A number of years ago, I was dealing with an episode of bacterial vaginosis (BV), as you do. So I went to my doctor.
“What seems to be the problem today?” he asked.
“Oh, nothing huge. My cunt just smells a little funny,” I said.
The doctor turned bright red and stammered, “Oh, I see! Haha! That’s a word I usually reserve for… special occasions.”
“Really?” I said, puzzled. “It’s a pretty normal word for me.”
We proceeded from there, and I emerged with the prescription I needed. But I’ll never forget that even a gay doctor at a queer health clinic in Canada’s biggest city—in theory the most progressive sexual health care I could possibly get—was so uncomfortable with my choice of term for my genitals that he chose to police my language before dispensing his advice.
In the new documentary Dilemma of Desire, streaming online (for Ontario residents only) during the Hot Docs film festival until June 24, director Maria Finitzo examines a similar problem—but focuses on the word clitoris.
It’s a word
“So many people cannot say the word,” Finitzo tells me as we discuss the many people she approached while working on the film, based primarily in Chicago. “They’re embarrassed by it, they don’t know where it is, nobody knew what it looked like.”
She’s referring to the larger structure of the clitoris—the system of erectile tissue that reaches deep into the body. When people do talk about the clitoris, they’re often referring just to the glans, which is the visible nub that protrudes from the clitoral hood on the outside of the body. But the glans clitoris, much like the head of a penis, is the end point of a shaft. Behind that shaft, the system’s erectile tissue extends into a pair of vestibular bulbs that surround the vaginal opening as well as a matching pair of wings, or crura, also known as the “legs” of the clitoris. All this tissue is sexually responsive and contributes to sexual pleasure. In fact, pleasure is the sole purpose of the organ.
Finitzo features nine key voices in Dilemma: Four experts—biology professor Stacey Dutton, gender studies scholar Lisa Diamond, vibrator designer Ti Chang and artist Sophia Wallace—and five young women exploring different aspects of their sexualities. It’s a racially diverse cast of people facing a wide range of life experiences.
The film opens with Dutton, who points out that most anatomy textbooks don’t provide information about the clitoris at all. Later in the doc, she mentions that a search on PubMed resulted in over 46,000 papers about the penis and barely more than 2,000 about the clitoris.
Clearly, the problem isn’t just discomfort with the terminology. According to Dutton, and Dilemma’s other subjects, it’s also a refusal, in culture and science and academia, to acknowledge the very existence of the clitoral system. Perhaps that’s because the idea of an organ whose function is purely for sexual pleasure is something a sex-negative culture can’t even bear to consider.
“It’s an organ. We know what our brains look like, what our hearts and lungs look like, but not our clitorises,” Finitzo says. “We don’t teach girls, we just teach them shame. Denying information to any human being about how their body works is keeping them oppressed.”
It’s a symbol
“At some point in the film, it transitions. It’s not just an organ. It’s a symbol, it’s for everyone, it’s about pleasure and power,” Finitzo says. “And it’s a beautiful symbol.”
There’s nothing quite like a large metal sculpture of a clitoris, with its elegant wishbone shape, to help you appreciate how beautiful it really is. One of Dilemma’s key subjects is artist Sophia Wallace, whose Cliteracy project involves representing the clitoris in the form of screen prints, sculptures and other media, as well as a text installation called 100 Natural Laws—essentially information bites about the clitoris and about pleasure-focused sexuality.
“Lots of people have clitorises, some identify as women, some as men,” Finitzo says. “As Sophia Wallace says, ‘All bodies are entitled to the pleasure they’re capable of.’”
But despite this philosophy, Dilemma doesn’t feature any trans people. Finitzo cites funding as a key issue that kept her from featuring all the voices she’d have liked to, including at least one trans woman she interviewed. “I look at the film as an invitation to other filmmakers,” Finitzo says. “This is the beginning of a conversation. Now pick up the mantle and go with it—make your film, make one that features trans men and trans women.”
Fair enough. But the absence is still a weak point, and highlights what I see as a set of challenges in today’s sexual culture more generally. As Dilemma sets out, the clitoris is indeed poorly studied and poorly taught, and talking about it makes even progressive people very uncomfortable. This is one of the sites in culture, worldwide, where misogyny is most clear. It would be hard to argue otherwise.
But focusing on the anatomy question can run the risk of equating a specific type of genitals with a specific gender, and that is its own kind of oppression. Trans men may share some of the anatomy in question; and trans women, in addition to potentially having clitorises, also share in the broader experience of being oppressed as women in a misogynist world.
This mirrors a beef I’ve long held about sex how-to guides, which are, by and large, stubbornly mired in a male-female binary. Trans visibility may have made great strides in the last decade, but when it comes down to discussions of genitals and sex, trans people are still often left out of the conversation.
As a culture, we need to do better. We need to bridge these gaps and find ways to talk, with accuracy and sensitivity, about both anatomy and gender in the context of sex and sexuality. Dilemma may open the conversation, but it doesn’t do that bridging.
It’s a culture
Despite this absence, Dilemma is still a film with a powerful message.
“Sexually-empowered women are terrifying to male culture,” Finitzo says. “We don’t really want women and girls empowered to know where their sexual power comes from. If they do, they won’t settle. And that’s true in life too. If you know the extent of your power, you don’t settle for less.”
Finitzo draws on Audre Lorde’s famous 1978 essay, “The Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power,” to help make this point. As Lorde writes, “Recognizing the power of the erotic within our lives can give us the energy to pursue genuine change without our world, rather than merely settling for a shift of characters in the same weary drama.”
The essay came up in a meeting early in the filmmaking process, and two of Dilemma’s characters—queer pleasure priestess Coriama and poet Becca, who doesn’t know whether she’s ever had an orgasm—brought up the essay independently of one another. Finitzo took it as a sign, and had all her participants read it and reflect on it.
So with Lorde as a reference point for erotic power, what does “not settling” look like? According to Finitzo: Queerness! Dilemma of Desire presents queer culture as an antidote to patriarchal sexual scripts.
“You don’t have to be queer, but embrace the philosophy of queer culture that people should be allowed to live and love in ways that work for them,” Finitzo says. She explains that, in the film, “I’m going to show you the horrible things that patriarchal culture does. But don’t lose hope; here’s an alternative.”
Whatever your anatomy and whatever words you like to use for it, that alternative can be an everyday practise. No need to save it for a special occasion.