I am teaching a course called “Feminism and Literature” at the New School that explores how literature can articulate feminist claims in the public sphere. One of the problems we discussed is whether the language we are currently using, as well as the imaginary that sustains it, are actually adapted to this task. In order to debate the issue, one of the classical texts that I assigned to my students was Freud’s essay on “femininity.” I chose this text because I wanted my students to be aware of the risks we take when we look at femininity (and female sexuality) from the point of view of masculinity (and male sexuality); Freud’s idea that women have to go through a phallic phase in order to become truly feminine – and that, as a consequence, they have to abandon their childish clitoral pleasure in favor of a more mature vaginal one – seemed to me rather questionable. Is it true that the clitoris is an “atrophied penis” and that it is only by abandoning “wholly” or “in part” the pleasure that comes from it that a “normal femininity” can be developed? Are not the clitoris and the vagina just two names that we assign and use to separate what is actually part of the same unitary body? These are the sorts of questions that I was hoping the text would raise (and indeed it did), and that would lead us to quickly dismantle Freud in favor of a more complex view of female sexuality. In particular, I was hoping to get rid of what seemed to me the most untenable of his positions: the idea that the small size of their so-called atrophied penis (the clitoris) is at the basis of a fundamental and inevitable penis envy in women.

Sophia Wallace standing before one of her photographs at The Newspace Center for Photography in San Francisco, March 2013. © Tim Roth | Flickr
Sophia Wallace standing before one of her photographs at The Newspace Center for Photography in San Francisco, March 2013. © Tim Roth | Flickr

The discussion was heated, indeed, and it was as a consequence of it that one of the students brought to the attention of the class the project of Sophia Wallace (see video below), a New York-based artist who is engaging with this very issue. As a versatile street artist, Wallace managed to bring her “cliteracy” outside of museums, within the concrete, lived space of the streets and within the immaterial space of the internet. She wanted to raise consciousness about the ignorance still surrounding this invisible object: “the clit.” In her own words, what she wanted was for people to begin to talk about the clitoris “on equal terms” with the penis. And indeed this is what she achieved. By showing its “true anatomy” (apparently discovered only in 1998) with installations and performances, she has confronted us with the fact that women bodies, which are constantly sexualized in a number of ways, are never shown as possessing that “little button” (which, however, as we read, is more akin to an “iceberg”). Moreover, she brought to people’s attention important pieces of information. For instance, besides the fact that the “unerect clitoris could be up to 9 centimeters long — longer, as some have described it, than an unerect penis,” I have also learned from “cliteracy” that if you have been the victim of a clitoral mutilation, there are just a few surgeons who claim to actually be able to repair it. (For a BBC radio broadcast about this surgery, click here and advance 14 minutes.)

Diagram of the internal anatomy of the human vulva, focusing on the anatomy and location of the clitoris. © Marnanel and Amphis | Wikimmedia Commons
Diagram of the internal anatomy of the human vulva, focusing on the anatomy and location of the clitoris. © Marnanel and Amphis | Wikimmedia Commons

Well done: she managed to make her point. But how? And at what price? Unfortunately, at the price of reinforcing, while apparently criticizing, precisely those established prejudices that she wanted to dismantle: Why indeed, do we have to talk about the clitoris on “equal terms” with the penis? Can’t we talk about it on “equal terms” with itself? Why insist so much on its measurements, on its penis-like shape, and on how “big” it is? Would it not be worth talking about if it were small? And also: Why do we need cowboys (and cowgirls) riding on a golden sculpture of the clitoris in order to draw attention to it? Why all this masculine language to make it visible?

In short: is she not still implicitly suggesting that the penis remains the yardstick according to which we measure what is worth talking about and what is not? Admitting that there is still a lot of ignorance about the clitoris and that we want to raise consciousness about this conspicuous lack, can’t we do it in different terms?

I have taught Freud’s text because I wanted to criticize Freud on women’s supposed penis envy, but I came out of our class discussion thinking that perhaps Freud was not totally wrong: perhaps women (or at least some women) do have penis envy. Or better: we live in a society where women still feel that it is only by speaking in those terms that they will be heard. Currently 200,634 people tagged the project with an “I like it.” I wonder how many of them are actually affected by “penis envy.” And, if not: what is left after penis envy?

21 thoughts on “What’s Left After Penis Envy?

