a feminist phenomenological
approach to the orgasm gap
A Feminist Phenomenological Approach to the Orgasm Gap
Gwendolyn Bolderink Student no.: 10177191
Ma. Philosophy University of Amsterdam
Supervisor: Prof. dr. H.Y.M. Jansen Second reviewer: Dr. J.D. Cattien MPhil
Intersubjectivity occurs at the moment of orgasm:
when things break down
—Chris Kraus, I Love Dick
Chapter I. Simone de Beauvoir: Feminine Sexuality in Patriarchy...15 Flesh, Reversibility, Ambiguity
Merleau-Ponty: Sexuality as Intentionality Beauvoir: Sexuality as Ambiguity
Masculine Sexuality: Must We Burn Sade?
Feminine Sexuality: The Second Sex The Problem of Biology
Chapter II. Toward a Phenomenology of Feminine Sexuality...29 Spectatoring
To Become Prey Putting On a Show
Outwardly-experienced Sexual Schema Self-referred Transcendence
Alienated Bodily Existence
Chapter III. Toward a Phenomenology of the (Female) Orgasm...41 Middle Mode
Transformative Embodiment The Orgasm Gap
Conclusion and discussion...47
1. The quality or state of being cliterate, especially the ability to navigate the clitoris based on an understanding that it is fundamental to the female orgasm.
“Neil Armstrong walked on the moon in 1969, but it took another 29 years for the complete anatomy of the clitoris to be proven.” According to artist Sophia Wallace our understanding of the clitoris is lacking; we need to become more cliterate (a portmanteau of “clitoris” and “literate”) in order to close the orgasm gap. Her mixed-media installation CLITERACY “upholds that all bodies are entitled to pleasure, which is fundamental to full citizenship” (Wallace, CLITERACY, 100 Natural Laws, 2012).
We can safely presume that sexism is prevalent in the world of eroticism. One of the very clear signs of this sexism can be found in the orgasm gap. This is the gap in the amount of orgasms between heterosexual women and men. According to an American study done in 2018, 65% of heterosexual women usually or always have an orgasm during partnered sex with a man as opposed to 95% for men (Frederick, 2018: p. 273). Can the root of this difference lie in the female
physiology? Several studies have shown that women have the same amount of orgasms as men when they have sex with another woman (Ibid.: p. 274). The problem therefore seems to lie within heterosexual sex, and not in physiology.
How do we break this orgasmic glass ceiling of female sexuality? The well-known Dutch sexologist Ellen Laan states that there is no important physiological difference between men and women that could explain the orgasm gap. In the Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant she says “Seks is vooral een sociale aangelegenheid, en mannen en vrouwen zijn in aanleg vooral hetzelfde” (Laan, 14/08/2020: de Volkskrant). Or to paraphrase: sex is a social affair and biologically speaking men and women are very similar. According to Laan and Wallace, the clitoris needs to get much more attention if we want to close the orgasm gap, and it is due to patriarchal reasons that the clitoris is not getting the attention it deserves.
Laan offers us very important insights into the workings of feminine sexuality, but we do see a strong division between nature and nurture in her research. In the article ‘What Makes Women Experience Desire?’ which supports the New View manifesto, she states that ‘[...] the
biopsychosocial model promoted by the New View emphasizes that a woman’s sexuality is largely produced by her social context and rejects the idea of desire norms rooted in physiology’ (Laan &
Both, 2008: p. 505). And in the quote from the newspaper mentioned above, she argues that there is no biological cause for the orgasm gap: the cause for the orgasm gap lies in societal norms. Notice how Laan on the one hand argues that sex is not biological at all: sex is a social affair. But on the other hand also focuses on physiological facts like the role of the clitoris. The connection between the two seems to be somewhat vague – physiology and cultural ideas on sexuality influence each other, but how this influence works does not get much further developed than that. How can a biological thing like the clitoris be influenced by the patriarchy? Is there a better way of
understanding this influence? What Laan misses here is that biology is more than just physiological facts. The experience of my body and the way my body relates to the world, is also part of biology.
The clitoris is not merely a physiological thing, it has its own cultural, behavioral and mental dimension that is intertwined with it and that determines our relation to it.
On top of the views of sexologists like Laan or artists like Wallace, I want to add a phenomenological view on feminine sexuality. Why phenomenology? The nature-nurture distinction and related distinctions like mind versus body, nature versus culture and sex versus gender, all work with the Cartesian model, in which the body is seen as a machine with a mind or a soul living inside of it. This leads to problems when we try to understand how the mind influences the body and vice versa, or how nature and culture interact. Phenomenology can give us a way out of these distinctions, which can help us get a better understanding of the orgasm gap and (feminine) sexuality. Most important for our discussion, is finding a way to get past the sex-gender distinction, because sex and gender is so closely related to the orgasm gap. Let us look at the sex-gender distinction and how phenomenology can help us get a new view on sex and gender.
There are two ways in which the sex-gender distinction can operate. Firstly, sex is often understood as bodily features and gender as a mental or behavioral component. This has its roots in body-mind-dualism. The second way in which the sex-gender distinction is used, is by talking in terms of causation. Is sexual difference explainable through biological causes or through
sociocultural causes? Meaning: is the distinction between men and women caused by nature or by nurture? These two ways of looking at the sex-gender distinction are different but are often used as synonyms, which leads to confusing situations. For example: there have been studies that suggest that the difference in a man's and a woman's brain are caused by the way women have been raised.
According to the sex-gender distinction that focuses on causal origins, this would be a gender difference. But if we take the other interpretation of the sex-gender distinction, we would have to call this a difference in biological sex, because the structure of the brain is part of bodily functions (Heinämaa, 2012: p. 2-6). This makes us question whether the sex-gender distinction can really be made.
Judith Butler argues that not only gender, but also biological sex is a social construct. She points out that our physical sex is often seen as the point of departure for the social construction of gender:
“I want to ask how and why “materiality” has become a sign of irreducibility, that is, how is it that the materiality of sex is understood as that which only bears cultural constructions and, therefore, cannot be a construction?” (1993, p. 28).
For some reason, we see the body as prior to culture; as pure, unaffected material. Butler wonders why we think material things like our bodies cannot be constructed. She argues that the category
“sex” is itself a regulatory ideal; by which she means that it is not just a norm, but also “a regulatory practice that produces the bodies it governs” (1993, p.1). Matter itself is under the influence of a process of materialization, it is not a mere surface on which processes take place. It is our discourse on sex and gender that constructs our sex, that turn our bodies into sexed bodies. Determining what is part of our sex, the marking and demarcating of female and male bodies, has a normative and formative force (1993, p. 9-11). According to Butler, the entire natural realm is constructed by sociocultural practices (Ásta, 2018: p. 57-69).
At a first glance, it seems that Butler has found a way to reject the sex-gender distinction, because she seems to state that everything is gender. But phenomenologist Sara Heinämaa suggests that Butler still thinks about sex and gender in cultural and material terms. There is the material body, and the discourse that shapes our body. Therefore, she still uses the sex-gender paradigm.
