I’ve gotten a few emails from readers in the past few days asking me to respond to something else Factcheckme (FCM) discusses on her blog. (See my post immediately below this one for an explanation of the disagreement she and I are having about the role of men in the feminist movement.) Though I don’t think FCM and I could have much of a conversation (a civil exchange requires a mutual recognition of good faith and legitimacy, and she’s made it clear she doesn’t think I possess either), her views are not unique to her and deserve a response.
One of FCM’s tabs is her Intercourse series, a lengthy set of posts exploring her reactions to Andrea Dworkin’s famous book by the same name. As even a casual reader of her blog will realize, FCM takes Dworkin quite literally in her insistence that heterosexual intercourse (penis-in-vagina sex, or PIV) is abusive to women. Women should generally resist PIV, FCM argues; any man who dares claim the label feminist ally for himself must renounce PIV if he wishes to be taken seriously. Refusing intercourse is the proof of one’s seriousness and credibility.
There’s a lot of debate among Dworkin scholars as to whether her work was meant to be taken literally in all instances, or whether she was often engaged in a complex and dazzling rhetorical performance designed to elicit shock and reflection. (I tend to hold the latter view, and I suspect that FCM leans towards the former.) I certainly think that feminists ought to challenge people’s conventional views about heterosexual intercourse. In my women’s history class, for example, I point out that until relatively recently, one of the leading causes of death for women was complications related to childbirth. (In some places at some times, pregnancy and childbirth have been the leading cause of female death.) The overwhelming majority of pregnancies are the consequence of heterosexual intercourse; therefore, it is logical to conclude that heterosexual intercourse has led to the deaths of hundreds of millions of women over human history, as well as to unimaginable pain and discomfort to those who did not die but were merely injured by everything from miscarriages to fistulas to prolapsed uteruses.
Though maternal death is far rarer today in the industrialized West (though troublingly higher here in the States than in Europe), it is still a very real danger in less developed parts of the world. But pregnancy is not the only consequence of PIV that can lead to death. In Africa the AIDS epidemic is primarily carried on through heterosexual intercourse; the vast majority of women who die of AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa contracted the virus by having PIV. When fundamentalists speak of AIDS as God’s punishment for homosexuals, it’s worth replying that God has punished far more women with death for having PIV with their husbands than he has male homosexuals for having anal sex. And God is said to be a fan of PIV in marriage. Feminists do well to point these things out, and I do so in every class I teach.
(Parenthetically, heterosexual intercourse put me in the emergency room once, as I wrote in this post. There’s no comparison, of course, between the physical danger of PIV for women and for men. But PIV can bring everything from frenular tearing to broken hearts to males as well; to suggest otherwise is to be blind to the reality of male vulnerability. And vulnerability isn’t a zero-sum game.)
It’s also important to note that women’s legal right to resist intercourse with their husbands is very recent, and by no means universally accepted. The first successful prosecutions for marital rape in this country only took place in my lifetime; many traditionalists in many places still find the notion of marital rape itself to be an oxymoron. Empowering women legally and socially and psychologically to say “no” to their partners (including their husbands) is an essential part of the global feminist project.
But of course, there is another side to all of this discussion. As Dworkin’s critics have long pointed out, much of her objection to PIV is rooted less in physiological reality than in the language we use to describe it. I wrote about this last fall, describing an exercise familiar to all my women’s studies’ students. An excerpt follows.
One of the first gender studies courses I ever took at Berkeley was an upper-division anthropology course taught by the great Nancy Scheper-Hughes. It was in a class discussion one day (I think in the spring of â€˜87) that I heard something that rocked my world. We were discussing Andrea Dworkinâ€™s novel â€œIce and Fireâ€ and her (then still-forthcoming, but already publicized) â€œIntercourseâ€. I hadnâ€™t read the books at the time (they were optional for the class). One classmate made the case that on a biological level, all heterosexual sex was, if not rape, dangerously close to it. â€œLook at the languageâ€, my classmate said; â€œpenetrate, enter, and screw make it clear whatâ€™s really happening; women are being invaded by menâ€™s penises.â€ Another classmate responded, â€œBut thatâ€™s the fault of the language, not of the biology itself; we could just as easily use words like â€˜envelopâ€™, â€˜engulfâ€™, â€™surroundâ€™ and everything would be different.â€ The discussion raged enthusiastically until the next class irritably barged in and chucked us all out. I was electrified.
My classmates were having, as I came to discover, a classic intra-feminist argument: to what extent is the sexual domination of women by men part and parcel of our biology, and to what extent is it a construction maintained by language that deliberately disempowers women? The consensus seems to weigh more heavily to the latter position, particularly within the contemporary (so-called â€œThird Waveâ€) feminism which was very much still in its incubation when I was discovering Womenâ€™s Studies in the Reagan years.
In every womenâ€™s studies class Iâ€™ve taught here at PCC, and in many guest lectures about feminism Iâ€™ve given elsewhere, I use the â€œpenetrateâ€ versus â€œengulfâ€ image to illustrate a basic point about the way in which our language constructs and maintains male aggression and female passivity. Even those who havenâ€™t had heterosexual intercourse can, with only a small degree of imagination required, see how â€œenvelopâ€ might be just as accurate as â€œenterâ€. â€œA womanâ€™s vagina engulfs a manâ€™s penis during intercourseâ€ captures reality as well as â€œA manâ€™s penis penetrates a womanâ€™s vagina.â€ Of course, most het folks who have intercourse are well aware that power is fluid; each partner can temporarily assert a more active role (frequently by being on top) â€” as a result, the language used to describe whatâ€™s actually happening could shift.
Radical feminists like FCM and the more literally-minded members of the Dworkin camp might claim that changing the words doesn’t change the reality. After years and years of bringing up this material with my students, I know that some tend to see this language shift as a neat trick that only disguises male domination but doesn’t change the fundamental power imbalance in PIV. Many others, however, tell me that substituting “envelop” for “penetrate” in their thinking and talking about sex has changed how they have PIV itself. For at least a great many people, it’s more than a word game. It’s positively revelatory — and profoundly redemptive.
And yes, the obvious point is that a great many women do want to have sexual intercourse with men. They want it for a host of reasons: to experience physical pleasure, to affirm their desirability, to enhance an emotional connection, to conceive a child. And though we can and should ask questions about why we imbue PIV with the particular reverence we do (and why we often use PIV as a synonym for sex, as if anything that isn’t PIV isn’t really sex at all), we need to be respectful of the reality that women can and do consent enthusiastically and consciously to PIV. To assume that that consent is a consequence of brainwashing of some sort smacks of paternalistic contempt for women’s agency. That contempt is found on both left and right.
I’ll have more to say in a subsequent post about the remarkable synergy between many social conservatives and the rad fems who work in the Dworkin tradition. The likes of FCM and the likes of Christian fundamentalists are united in their belief that the pleasure-centred ethic of most mainstream liberal feminists (what FCM calls “fun fems”) falls short of the mark. More on that to come.
I’d also like to make it clear that as off-putting as her rhetoric is, FCM is making some very important points that deserve responses, even if actual engagement is unpromising.