Discoveries of the clitoris

In document Hanbook of New Sexual Studies (Page 123-135)

Lisa Jean Moore

College of Staten Island/The Graduate Center, CUNY

In the early 1990s, I worked on a national sex information switchboard for a couple of years. Much to my surprise, a majority of the callers were men, and their two most common questions were: “What is the normal penis size?” and “Where is the clitoris?”

Trained to provide anonymous, non-judgmental, and accurate information to callers, I would respond that most penises when erect were between 5 and 7 inches long. I could almost feel the relief as these callers thanked me, quickly hanging up the phone to get on with their days, secure in the validation that they (and their penises) were “okay.”

As for the clitoris question, I instructed callers to place their hands in a praying position, bend their knuckles slightly and imagine this as the vagina. If the area between the thumbs was the vagina opening, the clitoris was roughly located in the place above the tips of their thumbs, in the triangular area. I never felt as if this answer was quite as successful. Many callers fumbled or dropped the phone while trying to follow my instructions. Some callers were clearly confused by the model as they asked, “So it’s a hole?” or “But what does the vagina really look like?” Furthermore, I was increasingly alarmed by the steady stream of female callers who asked for instructions on how to find their own clitorises or wanted suggestions on how to experience orgasms exclusively though vaginal penetration. “Is there something wrong with me?” they inquired when discussing how dissatisfying penis–vagina sex was, oftentimes explaining that they had never experienced an orgasm during sex. (Tellingly, decorating the office wall was a hand-drawn cartoon of a vagina that said “The clitoris. If you can’t find it, you can’t come.”) Clearly there is something baffling and mysterious about the clitoris. According to a small sample of people calling a sex information line, even though size doesn’t matter, location and purpose do. Where is it? What does it do?

And finding and exploring the clitoris is not just an intimate affair. Simultaneous to these personal concerns about one’s own and others’ sexual bodies, the management of the clitoris also figures prominently in international human rights, through debates about female genital cutting (FGC, sometimes also referred to as clitoridectomy, or female genital mutilation, FGM). According to the United Nations, “FGC/FGM refers to all procedures involving partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for cultural or other non-medical reasons.” Generally presented as a practice that is exclusively performed by “other” cultures,

[F]emale circumcision has been practiced in the United States since at least the nineteenth century. Cases of its use in the late nineteenth through the early twentieth century were for the treatment of masturbation (by both women and girls) and nymphomania – a term used interchangeably

with masturbation and with what was regarded as excessive amounts of sex.

(Webber 2003:65) According to the Center for Reproductive Rights, it is estimated that, worldwide, 130 million women have experienced female genital cutting.

When one attempts to define the clitoris, it becomes increasingly apparent that the definitions are constrained by social 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. How is it, then, that this piece of flesh has inspired such personal and cultural anxiety? Taking a look at some of the Western “experts” who have produced images of female bodies and sexualities, it is clear that the clitoris is a very elusive, dangerous, and complicated invention. Referring to the clitoris as an

“invention” means that the definition and representation of this piece of flesh is something that changes through time and depending on who is defining it.

Histories of the clitoris

Anatomists, psychoanalysts, sexologists, and pornographers have all established their professional reputations by claiming expertise about the clitoris. “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”

(Moore and Clarke 1995:256). Different male anatomical explorers dispute the

“scientific” discovery of the clitoris. In 1559, Realdo Colombo wrote of discovering the clitoris, “the seat of women’s delight,” and he called it “so pretty and useful a thing” in his De re anatomica. But bio-colonizers Kasper Bartholin, Gabriel Fallopius and Ambroise Pare were also making claims to parts of women’s bodies and challenged the crediting of Colombo with the clitoris. According to historian Thomas Laqueur (1990), prior to the mid-eighteenth 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, the father of psychoanalysis, 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. Sexologists of the 1930s and 1940s, notably Havelock Ellis and Robert Latou Dickinson, read female genital physiology as evidence of their sexual experiences, often citing an enlarged clitoris as proof of prostitution or lesbianism. “Whether she chose under examination to reveal her ‘sins’

verbally or not, a woman’s genitalia revealed her confession to the sexologist, her confessor. Her sex practices alone or with others, with men or women, in a normal or

Handbook of the new sexuality studies 110

abnormal manner, thus entered the realm of the scientifically knowable. On the examining table, literally wide open under his scrutiny, Dickinson’s subject could not hide her sexual secrets from him” (Miller 2000, 80). 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 – a male critic wrote:

“much of her earlier work showed a womanly preoccupation with sex, an uneasy selection of phallic symbols in her flowers, a delight in their nascent qualities” (cited in Mitchell 1978 682).

In 1953, Alfred Kinsey 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. Importantly, a survey of lay and medical dictionaries found that definitions of the clitoris refer to the male body as a template or norm from which the female body is somehow derived (Braun and Kitzinger 2001). This definition process often implies 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.

