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Birksted-Breen, D. (1981). Female Sexuality: Edited by J. Chasseguet-Smirgel. London: Virago. 1981. Pp. 220.. Int. J. Psycho-Anal., 62:491-493.

(1981). International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 62:491-493

Female Sexuality: Edited by J. Chasseguet-Smirgel. London: Virago. 1981. Pp. 220.

Review by:
Dana Birksted-Breen

Bion suggests that Oedipus' central crime is his arrogance in 'vowing to lay bare the truth at no matter what cost'. It certainly appears that the 'mystery of woman', the sphinx who asks the riddle, has been surprisingly little explored after the initial debate in psychoanalytic circles in the 20s and 30s, so that Chasseguet-Smirgel's book of writings on female sexuality, although published for the first time in France in 1964 (and in translation in the U.S.A. in 1970) still stands amongst only a handful in its new British edition.

Another problem with the study of female sexuality is the anchoring of the topic itself in notions of superiority and inferiority so that the theory itself has often come to be regarded as either denigrating of women or validating of women and debated on that level. Publication of this quite difficult and technical book by a feminist press probably relates in part to the emphasis on the more 'positive' aspects of female sexuality rather than the notions of lack emphasized by Freud, as well as to a change in mood towards self-understanding within the feminist movement, as Susan Lipshitz describes in her introduction to the British edition.

In her book, Chasseguet-Smirgel proposes to avoid looking at female sexuality through the study of male sexuality while keeping to the Freudian approach to the unconscious. In fact the topics themselves are those which Freud put forward in his writings on women: penis envy, narcissism, masochism, guilt. The questions the authors apply themselves to are also the same which Freud came up against: how and why does the girl turn her affection from Mother to Father?, is penis envy primary or secondary and what is the nature of penis envy?, what explains certain characteristics such as the high incidence of frigidity in women or the greater creativity of men?

The authors take a fresh look at femininity from the point of view of the girl and her earliest life; this leads them to explore the mother–daughter relationship on the one hand, and the father–daughter relationship on the other.

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