More importantly, we have seen that there is a second way in which the sex-gender distinction operates: in the sense of causal origins. In Butler's work we still see a strong causal relation, even though she reverses that causality (Heinämaa, 2012: p. 11-12).
In order to go past the sex-gender paradigm – and by doing so give us tools to better
understand feminine sexuality and the orgasm gap – Heinämaa suggests taking a phenomenological stance. She states that sexual difference can be found in the body, but that the body is more than just a given physiological thing:
“[...] bodiliness […] involves several components and layers: sensibility, motility, thinghood, materiality, perceptibility, affectivity, and expressivity” (2012: p. 13).
The body is not just its physiological sex, it is an expression of consciousness. It moves in a certain way, it notices things that other bodies do not notice, it can move gently when approaching a lover
and aggressive when angry. The concepts of sex and gender on the other hand, either define the body in causal terms (nature versus nurture) or in terms of physiology versus consciousness. This does not capture the body as an area of expressive relations. It is this expressivity that Heinämaa thinks is most important in distinguishing between the sexes. Because in lived experience, as Heinämaa states, “[...] men and women are not always or even predominantly given to us as
possessors of genitals or identified as such. Rather, they are distinguished in most circumstances by their ways of moving and bodily comporting towards the environment (2012: p.17).” Or as
Merleau-Ponty says: “A woman passing by [...] is a certain manner of being flesh which is given entirely in her walk or even in the simple shock of her heel on the ground” (PP 54; Merleau-Ponty gives quite a sexist idea of femininity, associating it to heels and a way of walking which could suggest that women should walk in a certain way, i.e. in a way that is more meant for the eyes of men than for women themselves. However, it gives us a starting point from which we can theorize more on the lived experience of femininity, especially if we let women themselves theorize about this topic).
This way of seeing the body is what phenomenologists call the lived body. This model, unlike the Cartesian model, avoids a distinction between body and mind. Merleau-Ponty states that the body is a form of consciousness and that “mental” activities (desires, for example) are bodily experiences (Romdenh-Romluc, 2011: p. 62). The body and the mind are “in a reciprocal relation of expression” (PP 162). What does he mean? The body is not just a thing, a machine or object: our way of relating to the world is expressed in it (Heinämaa, 2003: p. 38). Our body gives us a
situatedness in the world and is therefore our means through which we experience other things and other people and make sense of them. The same can be said about the mind: the mind is expressed in the body through gestures and movements, and our bodies relate us to other embodied subjects (Heinämaa, 2012: p. 13).
In his essay ‘A Tale of Two Bodies: the Cartesian Corpse and the Lived Body’ (1998: p. 123) phenomenologist Drew Leder gives us a very simple example to explain the difference between the Cartesian body and the lived body. Imagine being thirsty while reading this introduction and getting up for a glass of water. We can describe this situation in causal, material terms, stating that neuronal activity signified to the body that it needs water, after which muscular contractions were involved to get the body up and moving towards the kitchen, et cetera. This is of course an accurate description of what happens in the body, but it does not adequately describe the experience. What it fails to describe is the intentionality of the body and of consciousness that constitutes a world. With our notion of the lived body, we could describe this thirsty situation stating that there was a feeling of dryness in the mouth that possibly makes you reach for a glass on the table, only to realize it is
empty. You were feeling tired anyway, so you decide to take a break and go to the kitchen. When seeing the refrigerator you might remember that you just bought some juice in the supermarket, and that you would prefer that over a glass of water. Now why does all this matter? Because it shows how one is positioned in the world, and how the intentionality of the body binds together this world of thirst, tiredness, supermarkets, kitchens, memories, et cetera.
The lived body is the intentional body as an expression of the mind, and the mind as an expression of the body. It is this notion of the body that will play a key role for our
phenomenological view on sexuality. Unfortunately, when talking about the physical aspects of sexuality, banal and sexist observations of the male and female morphology are often made. These observations often entail that men can have erections with which they can penetrate women. It is then sometimes argued that this means that a man “takes”, and that a woman is “being taken”
because something alien is entering her body. This is then also often connected to activity versus passivity. I find these ideas absolutely ridiculous. First of all, why would we state that penetration is a form of taking? There are plenty of situations in which a woman experiences penetration but is definitely the one with the most control. For example, oral stimulation of the penis is quite a vulnerable situation for the man; I would not categorize that as “taking” the woman. If one would want to categorize it with those words, I would turn it the other way around. Then second of all, focusing on erections and penetration views sexuality in a very masculine way. Sexuality does not need to entail erections or penetration whatsoever.
I want to go beyond these arbitrary observations and look at sexuality and embodiment in a different way. The lived body shows us how we are situated in the world and what that means for embodiment, consciousness, our relation to others and how we make sense of all of that. What I will study is how a woman may experience her body in a sexual situation. This might give us an insight into how we can close the orgasm gap. I will do so by combining Merleau-Ponty's theory on the lived body and Simone de Beauvoir's description of feminine sexuality within a patriarchy (later on in this introduction I will discuss the relevance of her theory for us today). By doing so, I hope to achieve two things: first of all, it will give a phenomenological impulse to Beauvoir's theory. We will see in chapter one that Beauvoir is strongly influenced by phenomenology, but that her ideas on embodiment are still lacking. She uses the notion of the lived body, as we can see in this quote:
“[...] one might say, in the position I adopt – that of Heidegger, Sartre and Merleau-Ponty – that if the body is not a thing, it is a situation: it is our grasp on the world and the outline for our projects. [...] it is not the body-object described by the scientists that exists concretely but the body lived by the subject” (SS 46-50).
The phenomenological influence on Beauvoir is clear. But when she theorizes about what feminine embodiment entails, she does not seem to get further than stating the obvious about menstruations and the like. I call this ‘the problem of biology’ and I will discuss it further in chapter one. By combining her feminist theory with Merleau-Ponty's ideas on embodiment, we can enhance her phenomenological project. Then secondly, Merleau-Ponty's theory will also get a few corrections and enhancements. Two things can be said of Merleau-Ponty's theory: first of all, he has a male bias in his phenomenology. And secondly, even though he is called by some the philosopher of
ambiguity (we will discuss this notion of ambiguity in chapter one), his theory still upholds a strong distinction between transcendence and immanence. By infusing his theory with feminine
experiences, we will not only get rid of the male bias in phenomenology, but also give a stronger explication of the idea of ambiguity.
