Nursing Clio is honored to have Thomas A. Foster as a special guest author. Dr. Foster teaches in the History Department at DePaul University. His new book, Documenting Intimate Matters: Primary Sources for a History of Sexuality in America, features 72 historical documents that trace the history of sexuality in America from the colonial period to the present.
As you may well be aware, there is a spa in New York City that sells vajazzling. The flash and style of adding sparkling, jewel-like plastic to denim can also be accomplished for the vagina. Is our current, historically unprecedented, public focus on the vagina finally succeeding in creating a female cultural counterpoint to the penis? Are we nearing total equality of the sexes?
The popular emphasis on the vagina is certainly on the rise. The explosive popularity of the Vagina Monologues, now regularly performed on college campuses, made many more comfortable with the V word. Social critic Naomi Wolf has recently argued for the existence of the “mind-vagina”connection. Commercials coyly refer to the letter V for various feminine products and sitcoms and singers laud their own embrace of the vajayjay as a way of indicating equal sexual footing with men. “Designer” vaginas are also part of this new emphasis. Cosmetogynecology is one of the fastest growing types of cosmetic surgery.
Such an embrace of the vagina, which appears to be productive on the one hand, may unfortunately also only further obscure the importance of the clitoris. Certainly a double standard still needs to be challenged. But the penis is not simply a symbol of power it is also the center of male sexual pleasure.
In popular culture, sex is inextricably linked to youth and modernity, so most people don’t think about History when looking for sex advice. Generally, advice from History relates to topics of governance and state building. But we would do well to remember that previous generations actually were familiar with sexual intimacy (we have proof!) and even gave it some thought.
Forty-five years ago, activist and author Anne Koedt wrote powerfully about the reasons our society had embraced only the vaginal orgasm and had rejected the clitoral orgasm as immature. In her 1968 essay “The Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm,” Koedt argued that the clitoris is the “center of sexual sensitivity” and is the “female equivalent of the penis.” She contended that other sensations perceived to be orgasmic are virtually always experienced through the clitoris. (This was not a brand new argument. As I have written elsewhere, Jane Sharp, author of a midwifery manual in the seventeenth-century also argued that the clitoris was like the penis and the source of female pleasure.)
Koedt wrote partly in response to alarm over what was believed to be a growing problem — frigid women. She argued that the very idea of vaginal orgasm stemmed from Freud’s own hang-ups and his belief in the inferiority of women to men. Koedt railed against a 1960s society that had largely accepted the notion that women who did not respond orgasmically to good old-fashioned intercourse, were somehow flawed and actually suffered from a psychological problem that needed treatment.
Dovetailing with the women’s health movement, she argued that ignorance of women’s bodies needed to be addressed to help equalize men’s and women’s social roles and to properly ensure the health and welfare of women.
Today, significant segments of the country still do not support total equality for men and women – not in a range of areas (especially social roles) and an over-emphasis on the elusiveness of female orgasm endures, partly fueled by the tired view of women’s bodies and women themselves as Rubik’s Cubes (enjoyable for some but not all). Our society is still very invested in the depiction of men and male bodies as transparent and raw (witness the immense popularity of Ultimate Fight Club) and women and women’s bodies as alluring and mysterious.
Koedt conceded that some orgasms can be experienced from “sexual fantasy” but she maintained that even though the “cause is psychological” the physical sensation, be it “localized” or “more diffuse,” “necessarily takes place in the sexual organ equipped for sexual climax – the clitoris.” Ditto for the sensitivity of labia minor and “vestibule” of the vagina. (Those who agree with Koedt argue that the so-called G Spot may well be a sensitive area because of nerves that extend from the base of the clitoris.)
Koedt also pointed out that there are few nerve endings within the vagina. She provocatively contended that women “need no anesthesia inside the vagina during surgery, thus pointing to the fact that the vagina is in fact not a highly sensitive area.” Recently, Dr. Charles Runels has developed the O-Shot, a blood-product injection that sensitizes the vagina near the Skene’s glands, essentially surgically implanting a G-Spot, or O-Spot as it’s been called. The FDA has yet to verify the claim. (One wonders why we wouldn’t all just have it installed on the back of our hands.)
Today, the debates around vaginal orgasm are more complicated. They do still, as Koedt argued in the 60s, partly stem from the view of women as designed for male pleasure. The billion-dollar porn industry, an industry largely made up of men developing sexually arousing material for other men, is not driven by the sexual concerns of women.
However, the debates today are also framed as being about the legacy of Sexual Liberation and Feminism in that they emphasize equality of the sexes and women’s entitlement to fulfilling intimacy.
The “damage” that was being done to women in the 1960s, according to Koedt, by making them feel inadequate because of so-called “frigidity,” also endures; for many it is now compounded by the pressure for women to experience G Spot climax or ejaculation.
The current celebration of the vagina may well help dispel shame and discomfort around openly discussing women’s bodies and women’s sexuality. But even here it seems the word vagina has become its own euphemistic term, masking clitoris, vulva, and labia. And as has long been established, the vagina is not the counterpart to the penis.
Second Wave feminists in the 1960s critiqued the Sexual Revolution’s emphasis on liberating men and emphasized the importance of treating men and women as equal. Many writers, like Koedt, focused on the clitoris and a call to reconfigure understandings of normative heterosexual sex as a pathway to women’s sexual liberation.
Not all will agree with Koedt’s argument but those on all sides of the vaginal versus clitoral orgasm debate can surely find common ground in Koedt’s basic call for “mutual enjoyment” and an end to allowing others to push you to define yourself based on what they deem to be “normal.”
The US has loudly condemned the practice in other countries of removing the clitoris from adolescent girls, comfortably labeling the surgery barbaric. Re-considering Koedt’s classic essay should also give us pause. By not celebrating the clitoris alongside the vagina, perhaps we are committing a cultural clitoridectomy in our own backyard.
Dr. Foster would like to thank Elizabeth Reis and Kate Frank for helpful references. Koedt’s essay,” The Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm” and Jane Sharp’s discussion of the clitoris are both chapters in his new book, Documenting Intimate Matters: Primary Sources for a History of Sexuality in America.