“Phantom Orgasms”: Cripping the “Evolutionary Mystery” of Female Sexuality

This post was also published on Feministing‘s Community Blog. =)

Cripping: like the analytic of “queering,” cripping centralizes disability in analyses that otherwise often remained “normed.”  Importantly, through its critical deconstruction and analytical awesomeness, cripping also tries to make new meaning, or rather, help us understand meanings in other ways that do justice to marginalized experiences.

How do we understand female orgasm?  It is easy for us to resort to science when such a paradox comes to mind–and, of course, it is easy for us to picture the normalized white, nondisabled young female when we try to imagine the possibilities of female sexual pleasure.

Wired magazine is an award-winning site about technology and culture that reaches masses and masses of online users, in the U.S. and globally.  According to Alexa.com, a web information company, Wired is ranked #650 in the world, and #326 in the U.S.  The time spent in a typical visit to the site is about three minutes, with 76 seconds spent on each pageview.

With so much user traffic, what is Wired writing about that’s so captivating?  *Drumroll please* …announcing, the world’s greatest mystery to science: female orgasm.

Female Orgasm Remains an Evolutionary Mystery” – pronounced in big, bold letters as one of today’s main headlines on Wired’s homepage, next to another featured techy article titled, “Amazon’s Future is So Much Bigger Than A Tablet.”  In about 500 words, Wired writer Brandon Keim reports on how the “female orgasm has resisted yet another attempt to explain its elusive evolutionary origins.”  Nearly 100 comments have been posted following the article in the 6 hours since the piece was published.

Look, feminist writing on this topic is old news.  Old news.  We know that “orgasm,” or female sexual pleasure, cannot be explained by science, evolution, and pathology alone.  For science to deduce female sexual pleasure to evolutionary reasoning is in and of itself a hetero-patriarchal move.  But Wired apparently doesn’t realize that (maybe because they’re hetero-patriarchal?).  Plus, the site needs viewers/readers, so it can make more money, I get it, so they pull out an old topic for debate that people love to joke about, yadda yadda, I get it.  There’s “new scientific findings,” etc and etc.

So, in light of all the serious, rigorous research and analyses out there by feminist scholars, activists, and writers (do the research yourself, even though unfortunately Brandon Keim can’t hone his skills to properly research issues he writes about, which is why I am here in attempts to hold him accountable), I am going to take a slightly different spin on my feminist analysis on this age-old mystery of female sexuality.  I am going to crip it.

Science and medicine has a pervasive history of pathologizing deviant bodies (like Black men and women, like women in general, like people with disabilities) and its technologies pursue today.  A classic example of this is doctors trying to use the authority of science/medicine to examine Sarah Baartman’s “oversized clitoris” and attributing her features to pathological Black female hypersexuality.  This pathologization not only masks the root causes of violence against women (and women of color in particular), but justifies it (“she was asking for it”).  Again, lots of radical feminist analysis on this issue of dominant science and female sexuality.  In a similar yet seemingly subtle manner, the article on Wired perpetuates longstanding ideological assumptions of hetero-patriarchy in understandings of sexuality and orgasm.  Brandon writes, “Also perplexing is that many women require clitoral stimulation to achieve orgasm, not penetrative action.  If female orgasms were meant to encourage sex, the opposite ought to be true.”  The opposite ought to be true?  For whom and for what purpose?  Let’s think about definitions.  Who defines what “sex” even means?  What actually constitutes a female orgasm?  How can these definitions be used against us, while be advantageous for others?  And they’re not just definitions.  There’s material effects.

Let me reiterate: lots of feminist work has been done surrounding this issue.  Please do the extra research about this at your expense.  I am going to crip this analysis for two reasons: 1) centralizing disabled women is important and political, and 2) co-thinking sex and disability helps us to re-think dominant notions about sex.

