Monday, July 02, 2007

Review: Intercourse

[Andrea Dworkin. Intercourse, The Twentieth Anniversary Edition. New York: Basic Books, 2007.]

from whence i read

I arrived at this book in a state of (perpetual) inner conflict.

I grew up in a family that was liberal in most ways but in which sexuality was silenced, erased. The implicit frame that I internalized was simple and moralistic: sex is bad and shameful; it only happens between women and men; women never want it and when men refuse to leave it silent and invisible and do want it, they are Bad. Full stop.

Fast forward a few years. I had begun to learn about power, politics, oppression. I had unconsciously manouvered myself into a place where I was free to be paralyzed -- not ignorant or inactive, necessarily, but paralyzed in significant ways -- about sexuality on a personal level. I still flinched from it as a topic so my consideration of how sexuality and power intersected remained fairly shallow and simplistic, and I basically just read my new political language into the old moralistic frame. While this may have helped me to acknowledge and deplore some of the brutal realities of gender oppression expressed so often in and around mainstream ways of doing sexuality, it also avoided the complexity of the real world, smuggled in a particular kind of (hetero)sexist thinking, and didn't give me any space to even imagine, on a personal level, life beyond the particular space of paralysis I inhabited that was not just indulgence in oppression.

Fast forward to the present. Personally, the paralysis has been shown not to be absolute and life beyond it not to be impossible, though that is realized only sporadically in practice and the paralysis is always looming all the same -- a target of loathing but also of yearning, because at least it was simple. The ol' time moralistic frame is not completely weeded out and the excessively simplistic anti-sex pseudo-politics retains more of a hold on my gut than I would like, even if my head has largely moved on; there is a competing cacophony of different analyses swirling around within that deal in different, often contradictory ways, with trying to navigate in anti-oppressive ways a social environment that hates women, hates healthy and anti-oppressive sexualities, hates queers, imposes norms, and uses shame as a weapon. So there is at least engagement, however difficult and internally conflictual, with complexity, with the real world, with individual people about their experiences and analyses, with texts from different perspectives and traditions -- in short, with oppression and with possibility, both at once.

Andrea Dworkin has a reputation as the very scariest of feminists. She is said to epitomize the man-hater, the castrator, the unreasonable radical that is the real cause of all these problems. You learn pretty fast on the left not to believe the mainstream hype about any radical, of course, and I have long intended to read her -- the fact that one of the participants whose interview material will be used in the two chapters I hope to start writing soon is a big Dworkin fan provided an excuse. Nonetheless, the prospect of injecting such a potent salvo of political intensity, which (quite rightly) has no interest in catering to the conceits of masculinity -- including masculinity that strives to be pro-feminist -- into my own uncertainty and conflict was somewhat intimidating. I know I have a desire to be seen as someone who "gets it", but what if I just have no stomach for the "it" on offer? And how to deal with the fact of the bitter polarization on these issues even among feminists? I also know I really need to believe it is possible for me to lead a sexual life that is personally satisfying and politically liberatory and anti-oppressive. What if this book tells me that isn't possible? What if I agree? What if it triggers my tendency towards shame about things which really should not be shameful, or if my reaction against a sense of being shamed leads me to take less seriously very real oppressions?

(You might get a sense of how the paralysis I mentioned above manages to keep itself around as a relevant factor...)

Anyway, the obvious answer is just to read it and see. Which I did.

the book

This edition of the book begins with a foreword by feminist Ariel Levy. It is very cleverly written to disrupt the mainstream hype about Dworkin. It made me laugh out loud a couple of times and it made me rather like the image of Dworkin that it painted -- her mouthy radicalism, her embodied intensity, her relentless living of life. The description of her navigation of her own sexual journey was a particularly interesting and powerful grounding for the rest of the text, from the sexualized violence she experienced in rape and in being prostituted as a young woman, and on through her intense sexuality with men (despite identifying politically as a lesbian), including a long term non-monogamous partnership with a gay man and including a refusal to reject casual sexual interactions. Not the image of the sex-hating, man-hating, puritanical monster that often gets portrayed, certainly.