  1. My friend and colleague added this comment, having some trouble posting it. I now will try for him

    Very interesting and well-argued. I would add two other points. First, Freud was trying to capture infantile unconscious thinking in these articles, not conscious attitudes regarding size, etc. Second, the whole discussion of the clitoris and vagina is such a small part of what Freud wrote about men and women and their relations to one another, it is striking how much intense attention it has attracted, to the loss of so much else.

    Eli Zaretsky

  2. i agree with eli, and indeed, the occasions when i suspect that women do have penis envy is when they too emphatically deny that they do. and i agree that he had a lot of other things to say about men and women, but it seems to be that he had much more to say about men than he did about women (see for instance his theory of religion and culture which is all about the father and the law, and makes very little space for the woman and the mother)

  3. I too, am surprised by how we as a culture are still referring to Freud’s “vaginal” vs “clitoral” – I thought that was debunked long ago- I think it was an Australian, Helen O’Connell, or O’Connor, can’t remember who wrote about it in 98. (However, I think that we should more attention to Freud and the relationship of sexuality to childhood.)

    Post penis envy? Well, I hope that looks like telling my son and daughter that can choose what gender they want to be when they grow up, that my opinion is that it is best for everyone to be like a boy and a girl, correcting my daughter when she says one of her friends told her that her clitoris is like a little penis, “No honey it’s not. It is similar because it has a lot of nerve endings and it feels good when you touch it, but a clitoris is for pleasure and a penis has other functions, so they are different.” I hope post penis envy looks like mothers explaining to their daughters that they have a lot of good stuff “down there”: a vagina, pubic bone, vulva, clitoris, urethra, anus.

    It’s a crime that women’s real bodies are not accepted nor celebrated as the fleshy, smelly, wet things they are and that late capitalism sells us our sexuality back to us.

    Plus, if you really want a penis, you can always strap one on.

    The more we celebrate the clitoris, the less it will compared to a penis.

    (Photo below from Abreactions; Our Feminist Performance Art at Dixon Place, NYC 2012).

    Christen Clifford
    Lecturer in Theatre and Performance
    SUNY Purchase

    1. thanks christen for your comments: unfortunately the “vaginal” vs “clitoral” is still there and it has proved to be particular resilient to debunk. think, for instance, of the how widely debated is the distinction between “vaginal” vs “clitoral orgasm” (particularly on the internet). this, i believe, is a very problematic version of the split, not only because it creates artificial separations where they are not needed (in the end the pleasure is just one), but also because it creates a lot of anxieties and frustrations particularly among teens who approach their sexual life thinking that the true “vaginal orgasm” is where they have to arrive…

  4. “Or better: we live in a society where women still feel that it is only by speaking in those terms that they will be heard”

    That´s it. Or at least, this is a point which is often ignored (also and unhappily by Psychoanalysts)

  5. “In short: is she not still implicitly suggesting that the penis remains the yardstick according to which we measure what is worth talking about and what is not? ” 

    I agree with the author but I think the problem here is not so much a societal fetishizing of the “penis” but rather a societal fetishizing of the
    “yardstick”. In other words, isn’t the yardstick the predominate way
    in which we ‘measure’ worth? It’s important to note that both the penis and the clitoris are subjected to a kind of imperial yardstick–as are buildings, monuments, money, friendship ect. We can now see newer, more efficient manifestations of this imperial yardstick. It tells us that our latest Facebook posting must have numerous ‘Likes’ and that a certain musical video or news story is valid because it got an unprecedented amount of hits or ‘tweets’. Note that this imperial yardstick emphasizes quantity and not content. And it has a way of negating ambiguity and flattening phenomena that really are not flat at all. The penis is one of many objects that is targeted by this “yardstick”. However, I think what Freud correctly shows is that the penis has come to be seen as to exemplify this yardstick–in the form of the phallus. It has sort of become a lackey for this yardstick I’m talking about.

 Thus, I am in agreement with the author and don’t think the answer is to make the clitoris into a similar sort of lackey. I am wondering why are we not comfortable with some of the things Freud and other thinkers associated with it? Things like, the diminutive, absence, ambiguity, the uncanny and yes even “lack”. These are things that make us uncomfortable in all realms of society. Why?


David Peppas

  6. thanks for you comments! but is there not behind this obsession with measuring through the “yardstick” some sort of phallologocentrism in itself? can we really separate between the two? it seems to me that in this case we cannot, and that is precisely the problem….

