America Has a Long Way to Go Before It's Fully 'Clitorate'
Did you know that the female spotted hyena has the largest clitoris among mammals, extending as much as seven inches outside of her body?
The very word clitoris comes from the Greek word, kleitoris, meaning “little hill.” In reality, this is a gross misunderstanding as the clitoris that can be seen is merely a tip of the iceberg to a much larger organ that is on average 9 to 12 centimeters long and 6 centimeters wide. It has 8,000 nerves concentrated at the tip and its sole biological purpose is sexual pleasure. Still, despite this seeming power it remains largely unutilized. Most mainstream pornography ignores it and 70 percent of the positions on display in the Kama Sutra would, anatomically speaking, leave most women without an orgasm.
Brooklyn-based artist Sophia Wallace, intrigued by the clitoris’ absence in a culture seemingly obsessed with sex and female nudity, set about to debunk the myths and unearth the mystery in her most recent project, "Cliteracy," a gigantic art installation, street art project, and viral Tumblr campaign that showcases 100 “natural laws” of the clitoris, or cliteracy. On Monday, I had the chance to sit down with her and discuss art, sex, politics and the clitoris.
Anna Lekas Miller: Despite your training as a visual artist, you made a very distinct choice to represent "Cliteracy" through words, rather than images. Why?
Sophia Wallace: With "Cliteracy" I knew that I couldn’t work in images. There are many reasons for why that is, but so often I think that the images of women are actually used against us. They are used to disempower us, they are used to dehumanize us and reduce us. I knew that that would obscure the subject matter.
Further, I knew that this would express that everything that could be known about the clitoris could be known by being seen, and that is not actually true. The clit as an organ is mostly internal, so what we can see on the outside of the body is a mere tip of the iceberg. Moreover, the subject is about embodiment and being whole within oneself, and that is not something that can be shown visually.
For me it was most important that I worked on a scale that was monumental. That suggested something that stays over time, that can’t be taken in in a glance. Any viewer’s body is going to be dwarfed by it. Even a football player will feel small next to it. We are not used to thinking about female genitals in a way that they are larger and imposing and more complex than you can ever understand.
ALM: What was the moment that you decided that you had to do "Cliteracy"?
SW: I’m not sure. There was no one moment. There were a lot of things that happened in a period of time. I don’t know why I got particularly fed up at this moment in time, but I did. Like I said, my work deals with power and how power normalizes itself through this tableau of visual images. I was thinking about sex and representations of sex and how is it possible that in this day in age the clit is never anywhere. All of the depictions of sex in Hollywood cinema, in visual art, even in pornography revolve around the penis. If the clit is ever included which is rare, it is treated as foreplay, an afterthought, or “wow, what a lucky woman” and kind of dirty and gross. It is never treated on equal par with the penis. Why is that?
I was thinking about knowing that so many women are having really bad sex. Why are so many women faking orgasms? Why is there a huge disparity in the distribution of orgasms between men and women? Why? It doesn’t make any sense.
ALM: You mentioned that this was a primarily research-based project, and you spent about a year researching the clitoris. Can you describe your research, what you learned and what surprised you the most?
SW: In terms of the research, there were so many moments that I was extremely surprised, but I was completely baffled and shocked that I didn’t know the anatomy of the clitoris. That was shocking to me. I was completely shocked to learn that the word vagina was a Latin word meaning “sheath for a sword” and that it doesn’t actually include the clitoris. So in pretty much any space that you go to—the doctor’s office, casual conversation with friends, television—everyone says vagina, vagina, vagina, which literally reduces the entire female anatomy to be a hole. It’s shocking.
I was amazed that Anne Frank had written about her clitoris. I was amazed and saddened that she had asked her mom what it was, and her mom didn’t know and refused to talk about it. It was interesting to learn about Freud creating this definition that lingers around today. It is taken as a given that the vaginal orgasm is seen as the “true” orgasm and a clitoral orgasm is an “immature” orgasm.
ALM: It’s literally called an immature orgasm?
SW: In Freud’s definition, yes. You see this idea lingering around in this creation of this new pathology of female sexual dysfunction. The pharmaceutical industry, desperate to find the drug that is going to be the money-maker that Viagra was, looking for dysfunction in female sexuality and coming up with all of these pills and creams that do not understand the fact that the clit is the female sexual organ and putting a gel inside the vagina is not going to create amazing orgasms for women and all of these other things that have been done that have all failed.
Because the issue is incompetence, it is not dysfunction in women. I would say this idea that women are less sexual than men is a complete lie and it is based on the justification for men being really bad lovers and feeling incompetent about the female body. So they’re saying, it's not that they’re bad in bed, it’s that she is not sexual.
Well, no one wants to have bad sex. Why would they?
ALM: One of the most shocking revelations of your project is that the clitoris wasn’t discovered until 1998. Can you describe what this means?
