Sex Is Not a Natural Act: Leonore Tiefer

Do you do this? Do you sometimes pick up a book, but you don’t really get it into it after the first chapter, so you leave it and then you come across it again months later and enthusiastically devour it? It’s not something that happens to be very often, but occasionally, the first time I pick up a book, I am just not in the mood to devote myself to that particular book, no matter how interested in it I might think I am beforehand.

And I usually read several books at a time (different books for different occasions!), so it’s pretty easy for me to disengage if I am not actually interested. I just push that lunchtime book to the side in favour of my afternoon reading book with the thought that I just want to read a few pages of this right now. And before I know it, the lunchtime book is buried under all the other books and may even make its way back to the shelf still unread. This appears to be happening with a book of short stories right now (although I am keeping an eye on that book, so it may make it back into reading rotation sooner rather than later), it’s what happened with Sex Is Not a Natural Act (high fives to publisher Westview Press for resisting the urge to add a subtitle below this very clear title). 

I started reading it a couple of years ago, and while I was interested in Tiefer’s feminist take on the biology and culture of human sexuality, my attention wandered and before I knew it, I was knee deep in Anathem (which was great, by the way. Check it out if you want almost a thousand pages of philosophical science to keep you busy). And then when I was poking through Mount Bookstoberead a couple weeks ago, I found Tiefer’s collection of essays and this time it took.

The collection was originally published in 1995 and the second edition I have came out in 2004, so it is not the most up-to-date discussion of feminism and sexuality. But the essays are definitely thought-provoking and led me to some things I had never really considered. Like the inappropriateness of making out like the clitoris is just a tiny penis, which tends to lead to an overall misunderstanding of just how ladies get off. And although this was not known when Tiefer was writing these essays, the structure of the clitoris is incredibly complex and not really like a penis at all.

Tiefer takes a divide and conquer strategy that works well for the most part, but leads to a lot of repetition and overlapping later in the book. She spends the first section taking issue with the ideas of “natural” and “normal”, using a great analogy with music, astutely pointing out that when you learn to make music, you don’t start with a discussion of all the body parts you use to make that music. The biology of how we make music has little or nothing to do with our actual experiences of music. As she notes, “[I]f you mean that the physiological aspect is the most human, the most complex, the most interesting, or the most important thing about experiencing music, well, then, we are going to have an argument!”

She uses this analogy to argue that this biological essentialism when it comes to sexuality leads to ideas of what we “should” be doing during sex, which of course inevitably leads to a prioritization of heteronormative ideas of sexuality. Especially in the medicalization of sexuality, an idea to which she devotes an entire section of the book, but which comes up repeatedly in nearly every section. The ideas she presents are very interesting and worth spending some time thinking about, given that, in North America at least, we live in a world where pop culture is increasingly sexual but prevailing moral standards are increasingly anti-sexual. And in a world where you should look sexy, but not have sex, how can you ever talk to anyone about your actual experiences with sex? And with some aspect of the same homogenous ideas of sex hinted at nearly everywhere you look, you can’t help but wonder if you’re doing it wrong.

And when the mainstream media does take up actual sexuality, it is always from that essentialist perspective, as if sex as cold science is the only way we can actually talk about sex in public. (And you know how I love science, so I am not grumping out about that. Did you check out that link to the science of the clitoris up there? Amazing!) But I think the majority of us would agree that there is much more to talk about than insert tab A in slot B. Tiefer actually offers up a pretty interesting list of ways the mainstream media could have talked about sex without falling into biology and normal/abnormal traps, including my favourite:

We are currently in the middle of a … promotion of “female sexual dysfunction” that reduces women’s sexual satisfaction to arousal and orgasm associated with genital function. Why are journalists uninterested in the multitude of socio-political factors that affect women’s sexual lives?

This is basically what the entire book boils down to, a dearth of interest that Tiefer tries to address herself. Of course, she wants everyone to have a happy sex life, as a fundamental part of the human experience. But when the sexual workings of half of the world’s population are overlooked, you can be sure that most of the other half will not be having the best time either. As she notes in reference the listings of sexual disorders in the DSM, “The construction of gender in the official psychiatric sexuality nomenclature is easily summarized: Men and women are all the same, and they’re all men.”

My only grump is that the latter half of the book is mostly a repeat of various ideas already discussed in the first half. The DSM discussion is a good example of this, referenced as it is in essays in every section. By the time you get to the fifth section, on female sexual dysfunction, you have already read all the ideas in other essays earlier. Which makes for some tedious reading. Too much rehashing of territory already covered weakens this otherwise fascinating book. So maybe just jump around and read an essay here, one there, instead of reading from front to back. This is a dip your toe in the pool kind of book.

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