Cris Mazza is the author of seventeen books, including Various Men Who Knew Us As Girls, Waterbaby, Trickle-Down Timeline, and Is It Sexual Harassment Yet? Her first novel, How to Leave a Country, won the PENN/Nelson Algren Award. She is a professor in the Program for Writers at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She will be a guest-lecturer this fall at The Johns Hopkins University and will be the featured reader for Eckleburg's Rue de Fleurus Salon held November 1st at Johns Hopkins, Homewood Campus. The below excerpted discussion began in March of 2013 and took place over several months.
Rae Bryant: "The great question that has never been answered, and which I have not yet been able to answer, despite my thirty years of research into the feminine soul, is 'What does a woman want?'" Freud believed the female orgasm generated from inside the vagina, the surest and/or only way toward orgasm, a man's penis inside the vagina. But of course! How else could a woman enjoy sex? Why else would a woman have sex? And we have magical spermicide don't you know? And still this penis dogma exists. Do we give our younger women leave to be sexually explorative and unencumbered at a younger age? If you had been unencumbered at a younger age, would you have escaped anorgasmia and a Something Wrong with Her experience?
Cris Mazza: 1973 brought us Fear of Flying, and it's not the zipless-fuck that was significant, but the sexually & verbally frank, voracious woman searching for the perfect fulfillment that had been promised "growing up female in America." The young woman character contorted herself with a mirror in the bathroom to inspect her genitals, gave up necking and petting at 14 for masturbating herself to orgasm, recognized she'd been fed definitions of female sexuality from male writers like Lawrence who suggested that all women worshiped "the Phallos," and was only afraid of sex for the power that lust had over her. OK, so that was a big splash in '73, even though I wasn't aware of it until around '77 when I was in college. I'm not sure it immediately started affecting girls and how they viewed their bodies and sex, but it was part of a new frankness from women (not just about women) involving the female body, female sexuality, female orgasm, masturbation ... all the stuff Freud got so wrong. (The fact that Jong put her character in the midst of a congress of psychological analysts in Vienna to celebrate the opening of Freud museum and the "welcoming back" of analysts to Vienna decades after being banned by the Third Reich, has the flagrant favor of irony.) But add to this atmosphere 1973's Our Bodies, Ourselves, completely written by women, using personal vignettes from contributors, and covering some previously taboo subjects. And then in 1974 Betty Dodson's Sex for One (on the benefits of female masturbation) and her movement of group workshops for women to teach them about their bodies and specifically masturbation which, legendarily, had them receiving instruction while seated in a circle, naked, with mirrors. As mentioned in Something Wrong With Her, I knew someone who went to one of these sessions, but then I researched it while writing the book to connect it to Betty Dodson, who has continued her work in this area, most recently coming back into feminist conversation when she criticized The Vagina Monologues for distorting the nature of her workshops, "Betty"s Response to the Vagina Monologues"
I didn't have Sex for One or Our Bodies Ourselves. Even if I had heard of the former, the fear to own books like those endured because I still lived with my parents, in my girlhood bedroom, so enough of an atmosphere of restriction must have developed there that I was inhibited (or scared) to openly own and read them at home. (Fear of Flying was a novel that no one could tell anything about from the cover.) But... I did know the word clitoris. I did travel Isadora Wing's journey more than once, as well as the sequel novel (not nearly as good) How to Save Your Own Life. (The sequels yet-to-come were, frankly, very far below expectations.) I almost tore apart Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask (1969) which -- written by a man -- I don't consider part of the Our Bodies Ourselves / Betty Dodson movement. And it did not tell me "everything" I felt I needed to know. The Woody Allen movie of the same name is a good example of the kinds of things the book did put out into the mainstream, but nothing that answered my anxieties, which, incidentally, were not "how do I learn to orgasm" (it likely would not have answered that either). I should look at that book again now and see how it handles the issue of female orgasm, considering it was released in 1969, and it wasn't until the 1990s that clitoral anatomy was accurately depictured in medical textbooks.
Back to your question: if I had fully partaken of what was actually available in terms of more open, available, and non-Freudian information about female sexuality, would I have known a different outcome in my personal sexual life? Maybe. But I actually think there was too much anxiety already in me to have gotten me to attend a Dodson workshop. The level of fear, really, was to the point of being aberrant.
This was originally published at The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review.