[Dash of SAS] Cliteracy: Of penises and patriarchy

Ana P. Santos
[Dash of SAS] Cliteracy: Of penises and patriarchy
'The history of repression of the clitoris and penis supremacy is how the pleasures of the erotic have been vilified, abused, devalued, and encouraged as a sign of female inferiority'

Much like the well-meaning but clueless lover who has to be coaxed into finding the clitoris, I almost missed the Cliteracy 101 webinar held a few weeks back. The email invite and Facebook event announcement looked like Cliteracy 101 was a medical convention rather than an interesting talk about the clitoris.

The invite did, however, make me reflect on the prevailing sex negativity in the country, which feminist theorist Gayle Rubin defined as a Christian tradition of viewing sex as sinful. The only hope for sex to be redeemed from itself was securing the blessing of heterosexual marriage, its performance for procreative purposes, and the non-enjoyment of its pleasurable aspects. 

The Catholicism imposed by more than 300 years of Spanish colonialism and embraced by an estimated 80 million Filipinos who identify as Catholic necessitates that for sex and sexuality to be discussed in public, it must be presented in an antiseptic manner and devoid of any hint of eroticism.

Email invite and Facebook event announcement for Cliteracy 101.

The speaker, Dr. Michael Tan, opened the webinar with an apology for lecturing about the clitoris when he did not have one himself. Notwithstanding this anatomical absence, Tan is just the person who can add the substance and bit of titillation needed to bridge the sexuality discourse binary between the medical and the erotic. 

A medical anthropologist and professor of Sex and Culture at the University of the Philippines, Tan is also co-founder of the Health Action Information Network (HAIN). Based on my previous interactions with Tan as a journalist, I can say that if there is anyone who possesses the scholarly sophistication and playful irreverence to discuss the complex power structures related to clitoral orgasms and its wider implications on sexual politics, the identity of the Filipino woman, and sexuality, it would be Tan.

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Penis supremacy and patriarchy

After a short quiz to debunk misconceptions about the vaginal walls of the G-spot as a source of pleasure, Tan traced the history behind this notion. Renaissance physician Andreas Vesalius claimed that “healthy women” did not have a clitoris while a 15th century guide for tracking witches said that the clitoris was the “devil’s teat” and that a woman who had one must be a witch. 

A hundred years later, anatomist and physician Mateo Renato Columbo described the clitoris as the “seat of a woman’s pleasure” and was arrested. His manuscript was published only after his death. In the 19th century, removal of the clitoris was performed as a treatment for hysteria and in contemporary gynecology, the clitoris – when it is even mentioned – is described using linguistic terms that indicate the supremacy of the penis, such as “it’s like a smaller penis,” and “it is the female counterpart to the penis.” 

The history of repression of the clitoris and penis supremacy is how the pleasures of the erotic have been vilified, abused, devalued, and encouraged as a sign of female inferiority. 

The Middle Age sex panics described by Tan also resembled the state of 21st century Philippines, which has among the highest teen pregnancy rates and fastest growing HIV epidemic rates in the world. 

Yet, the reproductive health national law mandating the State to provide liberal access to contraception, passed in 2012, prohibits minors from accessing birth control without parental consent and continues to meet opposition from conservative pro-life groups. Moreover, sex education is not taught in schools, abortion is still outlawed without exception and is penalized with imprisonment, and there is still no divorce. 

The Philippines is the only state in the world (apart from the Vatican) where divorce is outlawed. The heart and the vagina, the parts of a Filipino woman that indicate who she loves and who and how often she fucks, are regulated by the Church and legislated by the State. Based on what these laws restrict and punish, a good moral Filipino woman is devoid of her sexuality. 

The Hierarchy of Sexuality

Moving on from the Middle Ages, Tan revealed a 2009 study which showed that the externally visible button known as the clitoris was a small part of a hidden and highly innervated complex organ that became erect with stimulation. This proved the clitoris as the center of female pleasure and overturned the previously held notion that orgasms were generated by stimulating the vaginal walls and, thus, required penile penetration. 

“This (finding) is tantamount to heresy,” said Tan about the power of the clitoris to override centuries-old ideology that has upheld patriarchy and penis supremacy, and justified the subordination of women based on the premise that her main purpose was procreation and the service of male pleasure, and that her worth is diminished when she can no longer reproduce or is desirable to men. 

I will add that in the Philippine context, the attainment of sexual pleasure can be mapped out in what I will call The Hierarchy of Sexuality. Similar to the economic theory of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, where the requisites for survival like food and shelter are at the base of the pyramid and self-actualization is at the top, at the base of The Hierarchy of Sexuality is the need for body autonomy and freedom of choice for cisgender, transgender women, and women-identifying people. 

I will define this as tending to biological needs to keep the body healthy, which may include, among other things, contraception to prevent sexually transmitted infections and unplanned pregnancies. This is followed by a freedom from shame and stigma and, finally, the actualization of sexual or erotic pleasure – and metaphorically, the clitoris – at the top. 

The Hierarchy of Sexuality stratifies sexuality in two ways. First, it separates sex from sexuality; it prioritizes heteronormative sex and trivializes sexuality. This legitimizes the State’s framing of sexuality through a moral straitjacket, premised on human development and public health goals of poverty alleviation and reducing maternal deaths due to pregnancy complications. 

Secondly, in terms of social norms, excavating sexuality from sex reinforces a sexual value system wherein sexuality that is “good,” normal, and natural should ideally be heterosexual, marital, monogamous, reproductive, and non-commercial. Furthermore, although repression may initially appear to be primarily sexual, there are indexes of a deeper level of gender inequality in the Philippine context, as illustrated by The Sexual Hierarchy. 

This points to stagnation at the base of The Sexual Hierarchy, obscuring and inhibiting the struggle of women who fall outside feminist theory’s Charmed Circle (lesbian women, single mothers, sex workers, transgender women) to gain freedom from discrimination and shame, better labor protections, equal opportunity, and gender recognition – the cultural and social elements of identity linked to dignity and pleasure, premised on our acknowledgement of our sexual identity.

In London, where I was watching Cliteracy 101 from my bedroom via Facebook Live, there was no way for me to see the affect or emotional or physical response the discussion elicited from participants. 

However, panel reactor and veteran feminist activist Mina Tenorio provided a good indicator of affect when she blushed and giggled as she introduced the viewers to her clitoris, whom she has nicknamed “Wakanda.” Then Tenorio enumerated the ways that placing the clitoris as the center of feminism could overturn cultural norms that vilified and dismissed female sexuality and devalued lesbian sex and same sex relationships among women and contribute to the uplift of all women.

Panel reactor Mina Tenorio introduces participants to her clitoris named “Wakanda.”
Now we’re cliterate, now what?

It will take more than a Cliteracy 101 class for Filipino women to break the social and cultural binds of The Hierarchy of Sexuality and reshape the contours of her sexuality on her own terms. Such a revolution begins with women’s reclamation of their own bodies and, I would add, clitoris. 

Sexual autonomy can only be reimagined and constructed through dialogues among non-state actors in civil society and advocacy among the feminist groups. The Filipino women’s movement must now advance and translate cliteracy into a radical theory of sex and sexuality that denounces erotic injustice and sexual oppression. –

Ana P. Santos writes about gender and sexuality. She is currently pursuing postgraduate studies in Gender (Sexuality) at the London School of Economics and Political Science as a Chevening Scholar.