EventsSex & Relationships

“Coming to understand:” How ignorance skews our ideas of the female orgasm



Remember back in middle school when it seemed you couldn’t go anywhere without finding a drawing of a penis? You’d find penises scribbled in notebooks, or drawn in the dust of a car window, or etched into the walls of a bathroom stall? And not once did you ever see a drawing of a vulva?

That’s kind of like what happened when Nancy Tuana, a philosophy professor at Pennsylvania University (and a former professor at the University of Oregon), asked her students to draw male and female genitalia: She saw a lot of detailed pictures of penises. And balls.

But when it came time to go over the drawings of female genitalia, the pictures weren’t so complete: Most of them consisted merely of drawn-in bubbles, labeled “vagina.”

In other words, most students — men and women — didn’t know what the hell a vulva really was. And that meant they didn’t really know about the clitoris — arguably the most orgasm-inducing part of a female’s vulva.

It’s this kind of ignorance that Tuana focused on in the lecture she held Wednesday at the University of Oregon: “Coming to Understand: Orgasm and the Epistemology of Ignorance.” In particular, she’s curious about the “epistemology of ignorance,” or the “what we don’t know and why” when it comes to female sexual pleasure.

After all, Tuana said, there’s a huge discrepancy between the number of (heterosexual) male and female orgasms in the the bedroom. Data from the Kinsey Institute shows that only 29 percent of women reported that they always had orgasms with their partner, while 75 percent of men did. 

Think back to the sex education you received, Tuana said: Were you taught about pleasure — more specifically, female pleasure? What about the clitoris? What did your anatomy books show besides a uterus and some fallopian tubes and maybe the labia?

“They teach you about menstruation,” said Tuana. “They teach you about STDs. But how many times have we been told about women’s pleasure? You see female genitalia in a reproductive sense, rather than in a way that recognizes women’s orgasmic potential.”

According to Psychology Today, 70 percent of women report needing clitoral stimulation in order to climax. How are they going to do so if they, nor their partners, know much about the clitoris — let alone know where it is?

And, according to Tuana, there are cultural reasons for this kind of perpetuated sexual ignorance.

“Over history, you see the same pattern of suppression of knowledge when it comes to female orgasm,” said Tuana. “You get the construction of the ‘good woman’ as the ‘passionless woman’… Eve was the one who bit the fruit. Eve was the one who betrayed God. Many theologians took that to mean that women are more susceptible to passion and to corrupt mankind. Female sexuality was seen as something ‘dangerous.'”

Perhaps this conversation is even more relevant today, at a time in which debates over a female viagra pill are heated. Some women called the FDA sexist for not approving the pill back in April; others say libido-enhancing drugs for women aren’t the solution, that we should be focusing more on education when it comes to female sexuality.

Tuana would agree with the latter.

“We don’t need the pink pill,” said Tuana. “We need to know about our pink parts. The problem has to do with what we do or do not know… We need to pay attention to the ways in which sexuality — in particular, female sexuality, gets suppressed. And, then, we need to go spread the word.”


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Katherine Marrone

Katherine Marrone

Katherine Marrone is the sex and relationships writer for the Emerald. A feminist and activist, she likes writing about gender issues and social justice.