Sydney Writers' Festival: Sex and Representation

25 May 2013

Dr Juanita Ruys
Dr Juanita Ruys.

Against the industrial backdrop of the Main Stage of the Sydney Writers' Festival sits a panel of four brilliant women; intellectual heavyweights, speaking on the topic of women's sexuality and its representation in society.

They seem comfortable on stage, ready to ask and answer the bigger questions plaguing our sexually saturated society. A hush falls over the crowd as the conversation begins, facilitated by Senior Curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Rachel Kent. She leads: the University of Sydney's Dr Juanita Ruys, an expert on sex and sin in the Middle ages; Wangechi Mutu, a visual artist focusing on the pornographic, sexual misrepresentation of black women; Professor Catherine Lumby, feminist theorist and commentator; and celebrated, dynamic author of titles such as Your Skirt's Too Short: Sex, Power and Choice, Emily Maguire.

"We should be able to take pleasure in beauty without reducing it to misogyny," says Professor Lumby, providing a concise summation of the topic met with approving nods from the crowd. While we listen raptly to the panelists' allegories of the past, eliciting laughter and, in some cases, nostalgia of a well-spent youth, the room is filled with the buzz of understanding. The audience is responding well to these articulate women and their interesting theories of the state of sexual representation.

We even take a short sojourn into medieval times to discover where the concepts of sexuality originate. Dr Ruys explains that in the Middle Ages there were five categories within which women were defined: virgin, wife, widow or nun.

"If you were none of these, you were a prostitute," she says. The panel expands on the role of women in an era that is markedly different to our own, where there was no sexual freedom or expression. It is a fascinating parallel to our own social norms, and the audience listens to the engaging conversation with genuine curiosity.

We discover that, though the image of female sexuality has undergone a drastic evolution, many elements of this pre-modern form still remain today. Emily Maguire, our resident expert on youth sexuality, enunciates the problems teenagers face in becoming sexually conscious individuals. She argues that teens need to be allowed to express themselves through self-representation, from choosing the clothing they wear to 'sexting'. The obstacles are many, and this hits close to home for parents in the room, but she ends with optimism.

"I have a huge amount of hope for the next generation" she says.

Visual artist Mutu discusses the problem of women's sexuality being fashioned by the male gaze. Fashioning these images is the prerogative of the patriarchy, with little regard for the realities of female subjectivity.

"It's a refractal problem," she says, explaining that such portrayals of women inform their own self-image, which in turn re-affirms and perpetuates these depictions. Growing up in a convent in Kenya, Mutu has always been on the receiving end of images in which she finds no accuracy or true reflection of herself. Her artwork expresses an ongoing search for more realistic representations of African femininity. She punctuates her theories with personal experiences, both intriguing and insightful.

The topic is vast, and an hour seems too little time to satiate our intellectual curiosity. All too soon the panel closes, and we've spent the time pondering, questioning, and digging for kernels of truth among the discourse of sexuality. I, for one, feel enlightened and empowered.

As Mutu concludes: "Until women represent themselves they will continue to be the tool of patriarchy. Women need to be the ones taking the pictures and telling the stories."

Contact: Kate Mayor

Phone: 02 9351 2208, 0434 561 056

Email: 11103120445b56001c3f37121c032d2c0d5d2b0e044c0740