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The Omnipotent Clitoris

If the most liberal mothers buy their daughters condoms, do the most enlightened buy them vibrators? The thrill of seduction is nothing compared to the earth-moving quake of the female orgasm. Unfortunately, young women exploring their sexuality aren’t learning this fundamental truth: the clitoris or “magic cape” as Natalie Angier calls it in Woman: An Intimate Geography, alerts as well as ignites in the heat of the moment. While men have been discussing its properties for centuries, the owners of this palatable treasure are ignorant of its power.

Sixty-seven years, after Christopher Columbus set sail to discover a new world, Renaldus Columbus (no relation) claimed he’d discovered the route to a woman’s sexual pleasure. His claim was rejected by Kaspar Barholin, a Danish anatomist, who insisted that what Renaldus chose to name “the love or sweetness of Venus” had been known since the second century. Whoever discovered the clitoris, Georg Ludwig Kobelt, a German physician, was the first to document its structure and function. In his text of 1844, he writes that the glans cliteroides is “the primary locus of sexual arousal… which will make women want to have intercourse despite the dangers of pregnancy and the trials of motherhood.”

Although women now know more about their bodies than in Kobelt’s time, they are still ignoring danger for the sake of romance. Furthermore, the thrill of danger – the high of risk itself – is being substituted for the pleasure of orgasm. When Dr. Carol Cassell, a leader in the field of sex education, asked a group of 125 women, all family-planning professionals, whether they’d ever had unprotected intercourse when they weren’t planning pregnancy, much to her surprise, every single one of them said “yes.” When she asked them why, they answered, “Romance… Spontaneity… There is nothing more awful than premeditated sex.”

According to a friend, in her early twenties, part of the pleasure of sex is the danger. Last year, she spent her days and evenings working and her late nights and early mornings frolicking in bed with a young man. (She didn’t know a person could get by on so little sleep.) At the beginning of the relationship, she insisted that her lover wear condoms but as time passed, she became more lenient. To avoid pregnancy, she didn’t allow him to ejaculate into her body “most of the time.” After several months of passionate coupling, she missed a period and almost drove herself crazy with worry until her next menstrual cycle began. When I asked whether she’d become more cautious since this pregnancy scare, she said no.

Another young friend reminded me that there is more at risk than unwanted pregnancy. Last fall, while I was living in France, she was hiking around Europe. She dropped in for a visit and stayed a week. From the moment she arrived, she couldn’t stop talking about the places she’d been and the people she’d met. Then, casually, she let it drop that she had spent one night in a Spanish hospital in agony. The doctor, without examining her, had prescribed medicine for a bladder infection. Although she’d taken it for three days, she was still having trouble urinating. Several days later when her condition still hadn’t improved, she finally went to the village doctor for a second opinion. She returned in tears. Although the doctor wanted laboratory proof, she was almost certain my friend had herpes simplex II or genital herpes.

Like my other young friend, this woman is well educated and cautious about sexual encounters. Before becoming intimately involved with a man, she insists he is tested for disease. When she travels, she carries a supply of condoms. But one starry night on a beach on the Costa Brava, she lost all reason and made love, without protection, to a fellow traveler. She cursed herself. She cursed him. How dare he not tell her that he was infected?

I have since learned that between two-thirds and three-quarters of people with genital herpes show no symptoms and are unaware that they are infected. The tiny blisters and open sores that mark the disease can appear at any moment, disappear, and reappear again and again. More disturbing still, the virus can cause central nervous system damage or death in infants born through the birth canal. Unlike other sexually transmitted diseases such as gonorrhea, syphilis, chlamydia, or candidiasis, which can be arrested with antibiotics, there is still no cure for genital herpes. My friend, like those who carry the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) or the more lethal HIV, will always have to protect herself during sexual encounters or risk passing the disease on to others.

