Female Sexuality: Contemporary Engagements (Book Review)

Author:  Bassin, Donna I.
Publisher:  Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 1999
Reviewed By:  Jennifer McCarroll, Summer 2001, pp. 49-50

Understanding “the dark continent” is the aim of Donna Basin’s edited volume, Female Sexuality. In this volume, several psychoanalytic thinkers including Jessica Benjamin, Muriel Dimen, Nancy Chodorow, Owen Renik, and Adam Phillips choose and discuss a paper that is important to their understanding of female sexuality and psychology. What makes the volume a gem is not only the collection of milestone papers by authors such as Horney, Riviere, Klein, Jones, and Rivera, but the thoughtful introductions to the papers, especially those by Benjamin, Dimen, and Elsa First, which could constitute a mini-seminar on the topic of female psychology. This seminar quality is precisely is what Bassin had in mind for volume, as her own selection is a paper by Walter Benjamin about working with our predecessors ideas.

Benjamin, for example, selects Horney’s “Flight from Womanhood,” discussing several gender and sexuality issues of contemporary import that Horney touched on nearly eighty years ago. Benjamin’s introduction allows the reader to more clearly understand Horney’s criticism and reframing of the meaning of penis envy as a defensive maneuver for women rather than a primary sense of inadequacy. Through examining Horney’s work, Benjamin argues that, in many instances, it is less threatening to fail at being male than to fail at achieving the gender ideals of femininity, ideals which are always out of reach. Benjamin also re-emphasizes the progressive themes in Horney’s work, as well as observing the ways that Horney’s taking heterosexuality for granted inadvertently worked against some of the progressive strands in this paper.

Dana Birksted-Breen and Gerald Fogel also choose papers that attempt to reconfigure the import of penis envy for contemporary thinking. Birksted-Breen makes use of Klein’s “The Effects of Early Anxiety-Situations on the Sexual Development of the Girl” to reach her own conclusion that “penis envy is really phallus envy, the wish for a state without need or lack” (p. 285). Fogel picks up on this same point in his especially cogent and clear discussion of the importance for current classical thinking of Grossman and Stewart’s “Penis Envy: From Childhood Wish to Developmental Metaphor.” Fogel makes the important point that men also have penis envy, that, like women, men often have envy dynamics organized around fantasies of an “idealized phallus.” Fogel thus points out the relevance of work in the area of female psychology to the psychology of men, particularly in becoming more aware of how both men and women struggle with Desire, with the longing for a state without need or lack.

The most in-depth and well-illustrated clinical discussion of a chosen paper comes from Owen Renik’s discussion of Elizabeth Lloyd Mayer’s thinking on female castration anxiety. Lloyd Mayer calls our attention to the fact that girls do in fact have, acknowledge, and value their external genitalia and fear the castration of their genitalia and the “female” personality attributes that female genitalia represent. (Lloyd Mayer’s work dovetails neatly with that of Leon Hoffman and his discussion of Earnest Jones’ work on active female sexuality and the resistance to this idea during Freud’s day).

Renik discusses a clinical vignette of a patient’s female castration anxiety, describing her fear of losing what she sees as uniquely feminine character attributions and taking on devalued “masculine” psychological traits. Thus, as with Horney and Benjamin, Mayer speculates that the “lack” that women struggle with is not that of a lack of maleness, but a fear of a lack of femaleness. While Renik’s discussion brings the notion of female castration anxiety to life, it does center almost exclusively on this patient’s Oedipal struggles with her father, leaving unexplored the role of the father in female children’s pre-Oedipal development as well as the doing of gender that occurs between mother and daughter. Indeed, Christiane Olivier’s article on Oedipal difference, chosen by Adam Phillips, is in part a meditation on the role of the father in the pre-Oedipal lives of female children (i.e., the father’s absence). While Olivier goes for a dramatic casting of the father as more completely absent from children’s development than is frequently the case today, her dogged exploration of the seeming impasses between the sexes that result from the non-egalitarian child-rearing practices of our society is admirably unflinching.

