Conversations on sexuality, Elisabeth McDonald

The Women’s Studies Journal, Vol 8, No 2, 1992,
The Women’s Studies Association of New Zealand, $9.95

Ten years ago Catherine MacKinnon announced in Signs that sexuality is the linchpin of gender inequality. This issue of the Women’s Studies Journal gives local substance to this claim. In doing so it also exposes the silence of New Zealand feminists, who, while alluding to biological essentialism, seem unable to challenge, but instead merely document dominant (male) sexuality. While reporting itself may be protest, there is a very real need within the few alternative New Zealand periodicals to encourage the discussion of female sexuality outside the boundaries of masculine discourse. There are notable exceptions to this lack, and the articles in this journal do hint at what may follow.

The two more obvious explorations of sexuality are the pieces by Tina Vares, Feminist Women Talk About Breastfeeding and Marian Langston, Pregnancy and Power. Consciousness and Control. Both writers are concerned with reconciling their feminism with activities which may well reinforce femininity and control over women’s bodies: breastfeeding and exercising during pregnancy. Breastfeeding in public is certainly a dilemma for feminists. Vares, and the women she interviews, recognise the conflict between the potential for political statement and the threat of sexual exposure and objectification. Breastfeeding is also a feminist issue for women who work full-time. The campaign for ‘breast being best’ clearly adds to the guilt of working mothers, but this message receives scant attention from Vares.

Vares does address the problems of translating other women’s stories, by collaps[ing] the distinction between ‘description’ and ‘analysis’ … attempt[ing] an ongoing analysis interwoven with their voice. Although this method empowers the women participants, it leaves Vares at times searching for commentary on their experiences. Two issues which did arise from their stories, rather than from the literature, are of more direct relevance to the exploration of an alternative sexuality: the sexual pleasure of breastfeeding and the painful separation of the weaning process. Both experiences add credence to the connection thesis, which claims that the biological situation of women is the reason for their social position. Some feminists dismiss this explanation as essentialist, and fear the political repercussions of embracing such a position for all women. This concern is voiced by the participants in Vares’ study, but is ultimately unresolved. Vares leaves to other women the task of assert[ing] the specificity of lived female bodily experience.

Connection, in the form of connected knowing, is also discussed by Anne Smith in Women in University Teaching, who considers the inherent difficulties in embracing a concept which exaggerat[es] gender differences. These difficulties seem beyond resolution, as she blandly concludes by stating that there is value in … connected knowing and … it can have a positive input into teaching, learning and research. Although Smith’s piece is a thorough exercise in head counting, it fails to add to the current research on the experience of women academics. The many issues she mentions as worthy of considerable attention are frustratingly only mentioned and not translated into the New Zealand experience. Ironically, despite exalting the use of narrative, Smith fails to employ this feminist methodology in her work and instead her piece illustrates her ability to deal with separate knowing.

It is left to the two lawyers, Marian Evans and Robin Mackenzie, in From Siren to Siren: Some Counterpoint for Gender-Specific Injury and the Law, to challenge both what is valued as research and the way it should be reported. Their use of a narrative, told by women trying to bridge the gap between the rule of law and the pain and need of their friends, is conspicuous commentary on the apparently neutral dispensation of justice, particularly in response to sex-related harms. The subtext, more traditionally academic, yet still not the stuff of law reviews, contains a comprehensive historical analysis of compensation law as it relates to victims/ survivors of sexual abuse. Evans and Mackenzie also provide an overdue feminist response to the case of A vs M, in which an award of exemplary damages (punishment money) was made against a man who raped his wife, even though the police never pressed charges. Their piece ends promisingly by foreshadowing a changed conversation: We can’t let them stop us breathing, we can’t let them stop us speaking. We can’t tell it slant any more. We won’t.

The work of these two shows up the lack of publication options for New Zealand women, especially in the still male-dominated areas of law, science and commerce. The role of The Women’s Studies Journal may well be to identify areas where research is lacking. Political change and New Zealand’s contribution to the resolution of some immutable issues demands rather more.


Elisabeth McDonald is a lecturer in Law at Victoria University of Wellington.


Tagged with: , , ,
Posted in Gender, Non-fiction, Review, Sociology
Search the archive
Search by category