‘Let’s talk about sex baby, let’s talk about you and me’.
Who does not know the famous lyrics of this musical piece of art? Sex is an intriguing, arousing, sometimes embarrassing topic. But we talk about it. A LOT. Now…having a chat about girls’ sexual pleasure seems to be a more complicated and sensitive matter. Since the 1960s, women are said to be sexually liberated, but are they really free in the expression of their emotional and sexual needs? Despite living in a hypersexualized society, female masturbation or that magical button, the clitoris, are not appropriate subjects of discussion, even among girls. Why and where does this taboo come from? Observing the need to bring the issue on the table, it seems important to first shed some light on the tumultuous cultural history of female sexuality. Looking at the role of sciences and education allows for further understanding of the existing veil that has been placed upon female pleasure. Lastly, the article takes a slightly different turn with the suggestion that pleasing that body of yours is a way of resisting dominance and control over our bodies.
An eventful history and a short ethnology
Historically female pleasure has known much turbulence, but in varying degrees according to the world region. Researchers in the humanities think that psychosocial variables have greater influence on whether certain women reach orgasm than physical variables. In most societies that have developed on this planet, women’s discovery of their sexual pleasure has been cluttered with numerous prohibitions. In the Paleolithic age, the worship of femininity is widely dominant, but between 20000 and 10000 B.C, agricultural practices emerge, people become sedentary and the degradation of women’s status seems to ensue from these changes. Almost everywhere on Earth, ethnologists observe that the phallus then becomes a dominant representation. In a large US study realised in 1957, about 577 societies all across the world were examined and 75% were polygamous, 24.3% monogamous and 0,7% polyandrous. This illustrates that men enjoyed a wider access to sexual partner whereas women’s room for sexual exploration was ipso facto limited.
Additionally, numerous rites support female’s genital mutilation for symbolic, religious, aesthetic or yet hygienic reasons. Nearly all human cultures put a break to women’s sexual aspirations, either by keeping them away from a typically masculine public space (at home, the gynoecium, harem, is locked up in chastity belts) or by reducing their sex drive (by means of excisions or by imposing moral norms that exclusively allow sex in certain circumstances).With these rites and customs, unfortunately, also comes the collapse of women’s capacities to explore their own sexual pleasure.
Our good old Western society is no exception. With Christianism, the sexual act was considered impure. In the Bible already one could find a degrading portrayal of Eve, seen as a sub-product of her conjoint. She, the one who committed the first sin, embodies the weaker sex. Women were thus considered as sinful temptresses, who under the pretense of being reserved, nurtured a powerful sexual ardor. On the side of men, it had become accepted that their uncontrollable nature was incurable, because the ejaculation of sperm actually required one to orgasm. The Church thereby attempted to regulate sexual desires by condemning anything that did not serve the purpose of reproduction within marriage. There was one erroneous belief however, descending from Hippocrates, that female orgasm and ejaculation was necessary to procreate.
In the Middle Ages, this belief carried on, and young women were actually encouraged to masturbate but only for reproductive purposes. However, the Renaissance brought back ancient models, and affirmed that only the emission of males’ semen brings pleasure to women. What is good for men must be good for women. It is also during the Middle Ages that the Inquisition took place. A 1486 guide for finding witches indicated the clitoris as the ‘devil’s mark’. Finding this tissue on a woman meant she was a witch, and justified the elimination of about 9,000,000 women over two centuries. From the beginning of the Christian era to the 18th century, one’s sexual pleasure was censored except when obligatory. And in the 1800s, scientists discovered that ovulation was completely disconnected from female orgasm, which sent the latter to oblivion, leaving women only the role of offering their fertile womb and fulfilling their husbands’ sexual needs.
All throughout history, women’s bodies have been marked, mutilated and labelled by a group who saw this violence against the other as legitimate. History sets a context of a masculine hegemony in which female sexual pleasure mainly remains taboo, and thereby under control of the patriarchal social order.
It’s all about losing
On the educational and scientific sides, female sexual pleasure is still highly absent. From a scientific point of view, the question of the purpose of the clitoris still causes debate today. Just one generation ago, doctors thought that women could not experience orgasms. The clitoris was completely absent from anatomy books, which would equate to teaching mechanics about the engine without mentioning the accelerator. Today we still do not fully know about all the nerves (similar to a man’s gland, the clitoris contains 8000 nerves) the blood irrigation, erectile tissues (did you know that a woman will have four to five erections of 10-15 minutes per night?) and not to forget, the enigmatic G-spot.
In the past, doctors in fact saw women’s sexual desires as a disease. Each society shapes its own sexual realities based upon values and visions of how best to be human. Unfortunately for female pleasure, “Western culture equates human with being male”. At the end of 18th century, drawings of women’s skeleton had smaller skulls and larger pelvises, supporting evidence that “nature intended them not for thought or leadership, but for motherhood alone”. A respectable woman should not have dared to move a toe while having sex and women who expressed unfulfilled sexual desires were diagnosed with ‘hysteria’, which was a medical condition only doctors could take care of. All throughout the Victorian era, doctors would then massage women’s genitals to provoke a ‘hysterical crisis’ which resulted in draining a thick fluid out of them, which was nothing else than giving them clinical orgasms. By offering medical relief to hysteria, one simply avoided questioning the dominant androcentric system that normalised men’s pleasure and alienated women’s. It is only in 1952 that female hysteria was erased from medical vocabulary.
