The clit conspiracy

Rebecca Chalker wants to return our attention to the part of a woman's body that's all about pleasure. Plus: A rant about "vagina night."


Barbara Raab
March 6, 2001 1:41AM (UTC)

There I was, with about 18,000 others, at "Take Back the Garden: A Gala Benefit of Eve Ensler's 'The Vagina Monologues,'" the heavily hyped, vulvacentric, star-studded (Oprah was in the house! Jane Fonda was in the house! Calista Flockhart, Queen Latifah and Joan Osborne were in the house!), one-night-only extravaganza at New York's Madison Square Garden. This girl thang, just a few days before V-for-Valentine's Day, was all about raising money for, raising consciousness about and stopping V-for-violence against women all over the world.

It was a modest little goal, for which I was happy to shell out $50, and sit in a cavernous arena with countless retired jerseys of New York Knickerbockers and Rangers hanging above my head, to listen to some of the most personal revelations about what happens "down there" -- the kind of thing I'm more used to hearing about in groups of two.

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Pardon me for quibbling about something so utterly, totally politically correct, but memo to Eve: three-and-a-half hours with no intermission? Even feminists have to pee. Especially when, even on this V-for-very special night, the Garden's concession stands sold the usual V-for-vile hot dogs, nachos and supersize beers. And, you know, it's not that I didn't enjoy watching Glenn Close fall to her knees in her hot-pink pantsuit, shrieking "Cunnnnnttttt!!!" but it will really feel like we've come a long way (baby) when a big movie star can say the word "cunt" and not make thousands of women giggle and cheer.

Another thing, Eve: Are you aware of what your corporate sponsors (even vaginas, apparently, can get corporate sponsors these days) are doing? You heaped praise upon Lifetime, the cable television network, telling us it was proud to stand for stopping violence against women. But did you happen to catch, the night before V-day, Lifetime's showing of that feel-good feminist classic "The Silence of the Lambs"?

And if those charitable folks at Tampax (nice synergy, Eve!) are serious about making the world safe for vaginas and the women who own them, why do they perpetuate the myth that there's something, well, icky about tampons? When my supersize beer had taken up residence in my bladder and I just couldn't wait any longer, I made a trip to the ladies room. On my way in, two nice young women offered me a freebie: a little box, wrapped prettily in shiny blue foil with yellow and white flowers and a sticker that said "Cool Gift Inside."

At first I thought it was a Rice Krispies Treat. But it turned out to be a sample of Tampax Compak tampons, which, according to the ad copy inside, provide "Protection and Discretion in the Palm of Your Hand." The two free tampons were inside a stylish jet-silver "Purse-Pak," which was inside a cardboard box, which was inside the blue foil wrapping. In other words, at center stage in Madison Square Garden, members of a vulva choir were talking very loudly and very clearly about snatches, pussies, hoochies and every word you could possibly think of for "vaginas" while, at the same time, Tampax was handing out small, discreet, heavily concealed -- shh! -- tampons? Eve: tampon, TAMPON or, as Close might put it, "TAMMMPONNNNN!"

Inside the ladies room, the walls and stalls were papered with Tampax promotional posters saying, "Tampax: The Revolution Continues." You want a tampon revolution? I'll give you a tampon revolution: How about a box of supers for half the price I pay now? (I actually think I have a good idea for lowering the price of so-called feminine protection: Let's designate a tampon- and napkin-free week during which every woman in America who is menstruating simply refuses to wear anything to catch the flow. The men that run the corporations that make these darn things will be giving 'em away in no time.)

Shortly after V-day, two things happened as if by design, as if to remind me that it doesn't have to be this way -- with corporate sponsors promoting shame along with their products and multimillion-dollar movie stars gathering in a sports arena on a Saturday night, along with thousands of women, for a high-gloss event that links sex with violence instead of pleasure.

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First, I read that Dr. William Masters had died. Here was a man -- a churchgoing Episcopalian and a registered Republican -- who, with Virginia Johnson, had devoted more than half a century to taking the mystery out of sex and making sex more pleasurable. Masters and Johnson were profoundly controversial, sometimes wrong, but always profoundly influential. Their goal was to bring sexual joy to the masses, and they did that, especially for women.

