Hostile to Female Status Altogether: Reading "Intercourse" With Gender Dysphoria

Teen Me sure did love this book about how having a vagina is the worst!

Hostile to Female Status Altogether: Reading "Intercourse" With Gender Dysphoria
PICTURED: S... sex??? This is sex??? I think????

I read Andrea Dworkin's Intercourse for the first time when I was sixteen. I doubt I understood it, but it gave me nightmares.

Though she's rarely given credit for it, Andrea Dworkin was one of the great horror writers of the twentieth century. The part of Intercourse that stuck with me for decades was her description of intimacy as a gruesome, flesh-melting annihilation. To wit:

Sometimes, the skin comes off in sex... We are each in these separate bodies; and then, with someone and not with someone else, the skin dissolves altogether; and what touches is unspeakably, grotesquely visceral, not inside language or conceptualization, not inside time; raw, blood and fat and muscle and bone, unmediated by form or formal limits… there is no solace, except in this contact; without it, there is unbearable physical pain, absolute, not lessened by distraction, unreached by normalcy — nearly an amputation, the skin hacked off, slashed open; violent hurt. 

Keep in mind: This is the good sex we’re talking about. The rest of it — the unwanted, the unkind, the transactional, the loveless, the merely obscene — is even scarier. Dworkin’s work inspired visceral reactions because she was a remarkably visceral writer; she made abstract, systemic problems feel like open wounds. There are clear echoes of Plath in her prose style. (For instance, the thumb cut instead of an onion: “The top quite gone / except for a sort of hinge / of skin, / a flap like a hat / dead white. / Then that red plush.”) The vision, though — a bleak, black, barren landscape, shot through by lightning, illuminating scenes of bright red gore — is all her own. 

Intercourse is popularly known as the book where Andrea Dworkin claims that “all sex is rape” or that “all men are rapists.” Of course, she did not say either of those things. What she did say is a lot weirder. What she said, in Intercourse, is that fucking someone vaginally — not assault, not BDSM or power play, but the actual, physical act of sticking a penis in a vagina — is the means through which femininity is forcibly inscribed on a person’s body. It is the way you show someone what it means to be a girl, or maybe even the way you turn them into a girl. 

It goes without saying (or, at least, it did for Andrea Dworkin) that no-one actually wants to be a girl, because being a girl is horrible. This was a conclusion I also took for granted, at sixteen, even if I didn’t know why. It seems clear to me now that I was using Dworkin, and Intercourse, to think my way through a problem I had no other words for — my sense that there was something wrong, catastrophic, humiliating, about being assigned female.

Andrea Dworkin may have been the first feminist I ever read. Certainly, she was what I thought “feminists” sounded like. I recall reading her speeches on the World Wide Web, sitting at a computer terminal in the public library, shocked at all the bad things that could happen to women in this world.

The computer terminal and the library tell me this was 1994 or 1995; I would have been in middle school. Dworkin was out of fashion, and Riot Grrrl, a cooler and more youth-friendly brand of feminism, was happening on the coasts. But in the early days of the Internet, it took information a lot longer to reach the middle of the country — we were operating on almost a ten-year delay. By the 2000s, I knew about what feminism had looked like in the early '90s, but in the actual 1990s, I only knew about ‘80s feminists like Dworkin.

I liked Dworkin for two reasons: One, every adult I knew seemed to hate her. Two, she was terrifyingly angry. You could feel the rage seething through the cascading, Biblical rhythms of her speeches, shouting the whole world down, often shouting men down in the harshest possible terms. I didn’t know women could be that angry. I didn’t know I could be angry. I had only ever seen anger as a tool wielded by men — by fathers; by my father — to intimidate women and children back into line.

You could get just as angry as they did, Dworkin promised. You could get angrier, and for better reasons. You could rip that tool right out of their hands and beat them to death with it. The prospect was thrilling.

So I read Dworkin for the same reason teenagers do everything: Because grown-ups told me not to. Feminism was taboo, and “extreme,” and Dworkin was the most “extreme” feminist I could find, at least until I escaped to college and got my hands on a copy of the SCUM Manifesto. Dworkin meaningfully changed my life, though, in a way a lot of teenage obsessions didn’t. (Sorry, The Smashing Pumpkins!) What I want to know is why I connected with her so deeply — what had the power to change my politics and my ambitions and thereby determine the course of my life.

