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«Plaisirs de femmes»

Women, Pleasure and Transgression in French Literature and Culture


Edited By Maggie Allison, Elliot Evans and Carrie Tarr

Feminist approaches to questions of women, pleasure and transgression have generally been premised on the assumption that women’s pleasures are typically constrained – if not ignored, marginalized or forbidden – in patriarchal cultures. The naming, foregrounding and pursuit of women’s pleasures can therefore be deemed potentially transgressive and linked to women’s emancipation in other realms. The essays in this volume draw on a range of materials, from travel writing and the novel to film and stand-up comedy, addressing the specificity of French and Francophone approaches to women, pleasure and transgression across a range of historical contexts.

The volume is divided into three sections: intellectual and creative pleasures; normative pleasures, that is, pleasures conforming to women’s conventionally expected roles and status as well as to accepted views regarding race, national identity and sexuality; and perverse pleasures, that is, pleasures transgressive in their tendency to reject authority and norms, and often controversial in their «excessive» appetite for violence, sex, alcohol or food. In each case, questions are raised about how we approach such pleasures as feminist researchers, motivated in part by a desire to counter the notion of feminism and feminist research as something «dour» or joyless.

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15 In Celebration of Celibacy: Sophie Fontanel’s L’Envie (2011) (Siobhán McIlvanney)


Siobhán McIlvanney

15 In Celebration of Celibacy: Sophie Fontanel’s L’Envie (2011)

One of the principal debates underpinning contemporary French women’s writing and feminism has revolved around what has conventionally been called ‘sexual liberation’. Much of the theoretical writing of the 1970s and 1980s focused on providing women with the (psycho)analytic or literary tools to access and represent a specifically female sexual experience.1 The literary representation of such sexual ‘liberation’ reached an extreme form in subsequent decades with texts such as Virginie Despentes’ Baise-moi (1993) or Catherine Millet’s La Vie sexuelle de Catherine M. (2001), which provided a detailed, graphic and distinctly disengaged portrayal of the sexual act involving an – or several – Other(s). These texts demonstrated that sex and intimacy were not inevitable bedfellows and, I would argue, that pleasure was not a prerequisite, or even common, component of the sexual act. This chapter will look at the less obvious coupling of sexual liberation – in the sense of being liberated from sex – and pleasure in Sophie Fontanel’s 2011 bestseller, L’Envie.2 Or, to paraphrase the title of that seminal sex manual, ‘The Joy of No Sex’ (see Comfort 1972).

Fontanel has expressed her disbelief that, while the orgies and sex parties represented in Millet’s work, for example, often pass without criticism – albeit not without laudatory critical comment – it is abstinence which is viewed as the worst possible perversion.3 As the narrator of L’Envie remarks: ‘Je décou←235 | 236→vris des convenances dans...

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