I once had a therapist, who when I said I’d never really dated during high school, told me that this was highly unusual. She explained that normally, girls who are stereotypically attractive are likely to subconsciously find themselves in long term relationships, particularly during adolescence, as a form of protection. Protection, one can assume, from taunting, teasing, sexual abuse and rumors that she’s a slut, because even in our contemporary society, as women we are still questioned and treated like a threat if our sexuality isn’t serving a man.
From before we even enter puberty, before we even have a concept for what sexuality is, we’re sexualized, we’re taught that we serve a sexual purpose, and it is so common place that it goes almost unquestioned. Yet, we’re not allowed to own that? To enjoy it, to understand it, to challenge it, or to take pride in it?
What we’re taught as women, as girls, as female adolescents; is that our sexuality is the most important factor in our lives and relationships, but that we should be nothing but ashamed of it. We’re taught that we shouldn’t flirt back, fight back, use sex to get what we want, or desire sex much at all. That we are only meant to be enjoyed, not enjoy, experienced but not experience, that our sexuality is nothing but for the desire of men. Women have the capacity to be incredibly sexual, but are taught otherwise. We’re just thrown blindly into this web of mens desires with very few resources for how to navigate within them.
Instead, we’re just paraded with these sparkly ideals of romance, monogamy and marriage, particularly during adolescence and early adulthood, while we’re establishing our sexualities and trying to build an understanding for our sexual selves and overall identities. If we do not understand what it means to be sexual beings, than how can we articulate our needs, our desires, or our rights? How can we say that women and men are equal when we’re taught to be fundamentally out of balance?
The institutions at the foundation of our contemporary society do not in any way want us to have this awareness, they never have. The Catholic church, for example, has placed fear of female sexuality and independent thought at the heart of their creation of humans existence. Eve did wrong by Adam, and we’re forever paying for the freedom allotted to such a careless and curious woman.
Based on the following questions, this essay will examine a variety of sources detailing historic and contemporary perceptions of female sexuality: Why are women taught that they have low libidos and to feel sexually submissive, less experienced and insecure? How are strategies disguised as moral values popularized in mainstream culture to maintain this mentality? How does the sacredicity of female sexuality allow for an ironic dichotomy of power within patriarchal societies?
Women’s libido, and most importantly orgasm, aren’t directly necessary for reproduction to take place. This is in opposition with the fact that it was until very recently believed, a man can’t ejaculate without orgasm, or vice versa. Male pleasure therefore has always been seen as a kind of reward system, an allure to participate in sexual acts leading to reproduction. This function falls well within the confines of the standard model of human sexuality; that sex serves no purpose except the continuation of our species. The female orgasm, however is a hotly debated and highly controversial topic because a woman can be impregnated with or without orgasm, and yet we can still have them, many in fact, and different kinds even! So why would that be?
In their book, ‘Sex at Dawn, the Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality’, Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha theorize that in pre-agricultural societies sex functioned not only as a lure to reproduce, but also as a community building activity; one shared with many partners amongst all genders and was in many ways essential to humans evolution as a highly social species.
It goes like this: a mans orgasms are quick and relatively simple, a woman’s are complex and can go on for hours, days, for hours every day for days if they’re done right. So a woman would have the ability, or perhaps more accurately, the stamina, to be with many different partners. So, unlike Gorillas, our close primate relatives, for example, who compete for fathering rights in a physical battle prior to copulation, our paternal battles would be on more of a cellular level, literally a seminal level, allowing the strongest swimmer in the bunch to take the prize. In this way, the father of every child would be ambiguous and parenting was a community responsibility, not a purely individual or codependent one. This is perhaps difficult to understand in the context of contemporary society because it’s quite oppositional to how parenting is viewed now, and has been since most of our species shifted from foraging communities to agricultural ones.
The progress found in the agricultural revolution came at a price, everything now had a price. This system was built on the ability to have possessions, wealth and land. Everything of worth was now passed on paternally, so you would have to know which children were really yours in order to do so. Ryan and Jetha cover this concept thoroughly throughout their book, and explain that this is likely when gender roles became, at the time, necessary for survival. In order to sustain a whole farm, and because each family functioned separately, a woman would have to have a lot of children, so that they could work and make enough food to make the farm worthwhile. Therefore, women had to stay home, to take care of their many children, often on their own, while the men worked. In this way, women also became a commodity, because a good wife was essential to the success of the business, particularly a faithful wife, because what would the point be of passing your hard earned wealth down to the offspring of another man?
