Andrea Dworkin, Intercourse, New York, Free Press (1988). 326 pages.

Share with your friends


The bookshop browser can only be bemused by everything that’s splashed all over the cover to Andrea Dworkin’s recent book, Intercourse. The etching of a woman and man coupled in oral sex is accompanied by compelling quotes – one from Germaine Greer hailing Dworkin’s work as “the most shocking book any feminist has yet written” and another from The Scotsman promising it to be “A dangerous book. A subversive book.” Dworkin’s critique on patriarchy isn’t shocking, except maybe for those who would join Fred Nile in a provocative “Cleansing March of Witness for Jesus” down Sydney’s gay Oxford Street. I can’t decide if it subverts misogyny or titillates the misogynist. 

It certainly is dangerous – not for patriarchy and its foundation, capitalism, but for the struggle against both. Dworkin, a Radical Feminist, misidentifies men as women’s enemy – not private property as the determinant of all existing social relations. What, then, is Dworkin’s solution for women oppressed by patriarchy? Not a class struggle of all who are oppressed by capitalism which is the lifeblood of patriarchy -namely, working class women and men, lesbians and gay men, people of all races, disabled, aged and young. No, the solution for women, allegedly doomed to an eternity of male supremacy and violence, is no more intercourse. This conclusion is wrong and dangerous for many reasons.

Dworkin develops her critique through a sequence of chapters which first construct a picture of Intercourse in a Man-Made World (Part I).  Through a selection of literature, ranging from Tolstoi to James Baldwin, Dworkin starts the reader on Repulsion, then moves to Skinless, Stigma, Communion and finally to Possession. In this section she builds a framework of male supremacy, cemented in the debasing and loathing of women. Part II, The Female Condition, defines and examines Virginity (eulogising – not to mention fabricating – Joan of Arc’s and Madame Bovary’s) and then Occupation (penile penetration)/Collaboration (of women against their gender). The book concludes with Dworkin’s historically-skewed perception of how men always have and always will enforce Male Power, Status and Hate (Part III).


Dworkin articulates what women have experienced throughout our lives and therefore understand. We recognise all the forms of patriarchal power in the family, the workplace and in sexual as well as social and economic relationships. We’ve been subjected to misogyny. We comprehend the undermining force of internalised patriarchal (and capitalist) ideology which holds us down – in our sense of inferiority, self-berating and self-hatred as well as in the sexist attitudes of women who collaborate in male supremacism. We understand Dworkin’s words on objectification which none of us has escaped, either as victims or as participants. We know too well the varying degrees of inequality within female/male relationships. We’re acutely and constantly aware of our vulnerability, physical and psychological. We’ve experienced the sense of futility in trying to uproot misogyny, only to despair in the strength it ingests from its economic and social nutrients.

Women recognise all of these manifestations of patriarchy. But Dworkin’s work takes us down the wrong track. Rather than analysing women’s oppression in its historical, economic context, Dworkin examines it in a test tube. Her method is introspective, extremely limited and very confused. In the first half of her book, several things are unclear. She uses the word “intercourse” interchangeably with “fuck” and “sex”, the latter two generally understood not to necessarily include penetration. From Repulsion to Possession, the reader painfully proceeds through all the psychological and physical horrors of intercourse/fucking/sex. 

It’s never clear why Dworkin almost exclusively concentrates on heterosexual sex, except for the gay male sex in Baldwin’s Another Country. In her chapter on Communion, Dworkin refers to intercourse as the point of struggle, and gay male sex risks the same catastrophes as the predominantly heterosexual confrontations of her book. Self-knowledge, by the way, is the key to successful communion (the joy of which eludes her subjects and the meaning of which certainly escapes the reader). What is noticeably absent in this whole critique is lesbian sex. The reader who’s not familiar with Dworkin can only wonder what she’s saying. All is revealed more than half-way through the book when the puzzled and persevering reader reaches the point of Occupation. Finally, “intercourse” gets a definition: it is penile penetration, predicated on inequality and man’s hatred of women.

