Ed. Jolly, S. Cornwell, A. and Hawkins, K. (2013) Women, Sexuality and the Political Power of Pleasure. London and New York: Zed Books.
Women, Sexuality, and the Political Power of Pleasure forms a collection of essays that seek to reanalyse the various forms in which female pleasure comes in, assessing how it is delivered, and how it is perceived in contemporary society. In its preface, co-editor Andrea Cornwell argues that from a young age society is culturally conditioned to understand female sexuality as a concept of excess. Myths surrounding the ideals of such sexuality are fraught with danger motifs: from tales of Little Red Riding Hood to Bluebeard’s bloody chamber, female sexual vulnerability has become permeated into our very understanding of the female form. Counteracting the need for a chaste and virgin status is society’s obsession with pleasure, constantly exacerbated by the media’s portrayal of the ‘body beautiful’. These two very distinct forms create an artifice of limitation, rendering it almost impossible to conceive of women taking any sort of pleasure from sexuality. Arguing that women’s sexuality is a ‘hidden pathway’ (p. ix), in which we need to discover empowerment, Women, Sexuality and the Political Power of Pleasure looks to take a ‘pleasure based approach’ to women’s sexuality (p. x), reaffirming women’s status as independent human beings, who can perceive sex in a positive light.
Modern society has become obsessed with the idea of ‘good sex’: who do we allow to have the most pleasure from sexual experiences? Generally perceived as ‘young, able-bodied, HIV-negative’ (p. 1) individuals who partake in heterosexual, penetrative intercourse (complete with simultaneous orgasms), it seems the majority of the world’s population are automatically excluded from receiving legitimate sexual pleasure. Not only do these perceptions result in an unrealistic model of what we expect from sex, but it also reasserts negative connotations surrounding marginalised groups: for example, those with a disability, or those who are HIV-positive. In Women, Sexuality, and the Political Power of Pleasure critics look to question these myths and restraints that society imposes, objectively redefining concepts of sexual pleasure. The authors of the selected chapters provide examples how such negative approaches to sexuality have a continuing impact upon international communities, and how the redirecting/ reaffirmation of such identities can give rise to new political incentives, and produce a more gender-equal society in both private and public spheres.
From sexual pleasure as a human right; to secular and religious contentions of sex education; to pleasure and performance in sex work, the collection covers a wide breath in its analysis of female sexual pleasure. Engaging with these concepts on a global scale, the text offers region-specific research that interrogates the construction of female pleasure, and the evolving role of women in the community. The methodological approach used by contributors remains relatively static throughout the text: using primarily qualitative methods, research is conducted through a series of workshops, seminars, and in some cases, counselling sessions. This approach is an idealistic way in which to obtain data, particularly in relation to understanding women’s views surrounding sexual pleasure. Chapters by Bibi Bakare-Yusuf, Jaya Sharma, Gulsah Seral Aksakal and Doorthy Aken’Ova, all use this story-telling technique in order to create a ‘counter narrative’ (p. 29) against the dominant patriarchal view that prioritises male pleasure. By telling and retelling positive stories about women’s sex lives, the supremacy of male desire is destabilised, leading us to question the hetero-normative patriarchal structures that precedes society. In a study on perceptions of female pleasure in North India, Sharma writes how participants are encouraged to share their experiences with one another in women-only workshops. Although initially reluctant and cautious to do so, by creating a relaxing, friendly environment through humour, women were able to talk about their individual experiences without inhibitions. Laughter, ‘the subversive body organ’ (pp. 286 – 295) provides a medium in which participants can achieve self-realisation, self-reflection, and eventually, self-empowerment.
One of the primary tropes that is approached by several of the contributors is the social impact of myths and cultural (mis)constructs surrounding sexual pleasure. In her chapter studying human rights, Aksakal analyses the impact of these mythologies on women living in Turkey: common misinterpretations surrounding sexuality are indoctrinated through traditional phrases such as ‘women are by nature sexually passive while man are by nature sexually active’, and ‘women’s sexuality ends after menopause’ (p. 60). These detrimental comments serve not only to socially embed sexual codes of conduct, but to also serve as a mechanism to restrict women’s mobilisation in the public sphere. However, through the various methodological research approaches taken, critics found that through communication and through sharing experiences, participants (both male and female) came to a point of self-realisation by uncovering the sexual mythologies constructed by tradition and hetero-normative patriarchal ideals. By revising these ideas (for example, ones that hold the male genitalia as ‘sacred’), participants in the study achieved a greater understanding of each other’s desires and needs. The positive results from these assessments speak for themselves: not only did women report that that were having a more equal say in their relationships and increasing their level of sexual pleasure, but gender-related violence within the domestic sphere dramatically decreased.