Although, modern society has evolved well beyond the days of early agriculture in many ways, it functions still in a very similar way. We produce, we advertise, we sell, we bargain, we buy. Wealth is still primarily passed on from parent to child, and women themselves may no longer be a commodity, but their sexualities are. “Sex sells” and it sells the most, more than any other marketable trait.
In the chapter, ‘A Closer Look at the Standard Narrative’, Ryan and Jetha discuss some of the writing done on female sexuality from a time in history when views of women overall were very different than they are today, and some done more recently. Yet as these quotations show, views on female sexuality itself have hardly changed;
“The best mothers, wives, and managers of households know little or nothing of sexual indulgences… As a general rule, a modest woman seldom desires any sexual gratification for herself. She submits to her husband, but only to please him.” (Dr. Willian Acton, published 1875)
“Among all peoples sexual intercourse is understood to be a service or favor that females render to males.” (Donals Symons, ‘The Evolution of Human Sexuality’, published 1991)
Later in this same chapter, Ryan and Jetha discuss the mystery of women’s concealed ovulation, which is unlike all of our female primate cousins. If women’s sexualities serve a purely reproductive purpose, than why can we be sexually aroused even when the possibility of reproduction isn’t present? The most popular theory is that women remain sexually receptive even when they’re not ovulating to maintain the interests of our constantly horny male counterparts. This re-enforces the belief that although women have tremendous sexual abilities, they exist purely to serve men, and to gain the security and paternity they will provide for our children. Why then, in our contemporary age, when it’s been proven that women have the capacity for a considerably higher sexual receptivity than what most men are capable of, are these beliefs still so strongly in place?
Further along in their book, the chapter ‘The Prehistory of O’ discusses the history of hysteria and it’s treatment, referring to that package deal as,
“…Just one element in an ancient crusade to pathologize the demands of the female libido – a libido that experts have long insisted hardly exists.” (page 248)
The medical professionals never acknowledged that the treatment for hysteria was essentially a sexual act, but because women were taught that sex with their husbands should only be practiced to serve them, and that masturbation was dangerous for not only their physical but mental health; an entire industry built around hysteria was able to survive for hundreds of years. Imagine how much money was made assuring women of their low libidos, diagnosing them with a supposedly unrelated disease and then treating them for it. Of course at that time the only doctors were men, and of course this “science” worked well for them, because without it they might be out of a job. This cycle can still be seen in women’s health trends today, the plastic surgery industry being the perfect example.
This chapter goes on to discuss female circumcision, succubus mythologies, witch burnings and stonings; all ancient born attempts to suppress and disguise the female libido which are still present in many cultures today. They end the chapter with this thought,
“If psychiatrist Mary Jane Sherey was correct when she wrote, “The strength of the drive determines the force required to suppress it” (an observation downright Newtonian in its irrefutable simplicity), then what are we to make of the force brought to bear on the suppression of female libido?” (page 254)
In his three part piece ‘The Elusive Female Orgasm’, published on the ‘Psychology Today’ website in September 2012, Robin Fox, Ph.D, discusses the analogy of Stephen J. Gould (“Freudian Slip” in Natural History, 1987), which is that the clitoris is an evolutionary coincidence, comparing it to how men have nipples even though they don’t need them. His theory is that when our bodies develop in the womb we all start off with pretty much the same parts before our sex chromosomes kick in and we develop our sexual organs. Therefore, any clitoral pleasure experienced is purely coincidental, left over somehow from the possible development of a penis, and serves no evolutionary value, that is to say, female sexual pleasure serves no purpose at all, not even in reproduction.
Fox then goes on to speculate, based on his own research, mainly gathered in an informal survey he did with 100 anonymous men about their experiences, that the clitoris is similar to a penis in pre-pubescent boys. His theory is that the sensations felt are similar, because neither one can ejaculate but are both able to sustain a prolonged state of bliss and conjure a “rippling effect” felt throughout the body, although he does say that the female orgasm would be more intense due to matured sexual hormones present in their bodies.
I find this to be an interesting and plausible theory, in an anatomical sense, like the correlation between mirrored nervous systems and cell distribution between men and women, but Fox is in my opinion much too focused on comparing the two. As if the only way to understand a woman’s orgasm is to relate it in terms of a mans. The article is called “The Elusive Female Orgasm” and yet he spends most of it talking about mens experience, with no mention of the G-spot, and only mentioning the labia once throughout the entire series.
