EssaysSex & Gender

What’s Left After Penis Envy?

I am teaching a course called “Feminism and Literature” at the New School that explores how literature can articulate feminist claims in the public sphere. One of the problems we discussed is whether the language we are currently using, as well as the imaginary that sustains it, are actually adapted to this task. In order to debate the issue, one of the classical texts that I assigned to my students was Freud’s essay on “femininity.” I chose this text because I wanted my students to be aware of the risks we take when we look at femininity (and female sexuality) from the point of view of masculinity (and male sexuality); Freud’s idea that women have to go through a phallic phase in order to become truly feminine – and that, as a consequence, they have to abandon their childish clitoral pleasure in favor of a more mature vaginal one – seemed to me rather questionable. Is it true that the clitoris is an “atrophied penis” and that it is only by abandoning “wholly” or “in part” the pleasure that comes from it that a “normal femininity” can be developed? Are not the clitoris and the vagina just two names that we assign and use to separate what is actually part of the same unitary body? These are the sorts of questions that I was hoping the text would raise (and indeed it did), and that would lead us to quickly dismantle Freud in favor of a more complex view of female sexuality. In particular, I was hoping to get rid of what seemed to me the most untenable of his positions: the idea that the small size of their so-called atrophied penis (the clitoris) is at the basis of a fundamental and inevitable penis envy in women.

The discussion was heated, indeed, and it was as a consequence of it that one of the students brought to the attention of the class the project of Sophia Wallace (see video below), a New York-based artist who is engaging with this very issue. As a versatile street artist, Wallace managed to bring her “cliteracy” outside of museums, within the concrete, lived space of the streets and within the immaterial space of the internet. She wanted to raise consciousness about the ignorance still surrounding this invisible object: “the clit.” In her own words, what she wanted was for people to begin to talk about the clitoris “on equal terms” with the penis. And indeed this is what she achieved. By showing its “true anatomy” (apparently discovered only in 1998) with installations and performances, she has confronted us with the fact that women bodies, which are constantly sexualized in a number of ways, are never shown as possessing that “little button” (which, however, as we read, is more akin to an “iceberg”). Moreover, she brought to people’s attention important pieces of information. For instance, besides the fact that the “unerect clitoris could be up to 9 centimeters long — longer, as some have described it, than an unerect penis,” I have also learned from “cliteracy” that if you have been the victim of a clitoral mutilation, there are just a few surgeons who claim to actually be able to repair it. (For a BBC radio broadcast about this surgery, click here and advance 14 minutes.)

Well done: she managed to make her point. But how? And at what price? Unfortunately, at the price of reinforcing, while apparently criticizing, precisely those established prejudices that she wanted to dismantle: Why indeed, do we have to talk about the clitoris on “equal terms” with the penis? Can’t we talk about it on “equal terms” with itself? Why insist so much on its measurements, on its penis-like shape, and on how “big” it is? Would it not be worth talking about if it were small? And also: Why do we need cowboys (and cowgirls) riding on a golden sculpture of the clitoris in order to draw attention to it? Why all this masculine language to make it visible?

In short: is she not still implicitly suggesting that the penis remains the yardstick according to which we measure what is worth talking about and what is not? Admitting that there is still a lot of ignorance about the clitoris and that we want to raise consciousness about this conspicuous lack, can’t we do it in different terms?

I have taught Freud’s text because I wanted to criticize Freud on women’s supposed penis envy, but I came out of our class discussion thinking that perhaps Freud was not totally wrong: perhaps women (or at least some women) do have penis envy. Or better: we live in a society where women still feel that it is only by speaking in those terms that they will be heard. Currently 200,634 people tagged the project with an “I like it.” I wonder how many of them are actually affected by “penis envy.” And, if not: what is left after penis envy?

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Chiara Bottici

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