Between the Bright and the Dworkin

A certain famous French thinker declared in the early 1980s that there was no such thing as sex. There was an activity, certainly, sometimes involving "body pleasure"; but "sex" was really only a collection of social, verbal, historical, and psychological constructs all interwoven in a labyrinthine and dispiriting ball of tangled string. Unsnarl this ball and you found... nothing. Four new works, dealing variously with sex-the-activity and Sex-the-Construct have come out recently, written by some of the leading voices on the subject, and it turns out that the famous French thinker was right. If there is such a thing as sex, you sure won't find a usable definition of it in any of these books.

This is simply because there is no way that these four authors could be talking about the same thing. Compare, for example, Naomi Wolfe's idea of sex, and women's sexuality in particular, as a positive force that has been misused, repressed, and misplaced, with Details columnist Anka Radakovich's construction of sex as a trendy accessory of the edgy urban gal on the go. Of course Wolfe's book, Promiscuities: The Secret Struggle for Womanhood (Random House), attempts to mine a deeper source and get to higher ground than your average lifestyle column: What Wolfe is looking for is no less than a new world vision of female sexuality, a way of ritualizing girls' passage into womanhood that celebrates rather than mutilates.

It's a worthwhile goal, but finally her book doesn't help in achieving it. The main problem with Promiscuities lies in Wolfe's intention: She wants, by mixing the personal with the academic, to create a work that functions both as populist primer and scholarly investigation. What she gets is a book that's probably too academic for undereducated working women and will tell no one with a college education anything she didn't already know. Is it news to anyone that the passage from girlhood to womanhood is like a gauntlet in this society? That Barbie wasn't really that much fun to play with (after you'd dressed her up) because she had "no inner life"? Are the cruel Darwinian hierarchies of high school that Wolfe recalls really so cryptic that they need deciphering?

It must be said that she deciphers well: She is honest about her own compliance with the rules of sex and status, and she never attempts to set herself up as a martyr to the weakly human fallacies around her. Wolfe recalls herself taking full part in the evasions, self protections and hypocrisies that girls necessarily use to keep from being banished into "the sluts Dominion." In a reminiscence about a 13-year-old bunkmate who vanished from her summer camp, Wolfe remembers:

We made all the right sounds.... We produced the tearful smiles that were the currency of moments of great girl importance (but)... her secrets were no longer thrilling... we were glad that we were carefully guarded middle class girls with some limits still in place. Not sluts. Like Tia.

It's the "we" in this reminiscence that gives Wolfe's memoir, again and again, the difficult honesty it needs to keep our attention. As for the scholarship, it's fun for the most part (a sort of pocket history of the clitoris is especially delightful), but it's second-hand and hardly revelatory. There is also a real problem with the way Wolfe, like other well-intentioned cultural critics before her, sets up the
coming-of-age rituals of other cultures as a model for our own. Some of these rituals, especially the Native American ones, seem empowering and invigorating, but Wolfe neglects to mention that they evolved organically. No one scripted them as a way of empowering young women; they simply reflected the underlying attitudes that were already prevalent. For example, a Northwest Native tradition had girls swim from a special canoe to the shore to celebrate their menarche, as swimming was an important and valued skill for young women. What they could do, in other words, was more important than how they appeared to a governing body of males. But sadly, to suggest, as Wolfe does, that we simply make up our own similar rituals puts the cart before the horse. This is as flimsy a strategy as Disney's attempts to create "communities" out of sheetrock and landscaping--a town grows, it isn't "built." What we have to do is find a way of living and thinking, an essential paradigm shift, out of which these rituals would emerge naturally.

Of course, to find these ways of living and thinking may not be possible in the mainstream. One way to deal with this is to make your life outside it, as Susie Bright has done. The picture on the cover of Sexual State of the Union (Simon & Schuster), her new collection of essays, says it all: a big, sexy, freckle-faced American woman, butt-naked and wrapped up in the nation's flag. It's a populist declaration of homey rebellion. Inside, Bright continues to be the Will Rogers of the sexual debate: Whether talking about sadomasochism, the hysteria over child abductions, or the pornographic fantasies of the Christian Right, Bright remains accessible, human and humane.  

