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The porn buster

ANDREA DWORKIN, who died Saturday, was a radical feminist, eloquent writer, passionate orator, and courageous activist. She inspired, challenged, and sparked a movement. Though she often elicited hostile disagreement, her fierce spirit and powerful voice were crucial in confronting the new face of the pornography business.

Dworkin's words resonated with anger and indignation at the way women of the world are battered, raped, and mutilated. She was most famous for her attack on pornography as the industry at the center of physical violence and cultural degradation.

Before Dworkin, pornography was seen as a question of obscenity and personal morality, little more than harmless fun that uptight feminists criticized because of their dislike of sexuality. In her much-maligned book ''Pornography: Men Possessing Women," Dworkin did the unthinkable; she described pornography in graphic detail, unmasking the industry as woman-hating propaganda, violent in its practice and potently political in its cultural impact.

 OBITUARY: Andrea Dworkin, 58, feminist who fought porn (Boston Globe, 4/12/05)

Some critics argued that this book gave Dworkin her status as a feminist ''man hater," a status that became iconic when she co-authored a proposed law with feminist lawyer Catherine MacKinnon that defined pornography as a civil rights violation against women.

One of the most profound legacies of this legislative initiative was the continuing split between radical and liberal feminists over the nature and effects of pornography. Liberals defended pornography in the name of free speech and sexual liberation, while radicals saw it as the nerve center of patriarchy's war on women. The debates continue today, and while many have pronounced the antipornography movement as inconsequential, there are thousands of academic feminists, writers, and activists who continue to build on the ideas that Dworkin developed at a time when the big names in pornography were Hugh Hefner, Larry Flynt, and Bob Guccione. Today, these guys look like small-time hustlers. Dworkin's critique of pornography is more relevant than ever as pornography goes mainstream into cable, the Internet, and, very soon, mobile phones.

Chief among the big players is Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., which owns DirecTV, the satellite cable company that makes more than $200 million a year in pay-per-view pornography. Murdoch also owns Fox, the New York Post, and Harper Collins, which published porn star Jenna Jameson's bestselling book ''How to Make Love Like a Porn Star." Another big player is Comcast, the nation's largest cable company, which makes more than $50 million from distributing pornographic movies. Comcast's E! Television network ran a highly rated ''E! True Hollywood" story starring none other than Jameson. Hefner could never have dreamed of such business synergy.

Dworkin gave us the language to understand the effects of pornography and explored the meaning of a culture suffused with images of sexual subjugation. A society saturated with porn is an unsafe and unequal society, and Dworkin implored women to tear down such an oppressive institution. But she didn't write just about women; indeed, she had more empathy for men than any pornographer. In her books and speeches, she called for men to stop using pornography because it undermines their humanity; ultimately, she believed that men deserved better than this.

Of course, women deserve better, too. The organizing theme of her life's work was the absolute right to live free from fear and violence in all its forms. For Dworkin, the feminist movement was about a very simple principle: Women are as human as men.

Many of Dworkin's critics defined her work as bleak and despairing. While she did indeed write about the very worst of human suffering, rape, prostitution, genocide, and economic desperation, she was the eternal optimist. She never lost hope in the human capacity to change. Her work, her life, and the movement she helped shape is testimony to an unshakable faith in the power of ideas to transform our world.

Gail Dines is chairwoman of American studies at Wheelock College and co-author of ''Pornography: The Production and Consumption of Inequality."

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