For those who missed that wonderful birds and bees talk or slept through high school biology class – let’s begin with the basics. Sexual intercourse is the bedrock of human existence. With the exception of artificial insemination, egg and sperm unite through copulation. Intercourse can serve procreational purposes, recreational purposes, or both. This means that not only did our biological parents have sex, but they probably enjoyed it. *gasp* The thought of my sweet, innocent mother in the heat of passion is too much for my fragile conscience to handle. Now I understand why The Bible says Jesus Christ had a virgin birth!
Since the action gives us pleasure, it is typically theorized as an escape from politics. There is no doubt that those fleeting moments are experienced as a suspension of time and transcendence of space. However, we must not overlook the political implications and consequences of sex. Since the dawn of civilization, intercourse has been subject to rules and regulations from authorities. Whether they are societal stigmas, government laws, or religious commandments, there have been and are several stipulations on sexual activity. Such mandates determine(d) with whom we can have intercourse with, where, when, why, and how. To varying degrees, all human societies have incest taboos prohibiting sexual relations among close family members. There are laws that determine standards of legal consent for children and people with temporary or permanent diminished capacities. In the United States, interracial marriage was legalized just 50 years ago; and same-sex marriage was legalized just a few years ago (both interracial and same-sex intercourse are still stigmatized, though). Human civilization is dedicated to controlling and patrolling the ways we use our bodies to obtain pleasure. Therefore, sex is political and politics is sexual.
We live in a society based on patriarchy: the political, economic, and social domination of women by men. Under these conditions, women are reduced to mere objects that can be used and abused by men. Against this backdrop, sexual intercourse takes on a different meaning.
In this post, I offer readings of radical feminist theory and sexological work to understand our harmful sexual practices. In doing so, we are challenged to detoxify our present understandings of intercourse and move toward a new sexual ethic.
The Language of Eroticized Violence
The words and phrases used to describe human anatomy and sexual activity provide a glimpse into the structure of patriarchy. Andrea Dworkin (1987) argues that the word vagina comes from the 17th century New Latin term for ‘sheath’ – which means a ‘case for a sword’. Assuming heterosexuality, we must ask ourselves: if the vagina is the case, what is the sword? The penis. Male genitalia are imagined as a weapon that penetrates the flesh of an enemy. Sigmund Freud (1905) was correct in stating that “all weapons and tools are used as symbols for the male organ: i.e. ploughs, hammers, rifles, revolvers, daggers, sabres, etc” (p. 825). A nickname often used for sperm is “little soldiers.” Women are viewed as foreign enemies whose bodies are invaded during the ‘war’ of sexual intercourse. Freud describes castration anxiety – the fear among young boys and men that they will lose their penis and be emasculated. These fears are at play during vaginal intercourse, when the penis is completely encapsulated in the tight, dark ‘cave’ with muscular contractions. The word sex derives from the Latin ‘secare’ which means to ‘divide, or cut’. Will he make it out alive?
The male orgasm is often likened to death. For example, the French describe orgasms with the term la petit mort – which means ‘little death’. Additionally, in Shakespeare’s (1612) play Much Ado About Nothing (Act 5 Scene 2), Benedick tells his lover “I will live in thy heart, die in thy lap, and be buried in thy eyes”. We have, then, a connection between intercourse, swords, and death.
We often refer to their sexual escapades and/or desires by saying: ‘I hit that’, ‘I beat it up’, ‘I want to smash’, etc. These verbs are violent – to such a degree that if the sexual message were removed, the phrases would still make sense in the context of a boxing match. Violence against women is sexualized and transmitted through language – formatting our thoughts and actions.
“Impotence in the Face of Equality”
The woman’s body is vulnerable in at least two ways. First, the political, economic, and social powerlessness of women situates the body in a constant state of peril. Her humanity is reduced to her body; whereby she is granted recognition from men solely within the sexual domain. Women are, largely, not acknowledged for intellect or skills outside of the bedroom. To the extent that women do gain recognition, it typically falls within two predictable lines of thought. A woman in power is either demonized as a lesbian for not conforming to male expectations, or sexualized as having ‘slept her way up the ladder’. On the flip side, women earn lower wages than men – in part to undermine their autonomy and keep them in a state of dependency. The lack of self-determination, for Dworkin, throws the notion of consent into crisis; because many women are forced into abusive relationships and prostitution as a means of survival. Contrary to popular criticism, Dworkin is not arguing that all intercourse is rape. Instead, she is drawing attention to the structure of patriarchy which undermines a woman’s ability to give full consent. Consequently, Dworkin poses the following questions: “can intercourse exist without objectification? […] can intercourse exist without the woman herself turning herself into a thing, which she must do because men cannot fuck equals and men must fuck: because one price of dominance is that one is impotent in the face of equality?” (p. 178). The degradation of women is a turn-on that gets men off.
