Let’s read books – Sex is not a Natural Act and Other Essays

01/26/2010 at 6:23 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 6 Comments
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One of the most prominent voices in the realm of feminism as it relates to sexual dysfunction is Dr. Leonore Tiefer, who has been involved in sexology roughly three decades & has had various roles over the course of her career – author, researcher, psychologist, counselor, teacher, activist. Tiefer’s work has been strongly influential (and popular) in the context of female sexual dysfunction. For many people I’m sure it’s even been helpful. Tiefer’s work & campaigns have appeared in various media outlets, including the print and online versions of Our Bodies, Ourselves, and has been incorporated into college-level classrooms. Frequently when FSD is the topic of online articles, I see Tiefer’s name (and one or two of her quotes) pop up. Yet even Tiefer’s work is not without controversy – and I am not the first feminist with FSD to question her. But if I hope to analyze & critique her work (and become a better feminist/blogger in general,) I am going to first need to become even more familiar with it. I can delay it no longer.

Because I have already raised questions about just how natural sex truly is, I decided to start with Sex Is Not a Natural Act & Other Essays, originally printed in 1994 and then re-released in early 2004. The book is a series of her essays that were produced at various times (1980-2004) in different media outlets – newspapers, lectures, journals… For the record, I read the Kindle edition because it was cheaper & immediately available. That means I won’t have page numbers to reference for you when I use quotes or paraphrases from the text, I’ll have location numbers instead. To give you an idea of where to look for a cited passage, there are 3561 locations in the Kindle location, so lower numbers happen closer to the beginning of the book, and higher numbers are towards the end.
My use of the Kindle edition also means that this is the first book I’m reading on the Kindle, so I’ve been futzing around with the device’s features & settings. For example, the text-to-speech feature works – in the sense that, it does something… but the reader sounds far from organic, as compared to listening to an audiobook read by a human. If you use text-to-speech on a Kindle, you’re may have to read along with the text at the same time.

I’d like to take a real quick look back in time for some surrounding context around the book’s original publication. The first edition of the book came out a few years before Viagra was readily available. 1994 was also the year that the NVA was formed, so we know vulvodynia still existed back then. The so-called feminist sex wars of the 1980s had gone down but since their influence reverberates today in 2010, I think it’s safe to say that different feminist perspectives on porn & sexuality were still clashing back then in ’94, too. Several of the essays included in Sex is not a Natural Act were likewise written during the 1980s, and it shows – among other things, I’m picking up on some hints that suggest Tiefer was on the pro-free speech side during those clashy days (She says in one of her late 1980s essays,  “Censorship statutes are being passed to limit production and distribution of explicit sexual images to ‘protect’ women and children” (location 294) – note that she put “protect” in quotes there.)
Technologically, 1994 was right around the time of Windows 95’s release, so I can vaguely recall access to home PCs and the internet was becoming mainstream around that time, but… no blogosphere, so that means the feminist blogosphere as we know it wasn’t available to bounce ideas off of. It would be four more years before my family could finally afford a PC – a 300mhz, 6gigs and blazing fast 56k modem ready to connect to AOL PC.
As I often say, “I’m sure there’s more” we could say about the time in which the book material was written…

Anyway, Sex is Not a Natural Act is broken into five sections (not including the intro & conclusion) with 4-6 sub chapters in each section. Each major section has an overarching theme. My goal is to write a review/analysis of each section, mostly to make it easier for me to process.
We’re saving the best for last… the sections on medicine & female sexual dysfunction are the final chapters, although so far I’ve seen the early seeds of anti-medicalization in the first few chapters too.

The first sections we’ll be looking at today are the introduction & Part One: Sex is Not a Natural Act: Theme and Variations.

The introduction in the revised edition serves as a catching up point for old and new readers – but mostly old readers. The very beginning of the book is addressed with a “Welcome back,” (location 76) instead of a more general welcome, so there’s already an assumption that if you’re reading the book, you’re familiar with the older edition. (There’s a reason I mention this, we’ll get to it later…) In the years since the first edition was printed, Viagra hit pharmacy shelves, same-sex marriage was made legal in some countries, and of course there’s an obligatory mention of 9/11.

