Female Pleasure and Desire: ‘You’re doing a PhD in what?!’

A University of Leeds research student discusses how diaries can help women to work through the conflicting messages they receive about heterosexual desire, feminism, and sexual pleasure

Feature by Nichole Edwards | 09 Apr 2013
  • Female pleasure and desire

Sometimes it’s tricky being a feminist who has sex with men. I say ‘sometimes’ in referring to myself, but the women in my research are also located on all points of that spectrum. I’m doing a PhD on how women who choose to identify as feminists experience pleasure and desire in their heterosexual practices. Up until now the pursuit of understanding female pleasure and desire has quite literally led we feminists everywhere ‘except into bed’ (to quote Kath Albury).

As feminist academics, we theorise and theorise but no one is actually asking our feminist peers what they get up to in the heat of the moment. The under-theorisation of experiences of pleasure within female sexuality, particularly when engaging with the practices of feminists who have sexual relationships with men, is insufficiently studied. Better yet it is in need of being studied in order to contribute to growing dialogues surrounding female sexuality as a whole, both within and outside academia. Sexuality, on some level, impacts all of us in some way, shape or form. Why not legitimate it through research? My central question is; how do women understand and experience their own pleasure and desire? Within that I am interested in exploring how feminist values inform sexual practices and, the reverse of that, how sexual practices inform feminist values. Straightforward, right? Not a chance.

What I am attempting to do in my work is use a relatively new medium within feminist sex-based research to try and aid in these understandings. If someone asked you to ‘keep a diary’ there’s a certain element of knowing what that means, a general understanding of the kinds of things you might write about. Diaries enable honesty. Openness. Reflective thinking. The diary is a safe space to actively engage with oneself, one’s body, and one’s experiences. As a result, it was my hope that a diary would allow participants to tell their own stories, in their own uninterrupted ways. In other words, to legitimate the body’s most intimate experiences I needed to employ a method that would match this level of intimacy. Enter the diary.

Seventeen women participated in this study, aged 21-59. Each woman kept a diary of her sexual thoughts, feelings and experiences (past and present) for a period of three months. While some participants viewed the content of their sexual practices as none of feminism’s business, so to speak, others were fundamentally at odds with the relationship between their feminism and their desire to have sex with men. I used to struggle with the latter a lot in my early 20s (this project is an extension of a master’s degree I did during that time). I found it difficult, then, to negotiate my desires in tune with a set of political values that, in the throes of passion, I often thought I wasn’t employing. Eventually I realised I was trying to justify my desires (to whom, I’m still not sure) so much so that I was denying them in an effort to embody an ideology whose underlying ‘take home message’ is, actually, that I have the right to choose. Exploring my sexuality? Essentially off the table, probably because I ‘feared’ I might enjoy something that as a feminist, or even a woman, I had been told that I shouldn’t. Most of the participants in my study are no different.

Although discussions of choice are key to these women’s understandings of feminism and are present themes throughout each diary, in some instances these experiences were saturated with feelings of guilt as they questioned whether certain sexual choices placed their personal identity as a feminist in crisis, and perhaps more importantly, open to critique. Yet, my understanding is that we need to strip away our preconceived ideas surrounding the norms of what it means to be a woman, of what we ‘should’ do in acts of sex, or in acts of gender. In other words, we need to move beyond simply addressing the constraints a woman experiences as a gendered body. Instead, we could explore what a woman is capable of as a lived body. Theoretically, this opens up the floor regarding the ways in which we can discuss sexual agency and how that agency can be embodied within these women’s experiences. The idea of having to justify certain heterosexual desires, for instance choosing to be sexually submissive and the guilt that was often found to be associated with this, is a starting point in determining what kind of relationship dominant norms have in both enabling and disabling sexual agency. 

As for right now, I’m knee deep in what I’ve been told for the last year and a half will be ‘the fun bit.’ I’m analysing diaries, creating lists of emerging themes, clustering those themes, making tables of those themes, starting to see how themes are related across the diaries, not reading enough theory (!) and overall, being generally astounded at the snapshots of women’s lives that I am able to experience and capture through such intimate writings. Purchasing a first sex toy, having an abortion, taking a vow of celibacy, receiving a diagnosis of vaginismus after years of reconciling rape: these events were experienced by the women in my research during the months they kept their diaries.

Women are brave. Women experience a lot: with their bodies, their partners, their politics and, most importantly, with their selves.