Whose Joy of Sex?

This guest post revisits Anne Koedt’s ‘The myth of the vaginal orgasm’–and asks whether women in the 21st century are still being ‘defined sexually in terms of what pleases men’.

In 1970, Anne Koedt described in detail the myth of the vaginal orgasm-the shape of the myth itself and the reasons it continues to be reinforced.

The myth says: the vaginal orgasm exists and is separate from the clitoral orgasm.

The myth says: the vaginal orgasm is the True Orgasm.

The myth says: if a woman cannot orgasm from penetrative sex, she is broken in some way, she has failed, she is “frigid”.

The myth says: women ought to get pleasure from pleasuring men.

Today, the word “frigid” has come to be used slightly differently-a frigid woman is not necessarily a woman who can’t achieve that (mythical, magical) vaginal orgasm, but usually a woman who refuses sex in the first place. A woman who spurns a man’s advances is often dubbed a “frigid bitch”–cold, unfeeling, withholding something imagined to be his due. Frigidity is not just about failing to be pleased by pleasing a man, but about refusing to please him at all.

The myth is still real, and frigidity–in the sense that Koedt describes it– is still pathologised. What Koedt did not write about, though, was the way in which some level of frigidity seems to be expected of women, even as it is pathologised. Women’s sexual pleasure isn’t just imagined in terms of men’s, it does not belong to women at all: women cannot be seen to embrace their own sexuality. Even today, ‘respectable’ women must appear, at least initially, as frigid beings.

For women’s sexuality to be acceptable, it can’t be on their own terms. Nude leaks inspire hype and excitement in the online sphere, but when celebrities like Emily Ratajkowski voluntarily release nude photo-shoots the reaction is disgust and misogynistic shaming. Women who embrace their own sexuality are decried as sluts, whores, slags, hos—made dirty by their own desire. They’re only sexy if they are sexualized by someone else. Eventually women are expected to submit, but they must be “hard to get”- just frigid enough to maintain their respectability.

Even if they play the game right, women often end up frustrated: the myth of the vaginal orgasm still lives. Nothing appears to have changed since Koedt observed that men did seem to understand the importance of the clitoris

during “foreplay,” when they want to arouse women and produce the necessary lubrication for penetration. Foreplay is a concept created for male purposes, but works to the disadvantage of many women, since as soon as the woman is aroused the man changes to vaginal stimulation, leaving her both aroused and unsatisfied.

A general lack of awareness of how female bodies work has to be partly to blame, and the lack of a compulsory and comprehensive sex education curriculum in schools must take some responsibility here. When I was 16, my sex education class consisted of an awkward explanation of “how babies are made” and a vague allusion to how that can be prevented (though as it was a Catholic school, the only mode of safe sex defended explicitly was abstinence). The only description of male and female anatomy made available to us was in our biology textbooks, in which the clitoris was absent and the vagina was presented as permanently open and ready for penetration. With this kind of education, supplemented only by pornography for most of my male peers, is it any surprise that the myth of the vaginal orgasm still reigns?

Koedt tells us that our model of sexuality cannot be improved or adjusted, it must be rejected:

What we must do is redefine our sexuality. We must discard the “normal” concepts of sex and create new guidelines which take into account mutual sexual enjoyment. While the idea of mutual enjoyment is liberally applauded in marriage manuals, it is not followed to its logical conclusion. We must begin to demand that if certain sexual positions now defined as “standard” are not mutually conducive to orgasm, they no longer be defined as standard. New techniques must be used or devised which transform this particular aspect of our current sexual exploitation.

A look at the “sex-positive” feminism of the new century suggests that this project, if it ever got off the ground, has failed. Male fantasies have been repackaged and sold back to women as not just “empowering” but also “feminist.” Lip service is frequently paid to the idea of mutual enjoyment, and yet in practice women continue to be expected to perform above and beyond what they will ever be repaid.

