As an occasional feature on TELOSscope, we highlight a past Telos article whose critical insights continue to illuminate our thinking and challenge our assumptions. Today, Carlos Kong looks at Renata Schlesier’s “On the Alleged Demise of Vaginal Sexuality: A Mournful Account of the Relationship between Psychoanalysis and Feminism” from Telos 59 (Spring 1984).
Renata Schlesier’s “On the Alleged Demise of Vaginal Sexuality: A Mournful Account of the Relationship between Psychoanalysis and Feminism,” from Telos 59 (Spring 1984), explores the common repressions that underscore the interconnected intellectual traditions of psychoanalysis and feminism. Schlesier delineates the limitations of both Freudian theories of sexuality and their feminist responses by emphasizing the problematic sociopolitical entanglement of female morphology and sexual possibility. Focusing specifically on debates regarding on the locus of the female orgasm, Schlesier argues that the Freudian “myth” of the vaginal orgasm and the dialectically opposed clitoral orgasm of feminist theory reflect a common ideological self-mutilation of female sexuality. Through close readings and critiques of Freud and feminist inquiry, Schlesier advocates a redefinition of female erogeneity, aiming to mobilize a reorganization of gender relations and their embodied conditions of pleasure and politics.
Schlesier’s evaluation, oriented directly at the fruitful, albeit controversial, juncture of psychoanalysis and feminism, challenges conventional methodological alliances in intellectual history. Critical of both psychoanalysis’s underlying misogyny as well as feminism’s trenchant dismissal of Freudian theory, Schlesier invokes the insights of feminist psychoanalyst Juliet Mitchell as a point of departure: “If we are interested in understanding and challenging the oppression of women, we cannot afford to neglect it.” Following Mitchell’s mobilization of psychoanalytic discourses as a means for theorizing women’s liberation, Schlesier rereads Freudian misogyny and its feminist criticisms to advocate for the theoretical specificity of sexual practices, further maintaining that feminist models exterior to Freudian notions of sexuality all fail to evade hermeneutic idealism.
Schlesier locates the patriarchal reasoning of psychoanalytic theory in Freud’s explanation of female sexuality as an expression of penis envy, morphological and psychic castration, and their consequential modes of repressions. Freud specifically defines the clitoris, discursively framed as a stunted penis, as “‘inferior’ without any ambiguity,” as well as the vagina as the “wound of castration,” openly desexualizing femininity and its morphological origins. However, Schlesier relates Freud’s model of female sexuality to a broader feminist project by emphasizing Freud’s articulation of femininity as a construct of repressions beyond his misogynistic lexicon. Schlesier states, “This does not mean that we must embrace the ‘castration model’ of femininity as the central ‘reference-myth’ of the Freudian concept of femininity. Still: The desexualization and mystification of the Freudian interpretation of femininity must be taken seriously. Freud did not invent the immanent negations, but brought to light their concrete consequences for female sexual development.” Thus, Schlesier acknowledges the dissonance between Freudian models and feminist politics of liberation, yet conveys the necessity of their co-articulation to unravel the psychic and social repressions that intersect both methodologies of theory and praxis.
The incompatibility, or the “mournful account,” of psychoanalysis and feminism emerges through the complexities and misunderstandings of the female orgasm and the fundamental possibilities of female pleasure. While Freud suggests that the vagina can function as a mature zone of “excitation” and “fore-pleasure,” feminist misreadings of Freud extract and formulate the notion of a distinct vaginal orgasm, a “myth” that Schlesier purports to be absent from any of Freud’s writings. In response to the burden of an uncritically accepted, unattainable vaginal orgasm, feminist critics of Freud frequently uphold the female orgasm as exclusively clitoral, readily dismissing the vagina as the locus of institutionalized inequalities—of birth, the family, maternity, and capital. However, Schlesier posits feminism’s rejection of vaginal sexuality as a gesture of sexual diminution and feminine ideological self-mutilation, not unlike what feminism initially endeavored to reject in Freudian discourses. Ultimately, Schlesier explicates the dialectical complexity of morphology and sexuality and its necessary re-theorization, underscoring a critique of the negativity and repression that produces female sexuality and foregrounds its conceptualization in both Freudian and feminist theory.
Schlesier provides a striking analysis of the ongoing developments in the history of psychoanalysis and feminism throughout the twentieth century, elucidating the continuous relativizing throughout psychoanalytic and feminist projects that fundamentally participates in and reproduces the inevitable self-repression inherent to ventures of behavioral, social, and political emancipation. Schlesier concludes that feminism must redefine erogeneity beyond an isolated orgasm at the vagina or clitoris to account for the various, multifaceted biological and psychical origins of pleasure. Additionally, Schlesier asserts that psychoanalysis and feminism must re-theorize the vagina beyond desexualization: “The development of vaginal erogeneity is an instinctual quality that goes beyond the limits of childhood. A real advancement beyond childhood, however, would mean a condition between the sexes that is not determined by violence and fear.” Thus, Schlesier’s invocation to the redefinition and discovery of erogeneity, particularly vaginal, can counterhegemonically activate anti-sexist discourses beyond the limitations of female self-repression in the struggle towards liberation.
Schlesier’s article reflects the milieu of its publication, yet it maintains relevance amid current intersectional debates in critical theory. The juncture of psychoanalysis and feminism accrued a political practice amid the Women’s Liberation movement of the late 1960s and 70s, as women sought to formulate emancipatory programs from their psychic and social repression that psychoanalysis successfully elucidated. To avid readers of contemporary feminist discourses, Schlesier’s analysis might seem dated. Later anti-essentalist, deconstructive, and performative approaches to feminism ultimately theorized a complete dissociation of sex, gender, and sexuality, thus implicating further sexual complexities beyond Schlesier’s morphological emphasis. However, Schlesier’s article, written retrospectively at the fraught intellectual advancement of psychoanalysis and feminism, realizes the importance of rereading and revising theoretical notions purported to be given. As psychoanalysis and feminism, among other interconnected methodologies, are still used, taught, and perhaps are driven toward points of stasis and exhaustion, careful examination, like that of Schlesier’s project, remains of paramount importance to critically re-articulating theories and formulating meaningful applications in social praxis.
1. Juliet Mitchell, Psychoanalysis and Feminism (1974, X).