by Raymond Rakow, M.D.
The hallmark of any oppressive ideology is domination and subordination, viewed from a societal as well as an interpersonal perspective. From the standpoint of the oppressor, this refers to power over, as opposed to power shared, with another or others, with special attention to the marked inclination of victims to dump on anybody they think is even lower than themselves. From the standpoint of the oppressed, we refer to passivity and compliance, the conviction that subordination is natural. Since all human liberation depends upon the consciousness of servitude, promoting this consciousness when it is absent becomes psychotherapeutically important.
When humanity donned a fig leaf, sexual repression, passivity and compliance were promoted in the population, along with male supremacist gender stratification. Coinciding with the subjugation of women, sexual activity was associated with fear, shame, and guilt. Domination and subordination in personal life were at the service of the new historical evolution of slave owning societies at that time. The double binding of sex in its two aspects, “gender”, as in male or female, and certain activity as in “to have sex”, had a profound effect on maintaining and reinforcing the power relations in society, that still continues today.
Throughout the millennia, a complex series of prohibitions established the necessary internal guilt mechanisms for policing sexual activity (aided and abetted by the external repressive apparatus of church and state periodically as needed). Solitary sex and non-coital partner sex were high on the list of taboos. Prohibiting certain heterosexual relations such as incest, left all homosexual relations out of the pale, unspoken therefore unspeakable, the love that had no name, which made the concept of daring or not daring to speak it gratuitous. Sex for pleasure got the worst press, but procreative sex was hardly beyond suspicion, requiring that the major birth heralding the Christian era be sexually uncontaminated. Virgin motherhood proved a very difficult act to follow, and between the roles of maternal Mary and evil Eve, women were left with precious few viable choices.
This peculiar dovetailing of sexual repression and women’s oppression has been a constant thread through history. Passivity and domination are stamped into subjective consciousness very early in life through the social production of feminine and masculine gender. These engenderation processes gain their ferocious fixed intensity through linking up with or hooking into biological sexuality. No other socialization process hook-links in this manner with any other analogous primal energy source such as biological sexuality represents. The double consequence of this socialization is considerable repression of all sexuality but, most catastrophically, especially that of women. Secondary to this and derivative from it is the special political patriarchal subordination of women. Sex relations help to secure, maintain, and reinforce the class structure of society Once compliance with sexual repression is socially conditioned, there’s very little else that the state or the ruling power establishment requires that we are likely to say no to.
The super-repression of women’s sexuality is largely accomplished through the bizarre invisibilization of the clitoris, an organ analogous to the penis as the primary sex pleasure organ for women. The social creation of the “vaginal woman”, a caricature vehicle into which goes the penis and out of which comes the baby, amounts to an effective mental clitoridectomy in Western societies. The extent of the energy which has gone into this eradication is illustrated by the fact that although anatomy is the oldest of the medical sciences, it is only in very recent years that Suzanne Gage’s excellent anatomical drawings in A New View of a Woman’s Body have elucidated the interior clitoral system in detail, for the first time in scientific history. It is quite amazing that a “new view” of female anatomy would be necessary in the late 20th century!
Ruth Herschberger made some wonderful observations in her 1948 book Adam’s Rib, which is, unfortunately, out of print. She points out that even the pronunciation of “clitoris” and “penis” is loaded with politics in the sense of maintaining power relations. The Greek origin for clitoris was kleit – which demands the strong vowel / as in bite, as opposed to the persistent soft /that is popularly given this word, as in bit. Herschberger wonders if there was a “subconscious desire on the part of scholars to reduce by phonetic magic the actual frequency of the organ.” She finds it significant that in this one exceptional word, “The imperishable rules of scholarship gave way to a more irresistible psychological need: that of suppressing the pronunciatory gusto of an organ which never did quite fit in with woman’s subordinate role in society – kleit was obliged to adopt the more diffident and shy vowel, i.”
Ruth Herschberger, certainly one of the unsung heroines in the annals of human liberational exposition, goes on to contrast “the phonetic encouragement given the [ male organ of generation.” The Latiri;stem ‘ for penis was pen – as in pencil – not at all the same as paean – which takes the strong vowel as in penal. “Could it bi,” we ask incredulously, “that scholars, inventing a strong vowel for the male, at the same time deprived the homologous female structure of its classic emphasis?” She points out that “when certain English verbs change from the present tense to the past, they replace their strong vowels with soft: vowels, as befits an occurrence that is fading away into the misty distance”, giving as examples bite and bit, fight and fought, feed and fed, “so it is not unlikely that the mutation of cliteoris into clitoris has served to suggest to a gullible public that this organ, along with women’s sexual satisfaction, has actually gone the way of the dinosaur.”
