The Clitoral Truth: The Secret World at Your Fingertips
By Rebecca Chalker
Seven Stories Press
256 pages, $19.95
For centuries, women's sexual anatomy has been described as "mysterious,"
"unknowable" and "perplexing"--harboring more riddles than the Sphinx,
the pyramids of ancient Egypt and the rock formations of Stonehenge
Not really, counters author Rebecca Chalker. It's really quite
easy to figure out. You just have to know where to look.
In her latest book, The Clitoral Truth, this longtime women's
health activist seeks to
clear up all myths about how women experience sexual pleasure. Very
concretely and clearly, she zeroes in on the clitoris, the female
nerve center. Her anatomical "walking tour" illustrates in sober detail
how, contrary to popular belief, the clitoris is more than just what
the popular imagination considers a "diminutive pea-sized outcropping
on the female vulva." Instead, she describes it as comparable in sensitivity
and size to the penis--powerful and formidable enough to instill envy
in the most ardent Freudian.
ILLUSTRATION BY FISH
Her main contribution to the current literature on the subject
is to describe the clitoris as a system of 18 distinct and interrelated
structures, with each part having a counterpart on the male body
(as documented earlier in a 1991 book she edited for the Federation
of Feminist Women's Health Centers). Not all of these 18 parts of
the clitoris are visible, but all of them can be felt, especially
during sexual arousal. This includes an elaborate network of pelvic
muscles, two-types of erectile tissue and a long wishbone-shaped
Overall, she seeks to restore the view of the penis and clitoris
as equal counterparts, which she says existed for more than 2,500
years--until philosophers and other "experts" in the 18th century
portrayed the clitoris (and women's sexual response as a whole)
as inferior to that of men. Then she relates the cultural tale of
how all this information has been lost or covered up through the
years, exploring the long-disputed subject of female ejaculation
and reporting on ways women are expanding their sexual repertoires.
For a lot of feminists (along with any casual reader of Cosmo,
for that matter), this hardly qualifies as breaking news. Throughout
history, the clitoris--and its great potential--have been lost and
found over and over again.
The clitoris was, after all, a major source of feminist consciousness-raising
in the '70s. In spotlighting the clitoris, women's liberationists
exposed oppressive social untruths about female biology and countered
the old Freudian party line of the vagina as the exclusive natural
source of a true "mature" woman's pleasure (and the clitoris as
a "girlish phase"). As Chalker herself describes in her colorful
second chapter, "The Case of the Missing Clitoris," back in 1966
sex researchers Masters and Johnson proclaimed that female and male
genitals "are equivalent structures that function in similar ways
to produce sexual pleasure and orgasm."
The findings of these and other sex researchers were later popularized
by feminists like Barbara Seaman, Lonnie Barbach and Shere Hite,
not to mention the Boston Women's Health Book Collective's juggernaut
dorm-floor staple, Our Bodies, Ourselves. More recently,
academics Marcia and Lisa Douglass documented the clitoris' potential
in Are We Having Fun Yet? The Intelligent Woman's Guide to Sex,
and, with a confessional e-zine style and breezy literary verve,
Seattle writer Inga Muscio put forth the young feminist cult-favorite
Cunt: A Declaration of Independence.
Yet Chalker's book stands out as a highly accessible and updated
report on the work of the women's health movement for a new popular
audience. The book is indeed marketed to a non-academic, not necessarily
feminist readership, with its straightforward and clear writing,
cute compact size and sexy cover--the book's subtitle descends word
by word from a naked woman's navel to her nether regions.
But rather than "selling out," this packaging holds true to the
most basic ideals of the women's health movement, a separate branch
of feminism--with which Chalker has long been associated--that emerged
in the '60s. While bringing biology down to earth, the women's health
movement demystifies traditional male authorities, like doctors
and psychologists, who have always prescribed and proscribed just
what women should want. Meanwhile, these activists have sought to
raise political consciousness, bringing to light how cultural views
of women alter their most personal experiences.
It is this work that provides the foundation of The Clitoral
Truth. Some of Chalker's main sources are the gurus of the '70s
women's health movement, such as spunky masturbation advocate Betty
Dodson, author of the classic Sex for One and videos by feminist
porn star Annie Sprinkle. Chalker also makes colorful use of manuals
published by Good Vibrations, the feminist worker-owned cooperative
sex shop in San Francisco. This adds personality to the book, as
in a section on vibrators where Chalker describes the conventional
woman's "romantic fantasy of Prince Charming leaning over and kissing
[her] awake, and the two of them living happily ever after." She
then quotes Dodson's retort: "In my version, Sleeping Beauty wakes
herself up with a 60 hertz electric massager vibrating at 5,000
revolutions per minute."
Like the women's health movement pioneers, Chalker always includes
voices of "non-experts" and documents cases of "self-exploration."
The last part of this book could be called "The Clitoral Monologues,"
excerpting women's explicit first-hand accounts of attending '70s-style,
literally hands-on workshops for improving orgasms, increasing body
acceptance and mastering tantric sex. In every discussion of female
sexual response, without being heavy-handed Chalker brings the subject
back to politics. For example, in a sidebar about her own difficult
teen-age quest for sexual information at the Florida State University
library in the '50s, she also criticizes current right-wing campaigns
for abstinence-only and sex-negative education, analyzing their
long-range implications for the health of the nation's youth.
Chalker is happily and relentlessly inclusive with descriptions
and illustrations, picturing heterosexuals, bisexuals and lesbians
of many races. More mainstream readers, unaccustomed to the eager
anti-prudery spirit of this movement, also may be startled by the
jaunty casualness of the language used to describe historically
taboo acts. But despite its grounding in the '70s, the book isn't
stuck in the Carter administration, and reflects young feminists'
desire to explore all aspects of sex, even the politically incorrect.
Praising the work of anti-censorship feminists to create their
own woman-centered "postporn erotica" that encourages sexual fantasies
(an ingredient to much-valued masturbation), she recognizes movements
to expand erotic boundaries. "Many young women are refusing to be
bound by rigid gender roles and some are even identifying themselves
as bisexual rather than exclusively heterosexual or lesbian," she
writes. She adds that "S/M games" play with power dynamics in relationships
in healthy ways to vary sex.
Despite some more adventurous passages, the findings in this book
will not be news to many feminist activists and other readers. If
you have a subscription to the Good Vibrations catalog, own at least
one Susie Bright book or have read the lesbian sex magazine On
Our Backs, this book may be too basic for you. And younger or
more mainstream readers might be put off by some ebullient or earnest
'70s phrasings like "the rich banquet of sexuality." But, in a mass
market that systematically feeds women a stream of sex advice stripped
of nearly all feminist politics--from MTV's Dr. Drew to Glamour--Chalker's
book stands out with its integrity, its feminism over focus groups.
The Clitoral Truth truly reflects the author's impressive
commitment to guide readers to a level of exploration that can only
be described as "The Joy of Feminist Sex."
Paula Kamen is the author of Her Way: Young Women
Remake the Sexual Revolution (forthcoming from New York University
Press) and the play Jane: Abortion and the Underground.