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Homebodies: Images of ‘inner space’ and domesticity in women’s talk on sex

Abstract: In this paper I examine the common representation in western culture of the female sexual body via images of interiority, domesticity, and containment. I argue that such depictions are connected to our understandings of ‘space’ as a feminine concept; and may also be traced to classical ideas about women’s role in reproduction and maternity. The notion of female sexuality being located ‘inside’ women’s bodies is shown to prevail in the everyday discourse of heterosexual women living in New Zealand. Twenty women took part in a study in which, during individual interviews or focus group discussions, they were asked to discuss their ideas about – and experiences of – female (and male) heterosexuality, sexual health and safer sex practice. My analysis of interview material is influenced by both feminist and poststructuralist theories. I argue that such prevalent understandings of women’s sexed bodies – that is, as interiorized ‘domestic’ spaces – contribute to notions of what ‘normal’ or ‘real’ sex is; and also influence ideas about female bodies being simultaneously vulnerable (at risk) and dangerous (risky). I also propose that the common picture of women’s sexed bodies as ‘inner spaces’ may be challenged by new innovative theories of space.

“The female body, in our culture, is seen and no doubt often ‘lived’ as an envelope, vessel or receptacle” (Gatens, 1996, 41).

Female bodies and female sexuality are most frequently depicted in western culture through images of interiority, containment, and domesticity. Geographer Sue Best (1995, 181) claims that “seemingly, wherever you turn the question of ‘space’ is bound up with the question of woman”. This association between woman and space occurs in a diversity of fields, and particularly in representations of human habitation.1 For example, in geography, those spaces or places known as “nation, regions, cities, and the home” are depicted as feminine; in architecture, buildings are personified as female (Best, 1995, 181). Similarly, in popular idiom we speak of ‘sister’ cities; cars and ships are referred to by female pronouns, and nature is feminized (we talk of ‘mother earth’). Best (1995, 187) argues that “the concept of space is not simply produced by the metaphor of woman, it is constituted through the body of woman” (emphasis added). Transcript material presented in this paper will demonstrate this process in action in the everyday understandings of New Zealand women.

French philosopher Luce Irigaray contends that this relationship between ideas about space and ideas about the female body is reciprocal; as Best (1995, 188) explains, it is as though “one term of the pair – space/woman – cannot … ‘move’ without the other”. Such an arrangement, Irigaray argues, represents the ‘double-action’ of metaphor; that is, the understanding of femininity and space in terms of each other. Furthermore, the female body has been sexualized in a particularly ‘spatial’ way; that is, it has historically been associated with interiority. The portrayal of female sexuality as interiorized may be traced in the ancient philosophers’ theorizing of woman predominantly according to her association with reproduction. The linking of woman and space is both an effect of the prevailing idea of space being a ‘container’ (originally proposed by the influential Greek philosopher, Plato, around 400 BC) and the common understanding of the female body as a kind of vessel or receptacle (Best, 1995; Grosz, 1995).

In this paper I explore women’s experiences of their sexed bodies as interiorized ‘domestic’ spaces. This issue is investigated with recourse to transcript material from interviews with women focusing on their opinions and experiences of female (and male) heterosexuality, sexual health, and safer heterosexual practice. I begin with an explanation of the research process, and then move on to examine the ways in which cultural ideas about female sexuality impact on women’s own experiences of their sexualized bodies, and on actual sexual practices.

Research details

The research presented here is part of a larger study into the cultural pressures influencing the enactment of risky heterosexual behaviors (see Potts, in press). Twenty women throughout New Zealand participated in this study, their ages ranging from 23-50. They came from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds, although the majority of participants’ lifestyles could be described as middle class (occupations ranged from nurses and teachers to scientists and policy analysts). All participants were pakeha New Zealanders (that is, non-Maori New Zealanders, of European descent), and all identified as heterosexual. The participants were recruited by word of mouth, some preferring to be interviewed individually, and others taking part in focus group discussions (there were three focus groups, two comprising three participants and one comprising four; and in each group, all the participants knew each other). Individual interviews and group discussions ranged from 1-2 hours duration, and were conducted by the author in the homes of participants. The interview format was semi-structured: I had a series of topics and associated questions which influenced the direction of each interview, but I also encouraged the participants to discuss those issues relating to sex and sexuality which were of most interest or concern to them (the reader is referred to Margery Franklin’s [1997] ‘discourse model’ of interviewing). The topics discussed during interviews included where and from whom participants had learnt about sex; how they understood notions of ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’ sex (for example, ‘sexual dysfunctions’) and sexual health; how they defined the term ‘safer sex’; how they understood and experienced men’s and women’s sexualities as similar and different.