Before we dive into this we need to discuss a few matters. The first is about the relevance of Beauvoir's view for our current times. As stated above, I will discuss Beauvoir's theory on feminine sexuality within a patriarchy. But we need to be aware that Beauvoir wrote her magnum opus in 1949, more than seventy years ago. A lot has changed since then, women have become more
sexually liberated, they can dress sexy if they want too without being shunned by society, they have more opportunities to fight back against sexual repression and sexual objectification, and what we consider as acceptable behavior for men towards women has changed as well. One would expect that Beauvoir's analysis is antiquated, and although parts definitely are, it still resonates with many young women today and at times reads as a shockingly accurate depiction of feminine oppression in the 21st century. Feminine sexuality is still influenced by a patriarchal situation; and although
patriarchy itself has changed, feminine sexuality is still an expression of sexual objectification, sexual harassment, sexual violence, shame, passivity and repression. We will see in chapter one how the characteristics of feminine sexuality as Beauvoir depicted them in 1949, have evolved into more modern versions today. Shame and repression, for example, have evolved into slut-shaming and sexual gatekeeping. Women's sexuality is a lot more liberated, and many women have broken free from conservative ideas, but it is not yet fully liberated. Similar impulses as we saw seventy years ago, are active today, albeit modernized and definitely improved. Moreover, it still really is a matter of “breaking free” from normative ideas, one has to put in some effort to feel sexually free.
Finally, I want to add that we are most interested in Beauvoir's theoretical framework. Whether her specific analysis of femininity within a patriarchy is still accurate matters (for this thesis) less than her ideas on transcendence, immanence, and ambiguity. We will see that this theoretical framework helps us understand feminine sexuality as it is today.
This brings me to the next topic: “woman” as a philosophical category. As Heinämaa argues:
The Second Sex is not (primarily) a socio-historical explanation of womanhood, it “concerns the ambiguity of the living body and its dual expressions, the feminine and the masculine” (Heinämaa, 2003: p. xi). These dual expressions, femininity and masculinity, change over the course of time, as Beauvoir knew as well. Femininity is a continuous process of becoming, it is a way of positioning and repositioning yourself in relation to the category “woman” and the category “man”, and by placing yourself somewhere in this field, we not only create a network full of possibilities in which a woman for example can shift between different kinds of “masculine” or “feminine”, but also change the categories themselves. This is of course influenced by (intersectional) feminism, and (gender)queer empowerment. Feminists and queer-identifying people often find ways to go against normative ideas on femininity and find new ways to express femininity. By doing so, they change the entire category, and the normative rules that go hand in hand with that category. The categories man and woman change continuously, and we realize more and more that this binary division is not sufficient to grasp the full scope of gender and sex. This is also one of the reasons why I try to use the word “femininity” or “feminine” as much as possible, as opposed to “female”. I feel that the word “femininity” better grasps the idea of change – both historically and the continuous changing relation between the sexes – within our gender categories. Of course, the word “feminine” can be problematic too, as it can be a normative category as well. The word “feminine” is often associated with softness, elegance, an innate urge to take care of others, et cetera. We need to be careful that we do not give “ammunition to the enemy” and give power to oppressing structures that we are trying to change. Seeing the feminine as an ever-changing expression of the lived body, gives us a true possibility to change oppressing structures.
But before we do that, we need to ask another vital question: is a feminist phenomenology possible? Phenomenology has often been criticized by feminists for lacking to give any thought to the question whether there might be a difference between male and female experiences (Fisher, 1999: p. 72). Phenomenologists have always assumed that there is no difference between how women and men experience their body and how the world appears for them. They see the body, whether it is female or male or anything in between, as a neutral field. But, especially in a patriarchy, male and female bodies are not neutral. My feminine body gives me a certain way of seeing and moving my body, and determines how the world responds to me. And the way I move and experience my body, impacts the way I grasp the world. This omission however, cannot be blamed on phenomenology, but on specific phenomenologists that failed to regard these gendered differences. This is of course a fundamental lack in phenomenology as a field, but not a reason to dismiss it entirely. Nevertheless, we should realize that there is a male bias in classic
phenomenology, and we should see it as our duty to expand the field with feminine experiences.
Another point of critique stems from the perception that phenomenology is an essentialist doctrine, which of course does not sit well with feminists. However, this is an incorrect view on phenomenology. Yes, a theory that starts from subjective experience and aims at describing general elements of the human condition, runs the risk of creating a homogeneous group that does not allow any variations. Feminist phenomenologist Linda Fisher calls this a tension between generality and specificity. However, as Fisher states: “Generality is not necessarily equivalent to generalization”
(1999: p. 71). Phenomenology as a field does not want to suppress any differences, but wants to articulate and describe shared experiences. We are of course complex individuals with our own circumstances which makes our experiences unique and individual, but “within radical differences there is a woman's situation” (Ibid.: p. 71).
That being said, we do need to create a group that we can study. This thesis will focus on heterosexual, white, cisgender women. The first reason is a very pragmatic one, and that is to limit the extent of this thesis. A reason for focusing specifically on heterosexual women (or at least, on heterosexual, partnered sex, which can of course occur with bisexual or lesbian women) is because the orgasm gap seems to be mainly a problem of heterosexual, partnered sex. Another reason for limiting myself to this group, is that I myself am a western, white, cisgender woman who is familiar with heterosexual, partnered sex. Considering phenomenology starts from first-person experience, I think it is important to try to stay as close as possible to experiences that the author is familiar with themselves. That being said, one also needs to be aware and point out that this will lead to a limited description of feminine sexuality and that further (phenomenological) research is needed. Through sexology, sociology and psychology, I have tried to collect as many examples of feminine sexuality as possible, meaning I have tried to go past personal experiences. The literature I used did not (always) solely focus on western, heterosexual, white, cisgender women, but most of the participants in these studies did fit into those categories.
How to perform a phenomenology of feminine sexuality then? I will first go into Beauvoir's ideas on feminine sexuality within a patriarchy, and how these ideas are influenced by
phenomenology, specifically Merleau-Ponty. I will then describe feminine embodiment in sexual situations using sexological research and psychological studies, and show the phenomenological implications of my findings through the concept of the lived body. Finally, I describe the
embodiment of the female orgasm, and I will show how patriarchy complicates this bodily experience.
SIMONE DE BEAUVOIR: FEMININE SEXUALITY IN PATRIARCHY
“The erotic experience is one that most poignantly reveals to human beings their ambiguous condition: they experience it as flesh and as spirit, as the other and as subject.” (SS 427)
This simple quote combines two aspects that are of the utmost importance to understand Simone de Beauvoir: eroticism and ambiguity. Throughout The Second Sex Beauvoir often brings up sexuality.
For example, she writes about the young girl that starts to experience and even internalize the (sexual) gaze of others, the role of sex in a marriage, sexual attraction for lesbian women, and the power of the prostitute. On top of that comes Beauvoir's essay ‘Must We Burn Sade?’ in which she discusses the sadistic enterprises of Marquis de Sade and how his understanding of eroticism failed to truly capture the meaning of sexuality.
So why is eroticism so important for Beauvoir? Firstly, it is clear that according to Beauvoir sexuality plays an important role in the feminine condition within patriarchy. Being objectified, being gazed at, being used as a tool for the sexual pleasure of others, and being denied to fulfill their own pleasure, is all part of the feminine experience. Secondly, we see that eroticism tells us something about the human condition: ambiguity. And it is in this concept of ambiguity that we see the influence of Merleau-Ponty on Beauvoir.
