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Rights + Justice
Gender + Sexuality

Cliteracy, Power and the War against Women’s Sexual Pleasure

New films show the damage done by taboos around women’s bodies.

By Dorothy Woodend 12 Apr 2019 | TheTyee.ca

Dorothy Woodend is The Tyee’s culture editor. Contact her here.

The pants that sparked a million op-eds are back. Leggings came under fire again recently after a Catholic mother — her self-description — wrote a letter to the editor at Notre Dame’s student newspaper, asking young women to stop wearing them for the sake of modesty and decency.

Not long after, arms became an issue when B.C. legislature staff chided women for wearing sleeveless shirts.

The things that women put on their bodies are problematic enough, but what’s inside is even more troublesome. Stories of women being told to cover their arms and legs pale beside the biggest cover-up of them all — female sexual desire.

When the Guardian ran an article on the actual shape and size of the clitoris, I did a double take. It looked like something H.R. Giger might have drawn, an alien queen, hiding her length and breadth until needed, at which point she bursts forth, a raging monster.

In all honesty, I felt a bit scared. An odd reaction, but it demonstrates how little we know about female bodies.

But why do we know so little?

It’s a question that lies at the heart of director Barbara Miller’s new documentary #FemalePleasure. Miller’s film premiered at the Locarno Film Festival in 2018 and picked up awards at Thessaloniki Documentary Film Festival and Leipzig Festival for Documentary Film. The film will have its North American premiere at the Hot Docs Film Festival in Toronto this month.

Maria Finitzo’s film Dilemma of Desire, while still in production, looks to examine some of the same issues as Miller’s film, asking why female anatomy remains so verboten. “Sex education teaches us all about the penis and nothing at all about the clitoris,” the film observes. “Furthermore, in the majority of college anatomy textbooks, the correct anatomical depiction of the clitoris is absent. The word ‘clitoris’ is literally for many unspeakable.”

Even the staid old National Film Board of Canada is getting in on the action with a new interactive app designed to demystify the clitoris. Clit Me, designed by eight young Canadian women, seeks not only to take away fear, but to introduce some fun into the mix with a clitoral avatar that helps women and their partners explore different techniques and approaches. The intent is to help close the orgasm gap.

The what?

NFB’s Clit Me.

According to the NFB, “When first having sex with a new partner, 62 per cent of heterosexual women will reach orgasm, compared to 85 per cent of men. On the other hand, lesbian women reach orgasm 75 per cent of the time.”

As the old feminist credo goes, the personal is political, and nothing is more personal than sexual pleasure.

In a recent essay in Bustle Magazine, Finitzo explained the motivation behind her film: “If you don’t think you’re worth it sexually, you’re not going to demand equal pay or feel free to behave the way you want,” she says. “And we’re not free as long as women’s bodies are considered criminal.”

Criminal is a curious word, but also accurate, as Japanese artist Rokudenashiko discovered when she used 3D scanning technology to model her vulva and then used it as the basis for a kayak design. After having a paddle about in her vulva boat, she was arrested and charged with obscenity.

Rokudenashiko is one of five women activists profiled in #Female Pleasure, each challenging the idea that female bodies constitute a threat to the social order.

Author Deborah Feldman was born into Hasidic community in Brooklyn, N.Y. At 17, she married a man she’d met once and soon after had a son. Feldman says her subsequent decision to leave her family, faith and community was prompted by the Hasidic reviling of the female body. She recounts, for Miller’s camera, the rituals designed to cleanse women of their inherent impurity and the deep sense of shame that resulted from being considered both “very evil and very holy at the same time.”

At age seven, Leyla Hussein underwent female genital mutilation. Hussein, who grew up in London’s Somali community, became an activist after the birth of her own daughter. In addition to organizing against FGM in London, Hussein travels to Somalia to talk to women in rural communities about abolishing the practice. In one of the film’s most compelling scenes, she demonstrates what female genital mutilation really entails with a plasticine model of a vulva, and a large pair of scissors. What remains after she’s finished resembles a clear-cut forest, a razed, devastated landscape.

In India, Vithika Yadav campaigns for women’s right to sexual pleasure and has created a website called Love Matters India to provide advice and information about female sexuality. Despite India being the land of the Kama Sutra, female pleasure is still considered a forbidden subject. “Growing up as a girl child in India means being touched, being groped, and being sexually harassed at any given point of time in any public space,” Yadav explains. Love Matters was a way to reclaim her sense of self and share her pride in being female with other women.

Doris Wagner joined a Catholic workers’ community as a young woman and was raped by a priest. She wrote to the pope to tell her story and plead for justice but received no reply. Eventually, she took her battle with the church to the courts and sued. Wagner recently published a book about her experiences, explaining that at 19 when she joined the church, “I was a good fit in the predator-prey system.”

All of the women in Miller’s film were actively policed by family and community to accept the social norms. At the heart of each story is the deep-seated fear of the female body, and the need to control it with ritual, religion and the law. As Leyla Hussein asks: “Why is it so frightening that a woman has sexual feelings, that she’s a sexual being, is this happening all around the world out of fear?”

What are we so afraid of?

It’s been a long, hard journey for the humble clitoris. Discovered in 1559, it has been regularly left out of textbooks, banished from polite discussion and sidelined throughout history. The second-wave feminists who came of age with copies of Our Bodies, Ourselves may be rolling their eyes, but sometimes it feels like every generation of women has to refight the same battles.

Anything that might help women learn about and accept their sexuality is also at issue. When Osé, a robotic sexual aid for women, was denied an Innovation Award at the 2018 Consumer Electronics Show, the story attracted considerable media attention. It also highlighted the double standard between male and female pleasure. Other apparatus, including robot sex dolls designed for men, weren’t penalized in the same way.

Wired Magazine tackled the controversy with surprising bluntness, stating “the taboo against female sexual pleasure in our society leads to its own health problems. Inability to experience sexual pleasure can contribute to depression and anxiety, poor self-esteem, or sexual coercion... This affects more than individual lives: It also defines the pace of science.”

The fact that the clitoris wasn’t fully mapped until 2009 is shocking enough, but as a recent article about the first conviction for female genital mutilation in the U.K. indicated, even the word is still problematic. Media coverage of the landmark case studiously avoided using the c-word.

Writer Lucy McCormick noted the media’s self-censorship is linked to larger issues.

“It seems that the issue stems, not from the provocative nature of a word, but our continued societal taboo regarding women daring to enjoy sex,” she wrote in The Guardian. “Sure, we can see depictions of women shrieking with pleasure plastered all over any porn site. But that is exactly the point. Female sexual enjoyment remains exclusively in the realm of the forbidden.”

It doesn’t seem much progress is being made, with more than 200 million women around the world subjected to female genital mutilation, reproductive rights under assault in the U.S. and Ontario deciding to leap backwards to mid-90s sex education. And the political implications of the pleasure disparity are echoed in other ways, be it wages, jobs, and opportunities. As The Dilemma of Desire asserts, “there can be no equality without equality of pleasure.”

One of the most revolutionary things you can do as a female, other than wearing leggings and a sleeveless shirt, is to know yourself. And, perhaps even more radically, to love yourself and your big beautiful clitoris.  [Tyee]

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