Let’s read books part 3 – Sex is not a Natural Act, con’t

02/23/2010 at 7:26 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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Part 3 in our continuing series on the feminist & sexology book Sex is not a Natural Act and Other Essays. Last time I posted about my journey into Sex is not a Natural Act 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 you’re wanting to read along with me, you may want to read my posts in little bits & pieces. Or just burn through, whatever.

After posting part 2 in our continuing series, I got dragged into jury duty and with nothing else to do but read, I plowed through more of the book. It’s time to talk about the next few chapters, the theme of which is Feminism and Sexuality. The six chapters contained in this section takes us to about the halfway point of the book.

My overall impression of the feminism-themed chapters in Sex is not a Natural Act can be briefly summarized as, “Not completely miserable.” There’s valuable thought on feminism and sexuality here, and this section contains my favorite chapter, which is about censorship and feminist analysis of sexually explicit materials.

Unfortunately, Feminism and Sexuality is also a return to heavy academic language and theory:

“Diverse erotic lives and new methods of reproduction are possible because of psychological processes such as symbolization and conditioning that are connected to ever-changing cultural formations.” (Location 1526.)

Oh goddammit.
Thinking caps on, everyone! Oh, you’re all already wearing your thinking caps, and so am I… Better make mine a double then!
By now I’m more used to Tiefer’s academia, but I still needed to re-read several passages from Feminism and Sexuality in order to absorb their messages. And sometimes, even after re-reading sections, I remain unconvinced of Tiefer’s position. Sometimes, I think she’s too heavy on the academia, too willing to sacrifice concrete practice and to overlook real, if uncommon, lived experiences.
And, now that I’ve read ahead and am almost finished with the book, I feel comfortable saying that… I’m  picking up on a couple of potentially problematic areas, especially in language she chooses and some inconsistencies…
Oh well, nobody’s perfect. Let’s dive in and get exploring.

Some of the essays in Feminism and Sexuality, particularly the first essay, are autobiographical. In the first chapter, An Activist in Sexology, the reader gets a better idea of Tiefer’s experience and history as a sexologist, especially as it relates to feminism. This first essay consists of a paper presented to the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality in 1993 upon receiving their Kinsey Award. Tiefer describes herself as an activist in the field of sexology, merging academic research, sexuality, politics and second-wave feminism into an expertise that she herself recognizes as controversial.  Tiefer seems to relish her position as a controversial figure, describing two incidents in which she was invited to speak about specific sexual subjects at meetings, and instead talked about completely different (though still relevant to sexuality, and with a strong flavor of feminism) topics (Location 1444, 1476). The gamble paid off in the end, as she is now recognized as an expert in the field of sexology. At the end of her paper she concludes, “There is really no way to be apolitical as a sexologist – every action supports some interests and opposes others,” (location 1490) and she implores others to incorporate feminist themes into their work – particularly “race and class analyses” (location 1491.)

The second chapter, Biological Politics (Read: Propaganda) is Alive and Well in Sexology, Tiefer takes a critical look at gender essentialism as it relates to biological arguments. That is, she critiques claims – including those from within the feminist community – that women and men are different due to their biology rather than differences in socialization & culture: “I have observed that arguments about sexuality emphasizing biological differences between men and women’s sexual lives as well as those emphasizing biological similarities have been used to ignore the sociocultural components” (location 1530). The critique is still relevant today, as some feminists continue to attribute gender differences to sex hormones and/or the presence of what kind of genitals you were born with. Attributing gendered differences to biology goes by different names, depending on what field is popular at the moment, be it “Regional brain anatomy, brain lateralization, evolutionary theory, gene effects, hormones, etc.” (location 1506). Tiefer’s career as a sexologist put her in a unique position, as working in that field allowed her to watch as medicine & biology became incorporated into sexuality research and clinical practice. The results of this biological views are restrictive when it comes to individuals’ sex lives, as under this sort of view, heterosexual intercourse is – or rather, it used to be – the only act that results in procreation and the continuation of the species (location 1525).