In this chapter I will explain why, according to Beauvoir, eroticism is gendered and why this leads to inequality between men and women in their erotic lives. I will start by explaining the notions of flesh, reversibility and ambiguity that play a big role in the works of Beauvoir and Merleau-Ponty and in their theories on sexuality. I will then move on to Merleau-Ponty's view on sexuality to give the phenomenological background from which Beauvoir starts her theory. I will then show how Beauvoir takes Merleau-Ponty's metaphysical interpretation of sexuality and enters it into the domain of ethics. She shows how Merleau-Ponty's phenomenology ignored gendered differences. By discussing ‘Must We Burn Sade?’ I will explain what patriarchal desire is according to Beauvoir. I will then move on to The Second Sex in which Beauvoir shows us the specifics of everyday sexual life for women. The main argument of both those works is that male sexuality can be characterized by transcendence, and feminine sexuality by immanence. This will be a key point when discussing the orgasm gap later on in this thesis. Finally, I will show in what way Beauvoir did not fully succeed in her phenomenological project. I call this: the problem of biology. This thesis will try to fill the gap between Merleau-Ponty's neutral phenomenology and Beauvoir's
problematic ideas on biology.
FLESH, REVERSIBILITY, AMBIGUITY
For Merleau-Ponty (and other phenomenologists), mind and body are not two separate realms: “I am my body”, Merleau-Ponty writes (PP 205). Or in other words: we are embodied subjects, and it is through our bodies that we are positioned in the world and that we interact with others. It is also through our bodies that we can be objects ourselves. This shifting between being an object and being a subject is what Merleau-Ponty and Beauvoir call ambiguity, and they consider it a fundamental property of reality (Shabot, 2013: p. 67).
Ambiguity is more than just a subject-object distinction. Phenomenologists like Merleau- Ponty and Beauvoir, use the word ambiguity to emphasize the blurriness of our boundaries. Let us take an example of two people looking at each other. When I look at someone, I am in a subjective, active, transcendent position. When they look at me, I am turned into an object: passive, immanent flesh. But this subject-object distinction is not as simple as it sounds: it is not simply the case that I am sometimes a subject and sometimes an object. It is a more fundamental relationship. The act of looking at someone implies being looked at yourself, or even better: the act of looking contains the experience of being looked at. You could say that it is my body-as-object which allows me to be a subject and vice versa. Merleau-Ponty calls this the reversibility of seeing and being seen. In the movement towards something that is other (a gaze, a touch, a desire) you recognize the other as a free subject, and you find yourself as other (Ó Murchadha, 2009: p. 245-246).
What does this mean for the boundaries between subject and object? The body as immanent flesh makes the boundaries between my body and the world blurry, because it gives me a
situatedness in the world of objects (Shabot, 2013: p. 68); the reversibility of the flesh makes the boundaries between me and other subjects blurry, because it confronts me with other subjects and the constitutive role they play (Bergoffen, 1997: p. 22-23). Ambiguity can be found in this
blurriness. Important in the notion of ambiguity is that it gives us an openness to the world and a connectedness to others. In my subjective experiences I am made aware of the otherness within myself, and of the subjectivity of the other. We see here how subjectivity is intertwined with intersubjectivity.
Now let us take the example of two people touching each other. Who touches who? Who is subject; who is the object? Or are they both at the same time? This example shows us how vague the subject-object distinction is. This is precisely why Beauvoir saw the erotic situation as the strongest experience of our ambiguous human condition. Phenomenologist Sara Cohen Shabot states that the erotic shows us two kinds of ambiguity: the vague distinction between ourselves and
the world (because we are confronted with our own otherness) and “the intertwining of immanence and transcendence that characterizes all subjects” (Shabot, 2013: p. 68), by which she means that not only do we experience the other as flesh, but we also experience the other as subject (Ibid.: p.
We know that the body can function in multiple ways: as an active subject and as a passive object. This means that the body itself is an ambiguous phenomenon. When using the word ‘flesh’, it often seems to be used as a synonym for the objectified body. We see a perfect example of this in Beauvoir's quote at the beginning of this chapter: she states that eroticism is experienced “as flesh and as spirit, as the other and as subject.” (SS 427). By flesh, Beauvoir clearly means otherness, the objectified body. However, because of the reversibility of the flesh, the flesh itself is an ambiguous chiasmic structure, that contains a myriad of possibilities that imply each other, like seeing and seen. In his work The Visible and Invisible Merleau-Ponty states that the flesh is “a pregnancy of possibles” (VI 250).
We see two ways in which the word ‘flesh’ is used: my body as immanent flesh and my body as reversible flesh which is an expression of ambiguity. In this thesis, I will use the term
‘flesh’ to signify objectified immanent flesh, because that is how Beauvoir often uses the term. We must remember however, that the flesh is always reversible and therefore per definition ambiguous;
the flesh can always be turned into activity, as Beauvoir also states.
Before we continue, it is important to note that even though existential phenomenologists like Merleau-Ponty argued that the body is ambiguous, they still see a sharp distinction between immanence and transcendence (Young, 2005: p. 47). Phenomenologist Lisa Guenther explains Merleau-Ponty's view on the ambiguous flesh:
My right hand touches my left hand, and in so touching becomes touched, just as the touched hand begins to touch; but touching and touched never absolutely coincide. They are rather always on the verge of one another, diverging and encroaching upon one another, with an endless reversibility (2011: p. 21)
Ambiguity is seen as an endless reversibility, touching and touched “never absolutely coincide”.
Meaning: our body is always either immanent or transcendent, but because they imply each other and because the shifting happens so fast, it becomes vague when our body is in one state and when it is in the other. In the final chapter of this thesis, I will state that there is a form of ambiguity in which immanence and transcendence coincide.
MERLEAU-PONTY: SEXUALITY AS INTENTIONALITY
Affective states (like desire) are often seen as biological states of pleasure and pain; something that is only explicable through automatic reflexes. An example: when we see someone, a biological process occurs, hormones shoot through our nervous system, we find this person attractive and we might notice a physical change in our bodies. When another explanation is presented, it is often by substituting those reflexes for mental representations (De Preester, 2010: p. 180). Merleau-Ponty dismisses both interpretations, and states that sexuality is a form of intentionality.
