Monday, 6 April 2009


xposted from my LJ

I posted to my LJ the other day about re-reading Dworkin, and I was just thinking that I want to say more about that. As that post mentions, what I chose to re-read was a few snippets available online from Intercourse. (Yes, I realize that re-reading excerpts is not the same as re-reading the book itself. Yes, I did read the whole book, about a year ago. Yes, I freely admit I do not remember it very well, because I found it rambly and off-point often, and yes, I admit that this means I don't know it as well as those who love AD do.)

I wanted to mention that because I think, as someone who is female and a sexual top, I have an interesting perspective on heteronormativity and on the acts often expected in it. I too have noticed the laser-precise cultural focus on penetrative sex involving penises, particularly PIV, as "real," as particularly fulfilling, and as "counting as sex" when other things do not.

(Interestingly, the penis seems to be the important, er, part. I've even had one friend tell me that my penetrating my partners is "anal play," where his penetrating his would count as "anal sex," because he has a flap of flesh I lack. WTFLOLZ.)

So the idea of this book is honestly something I really like. I still remember an old therapist asking me, before I was ever sexually active, "what using dildoes would mean to me." My response, "it seems like it would feel good to be inside somebody," was insufficiently introspective, and I was asked again what it "meant."

I was a marked case, and there was something unsettling or confusing or to be worked through about my desires and feelings. I countered asking if she would ask a male patient why he'd want to penetrate his partners, or if "That would feel good" would count as an answer from him. Sometimes I'm clever. ;)

So the idea that a woman -- a feminist legend -- would examine and question heteronormativity and its focus on PIV is actually awesome to me. Despite not liking Dworkin much most of the time, I remember feeling (once I'd learned that her point was not "all penetrative sex is rape") like I'd probably like the basic idea of Intercourse, because I've had those same questions about the norms and the standards and what they mean all my life. How my mental state and healthiness has been judged has even occasionally hinged on them.

The thing is, I was profoundly disappointed by the book. Take a look at this:

What does it mean to be the person who needs to have this done to her: who needs to be needed as an object; who needs to be entered; who needs to be occupied; who needs to be wanted more than she needs integrity or freedom or equality? If objectification is necessary for intercourse to be possible, what does that mean for the person who needs to be fucked so that she can experience herself as female and who needs to be an object so that she can be fucked?

The brilliance of objectification as a strategy of dominance is that it gets the woman to take the initiative in her own degradation (having less freedom is degrading). The woman herself takes one kind of responsibility absolutely and thus commits herself to her own continuing inferiority: she polices her own body; she internalizes the demands of the dominant class and, in order to be fucked, she constructs her life around meeting those demands. It is the best system of colonialization on earth: she takes on the burden, the responsibility, of her own submission, her own objectification.

Now, I understand and admit (though I suspect some may, even after reading this sentence, say I don't) that my perspective as a female top who usually fucks men is not what she's talking about. I understand that I look at this through odd, nonstandard eyes, and that doing so fundamentally means not responding to the original point in the way intended.

Still, seeing that sentence I bolded, right there at the beginning of a paragraph, introducing its main idea, is familiar and unsettling. "What does it mean to want this?" is the same question I was asked. If asked of men, of lesbian women, of straight women who've rejected heteronormativity radically only to discover that they like to be fucked and miss it when they refuse it for politics -- in short, of anyone but those who blindly follow heteronormativity because they know no better or fear censure for defiance -- this is the therapist's question to me, in reverse.

How is it useful to ask what a bottom's needs "do to her," "mean to her?" What begins as "What does this social expectation mean?" somehow turns into "what have you done to yourself, darling?" In the second paragraph, it's said right out: she takes the initiative in her own degradation.

Oddly enough, I thought feminism was supposed to stress not how women "victimize themselves," but how men have traditionally victimized them and continue to do so.

It's just sad to me, because rather than an exploration of "Where did the social expectation that females are women, that women are hetero bottoms, that being fucked is more satisfying for hetero bottoms than clitoral orgasm, and that this is kind of degrading and weird and makes men 'the boss' come from?" it becomes "How have you been harmed by having a need?"

