Thoughts on “Intercourse”

Transcrit from the Andrea Dworkin Conference “Not the Fun Kind” – Ruskin Anglia University – Cambridge

A few years ago I read Intercourse or rather I tried. I read the first chapter which I remember finding so powerful, insightful, revolting. and then once again like every time I read her work, being totally radicalised by what was written and the strength of Dworkin’s language.

I started chapter 2, “Skinless” and something I never experienced before happened. I was reading but it was wrong, I understood every words but I didn’t get it. I didn’t understand what she was saying , I didn’t understand what she was talking about. Suddenly the language I knew, I was able to speak write and read, made no sense, what a strange feeling. I stopped reading the book not quite sure what was the problem and went on to other things. My life took over. I forgot all about it. The page I stopped is still marked folded in the corner of my book, it is page 23.
I was heterosexual when this happened. Intercourse, the act of intercourse, was a daily part of my life. One that i didn’t realise was imposed on me, one that I didn’t realise I couldn’t escape. At that time, I had never heard Intercourse talked about in terms that were not positive. Intercourse (heterosexual sex) is always described as desirable, necessary and perfectly normal. And for the first time, someone was saying it was neither.  At the time, I had been living with a male partner for 13 years and I was pregnant. In retrospect, I think what happened on this day was that I wasn’t in a position to understand. Not only was I not ready: it takes the mind some time to accommodate new ideas, especially if they are so shockingly against the mainstream. But I was also in it. Right in the middle of it. The harm and danger Dworkin describes were my daily routine. I had been successfully trained for 35 years to desire it and enjoy it. The harm of intercourse described in the book was invisible to me because it was too close, because as every female living in patriarchy I learnt to disassociate from the violence to embrace it, to love it, to find it empowering and so on, precisely because I couldn’t escape it.

“it is impossible to be a affirmative about something one refuses to question“

A few years later and now a Lesbian, I resumed reading the book.

I still found it hard to read. It is quite different from her other books in terms of style. Dworkin is usually so accessible and clear, this book is a bit of an oddity in that aspect. It is neither.

In it, Dworkin is analysing the work of male authors one after the other. Example after example. The reader wonders what is the point. But as we read on, a pattern starts to emerge. While she is uncovering “Male Truth” (found in men’s work and men’s culture), she finds that men themselves are saying the unsayable. “Sex is Rape” – They have said so consistently and for a considerable amount of time.

 “What both man and woman wish to feel in the sexual act is the essential force of the maleness which express itself in a sort of violent and absolute possession of the woman” (Van de Velde, Ideal marriage 1930)

Remember “its only rape if she says no”.

The idea that sex is rape is in fact mainstream male’s definition of intercourse. Dworkin is simply uncovering “Male Truths” and she got violently attacked and demonised for this discovery. Men construct this word, they construct Gender, Masculinity, Femininity, what is the “normal” way for women and men to behave. They construct male sexuality as predatory, violent. While they do this they define sex as rape. They also use the words sex and rape interchangeably. They do this blatantly and repeatedly.

We women are not allowed to notice it, let alone talk about it. Instead we are expected to see sex and rape as two different things, “rape” being abnormal, deviant and harmful, “sex” being normal and positive. When discussing rape, we are expected to focus on “consent”. But “consent” is a meaningless concept for women who are unclear about their boundaries and in patriarchy most of us are groomed not to have any boundaries at all (see how 50 Shades of Grey constructs rape and violence against woman as romance and how women have learnt to find it perfectly normal and sexy, See how they desire to be invaded, overpowered and tortured). So women are expected to embrace heterosexuality.  To Love it. To Promote it. Or else!

But consent is irrelevant to men because they do not see the difference between sex and rape. Or rather they purposely construct sex as rape.

If sex isn’t rape in men’s view why are all the campaigners fighting against prostitution and rightfully naming the act done to women in prostitution “rape”,  would be labelled “anti-sex” by the media. Why would the punters and pimp lobby name themselves “pro-sex” while what they are really selling and buying is “rape”.

The book is intense, extremely rich and complex and opens the way to many radical text to come

Dworkin uses strong words: sex as invasion, sex as destruction of physical privacy, sex as colonisation. This is warfare vocabulary and she is powerfully framing  intercourse as war against women. A war happening in every women’s  lives in every heterosexual couples, every day.

She understands private sex as a political act used to ensure the submission, control and destruction of women. And intercourse as a duty men (she refer to them as “soldiers”) perform to support the institution and their own power in it, not for their own pleasure.

“The role of the f*** is to control women.”

She asks if it is the level of violence that is harmful or intercourse itself.

She frames BDSM, rape, prostitution and intercourse as being ultimately aspects of the same thing. Pornography/prostitution being the violent extreme end of the spectrum: The extreme violence and excesses of intercourse must remain hidden from women not to expose the real meaning of male dominance . Male dominance is intercourse and it’s real meaning is the destruction of women. Patriarchy is under thread if this becomes to visible and too obvious to women hence it must remain hidden so intercourse will carry on and women will carry on being controlled and submitted by men.

Uncovering male truth about intercourse and rape before speaking her mind is a very clever approach, but it is a bit shy compared to her usual style, she is usually more direct. There is something unclear and blurred in her vision. where she usually cut through patriarchy’s propaganda she’s slightly more reserved. We have to wonder why this book is more difficult to read than her other work.

The backlash she no doubt knew she would receive for speaking the truth on intercourse could be a reason for this. And even a woman as brave as her could have felt silenced by the fear of the demonisation to come?

There are several example where her words have got me confused

She uses gender neutral language in a particularly confusing way:  At one point she writes:  “the experience of fucking change people”. It is very surprising to find such a sentence in a radical feminist publication. Men and women experience sex differently, the experience of fucking changes them in different ways. The whole book is about proving intercourse is harmful to women. What did she mean here? Who did she mean? Why the use of that word? this is not clarity and there are a few other similar instances in the book that leave the reader perplexed.

It is sometimes difficult to distinguish between what she’s has found in the books she is analysing and her own opinion. One never really knows what is her opinion what is the result of here research.

There is still a certain degree of male identification in her work. Her main references (and reverence even) are to male authors. She considers “writing like a man” to be a compliment. As she was living and even being married to a man, this could be a contributing factor for that slightly shy and confused vision. After all she herself writes:

“Women have the right of physical privacy, without it there is no private consciousness…”

In French we say: “What we understand clearly is easy to enunciate”, (“se qui se conçoit bien s’énonce clairement”, Nicolas Boileau), maybe the book is a bit hard to read because Dworkin was not quite clear about her position and not entirely sure of what she thought on the matter?

I find her work a bit disappointing. She brilliantly frames sex as rape, sex as violation, sex as invasion, sex as  destruction of women, sex as a tool of control, sex as harmful to women. She clearly sees all that.

So how can she stop there? she doesn’t draw the natural conclusion of her own research. Intercourse is harmful to women yet she never once says women should stop engaging in sex with men.

Dworkin doesn’t give an alternative, the alternative her lesbian feminist sisters have given.

While we are fighting against the horror of male violence we must have a vision of a alternative future, be able to imagine other ways of living, being, loving, being sexual. Well Sisters, maybe it is time to stop having sex with men.

I was disappointed not to find that alternative in her work.