In September 1905, a Finnish magazine Palvelijatar published a strong critique by Elvira Willman, a known playwright and women’s rights advocate. She writes:
Is it so that the power of woman’s desire is of lesser value in life than man’s? In our society, women are shackled like animals and other possessions of men. The reason for this so-called lack of libido is not true nature but force. (Willman 1905, 93. Cursive original. Translated by Tiia Tikka.)
When the critique was published, women’s and men’s opportunities to express their sexuality were markedly different. It can be seen, for example, in the fact that expressing their sexuality outside marriage was allowed for men but not for women. In addition, sexuality in marriage was inequal in principle, because men’s sexual activity was highlighted whereas women were seen as nonsexual. In most cases, there was not the faintest notion of women’s sexual self-determination.
Elvira Willman had trouble accepting this inequal situation. She criticized harshly the lack of women’s sexual rights in her text. Inequality and the lack of women’s sexual rights caused, according to Willman, a situation that she illustrates by comparing women with men’s possessions and shackled animals.
Willman challenges the idea that the scarcity of women’s libido would be about their “true nature” as she puts it. By “true nature” Willman refers to the perception of women’s libido as a biological fact that is innate for women.
Many contemporaries of Willman interpreted the scarcity of women’s sexual activities as this natural, biological fact. Women were simply seen as different from men. As a counterpart for women who were determined nonsexual, men were associated with a compulsive biological need to express their sexuality.
Rationalizations for the prevalent ideas and ways of thinking were sought from biological differences between men and women. These prevalent ways of thinking were also supported by sexological ideas from 19th century that highlighted the opposition of women and men.
In her text, Willman attacks these ideas of women’s sexuality that were seen as natural in that time period. She writes that the reason for the lack of women’s sexuality is not the “true nature” of women, but a force imposed on them by the society and culture that denies women their wants and pleasures that were allowed for men.
According to the view represented by Willman, society and culture – that is the social reality surrounding a person – have power that affects our chances to experience sexual pleasure. This point of view sheds light on how society and culture infiltrate bodies by making some pleasures possible and others impossible.
History is notorious of precisely the fact that some sexual pleasures have been made impossible by restrictions and control.
In a society promoting men’s privileges, women’s sexuality and women’s sexual pleasures were controlled by deeming them sinful and promiscuous. In a society highlighting the privileges of heterosexuals, homosexuality and homosexual pleasures were controlled by deeming them sick and illegal.
In a society promoting men’s privileges, women’s sexuality and women’s sexual pleasures were controlled by deeming them sinful and immoral. In a society highlighting the privileges of heterosexuals, homosexuality and homosexual pleasures were controlled by deeming them sick and illegal.
These views on sexuality that violate sexual rights are not only echoes from the past but are still everyday life all around the world.
Elvira Willman’s comment defending women’s sexual rights can be seen as anticipating the discussions in the 1960s and 1970s where gender equality, also sexual equality, came to prominence.
Feminist Kate Millet (1991) published in the 1970s her work Sexual Politics where she formed a theoretical foundation for analyzing the political nature of sexuality. In her book she considers how patriarchal culture in particular produces and upholds women’s sexual repression. Millet highlights how specifically culture has a vital role in how the views on sexuality form. In this way she brings attention to how sexuality is learned rather than biological and natural.
Points of view questioning the assumed naturalness of sexuality have been followed by several discussions seizing the normative status of heterosexuality. For example, philosopher and feminist theoretician Judith Butler (1990) challenges in her book Gender Trouble the understanding of naturalness of heterosexuality and points out how people are directed to adopt a heterosexual identity.
The points of view questioning the naturalness of sexuality and gender have had a considerable role in sexual politics. Discussions seeking women’s sexual rights have managed to tear apart views of how women are naturally less sexual than men. Viewpoints seeking women’s sexual rights have also considered the point of women’s sexual self-determination. An example of this is the widespread Me Too campaign. Discussing sexual rights of homosexuals has questioned the understanding that homosexuality is unnatural and an illness.