Overall, the article feels very much directed at men, like an explanation and comparison that may help them to better understand their female partners. This in it’s self s a valuable prospect, except that he doesn’t even discuss how they’re achieved, saying only that, “prolonged stimulation to the clitoris” is necessary, which is just about as vaguely described as possible. Furthermore, his assurances that female orgasms are purely coincedencial, because they function differently than mens, and aren’t reproductively necessary for anything, only deepen harmful accusations that women are lucky to even enjoy sex at all.
One of my major issues with this article, and with much of the female sexuality research and writing that exists, is this idea that female pleasure centers always have to have a male counterpart. It seems as if they can’t exist unless men have a match. The female G-spot has been made to be almost like a pop culture fairy tale, like something women believed was possible in order to make penetrative, supposedly male-centric sex more enjoyable. That was until recently, when the male G-spot was discovered, accessible through the anus, and now well then it’s plausible that “some” women may have one too. Even as recently as April 2012, a headline in ‘Men’sHealth News’ read, “BREAKING NEWS: G-Spot Finally Discovered”. When I first saw this link I thought the article would be on the male G-spot, but it was in fact referring to the female.
This brings me to some questions that may require their own essay, and a human biology degree; but in utero, in the early stages of development, don’t we all start off sort of like females, until the clitoris essentially decides to be a penis instead (triggered by the Y chromosome)? Why then must the understanding of female sexuality and anatomy be constantly compared to, and equated with mens? Shouldn’t it be the other way around?
The true irony of Fox’s article is it’s title, because I’ve never found female orgasms to be very elusive at all, personally or in my research. It may be true that many women have difficulties orgasming during penetrative sex, yes, but perhaps this is because supposedly no one knew where the G-spot really was until this year and even the clitoris is often times not even labeled on female genitalia diagrams shown in sex education classes? Or perhaps a combination of factors like that both vary in sensitivity, making the stimulation of orgasms very (technique) specific, and largely linked to emotional factors. Even with these obstacles, are they really all that elusive? According to the not so elusive vibrators popularity and the sexual appeal of guitar players, it wouldn’t appear so.
In chapter two, ‘Myths and Realities’ of ‘The Ethical Slut’ by Dossie Easton and Janet W. Hardy, they give a quick historical overview of marital values dating from the agricultural revolution to present day, most of which I’d already read about in further detail. One particular section however, caught my eye:
“In his lectures to young communists in Germany during the rise of Hitler and the Nazis, psychologist Wilhelm Reich theorized that the suppression of sexuality was essential to an authoritarian government. Without the imposition of anti-sexual morality, he believed, people would be free from shame and would trust their own sense of right and wrong. They would be unlikely to march to war against their wishes, or to operate death camps. Perhaps if we were raised without shame and guilt about our desires, we might be freer people in more ways than simply the sexual.” (page 10)
Reich, a psychologist who first joined the Communist Party of Germany in 1930 also states,
“Sexually awakened women, affirmed and recognized as such, would mean the complete collapse of the authoritarian ideology.”
in his book, ‘The Mass Psychology of Fascism’ which he was kicked out of the communist party for publishing, in 1933, because it was so critical of the Hitler Regime that he was seen as a threat to them. Reich’s theories on human sexuality have been used to develop CIA mind control techniques and the terrifying treatment of electro shock therapy. Evidently, he was onto something about the power that sexuality holds in our lives and societies.
More recently, writer and blogger, Rachel Rabbit White, who has written extensively on female sexuality, highlighted particularly in the article, ’12 Famous Women Who’ve Used Their Sexuality (To Get Ahead)’ for ‘The Frisky’, and a personal blog post written more specifically about pop star Lana Del Rey called, ‘Born to Die: Lana Del Rey and Women using their Sexuality’.
In these pieces White illustrates the feminist criticism of these such women because they portray themselves in hyper femme, hyper sexualized ways that would appear to function solely for the male gaze. What she discovers however, and expresses with great respect, is that these women have been able to recognize the value of their sexualities, and use them to their advantage.
The truth is that we do live in a patriarchal society, and so as a woman, isn’t the manipulation of that institution and male gaze for our own gain a feminist act in itself? Male industries have been using the female image as a tool in business probably for as long as there’s been money to be made. In her articles, White asks,
“Why not subvert the system and use it for your own gain, your own art? Why can’t that be a woman’s choice?”
and quotes feminist writer Chris Kraus on his interpretation of the nude self portraits by artist Hannah Wilke,
“As if the only possible reason for a woman to publicly reveal herself could be self-therapeutic. As if the point was not to reveal the circumstances of one’s own objectification.”
