Posted by: ae | February 21, 2010

The Good Hearted Whore

Last August, I completed my Masters in Canadian history. I was interested in feminist and gender histories and became completely fascinated with the second wave feminist movement. Consequently, I wrote my thesis on how the female body was another site where feminism was practiced and enacted upon. Drawing on articles published in Chatelaine magazine from 1965 to 1969, my paper explored links between feminism and the female body, specifically the sexualized body, in a Canadian context. Sexuality and sexual acts are behaviours that essentially differentiate male and female and have structured inequalities. I suggested that biology has been used to construct visions of ideally femininity, which included women’s sexual role. Women were essentially polarized into a virgin-whore dichotomy, which limited the sexual behaviours they engaged in and also enforced a position of passivity and submission. This construction of ideal femininity, coupled with its ‘natural’ sexual output, heterosexuality, was deconstructed and challenged by second-wave feminism in North America’s sexual revolution using novel ideas about the female body and sexuality.

In the 1960s popular discourse on female sexuality shifted from Freudianism to Feminism. Sex research by Alfred C. Kinsey and Masters and Johnson provided a bridge between Freudian ideals and feminist realities. Freudian sexual discourse linked proper femininity and ideal womanhood to women’s sexual role. This discourse, which was mobilized in the post-war years by psychologists, doctors, and marriage experts, was distinctly anti-feminist. Freudian experts argued that women’s sexuality was bound up with having children and was dependent on the male partner for physiological pleasure. This type of heterosexuality wedded the sex act to the marriage bed; it linked female pleasure to male penetration and created female dependency. Normal female pleasure, and consequently normal heterosexuality, was also linked to the vagina. Ideally, the sex act culminated in simultaneous orgasm achieved through penetration. Within this framework, the vaginal orgasm, which was very difficult for women to achieve, was an important proof of womanhood. Sex manuals, better known as marriage manuals, stressed the necessity of achieving orgasm and its total dependency on male effort. Female orgasm and bodily pleasures were, however, always peripheral to the main goal of sexual intercourse, that of having children.

The sex research of Kinsey and Masters and Johnson challenged much of Freudian discourse. Most significantly, their research showed that reproduction had little to do with women’s enjoyment of sex. Rather than viewing women as mothers or as mothers-to-be, a new generation of sexologists saw women as having the same rights to sexual pleasure as men.

In the late 1960s, Chatelaine had begun to report on the sex research of Kinsey and Masters and Johnson and consequently re-wrote female pleasure with an emphasis on women’s agency for its mass audience of Canadian women. Writers June Callwood and Mary Van Stolk encouraged Chatelaine readers to take a more active role sexually. They dispelled myths of frigidity, sexual passivity, and vaginal orgasms. The vaginal orgasm was detached from women’s sexual agency. In comparison, clitoris was seen as having an increasingly important function in women’s sexualized bodies and within heterosexual sexual behaviors. Both Callwood and Van Stolk used feminist language to write about female heterosexuality. In contrast with articles about birth control and abortion, “Sex and the Married Woman” and “Canadian Women are Masochists” acknowledged a changing sexual climate in North America, which was related to the availability of birth control and abortions.

The topic was also expanded to include research on birth control, abortion, same-sex relationships, and sexual deviancy.

More to come.

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Responses

  1. Why detach the vaginal orgasm from female sexuality? Although it may be harder to achieve, it still exists.

    • Agreed. Perhaps detach was a poor choice of words. Freudian standards of female sexuality (which dominated in the pre-second world war, even to the post-war period) dictated that aside from reproduction, the vaginal orgasm was the be all, end all. For many women, it was impossible to achieve. Freeing women from the pressures of the vaginal orgasm and claiming that clitoral orgasms were not wrong, did not make you a whore, but were natural, was an important step for female sexuality. It changed the way women had sex, it had huge implications for lesbian sexuality, and freed women from passivity.

      • Alas, I re-read what I wrote. “The vaginal orgasm was detached from women’s sexual agency.” I did not suggest to detach the vaginal orgasm from female sexuality. To achieve a vaginal orgasm (pre-sex toy industry) women relied on male penetration.

  2. Ceci n’est pas une comment.


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