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Nothing illustrates the feminist adage "the personal is political" better than a running argument I’ve been having with my girlfriend. According to my widely read and -bed sweetie, the vaginal orgasm is a myth, the clitoris is the seat of female sexual pleasure, and any other interpretation is phallocentric drivel. I, on the other hand — not myself possessing a clit, but having slept with slightly more women than she — believe that women can experience pleasure and, yes, sometimes even come from vaginal stimulation. Besides opening up the disturbing possibility that a large percentage of my former girlfriends have been faking it and that I have no idea how to please a woman, our little disagreement illustrates an important point: The way that people have thought about something as fundamental as how women’s parts work hasn’t remained constant over time.

That the female orgasm is An Important Thing is hardly a new idea. Medieval scholars, following the second-century physician Galen, thought that female genitalia were nothing more than inside-out boy parts that had failed to properly develop. The upshot of this "one-body" theory was that the female climax was as important as the male in making babies. As Berkeley history professor Thomas Laqueur writes in his Making Sex, if the woman didn’t come, the "female seed" wasn’t released and conception could not take place. Accordingly, premodern treatments for infertility usually involved making sure she was properly stimulated.

Historians such as Laqueur usually read these instructions as the medieval equivalent of "you’d best find that clitoris, boy," but if you examine medieval medical texts, they turns out to be a lot more vague than The Joy of Sex. You’ll find all sorts of references to "heat" and "emission of seed," but no practical advice like, "verily,

Venus was still a kind of penis.

twiddle ye her clit until thy varlets can hear her screaming on the battlements." What’s more, the doctors’ ideas were only one sort of discourse on female pleasure amongst many. For instance, if you look at medieval ideas of sex in the bawdy stories called fabliaux (my favorite is the one where the wife wishes for her husband’s body to sprout penises all over), they’re thinking of female pleasure in terms of cock-in-cunt, not hand-on-clit.

The ancients were also rather vague on what, exactly, the clit was. Galen, for instance, prescribes that women suffering from "hysteria" caused by an "excess of seed" (i.e., who haven’t gotten laid in a while) should have their external genitalia rubbed by midwives to orgasm, but isn’t specific about what parts should be rubbed. In fact, the clitoris was only "discovered" by Renaldus Columbus in 1559, who wrote that it is "preeminently the seat of woman’s delight" and that it should be called "the love or sweetness of Venus." But Venus was still a kind of penis: "if you touch it, you will find it rendered a little harder and oblong to such a degree that it shows itself as a sort of male member." It had taken men more than 1,300 years to find the clitoris, but they still had no idea of what to do with it.

It was the Enlightenment that came up with the two-sex model — that women are fundamentally different than men — with which we are still living. Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century doctors still knew where the clitoris was and what it did, of course — little Victorian girls who masturbated might get theirs burned off by carbolic acid, and the cure for “hysteria” was still having your genitals rubbed until “hysterical paroxysm” occurred. However, the ideal bourgeois woman, wrote such experts as Richard von Krafft-Ebing, didn’t have much of a sex drive at all. Rather than female orgasm being as essential to procreation as the male’s, women’s role in conception was entirely passive.

     

  

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While Freud might have brought back the idea of the sex drive as an integral part of human psychology, on the other hand, he also decided that there was a difference between the "immature" clitoral and the "mature" vaginal orgasm. Well-adjusted women, he believed, should be chasing the latter. Freud thus set himself up to be the sexual straw man of the century: Much of what has been written about the subject since his publication of Three Essays on Human Sexuality in 1905 has been a reaction against his denigrating of the clit — and, politically speaking, synonymous with rebellion against repressive ideas of sexuality. We can see this as early as 1953 in the Kinsey Institute’s provocatively titled Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, which scandalously noted that "[psychoanalytic] literature usually implies that the vagina itself should be the center of sensory stimulation, and this as we have seen is a physical and psychologic impossibility for nearly all females." Similarly, in 1966, Masters and Johnson in that 1966 Human Sexual Response that "the clitoris is a unique organ in the total of human anatomy. Its express purpose is to serve both as a receptor and transformer of sensual stimuli. . . . [research has] established the organ as a homologue of the male penis."

The clitoral orgasm became politicized in the ’60s and ’70s by feminists who picked up on Masters and Johnson’s idea of the clit

promotion

as the female equivalent of the penis and, by extension (by obviating

Medieval ideas of female "seed" have been used to intellectually validate female ejaculation.

the need for a man) the key to women’s sexual, economic, and political autonomy. "The clitoris is the female sex organ," as Betty Dodson has said time and again, and these days, arguing anything else is unthinkable, regressive and, worse, anti-feminist. Check out, for instance, this video of Betty Dodson discovering new parts of the clitoris. This is semantics at its finest: The clitoris is the female sex organ; ergo, anything a woman gets orgasmic pleasure from must, perforce, be part of the clitoris.

What’s the lesson in all this? For starters, texts can be read and re-interpreted just the same as bodies. When historians such as Laqueur make statements such as "before 1905, no one thought there was any other sort of female orgasm other than the clitoral sort" and start looking for clitorises in medieval medical texts, they’re putting a historic imprimatur on the ideas that are currently fashionable. Freud’s insistence on the vagina as the seat of women’s pleasure, in other words, was a momentary aberration before we re-enlightened ourselves and rediscovered how girl-parts actually work — no matter that an awful lot of people before 1905 seem to have had the same ideas.

Nor is the re-appropriation of history limited to the clit: Medieval ideas of female "seed" have been used to intellectually validate female ejaculation. The real modern equivalent of Galen’s ideas, however, is Robin Baker and Mark Bellis of Manchester University’s "upsuck" theory. According to Baker and Bellis, the female orgasm causes the cervix to actually "swallow" and retain sperm as am aid to conception. (Meanwhile, Freudianism has been revisited and reversed as the male "prostate orgasm" has become the newest and most fashionable to get off.)

If, as Isidore of Seville said back in the sixth century, history is a form of rhetoric, so, too, is biology. Much of what we think of as intimate and personal truths have, in fact, been fed to us as articles of faith. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not trying to turn the clock back to some sort of Freudian phallocentric patriarchy, but rather to decry any sort of orthodoxy at all. (If anything, I agree with Masters and Johnson when they say that the "clitorial and vaginal orgasms are not separate biologic entities.") Some people get pleasure in some ways, others get it in other ways, and people’s own experience of their bodies shouldn’t be guided by what other people think is correct. Just because the personal is also political doesn’t mean that our personal lives always have to be political.

Update on under-18 condom buying: Little did I know that I’d find Comstockery in my own backyard. Ricky’s, a New York City drug store/beauty products/cheap sex toys chain, keeps the condoms in the over-18 section, and according to the manager in the place, has a policy of not selling them to teenagers. Obviously, this doesn’t present much of a problem to resourceful NYC kids — there’s a Duane Reade staffed by oblivious minimum-wage workers on every corner, building, and subway car — but it does raise some ethical issues. Nerve readers, I call upon you to boycott Ricky’s until they put them behind the register just like everywhere else, so that you have to ask for them in front of everyone in the store!

  

     

©2007 Ken Mondschein and Nerve.com
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Ken Mondschein is a Ph.D candidate at Fordham University and the author of A History of Single Life.