Signor Cock

Roy Porter

  • Intercourse by Andrea Dworkin
    Secker, 259 pp, £10.95, June 1987, ISBN 0 436 13961 8

You only have to read the torrent of filthy abuse pouring out of this diatribe against sex and men to see that Andrea Dworkin is a sick lady. It’s one long hysterical denunciation of sexual intercourse as really bad news for women. The way she rants on is of course the give-away symptom of sexual frustration. Clearly she can’t be getting enough of it – not surprising for someone overweight and ugly like her! Either that, or she is one of the seven in ten women (evidence: Hite Report) who can’t regularly make it to orgasm with a man. Typically of such women, her frustration has turned her into a man-hater. It’s awful being a man in today’s world. It means being bombarded with androcidal aggression from women who love to hate us.

Now, if I were to write offensive, abominable crap like this, I’d be branded (rightly) as sexist. If I carried on with that mix of personal innuendo and screaming invective for two hundred pages, the sheer overkill of it would preclude serious attention to anything I was saying. But when Andrea Dworkin does the same sort of thing, only with the villains and victims reversed?

Her book is a sustained indictment of sexual intercourse. ‘Hatred of women is a source of sexual pleasure for men in its own right. Intercourse appears to be the expression of that contempt in pure form ... Intercourse is the pure, sterile, formal expression of men’s contempt for women.’ Mary Daly says that ‘this monumental work is feminist theory at its best – clear, coherent, profound, shocking.’ Is it? Or is it just another barrage of bombast whose self-indulgent hyperbole undermines its own insights? I take it for granted that no one is going to deny this late in the day the underlying premise that women have been oppressed down the ages, and that sex has been one of the instruments of that oppression. This is hardly news. Why and how and how far that has happened, and continues to happen, are what we need to understand and change.

Dworkin’s case, argued in part through literary analysis, is that the pejorative meanings of ‘being fucked’ and ‘being screwed’ get it dead right. For a woman, being fucked is ipso facto being used, being abused, being exploited. With a touching faith in the ‘triumph of hope over experience’, some women have generously believed that things could be different, that there could be a non-exploitative sexual intercourse with a man, founded upon consent, equality or tenderness. Such hopes are pie in the sky: ‘they do not amount to much in real life with real men.’ Entertaining them is just romantic sexual fantasy.

The fact is, Dworkin claims, that men never were like that, aren’t like that, don’t want to be like that, and won’t be like that. ‘In the world of real life ... men use the penis to deliver death to women who are, literally, in their genitals, dirt to the men. The women are raped as adults or as children; prostituted; fucked, then murdered; murdered then fucked.’ Of course over history women have pinned their hopes upon civilising men, and some men at least – among them, I assume, the men thanked in Ms Dworkin’s Acknowledgements – have strung women along with that line. The cause is futile: ‘Male-dominant gender hierarchy, however, seems immune to reform by reasoned or visionary argument or by changes in sexual styles, either personal or social.’

Men are the enemy: they are ‘supposed to slice us up the middle, leaving us in parts on the bed’. Yet the root of the problem lies elsewhere. It is what sexual intercourse inevitably does to female anatomy. The ultimate evil is the very act of the insertion of a penis (or presumably anything else) into a vagina. For that is, by its very nature, an ‘invasion’. It means being ‘possessed’, rendering women ‘an occupied people’. ‘Violation,’ she says, ‘is a synonym for intercourse.’ But consensual intercourse may be even worse than rape because it reduces women to the state of ‘collaborators’. Throughout this book, men are compared to the Nazis, though ‘from Auschwitz to the Gulag’ there is ‘no analogue amongst subordinated groups’ to the condition of women.

Once conquered, a woman is subject to hierarchical domination, she is enslaved. ‘Intercourse and women’s inequality are like Siamese twins.’ Intercourse is soul-destroying. ‘Being that person who is owned and fucked means becoming someone who experiences sensuality in being possessed ... one’s capacities to feel and to be are narrowed, sliced down.’ The fuck is a vampire. It leads to the ‘erosion of self’; it’s all up with the woman who allows herself to be fucked: ‘her insides are worn away over time, and she, possessed, becomes weak, depleted,’ undergoing ‘a sensual state of being that borders on anti-being until it ends in death’. Thus the woman who engages in intercourse undergoes ‘self-mutilation, self-diminishing ... till there is no self’. There is only one simple alternative: women can fuck, or they can be free. Women who think otherwise (Marguerite Duras is singled out) are guilty of ‘capitulation’. Just about the only woman praised in this book is Joan of Arc, who, Dworkin assures us, contrary to Medieval chronicles, must have actually killed some men in battle.