Next up is Gender and Meaning in the Nomenclature of Sexual Dysfunctions, and this chapter looks at the gender politics in the DSM – “The DSM, because of its powerful social location and its relations to most of the elements identified above, can be read as a work about gender” (location 1568, emphasis original.) She states,

“The language of the DSM overtly and covertly speaks the language of gender and of the most biologically reductionist version. By using only the terms males and females, never men and women, the gender language fixes people in the world of animals and locates whatever governs sexuality as in ‘the animal kingdom'” (location 1602, emphasis original.)

She doesn’t mention this part, but of course by using terms like “males and females,” the DSM also ignores folks who do not identify as belonging to a gender binary.

Now, in this chapter, Tiefer focused on gender…
But I looked at it from a different angle.
I noted the gender politics, yes, but I also gleaned clues about looking at FSD as a disability in and of itself, under the broad category of mental (and physiological) health. Tiefer provided a brief history of how sexual dysfunction has been treated within the DSM over the last few revisions. Currently, sexual dysfunction is listed in the DSM – this is a hotly contested feminist issue.
Looking at FSD as under the spectrum of mental illness, and thus under the broader spectrum of disability, is a different way of looking at FSD, and one I’ve not encountered much. Tiefer doesn’t do that in this book; she doesn’t look at FSD as a disability in and of itself. In fact, in an earlier chapter, she says,

“Using the clinical standard with regard to psychology is more difficult than using it for physiological matters because it’s harder to prove psychological disease, deterioration, or disability. Who’s to say, for example, that absence of interest in sex is abnormal according to the clinical definition? What sickness befalls the person who avoids sex? What disability? Clearly, such a person misses a life experience that some people value very highly and most people value at least somewhat, but is avoiding sex “unhealthy” in the same way that avoiding protein is? Avoiding sex seems more akin to avoiding travel or avoiding swimming or avoiding investments in anything riskier than savings accounts–it’s not trendy, but it’s not sick, is it?” (Location 240, emphasis mine.)

The “Clinical standard” she’s talking about is the clinical definition of normal, given just a paragraph earlier:

“The clinical standard… uses scientific data about health and illness to make judgments. A particular blood pressure or diet or activity is considered clinically abnormal when research shows that it is related to disease or disability. It shouldn’t matter to the clinical definition whether we are talking about the twentieth century or the tenth, about industrial Europe or rural Africa” (Location 235).

By placing sickness behind sexual problems, in this case avoiding sex, Tiefer is overlooking individuals who are bothered by sexual problems, due to sickness or disability. We’re taking opposite views here. From my point of view and in my experience, the sickness or disability comes before, or in conjunction with sexual problems.
(I also seem to recall reading personal stories from PWD who are pushed to avoid certain activities, including travel cited as an example above, due to society and companies not making their facilities accessible enough. I seem to recall hearing something about airline companies which have refused to serve PWD and other transportation services making travel difficult… In which case, avoiding travel isn’t a sickness in and of itself – it’s part of being disabled. Needlessly so – it shouldn’t have to be like that, if society was willing to be more attuned to the needs of PWD.)

Looking at FSD in and of itself as falling somewhere on the broad spectrum of disability is a very new idea to me and, I think, one that merits further investigation.
It is only within the last few months that I’ve started to look at FSD through the lens of disability, so I’ve got a lot to learn yet. And I’ve only been able to start thinking about it thanks to running into a handful of feminists on the internet who suggested that’s a valid point of view, or who were at least open to the idea of a broader definition.
Basically, I feel like I needed permission to explore FSD as a disability in and of itself, even though living with vulvodynia threw me onto the chronic pain spectrum to begin with. In this regard, those who question the validity of FSD act as gatekeepers, questioning the identification of those who would try to pass through those gates. The narrative goes something like, “Are you certain it’s not your partner’s fault or due to your own body insecurity; don’t you realize that you’re acting as a tool to Big Pharma and the patriarchy; you are too close, too deeply involved with your own lived experience to be able to make a wise objective decision.”
I needed permission to choose my own identity. Why did I need a permission slip? And actively choosing to identify as having sexual dysfunction and thus as falling somewhere on the broad spectrum of disability, is likely to remain controversial, since FSD is so hotly contested, and the women who experience it are so strongly stereotyped & stigmatized.

