Luce Irigaray, “This Sex Which Is Not One”

1981

“Female sexuality has always been conceptualized on the basis of masculine parameters. Thus the option between ‘masculine’ clitoral activity and ‘feminine’ vaginal passivity, an opposition which Freud – and many others – saw as stages, or alternatives, in the development of a sexually ‘normal’ woman, seems rather too clearly required by the practice of male sexuality. For the clitoris is conceived as a little penis pleasant to masturbate so long as castration anxiety does not exist (for the boy child), and the vagina is valued for the ‘lodging’ it offers the male organ when the forbidden hadn has to gind a replacement for pleasure-giving” 23.

“In these terms, woman’s erogenous zones never amount to anything but a clitoris-sex that is not comparable to the noble phallic organ, or a hole-envelope that serves to sheathe and massage the penis in intercourse: a non-sex, or a masculine organ turned back upon itself, self-embracing” 23.

Irigaray points out that the supposed female penis-envy has nothing to do with her pleasures. Whereas man requires an instrument (hand) to touch himself, “Woman ‘touches herself’ all the time, and moreover no one can forbid her to do so, for her genitals are formed of two lips in continuous contact. Thus, within herself, she is already two – but not divisible into one(s) that caress each other” 24. The anxiety of “interruption” by the penis causes Irigiray to ask, “Will woman not be left with the impossible alternative between a defensive virginity, fiercely turned in upon itself, and a body open to penetration that no longer knows, in its ‘hole’ that constitutes its sex, the pleasure of its own touch?” 24.

“Woman in this sexual imaginary [of the conquesting erection] is only a more or less obliging prop for the enactment of man’s fantasies… [her] pleasure is above all a masochistic prostitution of her body to a desire that is not her own, and it leaves her in a familiar dependency upon man” 25.

Woman does not even know what she wants, so sublimated is her desire in discourse – Freud calls it “obscure… faded with time” 25.

“Within this logic, the predominance of the visual, and of the discrimination and individualization of form, is particularly foreign to female eroticism. Woman takes pleasure more from touching than from looking, and her entry into a dominant scopic economy signifies, again, her consignment to passivity: she is to be the beautiful object of contemplation” 25-6.

This places the body in “a double movement of exhibition and of chaste retreat in order to stimulate the drives of the ‘subject,'” while “her sexual organ represents the horror of nothing to see” 26. Thus in art, it is rejected as opening: “sewn back up inside” its ‘crack’ 26. This is opposed to “that contact of at least two (lips) which keeps woman in touch with herself, but without any possibility of distinguishing what is touching from what is touched” 26. She is not one or two, and her sexual organ is none – she cannot be numbered. “Maternity [touch] fills the gaps in a repressed female sexuality” 27.

Like Cixous, Irigaray emphasizes a diffuse sensuality: “her sexuality… is plural… woman has sex organs more or less everywhere… the geography of her pleasure is far more diversified… in an imaginary rather too narrowly focused on sameness” 28. “Ready-made grids” cannot account for her: “she steps ever so slightly aside from herself with a murmur… [women] do not have the interiority that you have… within themselves means within the intimacy of that silent, multiple, diffuse touch” 29. Their desire is a paradox: nothing and everything.

“Must this multiplicity of female desire and female language be understood as shards, scattered remnants of a violated sexuality? …experiencing herself only fragmentarily… what is left of a mirror invested by the (masculine) ‘subject’ to reflect himself… [her] desire… may be recovered only in secret, in hiding, with anxiety and guilt” 30.

“If the female imaginary were to deploy itself… otherwise than as scraps, uncollected debris, would it represent itself, even so, in the form of one universe? Would it even be volume instead of surface? No. Not unless it were understood, yet again, as a privileging of the maternal over the feminine. Of a phallic material, at that. Closed in upon the jealous possession of its valued product. Rivalling man in his esteem for productive excess… By closing herself off as volume, she renounces the pleasure that she gets from the nonsuture of her lips” 30.

Thus self-rediscovery for woman is “never simply being one” 31. Pleasure is not in itself a solution because it serves male enjoyment:

“Woman is traditionally a use-value for man, an exchange value among men; in other words, a commodity. As such, she remains the guardian of material substance… Woman is never anything but the locus of a more or less competitive exchange between two men, including the competition for the possession of mother earth” 32.

“How can this object of transaction claim a right to pleasure without removing her/itself from established commerce?” 31. Women do not constitute a class, but are dispersed across classes. Like Cixous, Irigaray does not advocate a reversal of the order, since it would simply reverse again, but a proliferation of language available for women and their sexuality.

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