The “modern era” of women’s sexuality only began in the early 1950’s ushered in by the writing of Simone de Beauvoir’s Le deuxieme sexe (1949). She argued for the importance of the clitoris in female sexual stimulation and the notion of sex purely for pleasure.
A hundred years earlier, even ten years earlier, her voice would have been drowned out by all the naysayers. However, the times seemed fertile for de Beauvoir’s views. The 50’s saw the beginning of the modern Women’s Liberation Movement. Like de Beauvoir, the Women’s Liberation Movement fought the idea that the vagina was the sole source for orgasm. The Movement provided the intellectual counterweight to the Freudian notion that the clitoris was nothing but “an inferior counterpart to the male penis.”
Although that battle that de Beauvoir and the early Women’s Liberation Movement fought seems almost quaint now, viewed through the lens of our own modernity, it is important to remember just how powerful and threatening these ideas were. Freud’s view, by definition, diminished women and our sexual pleasure, reducing us and our experience to one of an “inferior counterpart to the male penis.” de Beauvoir stood this notion on its head. Still, while Freud’s patriarchal arrogance was way off when it came to the clitoris, he does deserve some credit in understanding that one of the fundamental aspects of sexuality was to achieve pleasure in the erogenous zones – a radical departure from the Victorian mindset of “sex equals procreation.” In Freud, we see the beginning of sexuality and sex for its own pleasurable sake and, with this view, the beginning of the possibility of reclaiming the sexual power – and the pure pleasure of sex – which had been systematically denied women for years upon years, centuries upon centuries. Of course, like all things hedonistic, the 1960’s counterculture embrace of “sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll” was a significant catalyst to the advance of women’s sexuality. Even though the cry of “free love” often turned out to be little more than a mask for male dominated sexual expression, the truth was that the emphasis of sexual gratification empowered women’s sexuality. Women, like men, were no longer confined just to conjugal sexual interactions.
Even so, it wasn’t until the mid 1970’s that engaging in premarital sex became something of a societal norm – and with it a genuine willingness to embrace the notion of female sexuality. According to Female Sexuality by Precilla Y.L. Choi and Paula Nicolson, in the years since the 1960’s the sexual “double standard” has finally been lifted. Sexual pleasure is no longer only for men. It has become socially acceptable for women to find pleasure in sex and to expect to reach orgasm(s).
Which, in a rather roundabout way, brings us to masturbation.
During the Victorian era, there was a very powerful belief that masturbation led to a series of medical disasters that progressed through insomnia, exhaustion, neurasthenia, epilepsy, moral insanity, insanity, convulsions, melancholia, and paralysis, to eventual coma and death. And you thought just having hair grow on your palms was bad!
Is it any wonder that women repressed their sexuality? Our culture has been insisting on such repression for well over one hundred and fifty years! Not to mention the previous two centuries of Christian dogma!
And it got much worse as “science” became more refined. Charles Brown-Séquard, the founder of modern endocrinology, added blindness to this list of consequences of masturbation. In addition to masturbatory melancholia this clinical entity was known as masturbatory paralysis. While the generally rational Lawson Tait stated in 1889 that all of the evils of masturbation had been greatly exaggerated he did note that he had himself seen epidemics of “this vice” in girls’ schools. His recommendation was that if it continued, the girl should be taken into care.
The physician Colombat d’Isere who had already shocked, just shocked, his contemporaries by suggesting that young women should have a tepid bath at least once a month confirmed the danger of the violent intimacies formed at boarding schools. The end result of “onanism, that execrable and fatal evil, soon destroys her beauty, impairs her health, and conducts her almost always to an early grave.”
If this was how the professionals were opining, imagine what the perspective of the common people was.
The disconnect between the reality of female sexuality and the idealized sense of virtuous decency that this culture promoted reached its peak when Charles Meigs, Professor of Gynecology in Philadelphia, wrote extensively on the purity of women and all the harmful effects of the speculum on these “dear little ladies fit only for love.” As a result, he suggested that “modesty was preferable to diagnosis and treatment” and the speculum was a “piece of gratuitous and unprincipled indecency.” In his view, it was better to be diseased than violated.
Oh, but the urge was so great! The ladies of rank in France wrote notes to their surgeons requesting him to call at the house and to “bring his speculum.” Such examination seemed to bring some relief to the hysteria! However, it wasn’t long before the oh so dangerous clitoris – so difficult for male lovers to find – was determined to be the source of this potential moral decline. Once identified, the treatment was obvious. It must be removed or destroyed.
So it went through the nest hundred years or so. There were differences among experts regarding the diagnosis and treatment of these dangerous female maladies, but there was no wavering on the essential point that female sexuality was the problem.
Which brings us finally to what was in some respects was the most repressed and still the most remarkable decade of the 20th century – the 1950’s.
It was in 1953 that Alfred Kinsey and his colleagues shattered the “pseudo-science” of the previous century with their landmark – and very controversial – Sexual Behaviour in the Human Female. In this work, they reported definitively on such taboo subjects such as orgasm, masturbation, premarital sex and infidelity within marriage.
