The politics of orgasm
More generally, sexuality became one of the central issues of second-wave feminism. The sexual oppression of women came to be seen as a central – by some theorists, as the most central – area of male power over women. The new women’s movement thus adopted the slogan ‘the personal is political’, expressing the idea that many of women’s ‘personal’ life experiences are in fact rooted in the subordinated position that women as a group have within
the gendered power structure. Consciousness-raising groups that aimed to increase awareness of the structural basis of individual women’s experiences were consequently seen as an important basis for collective political action. Within the context of this politicization of the ‘private’, sexuality was intensely discussed and problematized. It was central to an important part of feminist theory and activism since the 1970s, including issues such as the right to sexual pleasure, the right to say ‘no’, political lesbianism, and debates around contraception, abortion, rape, sexual abuse, pornography, prostitution, and sexual harassment; most of the issues that mainstream politics had conventionally defined as part of the ‘private’ sphere of the family and the individual citizen. Feminist activism undertook to introduce the politics of sex into the political arena – and generally succeeded.
The feminist problematization of sexuality did not, however, constitute a unified whole. Since Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics (1970), multiple and diverging voices have participated and contributed to the debates on sexuality. Disagreements on the role of sexuality in relations of power between men and women led to both political and theoretical differences in analysis. Influential socialist feminists such as Zillah Eisenstein, Michele Barrett, and Juliet Mitchell, or the French 1970s Psych etPo’ (psychoanalysis and politics) group, turned towards Marxism, Freudianism, or a mix of the two to explore sexual repression and its links to capitalism. Others rejected psychoanalysis altogether for its perceived fundamental misogyny, while the Marxist assumption that the exploitation of women would come to an end with the withering away of the state was dismissed on the grounds that ‘we cannot wait that long’, as Germaine Greer put it in the Female Eunuch (1971). Alternative perspectives emerged over the next decades, including post-structuralist, postmodern, and postcolonial analyses of gender and sexuality, which currently compete with psychoanalytical and materialist/post-Marxist theory.
One of the most prominent theoretical battlegrounds over competing theories of female sexuality emerged within sexology. For a long time, sex research had considered female sexuality as a simple response to male instincts, as we have seen in Chapter 2.
By investigating female sexuality as an autonomous research object, the US sexologist Kinsey opened up new ways of studying and of interpreting both male and female sexuality. This path was further pursued by sexologists like Masters and Johnson, Fisher, Kaplan, Sherfey, and Hite, as well as Friday’s best-selling series of studies on male and female sexual fantasies. The study of female sexuality was particularly marked by controversies around female orgasm and its link to female anatomy. The emerging women’s movement enthusiastically welcomed the research of sexologists Masters and Johnson whose laboratory observation of over 10,000 male and female orgasms in the 1960s had revealed women’s virtually unlimited orgasmic capacities. In their 1970 work The Pleasure Bond, Masters and Johnson – who had already described themselves as ‘not remotely’ feminists a few years earlier – had equated women’s liberation with sexual liberation and argued against the double moral standard which, they argued, taught women more than men to repress their sexual desires. Their rehabilitation of the important role of the clitoris for female sexual pleasure contrasted to much previous sexual science, which had traditionally emphasized the superiority and naturalness (or, as some strands of psychoanalysis argued, the greater maturity) of vaginal orgasm. Marie Bonaparte, for example, the most prominent promoter of Freud’s ideas in France, thus proposed in the 1950s a surgical intervention which would locate the clitoris closer to the vagina as a cure for frigidity, in order to make ‘defective’ female anatomy fit better with Freudian assumptions about ‘mature’ sexuality. The sexologist Frank Caprio expressed widely held views when he stated in his 1963 book The Sexually Adequate Woman:
… whenever a woman is incapable of achieving an orgasm via coitus,
provided the husband is an adequate partner, and prefers clitoral
stimulation to any other form of sexual activity, she can be regarded as suffering from frigidity and requires psychiatric assistance.
Anne Koedt’s influential essay ‘The Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm’ opened feminist attacks on such views in 1970, arguing that:
Women have thus been defined sexually in terms of what pleases men; our own biology has not been properly analysed. Instead, we are fed the myth of the liberated woman and her vaginal orgasm – an orgasm which in fact does not exist.
