The Cult of the Clitoris

By Laura FrostJune 16, 2017

The Cult of the Clitoris

Becoming Cliterate by Laurie Mintz

WOMEN, TO THE RAMPARTS! Cliterati, don your pussy hats! Your body is a battleground: almost 30 years after Barbara Kruger designed a poster with that motto for the 1989 Washington, DC March for Women’s Lives, it is still true. But there is a new cause for some gender warriors: orgasm equality.

Yes, orgasm equality. Indiana University’s widely reported National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior found that 91 percent of men had an orgasm during their last sexual encounter, but only 64 percent of women could say the same. Fifty-five percent of men achieve orgasm during first-time hookup sex, as compared to four percent of women. Other studies claim that between five to 10 percent of women never — ever — orgasm.

As long as sexologists have been measuring our erotic lives, there has been orgasm disparity. Alfred Kinsey knew about it, and so did Masters and Johnson and Shere Hite. Yet somehow, it persists. In our century, orgasm disparity has been given an alarming new name, “the orgasm gap.” For God’s sake, mind the gap! According to sociologist Paula England, “The orgasm gap is an inequity that’s as serious as the pay gap, and it’s producing a rampant culture of sexual asymmetry.”

Is the orgasm gap really as serious as the pay gap? Is it responsible for centuries old “sexual asymmetry”? Well, consider the fact that the full structure of the clitoris — the main organ of female sexual pleasure — was only scientifically confirmed in 1998. Australian urologist Helen O’Connell’s MRI studies demonstrated that the clitoris was not only an external hot button but also a structure of sensitive tissue that extending several inches into the body like an enchanted double wishbone. We may scoff at Freud for describing women’s sexuality as a “dark continent” in 1926, but honestly, why the hell did it take this long for the whole clitoris to be put on the map? Was it a coincidence that O’Connell’s discoveries were overshadowed by the FDA’s approval of Viagra that same year? And why does the orgasm gap persist after three waves of feminism? It could make a girl paranoid.

Laurie Mintz’s Becoming Cliterate: Why Orgasm Equality Matters — And How to Get It is a manifesto for today’s orgasmic insurrection. Dedicated to those “who are willing to take the revolutionary steps necessary to make equal opportunity orgasms a reality,” Becoming Cliterate is more down to earth than its rabble-rousing title suggests. Mintz is a practicing therapist and professor of psychology at the University of Florida and the author of A Tired Woman’s Guide to Passionate Sex. A sexpert but not a sexpot, Mintz is a self-described middle-aged heterosexual married woman whose students compare her to the wacky but well-meaning mom and sex therapist in Meet the Fockers, played by Barbra Streisand. As a guide, Mintz is unpretentious and intuitive, frank but a little zany. She does not aim to teach her readers anything exotic or kinky: she just wants them to come. Despite some cutesy language, like dividing the book into “Sextions” and offering “Tidbits for Your Lady Bits” (credit for her best pun, “cliteracy,” goes to Ian Kerner, author of She Comes First: The Thinking Man’s Guide to Pleasuring a Woman), Mintz is otherwise a straight shooter. Within two pages, she lays out her thesis: “Your orgasm problem is a cultural problem.”

Mintz is not daunted by the orgasm gap. Pointing out that the majority of women need clitoral stimulation to climax, and that lesbians are the high scorers in the orgasm sweepstakes, Mintz cuts to the chase: “There is way too much emphasis on intercourse — the way men reach orgasm,” and this “over-focus on the importance of putting a penis in a vagina is screwing with women’s orgasms.” Compounding the problem is the fact that people are not taught the communication skills they need for good sex.

And that’s pretty much it. Clitoral stimulation + good communication = female orgasm. It is not exactly Fermat’s Last Theorem. So why hasn’t it caught on? There’s the rub.

As others have pointed out, American sex education, which preaches the dangers rather than the pleasures of sex, and the waxed, cum-on-command alternate reality of internet pornography, is lousy at explaining and representing women’s sexuality, yet this hasn’t always been the case. From as early as the medieval period, the clitoris (as Thomas Laqueur, Naomi Wolf, Rebecca Chalker, and others have shown) was routinely part of midwifery manuals and medical models, but it began to be erased around the 18th and 19th centuries, when women started to demand political rights. Despite clear knowledge about female sexual pleasure at earlier points in history, “Somehow we keep forgetting these messages.” The cultural amnesia around female orgasm is often downright nefarious. Freud’s argument that girls’ sexuality is clitoris-based and that the process of advancing to womanhood is achieved by “transferring” this sensation to one’s vagina — about as subtle as Deep Throat’s story of a woman who can only get off by having a penis tickle her tonsils — was one of the major modern obstacles to cliteral competence. Freud’s fiction took decades to be dispelled: decades of women fretting that they were having the “wrong kind” of orgasm.

