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The Yellow Notebook

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As time went on, he began to use mechanical means. (I look at the word mechanical — a man wouldn’t use it.) Paul began to rely on manipulating her externally, on giving Ella clitoral orgasms. Very exciting. Yet there was always a part of her that resented it. Because she felt that the fact he wanted to, was an expression of his instinctive desire not to commit himself to her. She felt that without knowing it or being conscious of it (though perhaps he was conscious of it) he was afraid of the emotion. A vaginal orgasm is emotion and nothing else, felt as emotion and expressed in sensations that are indistinguishable from emotion. The vaginal orgasm is a dissolving in a vague, dark generalized sensation like being swirled in a warm whirlpool. There are several different sorts of clitoral orgasms, and they are more powerful (that is a male word) than the vaginal orgasm. There can be a thousand thrills, sensations, etc., but there is only one real female orgasm and that is when a man, from the whole of his need and desire takes a woman and wants all her response. Everything else is a substitute and a fake, and the most inexperienced woman feels this instinctively. Ella had never experienced clitoral orgasm before Paul, and she told him so, and he was delighted. ‘Well, you are a virgin in something, Ella, at least.’ But when she told him she had never experienced what she insisted on calling ‘a real orgasm’ to anything like the same depth before him, he involuntarily frowned, and remarked: ‘Do you know that there are eminent physiologists who say women have no physical basis for vaginal orgasm?’ ‘Then they don’t know much, do they?’ And so, as time went on, the emphasis shifted in their love-making from the real orgasm to the clitoral orgasm, and there came a point where Ella realized (and quickly refused to think about it) that she was no longer having real orgasms. That was just before the end, when Paul left her. In short, she knew emotionally what the truth was when her mind would not admit it.

It was just before the end, too, that Paul told her something which (since in bed he preferred her having clitoral orgasms) she simply shrugged away as another symptom of this man’s divided personality — since the tone of the story, his way of telling it, contradicted what she in fact was experiencing with him.

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The Yellow Notebook

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  1. Laura Kipnis November 22nd, 2008 at 12:45 pm

    I’m betting that this section–on Ella’s beliefs about the superiority of vaginal orgasms–is going to be controversial!! As these days, such tenets are not exactly in fashion. [Not to plug my own books--while proceeding to do so anyway--I actually wrote about this section in my last book, The Female Thing; interestingly a number of early feminists--Beauvoir, Greer, Lessing--take a similar line on the right way to have sex.] What’s so interesting here is the way that clitoral orgasms (and as we know, whether or not there’s actually a distinction has since been put into question) are seen (at least by Ella) as men retreating from sexual intimacy, whereas real intimacy, a real orgasm, is, in Lessing/Anna’s terms, “when a man, from the whole of his need and desire takes a woman and wants all her response.” Paul, who disputes (and isn’t into) vaginal orgasms is positioned by Ella as using male know-it-allness to tell women what they should want in bed, contra their own experience. While in today’s sexual ideology, Paul would probably be seen as a “good lover”! (And Ella as a victim of male-identification or false sexual consciousness.)

    I’m wary of confusing Ella’s position or Anna’s notebooks with Lessing herself (I believe that would make me guilty of the ‘authorial fallacy’ or something) BUT it really is one of the book’s BIG THEMES that there’s something deeply primal and meaningful about heterosexual fucking and male-female desire, and to retreat from it is to retreat from… a vast Human Truth.

  2. Philippa Levine November 22nd, 2008 at 2:54 pm

    For me, this was one of the moments when I realised I was in an earlier feminist world where the vaginal orgasm still existed!

  3. Naomi Alderman November 22nd, 2008 at 5:09 pm

    Yes, I read this and put a long line down the side of the page and wrote “oh dear god” in the margin. I would be very interested to find out more - especially if you’ve written about this, Laura - about how and why the ideas about vaginal vs clitoral orgasm first arose, and whether Lessing is repeating ideas that were widely believed in the 1950s and 60s or if it’s more unique to her.

    I believe that Freud thought that the vaginal orgasm was a ‘mature’ orgasm, and the clitoral an ‘immature’ one? Is it that this idea continued? Is it a patriarchal idea that a ‘real woman’ ought to be able to climax from penetrative sex alone?

    I find Ella/Anna/Lessing’s (and I agree it’s important not to conflate them, and yet Lessing does at times seem to be inviting us to do so) ideas about sex so alien. This, and the primal desire Anna thinks George can teach her… Well, look, can I just say what I think about it, and then if I’m wildly misinformed then one of the better-informed members of our brilliant group can correct me?

