Rereading de Beauvoir 18: Sexual Initiation

Volume II: Lived Experience. Part One. Chapter 3. Sexual Initiation. (354-428)

[This is part of a chapter by chapter re-reading of Simone de Beauvoir’s “The Second Sex”. You can find all the posts here.]

So apparently “all psychiatrists agree” on the extreme importance a woman’s “erotic beginnings” have for her: “their repercussions will be felt for the rest of her life”.

A perhaps predictable illustration: Georgia O'Keeffe's "Blue Flowers"

A perhaps predictable illustration: Georgia O’Keeffe’s “Blue Flowers”

What’s more, to SdB, the male’s passage from childhood sexuality to maturity is “relatively simple” (compared with ours). For him, erotic pleasure is objectified, “with penis, hands, mouth, with his whole body, the man reaches out to his partner but he remains at the heart of this activity, as the subject generally does before the objects” (394).

And, how depressing, but you just knew this was coming: “Woman’s eroticism is far more complex and reflects the complexity of her situation” (395). Why do we have to always be so much more complicated? What’s more, it feels like a lot of this is coming close to the kind of essentialism the Existentialists disavow, that is, that something ‘essential’ about her character or being flows from the fact that the female is penetrated and the male penetrates. We shall see. (Be warned, I may be forced at some point, though not in this post, into a wee digression to take in Andrea Dworkin’s classic, Intercourse…)

Because I’m not sure what SdB means by the following quote, which comes in the context of a discussion of the “opposition of two organs: the clitoris and the vagina”, where the former has nothing whatsoever to do with procreation:

“The woman is penetrated and impregnated through the vagina; it becomes an erotic centre uniquely through the intervention of the male, and this always constitutes a kind of rape.” (395)

See what I mean about the (possible) relevance of Dworkin. Anyway, there’s a bit of a discussion about whether there are any erotic zones in the vagina. SdB seems to reject this idea, but does say that “it is beyond doubt that vaginal pleasure exists” and in a footnote she lists the objects that physicians have found in vaginas or bladders, and surgically removed: “pencils, pieces of sealing wax, hairpins, spools, bone hairpins, curling irons, knitting and sewing needles, needle cases, compasses, crystal stoppers, candles, corks, goblets, forks, toothpicks, tooth brushes, pomade jars…hens eggs, etc.” (fn396). Quite a big part of that list is a whole lot like the lists of items women use to try to self-induce abortion, so who’s to say they were in there for erotic pleasure?!

Again with the complexity: “What is certain is that the vaginal reaction is very complex and can be qualified as psycho-physiological because it not only concerns the entire nervous system but also depends on the whole situation lived by the subject”. (396)

And, again, starting to feel more than a little essentialist: as in, this female sexual complexity is built-in, inescapable, and inevitable part of being the penetratee rather than the penetrator, or as she puts it later, the polluted vs the polluter. (398) Though with the ‘pollution’ metaphor, whether she is polluting him or he is polluting her is not always clear.

He needs to be erect to have intercourse, she can be penetrated at any time, and somehow this leads SdB to say that “Coitus cannot take place without male consent….” But that’s not true, either in terms of male erections always being consensual or anal rape. Am I being too picky?

Double Standards

That said, of course the double standards around female and male sexuality are legion. Books have been written about them, and even then the surface has barely been scratched. SdB begins to traverse some of these in discussing the differing attitudes to chastity, sexual desires, ‘virtue’ and ‘honour’, the power relations inside ‘marriage’, how all of this has yet more complexities/double standards/hypocrisies/horrors when sexism is mixed in with racism (black men and white women; white men and black women, etc.)

I find myself a bit lost in some of SdB’s account of female erotic response or desire or activity or whatever it is, which obviously means I personally don’t relate to much, if any, of it. Is it because I never had any of that ‘must remain a virgin until marriage’ pressure, or guilt (well, not guilt about that anyway), since SdB is writing of such a different time and place. I do remember being called “frigid” by someone whom I shall not name who is now professor of history at an NZ university, and this simply because I didn’t want to sleep with him. Wanker, as we used to say. As for “both anatomy and customs confer the role of initiator on the man” (402), that may have been so in 1940s France, but it didn’t strike me as so in late 20th Century New Zealand, and perhaps even less so now. (Or, again, is that just me?) So, yes, all this discussion of female ‘frigidity’, a term surely coined/used by men, is dubious. And depressing. I’m not enjoying this chapter at all. More shades of Dworkin: “however deferential and courteous a man might be, the first penetration is always a violation”. (406)

Misogyny, or Just Ignorance?