Second, shortly after V-day I discovered a new book whose approach is the antithesis of the coy and infuriating marketing campaign for the tampon that dare not speak its name. The book is "The Clitoral Truth: The Secret World at Your Fingertips" by Rebecca Chalker, a longtime women's health activist, medical writer and sexologist. Women's sexuality is not about the vagina, Chalker says. (So get over it, Eve.) Her book blows the lid off some of the biggest secrets being kept from women and their partners about women's sexual pleasure and how to achieve it. The clitoris, Chalker tells us (and shows us, with drawings by Bay Area illustrator Fish), is the one part of the female body whose sole purpose is pleasure. It is, she explains, so much more than that pea-size, exquisitely sensitive bundle of nerves we think it is.

Drawing on her earlier work with the Federation of Feminist Women's Health Centers and its groundbreaking 1981 book "A New View of a Woman's Body," Chalker shows that the clit really is a "system" of 18 distinct but interrelated parts. In the chapter "The Case of the Missing Clitoris," Chalker details just how it came to be that, after 2,500 years in which the clitoris and the penis were considered coequals, so much information and knowledge about the clit just happened to get lost.

Chalker devotes an entire chapter to sorting out the facts, fiction and fantasy about so-called female ejaculation. She also details how women can expand their repertoire of sexual experiences and satisfaction by going beyond "the intercourse model," and includes her own and others' firsthand accounts of full-body pleasure workshops with names like "Body Electric" and "Sluts and Goddesses."

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"The Clitoral Truth" is "Our Bodies, Ourselves," your favorite history textbook, a Nancy Drew mystery and the Good Vibrations erotica catalog rolled into one small volume (with a knockout cover). The book is personal as well as political -- pro-masturbation but not anti-partner, pro-woman but not anti-man (although one can only imagine how most men would react to her statement that "men must be willing to learn some degree of ejaculatory control").

Salon spoke with Chalker at her fifth-floor walk-up apartment in Manhattan.

Why don't you do "The Clitoris Monologues"?

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I just might.

If your clit could talk, what would it say?

I guess it would say, "Get me out of here! Get me out of this obscurity that I've lived in for millennia! I'm alive!"

Sounds like you want to take the clit out of the closet.

Yes. It's been closeted, and denigrated. It's pretty obvious that people still have a very hard time saying the C-word. I wrote this book to reclaim the clitoris. I wrote it to reveal the unknown extent and power of the clitoris, to raise it from this obscure, pea-size organ that we think of it as, to make the world safe for women's sexuality.

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When I've mentioned the title of your book, the first thing several people have said is, "Is that a book about masturbation?"

No. Not exclusively, anyway. The focus of this book is to help women understand, explore and expand their sexual response. Certainly masturbation is a bedrock of that. But the book is not about how to masturbate.

So what is the clitoral truth?

The clitoral truth is that women's sexuality is more powerful and compelling and complex and unknown than has been acknowledged. The clitoris is as extensive as the penis. In fact, the clitoris and the penis are almost identical in their parts. They're just arranged differently. Up until about eight weeks of gestation, all fetuses appear to be female. Then, in fetuses with X-Y chromosomes, which designates them as male, testosterone kicks in and the parts are rearranged. In females the parts continue to grow into what is really an extensive clitoral system. So literally, the penis is a derivation of the clitoris, not the other way around, and they're equal. It's just that the penis is outside, and can be easily seen.

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So the clitoris is a lot more than what meets the eye?

Absolutely! Or the hand. It's an organ system. There are parts that can be seen and felt, and there are parts that cannot be seen. There's erectile tissue, for example, that fills with blood during sexual response. There are two parts that look like the wishbone of a chicken. And there are two large bodies of erectile tissue called bulbs, directly under the inner lips. There's the urethral sponge, the spongy erectile tissue that surrounds the female urethra, just as it does in the penis. This is the location of the so-called G spot. There are also three layers of muscle underneath it all, and the muscles are critical in causing the spasm of orgasm. There are blood vessels, which bring the greater blood flow to the clitoris, and there are nerves, which carry the sensory signals between the clitoris and the brain and back.

Why is it that so many women, who are, after all, the owners of the clitoris, don't know this?