The first thing to understand about the bulk of the book itself is that Dworkin is a brilliant writer. I have been reading too much plodding academic text recently, and this book was a refreshing antidote. Dworkin's writing goes from one intensity to the next in a whirlwind of skillfully deployed language, both literary and passionate. Sometimes the text is bitingly humorous, while a lot of the rest of the time it is just biting, but regardless it leaves you absolutely no doubt that this was not penned by some uninspired academician but by a writer.

The second thing that deserves note is the complexity of the approach she has taken in putting the text together. It is not linear, it is not simple. At least as far as I could tell, it weaves among discourse, experience at the individual level, experience of women as a class, and issues of social organization, and it sometimes makes you guess whether it is talking about material causation, dissecting metaphor or ideology, or engaging in deliberate provokation. This is all done very effectively and it says what it has to say by painting a three dimensional, qualitatively vibrant picture of what it means, even when you might wish for more mundane, clearly spelled out answers to questions like "How?" and "Why?".

This complexity has a number of implications, though. For one thing, it leaves the book open to an even wider range of readings than your average text is inevitably susceptible to. It may make things easier for those who wish to misread the text and slander it in misogynist or just plain unfair ways because it provides them with a lot of easy ammunition, for example. I suspect it also allows those who would understand it as part of their own ideological ancestry to read it in a variety of ways too -- for instance, I have encountered feminist writing on the internet that I suspect would trace its lineage in part to Dworkin that does not share with her the same sense of sexuality as relentlessly embodied and that does not seem to acknowledge possibility in quite the same way.

Another implication of this complexity is that I found it very difficult to understand what her analysis of resistance is -- the possibility for resistance, the way to approach it, the means, and so on. Sometimes the text reads as if it is assuming an absolute, deterministic structuralism, but at other points it is very clear that resistance is not only possible but imperative. What is not clear, at least from this particular book, is Dworkin's vision for how resistance can and should happen. Though I appreciate that no piece of writing should be expected to do everything, I still find this to be a serious problem in any radical text.

intercourse in a man-ade world

The first five chapters of the book comprise a section called "intercourse in a man-made world." These chapters take the interesting tack of elucidating some of the key features of intercourse under patriarchy via literary criticism. Dworkin takes texts by big names like Tolstoy, James Baldwin, Tennessee Williams, and Kobo Abe and investigates what they have to say on the subject. This takes works of literature written by male voices that have been given status by the male-dominated establishment. This is a clever approach because literature of this sort is, by its very nature, not intended to convey empirically derived individual "facts" about the "real world" but rather to be complex, imaginative constructions whose personal, interpersonal, and social dynamics are accepted as plausible by readers whose standard of judging such things is their own understanding of the "real world". Thus by exploring these works you also explore what the writers and the readers who have historically had the power to designate "great books" consider to be plausible descriptions of how the world works. In Dworkin's hands, this results in a complex, embodied, relentless showing of the texture of patriarchal domination in sexuality, but I still got a sense of hopefulness from it, too -- there were glimpses of what sexuality could be and can be, and it is not at all bounded by the usual markers of "good" and "bad".

What I find difficult with this approach is that it effectively illustrates the heart of something, but it does not concern itself overly much with describing that something's extent. What are its boundaries? What are its details? What are its internal contradictions that feminist women can use to their advantage? What are its important specificities in different times, places, and social locations? If you read the comments about this book on the web sites of the main online book vendors, you will find lots of misogyny that seems to take this consequence of the author's choices as an excuse to just refuse to listen to the argument at all. That, of course, is foolish. At the same time, this vagueness about extent leaves a lot of uncertainty. Even accepting the general shape of the oppression she describes in these five chapters, it leaves me unsure in some (though certainly not all) cases about how to understand in reference to this picture my own experiences and those of friends of all genders as articulated by them.

