Jane Sexes It Up: True Confessions of Feminist Desire

Review by Jessica Nathanson

[1] After reading Jane Sexes It Up: True Confessions of Feminist Desire, I found myself pondering not desire, but third wave feminism. As a thirty-something (Gen Xer) feminist and academic, I position myself somewhere between the second and third waves, or perhaps in both. I trained in second wave feminist theory, yet, a decade ago, as a bisexual woman struggling to make my own life relevant to my politics, I felt the need for new ways of theorizing sexual identity. When people first started talking and writing about the third wave of feminism, I embraced this idea. Exploding onto the scene in the 1990s, the third wave seemed to embody my own desire for a feminist politics that not only didn't merely tolerate but also saw the disruptive, revolutionary potential in the way I lived my life.

[2] But I didn't feel a shock of recognition in reading these pieces. The third wave feminism in these pages bears little resemblance to the tradition I trace through my second and third wave sex radical sisters as well as my second wave lesbian feminist foremothers. The second wave often — and, often unfairly — dismisses the third wave as being unschooled in feminist theory and ignorant of the history of feminist struggle. Editor Merri Lisa Johnson's introduction, which sets the tone for the book, unwittingly illustrates these stereotypes with the notion that "independent female sexuality as a valid part of the public sphere" is a "third wave feminist assumption" rather than a second wave, or even first wave, assumption (10). In making this claim, Johnson suggests exactly what her detractors argue: that the third wave, as an entity, appears not to know its feminist history. This same notion of independent female sexuality has in fact been central to every wave of feminism, though it has meant different things at different times. For example, Dorothy Allison, generationally a second wave feminist, has written volumes on this very topic, but she defines this independent female sexuality very differently than second-waver Andrea Dworkin. So the notion of a sort of "bad-girl feminist" who is sexually in charge and unashamed is not new, and it did not originate with my generation.

[3] On one hand, this sense of being the first generation to truly "get it" is a hallmark and a failure of every political generation. As I've already suggested, Jane's focus on Gen X as the inventors of a feminism that takes a complicated approach to female desire tends to ignore the sex radical writing and activism that predates Gen X. Johnson acknowledges that this history exists, but she notes that it is hard to find, smothered under media representations of feminism as well as a feminist party line that leaves little room for frank discussions about desire. While I agree that the media has not been a friend to the development of feminist theory, I am puzzled by the rest of her claim. For instance, Carole Vance's Pleasure and Danger: Exploring Female Sexuality, the same text she says "would have been [her] template - if [she'd] ever heard of it," was a staple in my graduate Women's Studies courses (3). Johnson repeatedly ignores sex radical feminism or else doesn't connect it to other feminist theories and politics. She frequently uses the word "feminist" to mean both "sex-negative feminism," which she only occasionally spells out, and also a feminism that takes a more complex and complicated view of desire. It often sounds as if she is tarring all of feminism with the anti-sex brush - which I am quite sure is not her intent - because she fails to distinguish frequently enough between the "schools" or "waves" about which she writes.

[4] On the other hand, though, the fact that feminists are still having these discussions more than two decades after the infamous Sex Wars began suggests that, no matter how much we feminist academics may feel that we've "been there, done that," we have yet to resolve the contradiction of politics and desire. Johnson suggests that, despite sex radical resistance to a sanitized sexuality, there still wars within us a conflict between desire and the inner feminist, a fervent need for feminism to whisper: "Go easier on yourself, girlie. You don't have to make sense at every moment. You don't have to measure up to some abstract structure called the right thing to do" (italics in original) (8).

[5] Jane, therefore, is about claiming politically incorrect desire. With essays by seventeen contributors, the book is investigates three major areas of intersection of politics and sexuality. "Real Live Nude Girls" explores personal desires, asking readers to consider what in our own lives creates and feeds our desires. "Super Feminist Porno Stars" centers on the experiences and meanings of sex work, mostly from the various authors' perspectives as sex workers. Finally, "Our Inner Men" offers an interesting perspective on masculinity and feminist desire, whether it be the desire for a woman to actually adopt a male identity (as in Leslie Heywood's "The Importance of Being Lester") or to reclaim aspects of masculinized sexuality (for example, in Shannon Bell's "Liquid Fire: Female Ejaculation & Fast Feminism").

[6] Much of the book focuses on heterosexual sex more generally. Feminists who sleep with men have learned to be careful talking about heterosexual relationships because we are well aware of their inherent conflicts, especially if we strive toward feminist relationships. This book stands out because the authors take risks and reveal their most personal, sexual selves in a way that few others have done around this issue. These are not simply tensions over who does the dishes and who initiates sex in a heterosexual relationship. These essays explore heterosexuality and desire in relation to abuse, sex work, and notions of what it means to be a woman (or what it means for a woman to be a man). While these issues are not new to feminism, analyzing them from a mostly heterosexual standpoint is, and this is one of the main strengths of the collection.

[7] Katinka Hooijer's essay stands out in this regard. "Vulvodynia: On the Medicinal Purposes of Porn," discusses the meaning of heterosexual intercourse within heterosexual relationships, and what happens when a heterosexual woman suffers from vulvodynia, a condition that makes intercourse extremely painful. For Hooijer, intercourse is what defines her as a sexual woman. The centrality of intercourse to her sense of self is clear from Hooijer's casual admission that even straight feminists have intercourse when they don't want to - that part of being in a heterosexual relationship is, in fact, this "compromise of intimacy," this acquiescing to "unwanted intercourse" (274). It is tempting to imagine that Hooijer needs a course in Feminist Theory 101. But Hooijer argues that feminist theory does not go far enough in its critique of heterosexuality; specifically, it does not "redefine intimacy without either celebrating or demonizing penetration," both of which support the notion that intercourse is the foundation of heterosexuality (276). It strikes me that this is an area where heterosexual and bisexual feminists have a lot to offer feminist theory as they explore and critique the meaning of intercourse in heterosexual relationships.

[8] At times, the book lacks a feeling of cohesion. It's not always clear what the connection is between some of the essays and the subject of desire. For example, the relationship between the writings in the section on sex work and the confessing of feminist desire is not clear, causing the reader to question if sex work is rewritten as sexual desire, rather than a form of labor, simply because it involves sex. But this occasional sense of dissonance in fact draws attention to the key challenge facing third wave feminism: defining the movement. If it is a movement of Gen Xers, then it is limited by cohort, a condition that also limits the future of the movement. Will I still be eligible for third wave membership when I turn 40? (Thirty-something Rebecca Walker, founder of the Third Wave Foundation, must be wondering about this, too.) More importantly, what does a movement that divides political theories, goals, and visions by age have to offer?

[9] It is difficult to reconcile feminist politics with desire, and this is a theme that feminists return to again and again. I hope this collection initiates anew the discussion of how to rearticulate (hetero)sexual desire in a feminist language. The third wave, however we define it, has a lot to offer to this discussion — but only if we understand that we are entering a conversation already begun.