Intentionality is the relation between consciousness and what it is directed at. Consciousness is never just consciousness floating around; it is always directed to something. Intentionality
therefore, is the relation between subject-world, subject-object and subject-subject. In the chapter
‘The Body as Sexed Being’ of his Phenomenology of Perception, Merleau-Ponty states that sexuality is a kind of perception that differs from objective perception and a kind of intentionality that differs from pure “consciousness of something”:
“Erotic perception is not a cogitatio that intends a cogitatium; through one body it aims at another body, and it is accomplished in the world, not within consciousness.” (PP 159)
Erotic intentionality is the way in which I become aware of my own body and of another body. But not merely in the sense that someone triggers lust or that we become aware of our sexual organs. It is a way of perceiving and experiencing that permeates everything. Merleau-Ponty continues:
“For me, a scene does not have a sexual signification when I imagine, even confusedly, its possible relation to my sexual organs or to my states of pleasure, but rather when it exists for my body, for this always ready power of tying together the given stimuli into an erotic situation […]” (PP 159)
An erotic encounter – like a look or a touch – constitutes an erotic world. And this new world starts to exist for your body; it determines how to use and experience your body, and creates a sexual schema (De Preester, 2010: p. 180). My body and someone else's body, start to exist as sexual bodies: sexuality is the way in which our bodies open up to each other, and gives the other person a certain sexual light or value (Halsema, 2018: p. 153-155).
Sexuality, for obvious reasons, seems to take place mainly in our bodies. It therefore seems to be mainly associated with objectification. This implies that erotic perception reduces the other to nothing more than an object. This is not correct. For Merleau-Ponty, sexuality is linked to
ambiguity: the body “[...] becomes ambiguous in the experience we have of it, preeminently in
sexual experience, and through the fact of sexuality.” (PP 171). Erotic situations are a tension between subject and object for both parties (Halsema, 2019: p. 161):
“To say that I have a body is thus a way of saying that I can be seen as an object and that I seek to be seen as a subject […]. The same could be said of sexual desire. […] We do not attempt to possess a body, but rather a body animated by a consciousness” (PP 170)
Let us go back to the difference between intentionality and erotic intentionality. When it comes to objective intentionality, Merleau-Ponty states that “for us to be able to move our body toward an object, the object must first exist for it, and hence our body must not belong to the region of the “in- itself”” (PP 140). Meaning, there is a constitutive relationship between subject and object. Erotic intentionality does not constitute a subject and an object, but a new sexual world, which then affects one's own body and the way you use it. We see that the body goes through a process of constitution as well (De Preester, 2010: p. 180). However, in sexuality, the body is not constituted as a subject:
in sexuality the body becomes simultaneously for-itself and in-itself; transcendent and immanent.
BEAUVOIR: SEXUALITY AS AMBIGUITY
Gender or biological sex does not seem to play a part in Merleau-Ponty's theory of sexuality. There is a strong sense of neutrality in his work. But as Beauvoir states:
“There is a whole region of human experience that the male deliberately chooses to ignore because he fails to think it: this experience, the woman lives it.” (SS 666)
Merleau-Ponty has made this mistake: he has failed to think of the feminine experience. He assumes that men and women experience the neutral concepts of flesh, reversibility and ambiguity in the same way. Beauvoir notes that embodied subjectivity is always sexed and/or gendered. And in our society this is done according to (or at least influenced by) patriarchal codes (Bergoffen, 1997: p.
29). For this reason, Beauvoir argues that male and female sexuality are related to the dynamic that men and women have in patriarchy (Halsema, 2018: p. 161). Before we look into the different gendered dimensions of the erotic, let us first see what sexuality is, according to Beauvoir. We can find an answer in the Sade essay:
“Through emotional intoxication [trouble1], existence is grasped in oneself and in the other as at
1 There have been multiple translations of the French word ‘trouble’. A few options are: sexual excitement, emotional
once subjectivity and passivity. Through this ambiguous unity, the two partners merge: each is delivered from its self-presence and attains an immediate communication with the other. […] It is through the vertigo of the other made flesh that each is enchanted in his own flesh.” (MBS 59-60)
Merleau-Ponty has a strong presence in this quote. In sexuality you get captivated by your own flesh – your own objectivity – via the other's flesh, and you recognize your own consciousness in the consciousness of the other: you experience yourself (and the other) as both subjectivity and objectivity at the same time. Trouble is therefore the feeling of recognizing the ambiguity of existence. We see that Beauvoir uses the notion of ambiguity to explain the intersubjective connection with the other, and the relation to your own body (Bergoffen, 1997: p. 120-121).
It is important to note that this is her explanation of sexuality within an equal relationship between two partners. Starting from a position of equality, sexuality leads to an immediate contact with the other (Halsema, 2018: p. 161). In the rest of the Sade essay she explains how Marquis de Sade did not approach sexuality from a position of equality. She argues that Sade's desires are a clear example of patriarchal desire.
MASCULINE SEXUALITY: MUST WE BURN SADE?
Marquis de Sade brought us the word ‘sadism’. He derived sexual pleasure from torturing others. It even led to his imprisonment multiple times. Beauvoir labels his sexuality as ‘perverse’, but we need to make sure we do not misunderstand her use of that word. Beauvoir knew that sexuality comes in many shapes and sizes. Therefore, calling a certain sexual preference perverse cannot mean unnatural, because there are no unnatural sexual practices. What does she mean then? What she calls perverse is his insistence on taking up the status of the subject, and denying the ambiguity of existence. It not only forms a negation of women's subjectivity, it also prevents all sexes to experience the true meaning of eroticism. Patriarchal sexuality prevents both men and women to enter into the ambiguous relationship that sexuality expresses (Bergoffen, 1997: p. 117-119). Sade's sexuality “misses the fundamental way in which the erotic expresses the ambiguity of our condition as consciousness, as flesh, as subject, and as other.” (Ibid.: 119). Let us take a closer look.
Beauvoir argues that Sade does not have the experience of trouble: the sexual excitement
intoxication, a disturbance or confusion related to sexual desire, and in Sartre’s L’être et le néant the Dutch word
‘troebeling’ is used, meaning something like cloudiness or murkiness. In English translations, emotional intoxication is often used. Why? Trouble is the experience of ambiguity – something like the Dutch troebeling therefore seems to evoke the blurry aspect of ambiguity the most. It is a type of emotional intoxication because one must give up the clarity of subjectivity and rationality to experience it. Trouble is more than just sexual excitement, it is the risky enterprise of balancing on the edge between transcendence and immanence; a continuous oscillation between two interrelated domains, making you realize that that edge you are balancing on might not even really exist.
that we feel with our bodies. He is prevented from “ever forgetting himself and from ever realizing the presence of the other.” (MBS 60). Sade does not let himself be captivated by his own flesh (Halsema, 2018: p. 160); he will not allow himself to leave the domain of consciousness. But he does need something to compensate for that lack of trouble. That is where his sadism comes in. By being cruel to someone, through pain and torture, Sade turns the other in passive flesh. And by being the master of the other's passivity, Sade is able to be absolute transcendence. But would Sade enjoy to torture a lifeless object? No. The other needs to cry and groan, for “in its revolt, the tortured object affirms itself as my fellow creature, and I attain through its mediation that synthesis of spirit and flesh that I was previously denied.” (MBS 61). The object needs to possess
consciousness and freedom, because when we acknowledge that the other-made-flesh is my equal, I understand – without really giving in to it – that I am also flesh and passivity.
