Clotho, Atropos and Lachesis can step aside. Humanity is now in thrall, according to Adrienne Evans and Sarah Riley, to a new unholy trinity: post-feminism, neoliberalism and consumerism. Here, Evans and Riley attempt to navigate the choppy waters of what it takes to resist these very modern Fates. In her recent book, Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution, the journalist Laurie Penny adopted a similar theme, but where Penny’s vernacular is readable, self-confessional and angry, the meticulous prose of Evans and Riley is earnest, deeply academic and dense.
For all its density, the book is ultimately an engaging attempt to define and explore women’s sexual subjectivities in the 21st century. What do you think is “sexy”? Have you arrived at that object of desire voluntarily, immune to social pressures? Or are you enmeshed in a Matrix-like culture in which choice, even in the apparently intimate field of sex, is an illusion? Furthermore, when do you think you’re “sexy”? Even if we were able to pick our way through these questions, others proliferate, until we’re trapped in a Cartesian hell. Who is the “I” who is doing the desiring? Or feeling desired? And is that “I” able to function independently of that post-feminist, neoliberal, consumerist triad?
In formulating these questions, and in trying to identify responses to them, Evans and Riley interviewed two small groups of women and used that first-person data as the raw material in their formulation of a theoretical framework of “technologies of sexiness”. The concept has at its genesis Michel Foucault’s take on identity politics in the 1980s, in which he identified “technologies of the self”. In Technologies of Sexiness, it is revivified by the authors, via Louis Althusser and Judith Butler, as a way of making “sense of both the broader cultural contexts that have enabled a sexualisation of culture, and the subjective embodiment of these feelings of sexiness”.
While Evans and Riley successfully document the inconsistencies of today’s riven feminism, tackling issues of abjection, “othering” and the politics of the gaze, this remains a book of two halves. The first half sets up, in painstaking detail, “how a technologies of sexiness framework might inform a methodology to understand different women’s negotiations of sexiness in contemporary culture”. And the second half explores this in “action-research informed” interviews with two groups of white, heterosexual women living in England, four aged 23-35 (“pleasure pursuers”) and four aged 45-57 (“nostalgic feminists”). The result of this organisation of the material is a somewhat top-heavy feel to a book that moves not entirely easily between discourses of the “doubled stagnations that enable and limit how sexualisation can be spoken about today”, and discussions of Ann Summers and “celebrity icon Dita von Teese”.
Finally, a gripe about the book’s cost: coming in at just shy of £40, this is not an instantly accessible text in any sense of the word. Technologies of Sexiness is an important work that should be widely read, but it’s mired from the start. Paradoxically, this account of how consumerism is the crucible of women’s sexual identities is one that few people without access to university libraries will actually be able to consume. As academics, we can preach to the choir all we like, but activism and social change are only possible when we engage with the congregation, too.
Technologies of Sexiness: Sex, Identity, and Consumer Culture
By Adrienne Evans and Sarah Riley
Oxford University Press, 184pp, £38.99
Published 25 September 2014