Speaking Volumes: Pleasure and Danger

August 4, 1995

Lynne Segal on Carole Vance's Pleasure and Danger .

Flat on my back in 1984 (having ruptured a disc during peaceful - if richly fantasmagoric - slumber), I read a collection of essays which helped to motivate the books I would write over the next decade. Pleasure and Danger: Exploring Female Sexuality edited by Carole Vance, was one of those North American feminist texts which are not over-hyped, over-rated, or even widely read, over here. But then it has a history and a context all its own. It grew out of that strand of feminism known as "socialist feminism" and was the product of a conference uniquely explosive in the history of feminism.

That conference, held in New York in 1982, hoped to encompass the full diversity of feminist views on sexuality, often hidden behind better known rhetoric about men's violence against women and the possible dangers of pornography. It sought a more sophisticated feminist theory and methodology. Stressing the real dangers women face from men's sexual violence, the essays in Pleasure and Danger are also sensitive to the complex intrapsychic, interpersonal fears and anxieties which produce the many irrationalities surrounding sexual intimacy. "Unarticulated, irrational reactions," Carole Vance announced in the keynote address, "wreak havoc on our movement and at the same time are cleverly used against us by the right." Outside, some feminists were busy wreaking a havoc of their own.

The conference was picketted by a coalition of feminists trying to silence its participants. Some women faced near disaster when denounced by other women, who contacted their employers, threatening their careers. Yet Vance's opening paper, reproduced in Pleasure and Danger, remains a model of open and balanced reflection: "We see the conference not as providing definitive answers, but as setting up a more useful framework within which feminist thought may proceed, an opportunity for participants to question some of their understandings and consider anew the complexity of the sexual situation." She carefully situated all discussion around women's experiences of sexual agency and pleasure, personal autonomy and choice, within social contexts of gender hierarchy where controls and dangers (though shifting in nature) have always surrounded expressions of female sexuality. "To focus only on pleasure and gratification," she argues, "ignores the patriarchal structure in which women act, yet to speak only of sexual violence and oppression ignores women's experience of sexual agency and choice and unwittingly increases the sexual terror and despair in which women live."

This book is the antidote to those other books crossing the Atlantic, which are indeed over-hyped and over-rated, over here. I'm thinking of Katie Roiphe, Rene Denfeld or Camille Paglia, eagerly denouncing feminism's betrayal of younger women with its "one-sided focus on the dangers of sexuality". Maybe the feminist daughters have to rebel against their mothers (discounting the misbegotten Paglia); but, dear daughters, some older feminists, in many different places, always worked hard to create a movement which would remain, as Sheila Rowbotham hoped in 1970, "confident, gleeful, generous and loving". It had a lot of interesting things to say about sexuality. You can read some of them in this collection.

Lynne Segal is professor of gender studies at Middlesex University. Her latest book, Straight Sex: the Politics of Pleasure, is published by Virago.

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