The public reaction ranged from complete disbelief and disgust to admiration and gratitude. Apparently, while many “experts” were pronouncing on the evils of sex and sexuality, regular women were busy engaging in all sorts of sexual practices. And the world had not come to an end. This is an important lesson to remember. While scientists, religious leaders, and psychiatrists were engaged in the surgical removal of women’s clitorises in order to “save them” from their own sexual “insanity” women were still engaged in sex – all without the bad consequences that these self-proclaimed protectors of Western civilization warned against.
Now, thanks to Kinsey, people were finally confronted with real statistics and facts. There was very real information. Female sexuality became a real legitimate area of study and concern.
In 1973, Seymour Fisher devoted an entire book to the female orgasm, its psychology, physiology and fantasy. His study of three hundred women indicated that only 39% always or nearly always experienced orgasm during intercourse, with only 20% stating that they did not need “a final push” for orgasm by manual stimulation. Given the choice, 64% said they would prefer clitoral stimulation to vaginal penetration.
Oh you foolish Victorians! You condemned the clitoris and in doing so you deprived women of the source of their pleasure. And for what? For some false sense of virtue.
Shere, Hite, and Masters & Johnson added vital information in the study of female sexuality and also sexual behavior.
Which brings us finally to today.
We now live in a culture in which sexual imagery and messages dominate most of the media. Sometimes it seems as if the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction from the Victorians. It sometimes seems as if everything is about orgasm. Magazine covers tout, “40 WAYS TO ORGASM THIS WEEKEND!” Or, perhaps, “HOW TO ACHIEVE AN ORGASM EVERY TIME!”
If orgasm isn’t the focus, sexual performance is. “WOULD YOU DARE HIRE A MALE ESCORT?” Or, “HOW TO EFFECTIVELY PERFORM ORAL SEX, WITH OR WITHOUT A CONDOM.”
Sex is everywhere. People talk about sex out loud on elevators. In front of strangers. We have overcome the lack of openness that damned the Victorians. So why is it that so many women feel no more connected to their own sexuality than those poor Victorian women who were forced to have their clitorises removed, sometimes for exhibiting behavior no more “subversive” than reading serious books on the subject!?
Why is it that many women feel no more connected to their sexual selves than those same women who were taught that being nearly as asexual as a nun was the model for the perfect housewife. Now, rather than menstrual melancholy, we have diagnosis of female “libido loss” and Female Sexual Dysfunction.
Rather than the asexual virtue touted during the Victorian era, sexual satisfaction has now become the mantra. If you aren’t “multiorgasmic”; if you don’t want to have spontaneous sex with the pool boy; if you don’t embrace pole dancing techniques in the bedroom, our culture pushes you toward psychosexual counseling and hormone therapy to “fix” your condition.
Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder…Sexual Arousal Disorder………Sexual Aversion.
There is no doubt that there are a multitude of complex and subtle factors that contribute to female sexual response, whether physiological, psychological or interpersonal or cultural or religious. We now GET it.
But I can’t help but feel that this dramatic pendulum shift from asexuality and “virtue” to hyper-sexuality and the advent of the bedroom slut has been equally damaging and demeaning. While the Victorian feared the underlying “sexuality” of women and her intrinsic power (hence, the vile punishments for reading serious books!) it was the “expression” of that sexuality – sex – that they saw as their ultimate enemy. Sexuality as expressed in the sex act.
We are now looking at the same unhealthy dynamic from the opposite side of the telescope. The sexual act has been hyper-inflated but still the importance of female sexuality is held at bay. By making the same fundamental mistake, we do an equal disservice to women now.
Before sex can truly be a meaningful, enjoyable, and wonderful physical act, you must be in touch with your own sexuality – as the unique quality of who YOU are as a person.
Perhaps few things capture the power of sexuality and the confusion between sex acts and sexuality than Tantric Sex. If you are familiar with tantric sex at all it is most likely as little more than an “Eastern” take on sex positions. Perhaps you’ve heard of the Kama Sutra – a compendium of sex practices and positions from the ancient, mystical east.
Tantric sex is very telling to our understanding of sexuality – and the confusion so many of us have in finding our sexual selves in the modern world. As is too often the case, the understanding of trantric sex and the Kama Sutra that I’ve noted above is typical of how modern Western culture objectifies and “physicalizes” what are considered spiritual matters (whereas, the Victorian and Romantic eras seemed to want to “spiritualize” the physical.)
The ancient practice of tantric sex has been reduced to “how to” articles in Cosmo, Vogue, Elle and other women’s periodicals.
It would serve us well to explore tantric sex a bit more deeply. “Tantra” is a Sanskrit word (Sanskrit is sacred language of Hinduism and is related to the European languages, along with English) that is derived from the Sanskrit root, “tan.” This root means “to extend, expand, spread, continue, spin out, weave; to put forth, show, or manifest.” Just hearing the meanings of the root opens up a whole new world of understanding of what tantric sex might mean.