After all, “Diagnoses listed in the [DSM] manual are generally recognized in the courts in making legal decisions, by hospitals and psychotherapists in keeping records and by insurance companies in reimbursing for treatment (New Psychiatric Syndromes Spur Protest, 1985)” (Location 1561, emphasis mine). The emphasis in that statement is mine, because I have personal experience with this. The IC code for DSM is used in reimbursing pelvic pain patients… 625.x… and I’ve seen some of my friends get diagnosed with code 625.x… I want and need treatment, I need insurance to cover treatment, and so I need that diagnostic code to stay in place. I dread to think that in the worst case scenario FSD, and under it the specific sub-category of dyspareunia, is at risk of being removed from the DSM in future revisions.

But there is more at stake than just myself. There are other diagnostic codes under the broad category of sexual dysfunction listed as well – erectile problems, orgasmic problems, vaginismus… And some of those diagnostic codes are indeed questionable. It’s not all about me, and I do not have all the answers; I will likely never have all the answers. I’m likely to be faced with and generate more questions as long as I continue down this road.
Not everyone wants and/or needs treatment for sexual dysfunction, nor will everyone who experiences a sexual problem identify that problem as a dysfunction. Not every variation from Master’s & Johnson’s Human Sexual Response Cycle is in and of itself a disorder. It’s not fair to slap labels onto people or to force them into anything. One way we can think about when intervention is appropriate would be to ask the individual if zie feels personal distress; however Tiefer would likely point out here that the drawback to asking is that socialization rather than intrinsic factors could be exaggerating the amount of distress an individual would otherwise feel in a different environment.

The next chapter was more palpable to me – Some Harms to Women of Restrictions on Sexually Related Expression is so far my favorite chapter in Sex is not a Natural Act. If you haven’t burned through your Google Book Preview yet, it might be worth spending your available preview on this chapter; I actually very much enjoyed it.  Tiefer states her thesis very early on – “I have concluded that women are in more danger from the repression of sexually explicit materials [including pornography] than from their free expression” (location 1634, emphasis original.) That’s pretty strong, unequivocal language! She says, “The fundamental context of women’s sexuality in our time is ignorance and shame (location 1640, emphasis original,) and that, “Although antipornography arguments seem to rely on scientific research or moral principles, I often see just the projection of these internal feelings of shame and dirt that were taught at an early age” (location 1647). This is still true today! I still hear about this within sex-positive circles!

Basically in this chapter, Tiefer argues that, because women are generally socialized to sexually self-regulate & restrict themselves to begin with, it doesn’t make sense to add to the restrictions women encounter by censoring erotic & pornographic material. These materials have the potential to be harnessed for good, in the form of stimulating the imagination. But wait, what kind of message does it send if a woman watches degrading porn and is turned on by it, is that a long-term good idea? Keep in mind that Tiefer is big on symbolism, she loves it. And instead of interpreting porn literally, she says the other way to look at it is take the symbolic approach –

“The antiporn feminists argue that pornography is to be interpreted in a literal way – if it’s a picture of a woman being fucked while lying across three tall stools in a coffee shop, it’s a picture of an embarrassed, uncomfortable, and unhappy woman. But this isn’t the way sexual fantasy actually works.” (location 1670).

And this is particularly relevant, sine I’ve heard sex-positive feminists try to explain this concept over & over again on thier own blogs – it’s fantasy. That still happens today! As an example, Tiefer cites one of her patients who derived some pleasure (and shame) from masturbating to a sexually degrading fantasy, and Tiefer says,

“Is it correct to interpret this woman’s fantasy as the straightforward story of a degraded and humiliated and subjugated woman? No. Such a simplistic assessment does not accurately characterize the ‘meanings’ of her fantasy… The vicissitudes of her upbringing and this misogynist culture produced the more negative elements – the undesirable setting and partners and the lack of her own arousal in the fantasy. She couldn’t feel entitled to openly enjoy sexual arousal, which was exactly what was going on with her husband” (location 1685.)

And she concludes,

“Anyway, the point is that pornography is about fantasy and identification with the characters in stories as symbols. It cannot really be understood just on a literal level. And if pornography is suppressed, women will not learn things about themselves and their imaginations that they can learn through experimenting with and reflecting upon their reactions to pornography” (location 1690).

