Document Type


Date of Degree

Spring 2015

Degree Name

PhD (Doctor of Philosophy)

Degree In

Communication Studies

First Advisor

West, Isaac

First Committee Member

Bennett, Jeff

Second Committee Member

Hingstman, David

Third Committee Member

Baxter, Leslie

Fourth Committee Member

Durham, Meenakshi Gigi


Reparative Rhetorics intervenes on the occasion of a long and tumultuous history wherein the public expression of women's pleasure is regulated, policed, and disciplined. Working firmly at the intersection of rhetorical theory/criticism and feminist theory/criticism, the project makes use of some of these humanistic legacies to excavate moments whereby women articulate themselves in public despite the structures of power that have historically sought to constrain these expressions. I argue that when women elaborate their pleasures in public, we are given a glimmer of things as otherwise--futures others than capitalist and patriarchal formulas of meaning. The dissertation critically maps these moments in public culture in the reparative mode. Informed by the work of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, reparative reading strategies seek to "repair" the exclusively negative, bleak state of critical affairs. That is, while feminist and rhetorical scholarship often concludes its findings with the necessary (debilitating) effect of cultural ideologies, like patriarchy and capitalism, reparative criticism, instead, invests itself with the everyday, on-the-ground rhetorical enactments of individuals actually living, breathing, surviving, and thriving in culture. By moving from structure to the everyday within that structure, we are better able to attend to moments of human invention and agency.

The dissertation carries with it three scholarly commitments. First, through each case-study chapter, I aim to expand that which "counts" as a matter of public concern. As is well-known, not all sexual practices enjoy the same level of public comfort. The dissertation queries where we might expand the scope of these public/private demarcations within contexts like sadomasochism practices, women's magazines, discussions about women's orgasm, and body visibilities. Second, the dissertation examines the ethics that undergird the expression of pleasure in public. Each chapter contributes to this discussion by asking to what extent holding the question of sexual ethics open is (im)possible. Third, the project aims to reinvest women with sexual agency by engaging in scholarship that does justice to their agential enactments. While much of the scholarly terrain remains committed to explicating how women are blindly trapped in an oppressive structure of control, this project instead, turns to moments wherein women voice themselves despite or because of those vectors of control.

To animate this recognition, I draw from both cultural productions firmly at the normative center and the marginal periphery to critically map the effectivities of these constitutive articulations unto sexual-cultural meaning-making practices. In particular, the dissertation analyzes sexual publics forged around mainstream texts such as Fifty Shades of Grey (chapter two) and Cosmopolitan magazine (chapter one) in an effort to rescue these cultures from exclusively paranoid judgments and, instead, ask what a reparative reading strategy might offer these discourses of pleasure. Additionally, I also look to the marked margins, wherein sexual publics are born out of political discussions about women's orgasms (chapter four) and the (in)visibilities of women's bodies (chapter three) to imagine what kinds of sexual avenues are made possible therein. The three contributions emphasize the tremendous importance of attuning ourselves to context while critically preparing for the provisionality of cultural assessments. Taken together, the case-studies approximate that end and seek to highlight the multivocality of productive pleasure expressions in our everyday lives.

The mode in which I engage these commitments serves a critical purpose often overlooked when scholars, teachers, and activists begin assessing women's relationships to sex, pleasure, and desire. A now oft-repeated trope in approaching these problematics surfaces as the question: is this liberating or oppressive? Are women, in this instance, hapless victims or transgressive agents? Reparative Rhetorics elucidates the naivety of such questions because lived realities are surely more complex than either/or explanatory logics. To ask if women are hapless victims or transgressive agents in this or that socio-political moment predestines the critical process to simplistic rhetorical assessments so inflexible, their relevance to the production of humanistic theories, classrooms, and future research falters. The project concludes by proposing that sharing pleasure knowledges in public builds productive resources for navigating our social-sexual worlds.

Public Abstract

Reparative Rhetorics seeks to understand how women express their sexual pleasures in public despite or because of socio-cultural expectations to the contrary. Women often find themselves in a double-bind when it comes to expressing sexual pleasure publicly. On the one hand, women are instructed to practice a certain level of modesty and not to share “inappropriate” feelings or “private” desires. On the other hand, women experience a hyper-sexualized culture that demands we express ourselves through dominant, mediated ideals. To trouble this double-bind, the project asks where women are elaborating pleasure beyond and within these two poles to illustrate how the lived realities of women exceed binary assumptions of the “right” way to express pleasure.

The project consists of four inter-related case-studies. Chapters one and two analyze the popular circulation of mainstream texts such as Cosmopolitan magazine and Fifty Shades of Grey. Those chapters elucidate not only how women engage these texts as active readers, but they also show how the mass circulation of pleasures renders the discussion of sex in public more capacious, and thus, more productive. Chapters three and four analyze public discussions about women’s bodies and their orgasms to ask how what we know about sex and bodies influences, but does not determine, how women give meaning to their bodies and their pleasures. The project concludes that publicly circulating pleasure knowledges can serve as helpful and healthy resources for women navigating their social-sexual worlds.


Bodies, Ethics, Pleasure, Public, Reparative Reading, Sexuality


xi, 251 pages


Includes bibliographical references (pages 221-251).


Copyright © 2015 Michaela Frischherz

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