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.