on population, reproductive health & ethics


Three reviews of

Good Sex: Feminist Perspectives from the World's Religions

Table of Contents

Library Journal review by Carolyn M. Craft
CFFC review by Christine E. Gudorf
CFFC review by Marianne T. Duddy


Review by Carolyn M. Craft

This groundbreaking collection of 11 articles by women from eight countries and seven religious traditions challenges male-defined ideas of sexuality that have constricted women by denying them pleasure and autonomous agency and threatening their well-being and, sometimes, lives. The essays critique "dominating forms of inclusivity and blanket generalizations," explore the high price sexuality has exacted of many women, propose "concrete suggestions for social changes, so that women may experience good sex," analyze interpretations of sexuality, and suggest "ways women might faithfully resist normative constructions of their sexuality." While the contributors do not always agree, they do recognize the importance of global and interdisciplinary perspectives and affirm the tension women experience when they work for change from within a repressive tradition. Editors Jung (theology, Loyola Univ., Chicago), Mary Hunt (codirector, Women's Alliance for Theology, Ethics, and Ritual), and Radhika Balakrishnan (international studies, Marymount Manhattan Coll.) have created an outstanding book. Recommended for academic, public, and seminary libraries.--Carolyn M. Craft. Longwood Coll., Farmville, VA Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.

Table of Contents

a publication of
Catholics for a Free Choice

[Editor's Note: In this issue, we review Good Sex: Feminist Perspectives from the World's Religions, edited by Patricia Beattie Jung, Mary E. Hunt and Radhika Balakrishnan. This book is an intensive collaboration among thirteen feminists, all activists or academics, from eight countries and varied religious backgrounds: Buddhism, Chinese religions, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism and capitalism, which is described as "the functional equivalent of a world religion." Given the plurality of views represented in this book and the collaborative process that created it, we deemed it appropriate that a review of the book present more than just a single perspective. As such, we invited both Christine Gudorf, a Catholic ethicist, and Marianne Duddy, a Catholic activist, to review Good Sex.]

Review by Christine E. Gudorf

In the introduction to Good Sex, the editors warn readers that the writers in the project share some deep-seated disagreements about the meanings of basic concepts that prevented any easy agreement on how to pproach good sex. Those disagreements become visible in the various chapters, though not, I think, so clearly as in other international collaborations in feminism.The various authors, most explicitly Jantzen and Jung, agree that one necessary component of feminist good sex is justice. Most of the authors want to consider pleasure as a component in good sex, but for many exposed to the suffering caused by unjust sex, sexual pleasure tastes like dessert, not the rice and beans that sustains life. For example, Pinar Ilkaracan of Turkey presents the situation of women in eastern Turkey as so lacking in any degree of autonomy-due to the prevalence of arranged child marriage, lack of education, lack of economic resources and compulsory motherhood-that pleasurable sex would not make immediate agendas for activism even if women could be persuaded that sexual pleasure for women was achievable. Nor does the situation of women in eastern Turkey stand out in the global picture as extraordinarily bleak. Even where women's somewhat greater control over choice of spouse and access to paid employment may help explain their private expressions of desire for sexual pleasure, as in Wanda Deifelt's Brazil, they experience strong pressure for compulsory heterosexuality and motherhood in the tradition of marianismo. The collection as a whole makes both an explicit and implicit case for culture, and not religion, being the primary source of understandings of sex as solely for reproduction, and illustrates religions that have always recognized other purposes (Judaism, Islam) as well as religions which have come to recognize other purposes (Christianity).

One question not explicitly asked or answered here, but only implied, is whether the social construction of either pleasure as a normative end of sexual activity or non-traditional sexual identity (gay, lesbian, transsexual, transgendered identities) is dependent upon specific material conditions and/or socio-cultural freedoms. Non-western feminists seem unsure how to answer this question, accustomed as they are to correcting westerners who assume that the rest of the world must necessarily follow western patterns of development. Yet feminists in developing nations are often unwilling to immediately add gay, lesbian, transsexual and transgendered rights to the feminist agenda of ending arranged marriage and child marriage, outlawing honor killings and giving women the right to reproductive decisions over their own bodies, for fear that this addition will make these other reforms politically impossible. Other feminists in developing nations point out the risks in pursuing only those rights that patriarchy sees as less threatening, however.