As a female artist, I am particularly inspired and comforted by these sentiments, especially since a lot of what I’m interested in is performance and self portrait based. I find it personally helpful to think of myself and my work this way. Beauty, sexual appeal and femininity are clearly very powerful, in many ways. I have often wondered if beauty and esthetic appeal can be a resource in activism, since they have such an effective impact in attracting attention, and the Femen movement demonstrates this wonderfully. For women to own what it means to live in a world where our appearances are so highly discussed, valued and scrutinized, both negatively and in more admiring ways, seems essential in order to move foreword.
White also says of Lana Del Ray that she’s,
“Strangely self-confident in that way only women who loathe themselves can be.”
and although I find the sentiment dishearteningly romantic, I feel like this is perpetuated from sex negative assumptions in society that sexually expressive, confident or promiscuous women must be trying to compensate for something. It seems that in our contemporary culture, since the female libido can hardly still be labeled as non existent, extremely dangerous or a sign of illness, it’s instead targeted as sign of insecurity, immaturity or carelessness when it isn’t expressed within the confines of monogamous relationships. Easton and Hardy discuss this pattern in the ‘Myths and Realities’ chapter of their book as well, citing this tendency under the definition of “Pathological” calling these trends,
“weapons in a moral war against all sexual freedom.”(page 11)
For as long as modern society functions as it does, built on the bones of an agricultural idealism; obsessed with worth and possessions, equality between the sexes will be impossible because women will always have something men don’t but want desperately, the ability to control the ambiguous and endless possibilities of female sexuality. Our society as it stands would never function in a world where every women were sexually empowered and “equal” to men because our sexualities would no longer be a commodity, no longer so rare and taboo enough that they could be sold and bought at the rate they are, both as an object of desire for men, and as a goal to attain, by women themselves.
Without the manipulation of female sexuality that presently exists over all, women may act, expect from and treat their lives and choices very differently, and this is why it’s seen as incredibly dangerous, because it’s literally a danger to society as we know it. Therefore, the patriarch will do everything within it’s means to keep women scared, self conscious and compliant to men. We are taught to feel ashamed of our sexualities from childhood, in so many different ways, from schoolyard slut bashing to the fairy tales we’re read to from at night. We’re taught to doubt ourselves, and our instincts constantly, in pursuit of some sort of moral rightness and idealistic romance, all because of a centuries old fear. The irony, to me, seems to be that if women are able to recognize these societal factors, and examine themselves truthfully, they may just make a mockery of the patriarch by using this over emphasis on female sexuality to their own advantage.
Resources (in order of citation):
1. Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha, “A Closer Look at the Standard Narrative of Human Sexual Evolution,” in Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality (New York: Harper Collins, 2010)
2. Ryan and Cacilda Jetha, “The Prehistory of O”
3. Robin Fox, “The Elusive Female Orgasm”, Psychology Today, September 24, 2012, http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-tribal-imagination/201209/the-elusive-female-orgasm
4. Fox, “The Elusive Female Orgasm II”, November 13, 2012, http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-tribal-imagination/201211/the-elusive-female-orgasm-ii
5. Fox, “The Elusive Female Orgasm III”, December 4, 2012, http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-tribal-imagination/201212/the-elusive-female-orgasm-iii
6. Madeline Haller, “BREAKING NEWS: G-spot Finally Discovered”, Men’sHealth News, April 25, 2012, http://news.menshealth.com/breaking-news-g-spot-finally-discovered/2012/04/25/
7. Dossie Easton and Janet W. Hardy, “Myths and Realities,” The Ethical Slut, A Practical Guide to Open Relationships and Other Adventures (Berkeley: Celestial Arts, 2009)
8. Reich, Wilhelm. The Mass Psychology of Fascism. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, first edition 1933, first english edition 1946, sourced here http://www.whale.to/b/reich_q.html
9. Rachel Rabbit White, “12 Famous Women Who’ve Used Their Sexuality (To Get Ahead)”, photo gallery, The Frisky, http://www.thefrisky.com/photos/12-famous-women-whove-used-their-sexuality-to-get-ahead/sexuality-main/
10. Rachel Rabbit White, “Born to Die: Lana Del Rey and Women using their Sexuality”, blog post, last modified July 13, 2012, http://rachelrabbitwhite.com/born-to-die-lana-del-rey-and-women-using-their-sexuality/
11. Femen, http://femen.org/