Friday, July 3, 2015

Intercourse by Andrea Dworkin

From time to time, I will be blogging about books relating to feminist themes. Some of my general thoughts on feminism and the issue of violence directed at women are here.

Andrea Dworkin’s Intercourse is a controversial book. Controversy often goes hand in hand with Dworkin’s work. A Radical Feminist (The term “Radical Feminist” is so often misunderstood. It refers to a certain branch of feminism that adheres to a specific ideology. Whether that ideology is really “radical” or not is, in my opinion, a fair question and open to debate), Dworkin is admired by some and vilified by others. It is worth noting that she has been strongly criticized by people who identify as feminists.

This work lives up to Dworkin’s reputation for proposing ideas that many people strongly disagree with. I chose to read this book because I wanted to explore ideas on the edge of intellectual discourse relating to feminism.

First, I want to clear up some common misconceptions about this book that folks might find online and elswhere.  It has been said by several sources that Dworkin contends in this book that all heterosexual intercourse constitutes rape. This is a fallacy; nothing in this book says or implies this. Furthermore, Dworkin denied publicly that that was her intention here. Second, Dworkin has often been accused if misandry. Though she makes very controversial statements about men in general, in my opinion, nothing in this book is really hateful toward men.

This is a curious and odd book for several reasons. First, Dworkin’s primary contention is one of the more extreme that has been proposed by any thinker who draws respect in intellectual circles. Second, the structure of the book and how the arguments are developed are very unusual.

Dworkin’s primary argument is that heterosexual sex is pernicious and is extremely damaging to the well-being of women. The author argues that intercourse is always a vehicle for the oppression, exploitation, and dehumanization of women. In fact, she seems to contend that intercourse and men’s desire for it are the primary drivers of the oppression of women. She makes little distinction regarding whether sex is within or outside of a monogamous relationship or marriage. She disregards arguments that intercourse can be a positive part of a respectful or healthy relationship.

She writes about intercourse,

“In it, female is bottom, stigmatized. Intercourse remains a means or the means of physiologically making a woman inferior: communicating to her cell by cell her own inferior status, impressing it on her, burning it into her by shoving it into her, over and over, pushing and thrusting until she gives up and gives in—which is called surrender in the male lexicon. In the experience of intercourse, she loses the capacity for integrity because her body— the basis of privacy and freedom in the material world for all human beings—is entered and occupied; the boundaries of her physical body are—neutrally speaking—violated. What is taken from her in that act is not recoverable, and she spends her life—wanting, after all, to have something—pretending that pleasure is in being reduced through intercourse to insignificance.”

Later she contends that it is a male expression of hatred for women,

“But the hatred of women is a source of sexual pleasure for men in its own right. Intercourse appears to be the expression of that contempt in pure form, in the form of a sexed hierarchy; it requires no passion or heart because it is power without invention… “

The above are just examples. The author elaborates and expands on similar arguments for many pages. She explores, society, culture and history to support her contentions.

What might be more unusual about this book is its style and structure. Roughly forty percent of this work is literary analysis. Several works, including books by Leo Tolstoy, Gustave Flaubert, Brahm Stoker, Isaac Bashevis Singer, James Baldwin and others are explored. Dworkin does not attempt to use these works to support her contentions. Instead she analyzes the various texts in terms of how they portray the dehumanizing and oppressive effects of intercourse. As criticism, this book is insightful and brings to light many useful and interesting insights contained in the works that are analyzed.  Nevertheless, it seems odd to me to include this much literary criticism in a work such as this.

Dworkin’s style is almost poetic. In her introduction to my edition of this book, Ariel Levy notes that she was heavily influenced by Beat Poets, such as Allen Ginsberg. I think that this comparison is spot on. The book is also heavily laced with profanity. Dworkin clearly hates sexual intercourse and she seems to use vulgar terms in order to express her contempt for the act.

As I suspect most people would, I strongly disagree with Dworkin’s main conclusions. Like many human actions, intercourse is a complex subject. Intercourse can be an enormously positive and psychologically healthy act for both women and men.

With that, I think that Dworkin has struck upon some truth. Intercourse is all too often used as a vehicle to dominate and oppress. Obviously, rape falls into this category. Throughout history and into present times, sex has been used to exploit and oppress women. Examples include prostitution, domineering partners, mindless objectification, etc. Dworkin’s arguments do point out how such oppressive trends have worked their way into various aspects of our mainstream culture and how this dark side to sex has had a negative impact on society.  Furthermore, while I would not go nearly as far as Dworkin goes, I agree that some of this tendency towards sexual dominance and sadism has ingrained itself into our culture and psychology. Unfortunately, in my opinion she has turned insight into dogma when it comes to the big picture. She seems to be utterly contemptuous and sees little value in heterosexual intercourse in any context. Thus, I find the author’s ultimate conclusions untenable.

