Is it sexist if a woman’s masturbation fantasy consists of receiving a blow job from another woman and orgasming all over her horrified face?
How can a woman be a feminist AND a stripper? A prostitute? A scholar/consumer/enjoyer/star of pornography?
How do the dildo and the act of female ejaculation become powerful sociopolitical symbols for the everyday 21st century woman? And, oh yes—what is a woman?
As its title implies, Jane Sexes It Up, a collection of essays on third-wave feminism edited by Merri Lisa Johnson, directly, unabashedly, and fearlessly addresses the kinds of issues most likely to make even the most studied of today’s feminists squirm.
And the best thing about the book is that it explores all of these issues but also explores the exploration—the authors of Jane examine the squirming itself and do not ever stop asking why? and, more importantly, why not?
The writers collected in Jane are third-wave, Gen-X feminists reacting against what the book calls “establishment feminism” and the strict rules it places “on their bodies and bedroom behavior.” Indeed, almost all of the essays contain some kind of reaction against second-wave feminism in particular, with Andrea Dworkin somehow playing the villain at some point in nearly every essay. The writers collected here resist the strict dogmatism they see encapsulated in the critics of the second wave. They resist anti-porn, anti-stripping, anti-prostitution, and anti-dildo attitudes, and resist that these attitudes are allowed to fly under any kind of “feminist” banner. The writers here advocate instead a liberating, sex-positive approach to feminism. The brand of feminism in this book, it seems, is pro-everything, and anti-anti.
If there is one question I have to ask some of the authors here, it is: how much value is there in specifically attacking second-wave scholars like Dworkin, whose views did have their own context during the tumult of the era? Would today’s liberal third-wave attitudes be possible without Dworkin’s the generation before them? A thinker like Dworkin seems to me not a villain but rather a necessary step in the growing evolution of the feminist movement; thus, criticism of her, when it comes off as more than just a re-working of old ideology, seems rather misplaced. On the other hand, I suppose that arguing against one’s predecessors is a natural part of any movement, and one that will continue into the “fourth wave” of feminism.
The content of the essays is daring and important—these writers begin dialogues about some of the most difficult, complex, and potentially dividing questions that feminists must address today. One writer discusses her spanking fetish, while another justifies the use of dildos during sex. One writer focuses on the similarities in the experience of surviving domestic violence and surviving self-harm through cutting. Another reconciles her radical feminism with her “mainstream” desire for and decision to engage in heterosexual marriage. An entire section is dedicated to writings on sex work (stripping, prostitution, and pornography), and all the writers have sex-positive attitudes about these issues.
The self-consciousness in this book—the humor, awkwardness, and complexity of feminism interrogating itself (and feminists interrogating themselves) makes the collection a fascinating read. The interplay between theory and personal experience is well-balanced, and the transitions between the two smooth, staying true to the classic feminist ideology that the “personal is political.” There is much use of “shock value” in the book, as well, through graphic and highly personal descriptions of sex and even the authors’ own fantasies. This shock value and playfulness has become a trademark of the third wave, and Johnson’s anthology represents it well.
One of the most compelling essays of all, to me, was Merri Lisa Johnson’s “Fuck You & Your Untouchable Face,” in which Johnson recounts, among many other things, being date raped in Florida on a college spring break trip. She begins the account:
.“What I haven’t told anyone is the whole story. How he was soooo cute. How I was soooo lonely. I never said how we kissed all sexy and sour, tasting each other like tropical drinks. I never said there was romance, fantasy…”
She then describes how the rape began as a consensual encounter—one that she enjoyed and wanted, but only to a certain point. Johnson tells us that the man went down on her, and that she liked it, but that after this, he forcefully vaginally penetrated her. She writes that she did not scream or kick—said no but was “too embarrassed to draw attention from passers-by further up the beach.”
After returning to campus, Johnson struggled with her thoughts over the situation, noting:
“It wasn’t like I’d been pulled into an alley by a stranger or beaten in the face with a fist. There was no gun, no knife….but his act of penetration was utterly against my will. Call it what you will, but there is no way around that fact. No words for how thin the line is between desire and domination. How much is alright for me to want? There is a cultural logic, unspoken but implacable, that if I want some (oral sex), I better want all (a dick in me).”
To quote liberally from Johnson one final time, she ends the section by calling on feminism itself to give women the language they need to survive, explain, and recover from these particular kinds of rape:
“These narratives have no name in feminism or mainstream culture that doesn’t distort the conflict by conflating it with rape or dismissing it as bad decision making….We need words for the middle grounds of subtle coercion where our libidinal drive is used against us, words for that adolescent place of fingers and tongues and exploration where so much female sexuality could thrive but, once one ‘goes all the way,’ is more often frustrated or misused.”
I found this essay so compelling because it captured this extremely common but also extremely overlooked problem with date rape—the belief that if a woman wants any sexual act, she is consenting to all sexual acts. In my opinion, Johnson is right to demand that the feminist movement take on these gray areas. It is in these “middle grounds,” with all of their complexities and misrepresentations, that very dangerous things happen—and will keep happening—until we can give them a name by which to condemn them. Books like Jane Sexes It Up start these conversations–it is up to us to follow them through.