It's not the desire that's harmful, it's the compulsory scripts.

Why is this so hard for people to get? Why is calling my partner a degraded dupe (male bottoms get this all the time, thanks, and it's not progressive at all, and I'm not sure "I meant to be talking about women, so you're derailing, unicorn" excuses you when you actually worded it as "what does it mean to need this done to you?" and only later add "in order to feel female") okay, suddenly?

Why can't we put the blame on the system, not the people who happen to have orgasms doing the things the system says are cool?


Gaina said...

That line of questioning sounds like bullying to me, and we all know that bullies only do it because the victim has a quality they are jealous of. Could it be that the people questioning your desires (apart from being spectacularly rude!) are a bit jealous of your ability to name your desires and act upon them?

If something is genuinely pleasurable for yourself and your partner and no-one else is being deliberately distressed by it then I say that's all the 'analysis' necessary.

Trinity said...

Eh, I'm not sure what to think. On the one hand the woman did seem out of touch and nasty to me. On the other, it may have been a holdover from the sort of Freudian "we puzzle out what the things you do symbolically mean to you, and then you can change the symbols that are bad for you."

I suspect she thought of my sexual desires as bad symbols less because she was a meanie and more because she was just ignorant and (hetero?)normative.

Trinity said...

Also because at the time I was worried/distressed. I didn't know if my desires *were* acceptable. The big problem was that she didn't seem to think they were, so rather than helping me to accept myself she went on this meaning-hunt.

Anonymous said...

The thing that I can't get my head around is that it does seem to take as read the patriarchal construction that to be penetrated is to be demeaned, or weak. It's exactly the same reason why being a gay man in patriarchal society is such a problem: because wanting (or needing) to be penetrated is seen as a sign of weakness, of being lesser - and therefore, an okay target for abuse.

The equation between "person who needs to be fucked" and "female" is one that works both ways - While a person who is female "needs to be fucked", patriarchy insists that any person who needs to be fucked must be female (or have female status). In logic speak, a person is a female if and only if that person needs to be fucked.

Which analysis of homophobia leads directly and neatly back to your own conclusion: "Why can't we put the blame on the system, not the people who happen to have orgasms doing the things the system says are cool?"

K said...

I really appreciate you posting this... I've been debating whether or not to read Intercourse and I'm kinda leaning against it... The only reason I'm thinking about it at all is because I'm anticipating getting chewed out for not having read it. It's not something I want to read.

It sounds to me like I'm already familiar with the ideas contained within it, for one thing. I'm already halfway familiar with 'question your own sexual motives - are they really yours or are they merely internalized from the outside?' And I'm especially personally familiar with the, questioning whether or not you're still a woman if you can or can't have heterosexual sex. What having sex 'means.'

I'm more familiar with some other books that "Go around" the same question and probably come to similar conclusions - but they're more how-to sex guides than hard feminist theory. I really enjoyed them. You probably already read them or else don't need to read them - Let Me Count the Ways & the Annie Sprinkle Spectacular Sex book if you're interested.

Trinity said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Trinity said...

"The thing that I can't get my head around is that it does seem to take as read the patriarchal construction that to be penetrated is to be demeaned, or weak."

Yeah, I feel weird about it for the same reason. She does say a bit that might mean it's possible for intercourse to signify something else:

"Can intercourse exist without objectification? Would intercourse be a different phenomenon if it could, if it did? Would it be shorter or longer, happier or sadder; more complex, richer, denser, with a baroque beauty or simpler with an austere beauty; or bang bang bang? Would intercourse without objectification, if it could exist, be compatible with women's equality--even an expression of it--or would it still be stubbornly antagonistic to it? Would intercourse cause orgasm in women if women were not objects for men before and during intercourse? Can intercourse exist without objectification and can objectification exist without female complicity in maintaining it as a perceived reality and a material reality too: can objectification exist without the woman herself turning herself into an object--becoming through effort and art a thing, less than human, so that he can be more than human, hard, sovereign, king? Can intercourse exist without the woman herself turning herself into a thing, which she must do because men cannot fuck equals and men must fuck: because one price of dominance is that one is impotent in the face of equality?"