    It seems to me that this is a reaction to a suppression of sexuality. Through the Victorian era and into the 20th century women were told that sexual desire was inappropriate for them, that a woman’s role was to “lie back and think of England”. This doesn’t only mean that they should accept quasi or actual rape, but also that if they found themselves enjoying sex, and not able to keep their minds on “England” they weren’t ‘good women’.

    So, I can see that there was a tremendous liberation in being able to say “here, I am a woman, I experience sexual desire, I desire to be penetrated, I too experience the primal force of heterosexual fucking.” And when a society rediscovers something as vast and wonderful as female sexual desire, I can see that it might seem to be, in that joyful flash, the solution to everything.

    But perhaps in the years since TGN was published, we’ve discovered that unfortunately, while primal, meaningful heterosexual sex is great, it doesn’t actually contain the answer to heterosexual relationships. Actually, trying to reduce a complex relationship to saying “if she’s having a vaginal orgasm, it means that he’s totally engaged with the woman and that she is utterly in love with him” isn’t just oversimplification, it’s plain false.

    At this historical moment it was vital to assert the importance of female desire and female orgasm. Once that was done, we discovered that things weren’t so simple.

    So am I wrong in this reading of history, and TGN’s place in the historical narrative?

    1. Laura Kipnis November 23rd, 2008 at 9:53 am

      I’m wary of the tendency to think that we’ve now arrived at the “truth” of female sexuality (ie the clitoris) which was previously misunderstood and repressed. Historically, it’s more like there’s a continual need to “solve” the problem of female sexuality–each generation invents a different solution, and women experience their sexuality in relation to the prevailing ideologies of sex–as do we. For instance: now we’ve invented the G spot to replace the vaginal orgasm; finding your G spot is regarded as evidence of liberated sexuality whereas believing in vaginal orgasms is retro. Is this the last word on the matter–I tend to doubt it!

      1. Naomi Alderman November 23rd, 2008 at 2:38 pm

        That’s really interesting, Laura. Do you think male sexuality has been through the same reinventions or re-solutions?

        My layperson’s impression of the difference between modern ideas about female sexuality and older ones is that we now accept that there’s more variety in experiences. That women experience their sexuality in many different ways: I’d never tell Lessing that she didn’t really have vaginal orgasms, but I wouldn’t expect her to say that they are the only ‘real’ orgasms. Or do you think that people always understood that sexuality was very individual, and I just don’t have a wide knowledge about the history of human sexuality? (I definitely don’t…)

      2. Philippa Levine November 23rd, 2008 at 4:22 pm

        I don’t see a lot of evidence for a constant reinvention of male sexuality (well, ok, at least not male heterosexuality) historically, to respond to Naomi’s question. And I suspect this is about the distinction (not often articulated) between “sexuality” and “female sexuality,” that is, that male sexuality is normative, natural, healthy, uncomplicated while female sexuality is endlessly a problem. Hence the kinds of reinvention and redefinition Laura’s talking about — after Freud, Koedt’s clitoral orgasm theory, after that, the G-spot, and so on. It seems to me that the “(hetero) male-as-normal” — and thus needing little definition or qualification — is not so different from the ways in which whiteness is “normal” and definitive, that is that race and sex categories sharea lot of the same sets of assumptions about “the natural’.

      3. Laura Kipnis November 23rd, 2008 at 9:56 pm

        This is the world’s vastest subject. There’s a great piece of historical research dealing with some of this, it’s very elucidating: Rachel Maines, The Technology of the Orgasm: “Hysteria,” the Vibrator, and Women’s Sexual Satisfaction (Johns Hopkins, 1999).

      4. Naomi Alderman December 2nd, 2008 at 1:32 pm

        I have just ordered a copy of this fascinating-sounding book!

  4. Nona Willis Aronowitz November 24th, 2008 at 11:30 am

    Exactly. I feel like the competition between a vaginal and clitoral orgasm, in this time period and in the seventies, has been proven by third wave feminism and general sexual liberation to be beside the point. The discovery/popularization of the clitoral orgasm was the gateway to establishing that women deserve sexual pleasure, but then there emerges this weird smugness about orgasms in general. Now that the public pressure is on to have an orgasm, it’s more about whether a woman is sexual enough to be capable of that kind of pleasure.

