Review by: Alyssa Colton


Jane Sexes It Up: True Confessions of Feminist Desire
ISBN: 1568581807
Edited by Merri Lisa Johnson

First, A Personal Story:

Lying in bed in the morning, I wake up to my daughter's mouth on my nipple. It is a familiar, comforting, warm, nestled feeling. It is not a sexual feeling--at least I won't name it as such. I am not aroused in the way my lovers have aroused me by stroking by breasts in the past. Rather, I feel a flood of love and protection toward my daughter. My breasts have become something else; they no longer feel a part of my sexual being. Lately, in fact, I don't feel like a sexual being. My desire has considerably waned since getting pregnant and having a baby, and while it's easy to blame it on lack of energy and time, the truth is I'm just not that interested in sex anymore.

According to the experts, there is a biological connection between diminished sex drive and breastfeeding. Perhaps it's nature's way of telling us we can only care for one baby at a time, at least for a while. Perhaps this partly accounts for the very low rates of extended breastfeeding in American culture.

I struggle to sort out this new challenge to my sexual identity. I read an advice column to a woman in a similar plight and am outraged that the advice given is that the woman should just have sex with her husband, even if she doesn't feel like it. As time goes by, I feel more ready for sex, but it inevitably disappoints, and I wonder if I'll ever be able to reach orgasm again. Having a child makes it difficult to spend any length of time engaged in foreplay, much less fantasy play. The closest my husband and I seem to get to sex these days is watching "Sex and the City."

Awhile ago I ordered and read a book entitled For Women Only: A Revolutionary Guide to Overcoming Sexual Dysfunction and Reclaiming Your Sex Life. While they talk very little about sexuality and early motherhood, they do suggest ways to increase desire through masturbation, reading erotic literature, and watching sexy videos. The more you are surrounded by sex, the more you want it. Somehow, I have felt uncomfortable taking such initiative in manufacturing desire. Perhaps I should just accept this loss of desire as a phase in my life.

Then I read Jane Sexes It Up. And the more I read, the more I learn about the complexities of being a feminist and claiming my sexuality. Unfortunately, there is only one mother identified in the book, and she only discusses her child in terms of how she wants to set an example of equality between her husband and herself. Still, the book gives me permission to explore in ways that I hadn't allowed myself to before. So here I am, just a couple weeks after reading Jane Sexes It Up, and I attribute the effects of this book to a step I took recently: buying another book, called The Mother's Guide to Sex: Enjoying Your Sexuality through All Stages of Motherhood (written by Anne Semans and Cathy Winks, who brought us The Good Vibrations Guide to Sex). I'm also branching out, exploring other possibilities I've never dared before. This, coupled with the brave writing of Jane, promises to chart new territory as I enter a new phase of my sexuality.

Now, The Review:

Do feminists have sex?

It seems like an obvious and stupid question at first glance, but for anyone who has any familiarity with the 'sex wars' within feminist debate, you know it's not one that's easily asked or answered.

The writers in Jane Sexes It Up: True Confessions of Feminist Desire answer unequivocally, yes. Feminists have sex in all kinds of ways. They have sex with boyfriends and husbands, as well as other women. Feminists do striptease; feminists like being spanked. Seen as a project specifically about how Third Wave feminists grapple with the messy issue of their sexuality, Jane assembles a diverse set of voices who all speak honestly and reflectively about the pleasures and perils of being a young feminist who has sex.

Johnson, who is as comfortable using phrases like "bottom-cupping panties" as she is explaining sex-negative critique like that of Andrea Dworkin, maps Jane as a "sex-positive" feminist analysis of sex. No author in this book, including herself, accepts the Dworkin/MacKinnon construction of heterosexual sex as always rape. Yet they are not afraid to take a hard look at how we are still shaped by heterosexist and patriarchal culture. Ultimately, Johnson notes, desire is both socially constructed and beyond social construction, and it is this duality that Jane explores in intriguing ways.

"Jane is the conflict," Johnson writes in her introduction: she represents the conflict between the good girl feminist and the bad girl feminist. The first detests any thought of any kind of submission in sex; the second asserts that anything goes. Caught up in the conflicting forces of a culture that still portrays women as the submissive sex, and feminists as men- and sex-hating, it is no wonder that the whole thought of sex sends some of us running for the covers.

There are no mothers in this collection, and only a couple authors discuss having sex with women. Predominantly, the authors seem to be heterosexual. Yet they open up discussions of sex in so many other ways it is hard to fault the book for anything it might be "missing." Caitlin Fisher's reflections on girls as empowered and sexual beings ring achingly true. Jennifer Lutzenberger's unflinching self-analysis of cutting herself while in an abusive relationship opens up ways in which women assert themselves in the most oppressive of situations. Chris Daley explicates the differences between spanking in sex play and real physical abuse. Lisa Z. Siegel, in one of the most biting essays in the book, thrashes voyeurs who can't seem to take her work as a scholar of pornography seriously. Other authors cover stripping, prostitution, vulvodynia (a medical condition), masturbation, weightlifting, fake penises, female ejaculation, and, even--gasp--marriage. The book closes with an essay by a gay man struggling with his attraction to straight men, illuminating why some of us continue to be attracted to conventional masculinity.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about this book is not any one individual voice, but the way all the voices complement each other. The authors draw on different strands in feminism--from French feminism to queer theory--yet come together like pieces in a puzzle, clicking together to form a powerful and colorful narrative about the sheer diversity of sexuality. In acknowledging this diversity, in embracing each of these stories, we come to see not the limits to feminism--but all the possibilities.

Women Writers has several excerpts from Jane Sexes it up, as well as other book reviews. Click below for the good stuff:

"Date Rape at the Redneck Riviera"
Wanting Him Anyhow: Third Wave Feminism & the Problem of Romance

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