On the dust-wrapper, Germaine Greer tells us this is ‘the most shocking book any feminist has yet written’, and Shere Hite praises it as ‘ground-breaking, outstanding, original, and an act of forbidden rebellion’. I can’t understand why Dworkin’s rediscovery of the wheel should receive such adulation. For everything she says about how yielding to sexual desire is a descent from self-determination to slavery was the stock-in-trade of every Christian ascetic for two thousand years. Her view that the only way for women to keep their freedom is to keep free of men was the creed of nuns throughout the Middle Ages, and of pioneer feminists from Mary Astell at the close of the 17th century to such Purity League campaigners as Frances Swiney at the close of the 19th. What she says about how awful it is having to put up with men sticking it in you has been the bread and butter of what Auntie Eth has been moaning about all these years. It may seem shocking to the likes of Germaine Greer that Dworkin has written that sex with men is repulsive and humiliating, but isn’t that because in a former existence Greer et al themselves were great traitors (‘collaborators’) who thought that ‘sexual liberation’ was the royal road to the liberation of women? To give Dworkin her due, all her books have been consistent about the evils for women of being fucked by men.

So Dworkin’s basic message is old hat, screaming at us in the very language men use about women and sex. Does she add any new twists to it? Is this book ‘original’ (Hite) and ‘coherent and profound’ (Daly)? No, because it doesn’t get beyond the (totally justified) anger to any substantial analysis, though analysis is badly needed. We are told that what lies at the root of the evil of sexual intercourse for a woman is the physical fact of the invasion (even consensual) of bodily integrity. This is an unfashionably biologistic view, which deserves further exploration. (Taken to its logical extreme, it would make dentistry the natural target of her next diatribe.) Surely more must be said about the relations between the physical and the psychological. If intercourse is not just the brute fact of being conquered by a penis, and not automatically the experience of being so conquered, but were rather experienced as (say) the ambushing of Signor Cock, taking him captive, would that change things? Or would that be just another turn of the false-consciousness screw? And what about other forms of insertion into bodies, deep kissing, or acts of penetration among gays, male and female? Silence on all these issues – issues sensitively explored, for example, in Brian Easlea’s Science and Sexual Oppression.

This leaves us perplexed about Dworkin’s line on sexual desire. Is desire in itself the enemy within, or is the erotic acceptable so long as it entails no penetration, no violation of the integrity of the body? But where then does violation begin? If a woman loses her freedom and is objectified the moment anything goes into her vagina, does she also lose it if she wants to be – or allows herself to be – touched? Or simply looked at? Or is sensuality all right so long as it excludes any danger of domination or being dominated?

If these are the rules, we’d better give up: give up not just sex but living itself, for the notion that we can separate sex or life from tussles for power is pure cloud-cuckoo land. Most people think the game is worth the candle and settle for some give-and-take. Within patriarchy, the story has been mainly one of men taking and women giving. But the sexual politics of the real world may have more twists and turns in it than are dreamt about in Dworkin’s philosophy, and stooping to conquer has not exactly been unknown. To try to present women as nothing other than powerless victims is a historico-sociological nonsense which profoundly degrades women.

Maybe Dworkin is telling women that sex itself is slavery, a ‘self-mutilation’. Maybe female ‘desire’ is just a piece of false-consciousness manipulated by men (and by ‘capitulated’ novelists like Marguerite Duras and benighted feminists such as Germaine Greer back in their unreconstructed days): a delusion requiring drastic demystification. Or maybe desire is real enough, but needs, as St Jerome or St Catherine told us all those centuries ago, to be resisted in the name of a higher asceticism or celibacy. The trouble with this book is that on basic, even banal issues like this, it remains silent. Reading it is rather like hearing a sermon slamming sin. Well and good: there’s a lot wrong with fucking just as there’s a lot wrong with sin. The real question is what we propose to do about it, or rather, given that men seem a hopeless case, what are women to do?

The crux of the dilemma clearly is this. If sexual intercourse is as ghastly for women as Dworkin claims it is, what on earth can induce women to go on having it? For many centuries and societies, there may have been a simple answer: they had no alternative. Women were physically and legally the chattels of patriarchs, and witches were burnt (though not nine million of them, as Andrea Dworkin keeps telling us – nearer 150,000). Single-blessedness and celibacy are more practical today than ever. Yet more women than ever are having sex, getting married, and more and more women are getting married again and again. Is there something that Dworkin knows, but most women don’t? Or something all those women know that Dworkin doesn’t? If Dworkin has got to the heart of the matter about how intercourse intrinsically enslaves and murders women, and yet women still go on having it, the only conclusion is that Dworkin, like the worst male chauvinist pig, thinks that women are just stupid cunts.