    About this line:
    “The vaginal orgasm is a dissolving in a vague, dark generalized sensation like being swirled in a warm whirlpool.”
    This is exactly the sort of thing that a die-hard clitoral orgasm fan would once sniff at. “This woman hasn’t had an orgasm, she doesn’t know what she’s missing,”the fan would say. The fact is, Anna, or Ella, or whomever this speaks for (still unclear) prefers this sensation, even if it is rooted in some kind of deep emotion. The fact that she feels that her doubts about a relationship is directly correlated to a lack of an orgasm still rings true today (or at least it’s repeated in magazines like Cosmo and Glamour). The real debate is now whether orgasms are important indicators of character, strength, and a good relationship, whether it’s clitoral, G spot, or whatever. In this way, this passage, oddly, transcends its time.

    1. Naomi Alderman November 25th, 2008 at 5:49 am

      Nona, this comment really made something click in my brain. Especially where you say: “This is exactly the sort of thing that a die-hard clitoral orgasm fan would once sniff at. “This woman hasn’t had an orgasm, she doesn’t know what she’s missing,”the fan would say.”

      You are so right. How quick we are to judge each other’s sexual experiences! “I am doing it *right*. You are doing it *wrong*.” “My orgasms are *real*, your orgasms are *imaginary*.” This constant searching after the *correct* way to experience an orgasm….

      To start off with, I thought: is this because the patriarchy wants women’s orgasms to be like men’s? That is, very clearly centred on a specific body part, a specific motion, with a clear point when you know that “it’s happened”. But then I thought, even though I am no expert, I know that not all men experience their sexuality in such a clearcut way.

      So I begin to wonder whether this drive to “solve” the female orgasm is really part of a different human mode, not necessarily a sexist one but a drive towards *certainty*. That need for certainty can be destructive, or at least unhelpful. I’m reminded of Keats’ concept of Negative Capability where he suggests that the primary talent a poet should cultivate is the ability to remain in uncertainty.

      Mostly human beings don’t like uncertainty, and for fairly obvious reasons. We would like our engineers to be *very certain* that the bridge will not collapse, that the electrical wiring will not explode, that the planes will not fall from the sky. But in emotional, psychological, social, sexual, creative matters the need for certainty can be deadly. We need to be able to live with our questions: “am I in love?”, “what is the meaning of this novel I am writing?”, “why is this friendship so important to me?”, “is this warm whirlpool sensation an orgasm?”. These are questions to which we might never find a very straightforward answer, but it doesn’t mean they’re not worth contemplating or that the experiences they relate to aren’t meaningful.

      I suppose this means I am not a logical positivist ;-).

    2. Laura Kipnis December 2nd, 2008 at 7:35 am

      In Manes’ book that I mentioned above, she cites a 15th or 16th century sex advice manual that describes the location of the clitoris as the seat of female sexual pleasure (female orgasm was long thought to be necessary for conception), she talks about 19th century doctors stimulating women to orgasm clitorally to solve various medical problems–her point is that the clitoris wasn’t discovered by Masters and Johnson or feminists, that it keeps getting lost and rediscovered. It makes any straightforward progress narrative of the type contemporary feminists like to tell, about finally having solved the mysteries of female sexuality, much less convincing. You get the sense instead that there are sexual fashions or prevailing ideologies, and we always experience our bodies in relation to them, as opposed to in some direct or unmediated way.

  5. Naomi Alderman December 1st, 2008 at 4:38 am

    “Ella had never experienced clitoral orgasm before Paul, and she told him so, and he was delighted. ‘Well, you are a virgin in something, Ella, at least.’”

    This also seems to me to reference Ella’s obsession with marrying Paul. He wants her to be virginal with him. Pondering it, it’s made me more sympathetic to Lessing’s point on this page. Clitoral/vaginal orgasm is perhaps not really the point; the thing is that he isn’t willing to accept her own account of her sexuality. He wants to take up that male role of ‘teacher’ [shades of George] and is delighted to find that he can teach her something about her own body. He’s using her orgasms as a way to prove his superiority, or at least to support the ‘proper’ male/female balance in their rather improper relationship.

    1. Naomi Alderman December 1st, 2008 at 4:42 am

      Oh and that ‘at least’ is horrible. Strongly implies that he thinks less of her for not being a virgin. Reminds me of Cy [UK 292 and thereabouts] - things go wrong with his wife on their honeymoon. Does she detect that he too thinks less of a woman once she’s no longer a virgin?

  6. Lenelle Moïse December 19th, 2008 at 7:49 pm

    Clitoral, vaginal–why not go GLOBAL? :