Herschberger ends this marvelous section trying to “envisage the difficulty Freud might have run into if he had to prove the existence of something called pennis envy. An organ with so undistinguished a title as this would have had difficulty^ commanding attention at all, much less earning the jealousy of little girls.” These observations, while perhaps whimsical,”*’ certainly have the ring of credibility, and the richness of these contributions makes the total obscurity into which Ruth Herschberger has fallen even more remarkable.
Another great contributor to the annals of women’s sexuality, much buffeted by the prestigious academic authority at the time of her writing in the 1960s, was Mary Jane Sherfey, who left New York for Marshall, Texas and apparently died there, again in total obscurity. Her 1966 book. The Nature and Evolution of Female Sexuality is also out of print. Apparently strong vowels coming from women are not tolerable, not to mention consonants. No press at all is clearly preferred, in keeping with the invisibilization and inaudibilization of women, but when their words somehow do break through, then bad press is automatic, as witnessed by the reception given the new Hite Report.
The attacks have mainly been in the guise of addressing Hite’s scientific method and statistical design, both of which, incidentally, compare much better than favorably with the bulk of pseudo-scientific hodgepodge which passes for social and behavioral research in this country and which is so sagely assented to by the legitimating gurus on their academic and journalistic pinnacles. The word is clearly out to kill the messenger, although her research population is entirely more representative than any analogous population studied in the past century. The mostly male authorities whose easily threatened insecurities have led them to view her work as “man-bashing” will neglect to hear her message only at all of our own peril.
Non-procreative sex for pleasure has always been a major target of right-wing ideology generally and ascending fascism specifically. Since abortion rights and gay rights unconditionally affirm sex for pleasure, not procreation, both have found themselves most pronounced targets of fee: recent onslaught. In the abortion controversy, fetal rights have tended to dominate over women’s rights, with very little S to the question of when women selves will finally achieve full personhood. Rather, there has been endless discussion of when the fetus becomes a person: an exercise in zygotry turned to bigotry against women, all in the name of od and Family. The zygote zealots are escalating their attacks on women and sexual freedom. They constitute dire forebodings of attacks on the rights and freedom of all of us, which inevitably begin by targeting our more vulnerable members.
In the gay rights controversy, the AIDS epidemic has led to escalating homophobia and, by social extension, a reinforcement of the taboo against nonprocreative, non-coital sexual activity, culminating in the Supreme Court’s deterion that such activity is legally prosecutable. Our highest court, quoting medieval and Biblical texts, has upheld the constitutionality of laws stemming from reaction to Sodom and Gomorrah. Moreover, the ruling asserts that laws can be enacted against “any kind of private sexual conduct between consenting adults”, and that since “no connection between family, marriage, or procreation on the one hand and homosexual activity on the other has been demonstrated”, there can be no constitutional protection for such activity, paving the way for future decisions against abortion and even birth control. It would * be most ill-advised for the heterosexual majority to turn their backs on this decision. Coercive childbearing for women has always gone hand in hand with obligatory heterosexuality, reinforced by fetal supremacy and the coital imperative.
If opposition to patriarchal heterosexuality is a key battle for heterosexual women, then opposition to obligatory heterosexuality is a key battle for all women and for any men who take sexual freedom seriously. In fact, women’s liberation will be an empty mockery without the sexually self-determining right to be lesbian. It is not sufficiently appreciated that the social prohibition of homosexuality is a critical lever for maintaining and reinforcing the subjugation of women. Lesbians by their renunciation of subordination to men, at least in their personal lives, and gay men through their abdication of patriarchal royalty over women in their personal lives, are anathema to the dominant social mandate of rigorous gender role stratification. And these social mandates are of considerable consequence, whether we comply with them or we defy them.
Just as fetal supremacy shuts down one crucial lifeline (we need to recapture the word “life”!) for women, just so does heterosexual supremacy shut down another lifeline that many women would otherwise elect openly. The lesbian orientation certainly affords control over reproductivity (with options for insemination by traditional or alternative methods or elective non-motherhood), though lesbians’ rights to keep children may still have to be fought for. A woman’s control over sexuality is considerably more likely when the heterosexual coital imperative is overturned, easily restoring clitoral primacy as desired or maintaining penetration through minimal exercise of sexual ingenuity when that is preferred.
Women’s rights, gay rights, and sexual freedom constitute an interlocking cluster against which fascist ideology directs considerable weaponry, promoting disunity wherever possible, always with a view to establishing the kind of compliant population in which domination and subordination are viewed as natural. This backlash and sex negativity are well illustrated in the extremely popular recent film, “Fatal Attraction”, which presents a sensitive barometer of current social ideological direction . The sexually assertive single career woman is portrayed as a horrifying homicidal maniac, especially in contrast to the idealized monogamous wife-mother whose housekeeping proficiency is nothing if not dazzling, and who of course triumphs at the end in a modern rendition of good maternal Mary over evil Eve. On an even deeper level, the movie establishes the equation of sex with death, if sex is at all illicit, meaning not socially sanctioned, or anything other than monogamous heterosexual procreative sex. The AIDS epidemic established the same equation with a vengeance.
