Any societal arguments for penis envy have dissolved in the 21st Century, Maria Pawlowska argues.
I was prompted to write on penis envy (or rather the feminist deconstruction of it) by a comment on one of my past posts that basically said that I hate white people and have penis envy. The first statement was so ridiculous I’m not even going to go into it, suffice to say I’m not racist and I don’t hate myself. The second accusation was more interesting. I believed—and was clearly mistaken—that penis envy is now generally seen as the joke that it in fact is, and no one really takes it seriously anymore. Lo and behold, I was wrong. So I thought it might be worth writing a little something on why penis envy is yet another one of Freud’s schemes which may have seemed like a good idea at the time (if you were a serious misogynist), but really has no place in the 21st century.
Let’s start of with a little historical background. Famously, the concept of penis envy is the brainchild of Sigmund Freud. He wrote extensively (and in very convoluted terms) about the envy a little girl experiences when she first sees the male penis or rather, as Freud agreed was more likely, a fellow playmate’s or sibling’s penis. According to him, at the first sighting of the male reproductive organs, girls become immediately and acutely aware of the inadequacy of their own organs and long for the oh-so-wonderful penis. If they can’t come to terms with their penis envy and try to deny it, a number of awful conditions can befall them including lesbianism, frigidity, and nymphomania.
There’s so much wrong with these ideas that it’s hard to know where to begin, but I‘ll start with some of the “mechanics.”
If the penis is seen as a metaphor for male privilege than yes, I could see how women longed for one—especially in Freud’s time, when women were barred from access to higher education and most avenues for professional fulfilment. Women were generally expected to be wives and mothers—birth babies, take care of them, cook, and repeat. Any “worldly” ambitions were judged on a sliding scale from foolish to wrong to immoral and despicable.
But women who were dissatisfied with the roles society imposed likely envied men for their professional, political, and social freedoms. Most likely, it had nothing whatsoever to do with the appearance of their external reproductive organs. But, just for the fun of it, let’s take a closer look at those reproductive organs to see what exactly women are supposed to be so envious of.
The male penis is a versatile organ. It increases in size and stiffens when a man is sexually aroused. It excretes urine and semen through the same opening—pretty neat, right? So what about the female counterpart? There are the two sets of labia that come in all shapes and sizes, the vaginal opening, and—jackpot—the clitoris.
The clitoris is the only organ known to science to have evolved purely to give its owner pleasure. The clitoris (which can grow as long as 13cm, though mostly inside the pelvis) has as many nerve endings as the entire penis. Hence, any particular point on the clitoris is more sensitive than any one part of the penis. Moreover, because an erection is not required for a female orgasm (although arousal also generally leads to increased blood flow to the reproductive organs), women can have multiple orgasms within minutes. Penetrative sex is commonly over once a male has had an orgasm. However, as far as the female orgasm is concerned, the sex only gets better once its happened because the nerve endings are in “alert” mode. Some women even ejaculate when they climax (there is also some evidence suggesting that certain women may actually have an “internal” ejaculation).
So, just to recap: according to Freud, women are supposed to want a penis, because it’s more clearly visible between the legs when its owner is naked and possibly because it’s a “penetrative organ.” That’s all nice and dandy, but women have an organ that is there for the sole purpose of their orgasms and they can grow a human being in their uterus—maybe it’s just me (and Gloria Steinem, actually) but I think that’s pretty awesome. Don’t get me wrong—penises are a great thing! I just can see absolutely no reason to want one personally—I mean, they even invented toilets where women can pee while standing, so really, I’m very happy with my lady parts, thank you very much!
Historically, Freud was a disturbed man who was likely molested as a child and could never quite get his personal life together (the guy cheated on his wife with her sister). His ideas about penis envy came from a place of misogyny and unhappiness. I say it’s high time to move past that and simply enjoy ourselves while making sure our partners (whether they’ve got a different set of reproductive organs or not) are enjoying themselves.
Simple as that—no envy required.
—Photo Chris Makarsky/Flickr