It's not just that women know so little about the clit -- the medical profession knows little about it also. The reason is that women's sexuality has been devalued in various ways over time. The ancient Greeks knew precisely that women's and men's genital anatomy was similar. Aristotle wrote about it, and Claudius Galen, the most famous physician of the Greek era, said that women are just men turned inside out. Galen's works were the gold standard of medical understanding up to and throughout the Renaissance. In fact, in the 17th century, midwives recommended that women have orgasms to help them get pregnant, for general health and well-being and to keep their relationships healthy.

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Ah, this is where you have unraveled a whodunit.

Yes. In the 18th century, around the time of the French Revolution, when women began to demand some measure of social and economic equality, we suddenly see women's sexual response and anatomy and orgasm begin to be downplayed. For the first time, the leading philosophers and physicians of the day classified women's sexuality, and their ability to menstruate and become pregnant, as a disability. From then on we see parts of the clitoris being left out of medical illustrations -- literally erased -- or being ascribed to the reproductive or urinary tract. All except for the little pea-size glans.

It sounds like a clit conspiracy, or maybe a coverup.

Yup. In the Victorian era, we see the first debate about whether orgasm for women is even necessary. And then Freud came along and said that the clitoris is a child's plaything, and the vagina is the focus of mature women's sexuality. Freudianism gripped the view of women's sexuality almost throughout the 20th century.

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You want women to understand that the clitoris is really the key player in women's sexual pleasure. So is the vagina dead? Is it irrelevant, over?

As I say in my book, sex is not about the vagina. But no, we can't just forget about the vagina. It provides this nice, tight, warm little pocket that is designed to promote male orgasm, and therefore pregnancy, and therefore the carrying on of the species. But the vagina does not work that well for women in terms of giving the clitoris the kind of stimulation that it needs.

When it comes to clits, does size matter?

No, the size of the clitoris doesn't matter in being able to experience sexual response.

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Are lesbians closer to the clitoral truth than heterosexual women are?

I think so. Because sex has been totally defined through male standards, lesbians have slipped under the radar, and they've been able to teach themselves and discover for themselves what feels good and what works in sex. Throughout history, lesbians have been ignored -- or their existence has been denied. So they've existed in a secret world where they developed their own standards and sexuality.

In your book, you dive right into the controversy over female ejaculation.

The world is divided into two camps: those who believe it happens, probably because they've experienced it themselves or they've seen it occur in their partners, and those who don't believe it happens. I've found references to female ejaculation in the first sexual advice books that were written in China, in 500 B.C. The phrase is "Her vulva floods." You see these metaphors throughout history. So I thought, "This is ridiculous. We have this long history of references to female ejaculation. We have a lot of research that was initiated in the 1980s." I just put it all together into a single chapter. Some women produce gushes of fluid; others produce little dribbles or drops; some produce none. I do not want to hold up female ejaculation as another performance standard for women, or say that it's something men have to elicit in order to be successful. I just want the subject cleared up.

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Why do you say that people should stop focusing so much on orgasm?

Orgasm is one of the possible outcomes of sexual activity. It is not the only successful outcome.

Isn't that going to be a hard sell?

It is. Look, sexuality in our society has been defined entirely through the male standard: stimulation, erection, ejaculation. But there's another way to do it, and it's the oldest way in the world. Sexuality is the foundation of tantra and Taoism, which [are among] the world's first religions. The focus was extended sexual sessions that were seen as leading to enlightenment. Women's sexual response was highly valued, and men had to learn ejaculatory control so that women had a chance to have as many orgasms as they wanted. A man failed if he did not provide a woman with the opportunity to have the sexual pleasure she wanted. There are other ways to practice sex that benefit everybody, women and men.

You say in your book that men today need to learn some form of ejaculatory control. I read that and I thought, "Yeah, this is going to go over really big."

I totally agree that it's the toughest sell on the planet, and I don't really know what we're going to do about it. But men are really missing out on great pleasure. For women and men, learning full-body sexual response can be mind-blowing, orgasm or not. And it often results in a knockout orgasm for men and multiple orgasms for women, not to mention deeper intimacy.

But what about the good old-fashioned quickie?

There's definitely a place for that, too. You might call those "maintenance orgasms." It's really like junk food or fast food. I guess they're OK. I mean, you gotta eat, right?


Barbara Raab

Barbara Raab is a writer and producer in New York City who contributes regularly to NBC News and PlanetOut.com.

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