Mintz briefly identifies “the deeper, cultural root” of the elusive female orgasm as “the lasting effect of gender inequality.” She alludes to “current debate about whether the United States and other developed countries are still patriarchal (i.e., men-in-control) societies.” But, she adds, “I don’t want to get into that kind of debate here.” Feminism: Such a buzzkill. Early on, Mintz addresses several categories of women who likely require attention, treatment, or therapy beyond the scope of Becoming Cliterate. These include women with “relationship issues,” women who have experienced trauma or abuse (of which there are soberingly high numbers), and the 25 percent of women who take prescription drugs for mental health issues, including SSRIs, which often lower libido. These numbers indicate that the sexuality of an awful lot of women is being fucked with by outside, systemic factors: the kinds of factors that cry out for a rigorous feminist analysis. If we think intersectionally, looking at how race and class shape sexuality, and if the voices of queer and trans people are taken into account, the orgasm gap looks different. And if we think globally, female orgasm looks more different still, with female genital mutilation affecting millions of women outside the United States. Another buzzkill.

Mintz embarks on a modern consciousness-raising program — but one that is politics-lite — reprising some of the most familiar methods from the second-wave feminist sex education movement of the 1970s. She instructs her readers who have a vagina to hold a mirror between their legs and behold their anatomy. Unlike male sexual physiognomy, which mostly lets it all hang out, female genitalia is more concealed. And the optics of female orgasm are even more obscured compared to the male “money shot.” The hand mirror self-examination was one of the classic takeaways from the landmark 1971 handbook Our Bodies, Ourselves, which encouraged women to do it both alone and in their support groups. Mintz repeats that gesture of vaginal visibility from the disco era, but she also updates it, suggesting that an iPhone in selfie mode could work as well to explore one’s nether regions.

Likewise, as Mintz guides her readers through masturbation, advising that pleasing yourself will help you achieve partnered pleasure, she recommends videos by legendary feminist sex educator Betty Dodson, author of Liberating Masturbation (1974). Here, too, Mintz draws on tried-and-true techniques from the 1970s and also supplements them with a more contemporary educational source, OMGyes, a website that explores women’s sexual pleasure through videos of individuals who describe and show, in explicit detail, what turns them on, and then offers viewers a chance to perform just that through uncannily realistic touch screens of the women’s virtual vulvas. Even there, though, with all the state-of-the-art technology, the underlying formula is essentially the same: learn what you like and learn how to communicate it to partners.

Mintz’s program is fairly simple but sensible: get to know your body, figure out how to get yourself off, expand your ideas of what “counts” as sex (that is, intercourse is just one possible event, versus the event), change the way you talk about sex (e.g., women should not be said to “lose their virginity” but rather “make their sexual debut”), and enact a series of “modern-age plays” featuring different orgasmic roles with your partners. The physical technique is easy to learn; what’s harder is “[t]raining the sex organ between your ears.” On the topic of slut shaming, Mintz refers readers to Amber Rose’s Funny or Die video, “Walk of No Shame.”

While her general approach is relaxed, Mintz is firm about some principles. Noting that “The most striking thing about female masturbation […] is how little it resembles […] intercourse,” she insists that “[t]he most crucial action needed to orgasm with a partner is to get the same type of stimulation you use when pleasuring yourself.” Bring your vibrator to bed, if that is what it takes. Observing that many women are anxious about how much time it takes them to come, Mintz adopts a zen attitude — it takes as long as it takes — but pointedly remarks that “if a partner spends 20 or more minutes on clitoral stimulation, about 92 percent of women will orgasm.” To that end, she appends a Sextion for men that compresses the previous chapters and reassuringly addresses male anxieties about size, staying power, and the aforementioned vibrator stealing one’s thunder.

Mintz doesn’t get hung up on different kinds of orgasm (blended, cervical, et cetera), telling her readers, “I call bullshit!” on the notion that any type of climax is inherently superior to another. She is of the by-any-means-necessary philosophy. She breezes past “boring” details like the stages of the sexual response cycle. (Readers who desire more nuanced orgasm theory should investigate Emily Nagoski’s Come as You Are: The Surprising New Science that Will Transform Your Sex Life.) Mintz downplays the multiple orgasm as “not a goal to strive for — it’s just a lovely bonus when it happens,” and her message about simultaneous orgasm is similar: just chill the f out, people. She’s skeptical about 69 — “Too Much Going On!” — and her approach to anal sex is like a liberal mother whose kid wants to smoke pot: “If anal sex is something you want to try, please read up on it first.” While she encourages others to explore their G-spot if they are so inclined, she admits that she’s never felt the need to do it herself. (For a more adventurous approach, see Jenny Block’s O Wow: Discovering Your Ultimate Orgasm.) That said, Mintz briefly discusses squirting and the A-spot, and she’s quick to refer readers whose curiosity strays beyond her book to her “favorite all-time sex guide, The Guide to Getting It On.

