Feminist Voices Column

Pleasure Without sex – How the Binary Understanding of Gender/Sex is Defining our Sexual Experience

By Flavia Keller

This article critically engages with Western binary notions of sex/gender, and pleasure. Non-Western, indigenous, and/or decolonial understandings of these categories do not form part of this text. I am aware of this shortcoming and encourage everyone interested in the questions related to this article to look beyond the scope of it.

A word about terminology: in this text, I make use of the expression “sex/gender” to point to the social construction of both gender and sex, to  question their assumed correlation and differentiation, and deconstruct their supposed link with anatomy – as Judith Butler (1999, 10-11) put it: “If the immutable character of sex is contested, perhaps this construct called ‘sex’ is as culturally constructed as gender; indeed, perhaps it was always already gender, with the consequence that the distinction between sex and gender turns out to be no distinction at all.”

In the same vein, I use female* to describe body parts that were traditionally linked to the female* gender/sex, such as the clitoris, the uterus, the ovaries etc. and their associated experiences with pleasure. I use male* to describe body parts that were traditionally linked to the male* gender/sex, such as the penis, the scrotum, the testicles, etc. and their associated experiences with pleasure. Although stereotypically thought of in this binary, gender/sex encompasses a range even further than the female*/male* categorisation.

This week, the Feminist Collective of the Graduate Institute is organising the Female* Pleasure Awareness Week centred on sexual pleasure and aiming at correcting its oftentimes stigmatising representation in popular culture and beyond. This stigmatisation assume a binary Western understanding of sex/gender that emerged with the Enlightenment in Europe. But how does this exclusive and marginalising binary conception of gender/sex relate to the representation of pleasure? In this article, I aim to tackle this question and to convince you, my reader, that we must move beyond the binary to explore our pleasure.

Thomas Laqueur traces the Euro-American understanding of sex/gender from the Greeks to the 20th century. In his book, Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud, he argues that the way people conceive of the anatomy of sexual organs is contingent to the historical context – and that the same is true of sexual pleasure. Laqueur outlines two dominant conceptions of sexual and reproductive anatomy: the one-sex and the two-sex models. In this text, you will read about both, and about how they relate to sexual pleasure. 

The human sex/gender, an egalitarian concept?

From today’s perspective it might seem astonishing, but up to the Enlightenment the dominant view on reproductive and sexual anatomy was of only one human sex/gender. The male one, that is (of course!). Female* genitals were conceptualised as a version of male* genitals, an involution of male* anatomy. In essence, the vagina was perceived as an internal penis, the uterus as an internal scrotum, and the ovaries as internal testicles. It was said that women*’s genitals were interior because women  were considered to be “colder” human beings – and therefore inferior. Laqueur speculates that this model of reproductive anatomy formed part of a broader conceptual scheme that relegated women* to an inferior position. However, others argue that the one-sex theory has egalitarian traits, especially when reviewed with a focus on pleasure. As female* genitalia were seen as inversed male* genitalia, female* pleasure was understood to be identical to male* sexual desire. And just like persons with penises were seen as needing an orgasm to reproduce, persons with vulvas were seen as needing one to conceive. It was theorised that both sexes/genders released some sort of fluid when having an orgasm, and that the mix of these would result in conception. Female* pleasure was seen as important; it was a central part of reproduction. Therefore, thinking through pleasure, the one-sex model of reproductive anatomy can be conceptualised as emancipating and producing female* subjects that (at least when it came to sexual pleasure and reproduction) have needs similar to persons with penises.

Introducing differentiation and patriarchal hierarchy

This, however, changed with the ideas of the Enlightenment and the authorities’ decision to explicitly reject the notion of genital resemblance in the 18th and 19th century. The dominant narrative was from then on based on sexual opposition between the two sexes/genders – male* and female*. What was framed as an emancipating conception was essentially a hierarchising and marginalising practice of sexual differentiation. Human beings with uteri were now represented as inherently different from human beings with penises. With this differentiation came also a subordination that was camouflaged with discourses about ‘naturally’ different needs and desires – particularly in the realm of sexual pleasure. Moving away from the (egalitarian?) understanding of reproductive anatomy based on the one-sex theory, the common conception of female* pleasure changed dramatically: female* orgasms were no longer seen as necessary for conceiving a child and, therefore, lost its importance in Euro-American societies. Sexual pleasure without its connection to reproduction was effectively devalued as unimportant and persons with female* genitalia were represented as passionless, not able to enjoy sex. These depictions were reinforced by popular culture (led by powerful white men, one must add).

These representations are, of course, misrepresentations. They obscure the reality that many persons with a vulva rely on a bodily reaction (such as the production of body fluids) for sex as to not being hurtful or even harmful to their reproductive health, and they negate the fact that not all ejaculations are connected to pleasure. The notion of two opposing genders/sexes and their alleged corresponding sexual organs does, however, highlight that the central concern focuses on reproduction. The binary lays open that sexual pleasure was never of importance, but reproduction is.

In the Feminist Collective, we aim to expose this disguise and challenge the underlying link between sexual pleasure and reproduction. We believe that our sexual and reproductive health, both bodily and mentally, is constrained by the binary conception of gender/sex that structures our lives. And we work towards breaking up that binary and unlearn its everyday lived consequences. Because, yes, we do want to explore the potential of our pleasure.

About the author: Flavia Keller (she/her) is a first-year MDev student at the Graduate Institute and member of the Feminist Collective’s board. In her research, she explores how social identities intersect in situations of conflict and post-conflict justice processes. Beside her studies, she advocates for feminist peace and reconciliation in Switzerland and beyond.


The Feminist Collective is on Instagram: @feministcollective_iheid


Photo by Dainis Graveris on Unsplash

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