In Ariel Levy's forward to my 2006 edition of this work, she says: "'Intercourse' is an inventive, combative, and wildly complicated piece of work, and to imagine that all there is between these covers is the assertion that all sex is rape is about as sophisticated as reducing Proust to a pile of Madeleine crumbs." I found Levy's sentiment quite correct. This book is wildly polarizing: just look at the reviews at Amazon, overwhelmingly concentrated in the one and five star categories. At the risk of being charged with that old Clinton "sin" of "triangulation," I find myself in the thinly populated middle crowd.
There is no question that Dworkin's book if grim; overall it is a most depressing "downer," characterizing what can be the most joyful and exciting of human experiences as universally negative. True, her personal experiences, if they are accepted as told, had to color her outlook, and they ranged from grim to grimmest. But what I have never heard adequately explained, from her supporters, is why, again and again, this very intelligent woman would enter into abusive relationships.
The strength of this book is Dworkin's erudition. She has read voluminously, and in this one work she has accumulated some damning evidence of misogynistic sentiments in the works of some "great (male) writers." For example, she dissects Leo Tolstoy's The Kreutzer Sonata and Other Stories (Oxford World's Classics)
, Abe Kobo's works, particularly The Woman in the Dunes (Penguin Classics)
, Tennessee Williams' works, naturally, and in particular A Streetcar Named Desire (Penguin Modern Classics)
, James Baldwin's Another Country, Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary (Wordsworth Classics)
and numerous other writers and works. It is a depressing catalogue. Also, from the forward, Levy says: To borrow Gloria Steinem's language, Dworkin became the feminist movement's `Old Testament prophet: raging in the hills, telling the truth.'"
I've heavily marked up my copy of this work, normally a sign of a work that at least engages and provokes. And such sentiments as: "The spread of religious fundamentalism throughout the world right now is men retrenching to undo the civil and social advances of women; to reestablish male power as a fundamental reality by reestablishing gender as an absolute." are hard to casually dismiss. More ambiguously, primarily because she does not assign percentages to the women in the two categories, but lumps them all under that one gender term, she says: "Women have wanted intercourse to work and have submitted- with regret or with enthusiasm, real or faked- even though or even when it does not. The reasons have often been foul, filled with the spiteful but carefully hidden malice of the powerless." And for those who believe in the absolute truth of the Bible, it never hurts to be reminded of certain passages from Leviticus or Deuteronomy. In 22:5 of the latter, it says: "But if this thing be true, that the tokens of virginity were not found in the damsel; then they shall bring out the damsel to the door of her father's house, and the men of her city shall stone her with stones that she die..."
In concluding her work, Dworkin also telling cites a passage from Joan Didion's A Book of Common Prayer
: "I recall once telling Charlotte about a village on the Orinoco where the female children were ritually cut on the inner thigh by their first sexual partners, the point being to scar the female with the male's totem. Charlotte saw nothing extraordinary in this. `I mean that's pretty much what happens everywhere, isn't it,' she said. `Somebody cuts you? Where it doesn't show?'"
The fundamental flaw of this "Old Testament Prophet," and her work, is that she cannot see the "gray." Dworkin doesn't "do" nuance. Half of humanity is the evil aggressor, the other half are the innocent victims who may get a little "squirrelly" due to their powerlessness. A triangle does have three vertices, a good number for the stars for this book.
(Note: Review first published at Amazon, USA, on January 12, 2011)