I’ve explained what these pieces represent, in the first post of the series. So here is another. This one summarises something I have in the ‘online library’ of working papers we wrote during the three years of LLF. That was originally written for a meeting of the College of Bishops. I had chosen the topic because in LLF there isn’t much of a sense of the sexuality of those who identify as women, and also because it meant I could discuss the support of the late nineteenth-century Church of England for a maverick surgeon who was carrying out clitoridectomies in London on girls and women who didn’t fit social expectations of their behaviour. I’ve written a short piece on him for The Conversation. I was trying both to put female sexuality on the agenda, and to illustrate the rather dodgy enthusiasm of the church for what they thought was ‘science’.
Much of what has been written about sexuality seems to start from assuming that the heterosexual man is the norm. This makes the clitoris a problem: is it a version of the penis, or does the penis correspond more to the vagina, something suggested by the word ‘vagina’ itself, which means the scabbard into which a sword is placed? Freud argued that healthy female sexuality was all about transferring the seat of pleasure from the clitoris to the vagina, but for most people with vaginas it is on the clitoris that sexual pleasure usually relies.
One medical claim to have ‘discovered’ the clitoris was made by Realdus Columbus in 1559. His book, De re anatomica, described a small oblong area which, if touched, caused great pleasure. He gave it a name: “since no one has discerned these projections and their workings, if it is permissible to give names to things discovered by me, it should be called the love or sweetness of Venus.” It was seen as a worrying organ because it suggested that women had no need of men to give them pleasure. In the late 1990s research by the Australian urologist Helen O’Connell demonstrated not only that current medical textbooks gave very little information on this organ, but also that it is far larger than the illustrations suggested; rather than a small oblong, it includes erectile tissue which extends up to 9 cm from the external section.
It is often described as the only organ in the body solely devoted to pleasure, although a study published in 2019 argued that orgasm improves lubrication and vaginal blood flow, and alters the position of the cervix in a way that encourages the motility of sperm. The view that female orgasm somehow improves fertility is not new. In 1671 Jane Sharp’s The Midwives Book suggested that the clitoris stimulated a woman’s imagination, which then sent a message to the woman’s ‘spermatic vessels’ to produce ‘seed’. This suggested female orgasm was necessary for conception, but the idea that women have ‘spermatic vessels’ and seed was discredited by the discovery of the ovaries.