I employ feminist and poststructuralist theories to analyze the ways in which these women make sense of their sexed bodies according to expressions of interiority, containment and domesticity. Poststructuralist theory disputes the ‘enlightenment’ ideas about accessibility to ‘truth’ and knowledge, instead claiming that all knowledge is produced through language and the various systems of meanings that we have available to us in a given place and time to make sense of our experiences (Gavey, 1989). Poststructuralism challenges the idea “that people’s ordinary discourse reflects real and often stable phenomenon and processes such as attitudes, personalities or cognitions that exist within the individual, independently of language” (Malson, 1998, 38); in other words; poststructuralists espouse that language is not a transparent medium which is able to reflect an underlying truth about ‘reality’ in any objective sense. Rather, language constructs or creates our very sense of what is real; it is through language that our sense of reality is produced and we come to make meaning of our experiences. Thus, poststructuralism does not hold to the notion of an essential ‘true’ and integrated identity or ‘self’ unique to each of us and located within an individual; rather, we are each ‘subjects’ whose various understandings, values and experiences are multiple and contradictory, continually changing and in process. In accordance with this position, participants’ accounts, such as those presented in the transcript excerpts in this paper, are not treated as representations of any underlying ‘truth’ or essential meaning about them, or about their experiences; rather, I am interested in looking at how language and discourses produce particular explanations or meanings from experiences, and how these have an impact in a very fundamental visceral – or bodily – manner, producing what might be termed ‘an impression of reality’. The fact that poststructuralist theory predominantly informs this analysis – and the limitation of participants to twenty only – indicates that this study was not intended as a ‘generalizing’ exercise. Thus, these participants cannot be said to represent all heterosexual women; nor would poststructuralist research aim or propose to do so.2

In this paper I also analyze participants’ talk about what counts as ‘normal’ or ‘real’ sex, and what constitutes ‘sexual safety’. Discourse analysis involves investigating the power structures and the assumptions that underpin certain language practices (Humm, 1995). Feminist discourse analysis investigates dominant systems of meaning in order to foreground and challenge the ways in which women are represented (or misrepresented), and how such portrayals become known as ‘truths’ about women. In this study I identify prevalent discourses and tropes (figures of speech) used by participants to make sense of their understandings and experiences of heterosexual relations. This involves an explicit analysis of dualistic or oppositional assumptions derived from western philosophy: that is, I examine transcript material from interviews to ascertain how the operation in everyday language of dualisms such as masculine/feminine, inside/outside, nature/culture, mind/body impacts on understandings and experiences of ‘normal’ and ‘healthy’ heterosex.

Interior designs: Feminizing space, spatializing woman

Gender ideology … not only determines our interactions in space, but defines us as space. ‘Woman’ connotes a space that is penetrable, susceptible, passive, submissive, imploding, collapsing upon itself; ‘man’ derives from a space assumed to be expansive, rigid, and intrusive (Kirby, 1996, 137).
Thomas Laqueur (1990) argues that up until the eighteenth century, a ‘one-sex’ model of sexual difference dominated western medical theory. This perspective stressed the similar (homologous) nature of the sex organs in men and women. Women were represented as inverted, inferior versions of men, their internal sexual organs the result of deficient bodily heat production (see also Tuana, 1993). For example, in the 2nd century the Greek physician and anatomist Galen said that women’s reproductive organs “cascaded back inside themselves, the vagina an eternally, precariously, unborn penis, and the womb a stunted scrotum” (Laqueur, 1990, 28). This construction of anatomical and physiological sexual difference was replaced, in reaction to the socio-political environment of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, by the current ‘two-sex’ model, which emphasizes the difference between the two sexes (Laqueur, 1990). While the two-sex perspective no longer regards women as inverted replicas of men, it retains an association of women’s bodies with interiority (an effect of their reproductive ‘functions’) and inferiority (related to cultural assumptions about ‘femininity’ being receptive and passive). Men’s bodies retain an association with externality and superiority (connected to assumptions about masculine sexuality being more active and dominant).

The persistence of such dualistic (that is, oppositional) understandings of sexed bodies is evident in the everyday language of the participants in this study.

Annie: How do you think men’s and women’s sexualities are different?

Agnes: Well, I think that it’s that external/internal thing, you know. The sort of anatomy of it. I don’t know. Men are much more … out there. Perhaps clearer in what they- what they’re- I know myself, I’m more hidden and more layered.

In this excerpt Agnes refers to the differences between male and female sexualities according to their different spatial attributes. She refers to the “external/internal thing”; men, by virtue of their external sexual organ, are “much more … out there”. Their sexual ‘nature’ is straightforward and transparent, or obvious. In contrast, she expresses her experience of female sexuality as being concealed (in layers), enigmatic, and cryptic. Agnes attributes these ‘fundamental’ differences to biology; they reside in the “anatomy of it”.

Agnes’ reference to her bodily experience as “hidden” and “layered” certainly evokes a sense of depth and interiority. Critical theorist Laura Mulvey (1992, 58) argues that ideas of ‘woman’ or femininity as enigmatic and secretive produce images of “closed hidden spaces” in relation to the female body. This in turn generates a division of bodies into female (‘internalized’) bodies and male (‘externalized’) bodies. Mulvey draws attention to the significance of myths about female sexuality that exist in western culture, such as Pandora’s Box, which contribute to the notion of feminine sexuality as enigmatic.3 She argues that such representations of femininity disadvantage women as they rely on an image of a deceptive and dangerous inner space lurking beneath the surface – under the skin – of the female body, threatening men (Mulvey, 1992). This depiction of the feminine as mysterious and alluring, yet possessing hidden dangers and risks, is not uncommon in western culture.