However, I can't tell there if she's honestly asking, or being rhetorical and saying something more like "Given that a woman's body is entered, is permeable, could there ever be a reformulating of this?"

And if that's what she's saying, it ignores that, well, not all women's bodies are bodies with vaginas, and also, vaginas are not the only penetrable part of the body.

Unless she's also got an unarticulated view of people who receive anal (or who give fellatio, even?) as behaving "unnaturally" or something. Which I don't know whether to impute to her or not, honestly.

I do know that she talks about the horror of anal rape very vividly, so she may not think that people can actually want to be penetrated anally and it's not just a tool in the war against women. I think she pretty much thinks of it as something invented by pornography, though exactly what this means for her understanding of gay men's sexuality I don't know.

I'd say not, but then I read this, and it really does sound like she's saying there's a certain kind of phenomenological fact of experiencing oneself as permeable when penetrated:

"Physically, the woman in intercourse is a space inhabited, a literal territory occupied literally: occupied even if there has been no resistance, no force; even if the occupied person said yes please, yes hurry, yes more. Having a line at the point of entry into your body that cannot be crossed is different from not having any such line; and being occupied in your body is different from not being occupied in your body. It is human to experience these differences whether or not one cares to bring the consequences of them into consciousness."

But if she really is talking about biology there, it's not true that women have "such a line" and men don't, even if one assumes that all women have vaginas and all men do not (false anyway.)

It may be that there is in fact some phenomenological difference between having three possible points of entry and only having two, and that's what she's actually trying to say. Or that having a vagina specifically affects experience in certain ways.

But if that's what she means, she's being very sloppy about saying so.

Trinity said...

"The equation between "person who needs to be fucked" and "female" is one that works both ways - While a person who is female "needs to be fucked", patriarchy insists that any person who needs to be fucked must be female (or have female status). In logic speak, a person is a female if and only if that person needs to be fucked."

Yes, exactly, which is the sort of thing I really wish this book had stuck to unraveling.

Trinity said...

"I really appreciate you posting this... I've been debating whether or not to read Intercourse and I'm kinda leaning against it... The only reason I'm thinking about it at all is because I'm anticipating getting chewed out for not having read it. It's not something I want to read."

Like I said, I liked the idea of it because as someone who often doesn't do what heteronormativity dictates, I love the idea of someone unpacking what's expected of women and men, how women who don't get penetrated or don't come from it are seen as freaks or "scared," how men who do are targets of ridicule if not violence, etc. It's something that's worth saying and needs to be said. I'm just not impressed at all with Dworkin's take, and think it got famous simply because she was the first one to say it and get attention for it, not because what she wrote about it was much good. Sadly.

Trinity said...

Also, K, I think your blog is awesome. Vaginismus is one of the things I have in mind in a lot of these intercourse discussions. I have it too.

But I don't think that being a top instead of a bottom is an "acceptable solution" to silly people anyhow.

Not that I see it as something I devised as a "solution" anyway, really; I knew I was interested in giving penetration long before I ever knew I would have difficulty receiving it. It's perhaps possible I was unconsciously aware, but I'm not convinced of that.

(BTW, *INCOHERENT RAGEFLAIL* at that Twisty post.)

Dw3t-Hthr said...

I also find it interesting that this attempt to gender-powerify that particular sex act goes for the "invasion and occupation" metaphor rather than the "envelopment and devouring" metaphor.

As in, the latter doesn't even appear to exist in the worldview.

K said...

Really? You too? I didn't know that. I don't think I've ever seen you mention it. I've only been lurking a few months though. I don't know a lot of feminists to talk to about & with this sort of thing.

N-not that I think you should feel like you *have* to talk about it though! I do because it's a prominent part of my life right now but I recognize it doesn't have to be that way.

Part of the reason I'm reluctant to read Dworkin is, I have a feeling I'm just going to stop reading it partway through, feeling judged & looked down upon for still wanting to have this kind of sex. Also for wanting to experiment with other sexual things that can be viewed as existing only because of a patriarchy. I feel like I'm struggling against this idea that, having examined your motives for sex and having examined what it means to have intercourse, there can be only one conclusion: don't do it.
But of course I probably shouldn't say that since I haven't read the whole thing myself & that's just the impression I get from reading selections & excerpts,

And then I'm back to square one.

