Bakare-Yusuf, Bibi. 2013. “Thinking about Pleasure: Danger, Sexuality, and Agency.” In Women, Sexuality, and the Political Power of Pleasure. Edited by Susie Jolly, Andrea Cornwall, and Kate Hawkins. New York: Zed Books. Pp. 28-41.
Dominant narratives about women’s sexuality (particularly African women’s sexuality) are occupied with danger – population boom, mutilation, rape, disease, infant/maternal mortality. Few narratives exist to counter this.
However, “the threat of male violence is […] not the only source of sexual danger. Sexuality activates a host of intra-psychic anxieties: fear of merging with another, the blurring of body boundaries and the sense of self that occurs in the tangle of parts and sensations, with attendant fears of dissolution and self-annihilation” (Vance 1984, 4-5 here 28). While it’s important to continue to focus on the role of patriarchal impacts on women’s sexuality, we must also provide counternarratives – “the assertion of women’s sexual and embodied agency is potentially more threatening and disruptive to a hetero-patriarchal controlling logic than a focus on danger and violation” (29). The body acts as a site where power can be inscribed (a la Foucault), but can also act as a tool to resist these forces.
“Sexual danger and fear come to be the dominant interpretative schema for understanding women’s lived experience of their own sexual agency. This foundational logic has the unwitting effect of repeating the patriarchal script, which attempts to present women as passive victims. Positioning women as weak or damaged subjects gives renewed legitimacy to patriarchally motivated discourses of control and protection. What this does is to set artificial limits on how we talk about women’s sexual agency in experiential, political, social, and symbolic terms. It thereby circumscribes the production of meaning and the development of alternative narratives that attempt to portray and articulate female lived experience – today and in years to come” (30). ^Boom.
Across cultures, the use of multiple male partners addresses economic and social insecurities – symbolic husbands take on social roles, formal events, and inheritance purposes. This has transformed the economic system, encouraging women’s involvement in public spheres (case study: Yoruba women). Demonstrates instability of patriarchal control of economics, household, sexuality – unravels a system that bases itself on Madonna-whore complexes (words mine, not author’s).
Focusing on women’s sexual pleasure does not erase or negate our quest for social justice, equity, economic rights, political access and participation; nor does it put an end to domination and oppression in all its guises, or ‘weaken the critique of sexual danger’ (Vance 1984: 3). Rather, what it does it to ‘expand the analysis of pleasure’ and return us to the erotic embodied agency that is a central part of women’s lived experience – a part that patriarchal culture tries to muffle, circumscribe and reduce to passivity through a litany of violations and intrusions. It also allows us to imagine a new way of constituting female sexuality that does not take victimhood and violation as foundational. Instead, the primacy of women’s quest for erotic fulfillment and joy becomes the springboard for demanding and creating a safer space and modes of relating across gender difference where violation is not always already inscribed in the body or scripted in how we relate with and navigate the world” (35-36) ^Boom.
Solutions – change the narratives that we share about women’s sexuality, collect stories regarding the exploration (not exploitation) of women.
Vance, C.S. 1984. “Pleasure and Danger: Toward a Politics of Sexuality,” in C.S. Vance (ed), Pleasure and Danger: Exploring Female Sexuality. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.