I don’t have much to add to that or to critique here. I’m in agreement.

The rest of the chapter is neat too – she addresses sex worker rights and religious restrictions on masturbation. The only thing is – this chapter may have been stronger if Tiefer had more directly engaged anti-pornography crusaders. I know who she’s talking about, but I think it would have been better if she’d named them anyway.

But the next chapter, Towards a Feminist Sex Therapy, wasn’t as enjoyable. It’s not bad, I just didn’t connect with it. “It’s not you, it’s me.”

I personally do not wish to go through sex therapy, because so far I still haven’t found a sex therapist I can relate to. Mostly I’ve been reading blogs online written by or featuring sex therapists who dole out sex life advice. And most of the time I’m like, “Ehhhhh… not for me… no thx. Pass.” I might start out liking one sex therapist or another. I want to know more about what this or that person has to say.
Then I read further and see flaws in what experts have to say and I can’t reconcile it. I see the sex therapists online or in print say things I find problematic or just plain don’t like, and I get turned off, nitpick and/or refuse to get on board with it.
It doesn’t help that I’ve heard too many stories from other pelvic pain patients who tried sex therapy and had negative experiences with it.
So I’m not into sex therapy right now. “She’s just not that into you!”

Buuuut if you happen to be interested in it, then, in this chapter Tiefer reviews current mainstream sex therapy (or current as of the time of writing,) and talks about how it would be beneficial to inject a healthy dose of feminism into it. It’s a good idea, and basically what I’m trying to do on my own without outside aid. Feminism lets me look at sex, gender, mainstream media, etc differently and asks questions that a not-feminist sex therapist probably wouldn’t think to ask.

The problem is, sometimes it backfires…
In the worst case examples, disagree with one school of thought in feminism or another, and you can be excommunicated. Disagree with an experienced master, and it all goes straight to hell. You get called a bitch or other slurs with a long, charged history in oppression. Or you get kicked out of a feminist clique. Or outed and actively hunted down. Or start cross-feminist blog flamewars.

So what happens if you are assigned to a feminist sex therapist whose school of feminist thought clashes with your own? That therapist is in a position of power over you, after all. Do you disagree and potentially derail the rest of the therapy sessions? Especially if finding a feminist sex therapist was hard to do in the first place. How do you tell your feminist sex therapist “My understanding of feminism is too different from yours for your homework exercises to be of any use to me”?
I guess Tiefer is assuming here that most sex therapy patients are not feminists to begin with, or else they are but are not well educated on even the most basic tenets and local history of the movement. And in many cases, that’s probably true. So I may be overthinking things.
But what if a sex therapist gets someone like me? I already identify as feminist, yet I still struggle with sexual dysfunction. I have a feeling I’d drive any feminist sex therapist I could be assigned to up the wall. Or else the therapist would drive me up the wall and it just wouldn’t work.

So feminism plus sex therapy can sometimes add up to double-edged sword. Not always. But for me, I think I see the potential for stress & needless conflict.

Not only that, but this chapter frustrates me, because of a contradiction buried in the text. At least I’m perceiving it as a contradiction; what do you think?
At one point: Tiefer says, “I fail to see why there can’t be such a thing as ‘sex talent,’ akin to talents for music, athletics, dance, mathematics, humor, or maze-learning directionality – the various other special psychomotor or cognitive gifts we already recognize and celebrate” (location 1829, emphasis mine.)
Hey, wait a minute… Time out, huddle up – isn’t that “Sex talent” statement in direct conflict with the premise of the rest of the book? That is, that sex is not a natural act? How is certain gifted individuals being in possession of sexual talent not conflict with the idea that sexuality is socially & culturally constructed?

Talents can be lost or cultivated but my understanding is that if you have a talent for something, you have a natural knack for it without any previous exposure to training. I have relatives with a natural, seemingly inborn talent for art, spatial analysis, math, etc. Tiefer doesn’t define “Talent” either so I’m forced to double-check my understanding against dictionaries and – well my doublechecking backs me up – talent is generally understood to be something natural, innate.

