We know that at the end of his life Freud was left with at least one unresolved enigma, that of female sexuality: I do not know what a woman wants, he said. Having unraveled the sexual component underlying hysteria, having brought to light infantile sexuality, Freud stumbled over Dora’s desire when she wanted Mrs K and not her husband, as might have been expected. On the other hand, we cannot say that the time was favorable for women to talk about their desire.
We have evidence of this from a writer who was a friend of Freud, Stefan Zweig, who gave us an extraordinary tableau of the period in his beautiful book The World of Yesterday.
If today’s women sometimes feel obliged to fake an orgasm, in order not to disappoint their partners, then under the reign of Queen Victoria, whose moral spirit inspired Europe, women did their best to hide their orgasm, if they happened to have one, especially in legal coitus with their husbands.
At that time, according to Zweig, not only was children’s sexuality ignored, but female sexuality was also completely unrecognized. Not only was a woman herself not supposed to manifest expressions of sexuality, but a woman was considered to have access to sexual desire only through two routes: the legal route of marriage, and the illegal route, through corruption. If female desire was not awakened by the life-giving fire of male desire, the underlying assumption was that it simply did not exist.
On the other hand, it does not stop with yesterday’s world, which for Zweig coincides with that of the Belle Epoque.
An esteemed psychiatrist such as Paul Julius Moebius published a book – whose publication date, ironically enough, coincided with that of The Interpretation of Dreams– with the title: The Mental Inferiority of Women. It sounds like an ironic title, doesn’t it, made to create a textual diversion à la Umberto Eco. But no, it is a very serious title, where you can read, among other things, wonderful pearls like this: “Instinct makes woman similar to beasts, always dependent on extrinsic influences, self-confident and gay. In her, there is the unique force of instinct, which makes her truly admirable and attractive. Many feminine characteristics are connected with this resemblance to the beasts: above all, the lack of her own judgement” Do these seem arbitrary judgements to you? No, not at all. Moebius is a convinced positivist and brings evidence, not like when you quote arbitrarily adding: “Studies say that…” He goes to the concrete, that is to say to the brain: “It remains completely demonstrated that in women portions of the brain are less developed than in men, portions of the utmost importance for psychic life, such as the circumvolutions of the frontal and temporal lobe, and this difference exists from birth. L. W. Von Bischoff, professor of anatomy in Munich, has weighed 559 male brains and 347 female brains (sublime virtues of quantification, but who knows why they found more male brains than female) with the result of an average of 1,362 grams for the male brain and 1,219 for the female. What other deduction can be drawn from this than the one that gives Moebius’ book its title?
Going into the twentieth century things did not immediately improve. But let’s consider Betty Friedan’s book The Feminine Mystique (also quoted by Lacan). The feminine mystique critiqued by Friedan is the one that, in 1950s America, presented woman as satisfied with making children, raising them, cleaning the house and waiting for her husband after making him dinner. Part of the success of psychoanalysis in 1950s America is fueled by these women who eventually had to talk to someone!
But after the 1950s came the 1960s and 1970s, the years of the sexual revolution, and women were no longer silenced in their orgasms or locked in the house to do the chores. Gradually the landscape is transformed. Today we have a significant body of literature by women who not only talk about their sexuality, but who have gone through extreme experiences and tell us about them without inhibition.
In order to unravel female desire, Lacan listened to the mystics, admired the marble orgasm of Bernini’s Saint Theresa. Today the authors tell us about orgasms that are no longer imprisoned in stone, and that are much less mystical and much more carnal.
As a child, Emma Becker was intrigued by the idea of prostitution. After an adolescence inspired by her erotic curiosity about men – a curiosity she generously satisfies and tells us about in her first book, Monsieur– at the age of twenty-five she went to live in Berlin, where prostitution is legal. She wants to write a book somewhere between journalism and literature, and does not want to play the part of an anthropologist, an outside observer. So she spends a couple of years working in a classy brothel, which gives the title to her second book: La maison. It is an extraordinary survey of female desire, “a microscopic observation of my sex, of what it means to be a woman and nothing else, and to be paid for it.”
If Emma Becker’s exploration is casual and joyful, Nelly Arcan’s is tense and dramatic. To pay for her university studies she works as an escort, but her book bears the more straightforward title of Putain, because, she says, it is actually the same job. In the meantime, Nelly Arcan is undergoing an analysis with an analyst with whom she cannot talk much. So she writes, and her texts have real literary value. It is her analyst who urges her to publish them.
Virginie Despentes, a radical feminist and “girlfriend” of Paul Preciado, whom we met during the Journées in Paris, 2019, explores the “limitless” feminine. Her first book, Baise-moi, is a sort of extreme Thelma and Louise, sparing nothing in the way of eroticism, drugs and death.
Then there is Grisélidis Réal, standard-bearer for prostitutes’ rights, with the slogan “Prostitution is a revolutionary act,” and is, she says, an art, a humanism, a science. Her book, Black Is a Colour, refers to the color of the skin of her favorite lovers.
I would say that now is the time for us, alongside reading the mystics, to approach the books of these women who did not skimp on exploring and unambiguously recounting the meanderings of their desire, and we certainly have at our disposal richer and more explicit material than Freud had. It is true that even at that time there were intelligent, free and easygoing women in sexual life, such as his friend and pupil Lou Salomé, but at that time she was rather the exception that stood out against the background of a deafening silence.