Women often fail to protect themselves during sex, Dr. Cassell explains in Swept Away: Why Women Fear Their Own Sexuality, because they have been raised to play the passive role. She believes that unless women first admit that they are sexual beings, that they want and are going to have sex, they will continue to put themselves at risk. Her theory matches Nancy Friday’s. In Women on Top: How Real Life has Changed Women’s Sexual Fantasies, Friday elaborates on the “swept away” syndrome and women’s unwillingness to protect themselves during sex. “Being contraceptively prepared goes against a lifelong addiction to love, a state of mind that includes sexual feeling but has never been differentiated from it.” Although it may be preferable to love the person with whom one makes love, Friday admits, it is more important to recognize the difference between sex and love. One way to recognize the difference, Friday insists, is by masturbating.

Although many women feel more comfortable about touching themselves than they did when Friday’s first book, My Secret Garden: Women’s Sexual Fantasies was published in 1974, she suggests that there is still a considerable number who shy away from pleasuring themselves. Friday encourages mothers to tell their daughters to masturbate because, she believes, when a girl or young woman touches her own genitals, she learns more about her anatomy and becomes a more intelligent owner, more in control of what is hers.
Naomi Wolf, in Promiscuities, suggests that young women would also benefit if older women gave them information about contraception and sexual pleasure so they could learn to value their sexuality: “We can teach our daughters that shame belongs to the act of abusing or devaluing female sexuality, not to that sexuality itself.”

Until the middle of the eighteenth century, men such as Columbus and Barholin had a vested interest in women’s sexuality for they believed that without female orgasm, there would be no conception. Not surprisingly, women didn’t challenge this belief. Although medical science has changed men and women’s attitudes towards sex, some things remain the same. Most men love driving a woman to orgasm. Most women love the sensation. In the throngs of passion, however, many women ignore or forget that it’s the female body that incubates the next generation and, as Dr. Genuis points out in Risky Sex, is more seriously injured by the majority of sexually transmitted diseases.

Many women don’t realize, Natalie Angier writes, that they are endowed with a protective device, “a magic cape.” The clitoris, unlike the vagina, does not respond when it is frightened as in rape, or when it is hurried or harassed. Under ideal conditions, its 8000 nerve fibers (twice as many as the penis) swell with pleasure and then “it is a taut little baton, leading the way, cajoling here, quickening there, andante, allegro, crescendo, refrain.”

If young women are to benefit from the sexual revolution of the ‘60s—when their right to birth control was established and their right to decide their own future was won—they will become more aggressive and responsible in and out of bed. They will push themselves to move beyond the “swept away” syndrome. While there may be pleasure in danger, there is much more fun to be had with self-knowledge.
In her chapter on the clitoris, Angier notes that she uses the terms “clitoris”, “female orgasm”, and “female sexuality” almost interchangeably. She would most likely endorse the idea that mothers who value their own sexuality would want their daughters to be easily and super orgasmic. Such mothers would gift- wrap vibrators as well as condoms for their daughters.

References:
Angier, Natalie. Woman: An Intimate Geography. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1999.
Cassell, Carol. Swept Away: Why Women Fear Their Own Sexuality. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1984.
Friday, Nancy. Women on Top: How Real Life has Changed Women’s Sexual Fantasies. New York:
Simon & Schuster, 1991.
Genuis, Stephen. Risky Sex. Edmonton: KEG Publishing, 1991.
Laqueur, Thomas. Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud. Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London, England: Harvard University Press, 1990.
Morrison, Ken, editor. Safer Sex Guidelines: Healthy Sexuality and HIV. Ottawa: Canadian AIDS Society, 1994. Rubin, Lillian B. Erotic Wars: What Happened to the Sexual Revolution? New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1990.
Tsena, C. Howard; Villanueva, T.Guilas; and Powel, Alvin. Sexually Transmitted Diseases: A Handbook of Protection, Prevention and Treatment. California: R & E Publishers, 1987. Wolf, Naomi; Promiscuities: The Secret Struggle for Womanhood. Toronto: Random House of Canada Limited, 1997.

“The Omnipotent Clitoris” was published in “The Vulva Pages”, Volume 1, Issue 1 Spring, 2007.
Editor Jasmine Yen.

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