Part of it was her willingness to name violence, to name rape, to say that it was endemic to how society functioned — not an error, but an intended outcome. This was something I was already learning through my experiences at school. There was the boy who stood over me and a female friend at lunch, rubbing his crotch and promising to make us drink his cum; when I told him to “fuck off,” the vice-principal told me he couldn’t punish the boy, since I had broken school rules by swearing. Another friend — also a closeted transmasc — had another boy to deal with, also at lunch, who used to stand by the tables petting his hair and whispering sex fantasies in his ear, until my friend finally flipped out and threw a plate of food at him. The same vice-principal came up with a “solution,” which was to lock my friend alone in a room with his predator until they worked things out; boys his age often had trouble asking girls out, he said, and perhaps if my friend were a little more receptive, and a little more understanding, the boy wouldn’t go to such extremes.

It wasn’t just that one vice-principal. You couldn’t go over his head, because everyone over his head was just as bad or worse. Everyone knew the principal creeped on teenage girls when they were alone in his office. Nobody did anything. No-one could; he was the one in charge. 

So I was more than ready to believe Dworkin when she wrote that Men were ravening creatures who only got hard for suffering and blood. “Any violation of a woman’s body can become sex for men,” she wrote. “This is the essential truth of pornography.” Maybe I should have been insulted — but why? I wasn’t wandering around the cafeteria, threatening to masturbate all over Taco Tuesday. I didn’t particularly care if the boys who did got hurt. 

Re-read that sentence, though: Any violation. In two words, Dworkin undoes about half of her book’s thesis. Dworkin is right: There are lots of ways you can use sex to assault or humiliate someone. You can masturbate in front of them. You can describe your sexual fantasies to them. You can grab them or grope them or put your hands in their hair. So why — if the problem is domination, and domination can be affected in many different ways (most of which, by the way, aren’t even sexual) — is intercourse, penetrative vaginal sex, the problem?

Here, we come to a delicate matter. I have tried to find tactful ways of hinting at it, and it turns out there aren’t any, so I’m just going to say this and see what happens: It is impossible to read Intercourse without coming to the conclusion that Andrea Dworkin really, really doesn’t like having a vagina, and really, really wishes that she didn’t have one. She’s remarkably clear on this point. It is not just the way people think about vaginas, it is not just the gender roles or gender stereotypes forced upon her because (people assume) she has a vagina, it is not just the violence so often inflicted on vaginas — it is the body part itself that is a problem.

There is never a real privacy of the body that can coexist with intercourse: with being entered. The vagina itself is muscled and the muscles have to be pushed apart. The thrusting is persistent invasion. She is opened up, split down the center… A human being has a body that is inviolate, and, when it is violated, it is abused. A woman has a body that is penetrated in intercourse; permeable, its corporeal solidness a lie. 

From here, Dworkin goes on to argue that having a vagina is not just a form of oppression, it might be the worst form of oppression, because your own body is doing it to you: “This lesser integrity, this lesser self, establishes her lesser significance… she is defined by how she is made, that hole,” Dworkin writes, and this “has consequences that may be intrinsic, not socially imposed.” 

There is no analogue anywhere among subordinated groups of people to this experience of being made for intercourse: for penetration, entry, occupation. There is no analogue in occupied countries or in dominated races or in imprisoned dissidents or in colonialized cultures or in the submission of children to adults or in the atrocities that have marked the twentieth century ranging from Auschwitz to the Gulag. There is nothing exactly the same… The political meaning of intercourse for women is the fundamental question of feminism and freedom: 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? 

Andrea: There are doctors you can talk to. The subtext becomes particularly unmissable in the chapter “Virginity,” where we learn about the one model of womanhood Andrea Dworkin does find empowering — Joan of Arc, who Dworkin likes because (again, these are direct quotes) “she refused to be female.”

Dworkin is particularly enamored of  Joan’s choice to wear male clothes. (She was, famously, killed because she wouldn't or couldn't stop wearing them.) Regarding the codpiece of Joan’s armor, Dworkin writes, with palpable longing, “her body was closed off and covered; between her legs was inaccessible… The clothes characterized her virginity as militant: hostile to men who would want her for sex and hostile to female status altogether.” 

I’m not actually interested in retroactively declaring Andrea Dworkin trans. It’s a fun thought experiment (men will literally write Intercourse instead of going to therapy, and so on) but it’s not necessary to my point. I will further point out (before somebody else does) that Dworkin had lots of trauma around this area of her body — aside from her experiences of rape and partner violence, she was arrested as a young protester and subjected to a forced genital inspection so violent her family doctor cried when examining her afterward. Yes, Intercourse often reads as if Dworkin is dissociating from her genitals, or traumatized by their existence, but trauma is not always dysphoria. We live in a violent world, and there are a lot of ways people get knocked loose from their bodies. 