The writers of the popular self-help manual Being Orgasmic encourage women to try anal sex if their male partner wants to, advising that ‘If any discomfort does occur, try again some other time’. It seems that a woman’s comfort–not even her pleasure–is considered secondary to a man’s desires.

The bar for “frigid” women has been raised. Now, possibly even more than before, we need to follow Koedt and reject the dominant model of sexuality. As Natasha Walter puts it:

If this is the new sexual liberation, it looks too uncannily like the old sexism to convince many of us that this is the freedom we have sought.



Plus ça change…

Donald Trump’s inauguration as President of the USA will take place in Washington DC on January 20, 2017. And on the following day, it has been announced, there will be a women’s march

to show our strength, power and courage and demonstrate our disapproval of the new president and his values.

US feminists have been here before. On January 20 1969, the (first) inauguration of President Richard Nixon was also marked by a demonstration in the nation’s capital. The event was mainly organised by campaigners against the Vietnam War, but it included a feminist protest in which women carried roslyn_baxandallbanners with slogans like ‘Give back the vote’ and ‘The vote wasn’t worth the struggle’.

One of the feminists involved, Ellen Willis of New York Radical Women, explained:

Since women’s 80 year struggle for the vote had achieved a meaningless victory and vitiated the feminist movement, we planned to destroy our voter registration cards publicly as a symbol that suffragism was dead and a new fight for real emancipation was beginning.

The women who formed the early Women’s Liberation Movement came out of (and often remained connected to) a New Left which believed that true democracy required a lot more than just the right to vote. They also wanted the second wave to learn from the mistakes of the first one, which in their view had lost sight of its original radical goals as it became narrowly focused on the single issue of women’s suffrage. In pursuit of that objective (which in the US was finally achieved in 1920), the leaders of the suffragist movement had put what was politically expedient over what was right: in particular, they had been willing to sell out Black women to win the support of white women in the southern states.

To the radical activists of the mid-20th century it did not seem that the enfranchisement of women had done much to advance their cause. By 1969 they’d been voting for nearly half a century, but they were still a long way from gaining equality. Radical women were not even treated as equals by their own comrades on the Left: when they tried to make a statement on women’s liberation to the assembled anti-inaugural protesters, they were met with jeering, catcalling and shouts of ‘Take her off the stage and fuck her’.

Since 1969 almost another half-century has passed, and here we are again. Not, this time, planning to give back the vote, but still arguing about whether ‘real emancipation’ can be delivered through the ballot box, still divided on whether to support a woman leader who has made compromises in pursuit of power, still dealing with the reality of racism, and still being dismissed by some leftist men as just a bunch of over-privileged whiners. And still taking to the streets to protest because the White House is about to be occupied by a man whose whose views and behaviour feminists find repugnant, and whose intentions while in office they have every reason to fear.

Postscript: this is the women’s march in Washington DC on 21 January 2017. 


You say you want a revolution?

This week I went to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London to see ‘You Say You Want a Revolution?’ a show about the 1960s counter-culture from which the feminist second wave emerged. Donald Trump’s victory in the US presidential election had been announced just a few hours before I arrived, and I kept thinking how different the experience would have felt if I’d been there even one day earlier.

The exhibition uses various cultural artefacts—records, clothes, photographs, posters, pamphlets, furniture, spacesuits—to recreate the spirit of the counter-culture in the US, Britain and (to some extent) France between 1966 and 1970. For those involved it was a time of optimism, a time when activists looked forward to a new era of peace, justice and freedom. Their efforts to bring that about were met with opposition, and not infrequently brutal repression, by the agents of the state; but still it was said that the revolution could not be stopped, because it had already happened in people’s heads.

On 9 November 2016, contemplating the ascendancy of a man whose campaign was fuelled by everything the 1960s radicals opposed, it was impossible not to ask what went wrong.