Research conducted through a series of workshops and seminars certainly shows positive results, and demonstrates the need for a reconstruction of sexual mythologies. The need for a female-focused narrative is currently undermined by a patriarchal system that seeks to place male sexual pleasure at its helm. One of the primary ways in which this is explored is through the use of pornography, a topic broached by Anne Philpott and Krissy Ferris. As one of the principal ways in which young adults first start to engage with sex, it is logical to appropriate that pornography is one of the forbearing factors in which people receive misinformation and misperceptions regarding sexual relationships. In order to alter these inaccurate portrayals of sex (in which resolution is achieved through male pleasure), gender equality needs to be a primary factor in the production of pornographic films. There needs to be more standardised depictions of sexual intercourse (refusing to comply with the ‘good sex’ model of expectation), as well as looking to serve female pleasure. Further more, pornography exercises an ideal site in which to eroticise safe sex (through the ‘sexy’ use of condoms), and has the potential to alter public discourse. By encouraging its viewers to use contraception, pornography can have a positive and long-lasting effect on perceptions of public health.
The collection of essays, whilst providing focus on a counter-narrative to the male dominate voice, also creates space for the discussion of marginalised groups, of which there has been considerable underdeveloped analysis in critical works. Lorna Couldrick and Alex Cowan provide an exceptionally insightful essay on sexual pleasure for individuals suffering from disabilities. Although the piece does provide its focal point on primarily physical disability, the subject is broached in a sensitive, yet interrogative manner. Why are so many practitioners avoiding the subject of sexual pleasure with patients with a disability when current national guidelines indicate that individual assessment must include an analysis of sexual health? WHO (World Health Organisation), states that ‘sexuality is a central aspect of being human throughout life’ (WHO, 2006: 5, cited on p. 118): negative connotations surrounding stigmatism of sexual pleasure, and the lack of approach towards disability and sex can ultimately lead to an unfulfilled and unsatisfied existence. ‘Good sex’ must abide by the rules of both hetero and social normative behaviour: anything that lies outside these lines is culturally stigmatized and remains without a narrative – ultimately leading to the denial of the right to sexual pleasure.
Misinformation and a lack of cultural understanding is a theme that is further explored in chapters on HIV (by Alice Welbourn) and on delivering sex education in underdeveloped countries (by Anaïs Bertrand-Dansereau). The latter’s work on perceptions of sexual pleasure and contraception in Malawi introduces concepts of secular and religious techniques that are used to teach young adolescents about disease, violence, and drug abuse. Perhaps surprisingly, it is religious education that appears to be more encouraging of embracing one’s own sexual pleasure: sex is seen as a ‘gift from God’ (p. 161) and education takes a sex-positive approach. However, despite this initially promising outlook, pleasure is only approved of if it takes place within a heterosexual, monogamous relationship (and preferably within the institution of marriage). Sex education refuses to acknowledge homosexual and transgender sexuality, and although this is a topic briefly approached by Bertrand-Dansereau, she does little to suggest a means of how society can introduce non-hetero based behaviours and norms.
There are two chapters in Women, Sexuality and the Political Power of Pleasure that focus on the emancipation of women’s sexual pleasure, engaging in a markedly pro-active approach. Jo Doezema’s essay ‘How Was it for You? Pleasure and Performance in Sex Work’ challenges the assumptions that pleasure solely belongs to the paying customer. Research conducted by the SWOH (Sex Worker’s Open University) shows that this is simply not true, and that plenty of sex workers find sexual pleasure with their clients. Furthermore, it would appear that some sex workers perceive their bodies and their own sexuality in very healthy ways. Feelings of pleasure (be it sensual, sexual and/or homosexual) destroy the hetero-normative model, and actually serves to increase feelings of control: ‘those orgasms were mine’ (Maryann, in Chapkiss, 1997: 85, cited on p. 259. Emphasis added). However, it must be noted that not all sex-workers will feel this way: the research was conducted to engage with female sexual pleasure in a positive manner, and although it certainly achieves this objective, it fails to recognise or speak about sex workers who do not take the same approach with their work. Certainly this dichotomy between male and female pleasure is reiterated in an essay by Sylvia Tamale, who focuses on the evolving role of women in Uganda. Young women are told how to be good wives and how to please their husbands: they are also advised to engage in their own economic ventures, to never tolerate abuse, and are even taught how to manipulate men through sex: ‘The best time to ask your man for anything is during sex. Men’s brains are weak when it comes to sex…’ (Ssenga Katana, 2004, cited on p. 277). These juxtaposing ‘duties’ certainly indicates a progressive stance towards the recognition of female sexuality – however, sexual expression is still explicitly denied in the public domain, and a hetero-normative structure is strongly promoted.