I’m less interested in what Dworkin meant by these passages than in what I took from them. It seems obvious now that I connected with this work in ways that were not remotely cisgender. I went from her conclusion that femininity is an awful and violent experience for women (which it very often is) to the broader conclusion that womanhood, and in fact patriarchal gender itself, were awful and violent things that had been done to me, imposed on me without my consent and kept in place by  brutality. Her conclusion was important. Mine was also true. 

Reading Intercourse this way is personally validating. It’s also dangerous, for several reasons. First, as everyone is well aware, a lot of the radical feminists who cite Dworkin as an inspiration are TERFs. There’s been a Dworkinian renaissance in recent years, spearheaded by writers including Moira Donegan and Johanna Fateman, but for most of my career, you were more likely to hear Dworkin cited by Meghan Murphy than by anyone you might actually want to know. 

There’s also a chance that, by pointing out that Andrea Dworkin’s feminist body consciousness shares certain qualities with gender dysphoria, I might seem to endorse the idea that trans people “can just be gender non-conforming,” or that our identities are the result of trauma, rather than (pretty frequently) the cause of it. You know the rap: Did I cut my tits off because I’m a man, or because I got groped one too many times?

This is very silly. If I cut off every part of my body that had been objectified or assaulted, I would have no body left. If every cis "girl" who was assaulted or molested or harassed undertook a gender transition, cis girls would cease to exist somewhere around eighth grade. Top surgery wasn’t a way to get rid of a body part that I disliked, it was a way to create a body part that I liked better. Amputation is not reconstruction, and for the most part, trans people are after the latter thing. 

The third danger here is a sort of transmasculine chauvinism. Within the trans community, trans guys are frequently accused of wanting it both ways — enjoying the supremacy and seriousness accorded to masculinity, without taking responsibility for the misogyny and male domination that holds it up. Sometimes, often, this is a misunderstanding that arises from trans guys trying to articulate our complicated social position — it can be true both that men are an oppressor class and that most trans men don’t experience “male privilege” as we typically understand it — but there are also plenty of trans guys who do fall into supremacy or misogyny or MRA rhetoric. Dworkin herself skirts that line more often than you’d hope.  

Bluntly: If the only acceptable model of “womanhood” is Joan of Arc — a historical figure now widely interpreted as transmasculine — where does that leave women? Is feminism one more thing that only men can do well? The transmasculine horror of being feminized against your will can all too easily translate into a belief that femininity itself is horrific — deceptive, degrading, artificial, grotesque, evil. There’s nowhere to go from there but misogyny and transmisogyny: If masculinity is the ultimate form of female liberation, then masculinity is inherently superior to femininity, and anyone who actually likes presenting as feminine is a sucker. 

Dworkin herself tends to dismiss any woman who disagrees with her as either an idiot or a liar. On penetration, for example, she writes that any genuinely radical woman would share her concerns, and that those who don’t are on the payroll of Big Dick: “The quality of the sensation or the need for a man or the desire for love: these are not answers to questions of freedom; they are diversions into complicity and ignorance.” Because she does not like it, you are not allowed to like it either, and Dworkin applied this principle to pretty much every area of her political life — most famously, by deciding that, because she had been traumatized by sex work, she was allowed to ban or criminalize sex work for other women. 

There are problems with this book. There are problems with Dworkin. I’m aware of them — but they haven’t stopped me from trying to reclaim the work, or from using it (or misusing it) to understand my own situation. What can Andrea Dworkin do for transness? Strike that, reverse it: What can transness do for Andrea Dworkin? This, maybe, is what I've been trying to figure out all along.

There is an uncomfortable truth about feminism that trans people often admit to each other, if to no-one else. That is: A lot of those ultra-transphobic second-wavers who insist that they “would have been non-binary” or “would have transitioned” if they grew up today aren’t lying. Some of them — not all, but some — really do have gender dysphoria, and they’ve decided that transitioning would be a betrayal of women or feminism. There are entire wings of the radical feminist movement aimed at indoctrinating young trans men, de-transitioning them, and getting them to testify about the evils of “trans ideology” or medical transition to the culture at large. 

There is tragedy here. There is also hatred and danger. Gender-dysphoric feminists have confused a temporary and eminently fixable problem with the universal female condition. They live in despair, and worse, they believe despair to be the only principled and virtuous position. Like all such people, they have become bitter and consumed with rage, lashing out at anyone who seems happier than they are, because some part of their worldview depends on the idea that happiness is literally impossible — or that, even if it is possible, it is also morally wrong. 