I found myself wondering why the mood of our time feels so much less optimistic. It’s not as if 1960s radicals lived in a kinder, gentler world: on the contrary, the problems facing activists then were at least as daunting as the ones their successors face today.  The US was waging an increasingly unpopular war abroad (in Vietnam), but in the 1960s it was fought by young men who had been conscripted; many didn’t want to fight, and some found the whole enterprise politically repugnant. (As someone memorably put it—the exhibition credits Stokely Carmichael, but the attribution is disputed—‘the draft is about white people sending Black people to fight yellow people to protect the country they stole from red people’.) The Civil Rights Act had only recently been passed, and racism remained overt and vicious.

Women were still in many ways second-class citizens, and those who were active in radical movements, from Students for a Democratic Society to the Black Panthers, had to contend with the entrenched sexism of many of their male comrades–an indifference or contempt when faced with women’s own aspirations to justice and freedom that was one important factor in the emergence of an autonomous Women’s Liberation Movement. There’s a small section in this show about the second wave, which was incipient in 1966 and gaining real momentum by 1970, but I found that part of the show a bit unimaginative, as well as sparse. It doesn’t feature, for instance, some of the early feminist actions–like the 1968 Miss America protest–which seem to me very much in the spirit of the counter-culture.

More generally it could be said that the presentation of women in this show (with the partial exception of musicians like Janis Joplin) exemplifies the art critic John Berger’s maxim that ‘men act, women appear’. We see young women modelling the new Carnaby Street fashions, posing for trendy photographers and film directors, or having their hair cut by Vidal Sassoon, but we don’t see them featured prominently as radical political activists.

There is, though, one major exception to that rule. Towards the end of the show there’s a point where you look up and see a poster depicting Angela Davis. It was produced during the international campaign to free her after she was incarcerated on charges relating to her involvement in the defence of the Soledad Brothers, three African American inmates of a California prison who had been accused of killing a guard.


In 1970 the brother of one of the three men tried to secure their release by entering a courtroom and taking the judge and three jurors hostage. The guns he used were registered to Angela Davis, and although she had not been directly involved, she was charged with conspiracy, kidnapping and the murder of the judge. She was briefly a fugitive, and on the FBI’s ‘most wanted’ list. After she was captured she spent more than a year in prison. When the case came to trial, though, she was acquitted on all charges.

Angela Davis was a key figure in the radical political culture of the 1960s and early 1970s.  She was born in 1944 in segregated Alabama, and later moved to New York City to attend an integrated (and radical) high school.  She went on to join the Communist Party and to study in the US and Europe with, among others, the Frankfurt School theorist Herbert Marcuse, sometimes described as the ‘father of the New Left’. Returning to the US, she became an active supporter of the militant Black Power movement, and in particular the Black Panthers. She was also a feminist and an early advocate of what we would now call intersectional analysis. Her classic book Women, Race and Class, which was one of this week’s course readings, reflects all these political commitments. Its primary focus on the experiences of Black women produces an analysis which illuminates the situation of all women.

During her later career as an activist, academic and public intellectual, Angela Davis has sometimes spoken critically about the tendency to do what I’ve just done myself—present people like her as exemplary figures. In an interview in 2014 she pointed out that the achievements often credited to individuals, like Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela, cannot be detached from the work done by the thousands of other people who participated in the movements they led. She went on:

It is essential to resist the depiction of history as the work of heroic individuals in order for people today to recognize their potential agency as a part of an ever-expanding community of struggle.

In a week when so many people who share the 1960s radicals’ aspirations are feeling so demoralised, I think it’s worth reflecting on those words. Communities of struggle have been built before, and they can be built again.

These women are angry

Guest blogger Teresa Green wonders what happened to second wave feminists’ rage

I remember being sixteen, and listening to my father talking about the female students he encountered at Cambridge in the 1970s: “These women were climbing the walls! They were so angry.”

