In module 6, the Sciences of Sex, we saw that both Leonore Tiefer and Michel Foucault argued that too much emphasis is put on sexual normalcy, and not enough emphasis is put on sexual pleasure. At the same time, some people’s sexual pleasure is considered more important than other’s and some groups of people are having more sexual pleasure than others. In particular, we saw that women report having much less pleasure in their sex lives than men, and we saw in the last module that the sex industry primarily caters to men rather than to women. This module will explore the politics of pleasure with a focus on women’s pleasure.

Female Pleasure

As has been seen in earlier discussions of anti-pornography feminism in the 1970s and 80s and “sex negative” feminisms today, much feminist scholarship and activism around sex and sexuality have focused on women’s sexual victimization. How different might the world be if women were not only seen as sexual victims, but were allowed and encouraged to experience sexual pleasure? This second section of the module will explore this question by considering both patriarchal and feminist discourses on the clitoris.

As we saw in the module on the sexual sciences, 19th- and early 20th-century sexologists such as Havelock Ellis read female genital physiology as evidence of their sexual experiences and perversions, often citing an enlarged clitoris as proof of prostitution or lesbianism. In this context, the clitoris was thought to reveal a woman’s transgression against patriarchal sexual norms. In the biomedical textbooks of the 1900s through the 1950s, the clitoris was depicted as homologous to the penis – that is, it is formed from the same evolutionary structure – but is also considered inferior to the penis.

Freud’s 1905 Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality includes his infamous discussion of the vaginal versus clitoral orgasms

In 1905, Sigmund Freud published essays that argued for a differentiation between clitoral and vaginal orgasms. Freud assumed that the clitoris was recognized immediately by children as inferior to the penis, or, indeed, as the stump of a castrated penis. He argued that when little boys saw their sister’s genitals, they experienced “castration anxiety,” while little girls who saw their brother’s genitals experienced “penis envy.”

According to Freud, boys naturally assume that all humans start out with penises, and so when they notice that their sisters lack penises, they believe that the girls had them cut off as punishment for some transgression. This causes little boys to worry that the same thing could happen to them; this is “castration anxiety.”

For their part, Freud assumed that little girls have already discovered their clitoris as a small phallic structure and a source of pleasure, and upon seeing their brother’s genitals, they are naturally envious of what is an obviously bigger and better version of their own genitals; this is “penis envy.” For Freud, a girl who develops normally will at this point feel so disappointed in her puny clitoris that is so obviously inferior to the penis that she will give up on this part of her body as a source of sexual pleasure, and will eventually transition to a vaginal (hetero)sexuality instead.

For Freud, vaginal sexuality is most conducive to reproductive sex and, eventually, maternity, and so is the normal, mature, and healthy path for a women’s sexuality to take. On Freud’s view, lesbians are women who never got over their clitoral attachment or accepted that they were “castrated,” who still hope to be “men,” and have thus not “matured” sexually. Women who cannot have vaginal orgasms (or orgasms from vaginal intercourse alone) were considered “frigid” by Freud and his contemporaries, even if these women could have clitoral orgasms.

Alfred Kinsey’s Sexual Behavior in the Human Female

In 1953, Alfred Kinsey and his research team published Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, which was comprised of 5,940 interviews with women. Kinsey and his colleagues interpreted this data to define the clitoris as the locus of female sexual sensation and orgasm. Indeed, the clitoris has almost infinitely more nerve endings than the vagina, and so Freud was decidedly wrong to think that vaginal orgasms were more “normal” than clitoral orgasms.

Kinsey’s study of women’s sexual behaviour was far more controversial than his earlier study of men’s sexual behaviour

In the 1960s and 70s, feminists began reclaiming the clitoris and increasing literacy around the clitoris became part of the feminist mission. Numerous feminists critiqued Freud’s claims about the vaginal orgasm, including French feminists Luce Irigaray and Hélène Cixous and radical feminists Adrienne Rich and Anne Koedt in the United States.

In 1968 Koedt published “The Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm,” in which she questioned whether the so-called vaginal orgasm existed at all or whether it was just a fiction invented by men such as Freud. Koedt argues that the myth is maintained by women who fake vaginal orgasms to make men happy or to perform what they perceive to be sexual normalcy. According to Koedt, all orgasms are in fact clitoral, and on the relatively rare occasions that women have orgasms from vaginal intercourse alone (without direct clitoral stimulation), Koedt argued that this was because the clitoris was somehow being stimulated by the movement of bodies. Even “vaginal orgasms,” then, would be clitoral.

Anne Koedt’s “The Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm” was an influential radical feminist text.

In the 1970s feminist sex education Betty Dodson led masturbation workshops for women, teaching them about the clitoris.

Betty Dodson teaching women about masturbation in the 1970s

In 1971 the Boston Women’s Health Collective published Our Bodies, Ourselves, a book that remains in print and is today accompanied by a website that provides health information to women. Take a look at how Our Bodies, Ourselves contributors talk about orgasm, sexual pleasure, and the clitoris here.

Our Bodies, Ourselves

These feminist insurgencies were met with resistance from mainstream anatomists through the 1980s and 90s, who attempted to reassert that women’s anatomies were primarily made for reproduction rather than pleasure. For instance, we can consider the following quote from Alvin Silverstein’s 1980 book, Human Anatomy and Physiology:

“With the current emphasis on sexual pleasure and the controversy over the role of women (and men) as sex objects, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that a large part of a woman’s body is adapted specifically for functions of conceiving, bearing and nurturing children.”  

Alvin Silverstein, author of Human Anatomy and Physiology (740)

In response to this backlash and ongoing ignorance about the clitoris and the female orgasm, feminists continue to conduct research on women’s genital anatomy. For example, Rebecca Chalker (2002), a pioneer of the Self-Help Health Movement, has established that the clitoris is made up of eighteen distinct and interrelated structures. Biometric analysis of a diverse sample of female genitals has shown that there is a great range of variation in women’s genital dimensions, including clitoral size, labial length and color. Watch the 1 minute video below as an example of this ongoing feminist research.

What the Clitoris Really Looks Like (1:10)

In sum: mapping, representing, and defining the clitoris is a political act. As a result, the clitoris has many competing and contradictory narratives that vary depending upon personal, cultural, political, and historical circumstances. Depending on who is defining the clitoris, it can be classified as an inverted and diminutive penis, a small erectile sex organ of the female, a love button, an unhygienic appendage to be removed, a site of immature female sexual expression, a key piece of evidence of sexual perversion, or a vibrant subject of pornographic mediations. These different definitions of the clitoris are constrained by the political and cultural context, including who is representing the clitoris, for what purposes, and under what conditions.

Elizabeth Lloyd, The Case of the Female Orgasm

The two assigned resources for this module are both feminist responses to scientific misrepresentations of and cultural ignorance about the clitoris and female sexual pleasure. The first of the assigned resources is a lecture by feminist philosopher of biology, Elisabeth Lloyd, who in 2005 published the book, The Case of the Female Orgasm: Bias in the Science of Evolution. The lecture you will watch/listen to is based on this book. Second, you will read feminist philosopher of science Nancy Tuana’s article, “Coming to Understand: Orgasm and the Epistemology of Ignorance.” The video lecture for this module, which can be found below, provides a discussion of Tuana’s reading.

Video lecture: Epistemologies of Ignorance and the Politics of Pleasure (16:28 )