The sexual political discussions and comments about sexual rights of women and homosexuals have seemingly hit the core of naturalness discussion.
In fact, challenging the idea of naturalness of sexuality and discussing the political nature of ideas related to sexuality have been a critical condition for obtaining sexual rights for different groups of people. By questioning the naturalizing views, space has been made for approaches that respect the variety of sexuality.
When we take observing of political nature of views on sexuality as our starting point, it is possible to challenge and question our understanding of what is natural and self-evident that guide our thinking. An approach like this shakes the misty veil of pleasures, seen as intimate and personal, surrounding our daily experiences about sexual pleasures.
The viewpoint challenges us to ask what sexuality looks like when our own and intimate desires and pleasures are observed as guided pleasures formed by society and culture, and on which society and culture leave their mark.
This exactly has been the starting point of my thesis research when I began observing the views on sexuality produced in expert texts. In my research, I have sought after the politics of pleasure within expert texts.
Therefore, when I was beginning my analysis my head was filled with questions about whose sexual pleasures and wants the texts I observed were about. Also, which types of pleasures were given some space and which kinds of power relations and hierarchies influenced views about sexuality and pleasure.
I began seeking the answer for these questions from my corpus of around 3,500 pages that I gathered as research material. The main material of my research consisted of general sex manuals originally published in Finnish in the 2000s. Additionally, my research contains sexological nonfiction and sexual medicine publication. In addition to manuals, the sub-study based on historical material contained journal texts and plays from the beginning of the 20th century.
I have been interested in the kind of information these texts written by experts offer about sexuality and how they direct and guide people in sexuality.
I have observed this directing and guidance as an action with a goal of directing and modifying life in some direction. In other words, I have been interested in how sexuality and sexual life are taken in control with the help of information.
As a research approach, I have utilized a framework of governmentality (e.g. Dean 1999) with the help of which it has been possible to seize the ways in which it is attempted to control people’s sexuality and sexual behavior.
In my analysis, I have brought up observation of sexuality, gender and individuality. How expert texts on sexuality form views of sexual, gendered and individual subjects, and what kind of sexual subjectivities expert knowledge produces?
Therefore, I have been interested not only in information on sexuality, but also the kind of implementation of sexuality the knowledge production directs and guides people into. In this way my research offers viewpoints on the type of sexual subjects the knowledge attempts to make us.
My adventure within information on sexuality has been riddled with conflicts. Sometimes the information produces stiff truths about sexuality. In these scenarios, women are doomed to forever act their sexy self, men’s sexuality is reduced to the mechanics of intercourse, sexual pleasure is nothing but orgasm and a life worth living can be distinguished only by splendor of sexual pleasures.
On the other hand, these cold truths are open to continued questioning. Therefore, the discussion on the “true nature” of sexuality and gender continues and appears in different forms in different times.
When it comes to men’s sexuality, the approach centered on penis, erection and intercourse has been dominant. The viewpoints challenging this dominant approach have wanted to highlight how simplifying men’s sexuality as penis, erection and intercourse centered produces performance anxiety in men: “The atmosphere of our society feeds […] erectile, intercourse centered sexuality, which does not decrease the performance pressure in men” (Rautiainen 2006, 234. Translated by Tiia Tikka.) The above example illustrates how expert texts on sexuality observe men’s sexuality as something formed by society and culture instead of biological facts.
When the “true nature” of men’s sexuality is raised attention to, we make space for diversity of men’s sexuality. Therefore, it is possible to challenge general truths that are often associated with men’s sexuality, as the following example shows: “A man is not an endless sex machine, even though he is sometimes claimed to be” (Virtanen 2005, 94. Translation by Tiia Tikka.) These kinds of words always attempt to free men from the instilled reputation of mechanical machines seeking sex.
Examples about men’s sexuality challenge to contemplate sexual emancipation from a new angle. Sexual emancipation does not mean only freedom of sexual pleasure, but it can also mean freedom from compulsive sexual performance.
In different times people feel the need to be emancipated in different ways.
The project on sexual emancipation can be seen as a practice that is always open for new views. In different times people feel the need to be emancipated in different ways.