Second, by nature, the body of women is particularly vulnerable during sexual intercourse with men. Andrea Dworkin contends that skin is the defining characteristic of humans – as it encases our organs and establishes a limitation on our bodies. The act of sex, though, erodes this physical barrier when two bodies come together. A woman’s body is the stage where intercourse takes place – it is the space a man enters. Under conditions of patriarchy, what would or could be viewed as harmless and natural takes on a different guise. Women are commodified as objects lacking any meaningful assertions of ‘identity’ or ‘desire’ outside the domain of men. Consequently, the penetration of heterosexual intercourse is an occupation of the woman’s body. It is an invasion of privacy that displays the quality of male domination. Dworkin is unapologetic in her description of sexual intercourse as the fuck or fucking – as this is one of the ways “the man expresses the geography of his domination; her sex, her insides are part of his domain as a male” (p. 82-3).
Toward a New Sexual Ethic: Infantile Sexuality
In many academic circles, the work of Sigmund Freud (1905) is dismissed as unscientific babble. But there are pearls of wisdom to extract from his writings on sexuality in human civilizations. One theoretical gem that is useful here is the notion of infantile sexuality. At first glance, the idea sounds like an appraisal of pedophilia – but this is far from the truth. The basic idea is this: infants derive pleasure from their entire bodies. Every bodily sensation, orifice, and inch of the skin is a potential source of gratification. The pleasure principle governs the life of infants.
However, the pleasure principle is repressed when the child begins to attend school. Civilization demands that ‘play’ be sacrificed for ‘work’ (Brown, 1965). The reality principle of productivity subordinates the pleasure principle. As children become adults, they become even more alienated from their bodies as pleasure is reduced, almost exclusively, to the genitals. A consequence of this concentration on one region is that most of the body is neglected during intercourse. Consequently, penetration becomes the ultimate goal of sex – as if it is the only source of pleasure. For the most part, men are indoctrinated to associate pleasure with humping: in and out, in and out, ad nauseaum. Foreplay – kissing, licking, cuddling, etc – is subordinated to genital intercourse in a hierarchy of pleasure. Thus, foreplay is either ignored or viewed as an unfortunate pit stop that grants eventual access to the Promised Land. When Freud discusses infantile sexuality – he is reminding us of the tremendous bodily pleasures that come from our entire bodies.
Toward a New Sexual Ethic: The Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm
A classic feminist essay written by Anne Koedt (1970) argues that the link between vaginal intercourse and female orgasm is a myth. According to Planned Parenthood, 1 in 3 women have trouble reaching orgasm during sex. Additionally, as many as 80% of women need direct clitoral stimulation to climax. The message here is that the thrusting of the penis is not synonymous with women’s pleasure. Since a woman’s orgasm is also aligned with masturbation and/or oral stimulation, pleasure can be obtained from a woman or non-man. This theory debunks phallocentrism – the idea that the phallus, or penis, is the center of all pleasure. Men perpetuate the myth of the vaginal orgasm in a pathetic attempt to remain sexually relevant to women, and to maintain the power of heteropatriarchy. The penis may, very well, be the only source of pleasure for some women – but the point is this: it is not the only source of pleasure for all women. The penis is indispensable to procreation, but not necessarily the pleasure of a woman.
Toward a New Sexual Ethic: Redefining Male Sexuality
The message, of course, is not simply that ‘women deserve orgasms, too!’ While this is certainly important – since men almost always get theirs – we cannot state with confidence that orgasm is the most important goal for women. In her pioneering study on sexuality, Shere Hiite (1978) interviews dozens of women and inquires about sexual preferences and grievances. When sex was affixed to a goal in the distance like intercourse and orgasm, sexual relations became repetitive and boring. Overwhelmingly, sexual relations followed the same mechanical pattern: foreplay, vaginal intercourse, and then orgasm. As Hiite contends, “sex need not always be directed at orgasm, or even genital stimulation. There are many other ways to relate physically to another person” (p. 531). Thus, a new kind of intercourse would involve less thrusting and more embracing and/or touching of the entire body. In the interest of a new sexual ethic, male sexuality must be detoxified of violence against women and re-defined along the lines of care. I close this post with a question to ponder from Hiite:
“Intercourse need not be as gymnastic as we have usually thought, and it is probable that what we think of as the ‘natural,’ physical, movements of intercourse are nothing more than ‘learned’ responses. Isn’t it possible that men have been told that ‘mounting and thrusting’ is the ‘right’ thing to do, but that they too, if allowed to experiment, would find many other ways they liked to have intercourse?”
Brown, Norman. 1965. Life Against Death: The Psychoanalytic Meaning of History
Dworkin, Andrea. 1987. Intercourse
Freud, Sigmund. 1905. Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality
Freud, Sigmund. 1905. The Interpretation of Dreams. (From: Freud – Collected Works, 2007/2010, edited by Ivan Smith)
Hiite, Shere, 1978. The Hiite Report
Koedt, Anne. 1970. The Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm
Shakespeare, William. 1612. Much Ado About Nothing