Early on in the intro & first few chapter, the reader gets a taste of what Tiefer’s big themes are – she places a strong emphasis on the social & cultural construction of sex & sexuality rather than leaving it up to innate biological processes. In fact early on Tiefer states, “I now believe that my dissertation [mating habits of hamsters] and other similar biological work are largely useless for understanding human sexuality” (location 118). For Tiefer, nurture greatly outweighs nature when it comes to sex, so that means that even your sexuality has been largely shaped by the culture in which you live. Indeed, as explained later on in chapter 3, the word “Nature” itself is a loaded word with multiple meanings & a fragmented history, and therefore whenever it’s used, nature has to be eyed with some skepticism. Tiefer quotes Raymond Williams when he said, regarding the word “Nature,” it’s “Perhaps the most complex word in the language (p. 219)” (location 471.) It also means that for Tiefer, biological functioning & sexual health have a lesser role in shaping sexuality.

You notice how I linked to a webpage about Raymond Williams just now? Well, there’s a reason for that too…
A couple of notes so far: the book is really fucking hard. This isn’t an easy, pick up & go book. Tiefer is writing from a point of view I’m not used to – she’s heavy on philosophy & anthropology, to the point where the writing is almost inaccessible to me. (Coincidentally, accessibility is a feminist issue this week!)
Tiefer frequently references previous studies, books, authors and researchers. While I feel no rush to become an expert (I’ll probably never a sexologist anyway, oh god who am I even kidding…) it will take me many, many years to catch up with all the primary sources she’s drawing from – if I can access them all; let’s keep in mind that library use may be free but journal articles are often locked up behind academic firewalls and price tags that I can’t break through. So a lot of these authors cited are New To Me, but not all of them are… I’m seeing some names I still see batted around in feminist circles in the year 2010… wait, I recognize these people… Michel Foucault… Shere Hite… Germaine Greer… and… Shelia Jeffreys? She’s in here too? Jeez, I’m never gona be done with this learning & cross-checking. Additionaly Tiefer sometimes cites her own pervious work.
As for the writing itself – well, it’s probably going to be easier if I just show you an example:

Kenneth Gerger (1985) defined the social constructionist approach as a form of inquiry indebted to intellectual trends such as symbolic interactionism, symbolic anthropology, ethnomethodology, literary deconstructionism, existentialism, phenomonology, and social psychology. (Location 301)

Did you get all that? Social constructivism, which Tiefer advocates as the lens through which to view sex & sexuality, sounds like a simple, straightforward enough concept to grasp, right?
Welp if you absorbed all that without having to re-read the sentence 2 or 3 times then you’re a smarter person than I am. (I wonder if Ily had this same problem – Ily? Little help?)

I should be used to writing like this! I went to college, (I recognize that that in and of itself is in large part a function of my own class privilage (and pure dumb luck! – Long story about that luck part; not important right now) I took 18 credits in psychology and in 3 in philosophy, and I’ve got the Internet available for more research – but I gotta tell you, Sex is not a Natural Act is an academic book, some of these essays conjure up images of literal ivory towers in my mind. Adding to my struggle to slog through the text, Tiefer’s expertise is not the field majored in while I was still working my way through academia, so I’m starting out a little behind. Most of the time I can follow along and figure out what Tiefer is talking about – but it takes every ounce of my concentration, and I find that I need to re-read sections often. Thank god that Kindle has a dictionary built in because I used it often.
That is why I mentioned Tiefer’s “Welcome back” note above – So far this isn’t an easy piece of work to grind through as a newcomer.

Coincidentally, at a comment left on one of SunGold’s recent posts, redmagaera explicitly said that, “Most feminists are social constructionists,” so it’s possible that I’ve been looking at feminism in terms of social construction this whole time without actually recognizing it as such.
Basically what this social constructivist point of view means is that it places “An emphasis on the person’s active role, guided by his or her culture, in structuring the reality that affects his or her own values and behavior. This perspective is to be contrasted with empiricism and positivism, which ignore the active role of the individual in favor of the impact of external forces that can be objectively examined and analyzed.” (location 302.) If I had to sum this up quickly, I would say something like, “Reality is what you make of it.”

