Over at New APPS, Catarina links to and comments on a New Scientist article about fMRIs and female sexuality. When my comment grew to be so unwieldy (sigh), I decided to post it over here instead…

Mmm, interesting post – thanks Catarina! And Mark, you’re entirely right… but I think this point has more to say in this context…

Whilst I understand and also reject the Freudian model of understanding ‘mature’ female sexual pleasure (a thesis shocking in its persistent) as lying in being a ‘lodging place for the penis’ (as Irigaray puts it), I’m also hesitant about suggesting that female sexual pleasure arises primarily from the clitoris and that this is unsurprising because it is the homologue with the penis. Again this seems to centre a very particular masculine imagining of sexual pleasure (one, I might add, not necessarily experienced by all men), with feminine versions then imagined as a mirror image. I understand not wanting to buy into a Freudian model, but as Irigaray points out, challenging Freud lies not just in saying ‘my sex is not nothing’, nor ‘my sex is one’, but in elaborating a feminine experience of multiple sites of pleasure, sites which are both distinct and unable to be fully distinguished. The acknowledgement that nipples might also activate ‘genital regions’ (it wasn’t clear to me whether this meant the apparently clearly distinct vaginal or clitoral areas) seems to me to appeal interestingly to such ideas.

Part of the reason I find Irigaray’s focus on the multiple interesting is because it also helps do justice to the voices of other women, who are often treated as if they – like all those immature women out there failing to have vaginal orgasms! – must be, as Mark put it in comments on Catarina’s post, lying. One example is those women who have experienced some form of genital cutting, as Catarina alludes to in the post linked to above. There are a thousand different elements to the debate about female genital cutting, but voices claiming sexual pleasure, like those of the women in this study,  are often dismissed (see also Njambi’s assessment of the how and why these debates often play out this way). There are lots of ways of considering how sexual pleasure can occur in these situations – and the authors focus on the way that, as Catarina pointed out, clitoral tissue is ‘iceberg-like’, spread far further below the surface than most acknowledge. This is legitimate and even expected from scientific types, but it is also probably worth analysing how the experience of erogenousness might be modified by changes to the body.  ( I’ll note that ‘activation’ in the fMRI linked to above can’t really, as far as I understand, be equated with ‘being turned on’ except through the subjective experience of the individual woman – the ones whose accounts, it would seem, may not be able to be fully trusted unlike the Truthiness of the colourful scans – but this is an ongoing issue with fMRI studies, as far as I can tell).

But I also think that the experiences of those with spinal cord injuries have something to contribute here. There’s some evidence [pdf] that orgasmic stimulation does not necessarily, in all cases, require direct contact with the genitals: other parts of the body, such as the skin above the site of spinal cord injury may become intensely erogenous, even to the point of producing orgasm; and in certain cases, women can experience ‘thought orgasms’ with no physical stimulation whatever. Such orgasms are only sometimes experienced as ‘connected’ to genitalia (in much the same way as the nipple example above, I think?) but the fMRI, despite the initial dubiousness of the neuroscientists – because let’s not just actually believe people when they tell you what they experience, amirite? – demonstrates very few differences between those experiencing orgasm through direct vaginal/clitoral contact (they squoosh these two in together, which is clearly a problem) and those having ‘thought-orgasms’.

The point of this is that many of those theorising accounts of sexuality and eroticism which don’t match ‘common sense’ – such as those of BDSM practitioners, trans people and people with spinal cord injury – via contemporary theories of the body talk about ‘remapping’ erogenous zones.  Often, though not always, they’re building on Foucault’s argument about pleasure in relation to sadomasochism, which que(e)ries the ‘virilisation’ of pleasure, that is, questioning the account of sexuality not just the focussed on the genitals, although this is part of it, but focussed on the penis-king. In this sense, Foucault’s account shares some terrain with Irigaray’s, undermining Freud’s focus on the penis and its speculuum-sheath, but also helping to make eroticism and pleasure flexible and multiple, that is, understanding pleasure as capable of modification. He particularly discusses fisting and the role/power-play aspects of sadomasochism, but his point is really: there are pleasures to be produced that exceed heteronormative common sense.

As far as I can see, the accounts offered by these studies of fMRI (well, and their popular representations, which are probably the real site of the problem) would do well to maintain a level of complexity in negotiating with the Truthiness of their studies. Not only do they need to be circumspect in the claims they make about the relationship between the brain and experience (the key difficulty with this kind of neuroscience, I think) but they also need to be more thoroughly aware of the specific embodiment of sexuality of those they are ‘testing,’ and the role that this is playing in a supposedly generalisable ‘neuroscience of sexuality’ (and – sigh – we’re back to Ogg and Gaddam territory). In taking a particular cohort as potentially universalisable, not only are alternative experiences of sexuality excluded or rendered derivative or ‘unnatural’, but the contingency of those dominant, ‘common-sense’-compatible experiences of sexuality are obscured – for example, perhaps the connection between the activation of nipples and genitals is related to the sexualisation of breasts and genitals in contemporary Western culture; and perhaps the continued activation of ‘genital’ areas of the brain in people with SCIs says more about the lingering effects of genitocentric sexuality than about a necessary nerve connection to the genitals (the Vagus nerve really came into its own in the Komisaruk and Whipple paper!) . And, as Foucault seemed profoundly concerned to elaborate, the denial of this contingency, when it becomes truth, also works to deny everyone the proliferating possiblities of pleasures (and the political challenge that that brings – but that’s another chapter in this story, to be told another day).