What stood out for me most in reading this volume is how many of the authors turn to thoughts about the Oedipal drama, penis envy, and castration anxieties in articulating their understanding of female psychology and sexuality. Lora Heims Tessman’s discussion of Freud, Adrienne Applegarth’s discussion of Horney, Betsy Distler’s discussion of Doris Bernstein, and Schwartz’s discussion of Riviere’s seminal work on womanliness as a masquerade are all further contributions to the volume which remain within the frame of Oedipus. Even Chodorow’s paper, which expertly recrafts the Oedipal situation of separation and individuation in terms of Kleinian positions and developing capacities for mourning and reparation, does not quite break free of an Oedipal orbit.

In contrast, First and Dimen profitably choose papers that focus elsewhere for their understandings of female psychology and the ways that female agency is often stunted and deferred. First selects a paper by Joan Riviere on negative therapeutic reactions, in which a patient will revolt at any signs of progress or positive recognition by the analyst, steadfastly clinging to stagnation, neither getting better or worse as a kind of covert degeneration. Although Riviere wrote on this topic as a follow-up to Freud’s original contribution, Riviere has insight into the intrapsychic dynamics of the problem in a way that, uncharacteristically, almost completely eluded Freud.

Namely, such stagnation not only reflects unconscious guilt as Freud put forth. Rather, this stagnation reflects an unconscious longing and wish to cure damaged family members. It is a wish that shields the patient from 1) awareness of the failure of this wish to actually help loved ones and from 2) full awareness of the deprivations experienced at the hands of the damaged family members. Such a patient cannot admit that the worst has already happened, cannot mourn for the family that never was. More than any other introduction, First’s discussion highlights and extends the contribution of a selected paper as she points to the relationship between reparative failure and the inability to grieve and the stagnation and self-sabotage of agency that plagues many women in their sexual and general functioning. Conversely, reparative accomplishment and/or mourning facilitate agency and healthy autonomy.

These separation issues are also touched on by Kerry Kelly and Jack Novick as they discuss how burgeoning sexuality and masturbation constitute a non-sanctioned and heavily punished transgression/separation in the psychic lives of patients suffering from masochistic issues. However, because their discussion is limited to the topic of masochism, it fails to achieve the broad applicability of First’s ideas.

Finally, Dimen’s choice of Margo Rivera’s paper on the cultural and political underpinnings of multiple personality disorder is also a point of departure for the volume. Rivera states that the violence, often sexual, that is closely linked with multiple personality disorder is “not simply a manifestation of individual abusers or pathological family systems, but [is] an inevitable consequence of… social structures in which male power over women and children is institutionally integrated” (p. 423). Rivera chides clinicians for buying into multiple personality disorder as spectacle. She convincingly draws out the similarities between those suffering from multiple personality disorder and those of us who do not use radical dissociative defenses, but, nonetheless, successfully make believe that our identity is a simple, secure, or pain-free accomplishment in a culture that makes contradictory gender and sexual demands on us. Thus, Rivera uses multiple personality disorder as a phenomenon that highlights multiplicity in subjectivity. Once more, Dimen provides a juxtaposition of psychoanalysis, postmodernism, and feminism to frame the paper for the reader, drawing out the strains of influence in Rivera’s thought. This juxtaposition also allows Dimen to demonstrate Rivera’s failure to acknowledge the feminist antecedents of her work.

All in all, the wide variety of meaningful introductions and milestone articles in Female Sexuality makes a good reference volume for nearly anyone, the beginning or experienced clinician of classical or relational persuasions. If the volume has a weakness it is that actual discussions of how females experience their sexuality and participate in sexual interactions and masturbation are few and far between. This is an observation that Leon Hoffman makes about the field of psychoanalysis in general. But even Hoffman only mentions that this is the case without using it as a point of departure for more direct discussion. Hopefully a similar volume on female sexuality collecting papers, say twenty-five years from now, will not suffer from a similar omission.

Reviewer Note

Jennifer McCarroll is a recent graduate of the University of Texas doctoral program in Counseling Psychology and is currently working in New York City at the Fifth Avenue Center for Psychotherapy. The author also published her own work on sexuality, psychoanalysis and postmodernism in Psychoanalytic Dialogues in 1999.


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