Reading the essays and manifestos written around the years that the Women’s Liberation Movement came roaring into view, by women like Anne Koedt, Robin Morgan and Pat Mainardi, one of the things that strikes me most is their anger. It isn’t their anger per se that sticks out, but the fact that they boldly express it with no qualms about the male egos and female delusions they tread on.

Today, that rage seems to be tucked out of sight. Male politicians can bluster and shout and turn red in the face, but women must stay calm and placid lest our anger give us away as “overemotional” and “hormonal.” Koedt and many of the other women who wrote on women’s liberation in the 1960s and 1970s gave their anger a voice and did not bother to sugar-coat their hatred of injustice, or their conviction that things had to change.

Pat Mainardi breaks down the justifications produced by men for avoiding housework, translating her husband’s excuses and refusing to accept them. She’s angry, and she is sarcastic. Anne Koedt is similarly sarcastic in her denunciation of that “incredible invention,” the vaginal orgasm, and refuses to mince her words in demanding a new conception of sexuality. Judy Syfers relentlessly lists the expectations men have of women  and finishes in blunt exasperation: “My God, who wouldn’t want a wife?” Robin Morgan defiantly points at man as the oppressor, male friends and colleagues and family members and partners and comrades, disparaging their self-centeredness and their misogyny.  She invites women to be

bitchy, catty, dykey, Solanasesque, frustrated, crazy, nutty, frigid, ridiculous, bitter, embarrassing, man-hating, libellous, pure, unfair, envious, intuitive, low-down, stupid, petty, liberating.

She makes no suggestion that the system itself can be re-made feminist, but simply says goodbye to the whole thing, tells us it must be destroyed: “Run it all the way down.”

Most academic feminism is written by women, but they know that their work will be scrutinised by men, too, and men control the boundaries defining what is angry and what is “crazy.” When the author is a woman, men have learnt that they can use these words interchangeably and so dismiss her.

Koedt and Mainardi, Syfers and Morgan, are not writing for an audience of (male or female) academics, but for their fellow women. It seems that they don’t feel the need, evident in so many feminist speeches and articles today, to make the issue abstract, neutral. Maybe they don’t feel the need to hide their anger, speaking as they are directly to other women, or maybe they hope their anger will be shared and reproduced.

I can imagine these essays sparking new rage in the women who read them, sending rose-tinted spectacles flying to the floor. There is no attempt in their writing to soothe the male ego by labouring the idea that an end to patriarchy will benefit men too (a lie- when you reach your great heights by stepping on someone’s back, you can’t continue to float there when they pull themselves out from under your weight, which Morgan freely points out). There is also no attempt to soothe or sustain or sweeten female delusions; I can’t imagine any of these women suggesting that we don’t need to change our society or our expectations, we just need to call them “empowering.” Of course, not all contemporary feminists have fallen prey to this need to be palatable, but one wonders where the anger went, and specifically the direction of that anger.

These women, writing in the 1970s, were not simply angry about a system, a structure, a society, they were angry at men. Many of them write about the rage they felt as a result of men’s treatment of them in New Left organisations, the frustration and resentment spurred by the realisation that the redistribution of power between men would change nothing about the fact that women do the “shitwork.” They express their anger towards their fathers, brothers, husbands, even their sons: concrete individuals, not institutions. The Redstockings Manifesto makes their stance explicit:

Institutions alone do not oppress; they are merely tools of the oppressor.

Maybe the reason the anger expressed so vividly by these women seems to have faded from today’s feminist writing, and been replaced by the neutral tones (or anger directed in the vague direction of institutions) of many modern feminist writers and groups, is that anger is exhausting. In particular, anger given the direction embraced by women like Koedt and Mainardi is exhausting. Even as she describes the “fury older and potentially greater than any force in history” of the women of the New Left, Morgan points to the emotional strain of that fury against known, loved men. She describes women rising in powerful rage but

stuffing fingers into our mouths to stop the screams of fear and hate and pity for men we have loved and love still.

To hate the injustice of institutions and social structures is, I think, much easier than to direct that anger towards beloved fathers and brothers, partners and friends.

