Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1997


Lesbian Lifestyles: Women's Work and the Politics of Sexuality

Gillian A. Dunne
Basingstoke: Macmillan
0 333 65782 9
£12.99 (pb)
x + 258 pp.

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This germinal book provides a much needed insight into the ways that sexuality shapes the working and domestic lives of non-heterosexual women. By drawing on the life histories of 60 lesbian women from different social backgrounds at different stages of their life cycles Gillian Dunne graphically charts their experiences through childhood and schooling to adulthood and paid work. In so doing she illustrates how many of the women in the transitional period from childhood to adolescence 'felt at odds with the dictates of emphasized femininity and romantic heterosexuality' (p. 39). What is fascinating here is how Dunne explains that for these women the existence of 'avenues of escape' was important. One such avenue was sport, where a significant number of the women explained how it offered them a source of positive esteem. This is a revealing fact since it is well documented that many young women reject sport because of its association with images of muscle, sweat and showers. This raises interesting questions about our understanding of the place of sport in the lives of women and in particular sporting dykes. Sport, like the other avenues of escape (namely the 'historical period', ie. 'schooling before the 'sexual revolution' of the mid-1960s' (p. 75), single-sex schooling and educational success) that Dunne refers to could all be usefully explored further.

From her research data Dunne develops a theory of sexuality which problematizes heterosexuality and links lesbian lifestyles with economic independence and empowerment. Thus, in exploring the lifestyles of these lesbian women Dunne challenges dominant accounts of women's working and domestic lives and indeed part of her project is to render lesbian lives more visible. Existing work she rightly argues has largely ignored issues of sexuality and thereby failed to recognize the impact, both positively and negatively, of different forms of sexuality on our daily lives and economic 'choices' and career opportunities. Furthermore, even work which has focused on heterosexuals has largely failed to question the social construction of heterosexuality as both a practice and institution which are central to the reproduction of gender differences and gender inequality. It is perhaps somewhat ironic that this task of problematizing heterosexuality has largely been undertaken by lesbian theorists.

Dunne's research provides a powerful case therefore for the need to recognize that lesbian women may represent different kinds of workers for sociological analysis. She argues that 'their approach to employment is neither constrained by being secondary workers nor enhanced by social expectations that they be primary breadwinners' (p. 227). As such her case studies vividly illustrate how these lesbian women despite the idealization of heterosexual romance and marriage came to realize that alternatives to (compulsory) heterosexuality existed and moreover were attainable. The life stories that emerge reveal the links between financial independence and the ability to follow a lesbian lifestyle. Dunne rightly draws our attention to the highly problematic task of defining what is a lesbian and it is clear that even the term lesbian is a cultural abstraction, yet perhaps what is most striking about us is our diversity.

Whilst not subscribing to post-modern approaches which she feels offers little to our understanding of the connections between sexuality and the material world Dunne prefers a more eclectic approach to her exploratory research which allows her to build bridges between different feminist perspectives. In connection with this Dunne usefully provides some detailed comments about her field work which will undoubtedly be of value to those planning qualitative fieldwork. In particular her discussion of the interviews she conducted or rather the purposeful conversations that she engaged in with these lesbian women is especially revealing since she acknowledges the impact that the research had on her and the 'counter transfer' that sometimes occurred during the ensuing dialogue. The description of the data analysis is also helpful but perhaps disappointingly rather brief.

Dunne's work is a valuable step towards 'filling a gap' in the research literature since until now we have known and understood little about lesbian households in Britain. It is clear that much remains to be done if we are to better understand the links between sexuality and employment and how it connects with work opportunities/careers, for as Dunne (p. 227) perceptively remarks 'we cannot understand employment outcomes without consideration of home life circumstances'. This book will be of value to those interested in gender and work and the division of labour and to those working in the area of lesbian studies.

Gill Clarke and Sarah Gilroy
University of Southampton and Chichester Institute of Higher Education

Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1997