For the majority of contributors, research is carried out through workshops and seminars. However, in a chapter by Petra Boynton which focuses on the ‘Adopt a Clitoris’ campaign that appeared online three years ago, she discusses the impact on online forums, blogs, and Facebook groups, used in order to disseminate the argument put forward by the campaign leaders. Seeking donations from the public in order to build a ‘Pleasure Hospital’ to surgically reconstruct the genitalia of victims of FGM, the campaign came under heavy fire from social media platforms: it’s ambiguity of purpose, false endorsements from leading surgeons, lack of community engagement, and suggestions of Western colonialism (through ‘adopting’ an African woman’s clitoris) sparked a backlash amongst the online community. Although unwilling to refuse with these criticisms directly, Boynton’s chapter certainly makes for interesting reading, and introduces a contemporary form of qualitative research that previous essays lack.
Overall, the book highlights a plethora of images that are underrepresented and under-researched at both an academic and at a political level. The use of workshops and seminars in particular demonstrate the impact of being able to speak openly about sexual desire and women’s pleasure, and the subsequent positive effect it had: in one research group domestic violence was reported to reduce by 49%. Furthermore, the text’s attention to marginalised groups that are often perceived as ‘asexual’ or denied the right to sexual pleasure highlights the need for society to confront and discuss these issues. It is simply not enough for medical professionals to dismiss the sexual desires of their patients, based on the premise of what they feel should be prioritised in their practice of care.
However, despite engaging with these minority groups, the text does fail to consider the impact of female sexuality in relation to homosexual or transgender communities. Although Xiaopei He’s chapter briefly discusses the lesbian and gay community in China, there is little consideration of female homosexual relationships in the rest of the text. Whilst I fully acknowledge that this is primarily a collection that looks at challenging the gender binary divide and normative social conventions, I argue that in order to provide a substantial collection of arguments that is able to challenge the status quo through political means, editors should look to integrate a chapter on transgender rights. Following on from the debates raised through this text, the objectives would be to understand how sexual pleasure is communicated, perceived by the society, and conceived by the individual.
Women, Sexuality and the Political Power of Pleasure offers a wide array of critical essays that contribute to a meaningful understanding of women’s relationship with sexual pleasure, and the journey through which we attain such pleasure. The research put forward by many of the authors propose legitimate ways in which society can alter its perceptions female pleasure, ultimately having a positive impact on political and cultural means. Although not all practices are viable to carry out on a large-scale (some workshops only held up to 50 participants at a time), the studies show a willingness for both men and women to engage with ideas that look to create a more gender-equal society.
Helen Snaith is a part-time research student, studying in the College of Arts and Humanities at Swansea University. She is researching Japanese influences in Angela Carter’s work, in particular reference to the early 1970s. Her thesis draws upon Carter’s archival material that is available in the British Library, analysing the extent to which Japanese cultural and social conditions permeate her works of fiction. Her research interests include contemporary women’s writing, queer theory, the gothic, and the study of archival records. Helen is currently teaching on the undergraduate module ‘Approaches to Gender in English Literature’ at Swansea University.
Chapkiss, W. (1997) Live Sex Acts: Women Performing Erotic Labour, London: Cassell
Tamale, Sylvia. Private session with SSenga Katana at Wandegeya, 11 November 2004.
World Health Organisation (2006) ‘Defining Sexual Health: Report of a Technical Consultation on Sexual Health, 28-31 January 2002’, http://www.who.int/reproductivehealth/publications/sexual_health/defining_sh/en/index.html