Dworkin, Andrea: Title Commentary

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SOURCE: Glasgow, Joanne. "Dworkin Critiques Relations between the Sexes." New Directions for Women (September-October 1987): 18-19.

In the following review, Glasgow praises Intercourse as a groundbreaking book, one that "should be read, discussed, argued about passionately."

For more than two months, I have been waiting to read a decent, fair discussion of Andrea Dworkin's newest book, Intercourse. I would have settled for an honest pan, provided the reviewer had been willing to wrestle with the ideas in the book.

But in review after review, and in talk show after talk show, all I have seen are distortions at best and, far more often, savage personal attacks on Dworkin. Instead of discussing the book, people have focused on her outspoken anti-pornography stand. Or they have attacked her recent novel Ice and Fire as a pornographic book. Or they have isolated a controversial line or two, as The New York Times review did. Or they have tried to pin a derogatory label on her, as Erica Jong did on The Donahue Show (In that instance, Jong simplistically reduced Dworkin's position to a discredited form of old-fashioned biological determinism.)

When, in all this shameful public wrangling, is anyone going to discuss what to me seems the most important critique of male/female bonds since Adrienne Rich's Of Woman Born?

Like Rich, Dworkin has taken on one of the most "sacred" of institutions. Rich examined the institution of motherhood and concluded that the experience individual mothers have is systematically buried beneath layers of misogyny, patriarchal control and symbolic interpretation that denies the existence of women's witness. Women's truth is not even examined or disputed. It is simply erased.

That, argues Dworkin, is precisely what happens to women's witness when intercourse is institutionalized, as it has been in this country and indeed all over the world.

Although she does not refer to Rich, nor do I think she intended the parallel, Dworkin shows in chapter after harrowing chapter just what the act of intercourse has meant in men's eyes. It is the instrument of misogyny for men like Tolstoy, of patriarchal control for men like Isaac Bashevis Singer, of symbolic warfare against other men for men like James Baldwin.

And for women? Dworkin examines two responses: the no of the marriage resisters, for whom Joan of Arc is the exemplar, and the lie of the collaborators, for whom all the anonymous respondents in Shere Hite's Report are the representatives (that is, 70 percent of all women). This lie of the collaborators is perhaps the sticking point for many readers. As Dworkin says, "Intercourse is a loyalty test for women." In a man-made world intercourse has to occur, has to be central and has to be centrally valued.

Prior to modern reproductive technology, intercourse had indeed been necessary for human procreation. It is still the method of choice for most people, even in advanced technological societies like ours. But is it central? And for whom, Freud and Lacan notwithstanding, is it central? Evidently, according to Dworkin, not for women. If statistics are accurate, most women do not find intercourse centrally satisfying, despite enormous pressure to do so. But they must not say so. Their silence must be won. They must fake orgasm, pretend they want nothing more or simply (perhaps preferably) know nothing else.

I think this is the part of her book that most feminists who live with men find hardest to accept. Indeed, if Dworkin's analysis is correct, their reluctance is proof of the argument. And they may, justifiably, find the argument loaded. But that is no reason to distort Dworkin's views and certainly no justification for ignoring the argument completely in favor of cheap shots and irrelevant commentary. Instead, the book should be read, discussed, argued about passionately. Silence, too, distorts.

Sex Laws

In the final section of the book Dworkin argues for a reexamination of the ways men have erected laws to protect the centrality of intercourse. Of all her analyses, the most compelling to my mind is the manipulation of language and categories. Men have for centuries passed laws that forbid many acts of sexual intimacy. But as Dworkin says, "Folks keep getting it wrong, and wanting to put the wrong thing in the wrong place at the wrong time." And so the powers of coercion called law step in to regulate such behavior. And these laws are justified by the label "natural." What a piece of circular reasoning it is! Dworkin's analysis should finally lay to rest the claim many antagonists have made that she is secretly in league with (some have said in bed with) the New Right. Hardly!

But whatever individual readers think about it, this is at least what the book is about—the symbolic meaning attached to intercourse in a man-made world and our individual and sometimes collective struggles with that meaning. It is a work of imaginative power. It is controversial. It is sometimes maddening. But it is truly important. It is the most important book I have read in ten years. Readers should give it a chance.