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COnstruction Of Female Sexuality Essay, Research Paper
“The construction of female sexuality and it is position in heterosexuality
drawing upon recent feminist discussions”
An area of great focus in contemporary feminist theory has been looking at the construction of female sexuality, particularly its
position in heterosexuality. Of the recent discussions, much of this has been influenced or at least based around Freud’s theory
of psychoanalysis and the his account of sexual development that follows from it. In very simplistic terms his account places
masculine sexuality at its centre, making the penis the only recognised and valued sexual organ (Smart). Female sexuality is
constructed as lack of or a void because her genitals offer us nothing to see (Irigaray), thereby her desire is framed as an urge
to come to possess the valued organ, which is the penis.
Freud’s account of sexuality was initially dismissed by Kate Millett in 1969 as she argued his ideas were self-interested and just
plain silly, however in 1974, Juliet Mitchell brought Freud back into feminism (Smart). She argued that his references to the
penis shouldn’t be taken so literally, in attempt to split the symbolic phallus from the biological penis, the problem however
remerged because men have both power and penises, so penis continued collapsing in the phallus (Smart).
With Freud now subsumed into feminism, heterosexuality posed a real problem for women because it represented a submission
to the phallic power of the penis. For many women they felt this left them with only two choices: either renounce their
heterosexual desire or remain oppressed by men’s phallic power (Jeffreys). Yet for those that renounced heterosexuality their
actions did nothing to challenge man’s power within heterosexual relations, they only attempted to put themselves outside the
oppressive force of the male sex drive.
If anything by advocating only two courses of action they seemed to say woman’s position in heterosexuality was only
escapable but not changeable, otherwise there would have been a third option to resolve the problems and reform
heterosexuality. So despite feminism’s claim that change is always possibly as means to improve women’s position there has
been a tendency to offer what seems a fixed and once and for all meaning of heterosexuality, for example Dworkin argued that
penetration was the expression of men’s enduring hatred of women (Smart).
Though this provides a very straight forward understanding of the oppression women do encounter in heterosexual relations, by
offering a fixed meaning where men are actively sexual and women are passive by its definitions it also makes these acts against
women natural and inevitable (Waldby). Sharon Marcus exemplifies this point when she writes “To take male violence or
female vulnerability as the first and last instances of any explanation of rape is to make the identity of rapist and raped pre-exist
rape itself” (Wadlby).
The point to consider is that Freud’s account of sexuality may have normalized heterosexuality and the positions it offers for its
subjects but it did not necessarily make it natural or inevitable. If anything it can provide us with a framework for understanding
how change can occur for men and women’s positions due to its polymorphic notions of sexuality, that is shaped by culture and
psychological processes. Having established that heterosexuality is capable of change we need to find the aspects that make it
problematic and address ways to solve them.
The most problematic aspect of heterosexuality for women is the issue of penetration, for this is what established
heterosexuality as problematic to begin with because it was seen as submission to man’s phallic power. This is evident in early
feminist work such as, Simone de Beavoir, who in The Second Sex documented several women’s first experiences of
penetration which were described as painful, from which she argued that the first penetration is always a violation even when
consented. Now her research was done quite a while ago, in a time when sexual education was limited, however does seem
part of the problem with penetration is not so much the act itself but how we described it.
If one looks up “penetrate” in the thesaurus it will list the following synonyms: – barge in, force, gore, impale, invade, puncture,
trespass, infiltrate. None of these synonyms carry any notions of mutuality or positivity, so quite clearly part the problem with
penetration could be attributed to using that word to describe it. One alternative is referring to it as the “vagina’s embrace or
grasp of the penis” (Waldby) this would shift penetration from the singularity of the man’s active penis and the women’s passive
vagina to the idea of mutual activity. Though changing the word is not going to instigate any change on its own, it will change
how we think about it.
Another problematic aspect of penetration is that it maintains itself as the only recognised sexual practice, at least within
mainstream heterosexual culture. This has been demonstrated not so long ago when US President, Bill Clinton, argued that he
did not have sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky because no penetrative sex was involved. Clearly one can already see the
problems that arise out of this in terms of cases of rape, for example it could be argued that if a woman was forced it perform
oral sex then that is completely different from a women who was penetrated against her will.
