Last night I had a conversation with a friend, in which the topic of children’s masturbation habits came up (of course). He suggested, by way of a friend’s education, that when little girls masturbate openly it’s a sign of sexual abuse. His friend is apparently a psychologist. In my time of reading about all kinds of fucked up ways to deny female sexuality I have never learned this theory. I mentioned it to another friend who was familiar with the theory. She responded, on point, “it’s because they believe that girls can only know about their sexuality if someone shows them.” Immediately I remembered this word: androcentrism. The theory that sex is about male pleasure exclusively. A theory heavily implied in psychoanalysis. I decided to dig up my thesis from college on rape fantasies. I made some botched attempts to re-present this chapter on Androcentrism as it relates to the theory of female sexuality throughout history. Poorly written, but hey, I was 22. There are some fun facts to enjoy!
An androcentric model for sex, as eloquently paraphrased by Terri Kapsalis, starts with penetration and ends in male ejaculation. Essentially, androcentric sex involves male pleasure and disregards female pleasure. This model was used to analyze sexuality by the fathers of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan. This antiquated way of looking at sex still plagues current representations of female sexuality.
To begin, it is important to recognize crucial moments in history where female sexuality was shamed, punished or blatantly denied. Both Anne McClintock and Rachel P. Maines develop some scathing criticisms of Lacan and Freud in particular. I will begin with Maines in order to offer a historical perspective of female sexuality as it relates to hysteria. Followed by an analysis of McClintock’s book Imperial Leather as her analysis of female sexuality, SM and fetishes illuminates the possibility and the importance of female sexual expression.
Hysteria, a fabricated disease used by physicians most popularly in the Victorian era, was used to control women who rebelled against the expectations of marriage and motherhood. Hysteria described anything from physical ailments to mental instability and insanity; a majority of hysterics were given the rest cure and/or the controversial orgasm performed by a midwife or physician. In the historical analysis of hysteria, female sexuality was at different times described as an issue of both hyper-sexuality and “frigidity” in women.
Maines writes of female sexuality and the orgasm as it relates to hysteria throughout history in her book The Technology of the Orgasm, ‘Hysteria’ the Vibrator, and Women’s Sexual Satisfaction. She notes several moments throughout history where the female orgasm and female ejaculation are confirmed. The actual historical and medical evidence that proves the female orgasm to exist shows the intentional ignorance of the physicians who chose to deny it.
Contrary to more recent beliefs and disagreements about female sexuality, female ejaculation was actually documented in medieval times and since then has gone from myth to reality and back again. In fact, it was also believed at times that women could release their “evilness” through ejaculation. Additionally, Giovanni Matteo Ferrari da Gradi (d. 1472) noted that women could enjoy sex and described the female orgasm as a mix of pain and pleasure. In 1660 Nathaniel Highmore recognized and labeled the orgasm a “hysterical paroxysm,” which was a symptom of hysteria. Over time his account was lost or ignored by future hysteria physicians who went on to deny the female orgasm, or separate it from sex. Although cures for hysteria in the Middle Ages prescribed sex and orgasm, later treatments suggested penetration exclusively and condemned masturbation, thus reinforcing the androcentric sex model.
As suspected, the female orgasm as well as the function and existence of the clitoris fail to be addressed within the androcentric sex model. In this model it is believed that male penetration will satisfy the woman enough. Even in more recent history, when the film Deep Throat (1972) was banned and director Gerard Damiano was charged with obscenity, the judge trying the case had to ask what a clitoris was. The film emerged close to the publication of the groundbreaking feminist essay by Anne Koedt The Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm (1970) in which she confirms that the clitoral orgasm does exist, and suggests that it is necessary for female satisfaction. She confronts the issue of “frigidity” which she explains; “frigidity has generally been defined by men as the failure of women to have vaginal orgasms.” Koedt makes a radical proposition that penetration is not necessary for the female orgasm, but she only comes to terms with a portion of the myth. In A New View of a Woman’s Body from the Federation of Feminist Women’s Health Centers (1981), the myth of the vaginal and clitoral orgasm reaches new enlightenment. Chapter three of the book reveals that the clitoris and the female prostate (or, the Skene’s gland, Gräfenberg spot, also known as the G-spot) are in fact one in the same. The clitoris has a sensitive point beneath the hood located in the vulva and extends up into the vaginal cavity in a spongy gland (Skene’s gland). Indeed, as the earliest suspicions of what the vagina looks like had suggested, the clitoris is quite like the penis but it exists within the body instead of outside of it. Even in the past ten to twenty years the vaginal orgasm, the clitoral orgasm and female ejaculation have been questioned and mythologized in popular media, literature and theory.
