poetix (old content)

oh build your ship of death

Traversing the Enemy's Country

The overall procedure of Dworkin’s Intercourse could be described as one of localisation. Dworkin is homing in on her question, which concerns the real of intercourse: what is it in its most intimate dimension? As a commentary on male discourse about intercourse, Dworkin’s text reveals very plainly that intercourse supports, within that discourse, two inconsistent sets of predicates:

There is a deep recognition in culture and in experience that intercourse is both the normal use of a woman, her human potentiality affirmed by it, and a violative abuse, her privacy irredeemably compromised, her selfhood changed in a way that is irrevocable, irrecoverable. And it is recognised that the use and abuse are not distinct phenomena but somehow a synthesized reality: both are true at the same time as if they were one harmonious truth instead of mutually exclusive contradictions. Intercourse in reality is a use and an abuse simultaneously, experienced and described as such, the act parlayed into the illuminated heights of religious duty and the dark recesses of morbid and dirty brutality.

Intercourse is affirmed as the sexual destiny of men and women, as sensual fulfilment and even - “parlayed into the illuminated heights of religious duty” - as the spiritualisation of carnal existence: a holy act, in which male and female bodies jointly conform to their divinely intended function, and in so doing are restored to a primal unity. This is the optimistic face of male supremacism. In its pessimistic mode, exemplified by Tolstoy’s murderer husband in The Kreutzer Sonata, the compulsions of physical lust undermine all striving after spiritual integrity: the body and will are divided, from each other and within themselves. Rather than ascent into “illuminated heights”, intercourse is descent into obscurity and muck: shame, defilement, diminution of “human potentiality”.

If Intercourse were merely a circuit of the various mansions of this particular hell, it would be at best a repetition of the male tradition, a reinscription of its double standard, an adumbration of its bizarre mythology. One would feel obliged to agree that, yes, for Dworkin as for the men whose opinions she surveys, intercourse is force, violation, degradation: a foulness visited upon frail innocents by slavering brutes. The temptation would be to add “and a good thing, too!”, since there are certainly kicks to be got out of that sort of role-play, whichever part you take. But this would be to remain at the level of fantasy, and that is precisely not Dworkin’s objective.

In the 1995 preface, Dworkin wrote that Intercourse “moves in descending circles, not in a straight line, and as in a vortex each spiral goes down deeper”. The inner circles are tighter than the outer ones: a vortex narrows to a point. When Dworkin writes that “intercourse and women’s inequality are like Siamese twins, always in the same place at the same time pissing in the same pot”, she identifies this “place” as a point of indiscernibility between male supremacism’s construction (imposed from above) of intercourse, and intercourse’s support (upholding from below) for male supremacy.

It is of the greatest importance to know, in other words, whether or in what ways intercourse is “intrinsically” responsible for “women’s inequality”; not only whether or not intercourse “can be an expression of sexual equality” on a fair day and given a following wind, but also whether, understood and practiced as an expression of inequality, intercourse is something more than the mere neutral medium of that expression. The fantasies of men and women under the sway of male supremacism are unable to help us decide this question, since male supremacism is simply unable to construe intercourse itself other than as an expression of inequality (since inequality is what there is), or to imagine any context for intercourse that would not be a context of inequality. The question of the real of intercourse can be approached, localised, through symbolic gesture and social fact; but it is in the inconsistency of the domain in which intercourse is constructed as a “synthesized reality” that its real is manifest.

At the heart of Intercourse are questions: does it have to be like this? Is this really what we want (Shere Hite suggests that it might not be; at least not the whole time)? How might one person enter the privacy of another’s body respectfully, without goose-stepping, without needing to construe this border crossing as invasion, conquest and victory? Suppose there were an ineradicable tie between being physically entered and being emotionally, politically, existentially subordinated: what then? (It’s hard enough having house-guests sometimes). Dworkin insists that we take responsibility for answering these questions, instead of letting them be answered for us by fantasy. The question, which she shares with James Baldwin, is whether we are able to address the real of intercourse without immediately interposing answers that suit our sense of ourselves as sexual adventurers, dutiful spouses, masculine or feminine, imposingly virile or rapturously yielding: whether we are capable of imagination, investigation, intelligence and accountability, or whether the miserable substitute romance of domination and submission is our destiny.