that, the notion of an Aryan race began to seem to come true. That’s how there could be a political entity known as an Aryan race, and that’s how there could be for some people a personal, subjective sense that they belonged to it. This happened through hate and force, through violence and victimization, through treating millions of people as things, then exterminating them. The belief system shared by people who believed they were all Aryan could not exist apart from that force and violence. The force and violence created a racial class system, and it created those people’s membership in the race considered ‘superior.’ The force and violence served their class interests in large part because it created and maintained the class itself. But the idea of an Aryan race could never become metaphysically true, despite all the violence unleashed to create it, because there simply is no Aryan race. There is only the idea of it—and the consequences of trying to make it seem real. The male sex is very like that.11
To my knowledge, Stoltenberg’s argument has not been critiqued at length, though critiques exist of this analogy. Whether intended or not, transsexualism past and transgenderism present have effectively reified sex-role stereotyping. The parallel to race—i.e., “the male sex” being like “the white race” and “the Aryan race”—only makes it seem more nonsensical that Stoltenberg mistakenly endorses technological fundamentalism regarding ending the gender class system. One may picture “race-affirming care” parallel to “gender-affirming care.” By force and violence, such affirmation would serve to affirm the social categories by medicalizing them as if a disease of the body and not a product of the society. A “trans” strategy applied to race as to gender would be the medicalization of a caste and the selling of a medical “cure” to move around within the caste.
Stoltenberg’s “How to Have (a) Sex” piece connects to another piece of his titled “Future Genders,” from 1980, published in Omni. His piece discusses sexologist John Money and favorably pairs him with Dworkin. He writes:
Writing in Woman Hating: A Radical Look at Sexuality in 1974, feminist Andrea Dworkin commented that Money’s research into the variability of human sexedness ‘threatens to transform the traditional biology of sex difference into the radical biology of sex similarity. That is not to say there is one sex, but that there are many.’ Dworkin named that condition multisexuality. ‘We are clearly a multisexed species,’ she asserted. ‘“Man” and “woman” are fictions, caricatures, cultural constructs.’ Make a note for the twenty-first century. Dworkin’s reception suits John Money well. He is very much a social activist, a crusader for a change in attitudes. He describes himself as ‘a skeptic and a rebel against establishment hypotheses.’ He argues publicly against the ‘sexual dictatorship’ that he believes rules society, and he urges the establishment of a ‘sexual democracy’ in which all sexual nonconformities would be tolerated so long as they do not ‘cross the dividing line of infringing on the personal inviolacy of the partner.’12
In the piece, Stoltenberg discusses Raymond’s critique of Money and The Transsexual Empire, but he does not condemn her as “transphobic” or as exhibiting “biological essentialism.” Here is the passage from Stoltenberg’s 1980 article where he discusses Raymond:
Some critics have indeed suggested that the medical establishment, to which Money belongs, serves to reinforce the false separation between male and female—particularly by promoting the ‘treatable syndrome’ of transsexualism. Foremost among those critics is Dr. Janice Raymond, assistant professor of women’s studies and medical ethics at Hampshire College and the University of Massachusetts, in Amherst. In her 1979 book The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male, Dr. Raymond argued that transsexual surgery is nothing less than ‘an antisocial activity that promotes the worst aspects of patriarchal society by encouraging adaptation to its sex roles.’ Because transsexualism so emphasizes a dichotomy between women and men, it ‘constitutes a “sociological program” that is undercutting the movement to eradicate sex-role stereotyping and oppression in this culture.’ She singled out John Money for having contributed ‘a pseudometaphysics’ in transsexualism’s defense—‘a new theory of the social “nature” of sex-role differences that is just as immutable (and absolute) as older biological natural law theories.’ Raymond cites as an example Money’s view that gender identity is irreversibly fixed by the age of about eighteen months. Up to a point, Money agrees. ‘You can’t ignore the fact—if you want to say it this way—that a sick society produces transsexualism, or any other sexual problem, he says. ‘But you can’t simply say, ‘To hell with all these poor suffering individuals. I’m going to clean up the society first.’ You do both together, don’t you? The sin is that you would just keep on treating the suffering while at the same time you endorse the perpetuation of the society that creates it. He does not intend, Money says, to endorse the perpetuation of that society: ‘The whole purpose of paying attention to transsexualism is to force society to change its entire attitude toward, for instance, the sex education of its children, and its attitude toward normal primate sexual rehearsal play in infancy.’13
From what Stoltenberg writes of Raymond, one would not classify her point of view as “biological determinism.” Nor would one think Stoltenberg saw The Transsexual Empire as “bigoted” and “transphobic.” Money does receive far more space in the overall piece, though, with very little criticism. Ironically, Money had contributed to the kind of metaphysical determinism underlying transsexualism. Before, the body defined social roles, but, now, the roles define the body—this supposedly malleable flesh that must be medicalized to “save” lives.