When I say that many second-wave feminists were getting at something trans in their work – which they were; we haven't even discussed the Shulamith Firestone of it all yet – some people read me as trying to rehabilitate the TERFs. It's quite the opposite. This theory is something I want to take away from TERFs. I want to kick the crutch out from under them and make them stand on their own two feet. Take the weapon out of their hands and beat them with it: It’s a good strategy, and I learned it early on. 

So my point is not that trans people “can just be gender non-conforming.” It’s that gender non-conforming people can just be trans, if they want to, if that’s the shape their gender-nonconformity takes, and that this in no way compromises their solidarity with other marginalized genders. 

Go back, for a moment, to Dworkin’s critique of sexual violence as an institutional phenomenon, and my terrible high school, with its seemingly endless line-up of boys willing to commit sexual harassment and men willing to cover it up. I can view all that as “violence against girls,” which it was. Or I can note that, out of the three people I know it to have happened to — and it happened at least twice, in strikingly similar detail — two out of three were transmasculine. The support our harassers received from the school might reflect a sense that we needed to be tenderized for male consumption, taught to accept men’s sexual advances rather than becoming men ourselves.

Or maybe I can take the third road, the all-inclusive package: Saying that violence against cis girls and violence against trans girls and violence against trans boys and violence against anyone remotely gender non-conforming is all mandated by the same order, stemming from the same root, which is patriarchy. I do not know what that high school was like for trans girls — statistically, there must have been some— but it can’t have been good. The only remotely swishy boys I knew were humiliated by teachers who called them “faggots,” so the institutional punishment of femininity clearly extended beyond creeping on cis girls.  

That approach does not lessen my empathy for girls or women. It broadens it to include more girls and more women, along with many other people who aren’t girls or women at all. It gives me a better, more detailed picture of the problem, and it also helps me identify a broader range of people who might be interested in working toward a solution. It is just better politics. It’s better feminism. “Better,” to me, means “more likely to get things done.” 

“One of the purposes a transsexual identity serves is to make the rest of us look contented and well-adjusted by comparison,” wrote Patrick Califia. “There are many levels of gender dysphoria, many aberrant accommodations other than a sex change. Feminism, for example.” 

I basically never agree with Patrick Califia, and Patrick Califia definitely never agreed with Andrea Dworkin, but he’s right. The trans experience is not some bizarre and isolated silo. The patriarchal gender binary is coercive and violent and unjust for everyone — it’s just that trans people are in a situation that requires thinking about it consciously, and coming up with some kind of livable accommodation. 

I’m still not always okay with penetration. Sometimes I enjoy it, but at other times, I find that it plunges me into depression, or that I dissociate from my body. Maybe it’s purely selfish — there are other things that I like doing better — or maybe I don’t like being reminded of my “female” body in the moment I am supposedly most free to be myself. Maybe it’s political; I tend to agree with Judith Butler that our body parts only signify “male” and “female” because we’ve decided that they do, so maybe I’m not bummed out by the fact of my genitals so much as what they signify to the world. Maybe it’s internalized homophobia; so much of “masculinity” supposedly depends on being the one who sticks things in, and not the one things get stuck into. For whatever reason, it’s hard to let a man touch me in certain ways — even if I love and trust the man in question — without remembering that he’s “treating me like a girl,” and wondering if “a girl” is what he sees, or what he would prefer. 

Bodies are a semantic mess, a tangle of personal and political meanings, at the best of times. I may never figure out the one source of all these feelings. But here’s the important part: These days, if I get the feeling that penetration is going to make me sad, or knock me out of the moment, I say that I’m not in the mood to do it. I ask if we can do something else. This is the whole lesson, the simplest and most radical one imaginable: If there is something about the way you do gender that doesn’t feel good, you can just ask to do something else. Or you can do it without asking. Social norms only have the power that you give them. Self-determination is not a utopian goal, but a daily practice. This is a violent world, and people will inflict violence to make you fit into it, but your body is and always will be yours to control.

Suffering does not necessarily equate to virtue. Some problems do have fairly practical and immediate solutions — and solving them is not “selfish,” or “individualistic,” but simply a means of getting your own pain out of the way so you can concentrate on helping the rest of the world. This is what I know now that I didn’t know at sixteen, when I first read Intercourse: There is a way out of the maze. There is a door that leads out of the slaughterhouse. Intercourse is a horror, a wound, a nightmare. What happens after a nightmare? You just wake up.

Over at my other job: Googling myself has once again revealed a horrible truth. This time, it's that this essay on gender-affirming parenting and the year my daughter was a monster truck – which I wrote last year – has actually been online for months now. Don't do what I do, kids! Don't Google!