Recently, some book critics have snidely observed that Bright, one of the founders of the now-defunct radical dyke porn 'zine On Our Backs, has been mainstreamed. One can only hope. If some secretly yearning employee/homemaker in Duluth needs to know how a buttplug works there's no one better to explain it than this Dr. Ruth of distaff sexuality. What charms about Bright is precisely her accessibility, her willingness to back up any theoretical assertion with a concrete example. Speaking, for example, of our culture's almost pathological fear of sexuality she writes:

Wishes and actions in our culture are judged by the same standard, even though... there's quite a stretch between the two. There's especially a prejudice against sexual thoughts. If I have a temper tantrum and say "I'd like to kill that guy right now," people are likely to think I'm just gassing off... But if I say "I'd like to FUCK that guy right now," they're more likely to think I mean business.

In Bright's world, sexual activity need not be the complicated, socially laden mystery we have made of it. Constructs of power and polarities are useful in her world only as sexual toys; she finds a good two-person game of "power, power, who's got the power" a bracing stimulant. Perhaps she is guilty of passing over the darker sides of this construction, of ignoring how sex can be used as a scythe to cut the feet out from under someone, or to carve out a niche of social status. But writers like Kathy Acker and Mary Gaitskill have covered that particular rocky stretch of road well and extensively. We need, in this day and age, to be reminded that sex is a human activity, one that can even be good for you.

Like Bright, Anka Radakovich is a pro-sex, liberated girl out looking for fun. Unlike Bright, however, her training has been as a hack writer with a deadline. So what's most fun in Sexplorations (Crown) is to watch her come up with ever more breezy, cheesy metaphors for the sex act. Sex with a surfer in Hawaii for example is lightly described thus: "I greased his board. He juiced my pineapple."

Radakovich, in her persona as wisecracking sexual anthropologist, will go "anywhere" in search of a story: the slopes of Aspen (she'd rather fuck the snow-boarders who look like Johnny Depp), swinging singles conventions ("30 couch potatoes boiling in a hot tub"), even Christian fellowship evenings. It's always fun to watch her coin new terminology like "a case of swollen labes" (that rhymes with "babes"). But her deadpan absurdist style is in the great tradition of gossip columnist Michael Musto, and, as such, is best taken in small doses. The breeziness becomes cloying after a while, and reading a book full of these articles leaves one with the greasy-mouthed, bloated feeling of having made a meal out of cheese puffs.

Reading all these new sex books, a serious polarity emerges--one epitomized by the gulf between the Bright and the Dworkin. Bright dismisses Andrea Dworkin, naturally, as a puritan with a darkly pornographic imagination, and in a sense she's right to do so. But on a planet whose cultural activities have included such delightful coming-of-age rituals as clitorectomies and foot-binding, it might be a mistake to entirely ignore the Dworkin view of reality. Her latest collection, Life and Death: Unapologetic Writings on the Continuing War Against Women (Detroit Free), exhibits a fierce and logical intelligence; her writings on date rape, for example, while positing a limited view of the issue, do battle honorably in terms of vigorous debate, without the usual wall of jargon used to block out the sound of dissent. Besides, it's impossible to dislike a middle-aged, earth-motherly figure who rallies her anti-pornography troops with the cry "Darlings, we could get out the machine guns tonight."

The problem with Dworkin is that she aspires to nothing less than the oracular. She speaks and thinks with Old Testament zeal, and like any Old Testament prophet she has huge, gaping blind spots and areas of silence on any subject that might undermine her thesis. Her thesis itself is familiar by now--women's bodies have been mutilated and murdered by men for far too long. This is not without supporting evidence, but Dworkin's blanket condemnation of the male species is less than sane. Certainly men are the ones who do most of the mutilating, but again and again, she sets up a dichotomy in which there is no room for dialogue, and then attempts the very thing she has made impossible. In her world, men are absolute maniacs and marauders. On a visit to Israel for example, she takes a look at the usual S& M lite contained in your average fashion spread and dubs it "Holocaust Pornography"--to which, as a Jewish woman, I can only say, "Oh, for Christ's sake."  