the female condition

Then comes a section called "the female condition." Though this section contains only two chapters, in many ways it is the heart of the book. One of these chapters focuses on the nature of intercourse itself, particularly the implications of penetration as the essence of sexuality as currently understood. While there is a lot of rich description of various sorts in this chapter, a lot of it leads up to Dworkin's hypothesis that perhaps the act of penetration itself is a foundational cause of patriarchy's existence. It is something that needs to happen for the continuation of the species, yet by its very nature it results in women having less bodily integrity, less privacy, less ability to maintain clear boundaries of self, and this in turn provides a foundation for the many other sorts of domination built atop it. In other words, even in the absence of the sexualized violence that is the abuse of intercourse, its regular, non-abusive use still creates circumstances of domination. This combination of domination, destabilization of the female self, and the presence of sexual pleasure, often quite intense, as part of the woman's experience leads in turn to many women eroticizing domination and being seduced (as it were) into complicity in and collaboration with their own oppression. Now, she does not quite go so far as to maintain that all of this is unquestionably true, particularly the part about the act itself being inherently productive of domination in a kind of pre-social manner, but she obviously considers it to be a very strong case.

Personally, I am dubious about this hypothesis, or at least about its core, though I say that with at least two provisos about where I say that from. The first is that I have no basis in personal experience to evaluate the psychological outcomes of penetration, and while I don't think any one person's experience is enough to truly evaluate an assertion like this, it would at least provide more of a basis for imaginative modelling of the experiences of others, and I don't have that. The other, though, is that I say fairly confidently that my reservations are not some sort of cloaked refusal to consider criqitue of dominant models of socially and interpersonally organizing sexual practice.

My reservations are on a couple of different fronts. For one thing, I am not clear that the psychological impact of the act itself, the damage to sense of self cause by the mere fact of consensual penetration or even an awareness of its near inevitability as part of being a woman in our society, is as universal as she claims even under current conditions of gender oppression. I find it plausible that many women in our society experience the outcomes she describes, but given what I have heard from people directly and read in texts over the years -- and, perhaps more importantly, my own more general analysis of how "systemic" and "structural" forms of domination actually work in the complicated real world that surrounds us -- I am dubious about the asserted universality. (It is interesting that this way of organizing the argument can lead to an irresolvable impasse: I am not claiming one way or another whether Dworkin would herself have said such a thing, but I have seen people in the blogosphere respond to a woman claiming experiences that do not fit in the schema outlined above (or something similar) by accusations that that person has eroticized their own domination and that their experiences do not contradict this framework but instead they are just collaborators. While I won't deny that something like that probably does happen in some cases, the whole way the discourse is organized means that, if someone wants, they can take up the theory in a way that is completely resistant to new inputs purely by defining all challenging inputs as inadmissable because of 'false consciousnes' or the like, and that is dangerous. It also can lead, I think, to a slip-slide into a feminist version of the faux-objective standpoint at the heart of male-domianted ways of seeing the world, and of using that standpoint to erase or devalue choices about resistance made by other women from where they actually live.)

I am also reluctant to buy into the suggestion that the outcomes are inherent in the physical act, again based on more general analyses of how things happen, of how the physical and the social interact and so on. In my understanding, sensations cannot be experienced without interpretation. Interpretation is not something that is purely cerebral, but something that happens in the body as well. I would argue that the phenomenon she describes around how (many) women experience (even consensual) penetration says more about the social organization of sexuality and the ways in which violence against women by men is ubiquitous and so on. And Dworkin does allow for this possibility, but she makes the point that, okay, fine, well prove it -- transform society to end the domination of women and then see how women experience intercourse. Which is fair enough.

So I don't think I can accept intercourse as inherently the "first cause" of patriarchy. However, I definitely can accept it as a focus, a node, a site for the domination of women by men that is particularly powerful, both because it has been such a relentless focus for the social organization of gender oppression in many ways over many years, and because it provides a mechanism by which women's own sexual drives can be harnassed to bind them to accept non-sexual aspects of patriarchal relations that they might otherwise feel they had the space to resist or reject.

