Country United States
Page count 257
Subject Sexual intercourse
Publication date 1987
Originally published 1987
Original language English
Publisher Free Press
|Media type Print (hardcover and paperback)|
Similar Andrea Dworkin books, Feminism books
Intercourse is a 1987 book by Andrea Dworkin, in which Dworkin offers a radical feminist analysis of sexual intercourse in literature and society. Dworkin is often said to argue that "all heterosexual sex is rape", based on the line from the book that says "violation is a synonym for intercourse." However, Dworkin has denied this interpretation, stating, "What I think is that sex must not put women in a subordinate position. It must be reciprocal and not an act of aggression from a man looking only to satisfy himself. That's my point."
In Intercourse, Dworkin extended her earlier analysis of pornography to a discussion of heterosexual intercourse itself. In works such as Woman Hating and Pornography: Men Possessing Women, Dworkin had argued that pornography and erotic literature in patriarchal societies consistently eroticized women's sexual subordination to men, and often overt acts of exploitation or violence. In Intercourse, she went on to argue that that sort of sexual subordination was central to men's and women's experiences of sexual intercourse in a male supremacist society, and reinforced throughout mainstream culture, including not only pornography but also in classic works of male-centric literature.
Extensively discussing works such as The Kreutzer Sonata, Madame Bovary, and Dracula (and citing from religious texts, legal commentary, and pornography), Dworkin argued that the depictions of intercourse in mainstream art and culture consistently emphasized heterosexual intercourse as the only or the most genuine form of "real" sex; that they portrayed intercourse in violent or invasive terms; that they portrayed the violence or invasiveness as central to its eroticism; and that they often united it with male contempt for, revulsion towards, or even murder of, the "carnal" woman. She argued that this kind of depiction enforced a male-centric and coercive view of sexuality, and that, when the cultural attitudes combine with the material conditions of women's lives in a sexist society, the experience of heterosexual intercourse itself becomes a central part of men's subordination of women, experienced as a form of "occupation" that is nevertheless expected to be pleasurable for women and to define their very status as women. Dworkin describes the view of intercourse enforced by saying:
This is nihilism, or this is truth. He has to push in past boundaries. There is the outline of a body, distinct, separate, its integrity an illusion, a tragic deception, because unseen there is a slit between the legs, and he has to push into it. There is never a real privacy of the body that can coexist with intercourse: with being entered. The vagina itself is muscled and the muscles have to be pushed apart. The thrusting is persistent invasion. She is opened up, split down the center. She is occupied--physically, internally, in her privacy. ... There is no analogue anywhere among subordinated groups of people to this experience of being made for intercourse: for penetration, entry, occupation. There is no analogue in occupied countries or in dominated races or in imprisoned dissidents or in colonialized cultures or in the submission of children to adults or in the atrocities that have marked the twentieth century ranging from Auschwitz to the Gulag. There is nothing exactly the same, and this is not because the political invasion and significance of intercourse is banal up against these other hierarchies and brutalities. Intercourse is a particular reality for women as an inferior class; and it has, in it, as part of it, violation of boundaries, taking over, occupation, destruction of privacy, all of which are construed to be normal and also fundamental to continuing human existence. There is nothing that happens to any other civilly inferior people that is the same in its meaning and in its effect even when those people are forced into sexual availability, heterosexual or homosexual; while the subject people, for instance, may be forced to have intercourse with those who dominate them, the God who does not exist did not make human existence, broadly speaking, dependent on their compliance. The political meaning of intercourse for women is the fundamental question of feminism and freedom: can an occupied people--physically occupied inside, internally invaded--be free; can those with a metaphysically compromised privacy have self-determination; can those without a biologically based physical integrity have self-respect?
Such descriptions are often cited by Dworkin's critics, claiming that Intercourse argued that "All heterosexual intercourse is rape." That statement, however, is not directly made in the book, and her comparisons of intercourse to "occupation," "possession," "collaboration," etc. are made in the context of discussions of the way in which intercourse is depicted "the discourse of male truth--literature, science, philosophy, pornography", and the enforcement of those terms through men's social power over women.
Dworkin rejected the interpretation that "All heterosexual intercourse is rape" as a grave misunderstanding of her work. When asked in a later interview, she explained:
No, I wasn't saying that [all heterosexual sex is rape] and I didn't say that, then or ever. ... The whole issue of intercourse as this culture's penultimate expression of male dominance became more and more interesting to me. In Intercourse I decided to approach the subject as a social practice, material reality. This may be my history, but I think the social explanation of the all sex is rape slander is different and probably simple. Most men and a good number of women experience sexual pleasure in inequality. Since the paradigm for sex has been one of conquest, possession, and violation, I think many men believe they need an unfair advantage, which at its extreme would be called rape. I don't think they need it. I think both intercourse and sexual pleasure can and will survive equality. It's important to say, too, that the pornographers, especially Playboy, have published the "all sex is rape" slander repeatedly over the years, and it's been taken up by others like Time who, when challenged, cannot cite a source in my work.
Journalist Cathy Young wrote that she found Dworkin's explanation hard to square with what Young described as Dworkin's frequent willingness to criticize ordinary heterosexual practices as violent or coercive. Young also wrote that, given Dworkin's expressed views, arguments over whether Dworkin actually said that heterosexual intercourse is rape can be dismissed as "quibbling". Young wrote, "whatever her defenders say, Dworkin was anti-sex."