Freud and Lacan went through quite a bit of trouble to make sure that the female libido was adequately denied, not only by reinforcing the existence of hysteria as a sexual disorder, but also by denying that women were capable of being fetishists and by suggesting that female fantasies were dangerous. If a woman can be a fetishist, then she has a libido, she has a specific interest in sex, she has fantasies and she has specific standards for her sexual interactions. Anne McClintock expands on the history of fetishism and the role of the female fetishist, which has shifted over time,
"As Pietz shows, the earliest European discourse on fetishism concerned witchcraft and the clerical denunciation of illicit popular rites and illicit female sexuality. In the late Middle Ages, the Catholic priesthood used the term [fetish] to condemn the charms and magical arts practiced by the restive populace and to discipline wayward female sexuality. At the outset, then, the term was associated with the excess of illicit female agency over natural and bodily authority, unlike the Freudian inscription of fetishism as association with female lack. While beginnings are never absolute, reading the fetish as a historical phenomenon upsets the assumption of universality.”
Richard von Krafft-Ebing believed that a healthy and educated woman was naturally disinterested in sex and had no libido, yet labeled the disinterest in sex of his patients as pathological insinuating that women do not enjoy sex but must enjoy sex during marriage. All other pleasure seeking opportunities were considered immoral, including masturbation with the exception of being masturbated by a midwife or a physician as a treatment for hysteria. This is a further testament to the confusion and hypocrisy in recognizing the female orgasm, denying the female orgasm, listing the orgasm as a cure for hysteria, describing masturbation as immoral, pathologizing overly sexual women, pathologizing asexual women, prescribing sex as a cure for hysteria and prescribing no sexual activity as the cure for hysteria. Female sexuality was heavily controlled, torn apart, denied and applied when useful. European writer and natural healer Friedrich Bilz even went so far as to call the erotic fantasies of women self-abusive. In addition, women’s interest in exciting literature and seductive behavior was considered immoral and dangerous.
In her conclusion, Maines cites Peter Gay who states, “to deny women native erotic desires was to safeguard man’s sexual inadequacy. However he performed it would be good enough. She would not ask-would she?-ask for more.” A poignant thought which suggests that perhaps keeping a woman’s pleasure out of the picture would relieve men from the pressures of pleasing her, and allow him to shamelessly use her as a sex object, because she is unappeasable one way or another. Either way Maines directly states that the disease paradigm was put into place to mask uncomfortable truths about female sexuality, also citing Foucault who suggested, “women’s sexuality was thought to require medical intervention.” Cleverly, Maine’s muses about Freud’s inadequacy “…but it hardly seems surprising that the man who, notoriously, did not know what women wanted was less than successful as a gynecological masseur.” Perhaps it was Freud’s own sexual shortcomings and fixation with the phallus that made his understanding of the female psyche so convoluted?
In Imperial Leather, Anne McClintock not only exposes the fallacy of Freud’s theory of female sexuality but also discusses early theories on why fetishes are developed. Not surprising, like most accounts of female sexuality throughout non-Pagan history, women have been excluded from the harboring of fetishes. Freud begins his analysis of the fetishist by stating that to develop a fetish is to replace the missing phallus of the mother (or the female) with another object. Only men can be fetishists because they are substituting the female “lack” with an imaginary phallus (i.e. a pair of shoes, lingerie, female body parts other than the genitalia) and women cannot be fetishists because there is no phallus to imagine on the male, being that he has a penis already.
"Women in Lacan’s schema are assigned the position of victim, cipher, empty set-disempowered, tongueless, unsexed. Identified inevitably with the real of the Other, women are the bearers and custodians of distance and difference but are never the agents and inventors of social possibility. For precisely this reason, we can be the objects of fetishism but never the subjects.”
It would be easy to say that Freud and Lacan are misogynists whose primary interest is in reinforcing male power and protecting the androcentric model, but what about the feminist theories that have absorbed Freud and Lacan’s misogyny? McClintock suggests that the Freud/Lacan fetish theory has had the “deepest influence on feminist theories.” In feminist theories where fetish and BDSM are described as harmful to women, the theorists who have cited Freud and Lacan’s explanation of the fetish as being male-oriented are perhaps not understanding the implication of the androcentric model. Liz Stanley is one example. She seems to assume Freud’s theory that fetish is for men exclusively and in doing so she sees BDSM culture as objectifying to women, regardless of the female participant’s consent. She argues that fetishes degrade and objectify women because she believes that only the man benefits. A theory I believe (from personal experience) to be wholly incorrect.
The analysis of fetish and SM role-playing in terms of female consent may alleviate the worries of feminists who have bought into the androcentrism of Freud and Lacan. McClintock cites Stanley arguing, “at any one time whoever is the ‘master’ has power and whoever is the ‘slave’ has not.” Again, this argument makes assumptions about the sub’s consent and interest in the scenario. The argument fails to explain why there are so many women who feel empowered by submission and who believe that the submissive has the most control. McClintock supports my argument in stating that Stanley’s argument is “to read theater for reality; it is to play the world forward.” Additionally, she states that SM is “shaped around the ritual exercise of social risk and social transformation. As a theatre of conversion, S/M reverses and transforms the social meaning it borrows.” Sadomasochism indeed is a performance. Players perform for fun, to create deeper meanings in power exchanges and sometimes for healing.
