REVIEW: Teaching Sex – De/Constructing Bodies, Categories and Norms

“Teaching Sex – De/Constructing Bodies, Categories and Norms: Feminist Sex Shops in the U.S. and Sweden”
Nina Lykke, Gender Studies, Linköping University, and director of the Centre of Gender Excellence (GEXcel)

New York University, 12 October 2009

Dr. Lykke’s packed presentation was a great kickoff to the Brown Bag Lunch series. Dr. Lykke shared the first phase of her current research on sex education, an arena for fierce public struggle and debate wordwide. These are debates that, in Dr. Lykke’s words, fall between paradigms such as medical practice and cultural studies.  Dr. Lykke focuses her work on the kinds of education that happens daily in women-friendly sex shops in the United States and Sweden.  We were fortunate to have special guests with us at the lecture:  both Mette Marie Bryld who co-authored with Dr. Lykke Cosmodolphins: A Feminist Cultural Studies of Technology, Animals and the Sacred (and while I am all for not judging a book by its cover, I dare anyone to look at the cover of this book and not get really excited)


and Dell Williams. Ms. Williams is the founder of Eve’s Garden, the first feminist sex shop in the world.  Ms. Williams’s activist work has laid the groundwork not just for more expansive feminist ideas about sex and pleasure, but also for feminist and queer intellectual projects of the type being pursued by Dr. Lykke.  (For further reading, check out Williams’s autobiography Revolution in the Garden.)

In her lecture, Dr. Lykke traced a fascinating history of the “feminist sex shop” as a largely U.S.-based innovation stemming in part from the 1973 National Organization for Women’s Sexuality Conference in New York City.  Dell Williams founded Eve’s Garden after attending the conference, working with artist and activist Betty Dodson and her Bodysex group.  After Eve’s Garden, Good Vibrations in San Francisco and Babeland in Seattle worked on their own version of the “feminist/queer/anti-racist sex shop”–in Dr. Lykke’s words.

clitoris tour_blog

These U.S. based shops serve as places of education and information in which salespeople become known as “educators,” and the mission is both to sell goods and to “empower women to celebrate their sexuality” (to quote from the Eve’s Garden mission statement). For example, the Babeland site’s  “how to” tab cheerfully explains how to select a lube, choose a sex toy, or do a breast self-exam, making Dr. Lykke’s point about the way sex education falls between medical and cultural studies paradigms all the clearer.

In comparison, a country like Sweden that has mandated government sponsored sex education since 1956 (a fact that surprised many in the crowd…okay, that was me) has relatively little culture around specifically women-friendly sex/education shops (another fact that surprised me).  Recently the state sponsored pharmacy Apotket began retailing the Trust in Lust line of sex toys geared towards women.  (Again, state-sponsored!)  What role does state sponsored sex education have in this?  What kinds of politics are uncovered in the comparison between U.S. and Swedish sex shops?  Given the debates in Congress over issues like the UNESCO guidelines for sex education, Dr. Lykke’s work resonates in fascinating ways with our current political climate.

The lively question and answer period was peppered with ten-percent discount coupons from Dell Williams and with questions about Sweden’s current sex education practice and growing immigrant population.  Among the important questions posed: How might sex education be classed or raced?  What role does commerce play in education? As always you are encouraged to continue the conversation in the comments section.

l to r: Nina Lykke, Dell Williams, Barbara Bartlik, Rebecca Chalker, & Mette Bryld

Nina Lykke is professor of Gender Studies with special reference to Gender and Culture at Linköping University, Sweden, and in 2008 was awarded one of the university’s distinguished professorships due to her merits in research, education and management. Originally from Denmark, where she for 15 years led a Women’s Studies Center at the University of Southern Denmark (the center was the first WS center in Denmark), she has since the inception in 1999 headed the PhD program in interdisciplinary Gender Studies at Linköping University (the first PhD program of this kind in Sweden). She is director of an international Centre of Gender Excellence, GEXcel, as well as scientific leader of a Nordic and a Swedish-International Research School in Interdisciplinary Gender Studies. She has extensive international experience from numerous cross-national projects and networks in gender research and education in Gender Studies. From 2001-2005, she was managing director of AOIFE (Association of Institutions of Feminist Education and Research in Europe), and she is also a longstanding member of the lead-team of the European thematic network in Women’s Studies, Athena. She is associate editor of the European Journal of Women’s Studies and advisor for several other scholarly feminist journals. She is co-editor of the book series Routledge Advances in Feminist Studies and Intersectionality. A central focus of her research is feminist theory, including intersectionality studies, feminist cultural studies and feminist technoscience studies. She has published 145 scholarly publications, including 19 books in several languages, among others:

•    Rotkäppchen und Ödipus (Passagen Verlag, Vienna 1993)
•    Between Monsters, Goddesses and Cyborgs. Feminist Confrontations with Science, Medicine and Cyberspace (with Rosi Braidotti) (ZED, London 1996)
•    Cosmodolphins. Feminist Cultural Studies of Technology, Animals and the Sacred (with Mette Bryld) (ZED, London 2000)
•    Bits of Life. Feminism at the Intersections of Media, Bioscience, and Technology (with Anneke Smelik) (Washington UP 2008)
•    Feminist Studies. A Guide to Intersectional Theory, Methodology and Writing (Routledge, New York, forthcoming)

by Lydia Brawner, NYU Performance Studies Ph.D. candidate