Dworkin’s examination of patriarchy begins and ends with this intercourse, and man is the invader, ravisher, conqueror–the woman’s oppressor. Patriarchy exists in the penis – man’s nature is predatory, and his hangups about women are  therefore biological. Women and men, according to Dworkin, are therefore locked in an innate and interminable antagonism. Nothing can change that. Men are even cruel to men, but they’re especially brutal to women–because their target of possession is the vagina. And so the argument goes.

This methodology of navel-gazing as a substitute for broader analysis derails the examination of patriarchy, distorts logic and leads to invalid conclusions. Dworkin makes intercourse into an absolute, giving it a meaning which has no variant, regardless of its historical/economic/social context. Dworkin crystallises intercourse as the point of oppression for women: “sex. . . means creating a victim” The extension of this process is “sadism and death [which] under male supremacy, converge at the vagina: to open the woman up, go inside her, penis or knife” Dworkin leaves women with no sexual choices. Fred Nile, his Witness for Jesus marchers and right wingers around the world would applaud Dworkin’s life sentence of virginity and celibacy for women outside monogamous marriage. They wouldn’t, however, rejoice in her implicit alternative of lesbian sex.

Dworkin has no historical perspective. Her radical feminist agenda can’t acknowledge that most of human history witnessed a different human condition, based on primitive communism. Any social interaction, including intercourse, was devoid of any superiority of one person over another. Women held an especially respected status and enjoyed autonomous control over their bodies and their lives. Laws, always derived from economic relations, naturally reflected and preserved that social equality and equilibrium. Dworkin, in fact, weaves a facade of historical validity for her argument that women and men have always been in conflict with heavy doses of biblical law. The bible, of course, is a product of its historical epoch which postdates communistic, matriarchal social organisation. It belongs to the much later historical period of private property, patriarchy, monarchy and their joint-creation, monotheism.

Long before the biblical epoch, fundamental shifts in the technology of survival brought protracted social struggle. Agriculture, which replaced hunting and gathering subsistence, allowed private ownership to overthrow primitive communism – the technology of producing a surplus was the key to this fundamental historical change. Classes, before nonexistent, evolved from the differentiation between those who appropriated ownership and control of production/surplus and those who laboured. In this violent transition, women were removed from their important public functions and reduced to domestic servitude and breeding. 

Women, like male labourers and livestock, became chattels of the ruling class. This dominant class constructed the state to perpetuate its power. The ruling class developed patriarchy to preserve its supremacy: it secured the inheritance of private property by transferring descent from the mother to the man. Paternity, unable to be determined, could only be claimed through the man’s ownership of his wife (a status which hadn’t previously been imposed upon the woman). That is, he now owned her vagina and womb, her sexuality and children. The patriarchal family thus superseded the matriarchal-traced kinship and clan–and the nuclear family is its progeny. Patriarchy’s seed, then, is not in the penis. It’s in the private property economy. And rather than materially serving the male labourer who has no wealth, patriarchy is a material necessity for the ruling class to keep its wealth and secure its power.

Labour is still owned by private capital. Working class women—labourers alongside men—have a particular value as reproducers of labor and of social relations within capitalism. In capitalism, private capital parasitically feeds off our labor which produces profit, the key to this system’s survival. Capitalism, like private property-based economies before it, perpetrates various forms of oppression to perpetuate its global exploitation of labor and resources. Patriarchy is a crucial prop. Racism and homophobia are additional buttresses of capitalism, intended to keep the nuclear family intact and labor divided, exploitable and controlled. Working class women bear the brunt of these tensions between capital and labor. We’re denied economic independence, either by being channelled into underpaid jobs or excluded from the work force altogether. Our sexuality is economically and socially prescribed: we’re objectified, we’re pushed into monogamous marriages or we’re forced into prostitution. Our reproduction is also prescribed: we’re pressured to have children, but if we’re socially stigmatised and economically useless, we’re sterilised. Limited accessibility to safe abortion on demand further controls our sexuality. We’re raped, and we’re bashed. We’re jailed for poverty-related transgressions. This female condition is steeped in capitalism—not in male “nature”

