BIG IDEAS + LESSON FOR POLITICS OF PLEASURE

Introduction

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. Other groups of people, notably children, are considered to be asexual, and so the mere notion of their having sexual pleasure, even if it is autoerotic, is considered abnormal and dangerous and is currently taboo. This module will explore the politics of pleasure with respect to these two cases: children and women.

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.

John D’Emilia and Estelle Freedman’s Intimate Matters

In Victorian society, there were dichotomized public and private spheres for upper and middle 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. White, upper and middle class Victorian women were supposed to be the moral pillars of society. This meant that they were responsible for controlling sexuality within the household, both within the marital relation and by watching over their children to intervene in masturbation. As we saw in an earlier module, in the 19th and early 20th centuries masturbation was constructed as a health hazard. Children, especially male children, were not considered sexless or innocent but were understood to be highly prone to “self-abuse.” The construct of women as themselves lacking sexual desire helped to define upper and middle class white mothers as sexually innocent. Not all women in Victorian times could be constructed as innocent, however. Women who had to work for living – either in the factory or on the street – were at the bottom of the moral hierarchy and were often characterized as fallen women.

A 19th-century sex worker

Women could not remain the symbols of moral purity in the twentieth century, however, when they began arguing for new ways of organizing society on a sexual basis, for sexual liberation, and for access to birth control. In the wake of these sexualized protests, children took women’s 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 came to be 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 were treated as small adults, were expected to work from a young age, and were not protected from profane language and exposure to subjects such as sex and violence. Historically children would have witnessed adults having sex in their households as it was common to share sleeping spaces including beds. Typical 20th-century Western architectural designs for middle-class family homes in which children’s bedrooms are distanced by hallways and stairs from the parents’ bedroom and bathroom reflect relatively recent 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 met with particular resistance because it is perceived to be inappropriately crossing the adult/child boundary. Sexuality has been constructed as both irrelevant to children’s lives and a danger to them. In Western cultures today, children are constructed as needing protection from sexuality and as beings for whom sexuality is otherwise unimportant. While there’s a dominant perception that sexuality is irrelevant to children except as a danger, social practices demonstrate a dismissal of children’s desires and curiosity about sexuality. In fact, children’s sexuality is being contained through myths and misinformation. For instance, children were and are still told that babies are delivered to parents by storks, or that they are found under cabbage patches, or that they came out of the mother’s stomach through the bellybutton.

Children have been told stories about storks delivering babies rather than the truth about sexual reproduction
Alternately children have been told that babies grow in cabbage patches where their parents go to “pick” them

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

According to scholars such as Robinson, 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 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. Part of developing sexual citizenship is the access to ongoing comprehensive sexual education, both at home and in schools, and this sexual education should cover sexual pleasures as well as sexual risks and dangers.

The caption reads, “Just like papa!”

Although constructed as sexless, children are also assumed to be (future) heterosexuals and, like adults, they constantly negotiate the discourses of sexuality available to them. For instance, children of the ages four to six often incorporate heteronormative narratives into their play, performing mock wedding ceremonies between boys and girls, playing kiss and chase, or playing family. This process of heterosexualization in childhood is generally rendered invisible or is seen to be part of children’s healthy and normal development. The process of constructing children’s gender is rarely questioned, and 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.

Kathryn Bond Stockton’s The Queer Child
Steven Bruhm and Nat Hurley’s On the Queerness of Children
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.

A 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 regulate and restrict children access to sexual knowledge. Access to sexual knowledge is seen as breaching childhood innocence and as developmentally inappropriate and harmful. Some adults believe that older children’s access to sexual education will encourage them to engage in sexual activity prematurely. While practices limiting access to sexual knowledge are defended in the name of protecting childhood innocence, such regulations may actually increase children’s and young people’s vulnerabilities and negatively impact their health and well-being. In particular, limiting children’s access to sexual knowledge can undermine their 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 few options to find information they want and need. 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.

Net Nanny

In terms of regulating children’s access to sexually explicit advertising, media and popular culture, censorship often backfires. As we learned in the course module on Foucault, censorship and prohibition intensifies or even generates curiosity about what has been censored, 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 generate desire for whatever is being restricted. For this reason, building children’s critical literacy skills and knowledge of the issues may be a more strategic way forward.

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, boy would assume that all humans started out with penises, and so when they noticed that their sisters lacked penises, they would believe they had had them cut off as punishment for some transgression, and would worry that the same thing could happen to them; this is “castration anxiety.” For their part, Freud assumed that little girls would have already discovered their clitoris as a small phallic structure that was a source of pleasure to them, and upon seeing their brother’s genitals, they would be envious that his was bigger and obviously better than hers; 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, and maintained by women who faked vaginal orgasms to make men happy or to perform what they perceived to be sexual normalcy out of feelings of insecurity. 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 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 )