Sade does two things: he first understands that the other has consciousness and is a free subject. He then denies the other access to that consciousness and freedom: he denies the other access to subjectivity. In doing so, he understands that he is also capable of being passive flesh, but he denies himself access to that immanence. He investigates “the synthesis of spirit and flesh” from the safe place of his role of the subject.
Sade's sexual practices are therefore a way of keeping object and subject (other and self) strictly separate (MBS 59-65). Where Beauvoir pleads for embracing ambiguity, Sade refuses the confusions of the erotic. Beauvoir wants to open the demarcations between consciousness and flesh, self and the other; Sade wants to keep those distinctions intact, putting himself in the preferred subjective role (Bergoffen, 1997: p. 119-133). According to Beauvoir, this is the foundation of patriarchal desire.
The question remains: is there an element of sadism, cruelty or aggression that signifies patriarchal desire for men in general? Yes, Beauvoir argues, male aggressiveness seems to be part of patriarchal desire. The main aspect of the sadistic enterprise, however, is a desire for power and sovereignty. Beauvoir quotes Sade:
“What do we desire when we reach orgasm? That everything that surrounds you is concerned only with you, thinks only of you, cares only for you... there is no man who does not wish to be a despot when he fornicates.” (MBS 48)
A level of tyranny and domination seems to be part of masculine patriarchal desire, according to
Beauvoir and Sade alike.2 However, this can be reached through violence and cruelty (and is often reached in this way), but also in other ways. I want to point out that Beauvoir did not see aggression as necessarily a perverse desire that oppresses the other. She writes:
“Pain is normally part of erotic frenzy. […] it is well known that the exquisite and the painful converge: a caress can become torture, torment gives pleasure. Embracing easily leads to biting, pinching, scratching; such behaviour is not generally sadistic; it expresses a desire to merge and not to destroy” (SS 423)
FEMININE SEXUALITY: THE SECOND SEX
If Sade shows us what male sexuality in a patriarchy looks like, it makes sense that feminine sexuality is the opposite. Feminine sexuality would then mean that women are forced in the objective, passive, immanent role of the flesh.
If we take Beauvoir's view, there are four elements that characterize feminine sexuality in patriarchy: shame, objectification, passivity, and inhibition. Let us take a look at how these four elements take shape in the everyday erotic lives of women. And, maybe more importantly: are they seventy years later – seventy years in which feminism has gone through multiple waves, and our awareness of sexism and knowledge of sexuality has significantly increased – still an accurate description of feminine sexuality?
“Patriarchal civilisation condemned women to chastity; the right of man to relieve his sexual desires is more or less openly recognised, whereas woman is confined within marriage: for her the act of the flesh […] is a fault, a fall.” (SS 397)
This quote does not leave much room for interpretation. Women are not allowed to be sexual unless it is within the structure of marriage. We could also state: unless it is in the service of a man. And when she does freely and openly express her own desires, she should feel ashamed.
2 It needs to be pointed out that what the world of BDSM calls sadism nowadays, is probably something else than the way Sade expressed his sadism. I am pretty sure that it does not entail beating and poisoning sex workers without their consent. Nonetheless it would be interesting to discuss what Beauvoir's opinion on BDSM would be. Is it possible to be in a sadomasochistic sexual relationship without denying the other's subjectivity and without denying the ambiguity of existence? I personally want to be careful with stating that sadomasochism goes hand in hand with a patriarchal system that oppresses women. Of course, if it really is the case that men seem to be more inclined to take up a sadistic role and women the role of the masochist, it could be interesting to look into the causes of this division.
One could state that these strict codes of sex within a marital context have disappeared in big parts of the modern, Western world.3 But that does not mean that women are allowed to express their sexuality openly. It seems that a new sexual double standard marks this era: men can pursue sexual relationships freely, and women are seen as “sexual gatekeepers”; meaning they are held responsible for limiting a man's sexual access. Women must control not only their own sexual desires, but also the desire of men (Bouchard & Humphreys, 2019: p. 229). In other words:
women's sexuality is strongly conditioned and policed; we see this conditioning and policing also in the fact that women are often slut-shamed when they have sex with “too” many people (Fjaer, 2015:
p. 961), and that their sex lives has certain rules (like not having sex on a first date). A man's sexuality is something to be proud of.4 Something he can (somewhat) openly display. It gives him an active position. A woman must suppress her desire and hide her sexual life.
Let us go back to Beauvoir's work to look into another element of shame in feminine sexual life. According to Beauvoir, it is not just her sexual life that a women must hide; her sexual organs are also a taboo. Beauvoir points out the different ways in which boys and girls learn to urinate: “To urinate she has to squat down, remove some clothes and above all hide, a shameful and
uncomfortable servitude.” (SS 298) She then continues that for boys the urinary stream can be used as a thing to play with. Especially in nature, where there is snow or dirt. “It seems to girls that the boy, having the right to touch his penis, can use it as a plaything, while their organs are taboo.” (SS 299). According to Beauvoir, women are taught the be ashamed of their sexual life and their sexual organs, and men are taught to be proud of both.
Many arguments can be given against Beauvoir's view. A man's body might just be better equipped to stand up straight when urinating, and a woman's morphology simply forces her to squat down and therefore remove more clothes. However, even in our modern times, the amount of public restrooms that a city offers to their male and female citizens can be used as an example that
supports Beauvoir's claim. In 2017, there were 35 public urinals in Amsterdam for men and 3 public restrooms for women. The municipality of Amsterdam was forced to place those urinals, because men were urinating in public a lot more than women (Wolthuizen, 18/09/2017: Het Parool) This
3 Of course, in many parts of the world (including many parts of the Western world), marital rules and codes still exist. But in this thesis I will focus on the “modernized” Western world. “Modernized” is in quotation marks, because this concept is problematic. It expresses the idea that for example Asian countries or Middle-Eastern countries are not modern, and therefore not as civilized as the Western world. Simply put, it implies that the Western world is better. In this thesis I will focus on the Western world, simply because that is the world I live in and know. I use the term modernized to express the difference between Beauvoir's era and current times.
4 Studies have shown that men have to deal with the moral judgment of being a slut nowadays as well. However, women's sexuality is still much more policed and conditioned through this label. On top of that, shifting the double standard in this direction, means that men's sexuality becomes more conditioned; it does not mean that women can be more free in their sexuality (Flood, 2013: p. 95).
shows us that either men have more issues with their bladders, or that it is more socially accepted for men to urinate in public.
Another example of how nowadays women's sexual organs are still considered a taboo, can be found in our shame towards menstruation. When walking towards a restroom to change a sanitary napkin of some sort, a lot of women will hide the menstrual pad or tampon that they carry around.