Children’s “sexual rehearsal play” is what Money had the Reimer twins do as children, as documented in John Colapinto’s As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who Was Raised as a Girl, published in 2000.14 Money theorized that “sexual rehearsal play” and exposure to pornography would facilitate the development of healthy sexual development as children mature. Both twins died by suicide into adulthood, having suffered lives marked by trauma. Did Money deny David Reimer’s essential “male” “gender identity” by feminizing him? I highly doubt this version of the story, for it repeats assumptions of a gendered essence that should define the sexed body. One could well critique the biomedical interventions performed on an otherwise distinctly male body and how, despite adaptation (or lack thereof) to sex-role stereotyping, it can never be female. Ultimately, Money’s project was about fashioning an embodiment of gender polarity into sex—not “multisexuality.” What freeing potential can a spectrum truly have in practice if the hierarchy of male dominance and female subordination essentially remains in place?
Then and now, Raymond’s critique of transsexualism makes sense. One transitions but never transcends; it is reactionary, not revolutionary. Applied to a racial class system, transition would be, as Raymond has long critiqued, to substitute an individual and personal “solution”—which, though expedient, essentially solves nothing—for a social and political problem. The analogy between sex and race actually becomes a point against Stoltenberg’s analysis. For instance, he writes of the disavowal of whiteness—i.e., “refusing to be white”—because racism produces race. Sure, one can refuse the social category of race, but transgenderism reifies the social category of gender while deconstructing sex—i.e., the body itself—on the basis of the existing gender class system. One cannot both disavow a system and embrace it. A parallel may be drawn to those who argue the sex industry empowers women, even as it ultimately disempowers them.
There is also the issue Stoltenberg has with understanding sex as a distinction with a difference versus race as a distinction without a difference. In a passage from Robert Jensen’s The End of Patriarchy: Radical Feminism for Men, published in 2017, he notes how single-sex spaces for women and girls, including rape crisis shelters, have been compared to racial apartheid. He writes:
Racial categories are indeed a distinction without a difference—we can see the distinction between skin colors but realize the color doesn’t create a meaningful difference in people beyond that imposed by the politics of white supremacy. But the distinction between male and female does make an obvious difference in the act of reproduction, which is essential to the species, and hence can’t be waived away rhetorically. Another troubling question about the body remains: Whether the explanation for gender dysphoria is claimed to be found in science or spirituality, it’s not clear how hormonal and surgical interventions in the body could transform a person from one sex category into another.15
A class analysis would not easily accept that individuals can will themselves from dominant to subordinate—and vice versa. Stoltenberg’s analysis misses how the sexes are truly not “very like” racial categories. We can recognize a well-documented parallel between the systems of sexism and racism, but the sexes, in terms of biology, can exist apart from that system. Racial categories can never exist independent of racism, but sexual dimorphism preceded sexism. That is, there being two reproductive sexes in the human species does not naturally mean one must be subordinate and one must be dominant. Paradoxically, in the argument that sexual dimorphism is the site of oppression, Stoltenberg attributes oppression to nature. Thus, man, like a god, must dominate nature, which he can only overcome by the use of technology. Disregarding ecology, technological fundamentalism, as Jensen writes, reproduces the very dynamics Stoltenberg claims to be refusing.