So many of the awful early sexual experiences recounted here seem to be the result of ignorance rather than global misogyny (which isn’t to say women being kept ignorant isn’t a result of said misogyny!)…happening to girls who had no understanding of reproduction, development, sex etc. terrified by this unknown and unexpected event. Not to mention that we no longer have to put up with “the repugnance of the douche bag, the beaker and the bidet” which SdB says “is one of the frequent causes of feminine frigidity” (410). What is an actual douche bag anyway? And, oh lord, what ‘ads’ will Google feed me now that I’ve searched for images of “douche bag”? Check it out:



It looks like a modified hot water bottle, aka hottie. And, if I had to use that on myself after sex, I’d have to agree with SdB that douche bags (of both the implement and human variety) can cause ‘frigidity’. Indeed, she does acknowledge that better contraception is changing the equation. But there follows this brief moment of optimism a series of case studies, none of them particularly uplifting: depressions, phobias, insanities…nasty predators all grabby and gropey and rapey. It certainly is relaxing being of a certain age, and no longer feeling quite so much like prey, I must say.

SdB eventually moves on from all this sexual/erotic misery to offer up the possibility of positive sexual relations. (e.g. p. 415) Hurrah! But then it’s gone again. Booh! Back to what seem to be a whole lot more generalizations and claims about what women feel and why they feel it, some of which seems to be based on Wilhelm Stekel’s 1943 book Frigidity in Women, though The Kinsey Report is another source, as are some of the books and writers she previously analysed in Chapter 2 of “Myths”, and novels and autobiographical accounts by women.

“…barely 4 percent of women experience pleasure at the first coitus…” (417)

“Woman’s body is singularly ‘hysterical’ in that is often no distance between conscious facts and their organic expression…” (417)

“Woman will accept pleasure more easily if it seems to flow naturally from man’s own pleasure…” (417)

“Resentment is the most common form of feminine frigidity” (418)

“… her body does not project any clear conclusion of the love act: and thus for her coitus is never fully completed: it does not include any finality.” (421)

“…it is true that the woman’s sexual role is largely passive.” (524)

I glazed over after a while and didn’t try particularly hard to understand and make sense of all the behaviours and their motivations, claims and counterclaims, described here, partly because they seem so anecdotal and, thus, unprofitable in a philosophical or theoretical sense.

And, in the end, what is this all about? It seems to be about the possibility of overcoming “the asymmetry of male and female eroticism” which SdB says “creates insoluble problems as long as there is a battle of the sexes”. (426) The answer lies in the man coveting her in flesh while also still recognizing her as a free subject, because as soon as she becomes an object, she becomes an ‘essential’ object — essential in the sense of having that rigid ‘given’ essence referred to in previous posts, not as in being necessary.

Her solution to the ‘asymmetry’ will be familiar to anyone aware of the campaigning around ‘consent’ being waged by feminists and others today. It all sounds pretty common sense.

But, what comes next…OMFG Simone, really? (And I was reminded yet again when reading this of her unhealthy obsession with aging.):

“Full sexual blossoming in woman arrives rather late: she reaches her erotic peak at about thirty-five. Unfortunately, if she is married, her husband is too used to her frigidity; she can still seduce new lovers, but she is beginning to fade: time is running out. At the very moment they cease to be desirable, many woman finally decide to assume their desires.” (427)

So, women simply cease to be desirable at 35 eh? It reminds me of the end of Force of Circumstance, the third volume of her autobiography, which was so utterly depressing, with all this ‘my life is over’ wailing. She writes there — and she’s in her early 50s — that “the most irreparable thing that has happened to me is that…I have grown old”, and a few pages later “I loathe my appearance now: the eyebrows slipping down toward the eyes, the bags underneath, the excessive fullness of the cheeks and that air of sadness around the mouth that wrinkles always bring…I see my face as it was, attacked by the pox of time for which there is no cure.”

I’ve always found SdB’s attitudes toward aging to be surprisingly narrow and stereotyped for person as smart as she. At least the attitudes I saw in her autobiography and in The Second Sex. I haven’t yet read her book On Aging, so will wait and see if she actually worked any of this shit out. I suppose in the end, I don’t see why ‘essentialism’ is unacceptable when it comes to sex/gender and eroticism, and yet seems to be swallowed whole when it comes to “being old”. Maybe I’m just naïve. And old.


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