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  • The Clitoris: Forbidden Pleasure
  • Lesley A. Hall
The Clitoris: Forbidden Pleasure. Directed by Stephen Firmin and Variety Moszynski. First Run/Icarus Films, 2003.

There is something a little ironic about subtitling a documentary purporting to present a new and positive view of the clitoris "Forbidden Pleasure." Less sensationally, the story this video tells is about the invisibility and neglect of the clitoris, at least in Western culture (there is not really any consideration of cultures beyond Western Europe, North America, and Australia). It conveys a certain amount of basic information about the history of understanding of the clitoris, its role in female sexual pleasure, and the present state of research into this still relatively little investigated organ. It might therefore serve as a useful introduction to the subject and provoke discussion.

However, there are a number of problems. There seems a desperate desire to "keep things moving," in spite of the frequent lingering on talking heads (or perhaps to counteract these relatively static episodes), so there are long tracking shots, a voice-over while a woman who had childhood genital surgery for gender ambiguity rides on a bus, someone cycling through Amsterdam to participate in orgasm research, a surely staged interview with Helen O'Connell about to go into the operating theater. To further "liven things up," there are cartoon representations of the history of knowledge of the clitoris, and inserted flashes of erotic images, excerpts from pornographic movies, and scenes from commercials.

These are all symptomatic of the refusal to linger, to consider, to give time for discussion or reflection. For example, the fact that Gray's Anatomy included some account of the clitoris in editions previous to 1948, after which it was dropped, raises certain questions that would at least have been worth asking, rather than merely noting without comment: surely textbooks of anatomy were unlikely to have been influenced by the then-pervasive popularized version of Freud's characterization of the clitoral orgasm as "immature" and to be transcended on behalf of the "mature" vaginal variety? A relevant question not raised is why there has been this now-you-see-it-now-you-don't quality to the history of the knowledge of the clitoris, which seems to be perennially rediscovered.

There is a similar hiccuping dash from topic to topic: from cosmetic genital surgery, to where pleasure fits into sex education and female sexual empowerment, to research into the physiological processes of female arousal and climax. There is some attempt at problematizing the role of the pharmaceutical industry in facilitating the recent burgeoning of "clitoris studies"—given that this is aimed at finding the female Viagra, a "magic bullet" to capture that elusive entity, the [End Page 148] female orgasm, in spite of the weight of evidence that suggests that for women (and indeed, for men as well) the issue is not simply one of mechanics but involves the broader emotional context.

The history in general is clichéd and rather weak, though the broad-brush treatment may be understandable. Perhaps it is unduly pedantic to want some evidence for claims that, even after the disgrace of Isaac Baker-Brown on account of the clitoridectomy-happy practices of his London Surgical Home, "hundreds" of these operations were still regularly performed during the rest of the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth. One would not guess from this video that anyone before Masters and Johnson had indicated the importance of the clitoris and its stimulation to female sexual satisfaction; yet quite apart from Kinsey's pioneering work in the area, there were a number of writers of sexual advice, from Marie Stopes onward, who emphasized its importance for mutual conjugal delight. While Helen O'Connell's work on the anatomy of the clitoris is extremely important, it is not true that prior to her investigations the extent of the hidden clitoral body was not realized.

Ultimately, it is not clear what audience is being aimed at with this documentary: is it meant to be education or entertainment? As education, it is not very useful. An Australian television-listings Website refers to it as "traditional Friday night Euro-porn"1 ; while this seems a little...


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