All that said – Tiefer makes some good points in the intro about how culture – at least, US culture for sure – views sexuality. I’ve run into the idea that sex is natural and I’ve questioned that assertion independently, but it turns out Tiefer went down that road years before I started thinking about it,

“Despite the cacophony of messages about sex, many people still believe that ‘sex is natural’ – that is, that sex is a simple and universal biological function that, wtihout any training, all humans should experience, enjoy, and perform in roughly the same way. Many doctors believe this, too.” (location 131)

Tiefer’s goal is to challenge this view – that sex is natural – and the consequences of it. The idea is that, sex is mysterious, yet you’re supposed to just know how to do it. And when things don’t go the way you expect them to, it leaves you vulnerable to exploitation – from what I’ve seen of her quotes & work elsewhere, Tiefer’s big beef is with so-calledexperts & especialy Big Bad Pharma.
Tiefer challenges so-called experts too – “The media have created a class of sex ‘experts’ who write magazine columns, give radio advice, talk on TV… [etc]… Is anyone with an M.D. or a Ph.D. after his or her name qualified to speak authoritatively about physiologically and medicine, normal and abnormal psychology, couple interactions, child-raising, or sexual abuse and assault?” (location 271.)
The thing is, I’m not completely satisfied with who Tiefer thinks should be recognized as the true experts on sexuality – “Maintaining that ‘sex is a natural act’ identifies as experts those social actors who know a lot about body mechanics rather than those who understand learning, culture, and imagination” (location 162.) To me it just looks like she’s shifting power & control away from one elite group (medical doctors), and into the hands of yet another still-elite group (philosophers,) and never the twain shall meet.

Tiefer does a pretty good job breaking down sexual normalcy & nature – she presents the multiple meanings of these words, starting with “Five Meanings of Normal” in chapter 1, locations 225-239. There’s subjective normal, statistical normal, idealistic normal, cultural normal, and clinical normal – so when you talk about what’s normal sexually, which of these normals do you mean? It’s similar when talking about nature – starting at location 220-282, we’re presented with natural in terms of, an essential quality, an inherent force, and as the fixed material world untouched by mankind’s culture; in any event in terms of sexuality, the term is rhetorical. Tiefer says, “I submit that the term natural is used to frequently in sexological discourse because of rhetorical needs for justification and legitemacy. Nature and natural are used to persuade, not to describe or give information” (location 490, emphasis hers.) Why would you do this? “…Not just to endorse the value of sexuality but to increase their [sexologists’] own respectability as scholars of sexuality. Respectability is a chronic problem in this field.” (location 493.)

But I’ve run into an area that I’m getting stuck with: Tiefer doesn’t give a solid, reliable definition of sex and/or sexuality – at least, not in these first few chapters. This might be a deliberate reaction to the way doctors – particularly Masters & Johnson with thier Human Sexual Response Cycle – define sex as certain activities & bodily reactions, but, it’s a tripping point for me… because what do I know about sex & sexuality? What right do I even have to talk about sex, I don’t know what I’m doing, who do I think I’m fooling? The only degree I have is one completely unrelated to medicine or philosophy. So with regards to pinning down the kind of sex we’re talking about in this book, I wish Tiefer had given me something more tangible to go by than,

“So, if sex is not a natural act, a biological given, a human universal, what is it? I would say it’s a concept, first of all – a concept with shifting but deeply felt definitions. Conceptualizing sex is a way of corralling and discussing certain human potentials for consciousness, behavior, and expression that are available to be developed by social forces, that is, available to be produced, changed, modified, organized, and defined. Like Jell-O, sexuality has no shape without a container, n this case a sociohistorical container of meaning and regulation. And, like Jell-O, once formed it appears quite fixed and difficult to re-form.” (Starts at location 167.)

I’ve seen sex defined in terms of ideas & energies before… Anne Sprinkle comes to mind in that Spectacular Sex book. I’m reading Tiefer as presenting a theoretical definition of sex,  but, in practice, how does that look in real life? Tiefer also uses the terms “Sex” & “Sexuality” basically interchangeably, which I’m also tripping up over. I thought one was an act and one was an orientation or drive (or lack thereof.) Is sex & sexuality the same exact thing? On a related note, I haven’t been able to figure out yet where orientation fits in with Tiefer’s views on sexuality – if it fits in at all.
The impression I’m getting from reading Sex is not a Natural Act and from elsewhere is that, there’s a theory of sex, and then there’s the practice of sex… and when someone talks about one to great length, the other is overlooked even if it’s quite different. They don’t always match.