Trinity said...

"Really? You too? I didn't know that. I don't think I've ever seen you mention it. I've only been lurking a few months though. I don't know a lot of feminists to talk to about & with this sort of thing."

I don't usually mention it, but yes, I have vaginismus, probably from my disability. And I totally agree with you that it's very weird how it gets talked about.

On the one hand, the larger world seems to think that one is some kind of failure if one doesn't "fix" this, and I see a lot of women saying their lives are "ruined" because of difficulties having intercourse. I do think that in some cases this isn't due to really wanting intercourse, but due to thinking that not being capable of it (as many women aren't before -- or even after -- dilators) means "bad female."

But on the other, looking at that Twisty post was weird too, with the whole idea running throughout that maybe these were just... advanced Blamers refusing entry because that's cool, rather than women who might very much want to be able to do that.

It's like... no room at all for people who choose to dilate or not for their own reasons. (Or -- omg -- to do it sometimes and sometimes not. Whoooooa.) What is that?

Jennifer said...

It must be about 20 years since I read Intercourse, but I did find it very interesting at the time. Don't know what I'd make of it now.

One thing that sticks in my mind which I'm pretty sure was from there (or if not, must have been in another of Dworkin's books I think) is an analysis of what happened to Joan of Arc. Apparently one of the things that the Church had against her was that she refused to stop dressing "as a man". IIRC the essay concludes that that's what she eventually got burnt at the stake for! And I was like: woah, I never heard that part of the story before! So if that essay was in Intercourse it would be worth reading at least that one I think.

(slight caveat as above that it may in fact have been in a different book - but someone can probably correct me if so)

Trinity said...

That's part of what I'd always heard had happened to Joan too. I've heard this variously analyzed as "She wore breeches to protect herself from rape" (would it have? I'm guessing no) and "She was transgendered."

violet white said...

I appreciate what Trinity and Dw3t-Hthr have said here about permeability very much. Penetrative sex, for me, after the first couple of times, has not really been about being "entered" or "penetrated." I mean, that has physically occurred, but the experience hasn't presented itself that way to me, it's much more the enveloping/devouring model.... but then I've also never understood the idea of a vagina as a hole. at all. Oh what a fallacy.

SunflowerP said...

What keeps sticking to my brain, reading this post both here and on your LJ, is this clause from the passages you quote:

"If objectification is necessary for intercourse to be possible...."

"If", indeed. Your later excerpt her in the comments suggests that, for Dworkin, this was on a par with Schroedinger's Cat, something that could be hypothetically postulated but was so detached from practical reality that it could be addressed only as a thought experiment. As, indeed, might well be the case in context of Dworkin's own personal life - she was candid in acknowledging that her own horrific experiences colored her perspective, so I understand.

I have to take her writing in small doses since her writing style drives me completely bugfuck, but reading her as speaking about her own experiences (though she politicizes them in a way that universalizes them, which is a significant problem) makes it possible for me to read more than I otherwise would.

I think the "if" question is a legitimate one to raise, even though I'm firmly convinced that PIV without objectification is not the chimera Dworkin perceives it to be, but is - and was long before she came along - common enough to be no more remarkable than PIV-with-objectification. (Is she implying that seeing his partner as a person renders a man incapable of erection? In which case the absence of the "devouring" metaphor that Dw3t-Hthr noted is not merely interesting, it's academically negligent.)

In many respect this is essentially the same point SnowdropExplodes raises - certain things are taken as fundamental, and unexamined, that are in fact assumptions, and assumptions shared by the patriarchal POV at that. The radical has failed to go to the whole root.

(I'll also note that I strenuously object to the way she uses the word "intercourse", as if its only possible meaning was "the point in heretosexual sexual intercourse at which the penis enters the vagina," glossing over the many possible connotations both sexual and non-sexual. There is nothing "inter" about the intercourse she speaks of; "coitus" would have been a better choice since its non-sexual meanings are obsolete.)


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