“The lover is even more terrifying than a gaze: he is a judge, he is going to reveal her to herself in her truth […]. When she admired herself in the mirror, she was dreaming through man's eyes; now the eyes are really there.” (SS 403-404)
“When she admired herself in the mirror, she was dreaming through man's eyes”. This sentence captures the extensiveness of objectification. Not only are women often looked at by others, but they have also internalized that gaze. To this day, most women have first-hand experiences with sexual objectification, often in the from of catcalling, being gazed at, or even being groped or worse. Internalizing a third-person perspective on your own body and consequently being fixated with your own looks and sexual worth, is what psychologists Fredrickson and Roberts called self- objectification. Besides other mental health issues, it could also lead to sexual dysfunction
(Fredrickson & Robert, 1997: p. 177-180).
In The Second Sex Beauvoir calls women “narcissists” quite often. This is quite a harsh term, and it implies that women are self-obsessed. But when you add “dreaming through man's eyes”, you realize that Beauvoir does not mean an obsession with oneself as such, but that women have internalized the male gaze and have been taught that looking pretty is one of the most
important ways to be valued as a woman.5 Beauvoir argues that erotic situations are the epitome of that judgment: “now the eyes are really there”. The heterosexual erotic experience is one in which a woman cannot avoid male judgment: she will be exposed as either pretty or not. This leads to a sexual situation where instead of being an active intentional subject, a woman is more occupied with her own body. Or in other words: women in erotic situations have a strong bodily self-
5 Beauvoir points out that this process of objectification starts from a very young age. The young girl starts to understand the meaning of the word ‘pretty’ because she gets compliments when she wears flowing dresses or when she has flowers in her hair. Performing dances in the living room in front of family and friends is a common pastime for young girls, because they want the whole house to look at them. “[…] she soon knows that to please she has to be ‘pretty as a picture’; she tries to resemble an image, she disguises herself, she looks at herself in the mirror” (SS 304).
“The woman gives herself; the man remunerates her and takes her. (SS 397)
Passivity and objectification are closely linked. So why divide them in two separate concepts?
Because in objectification I want to put the emphasis on being looked at, being continuously made aware of your own looks and body; and in passivity the emphasis lies on undergoing certain actions.
In both situations you experience yourself as an object.
In passivity a woman experiences herself as an instrument. “She is caressed, penetrated, she undergoes intercourse” (SS 408). If she is the one being caressed, then it must be the man that does the caressing. This seems to be an either outdated or otherwise exaggerated example of what happens between the sheets. A woman caresses and kisses too, and although generally speaking a woman does not penetrate, she is probably not a lifeless body as Beauvoir seems to describe her.
When we keep reading, Beauvoir states: “It is the man who chooses the amorous positions, who decides the length and frequency of intercourse.” (SS 408). Beauvoir even notes that women that do take initiative, are greeted with repulsion. It seems that women “can thus take only when she is prey: she must become a passive thing, a promise of submission.” (SS 746).
Beauvoir clearly differentiates men's and women's sexuality by initiative: men are active participants that decide what happens sexually, and women wait and undergo. We see in
psychological research that gender roles are still active in romantic and sexual situations. Those traditional gender roles promote sexual passivity for women and sexual activity for men (Kiefer &
Sanchez, 2007: p. 277). We see this for example in who is “supposed” to ask the other on a first date (Cameron & Curry, 2020: p. 345), and who is “supposed” to take the first step in sexual behavior (Curtin, 2011: p. 49).6
6 A study done in Norway in 2013 shows that in certain liberal contexts where “hook ups” (physical intimate relationships without a form of romantic commitment to the other partner) are socially accepted, the passive role of the woman is not advocated. Meaning: it was accepted that a woman pursued sexual activities, just like men. The moral judgment of the “slut” however, was still active, albeit in a more subtle and less overt way. This would indicate that women are still taught to control their sexuality, and therefore take on a passive role ((Fjaer, 2015: p.
“Her moral inhibitions prevent the emergence of pleasure.” (SS 417)
A woman is taught to hide her sexual life, control her sexual desires and be ashamed of her sexual organs. She feels judged in erotic situations, she is constantly being made aware of her own body.
And during the act itself, she is not in control: she is the passive tool that undergoes the erotic act.
This leads, logically so, to inhibition which prevents pleasure. It goes without saying that pleasure is probably one of the most important aspect of eroticism.
This inhibition, if we follow Beauvoir, is the result of a subject-object conflict. A woman wants to give in to her flesh, and at the same time position herself as a subject (the same goes for men). But when you start from the position of the object, and continuously experience yourself as such, it is difficult to find autonomy in pleasure. You cannot safely lose control, without losing a position of subjectivity.
Beauvoir tries to explain this with the following example: imagine a man asking a woman if she had an orgasm. The woman might be annoyed by this question because it changes her pleasure into something that was controlled by the man. Let us look at the terminology: “making someone come”. It implies that someone gave in to an action of someone else, turning the man into the subject.7 It turns her orgasm, or other kinds of pleasure, into immanence because the man was in control of it. According to Beauvoir, this is the reason why he asks it in the first place: because it makes him the subject of the operation and it turns her into the object that willingly received.
“Making someone come” is a form of dominating (SS 417).
This is the reason why women find it difficult to find autonomy in pleasure and to
experience themselves as a free subjects in eroticism. It is a tension between wanting to remain a subject when making yourself an object (SS 422), which is much more difficult when every possibility of being a subject gets so easily turned into a situation of immanence.
We see this in contemporary studies as well. Being able to orgasm – which I think we can safely see as a form of sexual pleasure – means “letting go” or losing control. Sexual inhibition prevents the ability to lose control. Moreover, sexual autonomy (meaning: whether you are the agent of your own sexual behavior) seems to play a big part in sexual enjoyment and orgasmic ability (Laan & Rellini, 2011: p. 332-338). More on this in the final chapter.
THE PROBLEM OF BIOLOGY
7 It would be interesting to see if there is a linguistic difference between men and women: I wonder if a woman often says that she made a man come. My intuition would say that “making someone come” is more often said by a man.
We have seen that Beauvoir is strongly influenced by phenomenology, and some might even state that she is a phenomenologist herself. But as Iris Young points out in her essay ‘Throwing Like a Girl’, Beauvoir fails to discuss feminine embodiment (Young, 2005: p. 13). When she does discuss female bodies, she seems to state that female bodies are more familiar with immanence through their periods and pregnancy. She also states that the male erection is a way of turning the flesh into activity, and that women's physiology does not have that option. They can only let someone in to
“her deepest interior” (SS 407).
The problem with these statements is that they seem to suggest that the cause of women's object-status can be found in biology. Why is that problematic? Because biology is quite difficult to change. If biology really is (partly) to blame for inequality, women are doomed to a life of
subjugation. On top op that, the statements also seem to give more credit to the male body, considering they have more possibilities for transcendence.
Debra Bergoffen states that although these statements are problematic and we should be aware of the problematic consequences, we might have misunderstood Beauvoir to a certain extent.