In the next excerpt, Lilly discusses the mundane – and the not so mundane – ‘frustrations’ of living in a woman’s body.

Lilly: I find sometimes that whole idea of someone actually being inside my body really intrusive and disturbing and … just like it’s my body, and I get sick of people, you know, putting things in there. Like I’m not saying – I really enjoy penetration – but some days I just- like I mightn’t feel like having sex, and I just don’t want people inside me… It’s like … I won’t go to a male doctor anymore because I’m sick of male doctors sticking things up my fanny basically (laughs) and I mean I have enough male things up there (laughs) without any male doctors sticking their fingers up there as well. I just feel that men have absolutely no concept of what that feels like, and I don’t mean feels like physically, I mean feels like emotionally too, for someone to enter your body, ’cause all of their stuff is external, like their genitalia’s external and they’re putting something of theirs into something. It’s just so different from having something inside your body. It’s- yeah some days I find that really difficult, especially ’cause I use a diaphragm for contraception and so I’ve got to put that in before anything else goes in, kind of thing. I get sick of that too. Sometimes I get pissed off with our biology, because we’re built that way and I’d love to feel what it feels like to be a man for a day and have all this external stuff. (laughs) And be able to pee standing up would be lovely. Just to see what it felt like.
Here, Lilly expresses her frustration firstly at the frequent invasive bodily discomfort she experiences as a woman (through her relationships and associations with men), and secondly at woman’s intrinsic (biological) flaw – the interiority of her body. She also expresses curiosity about the male experience of exteriority. This excerpt highlights the impact on female bodily experience of prevalent cultural notions about the feminine body as interior and inferior in comparison with the solidity, impenetrability, and externality attributed to the male body. At times Lilly experiences the accessibility or openness of her body as a burden. Her body may be exposed to the unwanted or uncomfortable interventions of other things or people – even on an everyday basis. Whether referring to contraception, which in her case requires insertion of a diaphragm into her body, medical ‘internal’ examinations, heterosexual intercourse, or using the toilet to urinate, these diverse practices are narrated as specifically wearisome. The ‘easy’ and ‘expected’ access of others to (the inside of) her body is perceived by Lilly as a trespass of sorts, a violation: “it’s my body, and I get sick of people putting things in there”. This trespass is perceived to be emotional as well as physical; it is linked to men’s lack of ‘knowledge’ and disregard for the complexities of female bodily experience, according to which being a woman means being always open to, and both physically and psychologically aware of, forms of physical intrusion and violence.

In Lilly’s account, men’s bodies are equipped with the positive property of exteriority. This masculine characteristic advantages men in certain ways over women. They enjoy a more active and self-contained sense of the world and of their bodies: “male doctors [stick] their fingers up there”; ” they’re putting something of theirs into something”; men are “able to pee standing up”. Female bodily experience assumes a negative, passive contrast to this: “I just don’t want people inside me”; “It’s just so different from having something inside your body”; “I get sick of [having to use the diaphragm] too”; “Sometimes I just get pissed off with our biology”. In these ways Lilly conveys her unenthusiastic experience of her body, lived as a permeable ‘inner space’.

Agnes also refers to the superiority of ‘outwardly oriented’ male bodies:

Agnes: The first time I ever saw a … well, the first time I was ever with a boy or a man I was just absolutely intrigued. And then I realized that boys- boys are sort of out there (gesturing outwards), like sort of they’re all out there and I’m all in here (pointing inwards), and I mean really believing that boys out-beat us. Still do. I mean John can go piss off the side of the boat and I can’t, you know, I can’t do that. Just anatomically I can’t do that.4
Agnes and Lilly experience their female bodies as ‘internal’ spaces, while they both assume that male physicality is basically lived by men in a more ‘external’ or outwardly focused way (see also Potts, 2001).5 However, I wish to assert that this division in ‘sexed’ experience is not a given, and it is not reducible simply to ‘the anatomy of it’. Poststructuralist theory would argue, for example, that there is no ‘natural’ reason for such a distinction between male and female sexual bodily experience; instead, this spatial difference is produced as an effect of language and culture, and in particular, our tendency to think or make sense of what happens to our bodies according to binary oppositions. Such oppositional modes of thinking are endemic to western ways of understanding the world; for example, we talk in terms of the mind and the body, male and female, nature versus culture, and so on. Poststructuralist theory proposes that, in general, those terms occupying the first position in such a binary pairing assume a superior status over the opposing second term; for instance, in western culture the mind or intellectual is generally favored over the basic physical body; and man is seen as the norm or standard against which woman is considered and measured. With respect to sexed bodies, we can observe the mapping of the binary outside/inside onto that of man/woman: man’s assumed association with exteriority (that is, with the external world and a certain outwardly focused – but perhaps inwardly oriented – sexuality) anticipates his exclusion from ‘knowing’, or being familiar with, sexualized interiority, in the same way that woman’s experience of her sexed body as ‘being inside’ precludes a closer understanding of any ‘exteriorized’ sexuality.