This book is definitely not for everyone. Its extreme positions as well as its profane language will be a nonstarter for many.  However, to the extent that there is a dark dimension to intercourse that runs throughout culture and history, this book can be viewed as a controversial philosophic exploration of valid topics. If one is interested in literary criticism revolving around this subject, this is also a useful and even enlightening work. Finally, Dworkin was one of the main architects of Radical Feminist Theory, and this is one of her major works. Anyone with an interest in this subject would likely find this book valuable.

I found the book to be fascinating, however much I disagree with Dworkin’s conclusions. I found her theorizing and prose style absorbing. With that, this book is only recommended for adventurous readers with interest in the relevant subjects.


James said...

Thanks for taking on the challenge of what, based on your comments, is a book whose content appears to be an extreme approach toward feminism. While you say that Ms. Dworkin has "struck upon some truth", you also claim that her "primary argument is that heterosexual sex is pernicious and is extremely damaging to the well-being of women". I'm not sure how her broad primary argument leaves room for contrary positions that would leave some truth. She does not appear to be willing to draw the line. This unwillingness might go a long way toward explaining why some of her critics take a completely opposite broad-brush approach.
However, her approach would seem to be self-defeating if in fact she was interested in identifying the true nature of heterosexual intercourse with both its failings and successes. Thus I appreciate your conclusion that her ultimate conclusions are untenable.
Does not her extreme approach raise questions about the validity of "Radical Feminist Theory"? I admire your willingness to explore these issues, but wonder if there might be writers with a more balanced approach that could be even more enlightening on this subject?

Brian Joseph said...

Hi James - I do agree that Dworkin's views are extreme. You have that a valid point in that a more balenced exploration of ways that intercourse has been used to dominate and oppress may be derailed by this extremism. It actually goes further then that, I have seen folks who have no interest in gender equality use Dworkin's views as amunition against very moderate pro equality and anti violence arguments.

I do hope that someone has explored this topic elsewhere and taken a more balenced approach. I will see what I can find.

At least to this extent that Dworkin is a influential figure, this book remains valid to examine.

The Bookworm said...

Fascinating Brian. From what you share here, it is pretty obvious the author hates sexual intercourse. You do make a good point that sex is so often used to oppress. It seems like she is so focused on hating heterosexual intercourse that I would not take her too seriously. There's always two sides to a coin.
Fantastic, thought provoking post as always.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Naida - As both yourself and James have pointed out, It really is a shame that due to her extreme position, what can be a worthy subject of inquiry will not be given serious consideration here.

With that, a lot of people on all sides of the fence do take Dworkin seriously so I do think her ideas are worth knowing about.

Tracy Terry said...

Wow, thought provoking stuff. Incredibly deep and as you say probably dismissed by lots of people for the extreme views of the author. Mr T informs me that he is familiar with her and her partners work so I feel an indepth conversation may be warranted.

Suko said...

In some ways, this sounds fascinating, although it's an extreme, radical way of looking at the subject. Excellent commentary today, Brian Joseph.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Tracy - Indeed not only are Dworkin's views often dismissed due to her radicalism but to some extent her views are being used to discredit a lot of more moderate feminist arguments. In my opinion this is not just grossly unfair, but it often is used by folks who seem to oppose equality in general.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Suko.

Sometimes radical thinking is indeed fascinating.

Guy Savage said...

No doubt the author is correct about some of those controversial opinions--I'm thinking of unhappy marriages, arranged marriages, rape and also prostitution. A few months ago, I read a fiction book about sex trafficking and was shocked to discover that the Red Light district of Amsterdam is packed full of women who are basically sex slaves until they wear out. I've never been to Amsterdam BTW and was under the delusion that, since prostitution is legal there, that the women were there--not exactly of their own free will (who wants to be a prostitute) but there on their own volition--not that they are beaten, moved around, spied on, barely kept alive etc.

Anyway I wouldn't have any patience with this author. To make such blanket statements about sex (your first quote) undermines the position of women who like sex and chose to engage in it of their own free will vs those who are exploited.

bookaroundthecorner said...

Fascinating post about a book I'd never heard of.

I don't like extreme thinking, it tends to dogmatism and leads to preconceived ideas and judgments. And in the end, it tends to discard arguments that wouldn't go against their thesis. I'm not sure I'd want to read it.

Instead of focusing on sexual intercourse, I'd say the whole body of women has always been subject to oppression.

Women's sexuality is a target during wars. It's kidnapping women for their bodies, it's raping women in the hope to humiliate the enemy, it's shaving the head of French women who have slept with German soldiers during WWII...