Sex and race differ in how their corresponding gender and racial class systems have functioned. When white people express racialized hatred for Black people, they desire forced segregation, but when males express sexualized hatred for females, they desire forced closeness. This difference is a key distinction between how racism and sexism, as comparable systems, significantly contrast in their operation. Misogyny can be characterized by the breaking of boundaries in the private sphere, men possessing women, which upholds the subjection of women in both private and public spheres. On this difference, Dworkin writes:
The governing reality for women of all races is that there is no escape from male violence, because it is inside and outside, intimate and predatory. While race-hate has been expressed through forced segregation, woman-hate is expressed through forced closeness, which makes punishment swift, easy, and sure. In private, women often empathize with one another, across race and class, because their experiences with men are so much the same. But in public, including on juries, women rarely dare. For this reason, no matter how many women are battered—no matter how many football stadiums battered women could fill on any given day—each one is alone.16 [emphasis added]
Stoltenberg ignores the significance of accommodations for women in favor of an ideal of “multisexuality” that cannot practically address women’s needs as a class. It amounts to institutionalizing forced closeness on the basis of believing not all men seek to do women harm. But depriving women and girls of single-sex spaces in favor of men is an expression of woman hating, whatever the reason may be.17 Women should not be subordinated for men’s sake. The issue of men doing violence to other men needs to be addressed, but women should not be scapegoated. Instead of focusing on resources they need, women have been forced to answer the question of whether or not men can be women. Unfortunately, many women end up forgetting other women for men, not resisting an obvious act of colonization, complying with the men’s demands.
Of course, Stoltenberg also neglects Dworkin’s 1979 endorsement for Raymond’s Transsexual Empire. This endorsement reads:
Janice Raymond asks the hard questions and her answers have an intellectual quality and ethical integrity so rare, so important, that the reader wants to think, to enter into critical dialogue with the book.
All pieces of textual evidence Stoltenberg uses in his Boston Review piece appear before 1979: Woman Hating in 1974, “The Root Cause” (first called “Androgyny”) in 1975 (really an extension of Woman Hating), and “Biological Superiority” in 1977 (published twice: once in 1978 and once in 1979). Dworkin’s endorsement of The Transsexual Empire and her providing commentary, as credited by Raymond, would have been done in 1978-1979. As I have shown, Stoltenberg’s overall analysis has issues that it seems have not been taken into full consideration. He subordinates women’s interests to a man-made ideal that undermines women’s rights. In my forthcoming analyses, I will be discussing some other relevant works that discuss Dworkin as a “trans ally,” noting what they do and do not do.
I thank Kitty Robinson for sending me the above far higher quality book cover images than I could access from the very few available library copies I found. In my searches, I have known of copies that have been severely damaged, far more so than other books with typical wear. Works by Raymond, even those not about transsexualism and transgenderism, have been stolen, if not destroyed, to prevent them being read.
The Andrea Dworkin Archival Project will have its website up soon, where there will be resources added from the work Nikki Craft and I have been doing.
The ADAP GoFundMe can be visited at the following link:
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Andrea Dworkin, Right-wing Women: The Politics of Domesticated Females (New York: Perigee Books, 1983), 68.
See Nikki Craft, “The Worst Kind of Betrayal: What John Stoltenberg Did to Andrea Dworkin,” February 28, 2016 and Nikki Craft, “Altering Andrea: How John Stoltenberg Performs Editorial Surgery on Dworkin’s Sexual Politics,” March 7, 2016.
John Stoltenberg, “Andrea Dworkin Was a Trans Ally,” Boston Review, April 8, 2020, https://www.bostonreview.net/articles/john-stoltenberg-andrew-dworkin-was-trans-ally.
Andrea Dworkin, Woman Hating: A Radical Look at Sexuality (New York: Plume, 1974), 186-187.
Janice G. Raymond, The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male (New York: Teachers College Press, 1979/1994), 178.
Stoltenberg, “Andrea Dworkin Was a Trans Ally.”
See Kajsa Ekis Ekman, On the Meaning of Sex: Thoughts About the New Definition of Woman (Mission Beach, Australia: Spinifex Press, 2023), 85-88.
Raymond, The Transsexual Empire, 113-114.
John Stoltenberg, Refusing to Be a Man: Essays on Sex and Justice, Revised Edition (London: UCL Press, 1989/2000), 22-23.
John Stoltenberg, “Future Genders,” Omni, May 1980, 66-67.
Ibid., 73, 116.
See John Colapinto, As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who Was Raised as a Girl (New York: Harper Perennial, 2000/2006).
Robert Jensen, The End of Patriarchy: Radical Feminism for Men (North Melbourne, Australia: Spinifex Press, 2017), 136-137.
Andrea Dworkin, Life and Death: Unapologetic Writings on the Continuing War Against Women (New York: The Free Press, 1997), 49-50.
For a further discussion of the “bathroom debates,” see W. Burlette Carter, “Sexism in the ‘Bathroom Debates’: How Bathrooms Really Became Separated by Sex,” Yale Law & Policy Review 37, no. 1 (2018): 227-297. https://ssrn.com/abstract=3311184
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