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Reconciling Desire and Feminism: A Book Review

Jane Sexes It Up is a provocative analysis of desire, sex, and romance for women raised under the constellation of feminism and all that it has offered women since the early 1970’s. This collection examines the contradictions and complications that emerge post “liberation” when women know what patriarchy and exploitation are and yet still find themselves in compromising positions. Through its collection of essays, Jane Sexes It Up provides a savvy deconstruction of the push/pull facets of a postmodern romantic landscape littered with male anxiety over the seeming loss of white male privilege, hyperindividualism, therapeutic culture, and the sex wars that have plagued feminist politics since the debates over pornography and S/M. As theorized by Johnson,

women in my generation hesitate to own up to the romantic binds we find ourselves in, the emotional entanglements that compromise our principles as we shuttle back and forth between feminist and girlfriend, scholar and sex partner. For if feminism is right, and we can do anything, be anyone, it follows logically that the obstacles we face must reflect personal failures, individual shortcomings in the face of unlimited feminist possibility (p. 15).

To contest this view, Johnson and the other contributors show the intricacies of both structural and interpersonal challenges women face while not falling into the stalwart of political vanguardism or new age individualism. As Johnson states, “we search for the right tone of voice, struggle against the undertow of misogyny in our bodies and culture, knowing of no register for “discussions” initiated by women other than bitching, nagging, complaining, whining” (p.26). To this end, Jane Sexes It Up is able to engage in these discussions in an intelligent way, illuminating the nuances of being complicit and contesting patriarchy and all the positions that fall in between.

The narratives found in Jane Sexes It Up are similar to the writings of Carol Queen or Pat Califia both of whom, through their own autobiographical experiences, are able to shed light on the taken for granted assumptions of our cultural concepts of desire and its link to patriarchy, homophobia and moralizing discourses on sexuality. Refreshing to read, this anthology has uniformly well-written and theoretically complex chapters that avoid easy binaries or sloppy relativism. In so doing, this anthology sheds light on how “only here, within this multilayered mapping of feminist desire—from false consciousness, to second wave feminist consciousness, to a postmodern, parodic, third wave feminist consciousness—do we even begin to approach the complexity of sexual politics in the current historical moment “ (p. 43).

Each chapter offers a mix of the autobiographical and third wave feminist analysis of experiences with desire, eating, violence and masturbation—to name but a few. Most chapters embody the feminist practice of the ‘personal is political’ in a new sex radical manner. For example, Caitlin Fisher’s chapter entitled, “The Sexual Girl Within: Breaking the Feminist Silence on Desiring Girlhoods” provides a complex analysis which presses “feminism to recognize the perhaps uncommon but by no means nonexistent idea and practice of sexual pleasure during girlhood” (p. 58). Katinka Hooijer’s chapter “Vulvodynia: On the Medical Purposes of Porn” analyzes her experience with Vulvodynia and the complexity of penetration as the “ultimate form of intimacy” (p. 276). “Stripping, Starving, and the Politics of Ambiguous Pleasure” by Katherine Frank offers another powerful analysis of how “stripping involves a conscious, creative, and sometimes pleasurable kind of reflexive masquerade, a form of doing and sometimes subverting.

Overall, this anthology is well suited for undergraduate courses. However, I would use this text in conjunction with other feminist texts such as Gayle Rubin, Carol Vance, or Audre Lorde to situate these essays in a broader theoretical conversation. All the contributors are able to engage in these discussions in a way that is understandable and engaging for undergraduates. This anthology would be useful in courses on sexuality, gender studies, and women studies. I used this anthology in my 200-level course, “Sexuality, Society and Culture” and my students stated that it was “their favorite text of the semester.”

Author: Danielle Egan is Assistant Professor of Sociology at St. Lawrence University in New York, where she is finalizing her manuscript on exotic dancer/customer relations. At the time of publication, Danielle was teaching a course about the sex trade in Thailand, and allowing her loathing of Dr. Phil to fester.

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