It's also : imposing clothes that hide their sexuality, calling a woman with multiple partners a slut when a man is a Casanova, having the right to repudiate a wife, burning a woman with her husband when he's dead, etc.

So sexual intercourse is part of a more global problem.

I think that extreme feminism (like all extreme thinking) is always controversial, draws attention to it and discredits moderate thinkers because opponents to women's rights will always point out these extreme thinker to call all the feminists crazy.


Harvee Lau - Book Dilettante said...

This sounds like a very provocative book, starting with the title. It seems to have provoked a lot of controversy, and would make for a good book discussion session!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Guy - It seems to be the near consensus that while sex can be used to dominate, that Dworkin's views seem to be unreasonable.

I have also never been to Amsterdam. The situation there sounds terrible. It seems that sadly, the lot of many women who are involved in the sex trade is one of oppression.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Emma - I so agree with your comments. All the things that you mentioned are indeed reasons that equality is not here yet and all are things that we need to oppose.

I do think that oppression as it relates to sex is a worthy topic into itself, as it is common and also very complex.

Dworkin's views on it are, as most seem to agree, extreme.

Indeed, many folks, particularly on social media, are using Dworkin's views to discredit feminism on a broad basis.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Harvee - Indeed this work is great fodder for interesting discussion.

Lory said...

Very interesting post. On the one hand, it's important for us to wake up to the ways women continue to be oppressed even in societies that consider themselves enlightened (as with the Amsterdam red light district). Sex is unquestionably a major weapon in this oppression.

On the other hand, I don't think our society can move forward unless women and men find a way to work productively together on all levels. Discounting male-female intercourse entirely is not only nonsense from a biological standpoint (what would be the alternative, in vitro fertilization for everyone?) but a denial of one of the major lessons we're supposed to learn by being human. Maybe we're not doing very well at that lesson so far, but I think it's still worth trying.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks for the very thoughtful comment Lory.

Dworkin does propose some alternatives but as I think that most folks agree, there is no need for them. Dworkin sees no value to heterosexual intercourse but that seems to discount the experiences of billions of people and likely to remain the opinion of a tiny minority.

I am a strong believer in equality and an adamant supporter of mainstream feminist ideals. Despite what the fact that there is still oppression accompanied by horrendous violence I do think humanity is learning and improving in these areas. If one looks back 30 years, 50 years, 100 years it seems evident. So I say that everyone still needs to keep trying.

Delia (Postcards from Asia) said...

That's a great review, Brian. It's good to see that despite the negative attitude expressed by the author you were still able to take away something from this book. It does seem a little extreme to label intercourse as the root of all evil.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Delia - Indeed Dworkin is very extreme. Nevertheless men's domination of women through sex clearly does exist and is worthy of study. I think that most people would agree that it is not ubiquitous as the author believes that it is.

Maria Behar said...

(I deleted the previous comment because of typos....)

Thanks for your excellent and very honest commentary on what must have been a rather uncomfortable read for you, Brian. Had I read something similar written by a man (of course, from the misogynistic side of the fence), I don't think I could have been as calm and objective as you obviously were!

As you know, I abhor all types of extremism, whether of the left or the right. Both are totally insane. And both lead to tyranny, suffering, and social injustice.

I think Dworkin is not just an extremist, though. I think she needs to have her head examined. Lory has pointed out the obvious: if sex is as horrible for women as Dworkin claims it is, then what's the alternative for the human race? Because of course, "it takes two to tango".

From what you describe about this book, the author reduces intercourse to ONE position -- with the woman on the bottom -- when in reality (ahem, ahem) healthy couples use more than just this one position. Besides, when love is involved in the sexual act, this position can be seen in another, very beautiful and positive way: the man is giving the very essence of himself to the woman, while the woman accepts his gift, embracing him lovingly throughout.

In short, Dworkin has reduced intercourse to its lowest common denominator, and claims that ALL men secretly derive pleasure from having women 'beneath' them in order to dominate them completely! She has drastically and radically politicized sex. I'm sure most of us who are either married or in committed relationships would turn to her, scratch our heads, and say, in all confusion, "What the HECK are you talking about?" (I know some people would use 'the F bomb' here, but I refuse to do so.) And I'm here including both men and women.

Another thing that guarantees I will NEVER pick up this book is the vulgar language you mention this author uses. As you know from visiting my blog, I totally DETEST such language.

It's really too bad that misogynists latch on like leeches to books like these, so they can thereby 'prove' that ALL feminists are crazy man-hating you-know-whats. Of course, they conveniently fail to notice that some feminists (although, sadly, not a majority) are men themselves.

In short, Dworkin is really doing every reasonable, moderate feminist a disservice. And she's absolutely NOT helping the cause. Not at all.