There’s a telling moment in Becoming Cliterate when Mintz ponders why the orgasm gap endures. She points to one specific event: “the G-spot hype set us back.” Just as women began to relax about Freud’s commandment about vaginal orgasm, Beverly Whipple, John Perry, and Alice Kahn Ladas’s 1982 book The G Spot: And Other Discoveries about Human Sexuality unwittingly gave men and women more reasons to be neurotic. “The message picked up by the media,” Mintz asserts, “was that if you aren’t having G-spot orgasms with accompanying female ejaculation, you are seriously missing out. G-spot orgasms became big business.”

The orgasm gap is also big business. There are a lot of people benefiting from the premise that female pleasure is a nebulous but crucial aspiration requiring outside help. Big Pharma seized on that market opportunity with the first women’s libido pill, so-called “female Viagra,” that launched and fizzled in 2015. Sex tech innovators have also capitalized on the O-gap with apps such as HappyPlayTime (dedicated to “Making Female Masturbation Friendly”), quantified self gadgets and digital sex toys like We-Vibe and OhMiBod, and many others promising liberation for the orgasmically oppressed. One Taste, an orgasmic meditation (“OM”) group with branches throughout the United States and abroad, offers expensive seminars, webinars, and coaching centered on a partnered practice of 15 minute clitoral stimulation that’s supposed to produced a state of consciousness that it calls “Orgasm 2.0.” A cynic might call all this activity a shrewd monetization of female pleasure cloaked in the hippie-capitalist Silicon Valley mission to “make the world a better place.” If you want to know what’s really happening with the orgasm gap, follow the money.

Why are so many women susceptible to whatever orgasmic imperative they are being sold by doctors, the media, or pornography? Why are they willing to try to “change” from clitoral to vaginal orgasms, or strive for G-spot orgasms or squirting — and feel bad if they fail — or sign up for vaginoplasty or other invasive procedures? One doesn’t have to look any further than pubic hair for evidence that female sexuality is radically vulnerable to marketing trends. Gwyneth Paltrow’s lifestyle website GOOP — whose advocacy of vaginal steaming and jade egg insertions has been the bane of OB/GYNs — recently featured orgasm equality.

Unfortunately, for every valuable, well-meaning contribution like Becoming Cliterate, there are more blatant attempts to cash in on the orgasm gap. As women are told that orgasm is a necessary part of individual fulfillment, self-care, and wellness, it becomes an imperative, something women need to “work on,” a standard they must attain, a compulsory pleasure. That justifies products feeding the perception that orgasm is infinitely malleable and perfectible. Why stop at climax when you can have artisanal orgasm? 

To be clear: Everyone who wants orgasms should have them. Lots of them! Go team orgasm! Hurrah for whatever brings women more pleasure. Becoming Cliterate will help many women reach their orgasm objectives, and that’s all to the good. But if orgasm is defined as the ultimate goal — the gold standard — of sexual experience, then we’re back in the same place of Freud’s vaginal orgasm or the G-spot craze.

For most people, orgasm is one of life’s most delicious pleasures, but orgasm equity will not solve the problem of patriarchy, and the dream of gender equality should not rest on a spasm of sensation, however delightful. Back in 1977, Erica Jong — creator of the Zipless Fuck in the comic feminist novel Fear of Flying — wrote, “What does a woman want? She wants what she has been told she ought to want […] Orgasm is no proof of anything. Orgasm is proof of orgasm. Someday every woman will have orgasms […] and we can all get on with the real business of life.” We need orgasms. Let’s just not make women crazy about attaining them, and let’s not lose our sense of perspective. As one unsung philosopher of the late 1990s put it, “What's the big mystery? It’s my clitoris, not the Sphinx.”


Laura Frost is a cultural critic based in San Francisco.

LARB Contributor

Laura Frost is a cultural critic based in San Francisco. Author of The Problem With Pleasure: Modernism and Its Discontents (Columbia University Press) and Sex Drives: Fantasies of Fascism in Literary Modernism (Cornell University Press), she is working on a book about female sexuality.


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