A related issue is that of objectification, which comes up throughout the book. There is a lot about the analysis of objectification that I agree with. I know that men do often relate to women as objects, even by such a simple thing of how we gaze upon the world. I know this because, even now, I sometimes fall into it myself. And I know this can have consequences in terms of how interpersonal interactions occur, and how women experience public spaces, and so on. I also agree, though I don't think it has been a part of my experience, that men can go through interactions with women that include sexual interactions in which the women never rise above the level of objects in the consciousness of the men. However, I am not sure I agree with the very polarized picture of sexual interactions based in objectification versus those based in a true meeting of selves that Dworkin seems to paint, and that I have seen in other feminist writing. I don't feel able to propose a different model, but it seems to me that the dissolution of self into bodily experience that is inherent in intense sexual experiences means that, at least at points, any individual will be responding not to the other self (or selves) involved in the sexual interaction but to the physical experience itself, at least at moments. Is that objectification? Is it inherently oppressive? Or, perhaps, is it the overall relation in which it is embedded that determines whether or not it is oppressive? I'm not sure, I need to think more about it.

The other chapter within "the female condition" outlines virginity as integral to the rare, inspiring example of historical resistance to patriarchy of Joan of Arc. This chapter provides a very interesting illustration, in parts directly and in parts just by implication, of how the social institution of heterosexuality can pull women into a web of oppressive relations and how rejection of the social institution of heterosexuality can function as resistance to that. It also presents an image of virginity or celibacy not as the passive rule of Victorian prudery but as a means to actively embrace a different field of action as resistance. I think it is important that Dworkin talked in detail about the potential for resistance in such a rejection, because too often liberal spaces glorify sexuality in a way that obscures issues of power and thereby ends up endorsing not women's self-determination but women's sexual activity in the absence of any real consideration of what self-determination can mean. However, though the chapter is careful to note that renunciation of sexual activity is not the absolute and only essence of resistance, it does not really go into any detail to spell out what that might mean. This contributes to the tendency of the book as a whole to universalize, and to erase important areas of specificity in women's experience. It also, I think, facilitates readings of this text, and the lines of political thought that would claim those readings of this book as part of their canon, that go beyond the recognition of rejection of the social institution of heterosexuality as a form of resistance to a kind of overall embrace of cultural conservatism (including, at times, the decontextualized judging of the sexual choices of other women when they do not conform to this conservatism). That is not the only possible reading, and it should not be used, as many have, to dismiss this insights of this book in their entirety, but it is still a danger.

power, status, and hate

The final two chapters of the book are in a section entitled "power, status, and hate." The first looks at the ways in which sexuality has been socially organized through law to perpetuate male domiantion of women. This is a very important aspect of the whole topic to understand, I think. I would argue that it is important to look at forms of social regulation beyond just the law itself. I would also assert that it is useful to have an understanding of this phenomenon that is much more fine-grained than is possible in the course of a single chapter, and also one that also pays attention to the specificity of such regulation in different eras, and what that means about opportunities for resistance. And the final chapter looks at how intercourse as a crucial site in male domination of women leads to sex, to human genitals, and to women as a class all being socially imbued with taint, with dirt, with stigma, with a sense of being unclean.


It should be obvious that I consider this to be a powerful and important book, though there are undoubtedly ways in which I will continue to approach the world differently than it does. I think the way that it is put together has a somewhat universalizing effect that is not necessarily warranted, in that I think it considers a powerful core of the way that many women experience sexuality and how that experience is produced, but I have the sense that it does not capture or adequately explain all experiences of sexuality, even by women. It is also universalizing in the sense that it constructs a vision of gender oppression and how it happens, in general and in the context of sexuality, that may not entirely reflect the ways in which other oppressions might work with gender oppression at the site of sexuality to organize the experiences of women with different social locations. I am also disappointed that there was not more attention paid to resistance, and to diverse modes of resistance.

All that said, the power of this book in painting a picture of the role of the social institution of heterosexual intercourse in the organization of gender oppression is undeniable. I may not agree that intercourse plays quite the same causitive role and I may feel that the implicit model in this book for the connection between oppressions organized at the level of society as a whole and individual and small-scale collective agency leaves important things out, but no attempt to build a radical understanding of sexuality can neglect this book.

