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Sara Pascoe is a British comedian and a regular on the panel shows that my husband and I enjoy so much. I expected Animal to be funny, and it is, but I was not expecting it to be so informative. This is not just the story of Pascoe’s life; it is about the female body, sexuality, rights and more. She examines genetics, behavior, history, culture and a variety of other factors that have influenced the physical development of the human body and attitudes toward the female body, particularly her own. It is very well researched and argued and a pretty brave move for Pascoe. She reveals a lot of detail of her own life and sexual history as well as her eating disorder and unhealthy attitudes toward her own body. I’ve always liked her when I’ve seen her on TV and I have an even greater admiration for her now.
In her introduction, Pascoe explains that her goal is to find a theory of female sexuality that might help her make better decisions in her life. Throughout the book she refers to the dysfunctional relationships she has had with men, with her own body, and with her parents. She wonders how much of our sexuality is the result of animal instincts that have evolved over millennia and been passed down genetically, and how much is learned behavior influenced by the culture in which we live. In the first part, “Love,” Pascoe looks at sexual desire and evolution, linking the human instinct to survive/procreate (something that was vitally important to our distant ancestors thousands of years ago) to our current ideas about partnering and parenting. There is a lot of very interesting information about hormones and cultural concepts like the idea of finding “the One,” which is, as Pascoe writes, a fairy tale.
I’ve spent my adult life believing that some partner, some relationship, some sort of sex would make everything better. My sadness would leave me, and that’s how I’d know I was with the ‘right’ person.
Pascoe’s descriptions of her earlier relationships with guys can be painful to read. She was desperate to hook up but due to her own low self esteem plus family stuff (her parents’ troubled marriage and divorce), she is constantly hurt and let down. Her expectations for relationships as a young woman were not healthy or realistic.
The second section, “Body,” is where things get very interesting. Pascoe had an eating disorder when she was younger and talks about her struggles to feel good enough about herself as she was, to recognize the value and beauty of her own body. Peer pressure, disgusting comments from boys and men, plus advertising campaigns aimed at pointing out to females where their bodies were offensive and in need of help —all of this fed into Pascoe’s negative image of her own body. She turns to science to examine why female bodies are as they are. “Fat” is necessary. Women evolved to have extra fat for very good reasons (procreation and perpetuation of the species). The idea of “thin” as “beautiful” is a social construct of fairly recent origin. Pascoe examines her own attitudes toward other women’s bodies and the negative impact on children of hearing women talk hate about their own “fat, ugly” bodies.
…it is always society that’s wrong, never our bodies.
It is in this section that Pascoe discusses the abortion she had as a teen and what that experience was like for her. She also includes a very interesting section on the female orgasm, including the biology of it as well as cultural attitudes toward the female orgasm. Unsurprisingly, “men of science” historically denied the importance of it or even claimed that it was a sign of abnormality (men are supposed to enjoy sex, women are supposed to enjoy pregnancy and motherhood). Warning: there is some very unsettling information about female genital mutilation here.
The final section, “Consent,” discusses matters of consent, fantasy and rape. Apparently there was a famous case in England involving two professional footballers and a 19-year-old woman that led to a trial. One of the footballers was convicted of rape, but the ruling was later overturned. Pascoe makes some excellent points about consent and the “spectrum” of forced sex — what one consents to today might not be ok to do tomorrow, and bringing up a person’s sexual history in court should have no bearing on the matter. (By law it shouldn’t have in this case but somehow it did anyway). She compares it to matters of money or property theft: if a person is known to be generous with their money, does that make it ok if someone robs them? Of course not. Society has no trouble recognizing the value of money and property but when it comes to women’s bodies, all bets are off.
This is a provocative, well written and argued book. I have a new appreciation for my own female biology. I also have renewed anger at the way society continues to devalue women’s bodies and autonomy.