However, as feminist philosopher Elizabeth Grosz (1994, 191) argues, rather than being closed to alternative experiences, the biology of the body is “an open materiality, a set of (possibly infinite) tendencies and potentialities which may be developed”. Importantly, Grosz (1994, 191) also contends that the development of certain tendencies or possibilities will “hinder or induce other developments and other trajectories”. The meanings and significances attributed to bodily experiences and practices are not necessarily consciously chosen by individuals, nor, according to Grosz, are they “amenable to will or intentionality”: “They are more like bodily styles, habits, practices, whose logic entails that one preference, one modality excludes or makes difficult other possibilities” (Grosz, 1994, 191). Thus, the very taken for grantedness – the ‘ordinariness’ and everydayness – of the spatial understandings of male and female bodies identified in the discourse of these participants make them habitual and hard to escape from. However, at the same time, these understandings are not to be regarded as totally fixed, inflexible, or resistant to change.

Woman’s biology may be different from man’s to the extent that her reproductive organs are located mainly within her body, however this anatomical arrangement is not enough in itself to produce the experience of an ‘interiorized’ sexual subjectivity (an interiorized understanding of the sexual self). Grosz (1994) suggests that it is the impact of various social and cultural beliefs about particular bodies on those bodies that creates the experience of a specific physicality. In other words, culture and matter intertwine so that physical experiences and sensations take on certain significance and particular meanings relevant to the culture(s) within which these bodies are living. This way of understanding bodily experiences suggests therefore that the body is both a surface which is embedded with meaning and “an interior where meanings are made visceral” (Grace, 1997, 96). Therefore, while it is perhaps not uncommon for women to experience their ‘sexed’ bodies in ways that correspond with these participants’ accounts – as interiorized – we must look past the mere physical (past ‘nature’), to culture, to explain such an effect.

Woman’s body as a house

In this section I would like to introduce the notion of chora, derived from ancient western philosophy, which is, I believe, relevant to an understanding of the sexing of notions of space and time, and, in particular, the way in which woman’s bodies have come to be associated with an internal sexuality (and men’s with an externalized sexuality) (Irigaray, 1993; Kristeva, 1980). Around 300 BC, the influential Greek philosopher Plato – often credited with being the ‘initiator’ of western philosophy – used the term chora to refer to an imaginary bridge linking the mind and body (Grosz, 1995). Elizabeth Grosz (1995, 112) suggests that chora has a mostly “unacknowledged role” at the very foundations of our western notions about space and place. Importantly, chora signifies ideas about place and location; but “it also contains an irreducible, yet often overlooked connection with the function of femininity, being associated with a series of sexually-coded terms – ‘mother’, ‘nurse’, ‘receptacle'” (Grosz, 1995, 112).

In his earlier writings, Plato referred to chora as an active construct; that is, as possessing the ability to affect and contribute to whatever emerged from itself as the place of gestation; later the concept of chora became passified, and it is this version that Best (1995, 184) claims continues to dominate our images and ideas about space – and our ideas about ‘woman’. It is this more recent passive adaptation that I will consider here. In this version Plato conceived of chora as a space which had no particular features or qualities of its own, but which served instead as a receptacle or transitional space for others: “Chora can only be designated by its, by her, function: to hold, nurture, bring into the world” (Grosz, 1995, 115). Thus chora also functioned in a more abstract sense as the location for the ‘gestation’ of ideas. It is apparent that chora, as a space, thus denotes the feminine – and especially the maternal – via her/its qualities of nurturing and gestation (Kristeva, 1980).

So, from classical times, the feminine – and by implication, female bodies – were understood in spatial terms as interior vessels, as places for others. This idea is also perpetuated in the nineteenth century writings of psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud through his contention that feminine sexuality is mysterious, hidden, enigmatic, and passive, and ultimately connected with reproduction and the maternal. Traditional psychoanalysis, for which Freud is famous, also depicts the female body as lacking; in particular, lacking the penis, and the types of (phallic) sexual power attributed to having a penis (Weeks, 1985).

Luce Irigaray, herself a philosopher and psychoanalyst, has been particularly interested in the theorizing of woman and space as they relate to each other. Irigaray’s (1985a, 1985b, 1993) critical reading of the ancient (traditional) philosophers proposes that space and time as concepts have been associated with femininity and masculinity respectively. According to traditional theory, if woman is imagined as space, then man is the conqueror, the actor, or the adventurer in that space.