And as for me personally...well, it stimulated new reflection but did not stir up debilitating levels of self-doubt. I agree with more of it than I disagree with, I think, and still find within it much more of a space for affirmation and possibility than I had expected, despite the heavy social weight of the gender oppression that gives me privilege.

I leave this book in a state of (perpetual) inner conflict.


Anonymous said...

Hi Scott.

I just wanted to share this review of mine of Ariel Levy's foreword to the 2007 edition of Intercourse, called Over Her Dead Body: How Ariel Levy Smears The Ashes of Andrea Dworkin

And also to let you know of these books, if you are not already familiar with them (from your writings, I was thinking that each would be of interest to you):

Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide (2005), by Andrea Smith

and The Cost of Privilege: Taking on the System of White Supremacy and Racism (2007), by Chip Smith

Peace after Patriarchy,


Scott said...

Hi a matter of fact, I'm about twenty pages from done Andrea Smith's Conquest and I intend to post a review of it later in the week...hadn't heard of the Chip Smith book before, but I'll look into it. And thanks for the link to your response to the foreword as well!


Red Jenny said...

Hi Scott. I finally got to reading this long and interesting review. I am currently mired in personal issues around sex and sexuality, and so this really resonated for me. I'm trying to learn how to navigate healthy sexuality and relationship within a patriarchal society and geez is it hard. There's the message that sex is shameful. Then again there's the contradictory message that women should "put out" (among more enlightened dudes the message is "put out and like it"). There's the messed up concern with being a good object of desire (makeup & high heels, for example, can make a woman feel good and confident and powerful even in nonsexual situations like a business meeting - why?). Learning how to take control of our sexuality in a world in which women are shamed for being "selfish" is still quite a challenge. How to socialize young girls and boys into a healthy non-oppressive sexuality is another question, but also very important.

Scott said...

Hi Jenny...thanks for reading, and I'm glad to hear it resonated.

Yeah, it's tricky, tricky stuff...all of the contradictory messages...all of the insidious workings of power not just outside of us but deep down inside shaping us as well...and of course the intense disciplinary power of shaming and (particularly for women and for queer men) violence and the threat of violence that keeps people from really being able to talk about it and engage with it collectively and socially rather than just as isolated indivduals.

I look forward to any insights you might post on the topic as you navigate your own journey!

Red Jenny said...

I also recently read an interesting post here which I think is pretty enlightening.

julianreal said...

Hi Scott and Jenny.

I have been dealing with this matter for a looooong time. And I agree with each of you: it is a deep struggle, but one I have had some "successes" in, so to speak.

I am gay, and my sexuality is no longer owned, regulated, and controlled by the pornography industry, which sells hate speech as free speech, and fetishizes sexism and racism and heterosexism.

I have figured out how to stop objectifying men (I never did objectify women), and also to not have old CRAP (corporate racist atrocious patriarchy) play out in my fantasy life.

Good luck to each of you in your journeys to find healthy, non-oppressive sexualities, which is to say, emotional-physical-spiritual selves. This notion that our sexuality is somehow divorced from the rest of our being is one among many patriarchal myths, in my experience.

In my experience, it is the material that we first encountered in adolescence or before, whether in the form of pornography or sexual abuse, and how we acted that out, or were further abused, that is the really deep stuff to uproot and transform.

As a man, thanks to the collective work of Andrea Dworkin, I have realized I am not "entitled" to a sexuality, if that sexuality turns other people into things. Patriarchy tells me not only that I'm entitled to it, but that I'd better act it out as often as possible!

You both might be interested in this speech of hers.

In my experience, men don't change our behavior either because we feel entitled to it, or because we don't realize it is part of a system of harm, a system which injures all women and girls profoundly, and dehumanizes males as well.

As someone committed to justice for women of all colors, I resist the imperative to be turned on by pro-patriarchal propaganda and racist harm. And just about everyone I know is struggling in various ways, to rid themselves of patriarchy's teachings about gender, race, and sexuality.

I'm looking forward to your review of Conquest, Scott, and how wonderful that you are reading it!