However the notion of penetration as the only recognised form of sexual practice is also posses a problem to women in their
negotiation of sex, particularly that of safe sex. By this I mean campaigns for safe sex have had a strong tendency to limit the
safe sex options for women down to no sex at all or penetrative sex with a condom. Fiona Stewart is critical of this, arguing
such campaigns as “If its not on, its not on”, continues to reduce women’s safe sex options by emphasing penetrative sex and
thereby denying other forms of sexual practice.
This common view of sexual practice as only being penetrative was shared by many of the women she interviewed who either
felt that non-penetrative sexual activity wasn’t “real” or normal. On the other hand the homosexual community has a much
greater view of what constitutes sex including such things as kissing, mutual, masturbation, oral sex which acts to
de-emphasising penetration and has give much more room to navigate safe sex. A similar move would be equally as productive
in heterosexuality for give women more room to navigate safe sex as well as disrupting naturalistic notions of heterosexuality as
Another issue of heterosexuality that has comes out of Freud’s account of sexuality is that woman doesn’t have a sexuality of
her own because her is seen as a lack of, because her genitals represent nothingness (Irigaray). This can be seen as a denying
women sexual autonomy, Lucy Irigaray tries to resolve by proposing the notion of woman’s autoerotism, to be understood as
the pleasure she gains from the constant contact of the two lips that constitute her genitals.
While this was successful in giving women pleasure independent of the penis and giving value to her sexual organs it also made
the issue of penetration even more problematic than before. Now the act of penetration was seen as an interruption to woman’s
autoeroticism by separating the two lips that give her pleasure through their contact. This meant that not only was penetration
seen as a submission to phallic but also as forcing women to give their own desire, yet does this mean that woman’s sexual
autonomy and heterosexuality are incompatible?
Maybe to think about sexual autonomy within heterosexual practice is to unnecessarily problematise the issue as it has been
suggest that erotic pleasure arguably requires a kind of momentary annihilation or suspension of what normal counts as identity
or the conscious (Waldby). This resolves to some extent the aspect of Irigaray’s theory of autoeroticism because it is expected
for the woman to momentarily forgo her own autoeroticism during penetration, however this doesn’t mean Waldby is
condoning current practices of heterosexuality.
What Waldby’s theory does represent is an important shift in the way we think about power in sexual relations. She draws her
ideas upon the following quote made by the lesbian protagonist in Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, “I want someone who will
destroy and be destroyed be me?”. Her interpretation of this statement is the reason why the lesbian protagonist left
heterosexuality behind is because of the one way process of “destruction”, namely the man’s destruction of the women, whilst in
a lesbian relationship she can reciprocate this destruction.
With this interpretation, the problem with heterosexuality is not that there are power relations within it but rather at this point of
time that this power is non-reciprocal process, which the man places on the woman, though not necessarily without her consent.
It is important to consider that not all masculinities are uniformly invested in the maintenance of such non-reciprocal power
relations, nor is this sexual power the source of all relations of power between men and women (Waldby).
So essentially what is needed to resolve the problems in heterosexuality is to make this process of “destruction” reciprocal
between men and women. For this to happen we need to understand how the man does maintain his position of non-reciprocal
power, some have argued man has such a position of power because feminists such as Dworkin and MacKinnon have invested
too much power into symbolic nature of the penis (Gatens, 1995).
Waldby gives a detailed description on the how the power of the phallus is maintained. She claims it involves focusing all the
erotic potential into the penis by a de-eroticisation of most of the body, this also involves a suppression of what confounds the
phallic image. This is where phallocentrism becomes problematic for men because it places pleasure on them to have a large
penis whilst things such as an inability to attain or sustain an erection due to impotence is seen as lack of masculinity.
Furthermore this power is maintained by the man being the penetrator but not the penetrated, this means a denial of anal
pleasure because this would mean a eroticasation of another part of the body other than penis. In this light a framework a
violent response to sexual advance from a homosexual is deemed acceptable because it counts as violation. Furthermore they
denial of anal eroticism because passivity and penetrablity is deemed as female.
One thing that seems confusing to this theory of the maintenance of phallic power, is that while homosexuality has taken on anal
eroticism they still the retain the power of the penis, it could be argued in this content the power is eroticised yet it does not
confer any social power. Similarly how would one interpret lesbians employing the use of a strap on dildo, to one extent is
seems to uphold phallocentrism but then it also challenges who holds that power.
