becoming cliterate: a celebration of female sexuality
Earlier this month, Huffington Post released CLITERACY, an interactive webpage dedicated purely to educating readers on the clitoris. The project aims to raise awareness of society’s alarming tendency to erase and undermine the intricacies of female sexuality. More specifically, it constitutes an examination of the clitoris on both a personal and societal level by providing an historical overview of the organ, its relationship to female anatomy and sexuality, and its place (or lack thereof) in society.
The article was inspired by a multimedia project launched in 2012 by New York-based artist Sophia Wallace. Also entitled CLITERACY, her project sought to highlight a disturbing paradox: society’s obsession with sexualised female bodies yet its lack of regard for their complex and wondrous abilities. Wallace asserts that central to our devaluation of the clitoris is a lack of celebratory and inclusionary language. Rather, she suggests that ‘all the language that we have in English in terms of profanity goes back either to female genitals or the idea of what happens to them’.
Did you know that only one quarter of the clitoris is visible, with rest of the structure located internally? Or that the mature female’s glans (external part of the clitoris) houses 8,000 nerve endings, which in turn connect to a further 15,000? And that – my condolences – the penis only has about 4,000? These are just a couple of basic facts. If you do a little research into Wallace’s project, and spend some time reading through Huffington Post’s comprehensive article – highly recommended – you will learn heaps about the intricacies, wonders and depths (as it were) of female sexuality. I know I certainly did. In fact, I learnt so much that I began to panic a little. Here I am, a proud and (loudly) self-proclaimed feminist, and it seems I know virtually nothing about such an integral and intricate part of my own body.
If you are in the mood (to be similarly incredulous and enraged), dedicate some time to researching the clitoris’s ‘position’ in history. You’ll find that it’s hardly ever discussed in conjunction with the rest of the female body—rather, it’s been examined through the clinical and overwhelmingly disparaging lenses of (usually) male doctors, scientists and psychologists, who sought by and large to separate the clitoris from the body it was designed to serve. Again, you’ll find a lot of interesting information in Huffington Post’s article, but for the purposes of documenting my own research, here’s a (very) condensed summary.
Historically, the clitoris has been subjected to continual dismissal and disregard. Perhaps one of the most notable instances of this is in the work of psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, who deemed the clitoris ‘infantile’ and labelled women ‘frigid’ if they were not able to achieve sexual satisfaction from vaginal intercourse. Thanks to such theories, society at large felt validated in its assertion that female sexuality was linked necessarily to reproduction. (As a side note, I found it funny albeit somewhat mortifying that one’s natural assumption would be to link the experience of female orgasm with the excruciating pains of childbirth). Additionally, this misinformation led to alarming trends of intense sexual frustration, confusion and the medically classified ‘female hysteria’ – familiar trends that had long been perpetuated.
Nowadays, Freud and those who inspired and shared his views are generally regarded as self-righteous ignoramuses on the subject of the female orgasm (a subject they clearly knew very little about). However, reflecting on these laughable (and simultaneously infuriating) theories can be useful, because they reveal a lot about why they existed in the first place. Freud is habitually mocked for his obsession with penises, but one can only be expected to be a product of their society. In a world where famed psychoanalysts interpreted buildings and statues as phallic symbols – where inanimate concrete erections apparently loomed over entire cities – one thing was becoming increasingly clearer to women everywhere: in a penis-obsessed world, they were able to find very little joy.
It was only when the sexual revolution took off in the 1960s that people began to steer discourse into new and radical territory, and to challenge deeply entrenched views of human sexuality. The revolution was integral in breaking down sexual taboos. It acted as an impetus towards gradually eroding the shroud of conservative shame that had for so long stifled the subject of human sexual expression. However, as much as the sexual revolution constituted the forgings of a more liberated and experimental sub-culture, it remained sexually biased and largely patriarchal in nature. It did not place adequate emphasis women and their potential as completely autonomous sexual beings.
So, where does this leave us? As we live in a patriarchal society that is designed, overwhelmingly, to systematically privilege men, our lack of cliteracy shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. Much like Simone de Beauvoir’s definition of woman as the Other in society (The Second Sex, 1949), female sexuality has long been considered complimentary, rather than autonomous. Currently, conversations surrounding sexuality are becoming increasingly more public. This open acknowledgement of female sexuality is incredibly powerful to women who, in a privileged Western context at least, are now able to explore and embrace what it means to be sexually autonomous beings, without shame or self-doubt.
However, we’re not quite there yet. In a society that claims to be sexually liberated, there’s still a lot of ignorance surrounding the topic of female sexuality. There’s still a lot that young women (and young men, for that matter) aren’t taught about the female body. In high school Sex Ed classes, female sexuality is often taught in conjunction with menstruation and the reproductive cycle. In my experience, I can recall being shown many a diagram of the penis in its variety of states, but cannot remember ever studying the facets and functions of female genitalia, much less the elusive clitoris. This highlights a distressing phenomenon; that education often overlooks female sexuality, and that it needs a radical overhaul if it is to successfully educate young men and women on the topic. There has been pressure on the government to incorporate into Sex Ed curriculums inclusiveness towards the LGBT population, as well as to accommodate more open and honest discussion around the issue of consent. In order to break down ignorance and stigma surrounding female sexuality, education is of integral importance. In a society which prides men for being born (biologically-speaking) with a penis, and which teaches them sexual confidence and dominance from a young age, it is absolutely essential that young men in particular realise that their limited knowledge of female sexuality – as taught to them by their schools – certainly leaves a lot to be desired.
The simple reality is this: the idea that a woman’s pleasure can exist outside of a man’s involvement is still a terrifying prospect to many, blowing minds and egos asunder. The idea that such a discreet and seldom-explored part of the female anatomy is able to trigger such mind-blowing emotions and sensations – well, that’s big news. You see, with the rise of the clitoris (pun intended: did you know that clitorises have erectile tissue?) comes a burgeoning sexual revolution—a more liberated and empowered generation of women who have learnt the wonders of their own body, how to employ them in forging change, and perhaps most simply yet most importantly, feeling really, really good about it. In the words of Sophia Wallace: Democracy without Cliteracy? Phallusy.