Contemporary Western societies are characterised by a new sexual permissiveness, within which sexualised culture has become normalised and mainstreamed. Situated in this new social landscape, and drawing on dominant constructions of heterosexuality, postfeminist and neoliberal discourses, this thesis presents analyses of women’s magazines, women’s own accounts, experimental data and cosmetic surgery websites to explore whether sexism and the double standard are a thing of the past and women are indeed able to enjoy the same sexual freedoms as men.
The initial qualitative study builds on existing research highlighting dominant ideologies in women’s magazines that promote sexual stereotypes and privilege masculinity. By examining representations of sex in two best selling Australian women’s magazines, I explore how such ideologies may reduce women’s abilities to negotiate safe sex. As described in Chapter 2, one main theme – hetero monogamy - presented a monogamous heterosexual relationship as essential for every woman’s happiness, with sex the means for achieving and maintaining this state. Five subsidiary themes reinforced this message, while the final theme, sexual health, revealed an alarming absence of information on negotiating safe sex. Overall, there was a lack of recognition of women’s sexual desires and agency, with serious implications for women’s sexual health.
The findings from Chapter 2 informed the design of the second qualitative study, a series of semi-structured interviews with 15 women who engage in non-romantic sex. Given the magazines’ lack of representation of non-romantic sex and lack of recognition of women’s sexual agency, I was interested in examining whether women who engage in non-relationship sex are able to negotiate safety and pleasure in their sexual encounters. The findings are presented in Chapters 3 and 4. Chapter 3 describes four identified categories of non-romantic sexual arrangements and considers their implications for negotiating sexual safety. The benefits and limitations for women of each category are considered, with a focus on implications for sexual health and safety.
Chapter 4 is a discursive analysis, examining the discourses that the women drew upon when talking about their experiences, and the implications that these have. The analysis explores the ways the women positioned themselves relative to dominant constructions of femininity and heterosexuality, drawing upon post-feminist and neoliberal assumptions of individual empowerment, choice and sexual freedom. Despite choosing non-normative sexual encounters, the women were frequently constrained by the gendered hetero-normative discourses of hetero monogamy and gender differences, both of which subordinate the legitimacy of women’s sexual agency, desire and entitlement, and pose serious risks to women’s sexual health.
The third study, comprising Chapters 5 and 6, extends the concept of commodification of women’s sexuality by exploring women’s perceptions of normal genital appearance and genital dissatisfaction. Chapter 5 uses quantitative methods to examine whether women’s perceptions of what is ‘normal’ and ‘desirable’ in female genital appearance are affected by their exposure to different types of images. The results indicate that exposure to images of surgically modified vaginas affects women’s perceptions of what is normal and desirable, suggesting that greater education and awareness about genital diversity and genital appearance may reduce requests for unnecessary surgery.
Chapter 6 is a discursive analysis of women’s accounts of dissatisfaction with female genital appearance. The analysis examines how women make sense of genital dissatisfaction by drawing on constructions of hegemonic femininity, postfeminist and neoliberal discourses which position the natural female body as pathological and inadequate, with normality and acceptability achievable through commodification practices such as grooming and cosmetic surgery. This chapter also demonstrates how the normative positioning of the vagina as unpleasant and taboo reinforces the pathologisation of the natural body and the idea that modification is necessary in order for a vagina to be normal and desirable.
The fourth and final study is a multimodal critical discourse analysis (MMCDA) of four websites that promote the growing practice of female genital cosmetic surgery (FGCS). As discussed in Chapter 7, three themes emerged: ‘pathologising the normal’, ‘normalising modification’ and ‘cosmetic surgery is easy.’ All were embedded in a neoliberal discourse of individual choice, self-improvement, and bodily objectification, through text and images that medicalised normal women’s bodies, normalised surgery to fit a cultural ideal of beauty, and stressed a rhetoric of choice and empowerment, thus creating an ideological foundation and justification for cosmetic surgery.
Together, the findings of this thesis contribute to our understandings of how women’s sexuality is constructed in contemporary culture. The findings support the claim that dominant discourses of sexuality and postfeminist and neoliberal ideologies uphold sexist cultural values, a reality that is obscured by notions of modern women ‘having it all’. The findings also indicate that the pervasiveness of these discourses, and the absence of a genuinely empowered conceptualisation of women’s sexuality, pose serious risks to women’s sexual health.