If tantric sex was merely a physical expression, this relationship would have a very definite limitations. After all, even the gymnast and ballerina can “spread” only so much! But it is not our bodies that must spread, it is our minds!
Not to get too “Eastern” but our universe is constantly expanding. The lesson is that, like the universe, we need to continue to expand as well. Our thoughts, our actions, and our energy.
The physical techniques of tantra are designed not just to stretch the body, but more importantly, to stretch the mind and the soul. It is to bring us into a consistency with the expanding universe.
It is to help us to be completely and utterly who we are.
It should be apparent that being completely and utterly YOU means engaging the physical and the spiritual. This is where the Victorians got it wrong, and where our modern world gets it wrong – the emphasis is always on one or the other, on the spiritual, the virtuous, or that physical, that bedroom slut.
One without the other is always ultimately dissatisfying.
We need both.
And the deeper, spiritual is by far most important. Or, in our discussion, sexuality is more important than sex. Sexuality informs, engages, deepens your complete self, of which physical sex is an important component.
“Tantra” is a set of teachings and practices that are designed to help us feel more, to increase our awareness of our own energy and the energy around us. To get to know ourselves more fully. Tantra uses sexual energy as a means to increase our awareness.
Ultimately, the goal of tantric sex is to experience more depth and breadth in our sexuality. Unlike the magazines with their catchy headlines, the goal is not necessarily orgasm; it is the enrichment of the whole sexual experience.
It is the discovery and embracing of sexuality.
Similarly, the kama sutra is much more than what all the glossy magazines suggest. “Kama” is fairly translated as “pleasure” but the connotation and understanding is that the pleasure referred to is pleasure of all kinds – enjoyment of the arts and sciences, games, family and friends, nature, food and, of course, sex. “Sutra” refers to the “short verses” in which the text is presented, making it available through the ages to all sorts of people – from commoners to scholars.
The text is structured into seven parts, each part according to a unique aspect of the conduct of love: morals and household duties, sex, finding a wife, a wife’s duties, the wives of others, courtesans and a final section on aphrodisiacs and potions. Clearly, that we have focused on one section to the exclusion of the others has served to diminish, rather than elevate, the sexual discourse.
So, why are we talking about tantric sex? Ironically, while our Western style of “fixing” things focuses on the superficial – and so, we equate “good” sex with more erections, more orgasms, more, more – tantric sex will improve your sex life but not by focusing on the external but focusing on the internal. It is this focus on the external that has created an entirely new field in cosmetic surgery – vulva enhancements! It does not focus on some “objective” evaluation of what your body looks like, or what kind of car we drive, or the clothes we wear, it focuses instead on desire and the experience of sexual energy (versus just the experience of sex.)
It is about your sexuality.
You can see that all that hang-ups we bring to our sexual relations – like, body image issues and self-esteem, etc. – are no longer the focus. How freeing! How liberating! How scrumptious!
So, while your sense might have been that tantric sex is about twisting your body into new – and undoubtedly, uncomfortable – positions, the truth is that tantric sex is really about what’s happening in your mind and your soul when you make love, alone, with a partner or with multiple partners.
Victorian women were denied their physicality. Modern women have had it thrust upon them.
Neither extreme leads to meaningful and successful sex because both repress and deny the greater dimension of sexuality or, as tantric sex might suggest, the spirituality and universality of our sexual selves.
As we have seen, history has never been kind to female sexuality. Male dominated cultures have careened wildly between placing us on a pedestal and vilifying us as demons – often for the very same reasons! It is always difficult to try and tease lessons from history but it would seem to me that we need to take a sober look at history and recognize that essential wisdom of the tantra when it comes to sex and sexuality – that deeper power is essential for our enjoyment of ourselves as fully integrated people and the enjoyment of ourselves as sexual beings.
We need to find that quality that is essential to who we are as individuals – no one is suggesting that everyone must bend themselves into a pretzel or slide up and down a pole to be sexual. What works for one woman does not work for another. What is important is that each of us gets in touch with our own sexuality so that we can find the most gratifying expression of that sexuality – whether alone, with a partner, with a man, a woman or a group of caring friends.
Our sexuality is power. Real power. Don’t ever doubt that. There is no other reason that men and society have worked so feverishly and brutally to suppress it. It is only from a sense of our personal power that we can recognize that we deserve to be honored and respected – and that we have the ability to honor and respect our partners.
Five perspectives on the information from History of Sexuality
How might the information in this chapter improve your life?
Where are you on the spectrum of knowing your full level of sexuality? Where are you in terms of embracing your own sexuality? Do you have a relationship with your clitoris? Does your lover?
What are you willing to learn what will enhance your true sexual essence?
Santayana said that, “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” By looking at this brief overview of the history of female sexuality – certainly as it has been played out in the West – we can begin to see that there have been large forces at play that have consciously sought to repress most of female sexuality. These same forces have now conspired to thrust women as sexual beings, too often divorced from their deeper selves.
Each perspective is demeaning and unsatisfying.
By seeing these historical forces, however, we can begin to separate ourselves from influence of these forces; we can see the impersonal nature of them – and how they have impacted us personally.