In her own words, Andrea Dworkin is “a radical feminist, not the fun kind.” But wow is she fun to read. The book begins with an (unnecessary) foreword by Ariel Levy which expresses tepid enjoyment of Dworkin, “brace yourself,” calling her language “bragging” and saying “you don’t have to be an asshole or even a journalist to take issue with some of what Dworkin said.” I just don’t feel it fitting that Dworkin’s words even have to mingle with Levy’s foreword. Especialy Levy’s “In the real world, many women would like to be regarded as sexually attractive, even if we don’t like the reasons why uncomfortable shoes and laboriously blow-dried hair are considered desirable. We know it’s a deranged system… but this is the system. This is the real world.” Luckily we move straight from that pap into Dworkin’s 1995 preface (the original work out in 1987):
When I finished writing Intercourse one colleague advised me to add an introduction to explain what the book said. That way, readers would not be shocked, afraid, or angry, because the ideas would be familiar–prechewed, easier to digest; I would be protected from bad or malicious readings and purposeful distortions; and my eagerness to explain myself would show that I wanted people to like me and my book, the quintessential feminine pose. At least one knee would be visibly bent.
…First published in the United States in 1987… Intercourse is still being reviled in print by people who have not read it, reduced to slogans by journalists posing as critics or sages or deep thinkers, treated as if it were odious and hateful by every asshole who thinks that what will heal this violent world is more respect for dead white men.
My colleagues, of course, had been right; but their advise offended me. I have never written for a cowardly or passive or stupid reader, the precise characteristics of most reviewers–overeducated but functionally illiterate…
The public censure of women as if we are rabid because we speak without apology about the world in which we live is a strategy of threat that usually works. Men often react to women’s words–speaking and writing–as if they were acts of violence; sometimes men react to women’s words with violence. So we lower our voices. Women whisper. Women apologize. Women shut up. Women trivialize what we know. Women shrink. Women pull back. Most women have experienced enough domination from men–control, violence, insult, contempt–that no threat seems empty.
Intercourse does not say, forgive me and love me. It does not say, I forgive you, I love you. For a woman writer to thrive (or, arguably, to survive) in these current hard times, forgiveness and love must be subtext. No. I say no.
In the book itself, she showcases the repulsion, contempt, violence of intercourse in Tolstoy, Kobo Abe, Tennessee Williams, Flaubert, Freud, Mailer (of course), Bram Stoker, sprinkling in text from the Bible, DeLillo, Iris Murdoch, James Baldwin. “In Amerika, there is the nearly universal conviction–or so it appears–that sex (fucking) is good and that liking it is right: morally right; a sign of human health; nearly a standard for citizenship… [but] We are inarticulate about sex, even though we talk about it all the time to say how much we like it–nearly as much, one might infer, as jogging.”
One of my favorite chapters was about Joan of Arc (Virginity), where I discovered my own ignorance about much of her life. Captured by the English (actually Belgians, who handed her over to English) after pushing them successfully out of much of France, the ultimate crime she was burned for boiled down to wearing of men’s clothing?! Dworkin weaves a tale that Joan chose to remain a virgin because this was the path to freedom, “freedom from the real meaning of being female… Being female meant tiny boundaries and degraded possibilities; social inferiority and sexual subordination; obedience to men; surrender to male force or violence; sexual accessibility to men or withdrawal from the world; and civil insignificance… She refused to be fucked and she refused civil insignificance… Her virginity was a radical renunciation of a civil worthlessness rooted in real sexual practice. She refused to be female. As she put it at her trial, not nicely, ‘And as for womanly duties. She said there were enough other women to do them.'” Her guides were St. Catherine of Alexandria and St. Margaret of Antioch, two other women who militantly resisted male power and were killed for resisting (also virgins), always depicted in dramatic, graphic pictures; “a bold, articulate, mesmerizing iconography not rivaled for effect until the invention of the wide screen in cinema.. They were both shown with swords because they had been decapitated, but the abridgement of the narrative into a martial image conveyed militance, not just martyrdom.”