11 Dec 2018

The secret war for women's bodies

The physiological aspects of women’s sexuality were discovered in the 16th century but disappeared from medical books during times of crisis -- an interview with French author Diane Ducret.

Wysokie Obcasy
Katarzyna Wężyk Wysokie Obcasy, Global
The secret war for women's bodies - NewsMavens
Pearl in a shell, PixaBay

The following frgaments from Katarzyna Wężyk’s interview with Diane Ducret first appeared in the Polish weekly “Wysokie Obcasy” in March 2016.

Katarzyna Wężyk: It’s the 21st century yet the vagina is still an embarrassing subject. Why?

Diane Ducret: Cultural heritage. I myself happen to blush when I talk about my book “Forbidden Body”. It’s one of the reasons why I decided to write about female genitals. Especially now.

KW: Especially now?

Today, mainly in Eastern Europe, but also in the USA and in the Middle East, women’s rights and the general perception of women are heading in a rather disturbing direction.

I wanted to find out what is happening and why in so many places? I also wanted to see if there was any connection to be made between politics and society's ideas about the female body.

It turns out that in times of peace and prosperity both pleasure and maternity remain commonly favoured and admired intimate experiences. But as soon as a crisis approaches -- political, economic, religious or all of them at once -- people become frightened.

What I also noticed was that the first symptom of a burgeoning conservative movement was a change in the perception of females.

And it’s not even so much about attacking women’s rights, but rather, most strongly, about their bodies. This has affected medicine as well -- the clitoris as a source of pleasure was discovered in the 16th Century but it disappeared from the medical books during the times of crisis back then.

KW: During crises a woman’s body becomes the property of the state?

Precisely. Far-right authorities place women in the center of politics only to treat them as broodmares.

In countries under an authoritarian regime, maternity is the sacred duty of every woman. It’s even doubly sacred, because as she’s fulfilling her female role, she’s also serving the state.

In Hitler’s Germany, non-Aryan women were not only allowed to have an abortion, they were obligated! Sterilization was compulsory as well. 

Once you’re aware of this interdependence between crisis, right-wing reaction and women’s rights, you start paying attention to what’s going on in politics and realize what feminists should be focusing on today.

KW: Why is female sexuality seen as problematic?

Firstly, the need to control female sexuality has some biological grounds as each male strives to pass down his genes. Although a woman can be sure that she’s raising her own child, a man can’t be that certain.

Also, female sex organs have a double purpose: they are a source of life, as well as a source of pleasure -- and they are perceived from this dual perspective. They evoke curiosity and desire, but also fear and concern.

As opposed to male sex organs, female genitals are hidden and it took long centuries to find out how they function. Their anatomic structure was discovered not sooner than the 12th Century and the reproductive process -- 300 years later.

KW: The unknown breeds fear.

Yes. For a long time female body was regarded as cursed, especially during menstruation. In Ancient Greece, women were forced to run up and down the fields because their menstrual blood was commonly believed to be an effective insecticide. Up until the Late Middle Ages people were not aware of the connection between menstruation and reproduction. Bleeding women were considered unholy creatures, even witches!

KW: Let’s move on to Christianity. Has anything changed?

Quite a lot. First of all, with the rise of the cult of the Virgin Mary, virginity was placed on a pedestal. Yet, although a woman’s purity was a symbol of honour for the family and for the country, the woman herself remained unclean -- she menstruated, she mated with a man and  she bore children.

As a female untainted by dirty physiology or unholy sexual desires, the Virgin Mary became the ideal Christian woman.

KW: What about the Renaissance?

This was a relatively good period for women -- art and culture flourished and women’s sexuality was no longer condemned. Artists started portraying females in the nude, yet they persistently avoided painting their pubic hair, evoking strong criticism from women.

It was also a time of scientific progression in the field of human reproduction and female anatomy. It's when Realdo Colombo discovered the clitoris as “the seat of women’s delight.” Women also started to learn different methods of physical pleasure -- ladies from Catherine de Medici’s court were even caught satisfying themselves with dildos, which caused a huge scandal.

KW: What can you tell me about the Victorian Age?

From a female perspective, it’s the second worst period after the Middle Ages. Women became legally incapacitated, trapped in tight corsets and above all, pronounced to be hysterics. A painful menstruation, back ache, migraine, and a loud orgasm or masturbation was enough for a woman to be diagnosed with hysteria.

KW: And how was hysteria treated?

There were two methods. The pleasant one was invented in England: a doctor manually stimulated a woman to “hysterical paroxysm” which brought her...relief. The popularity of this medical treatment led to the creation of a special device -- the first electric vibrator.

The second technique was female circumcision. It’s shocking that such a brutal procedure was performed in the 19th century in seemingly civilized Europe and that it was truly believed to cure neurosis. Initially, the genitals were burned with a red-hot iron or treated with corrosive acid but eventually doctors replaced these methods with a surgical removal of the clitoris, often leading to patients’ excessive bleeding or death.

KW: Luckily, the 20th century brought considerable medical progress and changed the perception of female sexuality. When did the revolution begin?

In the 1920s, women dropped their corsets and cropped their hair but the real revolution started in the 1950s. That’s when Ernst Gräfenberg discovered the G-spot, the first contraceptive pill was invented and the epidural became a commonly used pain relief method during labor.

KW: And then abortion became legal and available.

And safe!

Abortion is a difficult subject, especially today, but in my opinion it’s not as much about banning the procedure as about denying women their freedom of choice.

In one way or another -- during the One-Child Policy in China abortion was compulsory, for example.

KW: As Gloria Steinem famously said: “If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament”

I agree. And conservatives constantly try different ways to deprive women of their fundamental rights. Why are there no contraception methods for men? Why do women have to carry the full responsibility?! It’s still a problem of this feminist victory: women gained their liberty but were saddled with all the accountability.

KW: In the prologue of your book “Forbidden Body” you quote Simone de Beauvoir: “One is not born, but rather becomes a woman”.

I was 20 and studying philosophy at Sorbonne University when I discovered de Beauvoir and was struck by her words! Many girls claim that they became women after they’d lost their virginity. Nonsense. We are far more complicated than this.


Diane Ducret -- A French writer and journalist. Author of many books, including the bestselling Femmes de Dictateur [Women of Dictators] and La Chair Interdite [Forbidden Body: A History of Male Obsession].

Translated from Polish by Martyna Kardach


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