Oct 26, 2016
What It Means to Live a Clitoral Life: An Interview with Elizabeth Hall
Considering that 51% of the population has one, it’s surprising that we don’t have more books about the clitoris. Those you can find on Amazon tend to be written by and for cisgender hetero men who apparently hesitate to go directly to the source: even when it is written about, the clitoris is rarely centered. Does size alone account for the neglect of the deceptively small organ?
Intrigued by the clit’s rare appearance in literature and lore, as well as the pronouncements of self-appointed male experts like American cultural critic Gershon Legman—who wrote a 1940 guidebook to cunnilingus and was once heard to declare, “I have devoted my life to the clitoris”—Elizabeth Hall set out to explore just about everything that’s been written about the clit. I Have Devoted My Life to the Clitoris (hat tip to Legman’s boast) is at once far-ranging history and passionate meditation. Presenting fragments of information from her research, Hall sets out the claims and obfuscations surrounding the clit. She interrogates history, sexology, and plastic surgery alike, and casts a skeptic’s eye on the stubborn myths of science. Into her gorgeous mosaic, she also brings insights from artists, anatomists, hyenas, and feminist icons like Kathy Acker and Holly Hughes as well as her own personal observations about the clitoris and being a female body in the world.
“Suppose I were to say I wanted to chart this pleasure,” she writes in the opening chapter, “grab hold of its hemline, and follow it slack-jawed, not to better understand it, but to linger, a little longer, within it.”
Hall will read and chat clit stories at Brooklyn’s Molasses Books on October 27 at 8 pm. I reached her at her home in Los Angeles to talk about how the book took shape, how it changed her, and the need to recognize value in all bodies.
Where did the impetus for a book on the clit come from?
I’d been a collector of clit quotes for years. Whenever I’d see something, I’d save it, like the title of my book. Then when I was in grad school, I was reading books about theory and things like embodiment, and I started to understand why I had been so interested and naturally seeking these themes out. So I decided I’d collect a lot of these ideas about the clit and see where that takes me.
I’ve also always been attracted to people who write about sexuality. A lot of it I probably didn’t get the first time I read it. Like in Nabokov, in Ada or Ardor he has all these great clit references. The first time you read it, you probably don’t realize but then if you go back using the clit as a lens, you find that it’s there.
In the book you quote the historian and sexologist Thomas Laqueur’s book Making Sex, where he says, “More words have been shed, I suspect, about the clitoris, than about any other organ.” How true did you find that to be?
There’s a myth that there’s so much about the clit out there, that it’s a story people already know. Even now, you can see people who work on the clit calling themselves a “clit pioneer” or a “pioneer of clitoral art.” This trend of glorious rediscovery is still very much with us. It’s like a clitoral joke through history that people are constantly trying to rediscover it and spread the news about it.
So it has to be rediscovered because it’s being censored, or so often being erased?
[The issue of] censorship led me to indict both medical science and what we even consider knowledge. There are basic things about the body that people have known in their own bodies, through their own experience—yet official doctrines tell us they’re incorrect. I found that again and again in science, whether it was the discussion of female hyenas and their hormones or intersex infants: you see this real disconnect between accepted narratives about the body and what people’s own experiences with their bodies tell them. So it’s exciting that there is a trend in nonfiction and in scholarship to use the body as a focus and as the way to explore through the world.
The book is composed of short fragments, small bits of dispensed information, rounded up as bullet points under certain themes and sculpted into chapters. Why did you choose this form?
My background was definitely not in essay writing. I wrote a lot of fiction, a lot of short prose pieces. The vignette style was something I employed a lot. Like a lot of people, I grew up writing on the Internet. I was always writing towards vignettes or chunks of text with a more immediate feel. I used a lot of associative logic. So applying the technique to nonfiction was just natural, with the history of the clitoris always written as a list mainly using juxtaposition to create its logic. Originally, I just wanted the reader to totally find their own way and navigate through it. Then I realized that a little bit more of a strong authorial hand was needed in the list. So it evolved to be more streamlined as opposed to straight-up collage.
I also wanted the structure of the text to resemble the orgasmic pattern: little nuggets of texts leading to swells, and retaining the joy of discovery—both the joy of people always rediscovering it, but also, sexual joy is so much a part of discovery of the new.
The book brings together fields like science, cultural history, and classical literature, with your own experience, your own voice. Do you think of the book as belonging to a combination of genres?