The power of a sexually-transmitted epidemic plague of this magnitude to reinforce traditional sex negativity is matched by its power to shatter prevailing orthodox modes of thought, feeling, and behavior. There is now a historic opportunity and necessity to reclaim erotic arousal and release as a reciprocal giving, getting, and taking of pleasure, as a mutual and congruent interdependent sharing of power. The potential capacity of the clitoris to act as potent and demanding agent is every bit as great as that of the penis and needs more widespread realization. Since the clitoris is the only entirely nonprocreative sex organ, there is urgent need for full restoration of this organ in the pantheon of vital human structures and functions.
Given that “the ego is first and foremost a body ego,” the social denial of this body part can only constitute a negation of self, inevitably contributing to a loss of autonomy and assertiveness; and this usurped consciousness translates into the impairment of social and political consciousness.
It needs to be recognized that all noncoital modes of clitoris and penis pleasuring, orally or manually, are perfectly effective and acceptable methods of sexual gratification. And if coital intercourse is the preferred partner choice, then the woman superior position where she can determine the timing, and approximate her main erotic surface between the pubic bones, will be optimal for her at no loss to him.
It is necessary to differentiate genital orgasmic activity as arousal and release from its frequent accompaniments, such as reproduction, communication, love and intimacy. This separation in no way ignores or disparages the latter; it simply establishes erotic activity as life affirming in its own right, needing no legitimation from any other associations. Clearly there is a great deal of love, intimacy, and emotional commitment in the world without genital orgasmic activity, and conversely there is considerable genital orgasmic activity in the world without love or commitment. The point is that they are separate and should not be hierarchically ranked, as in a metaphysical transcendence of spirit over flesh. The combination of sex with love may be particularly ecstatic, but either without the other should not be devalued or downgraded. When Diane Keaton asserted, “Sex without love is a meaningless experience,” Woody Allen responded, “Yes, but as meaningless experiences go, it’s one of the best.” In humorous fashion he yielded too much, since sex for pleasure has its own distinct and essential meaning, and if human sexuality was not so negatively loaded and oppressively implemented, this would be more universally recognized.
None of this should be misunderstood as in any way opposing heterosexual procreative intercourse. Heterosexuality, childbearing, and coital intercourse are here to stay and should require no particular defending. It is the obligatory, compulsory, exclusive loading of these categories by social mandate that has to be sharply opposed, if choice is to mean anything at all. If these three categories were anywhere near as “natural” or “normal” as the champions of their exclusiveness argue, why would so many social sanctions against alternatives be necessary? Just consider for a moment that the wider any sexual activity diverges from the possibility of procreation, then to that extent that sexual activity will be considered a perversion. Why is this so? The central issue and concept here is in fact, choices, so much so that women’s right to have a child or children requires special understanding. Since choice really means choice, coercive sterilization with insufficiently informed consent and coercive abortion need to be as sharply opposed as the denial of the right to have these procedures, and both those abuses have become increasingly familiar in many of our neighborhoods.
Some might object that the sexuality discussion presented here is “too mechanical” with too much emphasis on “just friction”. It needs to be emphasized that penis friction is taken for granted on this planet, and what’s sauce for the gander is definitely sauce for the goose. Destiny is obviously much greater than anatomy, but where destiny has included anatomy, then there anatomy should not remain mystified. Anatomy does in fact become destiny when destiny is superimposed, particularly the socially mandated destiny of obligatory childbearing and the accompanying subjugation of women, which compulsory heterosexuality and the coital imperative serve to maintain.
So it should be clear that women’s rights/freedom/liberation, sexual rights/ freedom/liberation, and gay rights/freedom/liberation constitute one inextricable struggle around which we need to solidarize, warding off all attempts to disunity and divide us, because any of these without the others can only prove ephemeral. And the current right wing offensive is attacking sharply on all three fronts, making all of our strength and unity essential.
Abortion rights are currently particularly vulnerable, and the Supreme Court antigay Hardwick decision has put heterosexual non-coital erotic activity on notice as well. A fully developed socially and politically conscious psychology will include sexual and reproductive freedom as absolutely essential components.
Raymond W. Rakow is Psychiatrist (Liaison), with the Mental Health Service, Health Insurance Plan (HIP) of Greater New York, and Director, Manhattan Mental Health Services (HIP), New York, N.Y.