Thanks again for the awesome commentary!! : )

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Maria - Thanks for your terrific comment.

I actually found this book fairly interesting to read and the experience not unpleasant. As many of us seem to agree, Dworkin's views are often extreme and difficult to defend.They should be criticized.

With that I generally do not find myself experiences a strong negative emotional reaction to extreme feminist ideas. The reason being is that, unlike extremists of almost every other ideology, even beneficial ideologies, extreme feminists almost never commit acts of violence. In addition what I consider bad feminist ideas generally do not work their way into society. I wish that were true of bad ideas from other ideologies.

As we know the majority of Feminists are reasonable and moderate. As you point out anti feminists as well as the misogynist hate groups operating on social media, are constantly citing Dworkin's views. I agree, she is not helping the cause here (she has a lot of other books and writing that seems very popular so I am not yet ready to say that she has not contributed anything worthwhile).

I am usually not all that comfortable with extreme vulgarity myself, but I recognize that i can has some value for rhetorical reasons. On a side note, as I choose not to quote vulgarity, it was difficult to find quotes from this book to use.

Indeed folks in healthy and happy relationships would by nature no agree with Dworkin, she basically viewed women with such opinions as having internalized their oppression.

Parrish Lantern said...

Not sure I'm getting this, but it would appear that the author believes all women exist in a subservient role, whether this is during intercourse al in general. I can understand that can be the case, but can't expand that premise to the whole of womankind - I hope i'm getting this wrong because I believe that I have a healthy loving relationship & that my wife of long standing would agree with me. I can understand the merits of this debate, but I think sometimes those who shout with the loudest & most violent voices can do more harm than good, creating a situation where all debate gets tarred with the same brush.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Gary - Dworkin does indeed believe that women are almost Universally forced into a subservient role by society. She feels that intercourse is one of several drivers of this subservience.

While I believe that we have a long way to go in order to reach equality, I would not go nearly as far as Dworkin. You raise a good point in that her arguments fly in the face of all the people in the world involved in healthy and loving heterosexual relationships.

Many do feel that Dworkin has done more harm then good as her views are being used to undermine real efforts to achieve equality.

So many books, so little time said...

Definitely sounds like a thought provoking book and you have done really well to break it down and examine strong aspects of it. I have never heard of it before, one of the many reasons I like coming by here. So many books I have never heard of but you always break it down practically and give honest views and insight into the (often tough) subjects discussed.


P.s apologies I haven't been around much, my assignment has consumed so much of my time of late.

HKatz said...

I have tremendous respect for the way you thoughtfully review books that would make other people just rant. I've also seen false assertions about Dworkin circulate online (complete with fake quotes or quotes utterly removed from context). The sad thing is, even writers who are less extreme than Dworkin get tremendous pushback when writing about sexual exploitation (of women, men and children) - but like you, I'm confident that we can continue making progress.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Lainy - Thanks for the good word.

Though her basic conclusions are very problematical, there are indeed important aspects relating to this subject.

No need to apologize, life gets busy!

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks so much Hila.

Indeed there is a lot of pushback going on. It is especially aimed at folks who talk about violence aimed at women on social media. Established writers are exposed to it. But also common individuals who have been talking about violence aimed at women are being subject to an intimidation campaign. Beyond that, there are many not actually harassing who are putting a lot of time and energy into arguing that folks should not talk about violence aimed at women.

I wrote about it in a little more detail in my post on feminism and books that I linked to here:

Caroline said...

I've never heard of this and have a feeling I would not like it.
I really wonder what happened to her. Does she ever write about herself and her own experience?
Alice Schwarzer - a famous German feminist - also had a tendency to be very controversial - similar themes.
I actually find the premise almost funny. Women can exploit intercourse just as much as men do. I'd even go as far as to say, they do it more.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Caroline - I would say that if it sounds like you would not like this from my summery then you would not like this.Personally, though I vigorously disagree with her, I found this to be interesting at least.

I looked up Alice Schwarzer. She does indeed seem to be advocate some controversial positions.

Though I agree that women do exploit sex, I also think that it is significant that men often do it involving violence, slavery, or slavery like conditions. Women rarely do that.

thecuecard said...

Hi Brian,
I guess it's safe to say Dworkin wouldn't have been a friend of Dr. Ruth's. LOL. I guess it appears Ms. Dworkin passed away in 2005 which I didn't realize. It's interesting that she was influenced by the Beats. Does that mean her writing style is sort of stream of consciousness? Cheers.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Susan - I actually googled Dr. Ruth and Andrea Dworkin. I cannot find any instances where the two commented upon one another. that is tool bad as it would have been interesting.

In some of her musings I would say that Dworkin barely employs a stream of consciousness style, but just barely.