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The framing of women’s sexuality as passive, responsive and inferior to men’s sexuality can be traced back to the works of early Greek philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle, as well as Galen, a second century physician. Galen’s thesis that women’s sexuality was similar, although inferior, to men’s sexuality remained popular well into the eighteenth century. In this ”one-sex” model (Lacquer 1990) female sexuality was not clearly distinguished from men’s and both sexes were framed as potentially sexually desiring/active. The shift to a ”two-sex” model in the late eighteenth century was the result of social, political and economic changes in which sexual differences were articulated in order to support shifting gender arrangements. Although women were no longer seen as inverted replicas of men, the association of women’s bodies and sexuality with reproduction and nurturance, as opposed to sexually desiring/ active, was reinforced.
The nineteenth century sexologists, Richard von Krafft-Ebing and Havelock Ellis, drew on biological and evolutionary understandings of sexuality which continued to endorse the inevitability of male domination and female submission. Women were seen as being weakened by their reproductive biology and women’s sexual activity was primarily for reproductive purposes. While nineteenth-century sexologists and medical practitioners reproduced discourses of women’s sexuality as passive and inferior, sex researchers in the mid-twentieth century, such as Kinsey and Masters and Johnson, focused on similarities in men’s and women’s sexual response. Their work was seen as emancipatory because it acknowledged the importance of women’s sexual pleasure/ orgasmic satisfaction. However, for Masters and Johnson women’s sexuality was still positioned as responsive (with orgasm resulting from penile-vaginal penetration), while for Kinsey sex was framed as a straightforward biological function and a purely physical phenomenon.
Much feminist theorizing in the 1980s and 1990s draws on the work of Michel Foucault, and post-structuralism more broadly, to explore the ways in which sexuality is constructed in discourse. This work challenges essentialist understandings about gender and sexuality, including critiques of radical feminist framings of women’s sexual pleasure as ”eroticized submission.”
Queer theory has also influenced contemporary understandings of sexuality. Queer disrupts the assumed links between sex-gender-sexuality and draws on the notion of ”performativity” as a way of understanding the ways in which sexuality and gender are ”done” (Butler 1990). Poststructuralist feminism and queer theory have facilitated a shift to exploring the diversity and fluidity of sexual identities, preferences, practices, and meanings.
In contemporary critical theorizing and research on women and sexuality a central debate revolves around the degree to which there has been a ”democratization” (Giddens 1992) or equalization of heterosexual relations, that is, the extent to which dominant, oppressive norms and practices of heterosexuality have been undermined with changes in heterosexual relations. While there has been an apparent erosion of the sexual double standard and an increasing emphasis on women’s right to sexual pleasure and freedom of sexual expression, sexual asymmetries between women and men still persist. Much contemporary research explores how women are both active, desiring sexual agents and how their agency is potentially compromised by the normative construction of heterosexuality.
- Butler, J. (1990) Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. Routledge, New York.
- Giddens, A. (1992) The Transformation of Intimacy. Polity, Cambridge.
- Laqueur, T. (1990) Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.
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