Sigmund Freud barely needs an introduction. He is none other than the father of psychoanalysis; the man who gave the world the ‘ego’ and ‘Id’; the famous Austrian doctor who discovered the subconsciousness and who persuaded millions to blame (all) their problems on their mothers. But Freud also made other ‘discoveries’ which are not as often spoken about (for good reasons…) today, but the effects of which resonated through bedrooms and medical textbooks worldwide for almost a century. And those are related to Freud’s theories about female sexuality.
Freud never held females in too high a regard and didn’t make much of a secret of it. The idea of ‘penis envy’ clearly could be spawned only in the mind of a man who didn’t think women could aspire to much at all. His personal relationships with women were complex to say the least – having an affair with your own sister-in-law isn’t the best way to secure a happy marriage and blissful family life. It is perhaps no surprise then that his writings about women are full of sweeping statements on their (sexual) inferiority with little or no factual support. The surprise is that people still took his word for it at least half a century later.
Freud’s initial idea was that as women matured — emotionally and sexually — their erotic zones were ‘transferred’ from the clitoris to the vagina. This ‘reallocation’ of the center of sexual pleasure was, according to Freud, crucial for reproduction and the proper development of a heterosexual identity. Freud’s disciples went somewhat further and began interpreting the failure to achieve vaginal orgasm as a sign of frigidity and not solely sexual immaturity. In the quaintly titled “The sexually adequate female,” Frank S. Caprio, a contemporary follower of Freud’s ideas elaborated that “…whenever a woman is incapable of achieving an orgasm via coitus, provided the husband is an adequate partner, and prefers clitoral stimulation to any other form of sexual activity, she can be regarded as suffering from frigidity and requires psychiatric assistance.” (The Sexually Adequate Female, p.64.). This gem of a book was first published in 1953 — the world was a decade away from the equal pay act and Betty Friedan’s seminal ‘Feminine mystique’ — and yet here was Dr. Caprio diagnosing mental disease in women who liked making use of the only known organ whose sole biological function is to give pleasure!
Women who desired having their clitoris stimulated were thought to behave like men, because they preferred their ‘external’ organ pleasured rather than indulging in the ‘feminine passivity’ of accepting a phallus into their vagina. Consequently, it was thought that as a result of their obvious lack of feminine behaviors they were likely to be awful mothers and would probably fall victim to mental disease and general ‘social disintegration’ (talk about jumping to conclusions). A treatise on sexual issues from 1937 strongly recommends (in the spirit of disaster prevention) that if a woman is unable to reach coital orgasm, sitting astride the man ‘is certainly better than titillation of the clitoris’.
Today we know that there is absolutely no evidence for Freud’s idea of a transfer in female erotic zones — it seems he made the whole thing up sitting in his comfy Vienna office. What’s more, in light of current anatomical and sexological knowledge the whole idea seems pretty absurd (although, I’m sorry to report, the myth of a ‘better’ vaginal orgasm is still alive and well in a lot of corners around the Internet and many peoples’ minds).
The notion of a clitoral orgasm being different from a vaginal one was only really possible in a world where there was very little knowledge about female anatomy (Freud never really cared to learn any himself). What we have come to think of as the ‘clitoris’ is quite literally only the tip of the organ, which in fact can be up to 5 inches long. The internal portions of the clitoris surround the vaginal opening and canal and have more sensory endings than the relatively poorly innervated vaginal walls. Plainly speaking, ‘vaginal orgasms’ are commonly the result of either external indirect stimulation of the clitoris (perhaps the source from the partiality of many 19th century women towards ‘riding astride’ their husbands was that this position results in stimulating the clitoris without the use of hands); or internally – friction against the vaginal walls excites the nerve endings in the interior parts of the clitoris and…kazaaam! Vaginal orgasm.
However, there is much more to the (female) orgasm than just the vagina or the clitoris. Medically speaking, the orgasm is an autonomic physiologic response to various kinds of stimulation which is often (but not always) experienced or perceived as sexual. Importantly, stimulation doesn’t even have to be tactile and there is definitely no rule which says that female genitals have to be touched at all for an orgasm to take place. “Women on Top: How Real Life Has Changed Women’s Sexual Fantasies” – Nancy Friday’s follow-up book to her ground-breaking book on female sexual fantasies “The Secret Garden” – gives numerous descriptions of women who achieved orgasm by simply fantasizing in the shower or having their nipples caressed. No penetration of any kind was involved. Now, that would be pretty much guaranteed to blow Freud’s mind if he ever heard about it. He’d probably swiftly proceed to come up with elaborate schemes about how, for example, too much education resulted in the transfer of sexuality to the brain instead of the vagina or how a perverted breast-feeding relationship with a mother could have been the cause of nipple stimulation leading women to orgasm. In fact, in his essay “The Psychology of Women” Freud actually did formulate his cure to nearly all manner of female sexual ‘neuroses’ – the “abandonment of the life of the mind”. In Freud’s opinion, women simply couldn’t handle having their brains and vaginas functioning properly at the same time. It was an “either, or” as far as Sigmund was concerned (now, maybe it’s just me, but I really think this guy seriously underestimated half the human species…).
Freud never cared much about what women themselves had to say about their sexuality. He pretty much had his mind made up before he even got started on ‘studying’ the issue. Mind you, there wasn’t any particularly useful studying to do, unless you were willing to do some actual high quality primary research with real women, which Freud wasn’t. He just listened to a few ‘experts’ and added some of his own wisdom. Importantly, back in those days, experts were all men who, similarly to Freud, did not think women could contribute to the scientific knowledge base, even if they were the object of study. These male experts reasoned that. being the superior sex, they could surely draw their own conclusions which would by definition be more insightful than anything a woman could tell them about her ‘private parts’ (also, it would spare them the embarrassment and possible accusation of indecent behavior which would have surely cropped up once word of investigations with real women would have spread).
It perhaps doesn’t take much feminist deconstructing to come to the conclusion that male doctors’ doctrines about sex had a lot to do with male expectations and experiences of sex. Men generally thought that penetrating a vagina provided for a jolly good time, so surely women must really like it too. And if they don’t, then, by golly, there must have been something wrong with them. I’ll admit – this is a bit of an oversimplification of doctors’ discourse on female sexuality prior to the 70s. But just a bit… All manner of medical professionals (psychiatrists, family doctors and gynecologists to name the most prominently involved) firmly believed that favoring clitoral stimulation makes a women “sexually inferior” because she doesn’t need a penis to have a good time. The logic was that a penis made a women complete – that’s what the cavity of the vagina is for, right? So if a woman doesn’t want to be ‘complete’, she’s surely demented in one way or another.
Thankfully, we moved past these assumptions since then, but there is still a lot of negative over-thinking going into female sexuality. As the amazing sex-educator Heather Corinna points out, “ever hear someone talk about a penis orgasm?” No? That’s because male sexuality is accepted as more natural, almost simpler in a way – men want sex. What more is there to analyze/think/talk about? Women, on the other hand…ah…now that’s more complex…they want sex but they don’t, they’re maternal and not sexual, they have different orgasms in different places and it’s all oh so complicated. I’m not saying we shouldn’t study female sexuality – far from it! But we should definitely step back and let individual people enjoy their sex lives without worrying that they have inferior orgasms or there’s something wrong with them because they guy who invented psychoanalysis said so…