New Internationalist

Wham, Bam…

Issue 113

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Wham bam...
Who is to blame for the myth of the vaginal orgasm? And should feminists hate men? These are the questions facing women - and men - who feel that sexual hang-ups reveal more about society than about individuals. Beatrix Campbell reports on a decade of women’s liberation that has put sex on the political agenda.

THE women's movement shuns the familiar hallmarks of traditional political organisations: authority, hierarchy, procedure. Instead of producing programmes and manifestos in smoke-filled rooms, it has tried to generate priorities out of personal experiences. The first step was to authenticate women's experience. Depression was translated into discontent, self-hatred an epidemic amongst women was identified as an effect of the situations in which they found themselves.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, motherhood was perhaps the meeting point of the women's movement. The bra-burning mythology suggests that it is a movement of the single, sexy, cosmo girl with no anchor in the reality of the average woman who is probably married with children. If anything, it was the way women experienced their motherhood which produced a shared crisis the solitude, the total financial dependence and men's evacuation from parenthood.

The most widepsread feeling was of finding mutual recognition in small groups of women. Women have always got together and nobody seemed to bother. Now they were getting together on their own account that was a different matter. Husbands, now excluded from women's company which hitherto they had shunned, often found it intolerable. If it were a keep-fit class, then no matter. But a women's meeting: that clearly had consequences.

The new feminism went beyond the traditional left-wing politics of equality. It argued that women didn't want to be equal with men, because men were part of the problem. Masculinity was no longer held up as the model of humanity to emulate but seen as an expression of men's power over women. And if the subordination of women by men was not natural, then neither were the familiar forms of femininity and masculinity.

'We are involved in a power struggle with men', wrote the New York Radical Feminists in 1969. It was a startling statement, amplified by the Redstockings of New York:

'Women are an oppressed class: we are exploited as sex objects, breeders, domestic servants, cheap labour. We have lived so intimately with our oppressors, in isolation from each other, we have been kept from seeing our suffering as a political condition. This creates an illusion that a woman's relationship with her man is a matter of interplay between two unique personalities and can be worked out individually. In fighting for our liberation we will not ask what is reformist or revolutionary, only what is good for women.'

Not all feminists shared the tone of this manifesto. Socialist feminists seemed to find it harder, feeling inclined to argue that it was not so much men who were the problem as the system. As the decade wore on, however, and as issues like rape and wife-battering became part of political and legal life, men's collective culpability became more widely asserted.

In Britain things were complicated by agenda the presence of a large and well established left wing: the Labour Party, a trade union movement - with over 10 million members - and a miscellany of radical movements and groups. These had a long tradition of socialist thought which singled out economic exploitation as the material basis of society. It was difficult for them to accept that sexual oppression might be just as important.

The women's movement took political struggle right into the bedroom. One of its most important texts, The Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm, by Anna Koedt, criticised the normal some would say natural sexual act as irrelevant to women's pleasure, but instrumental in women's subordination. The location of women's pleasure in the vagina, rather than the clitoris was an expression of the way in which sex had been organised solely in the interests of men.

Sexologists and psychoanalysts have had a fascination for the failure of women's sexuality. After the prudery of the 19th century, there was a preoccupation with recruiting women into active sexual participation. But women seemed to be afflicted. It seemed to be in their nature to be frigid - they needed to be wooed; their slumbering sexuality awakened with a kiss. The virtuoso lover would, of course, orchestrate his languid lady into passion and then penetrate her.

Psychologists were concerned to manoeuvre women's sense of pleasure around the vagina. Sexologists were concerned to find out why it didn't work. But still every major piece of sociological research into women's sexuality this century has found that between half and two thirds of women do not experience orgasm during 'intercourse'.

Not surprisingly some began to investigate the cause and cautiously suggested that perhaps men had got it wrong. The rights of the clitoris were tentatively asserted by some physicians, who acknowledged its extraordinary capacity for orgasmic excitement (much greater than that of the penis). One of the most interesting of these was one of Britain's earliest family planners, Dr Helena Wright, who died only this year. She concluded that there was a penis-vagina fixation which had little to do with women's sexual anatomy (as against women's reproductive anatomy), and insisted that the clitoris was where it was at.

Although forcefully stated, this work had little impact on the dominant ideology. Neither did the rather more coyly expressed Kinsey, or Masters and Johnson reports on female sexuality. Both suggested modifying women's behaviour to meet men's demands. It was women's liberation that turned the tables, insisting on women's right to pleasure, questioning the efficacy of the so-called sexual act and celebrating the clitoris.

Anna Koedt's pamphlet wondered if heterosexuality could survive the shock. Apparently it did. Almost a decade later, the massive survey carried out in the US by Shere Hite, The Hite Report, came up with the same conclusion: that the majority of women did not experience orgasm during 'normal intercourse'. 'Even the question being asked is wrong,' argued Ms Hite. 'The question should not be: why aren't women having orgasms from intercourse? But rather: why have women found it necessary to try everything in the book, from exercise to extensive analysis to sex therapy, to make it happen? The question remains.

Beatrix Campbell is a journalist working for City Limits and is co-author of Sweet Freedom: The Struggle for Women's Liberation.


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