Coming back to phallic power, it is possible currently for men to momentarily sacrifice their phallic power and active role in
heterosexuality without it possessing any serious threat to the existing phallic power. This is done when a man goes to a
prostitute and more often than not takes on the passive role, but because this is prostitution is confined to secret and taboo it
doesn’t stand to threaten their phallic power they hold with their wives, girlfriends etc (Waldby).
With that said the obvious way to deflate the power of the phallus in heterosexuality would be to shift the practices of
prostitution from taboo to mainstream acceptance so they men’s visits them would stand to affect the power they hold with their
wives. Clearly this is going to involve some form of sexual liberation for this to occur.
Sexual liberation however, was rendered incompatible with feminism by those who had renounced heterosexuality, they had
advocated that the sexual liberation movement, despite discovering such things as the clitoris, ended up just conferring more
pleasure and advantages upon men by eroticising the wife (Jeffreys). This critique though is generally based on the notion that
woman’s sexual autonomy is incompatible with heterosexuality which in the course of this discussion that has been resolved.
It has been argued that sexual liberation and feminism are very much intertwined, the sexual liberation movement was crucial to
gay movement allowing them to work together with feminists to counter sexism and heterosexism. Equally the struggle for
sexual liberation has played a crucial role in changing patterns of life in Western countries regarding safe sex, parenting and
What is now needed is a shift in how we think about sexual liberation as not so much about releasing some repressed sexual
essence but rather to overcome people’s fears and anxieties around gender and sexuality in a climate of increasing confusion for
men. It also necessary to unsettle the notions of masculinity as activity and dominance coded into heterosexual coitus, by
focusing by on the similarities between the two genders rather than differences which typically fall into cases of binary
opposition such as the active/passive.
Some would argue that some feminists have gone as far as anti-sex, with the use of anti-porn legislation has often being done in
the name of stopping violence against women while many feminists have often argued this a cheap tactic that doesn’t solve the
problem. Some feminists have suggested that instead of defying pornography maybe feminism needs to develop a pornographic
imagination in effort to open up and explore other forms of erotic pleasure (Waldby).
This already happening in the world of lesbian fiction by writers such as Mary Fallon and Jane Deylnn exploring new relational
possibilities opened up through erotics. However this is still yet to happen in theoretical writing, the reason being is it argued at
this point of time theoretical feminism is inhibited about taking up an erotic or pornographic imagination because it is still caught
up in the liberal distaste for the violence of desire (Waldby). Whilst theoretical feminism continues this trend the domination
notions of where males and females positions in heterosexuality will remain unchallenged.
As mentioned before one thing that needs to be done with heterosexuality is diversify it practices so there is more room to
navigate safe sex practices, one of the ways to possibly do this would be the promotion of fetishes. This would stand to
challenge pleasure as purely penetrative, how this would be done is through the media and as previously mentioned an embrace
and reform of pornography by feminism which would act to disrupt a view of heterosexual practice as purely penetration.
The maintenance of heterosexuality as purely penetrative and the power of the phallus can be considered linked, so a disruption
in one surely would disrupt the other. For example if a couple decided to incorporate the use of dildoes to penetrate the male’s
anus that would stand to challenge both the power of the man’s penis because it can replaced by a dildo and furthermore it
represents a shift away from sex as simply the man penetrating the woman.
Last thought to consider in the shift away from sexual practice as penetrative and towards a more diverse view of what
constitutes sex, is where would you draw the line on what actually constitutes sexual practice. The existing model made it very
clear, but now it could be a possibility simple act of friendship such as shaking hands could now constitute sex. This could stand
to problematize existing relationships that weren’t previously considered sexual in similar way the term lesbian problematised
friendships between women.
Luce Irigaray, This Sex Which is not One, 1997
Lynne Segal, ‘Sexual Liberation and Feminst Politics’ from Straight Sex: The Politics of Pleasure, 1994
Fionna Stewart ‘Young Women, Safe Sex and Health Promotion: Why it’s not on to tell him’, Australian Feminist
Catherine Waldby ‘Boundary erotics and refigurations of the heterosexual male body’
Carol Smart, ‘Collusion, Collaboration and Confession: on moving beyond the heterosexuality debate’ in Diane
Richardson (Ed), Theorising Heterosexuality: Telling it Straight, 1996
Simone de Beavoir, The Second Sex,
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