Sheila Jeffreys Anticlimax: A Feminist Perspective on the Sexual Revolution, The Women's Press, London, 1990, 360 + [viii] pp, p/back, £8.95, ISBN 0-7043-4203-0

This work, in spite of claiming a feminist perspective, posits nearly all women as victims, dupes, or knowing collaborators with patriarchy, while its view of the male sex would do sociobiologists proud. The dominating and rampant sexuality Jeffreys attributes to men would not be out of place in a Mills and Boon romance, while she regards the penis as so powerful that its intromission into the vagina turns a woman's brain to mush and totally vitiates her will-power. She appears to agree with the sexologists she attacks about the relationship between female submission and successful heterosexual intercourse. That women may be autonomous individuals and active feminists in spite of having, and even enjoying, sex with males, is alien to Jeffreys' world view. That it might even be because of, and not just in spite (as with George Butler's support for his wife Josephine's crusade against the Contagious Diseases Act), would presumably strike her as blasphemy.

That art of selective quotation and inattention to context which one remembers from The Spinster and Her Enemies appears again here. Does she not know, or not care, or does it just make a better polemic point to omit the fact that Wilhelm Stekel, author of the massive two-volume compilation Frigidity in the Female, also turned his attention at equal length to Impotence in the Male? It would have spoilt her argument to mention Eustace Chesser's open recantation in later works of his assertions about 'auto-matricidism' in Sexual Behaviour: Normal and Abnormal.

She conflates and condemns under the general heading of 'sexology' serious if occasionally misguided attempts to study a tabooed subject, idealistic if sometimes wrongheaded endeavours to purvey enlightenment in circumstances in which prosecution was a risk (as Eustace Chesser found in 1942) and catch-penny band-wagon jumping like Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex. In her depiction of the relationship between society at large and the writing of sexology, and of the effect sexology had on its readers, she assumes simple connections which are dubious, to say the least. For example in spite of all the fulminations of the 1950s against 'petting' there is considerable evidence (this very fervour against it suggests its prevalence) that this was the heyday of this fairly 'woman-centred' form of erotic activity.

While arguing that heterosexuality is the eroticisation of (patriarchal) domination, she fails to account for (or even mention) male masochism. Given its importance as a pornographic motif and among the reasons for which men seek prostitutes, this is a serious lacuna. While it would not necessarily undermine her arguments--anyone who has ploughed through that least arousing of works, Venus in Furs, will have learnt how carefully the masochist sets himself up as the centre of the scene, dominant even in submission--she neglects it entirely. While she deplores (this is hardly a strong enough word) gay sado-masochism she fails to account for what I understand to be the enormous predominance (which pertains also in heterosexual s/m circles) of masochists seeking that rare thing, a good 'top'.

This is not to deny that there are valid and important points caught in the thickets of her arguments. The construction of sex as a privileged arena did mean that it became a rubbish-bin (or perhaps can of worms would be a better metaphor) of unexamined assumptions about gender and the roles of the sexes. The idea that sex is of itself, in any form, and at all times 'good' is about as misleading as the idea that of itself and in any form and at all times it is 'bad'. However, she tends to confuse description with promotion: just because 1960s writers mentioned necrophilia (in the good old Havelock Ellis tradition of demonstrating how wide and weird the boundaries of sex) were they actually advocating the Joy of Dead Sex, or Corpse Liberation?

There is something seriously disturbing about a self-proclaimed feminist study in which women are depicted as pliant clay moulded to the demands of an apparently transhistorical male dominance, and only able to avoid this fate by eschewing men entirely. While concepts of 'consent' and 'choice' need care, still actions mean different things if undertaken from choice rather than under constraint. The 'Sexual Revolution', combined with the changing socio-economic role of women, was, if not unambiguously praiseworthy, not so retrogressive as Jeffreys contends. Without that upheaval, would she even be writing this book?

Lesley Hall,

Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine