Another Theology of the Body, Part VI--A Theological Exploration of the Clitoris

I was introduced to The Body's Grace by Frank from Letters to the Catholic Right in this post, where he quotes Williams saying:

It puts the question which is also raised for some kinds of moralist by the existence of the clitoris in women; something whose function is joy. If the creator were quite so instrumentalist in ‘his’ attitude to sexuality, these hints of prodigality and redundancy in the way the whole thing works might cause us to worry about whether he was, after all, in full rational control of it. But if God made us for joy…?

I want to talk about the first part of that quote here, regarding the clitoris.  I am not aware of any theology that has been done on the clitoris, but there should be.  As Williams alludes to, the existence and nature of the clitoris is a theological "problem," especially if you want to hold on to traditional Christian sexual morality.  It is especially problematic if you want to hold that sexuality needs to be understood through the lens of procreation, or at least that procreation is an irreducible component of sexuality--as, for example, Catholic Theology of the Body folks do.

To do a theology of the clitoris, we have to talk a little bit about natural law.  In a post from back in March, I came up with what I think is a pretty neutral definition of natural law:

Basically, natural law states that one can discern the principles of divine law from an observation of "nature," because in nature we see the plan of God revealed in the manner of His creation.  If we can determine what human beings (or anything else, for that matter) "naturally" do, then we can get insight into what the should do.

Now, there are those (especially in the Reformed tradition of Protestantism) that would see natural law thinking as an improper way to do theology, but certainly the Catholic tradition embraces natural law thinking as it relates to sex.  Humanae Vitae explicitly states that it is basing its conclusion on natural law analysis ("This kind of question requires from the teaching authority of the Church a new and deeper reflection on the principles of the moral teaching on marriage—a teaching which is based on the natural law as illuminated and enriched by divine Revelation."  Paragraph 4).  So, we are on pretty solid ground in approaching a theology of the clitoris.

Any good natural law analysis must start from scientific facts regarding the thing you are trying to analyze--its "nature," to use natural law jargon.  So we have to begin with what we know about the clitoris.  The answer, until very recently, was not much.  There is the obvious bit of erectile tissue that is above the vaginal opening, but it was only in the last five years that it has been clear that this visible portion is only part of a larger organ that runs underneath the anterior (front) vaginal wall.  In fact, the best current science is that the much-disputed "G Spot" is really one or more places on that anterior vaginal wall where it is possible to stimulate this extended clitoris from inside the vaginal canal.  The clitoris, taken as a whole, plays a key part in female sexual response.  A majority of women report that they are unable to achieve orgasm without some kind of direct stimulation of the external clitoris.  If you include the recent broader understanding of the clitoris to include the internal clitoris, the percentage of women who need some form of clitoral stimulation to achieve orgasm might approach 100%.

In other words, the "nature" of the clitoris is to provide a woman sexual pleasure--that's what it "does."
But, as Williams was alluding to, perhaps more important is the fact that that's all it does.  It has no role in pregnancy or child-birth, and it doesn't involve any other bodily process.  If you believe that our bodies are designed by God (and, if you are using natural law thinking to look at sex, you do), then you must conclude God designed the female body with an organ that does nothing but feel good.  As Williams says, the purpose of the clitoris is joy, full stop, and so it follows the intention of God is for women to experience this joy, full stop, without any apparent qualifications or conditions.  And if you have an organ designed exclusively for sexual pleasure, then it suggests that sexual pleasure is a good in and of itself, separate from any other good.

The obvious contrast in all of this is with the penis.  With men, pleasurable stimulation of the penis leads to orgasm, which is fundamentally linked with ejaculation, which means that sexual pleasure is part of a whole with procreation.  You could argue that the "purpose" of the penis is to urinate and procreate, and everything else (like the pleasure part) is tangential.  You can't do that with the clitoris.  A woman can experience sexual pleasure through the clitoris without engaging in procreative sexual acts (i.e. penis in vagina sex), and conversely a woman can get pregnant without stimulating the clitoris at all.  While you can certainly stimulate the penis manually or orally, the pleasure part leads to the (at least potentially) procreative part.  This just isn't the case in the context of the clitoris--procreation and pleasure seem to be entirely separate.

So, the clitoris is (1) only found in women; (2) the primary source of sexual pleasure for women; (3) is only for pleasure; and (4) has little if anything to do with procreation. These facts create a massive problem for Theology of the Body advocates. The key starting premise for Theology of the Body thinking is that the "unitive" and "procreative" dimensions of sex are intrinsically linked.  You would suspect, if you take seriously the idea that this and other similar principles are derived from analysis of the world-as-it-is, that there would be some biological basis.  If you approach sex entirely through the lens of the male sexual experience, you can see how one could reach that conclusion, given the linkage between male orgasm and ejaculation.  But there is nothing in female reproductive biology that would support this link.  Looking only at female sexuality, pleasure and procreation seem to operate on parallel tracks.  There is nothing in the "design" of women that would suggest that these two things are essentially linked.

But there is an even bigger problem for Theology of the Body folks.  God gave women a clitoris, and its only purpose is to feel good.  If sex is supposed to be an intrinsic joining of the "unitive" and "procreative" elements, then that's a very strange design choice.  You have an organ that can be stimulated sexually in a manner that is wholly divorced from the procreation part.  If our only data point for figuring out sex from a natural law perspective is the female anatomy, there is no basis for concluding that procreation and pleasure have anything to do with each other.  And when one half of the equation has no evidence of your proposed "intrinsic" link, your model has a big problem.

All of this goes to the broader point about a theology of the clitoris.  Even a cursory attempt at doing natural law analysis on female genitalia (and cursory is certainly what this post is) makes clear that Theology of the Body and other neo-traditional accounts of Christian sexuality do not even attempt to look at sexuality from a female perspective.  If they did, they wouldn't be able to reach the conclusions they do.  The very same folks who often tell us, quite forcefully, that men and women are created to be different conveniently neglect this point when doing theology about sex.  When they expound at length about the unitive and procreative dimensions of sex, we all are dudes.

In the last post, I suggested that a truly Christian relationship must be founded on a radical equality between men and women.  It follows, then, that our theology of such relationships must reflect the same equality.  A system under which the biology and experience of one-half of all people is a bad system.  Our theology must reflect the experiences of women and their bodies.  To do otherwise is to do them an injustice.


Maria Kylie said…
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