According to Dworkin, what's going on in Israel is very simple: Jewish men are masturbating over images of Jewish women as concentration-camp victims. Why? Because men want to see women dismembered, choked, and tortured; it gets them off. A few paragraphs further on, however, she tries to appeal to the empathy of a young Israeli soldier, asking him to imagine his mother in the place of an Arab woman forced to pick up shattered glass off the street. There's a syllogistic flaw here: Men (she asserts) are raving, sadistic animals, sexually aroused by torture. Therefore we must explain to them the error of their ways and appeal to their empathy. S.C.U.M. Manifesto author and Warholian stalker Valerie Solanas, paranoid schizophrenic though she was, was capable of better reasoning, even though her premise was flawed. (Men are evil, she posited, and therefore we must, as Joseph Conrad's Mr. Kurtz wrote in his famous footnote, "exterminate the brutes.")

But Dworkin does not really hate men, although she lays at their door, often rightly, many crimes against women. Her hagiographic autobiographical essay (which details at great length her martyrdom to the heinous behavior of lesser mortals) contains loving portraits of her father, her brother and her life-partner. What she hates is "men"--a concept of maleness that is connected completely with sadism and subjugation. This concept runs through her entire ontology of sex and what sex is. It's not without a certain kind of merit, but it's main flaw is it's just too easy. To set up this kind of polarity ignores the difficult questions women need to ask themselves. For instance, when does compliance through fear become complicity through reward? Dworkin calls the fashion industry the vilest names imaginable, but she never mentions the many powerful women who profit from it. In an essay on Gary Hart she declaims that the coverage of his supposed infidelity made his paramour Donna Rice "into meat." Remember darling, Donna Rice put out her own line of blue jeans called "No Excuses" right after the whole fiasco.

Dworkin's inability to take the hard road is especially evident in her holocaust-pornography theory. Let's assume images of the holocaust have filtered in to mainstream Israeli fashion and media; it wouldn't be all that surprising. The difficult question, then, is this: Why is it that human beings, from Jean Rhys and Jean Genet to Kathryn Harrison and Woody Allen, eroticize their own degradation? What dark corner of the human psyche comes up with this particularly awful coping mechanism? It's easier not to go there, and Dworkin never does. She stays in the safe spot, croaking out her endless chant of "women gentle/men brutal."

Out of all these tracts, it's only Susie Bright's construction of sexuality that offers any real solutions. Believe in Bright's world, and positive coming-of-age rituals for women will follow naturally out of that belief. Naomi Wolfe can only take you so far, as she reminisces about her sexual coming of age in the ambivalent, class-conscious way that so many of us do--as when she recalls a sad little romance with an exotic bad boy who turns out, to young Naomi's horror, to simply be a good Irish working-class lad who is extremely proud of himself for finding a job selling vacuums. Wolfe doesn't shrink from the fact that the dark webs of class and history cling to the simplest sexual act. Bright, meanwhile, simply remembers keeping a list of her sexual partners with stars next to their names if she had an orgasm, four stars if she thought she was in love.

Obviously, Bright was born with a certain innate ability to say "fuck you" to the forces of repression. She is a natural rebel: a rare and much imitated phenomenon. Unfortunately, most of us are stuck somewhere in the partly sunny realm between Bright and Dworkin. When sex is misused, as it so often is, it prevents us from enjoying it in the unconflicted way that Bright proposes. On the other hand, most women's experience is not solely confined to the dungeon of trauma that Dworkin creates either. Our sexual health as a species depends on our evolving toward the brighter realm and away from our dark corners. Unfortunately we as a species are maddeningly individual as well as cultural constructs, and what that means is every one has to find her own specific road map.

Sponsor Content


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >