BIG IDEAS + LESSON FOR POLITICS OF PLEASURE

A girl’s sexual life begins with a lie of omission so lets take a moment to watch the following video about what the clitoris really is:

The clitoris, the organ of sexual pleasure on her body, is rarely taught in sex education. Men’s sexual desire drives culture, celebrated in books, music and film, while women’s sexual desire remains taboo. In this section, the clitoris and (Black) female pleasure features prominently in order to address why and how religion, politics, academia, tech, art, business, literature, film, and even medicine continue to reinforce this double standard? How different might the world be if women are not only seen as sexual victims, but are allowed and encouraged to experience sexual pleasure.

BIG IDEA: Discovering the Clitoris

While knowledge about the penis seems to circulate more freely among most young adults and adults, conversations of topics such as the clitoris or the experience of orgasm framed in a heteronormative framework of sexual intercourse exclusively through vaginal penetration by a penis seem to feature less frequently. Indeed, conversations around the clitoris and attempts to define this organ are constrained by social, cultural, and political forces. In other words, there is no universal or stable definition of the clitoris, and many of the definitions reveal anxieties about women’s bodies and sexualities as well as the necessity to categorize physical bodies according to a highly normative sex and gender binary system (e.g. the presence of a clitoris corresponds with the designation woman and female gender). In the following, we will take a closer look at the history of the clitoris and how some Western “experts” who have produced images of female bodies and sexualities that have shaped the definition and representation of this body part.

Anatomies of private parts are perhaps the most intently and minutely examined as they often provide us with some of the earliest available, ‘most scientific,’ and supposedly, therefore, neutral knowledge of body parts least visually accessible in contemporary Western daily life.

Lisa Jean Moore and Adele E. Clarke, “Clitoral Conventions and Transgressions:
Graphic Representations of Female Genital Anatomy, c1900–1991,” Feminist Studies
21, no. 2 (1995): 256.

Anatomists, psychoanalysts, sexologists, and pornographers have all established their professional reputations by claiming expertise about the clitoris. According to historian Thomas Laqueur (1990), prior to the mideighteenth century, scientific explanations of men’s and women’s genitalia were based on a one-sex model whereby women’s genital anatomy was an inversion of men’s. The clitoris and the uterus were internal, or inverted, versions of the penis and scrotum.

In the biomedical textbooks of the 1900s through the 1950s, the clitoris is depicted and described as homologous to the penis – that is, it is formed from the same evolutionary structure – but is also considered inferior to the penis. In 1905, Sigmund Freud (see module 1 for Freud’s impact on the discipline of Sexuality Studies) published essays that argued for a differentiation between clitoral and vaginal orgasms. Clitoral orgasms were considered immature and, as women became properly socialized into their adult sexual orientation of heterosexuality, they would experience the “mature” orgasm in their vagina. Sexologist Havelock Ellis read female genital physiology as evidence of their sexual experiences, often citing an enlarged clitoris as proof of prostitution or lesbianism. In this context, the clitoris can reveal a woman’s transgression against patriarchal sexual norms. And the control of women’s sexual expression and “perverted desires” is evident in other academic disciplines. During the 1930s, art criticism of Georgia O’Keeffe’s flower paintings pejoratively labeled her a woman first and an artist second, generally dismissed her artistic contribution and wrongly described her paintings as male genitalia.

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. Despite this scientific evidence culled from women’s own voices, the practice of labeling and describing the function of the clitoris was abandoned in anatomical textbooks during the 1950s–1970s, underscoring that the clitoris is inferior to the penis. If one’s knowledge were based on historical anatomical rendering and dictionary definitions alone, it would be possible to believe that the clitoris is small, purposeless, and subaltern to the penis.

Today Our Bodies, Ourselves is a website that provides health information among other global initiative. Take a look at how Our Bodies, Ourselves contributors talk about orgasm, sexual pleasure, and the clitoris here: https://www.ourbodiesourselves.org/book-excerpts/health-article/all-about-orgasms/.

But these feminist insurgencies were met with great resistance from mainstream anatomical practices. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the backlash to feminism in anatomy reasserted women’s sexual response as linked exclusively to reproduction, not sexual pleasure. For example, Alvin Silverstein, author of Human Anatomy and Physiology, argues that “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” (740). 

Throughout the 2000s, video, CD-ROM, and web-based anatomies emerge as modes of viewing genital anatomy. These new ways of accessing images and descriptions of the clitoris do not necessarily change the definition of the clitoris and it was still bound up in understandings of heterosexuality as a requirement and the female body as reproductive not sexual. Notably, feminists still participate in 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 “proven” that there is a great range of variation in women’s genital dimensions, including clitoral size, labial length and color.

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. So, based 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.

Children’s Sexuality

Contemporary media (movies, TV, magazines, and most importantly the Internet) is often criticized for corrupting youth through exposure to explicit sexual content. Educational institutions are also under fire and parents have protested sex education that gives students birth control information as part of the curriculum. The claim is that exposing minors to this knowledge will give them ideas that will lead them down the path to premature sexual relationships and unwanted pregnancies.

While objections to sex education and other ways in which children are exposed to sexual information are frequently framed in terms of protecting children’s innocence, Sexuality Studies scholars John D’Emilio and Estelle Freedman have demonstrated that who is perceived as innocent has changed over the course of history. As D’Emilio and Freedman point out, Victorian upper-class white women were once symbols of moral purity and innocence.

Depiction of two white, upper class Victorian women

In Victorian society, there were dichotomized public and private spheres for upper-class men and women which carried moral implications. The public sphere was considered the sphere of immoral behavior while the feminized, domestic sphere was a space of innocence. Many an upper-class man used this notion of the seedy public sphere to excuse their own social transgressions as they sought sexual relationships with working-class women and men. By contrast, upper-class wives were safely tucked away in the private sphere of supposedly blissful domesticity, nurturing and watching over their children.

Charles Cres, “Mother and Child” (1888)

Upper class Victorian women were supposed to be the moral pillars of society. This meant that they were responsible for controlling sexual relations within marital relationships, making sure that conjugal relations were more about procreation than recreation. Sex between married partners was to be viewed by wives as a necessary evil or part of one’s wifely duties, and was not necessarily something to be enjoyed. This construct of Victorian women as lacking sexual desire helped to define mothers as innocent and made them the pinnacles of morality in Victorian society. Not all women in Victorian times could be constructed as innocent, however. The working-class woman who had to work for living – either in the factory or on the street – was at the bottom of the moral hierarchy and was often characterized as a fallen woman.

A 19th-century sex worker

However, women – not even Victorian mothers – could not remain the symbols of moral purity in the twentieth century. Women began to recognize the constraints of the virgin/whore stereotype, seeing how it limited their roles to caring for children and ensured their financial dependence upon men. It also left them out of the important political decisions of the day. Women began to protest by demanding the vote. Additionally, many women argued for new ways of organizing society on a sexual basis. Women played strong roles in movements for birth control.

Feminist demonstration for access to birth control as a human right

In the wake of these sexualized protests, women could not remain the symbols of moral purity in American society and children took their place as symbols of moral purity. They were constructed as innocent and free from sin until they became enveloped in the adult world of moral corruption. In the realm of sexuality, children were considered blank slates, unaware of adult desires and lust, and sexual knowledge was thought to morally ruin children.

Joshua Reynolds, “The Age of Innocence” (1785 – 1788)

Historians of childhood have shown, however, that the idea of childhood as an “age of innocence” is a recent construct in the West. For much of history children, it seems, children were simply treated as small adults, were expected to work from a young age, and were not protected from exposure to subjects such as sex and violence. Historically children might have often witnessed adults having sex in their households. Typical modern Western architectural designs for houses in which children’s bedrooms are distanced by hallways from the parent’s bedroom and bathroom reflect modern ideas about protecting children from seeing or hearing sex and even adult nudity.

French historian Philippe Ariès’ 1960 book, Centuries of Childhood, is the most influential and widely-read text on the subject of the invention of childhood as an age of innocence.
Published in 2014, The Routledge History of Childhood in the Western World is a more recent book that challenges some of Aries’ arguments, but agrees with Aries’ canonical text that childhood as we understand it today as a period of innocence to be protected is a recent construct.

Today, children’s agency is often perceived as a challenge to adult power and authority and the notion of a child’s or young adult’s sexual citizenship is often met with particular resistance and hostility because it is perceived to be inappropriately crossing the adult/child boundary. Often sexuality is narrowly perceived as physical sexual acts rather than a process of identity formation, which in fact begins early in many children’s lives. Kerry Robinson explains that children’s sexual citizenship is about the following: 

“learning to become ethical gendered and sexual subjects, with an understanding of consent and what it means to respect others in relationships; to respect gender and sexuality diversity that exists in life; having an awareness and understanding of their rights as sexual subjects; to be supported in building confidence and resilience in order to become informed sexual subjects; and fostering children and young people’s health and wellbeing” 

Kerry Robinson, Introducing the New Sexuality Studies

Part of developing sexual citizenship is the access to ongoing comprehensive sexuality education, both at home and in schools, and it is crucial to recognize the impact that the discourse of childhood innocence and the need to protect and shelter children from sex has on sexual health and wellbeing. If we assume that sexuality is experienced and expressed in multiple ways across the life span, then it is important to also include the lives of children. According to this perspective, the relationship between sexuality and childhood is a socio-cultural, historical, and political construction, representing the values of the dominant culture of a specific time period.

Jean Piaget theorized what he saw as the different stages of children’s psychological development

In the early twentieth century, theorists of child development such as Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget argued that childhood is a natural, universal, and a biologically inherent period of human development. This view homogenizes what it means to be a child, how children develop, and what experiences mark childhood. This perspective also defines the child in opposition to the adult. However, more recently, social constructionist theorists have critiqued these biologically determined perspectives of childhood for failing to acknowledge the multiple and changing experiences of childhood across history, political contexts, genders, sexuality, ability, social class, ethnic backgrounds and geographical locations, amongst other variables. In social constructionist perspectives of childhood, what it means to be a child is constituted through socio-cultural values, beliefs, and practices.

Parental guidance ratings are an example of the idea that childhood needs to be protected from exposure to a range of subjects including violence, swear words, and even smoking, but these ratings are first and foremost associated with protecting children’s sexual innocence.

Childhood innocence, especially sexual innocence, is the ultimate signifier of the child and has become the defining boundary between the adult and the child. For most Westerners, sexuality is primarily viewed as an “adults-only” domain and viewed to begin at puberty and mature in adulthood, correlating with biological understandings of human development, which reinforce biologically determined understandings of childhood.

“Adults Only” usually refers to sexual content

However, there have been a range of competing and contradictory discourses that prevail about children and (their) sexuality:

  • children are asexual and innocent
  • children’s sexuality is dangerous to society and needs to be regulated
  • children’s sexuality is normal and critical for the development of creative and vibrant society
  • sexuality is dangerous to the moral development of the child
  • children are vulnerable to abuses and exploitation by adult sexuality and need to be protected
Mary Cassatt, Little Girl a the Blue Armchair (1878)

These discourses reflect the way that sexuality has been constructed as both irrelevant to children’s lives and a danger to them. In Western cultures today, sexuality is often perceived as something from which children need protection from potential abuses and exploitation of adults; from the perceived sexualization of children in the media (especially in advertising); and from children’s inability, due to their age, to regulate their sexual behaviours according to the sexual mores of society.

Children have been told stories about storks delivering babies rather than the truth about sexual reproduction

While there’s a dominant perception that sexuality is irrelevant to children, social practices demonstrate that there is an emphasis on dismissing children’s desires and curiosity about sexual knowledge or keeping them contained, often through myths and misinformation. For instance, children were and still are often told stories that babies were delivered by storks, or found under cabbage patches, or that they came out of the mother’s stomach through the bellybutton.

Alternately children have been told that babies grow in cabbage patches where their parents go to “pick” them

However, much like adults, children constantly negotiate the discourses of sexuality available to them and their conceptions of sexuality are generally framed within heteronormative expressions of gender. For instance, children of the ages four to six often incorporate those heteronormative narratives into their play (e.g. mock wedding ceremonies between boys and girls, playing kiss and chase, or playing family).

“Two-Lips”
Despite the taboo on seeing children as sexual agents, images of little boys and girls kissing are oddly popular
The caption reads “Exactly like papa!”

This process of heterosexualization of gender in childhood is generally rendered invisible as it is seen as a part of children’s healthy normal development. We never really question this process of construction of gender; it only becomes problematic when children transgress what is viewed as normal – for example, two boys playing kiss and chase with each other, and/or wishing to marry each other in the mock wedding.

In Alain Berliner’s 1997 film, Ma vie en rose (My Life in Pink), 7-year-old Ludovic horrifies his community and the parents of other children by wishing to be a girl, and in one scene causes a neighbour to faint in horror when she walks in on Ludovic pretending to marry her son.

This process of constituting the normative child as heterosexual is essential to laying the foundations of the good (adult) citizen, who is usually represented as heterosexual and adhering to the dominant sexual mores of that society (e.g. being celibate or non-promiscuous if you are single; married and monogamous). Another critical component of this heterosexualization involves controlling what sexual knowledge is available to children. For example, many parents do not feel it is appropriate to talk about same-sex sexuality or sexual fluidity with children. This knowledge is also generally not available to children in school curricula.

Protestors in Sacramento objecting to a controversial sex education guidance framework for teachers that was nonetheless passed into law in California in 2019

The discourse of childhood innocence is often used to defend and regulate not allowing children access to this knowledge. Children’s access to knowledge of sexuality is seen as breaching childhood innocence and is often perceived as developmentally inappropriate and harmful. The fears and taboos that prevail about children and sexuality have resulted in increasing limitations concerning children’s access to sexual knowledge.

Porn blocker

Some adults believe that older children’s access to sexuality education will encourage them to engage in sexual activity prematurely. While practices limiting access to sexuality knowledge are done in the name of protecting children and protecting childhood innocence, such regulations actually increase children’s and young people’s vulnerabilities and negatively impact their health and well-being. In particular, limiting children’s access to sexuality knowledge can undermine children’s ability to think quickly, critically and in an informed manner, if put in a potentially abusive situation by an older person. It also leaves children with little options to find information they want and need from sources, including the Internet and peers, that may provide information that is misinformation, based on myths and stereotypes, outdated, or not based on rigorous research. Knowledge of bodies and sexuality is important to all children and young people for acquiring a sense of control and responsibility about who they are as sexual subjects across the life span.

The internet has become a major source of sexual information and misinformation on sex for children and young adults

Limiting children’s access to sexual knowledge is a form of censorship, which dismisses children’s agency in this process yet is often considered the appropriate approach to maintaining childhood innocence. In terms of regulating children’s access to sexually explicit advertising, media and popular culture, censorship does little to deal with the issues raised, but as we learned in the course module on Foucault, it only intensifies the interest and the problem. Sexual censorship has almost always backfired, simply creating more interest in what has been censored and producing desires for what is forbidden. As many sexuality studies scholars since Foucault have observed, sex thrives on transgression and so sexual censorship is the surest way to produce desire for whatever is being forbidden and to guarantee that it will in fact be widely read or seen. For this reason, building children’s critical literacy skills and knowledge of the issues may be a more strategic way forward.