Speaking of Masters & Johnson above, Tiefer spends chapter 4 examining thier work on the Human Sexual Response Cycle (HSRC) in detail. Masters & Johnson probably already had an idea of the HSRC in mind when they started research, instead of letting the results just happen. For example, the researchers were investigating response to “Effective stimulation,” but Tiefer raises the question, “What is ‘effective’ stimulation?” (Location 672). Masters & Johnson didn’t say exactly what the rules were for meeting that criteria. So according to Tiefer, “Effective stimulation is that stimulation which facilitiates ‘progress’ from one stage of the HSRC to the next, particularly that which facilitates orgasm” (location 684.) Since the HSRC went on to be considered the normal response to sexual stimulation for everyone, Tiefer’s concerned that it “Contributed significantly to the idea of sexuality as proper parts-functioning,” (location 731) so deviations from the HSRC are interpreted as dysfunctions. That includes pain conditions.
Tiefer also presents feminist critiques of the HSRC, namely, the researchers required “experience and comfort with masturbation to orgasm as a criterion for all participants,” (location786) which favored men’s sexual experience. Culturally speaking, women are still discouraged from masturbating (think of Carrie Prejean,) and from having a wide variety of sexual experiences (think Purity Balls or the Purity Myth book.) This particular essay was written in 1991, so I’d like to believe that female masturbation at least has somewhat less stigmatization now, thanks to sex-positive advocates & even retailers like Babeland & GoodVibes. But obviously since this topic pops up from time to time even today, if Masters & Johnson re-ran their sample today with the same criteria, the resulting sample still probably wouldn’t be representative of all women everywhere.)
I have a hangup with Tiefer’s wording re: the sampling issue though. Tiefer states, “As has been mentioned earlier, by requiring experiene and comfort with masturbation to orgasm as a criterion for all participants, the seletion of research subjects for Human Sexual Response looked gender-neutral but in fact led to an unrepresentative sampling of women participants (location 785, emphasis mine.) I’d feel more comfortable with this statement if it were worded differently… because right now I’m inferring that if you are a woman who met that criteria – someone who enjoys masturbation & who has had a wide range of sexual experiences – you are not representative of women. I think I’m supposed to give Tiefer the benefit of the doubt here and interpret that statement to mean, it would have worked better to include women who met Master’s & Johnson’s original criteria, plus women who did not, in the HSRC study.

Whew. I could probably go on with the first section of Sex is Not a Natural Act, but I’ve already broken 3,000 words for this one post, and I’m only 24% finished with the book.

That said, there are a couple of phrases & key words Tiefer’s used that piqued my curiousity… symbolism… Tell me now, you tell me, person reading this blog post, if you’ve made it this far, I could use some feedback here: Would you consider myths & fairy tales to be symbolic? Do myths count as anthropology studies material? Something in this book made me remember something I read about vaginismus and certain women in fairy tales… and it ain’t pretty. There’s more too… DSM-III… disability… wait, you’re not looking at it from the other end.
And I haven’t talked much about using the Kindle itself – it’s undeniably a different expeirence from using a regular paperback book, and it’s got some positives and negatives. So maybe next time we talk about Sex is Not a Natural Act, we can also talk a little more about the Kindle itself.
But until then – that’s all I’ve got to offer you for now.


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  1. Leonore Tiefer is starting to sound to me, just from the excerpts you posted, like she is to sex what Judith Butler is to gender. Highly influential, quoted by a lot of people, seen as a pioneer of popular academic “theory” about the issue, but you go and read her book and you have no idea what she’s talking about 90% of the time. It’s just one postmodernist or other-ist buzzword stacked on top of another.