Mainstream hospitals, doctors’ offices, and relations with professional health care workers (such as personal assistants), are some of the most notorious institutionalized spaces of oppression against disabled people.  Moreover, underlying patriarchal ideology in the mainstream medical paradigm (see previous blog post and scroll down to “The Authority of Medicine”) make access to adequate healthcare for disabled women a particularly challenging and oftentimes degrading process.  For example, “Ann explains how, after she became paralysed, she could find no information about sex that was of any use to her; what was available was for paralysed men” (Gillespie-Sells et al 52).  Ann’s experience reflects the hetero-patriarchy embedded throughout medical practices and research: research like that presented by Brandon Keim.  Several studies point to similar conclusions.  For instance, Whipple et al report that the “overall quality [of their postinjury sexuality education by health professionals] was considered poor.  Generally included with information on bowel and bladder functioning, the materials that were distributed were of poor quality, outdated, and usually targeted for men.  The focus of female sexuality education was on giving, rather than receiving, sexual pleasure” (79).  Furthermore, scientist Margaret Nosek reports that many women have “relayed encounters with physicians who either said they did not know how their disabilities affected sexual functioning, said nothing at all, or provided inaccurate information” (25).

There is a general and urgent consensus by women with disabilities that information and resources must be made accessible and available.  However, “lack of information is not the only problem here,” feminist bioethics philosopher Abby Wilkerson argues, “providers’ assumptions may prevent them from understanding the situation” (20).  While adequate and accessible healthcare is paramount, underlying assumptions in the medical model must be simultaneously transformed.  Or else The Female Orgasm will forever remain an evolutionary mystery, and the subjugation of female sexuality will consequently live on.

In the mainstream medical paradigm, the “most common view [of sex] is goal directed” (Whipple et al 69), which, likened to hetero-normative sex, involves vagina/penis contact, intercourse, and the climactic genital orgasm.  Simiarly, Brandon in Wired writes that “the male orgasm is, in evolutionary and practical terms, a fairly straightforward thing — it makes men want to have sex more often, thus continuing their lineage, and is achieved with ease.”  We can see how Brandon assumes that sex is automatically hetero-normative, or, goal directed.  Premised upon goal directed sex, the medicalization of sex and disability requires corrective technologies to perform at best according to such standards.  “Within this framework, [disabled] men…seek penile implants to restore their erections, and women with hip contractures who cannot have conventional intercourse have hip surgery to have intercourse in socially prescribed positions” (Waxman 184).  Failure to rehabilitate “normal” sexual performance renders people with disabilities as asexual beings.

The elusive history of U.S. eugenics underlies much medical research and actions towards disability and reproduction, and permeates in genetic and evolutionary research today.  On selective abortion and disability, feminist biologist Ruth Hubbard notably begs the question, “Who should and should not inhabit the world?” (108).  In a capitalist for-profit economy that valorizes docile able-bodiedness and de-values “disability,” the who should and should not inhabit the world? question seems to prod at the crux of ableist assumptions and oppression.  On the ideology of ability and sex, disability theorist Tobin Siebers argues that “sex may be the privileged domain of ability.  Sex is the action by which most people believe that ability is reproduced, by which humanity supposedly asserts its future, and ability remains the category by which sexual reproduction as such is evaluated.  As a result, sex and human ability are both ideologically and inextricably linked” (139-40).  Thus it is an analytical imperative to unravel and de-link sex and ability so that sexual identity and disability may be reconceived—and so sexuality in general may be understood more complexly.