I’m a genre-promiscuous person. I don’t know that I conceived of it as a memoir, per se, which is often how it is described. It’s a memoir of my intellectual journey more than it is of daily life—what I was reading and thinking about at that point. I think of it as a long, unyielding essay even more than straight nonfiction because it is certainly not attempting to be journalistic in its approach.
As I was reading, I found myself becoming a little bit indignant at some of the shade thrown at the clitoris, like when Freud compares it to a pile of “pine shavings.” What the actual fuck. Did you find yourself getting pissed off a lot during the research?
I definitely got pretty angry. Actually, there were a lot of things that I cut from the book—I had to make that choice, because there is so much in Freud and others where they go on about large clits and that kind of thing. It gets really absurd. This was also why I wanted to talk back to the text. That’s the glory of the writer, that you get in your little asides. Freud is one of those people who’s deeply problematic, but it’s fun to poke a little fun at him.
There’s something of a surge in writing about the body, the primacy of the body of knowing and experiencing. Yet women’s sexuality and pleasure, even in that context, seems so under-explored. Why do we still have trouble seeing it?
We see it and we don’t see it. With the saturation of porn culture, you don’t meet many people who are young who don’t know about the clit. People stream this stuff from such a young age. Yet the scripts have not necessarily changed when it comes to heterosexual couples actually having sex. That’s something that Shere Hite wrote about in the 1970s in the Hite Report—that the knowledge of the ease of the female orgasm, where it is centered, how it happens, was not translating to actual changes in sex. I think that in terms of sex—beyond just knowing about the clit—is just that it requires really intense focus, and to be present. So it’s not that people don’t know about it, but maybe we haven’t really, fully explored the real implications of what it means to live a clitoral life.
The form of the book is deceptively casual—the bullet points—but it is really exact— everything is placed precisely so—and as such it creates a effect both lyrical and impassioned. What books or writers had an influence on the writing itself?
One of the writers I’m most influenced by stylistically is Renata Adler. I’ve read her novel Speedboat over and over. She uses vignettes and a lot of the same kinds of juxtaposition. I’m also really influenced by people who are genre-promiscuous, like Violette Leduc. The idea of almost fictionalized memoir or really lush kind of memoir that she writes has always interested me, and how she shows that you don’t have to have a story of progress or redemption. That’s something that’s in Anaïs Nin’s work too, that’s really attractive to me. I didn’t want the book to have any kind of resolution or arc that was really tidy, like, “I’ve discovered this and now everything’s great.”
The essays I love the best tend to lead somewhere unexpected, to questions beyond or beneath the questions that inspired them. Did you find this happening over the course of writing the book?
Definitely. I started by thinking, Oh, it would be really cool to write a book about the clit because I feel like, in terms of sexuality, it’s not really at the forefront of most heterosexual relationships. But the more I wrote, the more the book became about me as a writer and my own issues, conflicts I had between scholarship and being a writer, and feeling at home as someone who comes from a really non-traditional academic background. Nonfiction is a place where you have to assert yourself, somewhere you have to say something.
One crucial moment in the book for me is your comment about the difference between the way you saw your body and how others saw your body—how when you were younger you weren’t aware of this, but even when you were, at first you went on believing that it didn’t really matter.
Yeah, I was a very “Fuck you” person. When I’d come across sexism, I’d see it as a “you” issue. I felt that I how I perceived my body was really healthy, and that it was this vehicle of pleasure for me. Then you go out into the world and other people may see you as highly sexualized, or they see you as totally meaningless because they don’t want to sexualize you, or all of the myriad ways that women’s bodies are treated—it was something that never interested me at the time because I thought, “That’s them. I can do what I want. That’s just culture. Whatever.”
But as you think about it longer, you realize that people actually do see your body differently and that has consequences in real time. There’s a tendency to believe you can control the way other people perceive you. It’s kind of a shock when you learn that you can’t actually control that, and that the ways people perceive feminine bodies can be really pernicious.
As someone who already had very sex-positive views, how did working on the book affect you?
For me, sex has just always been fascinating. It’s never been boring to discuss the minutiae of fucking, of desire, and so much of writing the book was talking back to the idea that enough has been said about the topic because although people do write about it, and although we all know things about the clit, you can read all that and still not ever touch upon the things that truly change the way you might think about your body.
I went in thinking, “I already know a lot about the clit. I’m already singing its praises all the time.” But I learned a tremendous amount about how much I don’t know about my own self in the world. I think as someone who’s so self-assured, that’s a really big realization to make, that’s really useful. That kind of relentless, self-interrogation is something that has always brought me to books.
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