A reading of Agnes’ and Lilly’s experiences of their bodies from the perspective of Irigaray (1993) emphasizes the ways in which prevalent representations of the ‘feminine’ shape and limit female physical and sexual experience. Irigaray (1993) contends that the depiction of woman’s body as a house, container, receptacle, or vessel is consistent with the spatial restrictions placed on women in a culture where powerful and durable images and ideas have tended to reduce ‘woman’ to the ‘maternal’ (that is, by viewing the vagina as a receptacle for the penis, and the uterus as a vessel for children). Such a conceptualization of woman – that is, as primarily associated with reproduction and maternity – provides a powerful instrument through which many women may ‘experience’ – or come to know – their bodies and their sexuality.

Criticism has been targeted at Irigaray’s approach to theorizing female bodily experience primarily as a form of containment. For instance, Iris Marion Young (1997, 141) contends that Irigaray’s understanding of female domestication is primarily concerned with a “specifically modern, bourgeois conception of the home”, while in a similar vein, Emily Martin (1992) claims – though not referring specifically to Irigaray’s work – that working class women are less likely to understand their sexual bodies as interiorized. Nevertheless, in the current study, the idea (and experience) of female sexuality as internalized seemed to persist in participant’s talk to such an extent that it warranted attention; and, as Sue Best (1995) points out, the notion of space as a container persists, despite being challenged by contemporary scientific theory (see Hawking, 1988).

Mention must also be made of the influence of contemporary technologies and practices that reinforce the idea and experience of female bodies as ‘naturally’ interiorized sexual spaces. As Lilly mentioned previously, women’s bodies are subjected to various (more or less) invasive procedures through, for example, some contraceptive practices, medical examinations such as cervical smear taking, use of tampons during periods, and so on. These diverse practices all contribute to the constitution of female bodies as territories that may be entered, probed, and which may act as places to contain or lodge other objects (e.g., diaphragms and tampons) (see also Braun & Wilkinson, 2001; Clarke & Oleson, 1999; Haraway, 1999; Robertson et al, 1996).

In the next section, I explore how viewing women’s sexuality as interiorized (internally located) impacts on cultural understandings of what counts as ‘normal’ or ‘real’ sex. I also analyze the ways in which participants refer to ideas of ‘sexual safety’.

House-keeping: “Being inside and being safe”

The following excerpt taken from a women’s discussion group exemplifies the operation of a spatial metaphor in the construction of female heterosexual experience. It also introduces the notion of having to safeguard woman’s sexualized interior from the ‘outside’ world.

Heather: This is actually a bit of a theory I’ve had that I haven’t actually shared with anyone …. That having sex with someone is like inviting them into your house to have a cup of tea (laughter) …. because you don’t want people that, well, you don’t want someone who’s going to sort of abuse that trust…. or abuse you, I mean like it’s- (short laugh) if you invite someone into your house for a cup of tea, that’s your territory, that’s your place that you’re inviting them into, and it’s very much like that I think for women. Them especially …. That the fact you’re having- well, especially intercourse with them, it’s in your space, you know, like they’re actually in your body, aren’t they? …. And so it’s very much, you know, they have to kind of please you. I mean they have to sort of, you know, be nice and be-

Rosella: Well behaved.

Heather: Yes ….

Rosella: If the bed belongs to both of you, and you both live in that house, and you’re both having sex together, then you have to be respecting him because you’re invading his space because you’ve been invited into his house for a cup of tea.

Heather: Oh no no no, I was meaning more as in, you know, like your body. Like having sex is that-

Rosella: But what about his body? That’s what I’ve-

Heather: But you’re not actually in his body, you know, like he’s actually inside your body, you know, like I was sort of meaning it more like that.

Rosella: Oh ok.

Heather: That it’s you’re sort of letting somebody in. You know. Like you’re letting them into your body …. So yeah it’s like you don’t want some man coming into your house and trashing the place.

Heather employs a simile of domesticity when she describes heterosexual intercourse as being “like inviting [someone] into your house to have a cup of tea”; woman’s traditional associations with the home, and with food, are reinforced. (Interestingly, another participant, Dolores, recalled how her mother, when explaining ‘sex’ to her, had portrayed the penis as “a boy’s little teapot”!). Heather refers to her vagina as her space that he may enter only when invited by her: “that’s your place that you’re inviting them into”. By referring to her body as her territory – her house – Heather positions herself as possessing agency (autonomy and personal power), in as much as it is the woman’s right, determined by the characteristics of her body – constructed as interior, private, inaccessible – to decide whether or not penile-vaginal intercourse occurs. When she claims “they’re actually in your body …. so it’s very much …. they have to kind of please you”, Heather seemingly privileges her interiority; her male partner is expected to respect her space because he has been granted access to the inside of her, to the depths of her body. Heather strengthens this position when, in response to Rosella’s declaration that the woman must also respect the man’s house (his body), she calls attention to the significance of the difference between interior and exterior sexual space: “he’s actually inside your body”.

