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.