In western feminism, the justice questions-women's right to property, to guardianship of their children, to employment, to vote-clearly took priority early. Sexual pleasure only came into general feminist discourse late and secondarily, especially in refuting misogynist abuses within the sexual revolution of the 1960s. Questions of sexual orientation and identity also emerged late; the freedom to be overt about a non-traditional sexual identity without endangering one's physical, economic/professional, or social life is still restricted to those in certain locations, with certain kinds of employment, and certain kinds of families. Yet in many developing countries of the world, what were in the West early sexual justice campaigns are occurring alongside what were in the West much later movements around identity and pleasure. A great deal more research is necessary to determine, for example, how much of the lateness of the discourse on pleasure in western feminism was due to cultural factors unique to the West (e.g., Christian body/soul dualism) and what part was due to the development of necessary material conditions. Similar questions must be asked about sexual identity.

Good Sex's treatment of religion is necessarily eclectic. Radhika Balakrishnan's treatment of capitalism as a religion cautions feminists to balance capitalism's problematic aspects (objectification and commodification of women) against the comparative liberation that individual paid employment in the global capitalist system, despite its exploitative aspects, represents for women in many traditional patriarchal social systems. Judith Plaskow warns religious feminists to be consistent: we cannot attack and dismantle inherited authority structures (textual or otherwise) for their exclusion or subordination of women and then invoke their authority concerning parts of the tradition that support feminism. Suwanna Satha-Anand not only makes a complex, nuanced case for Buddhism as largely supportive of nuns' pursuit of nirvana despite restrictions not imposed on monks, but also demands feminist consideration of Buddhism's understanding of sexual desire, identity and activity as non-ultimate, as part of the illusory self that must be abandoned in order to achieve enlightenment. A truly global feminist understanding of good sex must make room not only for good sex as just, good sex as pleasurable and good sex as expressive of extremely varied sexual selves, in addition to good sex as culturally constructed, but also for good sex as something that, however just, pleasurable and expressive, may not be ultimate.

There are always myriad ways to organize a project like this, and no way to satisfactorily represent all the necessary perspectives. It is often impossible to predict what perspective invited scholars will take in their essays. This project includes two very informative chapters on women and sex in Islam, four on Christianity, two on Judaism, and one each on Buddhism, Confucianism and capitalism. The religion in which traditionalists are most likely to be satisfied with the book's treatment, however, is Buddhism, though Rebecca Alpert's "Guilty Pleasures" expands a common rabbinical theme. It would have been helpful in this, given the religio-political climate today, to have one Islamic chapter written from a theological feminist stance. Nevertheless, this is a very useful collection in terms of both the data it provides and its methodological reflection.

Christine E. Gudorf is a professor of ethics and social teaching at Florida International University. Her recent books include Ethics in World Religions and Body, Sex and Pleasure.© 2001 Christine E. Gudorf. This article first appeared in Conscience: A Newsjournal of Prochoice Catholic Opinion Vol. XXII, No. 1, (Spring 2001). Reprinted by permission.

Table of Contents

Review by Marianne T. Duddy

"A Pleasurable Beginning" Good Sex: Feminist Perspectives from the World's Religions edited by Patricia Beattie Jung, Mary E. Hunt and Radhika Balakrishnan (Rutgers University Press, 2001. 220pp.)

Rarely does a book's introduction ensnare the reader's imagination. However, the methodology outlined in the opening of Good Sex: Feminist Perspectives from the World's Religions is so integral to the rest of the volume that I found myself stopping time and again as I read to wonder about how a certain sentence might have been shaped, or a particular idea birthed.

The development of this adventurous book involved two face-to-face meetings, as well as sharing of manuscripts in process. What must it have been like for the contributing authors to meet, discuss the concepts of good and bad sex from this wide range of perspectives, agree on uidelines that enabled collaboration without insisting on common language, write, critique and discuss each other's work, rethink and redraft their chapters? There are moments in the book when this dialogue is explicitly acknowledged, for example through references to another writer's ideas, and other times when the reader senses a refinement or addition that was likely the result of exchanges among the women. The conversational element of this volume-the sense that these ideas have already been heard, acknowledged, taken seriously, even debated-is exhilarating, especially when one realizes how little room has been made for women's experience and knowledge in the construction of sexual mores in virtually any current society or religious culture. This is a book that is best read with other people, especially other women, in order to allow the collaborative exchange embedded within to continue.

