Sexual Pleasure Empowers Women!: Response to Susie Jolly (1)

What assumptions are being made in Susie’s piece about why and how pleasure can empower? What is the theoretical basis? I detect a hint of the ‘repressive hypothesis’. This derives from the Freudian theory of sexual repression, which in a very simplified version says that in all cultures sexual instinct is repressed so as to ensure civilized forms of social relations. Otherwise societies would be in a perennial ‘war of all against all because of sex’. In Freud’s view, this war turns on the sexual control of females and sexual repression grounds extreme forms of social coercion.

From the 1930s on, theorists advocating social change and revolution inspired by Freud, but also by utopian socialists, developed a complex conceptual frame in which overcoming sexual repression would lead to full revolution. But then came Foucault with a compelling critique of what he calls the ‘repressive hypothesis’. In his view, sexuality is not an inner force or truth, which could be liberated from social controls to generate power and transformation. Instead, he viewed sexuality itself as constructed through the effects of power. The core element in the modern model of control is not repression, but disciplining, which is not necessarily repressive but can operate through the production of discourses on sex, “la mise en discours du sexe”, in biomedicine – psychiatry and gynaecology in particular – but also demography, pedagogy, economics and also through market forces, which are more than often enhanced by prohibition, such as in the case of sex work and pornography.

Foucault’s insights about the construction of sexuality are needed here, for as Shivananda points out below, pleasure is constructed, and if we don’t consider how it is constructed, we risk perpetrating heteronormative and ‘monolithic’ pleasure structures in our claims for women’s pleasure, and generating new norms around pleasure which can be just as harmful.

Take Brazil for example, 30 years ago here (and in many other places) women were totally excluded from the dominant conception of sexual pleasure. They were not supposed to have pleasure. Those who had it and searched for it were “whores”. This did not mean, however, from the experiential point of view, that women didn’t have orgasms. Many did despite the disciplinary norm, or even because of the temptations of the forbidden.

Today in contrast the dominant discourse in society is that women must have sexual pleasure at all costs. In the same manner, this does not mean that all women have orgasms even when they try their best (read all the magazines discussing the issue and use all the products to enhance pleasure). This means that if in the past, women who experienced sexual pleasure, were stigmatized as whores, today those who are not able to achieve orgasms and talk about them are also heavily stigmatized (and often cannot even speak about it).

In light of these complexities and instabilities, I do think we must be cautious when engaged with the reform of sex laws and norms and always ask: what might be the unanticipated effects? Who or what may be excluded and stigmatized by the new norm? Instead of “liberating” or “empowering” people, can we use a constructivist approach to contest existing disciplinary norms: by opening “spaces” – which are mental/conceptual/political/real – for people to be able to experiment and experience sexuality (identities, practices, images, etc) despite of and beyond existing disciplinary devices?

Sonia Correa
ABIA AIDS and Sexuality Policy Watch, Brazil

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