Pornography is another realm where individuals get information about human genitalia that contributes to the confusion and mystique about the clitoris. In an issue of Men’s Health magazine (2000), an article called “Sex Tricks from Skin Flicks” provides advice for readers from forty X-rated films. For example: “You know her clitoris needs attention, especially as she nears climax. But it’s hard to find such a tiny target when both your bodies are moving. Use the flat of your palm to make broad, quick circular motions around the front of her vaginal opening. That way, you’re sure to hit the spot.” Clearly, some men and women are viewing pornography as an instructional aid in their genital and sexual exploration.

Whether it is in print, film, or online media, the clitoris (or “clit,” as it is referred to almost exclusively in porn) has been depicted with great attention to detail and celebration of diversity of shape, size and color. That is not to say all renderings of the clitoris are intentionally feminist or particularly instructive. In 1972, in the most profitable movie in film history, Deep Throat, directed by Gerard Damiano, the actress Linda Lovelace’s clitoris is nine inches down her throat. The only way for her to experience orgasm is to have her throat stimulated with a long, erect penis. Contemporary films feature the clitoris, such as director Jack Remy’s Pleasure Spot (1986) plotted around a clitoral transplant, and Papi Chulo Facesitting (2005) presenting the main character “Luv” positioning her clitoris over the nose of Tom. Pornographic series such as Tales from the Clit, Terrors from the Clit, and Pussy Fingers each offer a variety of shots of the clitoris as part of female genital anatomy and female sexual expression.

Polishing the pearl: discoveries of the clitoris 111

Feminist insurgencies

During the 1970s, consciousness-raising groups of women equipped with plastic vaginal speculums, mirrors and flashlights taught one another how to explore their sexual and reproductive organs. These groups of women fueled the Feminist Self-Help Health Movement and created fertile ground for feminist reformation of anatomical texts. These self-examinations and group meetings revolutionized existing descriptions and renderings of the clitoris (Federation of Feminist Women’s Health Centers 1981). “From minor homologue it is transfigured into the raison d’être of other organs. Deliberate, self conscious effort is made to present the clitoris as a ‘functioning integrate unit”’ (Moore and Clarke 1995:280). The Hite Report on Female Sexuality published in 1976 was based on data drawn from 1844 of 3,000 anonymous questionnaires distributed to American women aged between fourteen and seventy-eight. Although many questioned the methodological rigor of this study, the project amassed significant and compelling data about the importance of clitoral stimulation for female orgasm.

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, in Human Anatomy and Physiology, the author 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 woman’s body is adapted specifically for functions of conceiving, bearing and nurturing children” (Silverstein 1988:740). Certain anatomical texts of this time seem to purposefully render the clitoris as useless or unnecessary (Moore and Clarke 2001).

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., “Continuities with previous textual anatomies abound in new visual and cyber forms such as the heterosexual requirement, the female body as reproductive not sexual, and the biomedical expert as the proper and dominant mediator between humans and their own bodies”

(Moore and Clarke 2001:87). 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 (Lloyd et al. 2005).

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

Handbook of the new sexuality studies 112

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.

References

Braun, Virginia and Celia Kitzinger. 2001. “Telling it Straight? Dictionary Definitions of Women’s Genitals”, Journal of Sociolinguistics 5, 2: 214–33.

Chalker, Rebecca. 2002. The Clitoral Truth: The Secret World at Your Fingertips, New York:

Seven Stories Press

Colombo, Realdo. 1559. De Re Anatomica.

Federation of Feminist Women’s Health Centers. 1981. A New View of the Woman’s Body, New York: Simon Schuster.

Freud, Sigmund. 1905. Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, Standard Edition, London:

Hogarth Press.

Hite, Shere. 1976. The Hite Report: A Nationwide Study on Female Sexuality, New York:

Macmillan.

Kinsey, Alfred C. et al. 1953. Sexual Behavior in the Human Female. Philadelphia: W. B.

Saunders.

Laqueur, Thomas. 1990. Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Lloyd, Jillian, Naomi Crouch, Catherine Minto, Lih-Mei Liao, and Sarah Crieghton. 2005. “Female Genital Appearance: ‘Normality’ unfolds”, British Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology 112, 5: 643.

Men’s Health. 2000. “Sex Tricks from Skin Flicks”, 15, 7: 54.

Miller, Heather Lee. 2000. “Sexologists Examine Lesbians and Prostitutes in the United States, 1840–1940”, NWSA Journal, 12, 3: 67–91.

Mitchell, Marilyn Hall. 1978. “Sexist Art Criticism: Georgia O’Keeffe, A Case Study”, Signs 3, 3:

681–7.

Moore, Lisa Jean and Adele E. Clarke. 1995. “Clitoral Conventions and Transgressions: Graphic Representations of Female Genital Anatomy, c1900–1991”, Feminist Studies 21(2): 255–301.