I have analyzed sexual emancipation as an ambivalent practice and it has been possible to see how in one hand it is about sexual emancipation, but how, on the other hand, the emancipation is questioned.
An example about the conflicts of sexual emancipation is the change in the ways of thinking about women’s sexuality over the last century. In sexual manuals published in the 21st century, encouraging women in sexual enjoyment is not a marginal phenomenon anymore, like it was in the beginning of the 20th century, but mainstream. Manuals encourage women to focus on their own pleasure and women’s pleasure is seen as a question of equality as well. It is, however, rare to discuss the structural inequality of heterosexual relations. This happens for instance when women’s stress in daily life is seen as a factor that affects their sexuality negatively. In the manuals, heterosexual couples are encouraged to share household chores and childcare responsibilities.
The example points out how it is markedly easier to discuss sexual equality than unequally divided chores and childcare responsibilities in manuals. The unequal practices in heterosexual relationships are sometimes even downplayed in the manuals.
When sexual equality is highlighted and the structural inequality in heterosexual relationships is downplayed, an inequal heterosexual relationship cements as the setting for the sexual pleasure of a heterosexual woman.
In this context, the proclamation written by Elvira Willman, cited in the beginning of this text, “In our society women are shackled like animals and other men’s possessions” (Willman 1905, 93) is surprisingly topical.
The example highlights how in a way equality has taken great steps forward. In turn, gender hierarchies have not disappeared and discussing them is equally topical now as it was a hundred years ago.
Social scientist Raija Julkunen (2010) who has analyzed equality and gender, offers the concept of post-patriarchal to describe this kind of paradoxical setting where we can see important changes in realization of equality as opposed to the past, but at the same time we can see the stability of gender hierarchies and their amalgamation with the new.
The gender hierarchical practices have not vanished for good, but “they break in one place and reappear in another place” (ibid. 225. Translated by Tiia Tikka.), as Julkunen illustrates the situation.
Also, the discussions on the “true nature” of sexuality and gender are still as topical as they were a hundred years ago. The perceived naturalness of sexuality and gender are held fast and challenging the viewpoints that highlight naturalness provokes violent reactions. For example, it is often thought that there are only two genders and the division in two is rationalized with naturalness.
When we look back in time, from the point of view of realization of sexual rights of different groups of people, it has been essential to overcome views about the naturalness of sexuality and gender.
By questioning the views on binary, natural gender we make space for approaches that promote the diversity of gender and sexuality.
When we look back in time, from the point of view of realization of sexual rights of different groups of people, the essential meaning has been overcoming views about the naturalness of sexuality and gender. In this way it has been possible to bring attention to important views about how culture and society leave their mark on sexuality and gender by making some kinds of sexualities and genders possible and others impossible.
The text is based on Marika Haataja’s lectio praecursoria. The picture of the writer: Annina Mannila. Translation by Tiia Tikka. The translator is a Master’s-level student of Multilingual Communication and Translation Studies at Tampere University. The translation was produced as part of a project course in English Translation. The article was originally published in Finnish in 2020.
Butler, J. (1990). Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. London: Routledge.
Dean, M. (1999). Governmentality: Power and Rule in Modern Society. London: Sage.
Haataja, M. (2019). Ohjattuja seksuaalisia nautintoja. Tampere: Tampere University Press.
Julkunen, R. (2010). Sukupuolen järjestykset ja tasa-arvon paradoksit. Tampere: Vastapaino.
Millet, K. (1991). Sexual Politics. London: Virago Press.
Rautiainen, H. (2006). Ikääntyminen ja seksuaalisuus. In Apter, D., L. Väisälä & K. Kaimola (eds.) Sexuality. Helsinki: Duodecim, 226–237.
Virtanen, J. (2005). 100 kysymystä miehistä ja seksistä. Helsinki: Kirjastudio.
Willman, E. (1905). Miksi meille naisille nykyisessä yhteiskunnassa sukupuolielämä on vastenmielistä? Magazine Palvelijatar 7–8.