Women who claimed to have vaginal orgasms were either faking or ‘confused’, Koedt controversially argued. The normative emphasis on vaginal orgasm in psychoanalysis and sexual science thus came to stand for male oppression of female sexuality for feminists, and became an important issue in the politicization of sex. The gender politics of orgasm was particularly central to the work of feminist sexologist Shere Hite, whose series of studies on male and female sexuality became international bestsellers, especially The Hite Report on Female Sexuality (1976) and The Hite Report on Male Sexuality (1981). As Hite put it in the report on female sexuality:
Lack of sexual satisfaction is another sign of the oppression of women.
The Hite reports were based on wide-scale sexual surveys among women and men. Among the surveys’ most hotly debated findings, the report on women observed that ‘only approximately 30 percent of the women in this study could orgasm regularly from intercourse’; a result that in itself was not new. Sexual science had long been preoccupied with the lack of enthusiasm that many women seemed to have for intercourse, and earlier surveys by Kinsey, Masters and Johnson, and others had already found that the majority of women do not orgasm from intercourse alone. Hite used her result, however, to challenge the dominant
sexological understanding of sexuality which reduced sexuality to heterosexual intercourse, and had consequently arrived at the conclusion that the great majority of women are ‘frigid’.
Masters and Johnson were among the main targets of Hite’s criticism. Despite their revaluation of clitoral orgasm, Masters and Johnson portrayed ‘normal’ sexuality as involving orgasm from intercourse and argued that the clitoris was automatically stimulated during intercourse by the ‘mechanical traction’ caused by ‘active penile thrusting’ – leading the feminist Alix Shulman to comment: ‘much, I suppose, as a penis is automatically “stimulated” by a man’s underwear whenever he takes a step’.
For those men and women who did not respond to this ‘natural’ model, Masters and Johnson pioneered new types of sex therapy that aimed to teach subjects to overcome their ‘dysfunction’ by ‘putting sex back in its natural context’, that is, by training them to reach orgasm from intercourse. According to Masters’ own estimate, within five years of the publication of Human Sexual Inadequacy, between 3,500 and 5,000 clinics offering treatment for sex problems were established in the US. Masters and Johnson revolutionized the sex therapy methods used in such clinics by providing ‘incredibly vulnerable unmarried’ men, as they described them, with female surrogate partners for treatment of male sexual ‘inadequacy’. They did not, however, provide male surrogates to sexually inadequate unmarried women, on the grounds that this would be in conflict with the ‘sexual value systems’ of the time, and they later abandoned the use of surrogates altogether after being sued by an irate husband whose wife had volunteered to work as a surrogate.
Hite pointed out that most women seem more than capable of experiencing orgasm, only not via intercourse. Indeed, the majority of women in her survey seemed perfectly capable of procuring pleasure to their body by stimulating themselves, she remarked. ‘Of the 82 percent of women who say they masturbated’, Hite wrote, ‘95 percent could orgasm easily
and regularly, whenever they wanted.’ Women’s problem was consequently not what Masters and Johnson termed female ‘coital orgasmic inadequacy’, but rather the way in which society defined sexual norms, in Hite’s view:
The fact that women can orgasm easily and pleasurably whenever they want (many women several times in a row) shows beyond a doubt that women know how to enjoy their bodies; no one needs to tell them how. It is not female sexuality that has a problem (‘dysfunction’) but society that has a problem in its definition of sex and the subordinate role that definition gives women.
Women find themselves in a state of ‘sexual slavery’ towards men, Hite claimed, providing them with sexual pleasure while ignoring their own needs. Equating the biological model developed by sexual science with the patriarchal oppression of women generally, she argued:
The fact is that the role of women in sex, as in every other aspect in life, has been to serve the needs of others – men and children. And just as women did not recognize their oppression in a general sense until recently, just so sexual slavery has been an almost unconscious way of life for most women – based on what was said to be an eternally unchanging biological impulse. (…) Our model of sex and physical relations is culturally (not biologically) defined and can be redefined – or undefined.
In contrast, Hite drew on the social model of sexuality, arguing that:
the pattern of sexual relations predominant in our culture exploits and oppresses women. It has institutionalized out any expression of women’s sexual feelings except for those that support male needs.
Against this backdrop, Hite shifted the meaning of female lack of enthusiasm about sex from its traditional interpretation as
the expression of sexual inhibitions from which women needed to be ‘liberated’, to a political act of ‘resistance to participating in an institution which they have not had an equal part in creating’, which was, in the report on male sexuality, explicitly compared to Gandhi’s passive resistance of British rule in India.