When I asked what happened to those roaring women in Cambridge, my father said “I think they got tired”.

First thoughts on the second wave

This is the first of two guest posts by students responding to classic texts from the early second wave–in this case, the Manifesto put out in 1969 by the New York City-based feminist group Redstockings. 

Reading the Redstockings Manifesto for the first time, I was struck by the careful attention its authors paid to distinguishing between individual and institutional responsibility for women’s oppression. Three of the manifesto’s tenets are as follows: that all forms of exploitation flow from the original sin of patriarchy and men’s domination of women; that there is no individual absolution of men for the crime of sexism; and sexism is not the work of institutions, but of individuals.

This was surprising to me because it diverges from and even inverts the way we talk about women’s oppression today. Intersectionality, which to me underpins much of contemporary feminist discourse, would suggest that it is anathema to rank oppressions, much less to suggest that one of them is the “original” and most important oppression. Even if the oppression of women is the oldest oppression of all, I have an inculcated aversion to asking people to subordinate any aspect of their marginalised identity to another, whether because of the Black Lives Matter movement, reading Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, or witnessing discussions of the male-female wage gap that do not address the chasm between white women and black women.

The other statement, that sexism is the work of individuals rather than institutions, was also striking to me because it seems the opposite of where we place discursive emphasis today: on the idea that individuals are principally players in larger systems of oppression. It is a semantic difference, but it feels like a significant one. It made me wonder whether this specific shift in discourse stems from the dramatic changes in the status of women in the United States between that time and now.

At that time, it seems to me, the circumscribed spheres of women’s lives meant that women felt most oppressed by male figures in particular: the husband or the father, for example. And yet, at the same time, second wave feminism seems to me to have been born out of a collective awakening to the fact that women’s experiences of oppression by these figures were not accidental but universal. Hence the striking intention in the Redstockings Manifesto to build a systematic analysis from the basis of aggregated individual experience.

Nowadays when women have much greater freedom in their educational, professional, and social lives, it no longer rings so true to target every individual man for equal responsibility for oppression. An American woman today might no longer feel so much that her father or husband (if she has one) is the gatekeeper of her opportunities and liberty, but nonetheless feel constrained by the demands that patriarchy as a system continues to make of women.

This aforementioned dynamic – that second wave feminism was born of the realisation that the trees constituted a forest, and the need to insist upon that forest by collecting individual testimony – produces an effect unlike any other text of contemporary feminism that I have read. With forceful, righteous anger, the authors manage simultaneously to decry men in general and every man in particular.

I was positively surprised, given the reputation of second wave feminism today as “white feminism,” that in this text and others there were definite gestures towards intersectionality, even if history has judged them unsuccessful (the Redstockings Manifesto retains – perhaps most honestly of all – vestiges of division, speaking as it does as a “we” that repudiates any prejudices they may have against “other women”). I was unpleasantly surprised that evidently many things feminists said then continue to need saying today: the manifesto declares, for example, that

the most slanderous evasion of all is that women can oppress men.

Lastly, I was fascinated in reading all the texts assigned in the first week of the course to observe the different motives and systems to which different groups attributed their feminism: most decried the socialist revolution of men, but pushed therefore for an alternative revolution. The Redstockings Manifesto, however, contains one of the most striking statements of purpose:

We will not ask what is ‘revolutionary’ or ‘reformist,’ only what is good for women.

I am intrigued to learn more about what defined that good for second wave feminists.

Talking about our generations

The title of this blog (and the course it relates to) trades on the familiar notion that feminism has historically come in waves: the first wave began in the mid-19th century (ending when women won the vote after World War I), the second wave happened in the 1960s and 70s, and a third wave started in the early 1990s.

Although this model is widely used, it’s also widely acknowledged that there are problems with it. For instance, it’s very first-world (and especially US) centred; it also gives the misleading impression that there was no feminist activity at all between the 1920s and the 1960s. (The histories on the reading list by Dorothy Sue Cobble and Annelise Orleck are good on what was really going on during this time.)