In the chapter “Race, Cross-Dressing and the Cult of Domesticity,” McClintock describes in great detail a Victorian love affair in which an upper-class gentleman named Arthur Munby took a lower class servant woman by the name of Hannah Cullwick as his wife after a nineteen year long secret relationship. In the relationship, Cullwick lived as a servant and play different roles of power, gender and race (cross-dressing and role playing as an upper-class lady, a man, an African slave, a nurse, a mother) for Munby who could live out his own fantasies of owning the woman he loves. Although the male in the situation may have benefited more because of his status, and the woman’s actual status of servant would give her little relief, the diaries of the lovers tell a story of mutual passion and lust. In both, Munby and Cullwick describe the relationship as passionate and incredibly stimulating, and the actual role-playing as gratifying and empowering for both. Specifically, Cullwick is cited describing the relationship and sexual scenarios as pleasurable and powerful. I maintain that the consent and pleasure of both partners is what truly matters, not the assumptions that could be made about power relationships. Munby wanted to own Cullwick, and Cullwick wanted to be owned by Munby.
One must wonder, how is it possible to be a voluntary slave? Indeed we recognize that it is an act and a play on reality. One cannot be willingly enslaved in the historical sense; the two actions are a contradiction. One can, however, choose to serve a master and he or she may consider him or herself to be a slave, but in the end that person still has the choice to break the bonds. Unlike in the reality of Cullwick’s Victorian life where she is a servant without choice, in her relationship with Munby she is dedicated and voluntarily involved.
McClintock notes feminist arguments against Cullwick’s role-which disregard her desire and agency, “I wish to question one feminist tendency to see women as unambiguous victims, a tendency that equates agency with context, body with situation, and thus annuls possibilities for strategic refusal.” In this situation, Cullwick is living within the confines of her own reality. She lives not only as a Victorian woman, but also as a servant, and in a life where there is little escape or alternatives. Additionally, it is against Victorian standards for a woman to receive payment for her work, so Cullwick is quite literally a slave in reality. To support this thought, McClintock also writes, “I am interested, rather, in the more difficult question of what kind of agency is possible in situations of extreme social inequality.” Fantasy, role-play and SM can offer the oppressed freedom, choice and the liberty of consent.
McClintock also cites Weinberg and Kamel “S&M scenarios are willingly and co-operatively produced; more often than not it is the masochist’s fantasies that are acted out.” One must consider that in an SM situation, the bottom/masochist/submissive often, but not always, dictates the fantasy and the role-play, and defines the terms and the limitations of the interaction.
Additionally, McClintock argues, “S/M, as Foucault puts it, ‘constitutes one of the greatest conversions of Western imagination: unreason transformed into delirium of the heart’ S/M is a theater of transformation; it ‘plays the world backward’.” McClintock continues, “S/M reveals that social order is unnatural, scripted and invented.” SM becomes a parody of power dynamics; it uses history and trauma to create fantasy and to explore the exchange of power in inventive ways. In Cullwick’s case, she would not have been able to experience life as a free woman regardless of her sexual choices. Through her sex life she was able to play with different roles and exercise consent. In short, SM explores control, consent and the actual modes of oppression that rule our every day lives.
McClintock elaborates on the cultural complexities of SM and fetish, “S/M is haunted by memory. By reinventing the memory of trauma and staging loss of control in what is really a situation of excessive control, the player gains symbolic power over perilous memory.” Fantasies and fetish serve not only as alternatives to reality and parodies of power, but may function as therapeutic self-reflections. Fetishes and BDSM are complex and paradoxical. McClintock explains,
”Fetishes may take myriad guises and erupt from a variety of social contradictions. They do not resolve conflicts in value but rather embody in one object the failure of resolution. Fetishes are thus haunted by personal and historical memory and may be seen to be structured by recurring, though not necessarily universal features: a social contradiction onto an object or person, which becomes the embodiment of the crisis in value…As composite symbolic objects, fetishes thus embody the traumatic coincidence not only of individual but also of historical memories held in contradiction.”
While attempting to find the origins or the reasoning behind the harboring of a fetish or a sexual fantasy, one might consider McClintock’s suggestion that the fetish is in itself the contradiction, both the rejection and embracement of memory and trauma, the embodying and exercising of a problem and a way of finding freedom within limitations. Additionally, some fetishes may have no origin; fetishes may be tied to lust exclusively and have no apparent social or political motivations. Desire itself is something so complicated and so difficult to marginalize that one could not say that there is normalcy or consistency in any one person’s fantasies with another’s.
McClintock wraps up her criticisms of Freud and Lacan in the chapter “Psychoanalysis, Race and Female Fetishism.” She elaborates on a point made by Jonathan Dollimore that perversion and fetish actually challenge the foundations of psychoanalysis and contradict the theories that oppress sexual experimentation. To some extent, I would argue that there is no room for fetish and perversion in ordinary understandings of the human psyche. Fetish, SM and perversion are often inconsistent, uncanny and unrealistic. They exist in the realm of fantasy and pleasure, where the rules of every day life fall apart and power and morality are turned upside down, defied and challenged with the free will of consenting adults.