Book review: The Sex Lives of English Women
This book, detailing women's sexual lives, purports to show raw womanhood - but lacks an overarching analysis.
This article is a preview from the Winter 2016 edition of New Humanist. You can find out more and subscribe here.
The Sex Lives of English Women (Serpent’s Tail) By Wendy Jones
In the early 20th century, the mechanical peep-show was invented so voyeurs could enjoy the thrill of seeing women in their unwitting naked candour. Of course, the peep-shows were a lie: the pictures were staged, there was no real privacy to invade. But the promise that women can be revealed as they “really are” has always been an exciting one. Wendy Jones starts her book with a version of the peep-show promise that also places The Sex Lives of English Women firmly in the context of feminism: “This book is not about how to be a woman; it’s about how women are,” she writes, presumably angling a dig in the direction of Caitlin Moran’s blockbuster polemic How To Be a Woman.
What we are about to see, it is implied, is raw womanhood. Jones presents us with 24 pseudonymous interviews representing the gamut of the English female, aged from 19 to 94. There are women from Buddhist, Muslim and Catholic backgrounds; black, white and Asian women; lesbians, straight women and somewhere-in-between women. Each one occupies her own chapter, written up as a monologue so it appears that we have unmediated access to her inner self. Like the peep-show photographer who keeps all evidence of himself outside the frame, Jones effaces herself. We are never told what questions she asked in order to elicit these answers.
Fittingly for a peep-show, the first woman we meet is a burlesque performer called Samantha, who talks less about sex than about the performance of sexiness for men (class-appropriate sexiness, because she’s careful to distinguish her work from stripping). “It’s quite shameful for a woman to be sexually confident,” she says. “Burlesque goes completely against that and says, ‘No, it’s fine.’” If Jones has any doubts about this elision of “female sexuality” with “what men will pay women to do”, they never break the surface.
That’s not to say, of course, that Jones agrees with Samantha any more than she does with Jannah, a newly devout Muslim who explains her reasons for veiling like this: “If I was to walk past [a rapist] and another girl in a miniskirt was to walk past him, who do you think he’s going to jump on first, realistically?” The number of interviewees here who describe being sexually abused or coerced by their father, stepfather or husband implicitly gives the lie to the stranger-danger narrative. But there is no overarching analysis; Jones doesn’t even supply footnotes to correct or contextualise.
When one of her subjects makes a false or misleading statement – for example, the woman who claims that marital rape was outlawed in 1976 (the critical Law Lords decision was actually taken in 1991) or the trans woman who opines authoritatively about the difference between male and female orgasm based on personal experience (despite the fact that an inverted penis and reattached glans are very different to the extended clitoral network of the female body) – it simply stands, unchallenged. Individual masturbatory habits, porn use and histories of sexual violence are all laid bare. But you won’t learn much about women in general here.
For that, you’ll need to look elsewhere: perhaps to Emily Nagoski’s excellent 2015 book Come As You Are, which blends personal stories with the solid instincts of a researcher, and which contains insights about female bodies and lives with the potential to genuinely make sex better. Jones’s advice, such as it is, is summed up like this in the introduction: “yes”, she tells us, “is the word of the sexually happy female”. Yet the stories she assembles suggest that “yes” can be deeply compromised. So many of them are accounts of dissatisfaction, depersonalisation and trauma.
The woman here who says, “When I’ve had sex I’ve not felt any pleasure”, and the one left low by the degradation of porn; the woman looking for validation in pageants who sees her body as “packaging”, and the nurse who says that “a lot of women I’ve spoken to would feel uncomfortable saying no to their partner if they didn’t want to have sex”. These women do not sound well served by “yes” alone. Before consent can mean anything, women need refusal, and the right to set their own terms on sex. “Yes” is sufficient vocabulary for the 2D nymphs of the peep-show, but there is just enough reality in this faulty book to show that living women need more than that one word.