In the first week of the course we read parts of a book–Astrid Henry’s Not My Mother’s Sister—which focuses on another wave-related problem: the way both feminism and our understanding of its history may be affected by conflict between generations.

The term ‘second wave’ was coined by second wave feminists themselves: they used it to portray their emergent movement as a new chapter in an ongoing political struggle, taking its cue from the earlier feminist tradition which became, in retrospect, the ‘first wave’. In this case there was no overt generational conflict, since the women of the first wave were no longer around to say what they thought about their self-declared successors. But it was a different story when young women in the 1990s proclaimed the advent of a third wave.

Third wave rhetoric was less about reviving an older tradition and more about breaking with the existing one—moving beyond a kind of feminism which was seen as outmoded and unsatisfactory. And since the representatives of that feminism were still very much alive, this did (and still does) cause conflict. It also meant that the term ‘wave’ began to be used in a different way. It was no longer understood in purely temporal/historical terms (‘the feminism of the 1960s vs the 1990s’), but also as a matter of age and generation (‘the feminism of older women vs younger ones’).

Astrid Henry sees the third wavers’ sometimes harsh criticisms of their predecessors as an expression of the need felt by every generation to differentiate itself from the one before. ‘For many younger feminists’, she writes,

it is only by refusing to identify themselves with earlier versions of feminism—and frequently with older feminists—that they are able to create a feminism of their own.

More specifically, Henry suggests that the way younger women create a feminism of their own is by rebelling against their (real and metaphorical) mothers. This has some consequences which are arguably positive—it means that feminism is continually being reimagined and renewed—but it also has a downside: it can distort our understanding of history and stop us learning from past experience.

What creates the distortion is the need to make a sharp distinction between the bad old feminism of the previous generation and the brave new feminism of the present one. In reality, feminists of every generation have had a range of beliefs and political goals; but to make each new wave look like a great leap forward this diversity must be downplayed, and the shortcomings of the old wave must be accentuated. The result is a set of stereotypes which may become, through repetition, orthodox wisdom—in the case of the second wave, for instance, that it was all about ‘white feminism’ or ‘victim feminism’ or ‘essentialism’. These statements are true in some cases, but false in others. They are over-generalisations, glossing over the fact that feminism is not, and never has been, all one thing.

I don’t want to suggest that this negative stereotyping is a one-way street. The rejection of ‘mothers’ by ‘daughters’ gets more attention because it’s the rising generation who represent feminism’s future. But older feminists can also do it to younger ones (‘they’re a bunch of over-protected, self-absorbed individualists!’ ‘They don’t understand x, y and z!’)

In 2014 the New Statesman ran a series with the same title as this blog, ‘Re-reading the second wave’, in which various writers (most of them in their 30s and 40s) reflected on some of the foundational texts of 1960s and 70s feminism. According to one contributor, the philosopher Jane Clare Jones, they were attacked from two sides simultaneously. Some commenters were outraged that they hadn’t just condemned the feminists of the past as over-privileged bigots; others criticised them for disrespecting their foremothers, and presuming to judge something they hadn’t been part of.

Jane Clare Jones has an answer for both sets of critics:

We do not have to kill our mothers to make ourselves anew. And at the same time, we are not just dutiful daughters. It is absolutely – literally – vital, that we remain in relation, and indeed honour, the work of the women that gave us life. But the life that they gave us is our own, and it is also honouring them for us to live it.

Astrid Henry believes that the antagonism Jones describes is not inevitable. Both sides, she says, share ‘a desire to both listen and be heard’, and this offers a basis for dialogue between them. Older women cannot assume the right to define feminism on the basis that ‘mother knows best’, but nor should younger women assume that there’s nothing to be learnt from their elders. Henry concludes:

When all our voices… can be part of the dialogue, feminism will truly move forward.