——2001. “The Traffic in Cyberanatomies: Sex/Gender/Sexualities in Local and Global Formations”, Body and Society 7(1): 57–96.

Silverstein, Alvin. 1988. Human Anatomy and Physiology, New York: John Wiley and Sons.

Webber, Sara. 2003. “Cutting History, Cutting Culture: Female Circumcision in the United States”, The American Journal of Bioethics 3, 2: 65–6.

Polishing the pearl: discoveries of the clitoris 113

15 Orgasm

Juliet Richters

National Centre in HIV Social Research, Sydney, Australia

Orgasm can be defined from a physiological point of view as a reaction to sexual stimulation in both males and females. It consists of a series of muscular contractions in the pelvic muscles around the anus and sexual organs. It is preceded by increasing muscular tension and involves high blood pressure and rapid breathing and a visible red flush of the skin. In men, it is usually accompanied by ejaculation of semen.

This physiological description does not tell us much about what orgasm feels like.

Orgasm is usually experienced as the climax, or high point, of a sexual event (either partnered sex or masturbation). It is preceded by an intensely pleasurable feeling of growing excitement and is usually followed by a feeling of delicious relaxation.

However, these are generalizations. Rather than feeling calm immediately afterwards, people sometimes feel excited, elated or weepy, and orgasm need not signal the end of the sexual event. Erection of the penis and fullness of the vaginal area may disappear slowly or rapidly after orgasm. People vary in how soon after an orgasm they are ready to resume sexual activity: some people like to continue immediately or start again within minutes, and others may lose interest in sex for days or even longer. Some people may experience repeated orgasm or waves of orgasmic tension and pleasure without an apparent peak and collapse. “At best, an organ-moving cataclysm: my ovaries, uterus, breasts, and brain become one singing dark pulsating sea of the most exquisite feeling”

(Hite 1976:129).

Orgasm in social context

Describing orgasm as a physiological reaction makes it sound as though it is something that happens to humans everywhere, like digestion or sneezing. But this is not the case.

The experience of orgasm varies greatly in different cultures and at different times in history. In all cultures it is usual for men to ejaculate during sex, and sex usually includes vaginal intercourse. None the less, it is possible for men to ejaculate after minimal stimulation – especially in a stressful situation – without feeling much or any orgasmic pleasure.

Having orgasms is the most pleasant physical experience in my life, bar none, and as far as having sex without them, how can there be sex without orgasms? An orgasm is the logical culmination of sex, and the two, orgasm and sex, cannot be differentiated.

(Hite 1982:468)

Female orgasm is more variable. There have even been some cultures in which orgasm for women was virtually unheard of, generally ones with very restrictive sexual mores.

A study of the sexual culture of mid-twentieth-century Inis Beag, an island off the west of Ireland, reported that the islanders had the view (shared with many Western peoples) that men were by nature far more interested in sex than women (Messenger 1971). Women were taught by the clergy and at home that sex with their husbands was a duty which must be endured, because it was sinful to refuse intercourse (Messenger 1971:39). Inis Beag people were very shy about (even partial) nudity, about urination and defecation, and about heterosexual social interaction. They lacked a tradition of “dirty jokes,”

and even the men felt that intercourse would use up their energy or harm their health (“a common belief in primitive and folk societies,” says Messenger). Although it was hard for the researchers to get details about people’s sexual habits, they concluded that

“intercourse takes place with underclothes not removed; and orgasm, for the man, is achieved quickly, almost immediately after which he falls asleep” (Messenger 1971:41).

Female orgasm appeared to be unknown. Other physiological processes such as menstruation and menopause were traumatic for women because local traditions had no explanation for them.

More sexually liberal cultures assume that women take at least as much pleasure in sex as men, and regard orgasms for men and women as a “natural” part of sexual interactions. We should not make the mistake of thinking that this is only a result of contemporary scientific knowledge and post-feminist liberalism in developed countries.

In the Kama Sutra, a Sanskrit treatise on love-making that dates from about the fourth century CE (Vatsyayana 1963), the author does not refer to orgasm by a distinct name, but it is clear from the discussion that he regards women and men as deriving pleasure and satisfaction from sex.

At the first time of sexual union the passion of the male is intense, and his time is short, but in subsequent unions on the same day the reverse of this is the case. With the female, however, it is the contrary, for at the first time her passion is weak, and then her time long, but on subsequent occasions in the same day, her passion is intense and her time short, until her passion is satisfied.

At the first time of sexual union the passion of the male is intense, and his time is short, but in subsequent unions on the same day the reverse of this is the case. With the female, however, it is the contrary, for at the first time her passion is weak, and then her time long, but on subsequent occasions in the same day, her passion is intense and her time short, until her passion is satisfied.

In document Hanbook of New Sexual Studies (Page 123-135)