Body Issues: How Art Can Empower Women to Embrace Pleasure

Alina Cohen
Jul 29, 2020 9:01PM

Nan Goldin, Joana and Aurele making out in my apartment, NYC, 1999. © Nan Goldin. Courtesy of the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery.

Writing a book on women’s pleasure in art is a tricky proposition. For one, gender itself is a construct. On top of that, the concepts of both “pleasure” and “art” are entirely subjective. The topic immediately collides with some of feminism’s thorniest issues: Are pornography and images of nude women liberating or exploitative? How can such a broad topic be addressed with intersectionality in mind, taking into account class, race, sexuality, nationality, and myriad other markers of identity?

A Woman’s Right to Pleasure—a new coffee table book published by BlackBook Publishing and intimate lifestyle brand LELO, to coincide with an online exhibition and auction of the same name—is a valiant attempt to wrangle diverse viewpoints and artworks into a single tome. Contributions range from Alice Neel’s paintings of pregnant women, to photographs by Dani Lessnau that were shot by placing a camera inside her vagina, to a coloring book by the fetish illustrator known on Instagram as @ripbambi. Contributing writers include cultural critic Natasha Stagg, women’s health activist Naana Otoo-Oyortey, and pornography director, performer, and Slate columnist Stoya.

RIP BAMBI, from “A Woman’s Right To Pleasure” coloring book, 2020. Courtesy of BlackBook.

Dani Lessnau, untitled, extimité, 2017. Courtesy of the artist.


It can feel incongruous, at first, to read Stagg’s words on consumerism and millennials, then immediately flip to Otoo-Oyortey’s essay on genital mutilation. Yet for the project’s editor in chief Alex Weiss, that contrast is wholly intentional, allowing for the subjectivity and individual expression of each artist and writer. “Women around the world are dealing with oppression with regard to their sexuality,” said Weiss. “American women have a certain degree of privilege. Their struggle isn’t any less valid.”

The idea for the book emerged from a conversation between the staff of BlackBook’s Dumbo gallery and Dr. Amir Marashi, an ob-gyn. Raised in Iran, Marashi has a unique perspective when it comes to feminine pleasure. As part of his practice in the Middle East, before he moved to the U.S., Marashi helped victims of female genital mutilation and performed hymenoplasty surgeries (a procedure that restores the hymen). The latter procedures allowed Muslim women to appear virgins on their wedding night, avoiding the potential torture or death that could result from the discovery of any kind of prior sex life. The editorial letter that opens the book establishes its mission: to “carve out a dedicated space to hand the microphone over, where women from across the world and all creative fields can celebrate their right to pleasure in every aspect of their lives and in all its forms.”

Alice Neel, Claudia Bach Pregnant, 1975. © The Estate of Alice Neel. Courtesy of The Estate of Alice Neel and David Zwirner.

Art has always been able to offer new perspectives. In the best-case scenario, “A Woman’s Right to Pleasure” has the potential to expand audiences’ understanding of what female desire, pleasure, and beauty could look like for themselves and the women in their lives. The options are vast. Some of the included artworks, such as Mickalene Thomas’s rhinestone-studded interpretations of Gustave Courbet’s The Origin of the World (1866), focus on the female body itself. Tracey Emin’s neons and the all-caps poetry-meets-PSAs of Jenny Holzer’s “Inflammatory Essays” (1979–82), on the other hand, suggest the power of aestheticized language. “REPRESSING SEX URGES IS SO BAD,” one of Holzer’s essays begins, before going on to declare: “POISON DAMS UP INSIDE AND THEN IT MUST COME OUT.” Such selections confirm that pleasure is as much about a state of mind as it is about the body.

Call me old-school, but some of my own favorite entries are relatively buttoned-up works from the 1980s and ’90s. While Nan Goldin’s documentary photos of coupled bodies refuse to romanticize sex, the spontaneity and sun-dappled skin in her frames perfectly evoke the hazy tenderness that infuses memories of sexual encounters past. Meanwhile, Carrie Mae Weems’s Portrait of a Woman Fallen from Grace (1987) features the artist wearing a white dress and smoking a cigarette, reclining against a bedpost with her legs spread open towards the viewer. She stares boldly and confidently out of the frame. Text on the photograph reads: “Portrait of a woman who has fallen from grace and into the hands of evil.” It’s too bad if some people still find such apparent liberation to be “evil”—I’ll have what she’s having.

Carrie Mae Weems, Portrait of a Woman Fallen from Grace, 1987. © Carrie Mae Weems. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

It’s far too easy—particularly in certain corners of the U.S. where dating apps and all-women coworking spaces reign—to get lulled into thinking that perhaps some kind of sexual equity has arrived and that feminist squabbles have turned petty and corporate. There are, however, jarring reminders—a congressman calling a fellow congresswoman a “fucking bitch” at a congressional house, for example—that misogyny still persists even at the highest levels of American society. “A Woman’s Right to Pleasure” lightly illustrates both the strides and ongoing struggles of feminism here in the U.S. and abroad.

As Marashi writes in the afterword, he hopes the book emphasizes that “every woman has the right to know her body, to love it, and never feel ashamed—no matter what—whether she has been mutilated, ridiculed, or just let down by people who didn’t believe she deserved pleasure or power.” That’s a sentiment that ought to be timeless, and universal.

Alina Cohen