Freud vs the Clitoris

With the change to femininity the clitoris should wholly or in part hand over its sensitivity, and at the same time its importance, to the vagina.” — Freud.

Freud was not an advocate of the clitoris — the clitoral orgasm even less so. He believed that the clitoris must ultimately subordinate itself to the vagina as the primary source of sexual satisfaction. He believed that women must abandon clitoral pleasure because the clitoris is inherently masculine.

The alleged masculinity of the clitoris is linked with Freud’s idea that the female psyche is affected deeply by a castration complex. This complex emerges in the female mind when she realises that she lacks a key feature of the male body: The penis. Recognition of this lack or absence expresses itself as what Freud infamously termed ‘penis envy’.

In this model of thought the male body is the reference point for female sexuality. Freud conceived of the clitoris as a ‘small penis which does not grow any bigger’. It is, in his words, ‘homologous to the penis’. Homologous maybe, but inherently inferior nevertheless — hence his assertions that the mature, feminine woman ultimately abandons the clitoris as the nucleus of her sexual pleasure. He wrote that ‘elimination of clitoral sexuality is a necessary precondition for the developement of femininity since it is immature and masculine in nature.

Childish clitoral sexuality must exit if the adult, feminine woman is to emerge.

Freud’s banishment of the clitoris from normal, healthy sexuality lingered for some time. Although his writings on human sexuality are now widely dismissed, it is difficult to argue that he wasn’t influential. In 1966, almost 30 years after his death, researchers Masters and Johnson released a pioneering study which welcomed the clitoris back into the fold of female sexuality. In their studies on human sexual response, Masters and Johnson argued strongly that clitoral stimulation is necessary for most woman to reach orgasm. Bolstered in part by this research (and also by the climate of 2nd wave feminism) Jane Gerhard wrote an essay in 1968 entitled ‘The Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm‘ in which Freud’s theory of the inferior clitoris was further challenged. Women were beginning to demand their clitorises back.

But is that the end of the story? Germaine Greer would think not. In her 1993 book ‘The Female Eunuch‘ Greer argues although that rescuing female sexuality is not as simply re-claiming the clitoris:

The banishment of the fantasy of the vaginal orgasm is ultimately a service, but the substitution of the clitoral spasm for genuine gratification may turn out to be a disaster for sexuality.”

So what, then, is ‘genuine gratification’ if not a clitoral spasm? If we have vanquished the Freudian myth of the superior vaginal orgasm, what is left to achieve?

On a personal level this is a complex question for me. I grew up in a time well beyond the cultural hangover from Freud’s vagina-centric model. I ran headlong into sex equipped with the well repeated knowledge that women need clitoral stimulation to orgasm. My friends repeated it and so too did my lovers. And yet clitoral stimulation at the hands of my lovers did nothing for me. Their attempts to rouse my clitoris were overwhelmingly anticlimactic and awkward. Anticlimactic because I often felt very little, and awkward because I so sincerely wantedto be affected by their touches.

In retrospect I now see that this inability to enjoy clitoral stimulation had a lot to do with my reluctance to communicate honestly. When my lover’s touches felt uncomfortable or simply neutral, instead of saying ‘This isn’t working’, I often thought ‘What’s wrong with me?’. All too often guys seemed to think that my clitoris was the final destination of my sexual journey. Too rough, too direct, too fast was a common theme throughout my early sexual history. I grew to mildly dread the moment a lover put his hand between my legs because I knew it would probably be underwhelming or uncomfortable. I loved sex — a lot. I just didn’t enjoy the way guys touched my clitoris. I never orgasmed during sex.

Greer asserts that the emphasis we place on the clitoris reflects a broad desexualisation of the whole body, something which she describes as the ‘substitution of sexuality for genitality’. Sex, she argues, has been reduced to an intereaction of genital components rather than a responsive sharing of whole-bodied sexuality.

Expanding further on the dominance of genitality over sexuality, Greer further writes:

If women find that the clitoris has become the only site of their pleasure instead of acting as a kind of sexual overdrive in a more general response, they will find themselves dominated by the performance ethic.

Reading these words was a big ‘Oh!’ moment for me, as they so aptly describes so much of my own struggles with orgasms. For a long time I did view my clitoris as the sole site of my sexual pleasure because that’s how my lovers treated it. When this approach didn’t work I felt broken. My clitoris didn’t ‘work’.

I would like to add that although Greer talks specifically about a genital-based performance ethic in women, I feel the same observation can be applied equally to men. Regardless of gender, when sex becomes about the performance of genitals over the dynamic sharing of sexual energy, the quality of the experience suffers.

It’s very easy to get caught in certain narratives about sex, and I think we fall victim to them in ways we don’t always immediately recognise. My journey for the kind of genuine gratification Greer speaks of has been a complex and ongoing process of relinquishing my internalised narratives about sex. I had to let go of the idea that clitoral stimulation ‘should’ work for me. In my case the vision I had of what ‘should’ work didn’t align with what did work and this misalignment of expectation led me to be dominated by the performance ethic Greer describes.

Once I did shed some of my narratives about the sort of orgasms I ‘should’ have, I became much better at communicating with my partners, and this led to a new and genuine enjoyment of my clitoris that was never previously available to me. The ability to genuinely enjoy my clitoris during sex may seem obtusely simple, but for me it is still a source of genuine happiness and relief.

Freud would not approve of course, but he can suck my homologous penis-clit.