While Heather’s ‘invitation’ to the man may be construed as a ‘choice’ or ‘prerogative’ of hers, she nevertheless maintains an awareness of the precariousness of this arrangement for women. There is no assurance that the man will not “abuse that trust”; rather, he may breach the boundaries of heterosexual sex in ways which she can imagine or predict but over which she does not, in the end, have control. She relies on his version of sexual ethics to remain ‘safe’; granting him entry or access to her body – her house – comes with the imagined or actual risk of a certain ‘domestic’ violence: “you’re letting them into your body … you don’t want some man coming into your house and trashing the place”. Feminist critic Margaret Whitford (1991, 160) argues, with respect to sexual relations, that “for women, then, the crucial question is that of territory, and whether the enterer is a welcome guest, invited in, or an intruder”. In this sense, there is some form of mistrust, a fear of violation, of being hurt, and ‘used’ in the understanding of the female body as a mere receptacle during heterosexual intercourse.

Moreover, while women (particularly those from certain socio-economic and cultural backgrounds) can assert that their bodies are their own, as long as the terms with which they claim this ownership remain dictated by prevalent representational models that portray women’s bodies as vulnerable inner spaces, then the extent to which their bodies really are their own is questionable. Woollett and Marshall (1997) draw attention to this dilemma in their study of adolescent women negotiating self-determination and independence. Their research indicates that:

Young women take up the theme of the body as one’s own stating that how they use their bodies is their ‘own decision’. But in recognizing gendered readings of the body and the physical risks of being out late at night, young women acknowledge the limitations on the extent to which they can realize independence (Woollett & Marshall, 1997, 32).
For Heather, “having sex” is synonymous with penile-vaginal intercourse. The assumption that ‘sex’ equals penile-vaginal intercourse – when in fact it could signify any sexual activity and not just intercourse – has been termed ‘the coital imperative’ (Gavey, McPhillips & Braun, 1999; Jackson, 1984; Potts, in press). Dominant ways of thinking reinforce the notion of heterosexual intercourse – where “active sexuality is the erect penis, which rises in its potency and penetrates the passive female receptacle” (Young, 1990, 194) – as the desired ‘outcome’ of sexual relations. Coitus connects the male external organ with the sexualized interior of the female. Indeed, this definition of sex is contingent on a division of inside versus outside: it relies on the movement, or transition, of the man (or, specifically, his penis) from one spatial position to another. For example, in the excerpt below, sex is validated when it means “being inside”.

Annie: What’s your idea of real sex then?

Maggie: Well, I guess, I mean … playing around [versus] real sex … the real sex is like the penetration thing. I mean that is- that is the sex thing. But I mean sex just is a huge area, as I said like touch, kissing, caressing, hugging but real sex – when you get to the nitty gritty – it’s guy inside girl, guy inside guy, (laughs) girl inside whatever (laughs)

Annie: So it involves penetration?

Maggie: Yeah. The real sex. Because if you talk about real sex and safe sex and all those issues that are around, and AIDS and stuff, it’s all about being inside. Being inside and being safe.

Maggie’s account reinforces a coital imperative. She attempts to resist the restriction of sex to penile-vaginal intercourse when she claims: “but I mean sex just is a huge area, as I said like touch, kissing, caressing, hugging”. Nevertheless, she is co-opted back into the central, more authoritative version of sex when she concedes “the nitty gritty” of sex is about penetration: “it’s guy inside girl, guy inside guy, girl inside whatever”. Interestingly, insofar as she privileges “being inside” as the definition of real sex (even though, perhaps, she might enjoy those ‘other’ activities – touching, kissing, caressing, hugging), she appears to be prioritizing the man’s conventional part in (or experience of) sex. In other words, she is seemingly privileging the “being inside” associated with whoever is ‘doing the penetrating’, rather than, as in Heather’s account, the “being inside” associated with a woman’s experience of sexualized interiority. Indeed, while Maggie attempts to include female experience in the definition of ‘real’ sex, she struggles to conceive how female bodies might actually ‘be inside’, or rather might ‘get’ inside – or penetrate – someone else’s body: “real sex [is] girl inside whatever”. Moreover, such an unusual idea renders this prospect humorous.

Maggie’s key understanding of sex in terms of traditional male sexual experience – that is, in terms of actively penetrating or entering another body – not surprisingly impacts on her notions of sexual safety. Her comments that safe sex is related to ‘being safe inside’ arguably point (unwittingly) to the greatest risks of sex being for men, and such dangers being located within female – or homosexual male – bodies. Thus, while Heather stresses the vulnerability of women’s bodies due to their ‘internalization’, Maggie indicates that the interiority of female bodies (and the interiority of ‘receptive’ gay and bisexual men’s bodies) is a threat to men, as well as women. Importantly, moreover, Maggie’s equation of ‘real sex’ with ‘being inside’ is already reinforced in safer sex education itself: “if you talk about real sex and …. safe sex and all those issues that are around, and AIDS and stuff, it’s all about being inside. Being inside and being safe”. Thus, unsafe sex becomes automatically associated with activities involving penetration and could be seen to reinforce the notion of interior spaces as ‘polluted’ and corrupting, concealing harmful diseases. In this way, campaigns for safer sex – in particular, those related to condom use – may inadvertently reinforce the very practice of penetrative sexual activities (safe or not), by reinforcing an idea of ‘normal’ sex or ‘real’ sex equaling penetrative sex.