There’s no place in Dworkin’s radical feminism for a class perspective. She doesn’t understand class. She demonstrates this in her designation of women as a class and men as imperialists. The logical extension is that Queen Elizabeth, Margaret Thatcher, Benazir Bhutto, Cory Aquino, Hazel Hawke, Pixie Skates and the woman bus driver, cleaner, teacher, domestic worker or office worker are on the same side in the struggle between capital and labor- which is the only struggle that will overthrow patriarchy. Dworkin would undoubtedly be concerned about what Dennis does to Maggie (which he must be doing, according to Dworkin) rather than  what Maggie, as capital’s Prime Minister, does to the English/Irish/Welsh/Scottish working classes.

Because Dworkin doesn’t understand class, and therefore misconstrues the struggle, she can’t draw connections between sexism, racism and heterosexism. She detects a link between Rufus’ oppression as a black man in Baldwin’s Another Country and his rage against white society which leads to his cruelty against Leona, a white woman, and Eric, a white gay man. But even then, she can only explain it as Rufus’ self-hatred (lack of self-knowledge) rather than delving more deeply into any economic and historical origins. She can therefore only see a “primary goal of racism” to be “unmanning the man”- groan. In her chapter on Occupation, where the penis invades and conquers the vagina–and therefore the woman’s privacy and autonomy–, she draws an analogy between this “violation” (there’s no such thing as real consent or woman’s desire which works in her interest) and the dispossession of indigenous peoples. Dworkin’s vista of struggle actually stretches beyond the bedroom to the Middle East here. However, to Dworkin, physical entry is the connection of these struggles–not their economic or historical framework.

Dworkin offers no hope for women. She identifies “contextual reforms” and political programs, only to dismiss them as off-base and futile. So, she indiscriminately lumps together demands for economic equity or rape laws that work with calls for electing women to political office and athletic excellence, condemning them all for failing to “address the question of whether intercourse itself can be an expression of sexual equality.” She answers this question with rhetorical questions: “can an occupied people – physically occupied inside, internally invaded – be free; can those with a metaphysically compromised privacy have self determination; can those without a biologically based physical integrity have self-respect?” She later asks, “with women not dirty, with sex not dirty, could men fuck? To what extent does intercourse depend on the inferiority of women?” She asserts that “inferiority – sex-based or race-based or both – seems to be the requisite context for fucking” Women can only give up and go celibate.

Questions which Dworkin and radical feminists, hostile to a class perspective, don’t ask are: what is the historical economic origin of inferiority defined by sex, race and sexuality; who are the actual beneficiaries of these designations of inferiority; how and why do these forms of oppression intersect; how can emancipation be won? If I were looking for these answers, I’d begin with Evelyn Reed’s Marxist feminist analysis, Woman’s Evolution: From Matriarchal Clan to Patriarchal Family, and Friedrich Engels’ The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State rather than Dworkin. 

Marxist theory provides a scientific method of analysis which not only explains patriarchy as an economic, as much as social and political, institution and clarifies it as a protracted transitory historical stage but also demonstrates that its death is in the overthrow of capitalism and construction of socialism. It explains that a woman’s autonomy, self-determination and power as an equal person once existed and will again when private property is overturned through working class struggle. It explains that women of the ruling class will align with their class against their gender. It logically concludes that women will be liberated only when the working class–women and men–is liberated. For these reasons, a Marxist feminist understands that working class women, who have the most to lose under capitalism and the most to win in socialism, will continue to be among the most intrepid fighters in this struggle.

Share with your friends