My Women’s Studies textbook has just introduced me to the work of Anne Koedt, activist and co-founder of New York Radical Feminists (Feminist Theory, 2010). In her essay “The Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm,” Koedt addresses the myths centered on women’s orgasm, and why these myths have been perpetuated.
Written in 1970, this article must have been eye-opening, a keen and revolutionary text that women hid beneath their pillows and made them think critically, shamefully, curiously about their own bodies. Addressing the Freudian theory that women are sexually frigid, Koedt brings to our attention the fact that female frigidity prevails because women are not pleased sexually. And contrary to Freud’s and patriarchy’s assumptions about the female orgasm and its limited potential for pleasure, this is not women’s fault. It’s the fault of male-dominated institutions that used assumptions without lack of scientific evidence or anatomical exploration to make these assertions.
Interestingly, Koedt talks about vaginal orgasm vs. clitoral orgasm. There is no such thing as a vaginal orgasm. According to Koedt, who uses female anatomical evidence to show that no part of a woman’s vagina offers her an orgasm, women who say they have vaginal orgasms are simply confused. There are two factors that contribute to this confusion:
“One, failing to locate the center of the orgasm, and two by a desire to fit her experience to the male-defined idea of sexual normalcy.” (188)
The vagina has only four functions: 1) to receive the penis; 2) to hold the semen; 3) birth passage; 4) menstruation. Like many other organs, it is not made up of any sensitive parts that would respond to touch or reduce it to sputtering orgasmic pleasure. Koedt states that “The position of the penis inside the vagina, while perfect for reproduction, does not necessarily stimulate an orgasm in women because the clitoris is located externally and higher up” (189). The only kind of orgasm a woman can experience is through clitoral stimulation—and this she may have to ask for, demand, or take charge of for herself.
Why do men and women persist then in perpetuating this myth of the female orgasm? In our time, women seem to take pleasure as much as they give it when entrenched in consensual intercourse. And yet, when I have had discussions with women about orgasms, they always say they have vaginal ones. Are women still confused about the pleasure passages of their own bodies, 40 years later? After all, who teaches us about the female body—about orgasms—about deserving to feel as much pleasure from the act as men do without even trying?
Koedt contends that women in her time were educated about sex by men—from the male perspective. Men in science and anatomy and psychology and literature conspired out of ignorance—not deceit or malice—to explore our bodies and their functions without ever touching us. Their observations and findings resulted from looking, never exploring, and never by asking via interviews, surveys, or any of those factors. Women were taught about their bodies by men who didn’t understand female bodies—but endeavored to commit their distant observations as factual evidence. In this way, women have again been silenced and become what Koedt considers “the invisible women” (189). How do we correct this?
The image of Sex and the City’s Charlotte placing a mirror to her womanhood and exploring its mysterious entities comes to mind. We all need to unlearn what we have been taught about our sex—our bodies and our places of pleasure—by socially conditioned and normalized mechanisms. We need to take charge of the information that is perpetuated about us and about our bodies. We need to learn through exploration and defiance—through self-knowledge and experimentation—how our bodies work and what we need to feel good. We need to take back our sex.