SW: Helen O’Connel is an Australian neurologist and she was doing surgeries on the genital system. She was perplexed because she was looking at the anatomy and on the male anatomy, the major anatomy was complete and the minor anatomy was very intricate. On the female anatomy, the major anatomy was spotty and the minor anatomy was pretty much missing. She was like, “Why is the anatomy so vague for the female body and how do we know that we are not cutting into the clitoris when we are doing these surgeries? She became concerned that the clitoris being cut into all the time.
She did these first disections of the genitals, looking for the clitoris and discovered that indeed, the clitoris was much bigger than suspected. So, historectemies, incontinence surgeries, surgeries for fibroids, all of these things were cutting through it because nothing else exists. The female body has only been studied in terms of how it is reproductive and how it is supposedly the inverse of the male body so nothing could be unique about the female body. So the female body is not neutral or its own subject, it’s just the reaction to, the opposite of…so these kinds of biases, scientists just didn’t look.
ALM: Is there any explanation for why it took so long to study the female body as a unique entity, rather than in opposition to the male body?
SW: One of the other reasons she posits as to why there weren’t studies of the anatomy of the clitoris is that many cadavers released from prisons for the medical industry to examine were mostly men. So there were very few women.
But I think that there was also this bias that remains to this day where the male body is the neutral body, so that is what is studied and then what is studied on the male is applied to the female as if it is always going to be one and the same, which it is not.
She released these findings in 1998, but they haven’t been adopted. Part of the problem is that these findings are seen as so insignificant that they have not been adopted in any way, so the clit remains unknown even though it has been discovered and rediscovered. There is a large investment in minimizing and diminishing it.
It’s absurd. We have mapped DNA so many times, we can go to Mars, but we still don’t know the anatomy of the clitoris? How is this possible?
ALM: In both your work and in interviews, you have frequently critiqued pornography, and its seeming ignorance of the clitoris. Could you elaborate?
SW: Pornography is not really my thing, but I am not against it in and of itself. I am against how mainstream porn represents female sexuality. In gay porn, everyone has an orgasm. Why not in straight porn?
I think that a whole lot of people are making a whole lot of money on “ill-cliteracy” and the whole porn industry would crash and burn if people were cliterate. Not that there wouldn’t be a porn industry, but the way that it exists now wouldn’t be able to exist. That way it is now is based on this fetishization of the penis and this obsessive fixation on the penis penetrating holes and destroying those holes in the process and eroticizing that, eroticizing ejaculation on an object that is lesser. Deep-throating. Cumming on someone’s face. If both peoples’ pleasure were fundamental to the sex act, there would be a different paradigm of porn.
ALM: "Cliteracy" is an art installation, a street art project and a viral Tumblr campaign. It is also a solid gold clit and a line of T-shirts. Can you talk about how each of these elements is important, and how they come together?
SW: With the art installation, it is huge—often it takes hours to really take in, and people keep coming back to it and pointing it out to people they are with. Still, in a gallery it only reaches so many people, and a certain kind of person at that. Street art is a whole other conversation. Sometimes people write over it, respond, tag their sign, but I only see this after it happens. Other times people take pictures on Instagram, and share it with the hashtag and this is really exciting for me. Just the other day I met a woman who leads bike tours, and she told me that she takes her tour by where some of the street art is exposed in Brooklyn.
I think the T-shirts also continue the work in a really exciting way, they are these little art-bomb clit-splosions that go around the world and create these effects that I don’t know what is going to happen. What does it mean if the captain of the football team is wearing a cliteracy i-chart shirt? If the word “clit” is in public space and exists, it doesn’t have to give over or be about sex. This is a subject, it exists in the world, there is nothing shameful about it, there is nothing to hide. I think just seeing that in the world is really powerful.
ALM: What are your hopes for "Cliteracy" going forward?
SW: Right now, you can’t even say the word clit, it’s too obscene and profane, but you can show the nude female body everywhere. So that paradox and that logic is something that I personally would like to intervene in and change.
In addition to "cliteracy" being a meme and a word that is in popular usage around the world, I want a museum to purchase the installation and show it publicly. I want it to be shown out in the world. I would like to make this work and carve it into stone and granite that in 500 years still exists.
One of the goals that I have had in terms of next steps is to do an exhibition of "Cliteracy" on billboards. I have one patron who has sponsored a billboard, I’m currently seeking more patrons who want this to exist in the world and be seen on a mass scale to a point where it could actually shift culture.
My first inquiries into buying advertising space, I’ve been meeting with CBS Outdoor, which owns 40 percent of the billboards in New York. They turned down the project and wouldn’t accept our money because they were concerned the project is too risquÃ© for them. It is fascinating that the types of billboards that exist in the world are normalized, yet talking about the clit is censored. This is part of the problem.
Translating into different languages, sharing the work is extremely important. What will happen when that happens…I don’t know! But, I do know that it can’t go on the way that it is. The world isn’t flat and we don’t have to pretend that it is anymore.