It's been too long since I've opened a book about sexuality, so I'm getting back to it with a bang-- Andrea Dworkin's Intercourse (1987). I'm about 3/4 of the way through it. Based on what I'd heard about the book, I'd braced myself for a tirade by an anti-sexual sexual. However, no matter what criticisms people have of Dworkin, she could never be accused of fitting easily into a label. In the book, she mocks anyone who would call her views "sex-negative". In fact, for someone so widely accused of being "sex-negative", Dworkin writes about sex with a reverence that I find hard to comprehend. In her lengthy literary analyses (which I also find hard to comprehend), Dworkin writes about sex as a grounds for self-knowledge and true communion. She expresses some frustration about the way "pop-culture magazines" portray sex as "intrinsically banal" (25). For Dworkin, sex is not to be taken lightly-- a view that was probably as unhip in 1987 as it is today.
Intercourse is notorious for allegedly stating that all sex is rape. As the forward by Ariel Levy states, many of the people making this accusation haven't actually read the book. If they had, they might have noticed that a statement like "all sex is rape" (which has not appeared in the book so far) is much too simplistic for a work that deals more in questions than answers. It's also easy to confuse the fact that Dworkin sees "sex" and "intercourse" as two different things, and this distinction undergirds her theories. Dworkin views intercourse as PiV (as I have oddly heard it called) penetration, "...one sex act among many..." (175). These other sex acts, divorced from intercourse (where most women do not orgasm anyway), could be "...part of other deeper, longer, perhaps more sensual lovemaking..." (175). To Dworkin, sex is not intercourse is not fucking is not lovemaking, a distinction that would certainly be lost on those who would critique the book without reading it.
Another of Dworkin's assumptions is that sexuality is not private, but social in nature. She rips apart everything asexuals (and everyone else) have been told about intercourse: That it's fun, healthy, natural, that it makes you a "woman" or "man", that it somehow leads to a greater maturity and therfore autonomy. She writes, "It is a tragedy beyond the power of language to convey when what has been imposed on women by force becomes a standard of freedom for women: and all the women say it is so"(181). Dworkin doesn't seem to care if you agree with her, she wants to make you confused and perhaps angry enough to start asking questions for yourself.
My favorite chapter so far was called "Virginity". In it, Dworkin compares the stories of Joan of Arc with that of Madame Bovary's Emma Bovary to examine how social attitudes around virginity have changed. To Dworkin, virginity is another part of sexuality that is social, not private. She writes:
The old virginity-- with its real potential for freedom and self-determination-- is transformed into the new virginity-- listless, dissatisfied ennui until awakened by the adventure of male sexual domination: combat on the world's tiniest battlefield. It took Freud to call refusal to fight on that little battlefield "repression" and to name the ambition to fight on the large one "penis envy". The cell door closed behind us, and the key turned in the lock. (135)
This chapter was powerful to me because it provides one of the "alternate narratives" that I treasure. It seems like this is all we hear about virginity: If you're very religious, that it is highly important to maintain it until marriage, and if you're not religious, that the very religious people are kind of creepy and that it's shameful to hold on to your virginity for too long. This chapter is one of the few things I've read that greatly diverges from either of those viewpoints. Here, virginity in the sense of Joan of Arc is described as "...an existential indepence, affirmed in choice and faith from minute to minute; not a retreat from life but an active engagement with it..." (120). It's not cool to be a virgin, or somehow superior. It's totally different from those ideas-- it's a social choice that has power, just like the decision to have sex has power. Last year, I wrote that " Even if we tried, I doubt we could ever divorce [the word "virgin"] from its strong connotations of religiosity and morality". The difficulty of that task doesn't faze Dworkin-- she plows through and does it anyway.
Even though Intercourse comes with enough baggage to sink a ship, I tried not to judge it because, simply enough, Dworkin does not judge me, or people like me. She doesn't think, as some feminists do, that women who don't have sex are failing to claim their rightful freedoms as liberated women. True, she would probably ascribe a significance to asexuals not having sex that many of us would not agree with. However, for me, beyond having no sex drive and little attraction, the spectre of sex with a straight man always came with a spectre of inequality that I could not shake. I've had this gut feeling for a long time. Could I have what I desire-- a truly equal relationship on all levels-- with someone who, unlike me, has a socially privledged sexuality? I really don't know the answer. As an asexual who has always been a strong feminist, the disturbing history of sexual relations between men and women is more real to me than sexual desire. What is really interesting is that Dworkin, who is sexual, seems to feel the same way.