Hite combated the ‘sexual truths’ produced by sexual science with its own weapons: legitimizing her claims by constantly referring to the authority of her ‘scientific’ data and methods.
Her publications were nevertheless the target of bitter attacks from other sexologists such as Waldell Pomeroy, co-author of the Kinsey Reports, who questioned her methodology, ‘political bias’, and ‘women’s lib slant’; while feminists such as Jane Gallop criticized the ‘science fantasy’, that is, Hite’s own emphasis on the scientific nature of her work, which, it was claimed, placed her necessarily in the same ‘male place’ as male sexologists.
Some feminists campaigned for the reform of the institution of heterosexuality, which was criticized for privileging male sexual needs, and called for better sex with men, naming the clitoris as a woman’s new best friend. But others advanced ‘political lesbianism’ as an alternative. Following the American feminist Ti-Grace Atkinson’s statement in the early 1970s that feminism is a theory, lesbianism the practice, authors such as Sheila Jeffreys, member of the Leeds Revolutionary Feminist Group, argued that women should exit relationships with men altogether, for as long as power relations between men and women remained unequal. Doing so, they believed, would foster relations of solidarity between women, though it would not require them to actually have sex with other women. As the Leeds group put it:
We do think that all feminists can and should be political lesbians.
Our definition of a political lesbian is a woman-identified woman
who does not fuck men. It does not mean compulsory sexual
activity with women.
Declaring lesbianism to be a matter of ‘political choice’ rather than a biologically determined sexual identity, political lesbians promoted a political version of the social model of sexuality.
Sexual identity was not just defined by cultural, social, and historical context, they argued; it was a matter of voluntary political decision. As the Leeds group declared, since ‘it is specifically through sexuality that the fundamental oppression, that of men over women, is maintained’, political lesbianism was a crucial political strategy in the fight against patriarchy:
Men are the enemy. Heterosexual women are collaborators with the
Authors such as Sheila Jeffreys and Adrienne Rich thus presented lesbianism as a position of resistance against patriarchy, one that did not need to include genital sex. Rich’s 1980 essay ‘Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence’ advanced the concept of a ‘lesbian continuum’, according to which all women can share a ‘range of woman-identified experience’, from any form of ‘bonding against male tyranny’ to genital sex. Rich, in contrast to Jeffreys, did not ask heterosexual women to commit to lesbianism. The idea of a ‘lesbian continuum’ became an influential way of looking for points of solidarity between women in general, allowing for alliances between heterosexual and lesbian women.
In contrast, other voices within the women’s movement argued for ‘lesbian separatism’, that is, the exclusion from women’s lives not just of men, but also of heterosexual women. The latter, lesbian separatists argued, were guilty of collaboration through sleeping with men. As the most prominent lesbian separatist manifesto ‘The Woman-Identified Woman’, written in 1971 by the US collective Radicalesbians, put it: ‘Our energies must flow towards our sisters, not backwards towards our oppressors.’ Groups sprang up in most Western countries, such as Chicago Lesbian Liberation, Lesbian Separatist Group, Tribad, and
Collective Lesbian International Terrors in the United States, or the short-lived Front des lesbiennes radicales in France. They were, however, never more than extreme minority groups within the wider women’s movement, and generated great hostility from other feminists who rejected the separatists’ holier-than-thou attitude and ‘phallic obsession’, as Lynne Segal put it. In France, controversies around lesbian separatism led to the demise of the prominent feminist journal Questions Feministes, which had been founded in 1977 by an editors’ collective that included Colette Capitan Peter, Christine Delphy, Emmanuele de Lesseps, Nicole-Claude Mathieu, and Monique Plaza (later joined by figures such as Colette Guillaumin and Monique Wittig), under the directorship of Simone de Beauvoir. Whereas editors who left the journal argued that ‘in the war of the sexes, hetero-feminism is class collaboration’, when the journal was resuscitated as Nouvelles Questions Feministes in 1981, its editorial denounced lesbian separatism as ‘terrorist’ and ‘totalitarian’, ‘incompatible with the principles of feminism’, and emphasized that ‘all women are oppressed by men as a class; … feminism is the struggle against this common oppression’.