By Andrea Dworkin
This classic feminist theory tome published in 1987 explores sex, sexuality, and the constraints of patriarchy on authenticity and autonomy. Within the framework of patriarchy and male dominance, female sexuality is proscribed, defined, and on demand for male need and desire. Most of her perspective is grounded in analysis of literature, and she also pulls from historical examples such as Joan of Arc. she analyzes the ways in which women are demonized, coerced and manipulated to conform to male standards of female sexuality and satisfy male desires. For example, women are limited in describing their own sexuality and sexual needs because the only language that exists for such conversations is constructed according to male norms. Or, the impact of constant subjugation as a second-class identity leads to behaviors that are pathologized (because they contrast with the male norm) and then serve to justify women’s second-class categorization. Her examples illustrate the ways in which the personal is political, how social structures and personal attitudes create and reinforce unequal systems of power, and how sexuality is used as a tool in service of maintaining mail dominance and female subjugation.
“Intercourse” by Andrea Dworkin is a highly contested work. Its publication came at a time when pornography and sexuality deeply divided feminist thought and activism, and Dworkin makes bold and conclusive arguments in favor of the notion that sex and sexuality are tools of the patriarchy and cannot be wielded in favor of women’s autonomy while society is constrained by the framework of male dominance. Her book was also published at the tail end of second-wave feminism before third-wave intersectionality took hold, which shows in the way she constructs her arguments. Her analysis is primarily contained to heteronormative sexuality, and though one of the literary pieces she analyzes in her book talks about gay sexuality she does not discuss the potential impact on lesbian or transgender sexuality, or how male dominance reinforces subjugation in non-mainstream relationships. Similarly, she barely scratches the surface of race and how male dominance might manifest differently for different racial identities. Dworkin makes claims in definitive, sweeping statements that can be quite compelling at first, but lead to further questions and doubt upon reflection. It seems that, on the surface, all statements she makes apply to all women, which leaves little room for differentiation and autonomy among those she claims lack differentiation and autonomy from male dominance.
This book is packed with dense and comprehensive analyses, which means there is a lot of unpacking to do of Dworkin’s theories. I agreed with many of the claims she makes in her books, and I also found myself second-guessing those same claims. I can’t imagine this book would be undertaken lightly, but contemplating the ideas it contains certainly requires concerted engagement with the text. I also recommend starting with the foreword and introduction before jumping into the main content of the book (which starts and ends abruptly with analysis). Intriguing, to be sure.