Beauvoir does not argue that immanence is anchored in women's bodies, but that patriarchy has taken feminine immanence as the prime example of immanence, and masculine transcendence as the prime example of transcendence. In doing so, patriarchy created a mythical male body that signifies transcendence, and enclosed women in a world of immanence (Bergoffen, 1997: p. 154).
Patriarchy seems to ignore the immanence of the male body. Beauvoir takes the erection as an example: in becoming erect, the penis indeed offers an invitation to transcendence. But through the involuntary wet dream, the penis also offers the experience of immanence (SS 409). All bodies are phenomenologically able to transcend and all bodies are necessarily immanent at times as well.
But different bodies have different invitations to experiences of transcendence and immanence (Bergoffen, 1997: p. 148). Patriarchy denies the fact that all bodies are ambiguous. Why? Beauvoir answers:
“[...] men and women all know the shame of their flesh; […] the flesh exists in the gaze of another as the absurd contingence of facticity and yet flesh is oneself: we want to prevent it from existing for others; we want to deny it. (SS 403)
Our body is the site of ambiguity: it gives us the possibility of transcendence but it also runs the risk of being reduced to an object. I am my body and my body is mine, but my body can also exist for others and in that process feel alien to me (Bergoffen, 1997: p. 147). This is what we want to prevent, and men have done a great job at that.
In the following quote, Beauvoir very clearly states that women's bodies do not force them into a life of immanence:
“The passivity that essentially characterises the ‘feminine’ woman is a trait that develops in her from her earliest years. But it is false to claim that therein lies a biological given; in fact, it is a destiny imposed on her by her teachers and by society.” (SS 304-305)
Beauvoir states that it is not biology that determines women's object-status. But she also does not want to deem the body irrelevant: our bodies embed us in the world, and they are therefore our grasp on it and our manner of relating to it. But, unfortunately, Beauvoir accidentally makes the same mistake as patriarchy: she (unintentionally) endorses patriarchal myths (Bergoffen, 1997: p.
150-151). For example, she states that the erection is indeed a physical invitation to transcendence:
a kind of invitation that women lack. She sees the menstrual cycle and pregnancies as burdens, as invitations to immanence. She does not mean to say that women are not capable of transcendence, but she does give power to the idea that men are naturally capable of transcendence and that women naturally have a stronger experience of immanence. This implies that women's status in patriarchal society is destined; that it is anchored in their bodies. To find a way out of this problem, I will go past banal physiological facts of the female body and give a phenomenological analyses of how women experience and position their bodies in a sexual situation. We will see that women's immanence does not have roots in feminine bodies, but it did root itself into feminine bodies. We see immanence in the way women often move, hold, position, and experience their bodies.
TOWARD A PHENOMENOLOGY OF FEMININE SEXUALITY
Is sexual arousal merely the art of observing a change in the body? Studies have shown that there is a difference between men and women when it comes to feeling sexual arousal. For men, genital response corresponds with their feelings of arousal. Women on the other hand, can have a genital response without feeling aroused.
In their essay ‘How Do Men and Women Feel?’ sexologists Erick Janssen and Ellen Laan investigate this gender difference and argue that for women, sexual arousal is not just a matter of genital response: “Sexual stimuli evoke mostly sexual emotions in men, but a host of other
nonsexual meanings, both positive and negative, in women.” (Laan & Janssen, 2007: p. 285). This would mean that for women, on top of bodily changes, social and situational factors are important to be able to feel sexually aroused. Factors that might influence their feelings are for example, whether a situation is safe or not, or whether the sexual situation takes place in a relationship or in a casual one-night-stand. As Janssen and Laan state: “more conditions need to be met before women experience bodily sensations as pleasurable and exciting.” (Ibid.: p. 287).
The way we experience the body is influenced by societal and cultural influences. I do not think it is a coincidence that women need certain environmental conditions to be met before they can experience their body as pleasurable. As we know, women are sexual gatekeepers, which means they have been taught to control not only their own but also male sexual desire. On top of that, women have to deal with sexual objectification on a daily basis, and in many cases also with sexual harassment and sexual violence. Taking this all into account, it does not sound very surprising that women associate many different emotions to genital changes than just sexual arousal.
In this chapter, I will argue that women have been cut off from their sexual feelings because their sexuality has been forced into the domain of immanence, which results in an alienated relation to their bodies. In the previous chapter, Beauvoir showed us how women's sexuality is perceived as immanent through social rules and regulations. She observed that women in sexual settings are ashamed, objectified, passive and inhibited. Through Merleau-Ponty's theory of the lived body, I will argue that the way women position and experience their bodies in sexual situations, can also be characterized by immanence.
I will do this by investigating feminine sexual behavior that is correlated to sexual
dysfunction, which can be defined as having difficulties to feel sexual arousal or pleasure. In this thesis, I have mainly focused on difficulties reaching a climax. However, we need to be careful with
the term dysfunction. Women that have difficulty reaching a climax, often state that they feel pressured to orgasm and that when they do not succeed, they feel like something must be wrong with them (Potts, 2000: p. 57), which definitely does not help their ability to orgasm. We need to make sure that we do not worsen the problem by pressuring women to have orgasms. Science and philosophy have a responsibility to be aware of the impact their research has, and whether the reason for studying a certain phenomenon is neutral to begin with. Possibly, our focus on the orgasm stems from patriarchal influences as well. I will discuss this more elaborately in the
conclusion. We first need to discuss a final question: why focus on sexual dysfunction specifically, and not all sorts of other sexual behavior that is not related to dysfunction? First of all, to limit the extent of this investigation. But more importantly: in the next chapter, we will converge our findings to investigate the orgasm gap, which as stated above is correlated to sexual dysfunction.
This phenomenology on feminine sexuality will most definitely not be exhaustive.
In investigating sexual dysfunction, I noticed three important themes in women's sexual experience: firstly, women take up a third-person perspective on their own bodies when having sex.
This phenomenon is called “spectatoring”. Secondly, women have a passive role in sexuality: they have a limited range of actions that they can perform, and they often end up waiting until someone comes towards them. And lastly, they tend to put on a show which incorporates the male gaze. In all these cases they have a strong sense of bodily self-reference. I will start with dissecting these three themes. I will then go into the phenomenological implications, and the way this relates to Merleau- Ponty's concept of the sexual schema and his explication of transcendence.
Before we begin, I want to emphasize that the way Merleau-Ponty described the sexual schema and transcendence, should not be read in a normative manner. For example, when one states that women's sexual schema does not fit into Merleau-Ponty's (masculine) description, one runs the risk of stating that the masculine version is the way it should be. I merely want to show how these sexual schema's relate. I do state on the other hand, that the feminine sexual schema is an oppressed or deprived version compared to the masculine one, but by no means do I argue that women's sexuality should become more like that of men.
“I don’t like being on top cause then it’s just, kind of, you’re there jiggling.” (Weaver & Byers, 2018:
This is a quote from one of the participants in a study that examined women's perception of their