Opening up new spaces

In this chapter I have argued that one of the ways according to which women may come to understand and experience their sexual bodies is as interiorized – as internal spaces. I have also argued that this phenomenon indicates the persistence of traditional ways of representing the female body derived from classical philosophy: such accounts depict the body of ‘woman’ as primarily associated with reproduction and maternity, and thereby as the receptacle, container, or ‘house’ of the penis and the unborn child. A dualistic way of thinking about sexed bodies, which views the female body as internalized and the male body as externalized, perpetuates notions of male sexuality as ‘out there’ and female sexuality as ‘being inside’. It constructs male bodies as impenetrable, outwardly focused, and active, while female bodies are conceived as open, receptive and penetrable, inwardly focused, and passive. This perspective reproduces and reinforces the notion that penile-vaginal intercourse is ‘natural’ and ‘normal’ – indeed, it is the most usual, the most ‘ordinary’ of sexual practices – men’s bodies are made to (meant to) penetrate women’s bodies. Thus heterosexual coitus comes to figure as natural and proper sex – the only form of ‘real’ sex; this is so taken for granted that is has been referred to as ‘the coital imperative’. This imperative impacts on the practice of safer heterosexual sex: coitus, as the act representing the ‘natural’ crossing of bodily boundaries between man and woman – the man entering the woman (the woman receiving the man) – is almost a given occurrence in heterosexual activity.6 It is the unquestioned exemplar of ‘real’ sex.

The association of women’s bodies with an interiorized sexuality – and a kind of ‘domestic’ purpose – may be viewed as a consequence of the interweaving between bodies and culture. As Irigaray’s work suggests, while concepts of space are enmeshed in concepts of woman, female bodies also influence our understandings of concepts of space. Sue Best (1995) contends that body matter is an active meaning-making substance itself; it is not merely the passive recipient of social ideas and beliefs. Consequently, she argues that “the passivity of space is by no means guaranteed by its ‘association’ with female body-matter. [This] production, rather than containing and delimiting woman and/or space, actually opens the boundaries of both by intertwining them from the very beginning” (Best, 1995, 190-191).

Thus, if, as Irigaray suggests, each term in the pair space/woman moves with the other, then our understandings and experiences of the female sexual body and concepts of space may be changed through their very inter-implication. The metaphor that links ‘woman’ and ‘space’ works in two directions at once: women’s bodies are currently spatialized in certain ways (as inner places), but space is feminized (for example, as a body or region to be penetrated). Best (1995) asserts that, conversely, to re-think our ideas about space will have a corresponding effect on how we think about, understand, and deal with the female body (and the male body).

I have already briefly alluded to new innovative theories which challenge taken for granted ideas about space and also about ‘woman’. Indeed, Battersby (1993) argues convincingly for the existence of forms of female lived experience that offer alternatives to the perspective that women’s bodies are containers or receptacles. Referring to contemporary scientific and mathematical models that emphasize fluidity and the indefinite (see, for example, Stephen Hawking’s [1988] proposition that spacetime has no boundaries), Battersby (1993, 36) draws attention to the increased likelihood of female bodies (and the experience of living in a female body) becoming understood more according to “patterns of potentialities and flows” (that is, according to a fluidity and adaptability compatible with Hawking’s theory). Likewise, Emily Martin (1999) talks about the new popularity of the ‘flexible’ female body; that is, the valuing of woman’s body for its fluid links between inside and outside, for the very fact that this body is not closed off by boundaries, but is instead agile and open, and, as the name suggests, flexible.

Indeed this may be the way women first experience their bodies anyway! Those of us who have been persuaded by orthodox ideas of a constricted (and devalued) ‘inner sexual space’ need look no further than the words of young girls for a glimpse of something different. Elizabeth Lloyd Mayer (1985) observed that girls as young as two or three years old may display an understanding of ‘an internal sexual space’. Interestingly, however, Mayer offered an alternative perspective to the classic Freudian charge of ‘penis-envy’, arguing that girls suffered not from a desire to possess a penis, but from a fear of being ‘closed’ or ‘sealed off’ like boys, indicating a very early ‘positive’ acceptance of the openness and versatility of female bodies. In her clinical practice, Mayer (1985) noticed that adult female clients were often able to recall that their initial responses to the ‘discovery’ that boys/men were vulva-less was one of horror at the thought of losing their own openness. For example, Mayer recounts how one client constructed her experience:

