The Clitoris: Forbidden Pleasure. Directed by Stephen Firmin & Variety Moszynski, First Run/Icarus Films, 2003


There is something a little ironic about subtitling a documentary purporting to present a new and positive view of the clitoris ‘Forbidden Pleasure’. Less sensationally, the story this video tells is about the invisibility and neglect of the clitoris, at least in Western culture (there is not really any consideration of cultures beyond Western Europe, North America and Australia). It conveys a certain amount of basic information about the history of understanding of the clitoris, its role in female sexual pleasure, and the present state of research into this still relatively-little investigate organ. Therefore it might serve as a useful introduction to the subject and provoke discussion.

          However, there are a number of problems. There seems a desperate desire to ‘keep things moving’, in spite of the frequent lingering on talking heads, or perhaps to counteract these relatively static episodes. So there are long tracking shots, a voice-over while a woman who had childhood genital surgery for gender ambiguity rides on a bus, someone cycling through Amsterdam to participate in orgasm research, a surely staged interview with Helen O’Connell about to go into the operating theatre. This all seems rather forced and unnecessary. Possibly even more tiresome, and very clearly there to ‘liven things up’, are the cartoon representations of the history of knowledge of the clitoris, and the inserted flashes of erotic images, excerpts from pornographic movies, and scenes from commercials.

          These are symptomatic of the refusal to linger, to consider, to give time for discussion or reflection. German anatomical studies of the 1840s were fleetingly mentioned but with a frustrating lack of detail and context. And the fact that Gray’s Anatomy included some account of the clitoris in editions previous to 1948, after which it was dropped, raised certain questions that would at least have been worth asking, rather than merely noting without comment: surely textbooks of anatomy were unlikely to have been influenced by the then pervasive spread of a popularised version of Freud’s characterisation of the clitoral orgasm as ‘immature’ and to be transcended on behalf of the ‘mature’ vaginal variety? A relevant question not raised was why there has been this now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t quality to the history of the knowledge of the clitoris, which seems to be perennially being rediscovered.

          There is a similar hiccuping dash from topic to topic, from cosmetic genital surgery to where pleasure fits into sex education and female sexual empowerment to research into the physiological processes of female arousal and climax. There is some attempt at problematising the role of the pharmaceutical industry in facilitating the recent burgeoning of ‘clitoris studies’, given that this is aimed at finding the female Viagra, a ‘magic bullet’ to capture that elusive entity, the female orgasm, in spite of the weight of evidence that suggests that for women (and indeed, men as well) the issue is not simply one of mechanics but the broader emotional context.

          The history in general is cliched and rather weak, though the broad-brush treatment may be understandable. Perhaps it is being unduly pedantic to want some evidence for claims that even after the disgrace of Isaac Baker-Brown on account of the clitoridectomy-happy practices of his London Surgical Home, ‘hundreds’ were still regularly performed during the rest of the nineteenth and well into the twentieth century. One would not guess that anyone before Masters and Johnson had indicated the importance of the clitoris and its stimulation to female sexual satisfaction: quite apart from Kinsey’s pioneering work in the area, there were a number of writers of sexual advice from Marie Stopes onwards who emphasised its importance for mutual conjugal delights. While Helen O’Connell’s work on the anatomy of the clitoris is extremely important, it is not true that prior to her investigations the extent of the hidden clitoral body was not realised.

          Ultimately it is not clear what audience is being aimed at with this documentary: is it meant to be education or entertainment? Is it perhaps trying to be too many things to too many presumed viewers? An Australian television listings website refers to it as ‘traditional Friday night Euro-porn’ Endnote . While this seems a little on the harsh side, it does underscore elements which tend to militate against a simple reading as worthy educational project. Many of the points made are excellent, but the constant recourse to jokey little cartoons and graphics, lingering shots of naked female bodies, and so forth, creates an uneasiness about the overall agenda. It may merely be that the makers felt under pressure to jazz the material up, not to be too dry and scientific, to be accessible. This may say something about the constraints which remain about making informative documentaries for a general audience about aspects of human sexuality: that there is still a good deal of ambivalence about the subject, which is bound to inflect even media representations aimed at lifting some of the veils of ignorance.


Lesley A. Hall, Wellcome Library for the History and Understanding of Medicine, London