It’s an elephant—legs open—in a room. She is a real presence and, at the same time, an enigma of the first order. We believe we belong to a knowledge-loving society, but it was not until June 1, 1998—1998!—that we learned about the complete anatomy of the clitoris, when Australian doctor Helen O’Connell published it in the American magazine The Journal of Urology. . Because?
One answer is that the clitoris “is an orgasm that is no longer married to the penis, to the law,” as Paula Bennett wrote in 1993. With its being and being, the clitoris—a woman’s organ that exists only for the pleasure, without ties to intercourse and reproduction—destroys the framework of the social and cultural structures of subordination to man. As Shere Hite denounced on an ABC television program in 1977, traditionally “sex has focused on the woman’s preparation for the act of penetration.” And period.
Like Hite or Bennett, throughout the last century researchers and essayists such as Anne Koedt or Carla Lonzi already reflected on the condition of the clitoris as a symbol of independence and autonomy. Now, transfeminism once again reflects on it and on the thousand possible sexualities.
With this resurgence, perhaps the story of the clitoris will have a well-deserved happy ending, but its is a story of desolation and terror due to the attacks suffered – by direct removal, even today, in many African countries and some areas of the Middle East and, in the past, also in European countries. It is the overwhelming story of an organ made invisible because its presence challenges “the anatomical, political and social order and interrupts at its roots the logic of command and obedience. And that disturbs,” according to Catherine Malabou, author of Erased Pleasure. Clitoris and thought (La Zebra, 2021).
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The old order may be faltering, but it is not yet a thing of the past. For example, mainstream pornography—where the female body is usually represented as a mere artifact for the pleasure of another—reflects that it is very far from accepting the conditions of freedom, diversity and equality. And knowledge of the clitoris—its parts, how it works—is, in truth, scarce. In the documentary My name is clitoris (Daphné Leblond, 2019), when it is explained to two young girls that the internal part of the clitoris is more than 10 centimeters, they are left speechless. And then they reflect on their ignorance, on that of others and that of everyone. “It’s crazy!” one of them manages to exclaim.
“In general, sexuality has never been studied scientifically, but rather ideologically,” reflects Malabou on the phone. And this may be an ideology in the process of collapse, but there is still much to do. In Mujeres que fuck (Libros del KO, 2023), the journalist Adaia Teruel exposes a tableau of current female sexuality, and she does not hesitate to respond that the clitoris—again, once again—is now beginning to be rediscovered. “It’s tremendous. One of the women I interviewed told me: ‘How can it be that we know that there is water on the Moon and not where the liquid that many women release when we come comes from?’” she explains.
The construction of ignorance
“The story of the clitoris is a parable of culture, of how the body is forged into a form useful to civilization, in spite of and not for its own sake,” wrote Thomas Laqueur in The Construction of Sex. Body and gender from the Greeks to Freud (Cátedra, 1994). For Laqueur, as for Malabou, any anatomy lesson depends on the cultural politics of representation and perception of the moment. And for almost two centuries, female pleasure and its organ par excellence has been a ghost story. Or missing.
In her research Critical Clitoridectomy: Female Sexual Imagery and Feminist Psychoanalytic Theory, Paula Bennett demonstrated the general underrepresentation of female biology in scientific studies and that of the clitoris in particular, until the point of coining the term “critical clitoridectomy” to refer to the paucity of studies on it. And it’s not just because. As the historian of science Robert N. Proctor demonstrated, ignorance is often not a lack, but a social construction.
But if you persevere, you will find traces, old clues that link to myths that are still considered half-truths today. For example, in the sixties, faced with the ordeal of reaching a vaginal orgasm in the face of the ease of the clitoris that the women in her consultation told her about, the psychiatrist Mary Jane Sherfey asked herself if what was classified as “female sexual neurosis” was actually a non-existent disease. She decided to delve into the mystery, and found out that throughout history there was a great variety of genders, habits and forms of sexual connection between humans, and that female sexual relations were promiscuous and generous in many societies. She also discovered that these relationships were curtailed when, starting in the 19th and 20th centuries, heterosexual sexual relations with penetration became sexual relations by mandate, and the vaginal orgasm became a decree.
Freud and his student Bonaparte
An erasure strategy was then carried out, and it was no joke: in Victorian times, scientists such as Dr Isaac Baker Brown, president of the London Medical Society, proposed the removal of the clitoris as a cure for “mental” problems. ” of women, a type of operation that was practiced in Europe and the United States. Later Baker was forced to resign, but his ideas remained over time and “therapeutic” clitoridectomies were recorded until the beginning of the 20th century, according to data from the United Nations (UN).
Along the same path, let us remember that Sigmund Freud – one of the great factotums of Western society – stated that women had a kind of “deteriorated penis”, and that if they did not achieve orgasm through penetration they were infantile, dysfunctional, frigid. Sick. And perhaps the father of psychoanalysis did not physically circumcise the clitoris, but his ideas had the symbolic effect of curtailing healthy sexuality. Without going any further, the psychoanalyst Marie Bonaparte, a student of Freud, believing that she suffered from frigidity, underwent three operations to bring the clitoris closer to the vagina and thus try to obtain a vaginal orgasm. She did not succeed, according to historian Nelli M. Thompson in the magazine American Imago in 2003.
Freud’s statements had other types of forceful results. For example, throughout the 20th century information about the clitoris decreased, and in 1948 the clitoris was removed from Gray’s Anatomy, one of the most important anatomy books in the world. For Malabou, Freud’s works reproduce a “scheme of domination and servitude” in sexual relations, and his serious mistake was to confuse a specific type of mandated sexuality—dominating—with human sexuality in general. Therefore, the important question is an old question, as old as the world: how do we want to live (and relate sexually)? In a dominating way or in a collaborative, free and pleasurable way for all?
Faith of errors
In an earlier version, it was erroneously stated that “the (anatomical description) of the penis had been completed by Hippocrates in 35 BC.” Hippocrates lived between 460 and 375 BC. C. The claim was based on an academic article “Clinical implications of the historical, medical, and social neglect of the clitoris”, published in April 2023 in The Journal of Sexual Medicine, a journal published by the University of Oxford.
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