Freudian theories had a disastrous impact on the study of female sexuality. He considered it normal that a little girl played with her clitoris, but a mature woman was supposed to solely have vaginal orgasms. A woman who could not reach vaginal orgasms was to be considered ‘frigid’, an infirmity for which their male partner had neither responsibility nor power to solve. Faking their orgasm became routine for the many women who feared being labelled as ‘frigid’. In 1954, a study purported that 80-90% of women are still frigid because they are incapable of reaching orgasm only by penetration. It did not seem problematic to consider that 80-90% women were abnormal or that the coitus scenario is the normative model.
Fear and oblivion of female sexuality does not just belong to the past. How many of us had sex education that actually prepared us for a healthy sexual life? Sex education is not even always delivered owing to social restrictions and taboos, and is still marked by notions of shame and guilt, from which sexual pleasure is absent. Masturbating, for example is extremely shameful, and though when one grows up, it may become more normalised, it is yet something to be kept secret and especially in the case of women. Moreover, teaching about sex today is teaching individuals that they are ‘going to lose something’, or that they are ‘giving away something to somebody’. In this sense, one’s sexuality is about someone else, and not about themselves. This is highly problematic because, because once grown-up, they do not know what they truly enjoy or how to ask for it. One is not taught that through any form of sexual activity they could actually reclaim their own sexual being and body, their own desires and sense of pleasure.
Enjoying your own body is revolutionary
By establishing key elements of the history as well as scientific perceptions regarding female sexual pleasure, it becomes easier to see how social and cultural forces define our perception of a woman empowered by her own sexuality. For centuries, women’s sexuality has been objectified and under control. This control has simply taken other forms through slut-shaming and the establishment of a rape culture which point at the masculine hegemony. The media is overloaded with hypersexualized content, so why does female pleasure remain widely stigmatized? Most people turn to the media to learn about sex, but this is problematic for women’s sexual pleasure, because the sexual practices portrayed are of androcentric nature. Mainstream culture produces images mostly made by and aimed at men’s pleasure, intending to offer them ‘sexual flattery’.
These images additionally use pervasive means in order to convince women to alter their image for the liking of the ‘stronger sex’, but their desire, arousal and satisfaction, let alone their emotional needs, are very rarely part of this picture. ‘Sexual flattery’ is a phenomenon by which men are convinced that their power and privilege is legitimate, while it depletes women’s wellbeing as they feel obligated to keep the pretense that they are satisfied. This process is mostly unconscious; aggressive or violent sexual behavior that objectifies girls and women is not even always recognized as such. This ‘unconsciousness’ is a typical trait of the hegemonic masculinity and underlies heteronormative narratives.
The fear of not satisfying the male ego reminds of the belief that a woman who does not reach climax ‘is broken’. More than often, a sexual intercourse is in majority defined by a ‘penis-into-vagina’, and the act successfully finished with the man reaching orgasm. In this definition, a woman’s pleasure does not have much weight but merely considered as an extra bonus. We talk about the orgasm gap, a sexual asymmetry in which a significant number of women experience much fewer to zero orgasms than their male counterparts. The pressure of societal norms makes it difficult to talk about female sexuality today as it is charged with the male gaze. Does a woman enjoy certain practices because it comes from her own impetus, or does it come from a male partner, an androcentric society telling her that this is something she should like?
A woman acting upon her own sexual desires is considered as abnormal, but so is a woman who does not reach orgasm through penetration. Once free in her own sexuality, she is to be perceived as a threat to a heteronormative society because it disturbs the patriarchal social order. Through masturbation for instance, a woman is self-reliant for her own pleasure. To escape alienation and domination would translate into pursuing one’s own sexual pleasure, exploring one’s own sexual desires without having to pretend. Recognizing the clitoris as an agent and object of power could for instance transform women’s experience of subjectivity.
Every time a woman has sex because it feels good, it is revolutionary. She is revolutionary because she is pushing back against society’s insistence that she exists simply for men’s pleasure or for reproductive purposes. A woman who prioritizes her sexual needs is scary because that means she prioritizes herself. That is a woman who insists to be treated as equal. Women’s sexual pleasure is taboo because it is absent from our everyday lives. Its’ absence ensues from very little knowledge about our bodies and scarce communication on the topic. It is therefore necessary to rethink our perception of one’s sexuality into different practices that are alleviated from feelings of guilt and of shame. And lastly, it is not about you having to masturbate or having to reach orgasms, but it is about you deciding what makes you feel good and what you are comfortable with.
By Alizée Huberlant