    1. Chiara,
      You imply that behind the yardstick is a phallogocentrism, then you say we cannot separate the two. I think we have a responsibility to separate the two, while asking at the same time how they are related. Normatively speaking you are right. Society constantly works at making us believe that these two things cannot be separated. It seems to me that the task at hand is to ask questions that dissolve this reification. Another thing, in my last comment I was referring to the penis, not the phallus. I believe Freud makes a clear distinction between the two yet they are often conflated.

      David Peppas

  7. “What’s left after Penis Envy?”

    I don’t doubt that some of Freud’s female patients confessed to him about this. What’s incomplete in Freud’s study of this subject is that some males feel “Venus Envy!”! I think the two “syndromes” (If you want to call it that) cut across gender lines and can be more generally called “Genital Envy”.

    When I first saw a girl’s pussy at the age of 6, I immediately felt “Venus Envy”! I thought it made her look divine! It made her seem more beautiful and special somehow, even superior. She didn’t need to have the appendage I had, making mine look superfluous. I felt inferior! I even envied the way she urinated, by “dropping a squat”, something I imitated myself for a while.

    As I grew up, realising what girls have made me look at them as gods! I still worship the ground they walk on, despite the personal shortcomings and faults they may have. (When I learned about menstruation, I thought it’s a sign from nature that women are more important and special.) I never have gotten over this and never will I’m happy to say! When I reached puberty my main sexual interest and fantasy always centered around giving women oral pleasure, something else that I will never “outgrow”. It’s me; it’s who I am. don’t know what causes a male to feel the way I’ve always felt, but I don’t really care. Whenever I see a woman’s vagina, I still feel envy! Most all are pleased to hear how I feel!

    1. I am not sure how to address your own “Venus envy”, if not by remarking in the first place that not all women are Venus! But it seems to me crucial to keep in mind that penis envy is not about what people consciously feel about other people genitals. It can well be the opposite: whenever I discuss this topic in a classroom or in a debate, those women who most emphatically deny they have ever suffered from “penis envy”, those who cry with anger “I do not have a penis, but I do not want one! I have never wanted one!”, they always appear to me as those who actually most suffer from penis envy. In that respect, it may well be the case that more than a “vagina envy”, what you experience is a vagina desire, which is a whole different story…

      1. Well then we’re splitting hairs there! What those women sound like they are doing is denying having the feeling, vs. the feeling itself. Either one accepts the feeling (like I do) or rebels against it. It’s better to accept the feelings that are intrinsic to one’s nature; a person is more at peace that way.

  8. I would very much agree on the point concerning the phallologocentrism and it was the reason my initial enthusiasm for Wallace’s project waned, as it tried a bit too hard to prove that a clit is as good as a penis..
    However, one may welcome that the topic is addressed and thus given a public platform by her since somehow, almost 40 years after the Hite Report, society seems increasingly permeated by eroticized popular culture as well as ubiquitous porn assigning women the role of pretty prey and men the alpha hunters; I’d confidently claim after interviewing several women explicitly on this issue and the impact it has on their attitude to sex dating, that it is this which then reverberates in bedrooms and does make women want to have such a less complex thing bringing pleasure by simply being inserted into a vagina, in accordance with widely accepted heteronormative displays of sexuality which marginalize ie the reality that women are not necessarily passive-receptive and, that such assumption can entail misogynistic or even abusive male-female relationships, let alone, do not usually bring us anywhere near the wonderful orgasmic potential that our bodies are endowed with.
    So, in my view, it’s quite often not a win-win for women to have sex with men since then there are the risks of unwanted pregnancy or STDs which in most cases aren’t counterbalanced by male ability to deal with the complexity of female sexuality.
    Therefore, almost anything enhancing clit-awareness merits a place, and hopefully in the longer term replaces penis envy.

      1. this comment confirms how misogynist phallogocentrsim can be in our societies. like woody allen would have it, this is the point where we have to depart from frued in a significant way: penis envy is not only a women issue, but also –and at times foremost — a men issue! a woman would have never written such a comment

  9. i agree that bringing the attention to the issue is a great merit of the project. and i am grateful that the project exists because otherwise we would not be having the conversation we are having. but the problem remains that by speaking about the clit on those terms she may end up giving more “visibility” to the penis than to the clit…

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