    That kind of approach… really makes me suspicious, inevitably. I went through my phase of thinking that I was just not smart enough to understand this stuff, which I think happens to everyone who doesn’t have an innate skill for throwing around and manipulating that kind of jargon, and finally ended up deciding that getting that far into completely abstract theory can actually detach one from the facts of real life, the reality that’s happening to real people right now outside people’s realms of models and theories. In which sexual dysfunction is very real, women are no longer routinely told by therapists that they’re frigid and immature for being unable to orgasm from PIV intercourse alone, and we aren’t all such immature children that we’ll run out pleading to our doctors that we have a problem and need a pill just because someone somewhere suggested that we did. (Yeah, I’m getting tired of that “feminists telling other feminists what to do, because apparently all of use except an elite few are gullible children who can’t be trusted to handle our own minds and bodies responsibly without external guidance” thing, too.)

    And I think that might be what gets to me most about some of this “omg FSD is a scam that Big Pharma made up to freak women out and sell them drugs” stuff– the fact that it seems to basically be internalized sexism. That women, including feminists, are silly little twits who believe everything they see on TV, brainless consumers who will fall for any attempt to manufacture a fake epidemic. That women only just need to hear once about some claimed standard they don’t measure up to, and will immediately run off hysterically in search of the promised “cure”; that they don’t have any critical thinking skills on their own unless they’re being externally guided. The idea that it’s this elite group of enlightened feminists who are supposed to guide other women isn’t all that much better than saying that men need to guide them. Never fear, gullible women, Leonore Tiefer is here to protect you and reassure you that the media has brainwashed your hapless mind into believing there’s something wrong that needs to be addressed, if you’re not satisfied with your current sex life! …or something like that.

    …except that, again, I still don’t see this supposed epidemic of advertisers and Big Pharma convincing women that their sex lives were lacking. Sure, media in general, TV and movies and even books, can give a person of any gender who doesn’t know any better the idea that their sex life is lacking, because it’s not as glamorous and easy as it is on TV, but… seriously, is there any adult who actually doesn’t know that TV sex doesn’t look like real sex, whether they’ve even had any or not? What ads and pharmaceutical companies seem to market women most, as far as genitals go, is the idea that yours are dirty, smelly and unhygeinic, and that the most important thing is for men to want you. Not anything even remotely about sex and sexual pleasure for your own needs and desires. Not anything suggesting that you have the right to do anything more than just lie back and bear it. Not anything suggesting that you might either experience pain or have the right to be free from pain.

    Are people getting the idea from the way Viagra and similar drugs get spammed at men, with the message that if you or your partner aren’t satisfied with your sex life, it must just be because you can’t get it up enough? But, but… advertising dynamics and how sex is hinted at are totally different for a male vs. a female audience, and women aren’t supposed to be sexual in ads, and male privilege and and and. Even IF there’s an actual discovery of a real honest-to-gods never-failing libido enhancer for women with no side effects, it would never, ever be marketed in the same way Viagra is. Every single time I’ve seen any mention of “female Viagra” in the media in any context whatsoever in the past twelve years, it’s always seemed to end on a note of “but of course most people think there will never be a female Viagra because female sexuality is super complicated so it would be ridiculous even to try, etc etc.” And that in a nutshell seems to be what most doctors and Big Pharma think about women’s sexual problems.

    (Then again, I never really bought the “you can’t make a female Viagra because female desire is toooo complicaaaated” stuff either. I mean, well, Viagra basically works by increasing blood flow, which leads to erection. And I can say definitively from various experiences of my own that, um, yes, actually, blood flow does make a huge difference in my sexual response. And I have heard other women say the same thing. But oh noes, it just can’t be that simple for some women, cause womens are complicated and vaginas are mysterious things and if we aren’t getting as turned on as we want, it’s because we need candlelight and flowers and shit and all these incredibly minute delicate emotional factors to be in alignment, and probably special star and planetary alignments and cosmic harmonic resonances too. Not that I haven’t experienced the other side of the coin too, where mental and emotional factors make just as big a difference as physical ones, but… GAH, I think it works that way for MOST people, doesn’t it? Ideal emotional conditions have to meet halfway with your body doing the right things.)

    • Butler’s another name that’s New To Me so I’m checking her out on Wikipedia, and I see what you mean. Fits right in, sounds remarkably similar. Guess what, Tiefer even cites Butler’s Gender Trouble in Sex is not a Natural Act!

