Check out my post for the Women’s Literary Culture and the Medieval Canon Project

I am really thrilled to have been invited to write a blog post for the fantastic Women’s Literary Culture and the Medieval Canon project, which is a hugely exciting and interesting research network, and which runs a blog that is very well worth following (for other people, you know – I’m not actually just bigging myself up here, honest). Anyway, I would love it if you would check out my post, and indeed the whole blog and project, which you will find through the same link.

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The Not-So-Mysterious Female Orgasm, Medieval Clitorises, and the Definition of Sex

A couple of weeks ago, I read the following exchange, posted on the facebook page of a social group to which I belong. One of the social group women reported how her daughter replied to a question put to her class during PSHE:

Teacher: “What can a woman do to not get pregnant when having sex?”
Child: “Not do it with a man?”

I enjoyed this. And the comment was still in my mind when I read this article, published in the Guardian yesterday. The headline – which is a fair representation of the way this particular bit of ‘news’ was reported everywhere else – is the awe-inspiringly confidence-inducing claim, “Mystery of the Female Orgasm May Be Solved”. While biting back the uncharitable question to whom this phenomenon is supposed to be a mystery, I was still left with the suspicion that this ‘solution’ might not be quite as groundbreaking as it was represented. I’m not that likely to pay attention to this kind of news story – only in part because I get irritated with the intersection between science and misogynistic guesswork, and mostly because I’m absent-minded – and I’m still pretty sure I’ve seen several versions of the ‘female orgasm mystery solved’ storyline over the years. I’ve seen theories about production of oxytocin and bonding, about muscle movements aiding the movement of semen, and about identification of a physically well-matched partner. Strangely, though – mysteriously, even – no matter how often one of these theories hits the headlines (and hit the headlines they do, because it’s Weird Sex Facts About Women, innit), it always seems to have dribbled wetly out of the popular consciousness and been scooped up by the tissue of collective memory loss by the time the next one comes along.

It’s almost as if there’s some kind of socio-cultural vested interest in preserving the idea of female orgasms as 1) mysterious and 2) almost totally useless, isn’t it?

But, to the article itself. “The purpose of the euphoric sensation has long puzzled scientists,” it begins confidingly, “as it is not necessary for conception” – at this point, just to be a pedant, I will point out that male orgasms are not, strictly necessary for conception, as anyone who has googled the perils of the pull-out method will be aware. But I understand where they’re going, until the sentence continues, “… and is often not experienced during sex itself”.

Now, since my mum occasionally reads this blog, this would be the point at which I deny all knowledge of the meaning of the word “sex” and take recourse to the dictionary. Or, I would if I didn’t already know what a wide range of them, and a wide range of irritated feminist academics who write about language, say. Defining “sex” as “the activity during which a man ejaculates” is remarkably common, and remarkably convenient for the hetero-patriarchy. As this blog over on (Re)Marks on the History of Sexuality fascinatingly explains, for prolonged periods of time extending well into living memory, people have found ways of defining “sex” such that it excludes acts that the participants in those acts – notoriously including Bill Clinton – would much prefer to think of as “not sex”. The child’s comeback to her teacher quoted at the top of this post illustrates how unconsciously we accept this interpretation in everyday life: although few polite, politically-correct people in Western Europe would, if asked, consciously define “sex” as something only heterosexual and/or male people can have, the default assumption is that “sex” involves a male orgasm. And thus, the Guardian can casually make the assumption that, whatever defines “sex itself,” it is not a female orgasm.

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Not the Female Orgasms. Image from Besancon, Bibliotheque municipale, MS 0457, f. 273v (Avicenna, Canon medicinae)

The idea that female orgasms – and, indeed, female anatomy, notably the clitoris – are the subjects of ever-more-recent discovery, is a popular one. Certainly, the biographical apocrypha surrounding a remarkably diverse catalogue of rather prudish and/or sexist Historical Men include stories of how John Knox, or John Milton, or Charles Dickens, or Todd Akin, had unfortunate sexual experiences of their female partners shaking, juddering and trembling during intercourse and withdrew in profound concern for said female partner’s wellbeing. In reality, though, the literature discussing female orgasms goes back a long way. I know this, because one of the perks of my job is that I’ve spent the last few days reading up on medieval men’s medical and didactic descriptions of how to bring a woman to orgasm. They’re (un?)surprisingly sound, and matter-of-fact.

Medieval authors also discussed the topic from an anatomical standpoint, and identified several (mostly fairly bizarre) roles for the clitoris and other ladyparts. The author Galen – a huge authority, who clearly deserves to be credited as the original inventor of the concept of vajazzling – claimed that the labia were worn “for the sake of ornament,” but that they also (unlike vajazzling) served a practical purpose: to keep the uterus from becoming too cold. Galen interprets the euphemistically named ‘nymph’ (clitoris – the term was used by other medieval medics, too) as another kind of miniature heating element, also designed to keep women’s bits from getting too cold. For a malfunctioning clitoris, he prescribes some necessary manual stimulation designed to result in the all-important heating effects of orgasm, whilst also warning against the potentially scandalous involvement of a man in this manual stimulation. To avoid any hint of deviancy, one should (of course) engage the services of a responsible and skilled woman, such as a midwife.

These prescriptions concerned what we might think of as ‘normal’ medieval women, but – according to Karma Lochrie, whose book Heterosyncrasies is my source for much of this post – authors rarely turned a hair when they came to discuss what the more prudish amongst us would probably like to think of as unusual medieval women. Early Modern writers, later on, would interpret lesbianism as a disorder with biological origins, an innate deviancy whose identifying symptom was an abnormally large clitoris. But in medieval writings, there are a number of medical texts that describe, in quite pragmatic terms, the problems arising for women with over-sized clitorises, as there are for women who did not menstruate, and for women whose bodily functions and high sex drives fell into the category these writers interpreted as ‘masculine’. Such phenomena were seen as temporary conditions, conditions that could occur in otherwise perfectly unremarkable women, conditions within the realm of the treatable spectrum of usual ailments.

This history places the contemporary ‘discovery’ of an evolutionary reason for the female orgasm back in its proper place. As a piece of scientific research, it is potentially interesting, but represented as a super-modern “solution” to something presumed to be a long-standing source of amazement and disbelief, it is part of the ongoing patriarchal narrative that insistently defamiliarises the female body and excludes female sexuality from consideration. This is not to suggest that medieval medical writers were atypically humane and feminist, but rather the reverse: a suggested ‘cure’ for a woman suffering from the results of an over-large clitoris is, horrifically and predictably, excision, or what we would now know as female genital mutilation, a practice still recommended by some doctors in the West well into the twentieth century.

The Guardian piece reporting on the ‘solution’ to the ‘mystery’ of the female orgasm is presented as a new and hyper-modern development, an insight that elevates a useless quirk of female physicality to the dubious status of a once-useful bit of obsolete muscle tissue. But, it historical terms, it is this article itself that is – deliberately, by design – obsolescent. It is intended to make a splash on the front page, lingering, weakly swimming in our minds, for a few days, before dying out of our memories. Then, we are to expect the next sensational discovery of a rationale for the inexplicable aspects of female biology – and another, and another – while the need to explain the existence of a Y chromosome carrying tiny fragments of genetic data, will never arise. Such a question would not fit with the narrative of the patriarchy.

Note

Karma Lochrie’s book, Heterosyncrasies: Female Sexuality When Normal Wasn’t (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005) is a fantastic read, for many reasons other than its amazing and absorbing discussions of medieval women’s sexuality. It is very academic, and largely focussed on medieval texts, but it is very much worth reading for people outside academia, and outside medieval studies.