As a white, essentially privileged, childless, Catholic lesbian feminist-a person whose sex has been labeled "intrinsically evil" by the leaders of my denomination, but who experiences sex and sexuality as holy-I found the attempts to define "good sex," or as Mary E. Hunt terms it, "just good sex," most compelling. While it is clear from the outset that the contributors are not seeking to develop a single prescriptive norm, most seem to agree on certain elements of what good sex might look like in a re-imagined world. It would be truly consensual, with women having the information and status needed to make real decisions about their bodies, their lives, and their relationships. It would be safe, not endangering the health, economic security or bodily integrity of women and those whom they love. It would be pleasurable. It need not be directed towards procreation. It would be consistent with an ethic of power sharing and mutuality. It would be joyous and celebratory. It would lead the participant(s) toward greater awareness of and connection to our increasingly globalized world in a way that seeks the good of all.

These attributes sent me scurrying back to the notebook in which my partner and I documented the themes we wanted reflected in our marriage ceremony and in our ongoing life together. Our list included love, prophetic witness, celebration of our choice to commit to each other, social justice, embodiment, sensuality and connection to the communities important in our lives. These ideas were supported and broadened in this volume. Finally, an ethic that felt consistent with my life and that had room for me as something other than a reprobate! This was as liberating and as thrillingly heretical as the title of Patricia Beattie Jung's chapter, "Sanctifying Women's Pleasure."In addition, the book's call for people to bring the discussion of their experiences into the open, rather than continue on paths of silent resistance of existing cultural and religious sexual prohibitions or mandates resonated strongly. The authors generally agree that it is only by claiming our power to name the ways in which current and historical formulations of sex violate women that we will effect the transformation in politics and polity needed to make good sex a possibility for the majority of the world's women. When choices that defy cultural and religious expectations are seen as individual, the norms themselves remain, with the result that women continued to be oppressed and even endangered, and that women fail to share models for handling the dichotomy between religious teaching and their personal opinions and practices. For example, in "Beyond Compulsory Motherhood," Wanda Deifelt documents the 1.4 million abortions performed illegally in Brazil each year and the high number of women who opt for sterilization as a form of contraception. The cultural veneration of machismo and marianismo that preserves male supremacy over women's bodies and lives remains unchallenged while women make choices that allow them some level of control over their sexual selves.

In my own experience, this parallels the choices made by many gay male and some lesbian Catholics to worship in so-called "gay-friendly" parishes, where there is a tacit acknowledgment that many of the parishioners are in intimate same-sex relationships, contrary to official Church teaching. In an ecclesial "don't ask, don't tell," explicit questioning of these teachings is avoided, so that pastoral care can be offered. While the fortunate few enjoy some sense of welcome from the church, the spiritually violent
rhetoric that leads many to despair, self-loathing and suicide is allowed to stand. Relegating sexual rebellion to the private sphere is in direct opposition to the premise outlined by Jung that "sexuality draws us into one another's arms-and consequently into an awareness of and concern about the needs of that other."

The privatization of pleasure is described as a possibly unintended and unforeseen result of western feminism. Having succeeded in decoupling sex and procreation, US and European feminists failed to take the next step of helping women explore the social, political and religious implications of greater control over reproduction and an increased emphasis on pleasure. Whether this is due to the focus on individuality and personal rights of western culture or is a strategic choice by feminists more focused on political gain is an interesting question that the Good Sex authors raise at
several points in the book. They seem to suggest that, at least to date, feminist movements may have prioritized tactical achievements over true revolution, and that the cultural and religious underpinnings of patriarchy have yet to be sufficiently undone.

The editors of Good Sex state that they and the other participants see this book to be a "pleasurable beginning" of the work of articulating what good sex might be for women. It is a provocative beginning. More and different voices clearly need to be heard in this conversation. Once identified, the challenges need to be wrestled with, and solutions tested against the variety of cultural and religious norms presented.

Even more than content, Good Sex offers the concept of devolving ethics from intentionally collaborative ongoing refinement of models held up for revision. It mandates listening to the voices of whoever is most offended by given proposals, and opens itself to the experience of resistance. My chief concern about this book is that its academic language and approach may make it inaccessible to many, and that this inaccessibility will stop the critical conversations from occurring, thereby postponing even further the already far-off sexual revolution that could make an ethic such as that envisioned here viable.

Marianne T. Duddy is the executive director of Dignity/USA. She is currently writing a book about Catholic lesbian spirituality.© 2001 Marianne T. Duddy. This article first appeared in Conscience: A Newsjournal of Prochoice Catholic Opinion Vol. XXII, No. 1, (Spring 2001).
Reprinted by permission.

Table of Contents

Search this site