The rendering of sexual agency within self-representations and medical research by and for women with disabilities re-conceptualizes and re-imagines the possibilities of sex.  Whipple et al explain that “the alternative view [of sex] is pleasure directed, which can be conceptualized as a circle, with each expression on the circle considered an end in itself” (69).  As advocates of this alternative view, Whipple et al produced a study that was “designed to validate the reported experiences of women.”  They “documented in the laboratory that women could achieve orgasm from fantasy alone, without touching their bodies” (70).  Okay, I know this might seem strange at first glance.  Documented women cuming in the lab?  But, at a closer look, I think this lab documentation of hot crip pleasure has potential to disrupt dominant understandings of goal directed sex.  Whipple et al use the tools of dominant discourse to authorize the re-signifying stroke of what it means to orgasm.  Their research findings reflect an emphasis on diffuse sexuality, whereby “pleasure may be heightened by concomitant stimulation of an erogenous zone either above or at the level of injury” (72).  For instance, “Some of us who have no sensation in our vaginas or clitorises find that we can experience equivalent orgasms through sensations in other parts of our bodies” (Morris 89).  Disability rights activist Tessa explains that “[my partner and I] get far more enjoyment from sex than we ever thought possible.  We use mouth and nose and facial stroking a great deal, with back tickling as well…I am very ticklish in certain places and I can get an orgasm from being stroked there (for example, under my arms)” (Morris 89).  Tessa’s orgasm testimony disrupts and challenges dominant notions of goal directed sex, such as that deliberated in Wired.

Whipple et al are clearly implicated within that which they oppose; however they turn dominant concepts of the evolutionary nature of female sexuality against itself by debunking such scientific assertions: “Although it is claimed that women with complete SCI cannot achieve orgasm or that their orgasms are labeled as “phantom” orgasms, subjective reports of women do not support these contentions” (72).  Not only do they re-conceptualize orgasm, but they talk back to the mainstream medical paradigm’s fictitious notion of “phantom” orgasms that has been used against disabled women to delegitimize their sexuality.  Researchers Kaufman et al similarly denounce the use of “phantom orgasms.”  They candidly write that an “excellent example of the way information gets twisted is the term ‘phantom orgasm.’  This was a term that researchers came up with to describe something their subjects reported…The ‘expert’ explanation was that these people were merely experiencing a body memory they knew before their injury” (136).  They finish by turning the tables on the “expert” researchers as the ones who are ill-equipped to explain variations in sexual experiences: “Of course this kind of definition is more about narrow-mindedness of the researchers than what was actually happening” (136).  The mysteries of sex will not be found in genetic coding alone, or evolutionary science studies, that’s for certain.

Works cited

Gillespie-Sells, Kath, Mildrette Hill, and Bree Robbins. She Dances to Different Drums: Research into Disabled Women’s Sexuality. London: King’s Fund Publishing, 1998.

Hubbard, Ruth. “Abortion and Disability: Who Should and Should Not Inhabit the World?” The Disability Studies Reader, Third Ed. Ed. Lennard J. Davis. New York and London: Routledge, 1997. 107-119.

Kaufman, Miriam, Cory Silverberg, and Fran Odette. The Ultimate Guide to Sex and Disability: For All of Us Who Live with Disabilities, Chronic Pain and Illness. San Francisco, CA: Cleis Press Inc., 2003.

Morris, Jenny, ed. Able Lives: Women’s Experience of Paralysis. London: The Women’s Press, 1989.

Nosek, Margaret A. “Sexual Abuse of Women with Physical Disabilities,” 153-173. “Wellness Among Women with Physical Disabilities,” 17-33. Women with Physical Disabilities: Achieving and Maintaining Health and Well-Being. Eds. Danuta M. Krotoski, Margaret A. Nosek, and Margaret A. Turk, eds Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co., 1996.

Siebers, Tobin. Disability Theory. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2008.

Whipple, Beverly, Eleanor Richards, Mitchell Tepper, and Barry R. Komisaruk. “Sexual Response in Women with Complete Spinal Cord Injury.” Women with Physical Disabilities: Achieving and Maintaining Health and Well-Being. Eds. Danuta M. Krotoski, Margaret A. Nosek, and Margaret A. Turk, eds Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co., 1996. 69-80.

Wilkerson, Abby L. Diagnosis: Difference: The Moral Authority of Medicine. New York: Cornell University Press, 1998.

2 responses

  1. Really great analysis Brooke. I think you should position Brandon as representative of this view and not come off as hostile to them. I understand there is a place for angry feminist rant (albeit incredibly well written and analyzed) and I don’t think this is the place for that. How is scolding society about their hegemonic notions of sex going to convince them to change?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s