A few weeks ago, at the high point of the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings, when it seemed like the whole world was fighting the war of the sexes, I decided to read a book that had been on my shelf a long time. Was this book some kind of feel-good escapist fare? Not a chance. I decided to read an influential, but much derided feminist classic, Intercourse, by Andrea Dworkin. By intercourse, did she mean having a pleasant conversation? Yeah, right. She meant heterosexual sex. For her, there is nothing pleasant about it.
Dworkin’s view on intercourse has often been summed up as, “all heterosexual sex is rape”. That’s not what she says, but I can see how people might think that. I think a better summary would be, “the way people think of heterosexual sex leads to the debasement of women.”
Read for yourself:
Intercourse is commonly written about and comprehended as a form of possession or an act of possession in which, during which, because of which, a man inhabits a woman, physically covering her and overwhelming her and at the same time penetrating her; and this physical relation to her — over her and inside her — is his possession of her. He has her, or, when he is done, he has had her. By thrusting into her, he takes her over. His thrusting into her is taken to be her capitulation to him as a conqueror; it is a physical surrender of herself to him; he occupies and rules her, expresses his elemental dominance over her, by his possession of her in the fuck.
If you agree that intercourse is thought of as possession of the woman by the man, then the rest of the book follows. If you’ve never thought of intercourse this way, then you’ll have trouble with her.
Have you ever thought of intercourse this other way?
Remarkably, it is not the man who is considered possessed in intercourse, even though he (his penis) is buried inside another human being… He is not possessed even though he rolls over dead and useless afterward, shrunk into oblivion: this does not make him hers by virtue of the nature of the act; he has not been taken and conquered by her, to whom he finally surrenders, beat, defeated in endurance and strength both. And for him, this small annihilation, this little powerlessness, is not eroticized as sexual possession of him by her….
The point (or, should we say, thrust) of Dworkin’s argument has to do more with how we talk about intercourse than it has to do with intercourse, itself. The way we talk about something matters, it provides a frame, a spin, a narrative that exerts a hidden influence on everything else about it. But, how does thinking about intercourse as possession of the woman by the man matter? What follows from that premise?
Possessive intercourse “distorts and ultimately destroys any potential human equality between men and women by turning women into objects and men into exploiters.” As she rhetorically asks elsewhere, “… can an occupied people — physically occupied inside, internally invaded — be free…?”
Gender inequality is premised on the penis’s victory over the vagina.
Women have been chattels to men as wives, as prostitutes, as sexual and reproductive servants. Being owned and being fucked are or have been virtually synonymous experiences in the lives of women. He owns you; he fucks you. The fucking conveys the quality of the ownership: he owns you inside out. The fucking conveys the passion of his dominance: it requires access to every hidden inch.
Women play a part in their own domination.
Because of their power over us, they are able to strike our hearts dead with contempt or condescension. We need their money; intercourse is frequently how we get it. We need their approval to be able to survive inside our own skins; intercourse is frequently how we get it. They force us to be compliant, turn us into a parasite, then hate us for not letting go. Intercourse is frequently how we hold on….
Instead, Dworkin would like to see recognition of a natural human right to be entirely self-determining. She would like to see the woman be the final authority on what is done in the bedroom, when it is done, and who she does it with, if at all. This goes beyond the requirement of consent. “When the instinct is aroused in her, then and then only should commerce follow.” What Dworkin has in mind isn’t some kind of role reversal. It doesn’t lead to reverse dominance, since, she says, no man can penetrate a woman against his will.
So, how does a thirty-year-old screed against intercourse sound to a male therapist in the context of the Kavanaugh hearings and the revelations of the #metoo movement? The very first time I heard that someone I loved had been raped, it affected me very deeply. I knew such things occurred, but I had never looked at them through the eyes of a victim. I was horrified, not only by what had been done to her, but at the latent, unrecognized capabilities in myself, as a man. It caused me to reassess all of my assumptions about sex and examine them according to this new perspective.
That was years ago. Since then, I have become somewhat inured to the shock and revulsion I felt initially. Good thing, because, as a therapist, I have now heard hundreds of such stories from both men and women. I wouldn’t want a victim to think, if they witnessed my revulsion, that I was revolted by them when I am really revolted by the crime. Nonetheless, I never want to lose touch with that feeling, for it told me a truth that I had to hear: that men possess the equipment and privileges that can really mess people up if they’re not careful.
Recent events have brought a lot of that feeling back to me. Many men, after hearing about the behavior of everyone from Bill Cosby and Louis CK to Charly Rose and Larry Nasser have responded by reassessing their own assumptions and behavior. Other men have gotten defensive. Most have done both.
I recommend that all men have the experience of learning that they could be a rapist; or at least that the way they conceive of sex could be rape-like. To that end, I would urge many men to read Dworkin’s book, provided they are mindful of how they think about its author. If how we think about intercourse matters, then how we think about Intercourse matters. If you characterize Dworkin as a man-hating feminist, saying all sex is rape and all men, rapists; then you’re going to read the book one way and nothing she says will get through to you. But, if you characterize her as a kind of sex coach, showing you how you could perform in a way that doesn’t oppress women, but makes them grateful for your respect, as well as their orgasms (the two are connected), then you’ll read the book a different way; you’ll learn what it’s like to be screwed in a way you can never be.
Unfortunately, it’s all too easy to read Dworkin as a man-hater. Perhaps her writing is more raw than necessary. It’s more likely that a certain kind of man would be inclined read her that way. A man might not want to think of Dworkin as a sex coach if he doesn’t like to think he needs one. This is something she hints at, but, in my opinion, doesn’t develop.
The small intimate society created for intercourse, one time or many, the social unit that is the fuck in action, must be one that protects male dominance. Every man is vulnerable to rebellion, metaphoric castration, and real physical anguish at the point of entry… The penis needs the protection of the law…
What I think she might have said if she developed it further, is that men are secretly vulnerable, and the fantasy of possessive intercourse is how they cover it up. There is a type of man who is terrified to admit weakness. There is so much in our upbringing and the continued expectations of our women that forbids it. The ideal of the strong stoic man, hard as nails, unmoved by weepy considerations, is a pervasive one; and it’s an ideal that no man can meet. We know it even if we can’t admit it. So then, the man who can’t admit weakness invents possessive triumphant sex and casts himself in the role as the possessive triumphant one, a stud, not because that’s who he is, but because that’s who he needs to be. Does he treat his woman as an object? Yes, and he objectified himself first by distancing himself from his feelings. Does he talk like she’s his possession? Yes, and he’s trying to preserve a fleeting hardness that always seems on the verge of wilting away.
It’s easy to mistake power for strength, but power is what we exert when we are weak. When you think you see a rapist, you are seeing a scared, confused little boy who is trying to become a man, but can’t, because being a man, as is commonly written about and comprehended, is a physical and psychological impossibility.