So where does that leave you if  you lack sexual talent? Why do you not call it “Skill” instead, which is something learned? I think that “Talent” is not the best choice of words to use in the context of the rest of the entire book…
And, I prefer to believe that even if you lack talent in some area you want to explore, it’s possible to develop skills from training which will make you just as skilled or even better at some activity than someone with talent. (Especially if someone with talent chooses not to cultivate it.)

Whew, almost done with this post. Did you make it this far?

Last one in this section is, The Capacity for Outrage: Feminism, Humor, and Sex. This chapter contains Tiefer’s thoughts on feminist humor – and she fancies herself quite funny indeed! I still haven’t found her quite as funny as Sady Doyle, but Tiefer is some kind of funny anyway – the kind of funny that compares men with erectile dysfunction to Jackie Gleason bumbling around with bugged-out eyes, for example. In addition to symbolism, Tiefer clearly loves humor.

Feminist humor is a tricky, thin wire to tread upon – “There is no clear line between good “feminist” humor (constructive, political, reformist) and bad “nonfeminist” humor (hostile, women-are-good-men-are-bad, simpleminded) although we can make some meaningful distinctions” (location 2025). What makes a joke funny? What makes a joke political? What makes a political joke inherently feminist?

Well, one of the key elements, is intent.

“As with manslaughter vs. murder, the essential element in deciding whether something is political or not is intention. Is the comedian, cartoonist, or satirist identifying with a movement or struggle, or just ou to get a laugh? Oh, gee, I didn’t mean to upset you by mentioning manslaughter” (location 1875).

Okay I have absolutely no idea what Tiefer meant with that last bit about “Oh, gee,” I can’t quite tell from this bit if she’s being sarcastic there or not but…

But wait a minute – I though that from a feminist point of view, looking at intent alone is not enough. Or, even if you do look at intent plus the other features required to make a feminist joke, you need to look at the consequences. Evil, real consequences spring forth from well-meaning actions, and that includes telling jokes. It might seem funny to whatever group you’re a part of at that moment, but what if, due to various privileges, a joke (or contemporarily, performance art) steamrollers over already marginalized groups you hadn’t thought of?

What happens when you don’t look at consequences?

Well, when you ignore consequences of joking around about FSD, even within a feminist context, you might just get this shit. You get a bunch of partner-blaming, bullying, condescending comments, denial of real medical conditions, and potentially as a result of the above, flagrant misogyny. Perhaps you yourself do not engage in these behaviors, but others with a less sophisticated understanding of feminist humor go there. So in the end, you get a bunch of people who deny that FSD is real, because after all they don’t have it themselves and it’s all a bunch of made up hysterical hooey right? Maybe if your husband would do the dishes once in awhile you’d have enough energy for a sex drive. You just need to get out and think about getting laid and make it happen and it will be better.
When you don’t look at the consequences, you get further stigmatization and you either don’t know, don’t care, don’t believe it, or some combination of the above. And for oppressed groups and individuals, these attitudes can be translated into real-life, dangerous actions.

No. Intent is not enough.

And indeed, this chapter mentions other critical components of what makes feminist humor. But that bit about intent really stood out to me… I think it’s entirely possible to meet all the criteria required make an inherently feminist wisecrack, and still, due to privilege, cause long-term  harm.

Admittedly, the intent discussion takes up only a small part of the rest of the chapter on feminist humor. Much of the rest of the writing here is enjoyable, educational and sometimes amusing. This chapter would be especially useful for a comedian. Seriously, if you want to be any kind of comedian and have any interest in feminist humor, read this chapter. It’s heavy on the theory of humor, but there’s a lot of concrete examples, including pictures, in this chapter. And if you’re a comedian anyway, you’re probably interested in the theory of humor to begin with.
Just remember to think about the consequences of whatever joke you’re telling.

Aaand that takes us to a little over the halfway point of the book. Overall, this third section contained some useful feminist theory and some exploration of the theories in practice, but it wasn’t perfect. (But then, what is?) The next few sections of Sex is not a Natural Act examine medicalization of sexuality (particularly male sexuality) and FSD in greater detail, so these next few chapters should be of particular interest to regular readers. A note though – the 4th section is proving more difficult to analyze & so I may post a follow up after taking a break for awhile, we’ll see how it goes. (I need a better outline of where I want to go with it.)


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  1. […] 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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