      Tiefer’s a big fan of postmodernism specifically, in fact, she says, “I view my scholarship in sexology as a version of postmodernism. It is committed to diversity and relevatism and regards to human physiology as providing a set of physical possibilities unlabeled as to use or meaning.” location 563…

      And I know what you mean by buzzwords… there’s so many -isms and -ists in this book. I know I can read it. I know you can read it. But it’s so hard, and needlessly so. For someone who claims to want to expand frank dialog on sex & sexuality, Tiefer sure doesn’t make it easy for laypeople to get in on this.

      It’s so heavy on theory… she talks a little bit about real-life down-to-earth situations in the second section (almost done!) but it’s pretty brief, like, 2 case studies in counseling each a few paragraphs long. I’d prefer to have more hands-on concrete definitions & examples to work with – theory alone can be manipulated in one direction or another.

      You ever see “I, Robot?” (I love that movie, I don’t care what anybody says.) Or are you familiar with Asimov’s 3 laws of robotics? The idea is to keep people safe from robot harm, but in the movie, left to their own devices long enough, the robots interpret the law differently. That’s what can happen with theory separated from reality, I think. You focus or fixate on theory and you wind up making things more restrictive, in the name of safety and/or freedom. But in real life the theory doesn’t match the practice.
      Besides, I can’t help but think – it only takes one exception to a law or a theory, to disprove that theory.

      Tiefer doesn’t seem to have much faith in the consumer… I want to gather up a few quotes to support that statement later on, but, that’s the impression I get… not much faith in ordinary people to make good choices – we’re all so heavily influenced by culture, we don’t know what we want or something. But if that’s true then why are some people naturally resistant to cultural pressures; is that also a function of culture?
      What about me & my friends? At what point does one become sufficiently educated to be trusted to make their own decisions?

      And yeah I am still not seeing Big Pharma really reaching out to women with FSD aggressively… I see it in the general media, and regular TV & stuff, and I see the focus on pleasing a (presumably cis male hetero) partner. But Big Pharma… not so much.
      Maybe she means like those little tiny box ads for overpriced pheromone juice in the backs of magazines? The ones designed to attract & keep a partner? The little ads I never paid any attention to? Like, I’m really hoping that Tiefer pins down exactly WHO Big Pharma is later on in the book (she explicitly names Pfizer in one of the chapters,) but I mean is she including little no-name companies that make & import drugs from outside of the US? Because I don’t think I would even consider them to be “Big.” More like a nuisance.
      And, well, Big Pharma makes the few off-label pain drugs available for sexual pain, like neuronin & tricyclic antidepressants… Right now to the best of my knowledge, that kind of FSD doesn’t even have a dedicated drug.

      The second section gets really weird – not ready to do a write up yet but I swear to god I feel like I’m playing Phoenix Wright allover again for the 5th time. I want to yell “Objection!” and “hold it!” at the Kindle & then I have to go back & review some previously highlighted passage because it starts to look contradictory after awhile. I’m going forward and I’m like, “Wait, didn’t she say the opposite thing a few pages ago?”
      It’s so quaint, too, in light of the fact that much of it was written before the internet was so accessible. It’s been 30 years since the material for one of these chapters was printed and I think I can safely say that some of her fears at that time didn’t come to fruition so I’m like… where did this material even come from back then?

  2. […] reviews a book by Dr. Leonore Tiefer in Let’s read books: Sex is not a Natural Act and Other Essays over at Feminists with Female Sexual […]

  3. […] sexologist by Dr. Leonore Tiefer, Sex is Not a Natural Act and Other Essays, we had just wrapped up reading the first section on my new-to-me (slightly used) Kindle. The book is a real challenge, heavy on academia & […]

  4. […] and Other Essays, I left off at the end of the second section, Popular Writings on the Theme. (See part 1 here.) So far all my analysis relating to the book consists of ridiculously long posts, so if […]

  5. […] and Other Essays, by Dr. Leonore Tiefer, Ph.D. Need to catch up with our story so far? See parts 1, 2, and 3… but be warned! I have a lot to say about this book, so the posts get pretty […]

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