She revealed that her fascination [with boy’s genitals] has been less with the boy’s penis than with the skin behind his testicles. Repeatedly, she has been disbelieving and horrified by how there were no folds, no opening, no mucous membranes, nothing that revealed ‘an inside kind of skin between the folds’. [The client] was convinced that genital excitement was a function of having ‘an inside kind of skin on the outside’ (i.e. exposed mucous membranes) … Each time she would inspect a boy’s genitals she recalled feeling anxious and incredulous at how his skin was ‘ordinary’ between his anus and his testicles, ‘like an arm or a leg or a finger kind of outside skin’. He was ‘closed up’ (Mayer, 1985, 337, italics in original).
I am, however, reluctant to close this paper on a note that could be viewed as replacing one form of orthodoxy – the perspective that women’s bodies are inferior domestic ‘inner spaces’ – with another form reifying their fluidity and adaptability (and their potential ‘superiority’, then, over male bodies). Rather, I see the merits of the work of Irigaray, Best, Grosz, and others as lying more in their ability to imagine different worlds for female (and male) bodies through strategically challenging the ways that female sexuality has been restrictively portrayed in the past, and drawing attention to the possibilities for other understandings and experiences in the future. Perhaps, if the prevalent mode of portraying women’s sexual bodies as ‘enigmatic’ interiorized spaces – as regions for (sexual) penetration and discovery – is challenged by these other notions of space, heterosexual sex need not remain so ‘everyday’ – so mundane – but might take on more imaginative, experimental, and, it may be hoped, ‘safer’ forms. In accordance with a poststructuralist position on experience and knowledge, instead of subscribing to any dogma or ‘truth’ about a body – be it classified female or male – we might rather experiment with a multiplicity of different ways of understanding and living in our bodies.7 And instead of being limited to any ‘sexual imperative’ dictating what certain ‘conventional’ bodies are made for and meant to do sexually, we might instead explore a diversity of ‘extra-ordinary’ pleasures and desires.

Acknowledgements: I am most grateful to the women who participated in this study. I also thank Philip Armstrong, Nicola Gavey, Kimberly Mahaffy, Catherine Waldby, and two anonymous reviewers for helpful suggestions on earlier related drafts. I am grateful to the Health Research Council of New Zealand for sponsoring this research.


1. I use the term ‘woman’ here in a generic sense.

2. To preserve confidentiality all names of participants have been changed to pseudonyms.

3. The Greek myth of Pandora’s Box tells the story of Pandora, the first woman made by the gods – as a punishment to man. Pandora is given a box and instructed not to open it; she does, however, and releases all the ills of the world, leaving only Hope at the bottom.

4. Agnes and Lilly both value the ability of the male body to urinate from a standing position. Bronwyn Davies (1990, 513) notes how, in women’s narratives, “the unquestioned and apparently harmless ritual of males urinating standing up and females urinating sitting down, is a fundamental part of the social practices through which male superiority and female inferiority is achieved”. However, she also offers a glimpse of what might occur if women came to understand such culturally gendered practices as within their capabilities too. Davies (1990, 513) contends, for instance, that it is “in fact …quite easy for women to urinate standing up [and] it is healthier for them to do so, because the bladder can empty itself more completely when the body is upright”. Furthermore, she states: “I have seen little girls outbeat their brothers in competitions to see who can pee the furthest out over the balcony. The labia can readily be shaped as a most effective spout…” (Davies, 1990, 513).

5. Elsewhere I have argued that male sexuality is externalized in western culture in such a way that the penis is often understood to be – and experienced as – outside of or separate from the man, as an entity with a mind of its own (Potts, 2001).

6. It should be noted that feminist activists have attempted to challenge the prevalent notion of heterosexual coitus as ‘penile penetration’, by offering alternative representations of coitus as the ‘engulfment’ or ‘enclosure’ of the penis by the (active) vagina (see Baker, 1992; Braun & Wilkinson, 2001).

7. Although Irigaray herself has often been charged with espousing an alternative ‘essentialist’ view of the body – that is, a perspective of the female body which challenges the dominant ‘truth’ about the female body by offering an alternative ‘truth’ – I see this as a misrepresentation of her work. In my opinion, Irigaray is not describing some essential, or empirical, facts about woman. Rather, she is describing a cultural ‘fiction’ whereby women are confined to the realm of domestic space; and men are defined as independent, strong, masterful and exterior because the various aspects of interiority, as this concept relates to domesticity (that is, as containment), are outside the man, or made other (that is, attributed to woman). Irigaray is not referring to what people actually do, or even how they might live, but rather to a ‘figure of speech’ that women and men are using to understand their bodily experience. No matter how else they might live, they are still using this vocabulary – or fiction – to articulate their experience. Irigaray seeks therefore to create an alternative cultural ‘fiction’ of a space for women to inhabit which no longer contains or confines them. In this sense her work is experimental; she is not promoting some new ‘truth’ about ‘woman’, but strategically disrupting what we more or less take for granted as the popular ‘truth’ about female bodies.

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Author: Annie Potts is a health researcher in the department of Gender Studies at Canterbury University, Christchurch, New Zealand. She is the lead investigator on a national project funded by the Health Research Council of New Zealand investigating the social impact of prosexual drugs such as sildenafil (ViagraTM). A book by Annie Potts, The science/fiction of sex: Feminist deconstruction and the vocabularies of heterosex, will be published this year by Psychology Press. The book involves comprehensive empirical research on men’s and women’s understandings and experiences of sexuality, sexual health, and safer sex.

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