Regulating Desire and Sexuality

In “Orgasm, Generation, and the Politics of Reproductive Biology, Lacquer describes Galen’s ancient Roman understanding of orgasm in women and men, which held that “orgasm’s warmth, though more vehement and exciting, is in kind no different from other warmth and can be produced in some measures by food, wine, or the power of imagination” (7). This Tuesday, class discussion turned to manners in which Gandhi also grouped eating and having sex together, in his repeated discussion of how fasting related to his vow of abstinence, and how he considered sexual restraint not only as a means of limiting family size but, more importantly, as a mode of caring for the body. While Gandhi appreciates the difficulty he and others may face who choose an abstinent or celibate lifestyle, he claims that failure to restrain sexual appetite called “incontinence is the root of the vanity, anger, fear and jealousy in the world” (52). In other words, he argues that these common, powerful desires for sex and food should be regulated because of the deleterious effects they may have on social interactions, and Galen would agree with him to the extent that the effects of “indulgence” in sex and food are similar. However, Gandhi also states that sexual passion is characterized by a “madness” and that as “mind is the root of all sensuality,” regulating one’s food intake and sexual practices may lead to more rational decision making which presumably benefits society (53, 210). Thus, Gandhi prioritizes the effects regulation of these matters may have on society as a whole, rather than individual choice to partake in desires as one chooses.

Gandhi’s anxiety concerning “misplaced” desire has been present in other texts in this course, in which sexuality has been described as an overriding appetite, even an insatiable hunger, not completely unlike a desire for food and drink. For instance, gluttony and lust  or “excess” desires for sex and food , have historically been interpreted by the Catholic Church to be mortal sins, which theoretically threaten a person’s salvation. This belief is echoed in the Book on the Teaching of Nuns,  in which Saint Leander recalls one of Solomon’s visions, which includes meats and wines, but concludes that such things are but “mortal pomp,” insinuating that fulfilling “carnal” desires typical of humans are “mutable, ephemeral, and vain” pursuits, and that, as such, they should be viewed with suspicion and not pursued as ends in themselves (62-63). It is notable that while Saint Leander focuses on chastity and virginity, he suggests in this passage that gluttony should be grouped with sexual intercourse as sinful. While there are some parallels in discourse on gluttony and lust, it should be acknowledged that giving into lust or achieving orgasm is not necessary for human survival in the ways that consuming water and food are. