I recently received a notice that Our Bodies, Ourselves was looking for a new assistant director. The email was charming because as any young feminist who grew up with a progressive mother knows, this is THE book that many women turned to to learn about their bodies. And sure, like any document, any attempt to define, explain, and bound information, it is flawed. But as a text, it has been remarkably fluid, and I have the sense that the collective has made a concerted effort to integrate criticisms and change as the times change.
Shere Hite is another 70s icon. Her book The Hite Report was a series of quotations and discussions on different aspects of female sexuality, and it was pretty damn revolutionary. I remember reading it in high school and being a little bored (I'm not sure what I expected)...but I know that it still remains an important text, at least conceptually. Hite has an article on Alternet that's worth reading. It's kind of clunkily written, and at times hard to figure out what she's arguing for. But the gist, should you not want to read an article entitled "Female Orgasm and the Need for a New Definition of Sex," is that our understanding of sex and sexual pleasure has changed a lot in the recent past. Calling for new expectations and definitions of sex is necessary.
She challenges the idea that penetrative intercourse is the self-evident way to pleasurable sex. I took a Freud seminar a few years ago, and I remember hanging out with a couple of the men from my seminar one evening. I made some comment about Freud's weird obsession with the vaginal orgasm (as he believes that women's proper and full sexual maturity depends on the experience of male penetration, and he doesn't believe clitoral orgasms are "legitimate" expressions of sexuality), and these two men (who also were taking the seminar) were really baffled about the possibility of something other than the vaginal orgasm. Young 20-something heterosexual men were baffled. The whole conversation made me uncomfortable and also disturbed, and I didn't push the issue (though I was grateful they were not my sex partners). Hite actually suggests that vaginal orgasm is a total myth, which I would object to as her major limitation as a researcher. But most importantly, Hite concludes by trying to remove the "goal" of orgasm as the sole purpose of sex. And I think this is a useful addition. While she makes good points about needing more egalitarianism in sex between men and women (and yes, I fear I'm hopelessly heterosexist in my writing on sex), she also wants to emphasize sex as more than just the wham-bam endpoint fixation.
In the course of my 3 week sexuality institute, I pointed out that we weren't talking much about desire. I do think this is an aspect of sexuality that gets muddled, because it's awfully hard to theorize and even articulate "desire" as a concept. Usually sexuality refers to some kind of category or expression of sexual behavior, rather than conveying how desire may be something uncategorizable, unhinged/unattached in a way. This is why sexual identity always baffled me -- as it seems what drives sexual behaviors is more about desires than some clear-cut attachment to physiology. It's tricky even for those who are desiring to communicate fully what they experience. But I'm really invested in phenomenological intellectual pursuits, and I think this is a great concept to develop further. Part of me thinks the most important first step is just to write about this stuff. A lot. I'm as fascinated by absences these days as presences, and, while not a perfect solution, I think trying to undo the problem of absence, by calling repeated attention to it is a useful start.