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by Merri Lisa Johnson
Four Walls Eight Windows, 2002
Review by April Chase on May 8th 2003

Jane Sexes It Up

Feminism and sexuality are two subjects that ought to go hand in hand, right? If the goal of feminism is increased freedom for women, that should mean increased sexual freedom, too. Centuries of female sexual repression, that whole "Madonna/whore" paradox, would end, giving women the right to get down and dirty however they please - or not. An admirable goal, no? So why do so many feminists repress their own sexuality just as thoroughly as their Victorian grandmothers?

This book, featuring essays by many prominent researchers and feminists, strives to show the variety of sexual leanings among women, the reasons for them - and most importantly, to show that they are all acceptable and worthy paths.  "What I like about bringing feminism and sexuality together is that each term challenges the complacencies in the other. People who want to get rid of sexuality for the sake of their feminist politics and people who want to get rid of feminism so they can feel good bout sex are choosing artificial comfort over the uneven path of conflict. I love that your book sharpens, rather than dulls, the edge between justice and desire," writes Jane Gallop in the forward to the book. The book brings the whole spectrum of female sexual activity - from stripping and prostitution, lesbianism, conventional marriage - you name it, into the spotlight for discussion. The writers discuss the incredibly complex emotional and societal pressures women face with refreshing, sometimes shocking honesty that is sure to cause any female reader a few "déjà vu" moments.

The essays dip into the darker side of feminism as well - the dictatorial way that some pioneering feminists have of telling others who they should love or how, the theory that a feminist must always be a strong, self-sufficient creature with no ties to any (gasp) man, heaven forbid!  Identifying the "weak link of feminism for this generation," Johnson writes that women's inability to reconcile their feminist identities with the desire for a relationship with a man.

They also touch on self-mutilation and domestic abuse ("Cutting, Craving and the Self I Was Saving") and the deep pain seemingly inherent in human relationships. All in all, however, they are hopeful and forward-looking, despite the serious, emotionally charged subject matter.  They attempt to reinvent feminist philosophy, creating something more useable and real for today's woman.

Like many scholarly works, the essays get a bit theoretical and dry here and there. There are some heavy political and social theories in this book that may be of only marginal interest to any non-fanatic feminists. There are also lots of references to works you may or may not have read - although there are good notes and an extensive bibliography included. However, there are moments of such insight and brilliance that it is well worth slogging through the heavy parts.  And while you may not agree with all the views presented, it is refreshing to see these topics brought out into the open for discussion. It is high time for this book!


© 2003 April Chase

 April Chase is a freelance journalist and book reviewer who lives in Western Colorado. She is a regular contributor to a number of publications, including The Business Times of Western Colorado and Dream Network Journal.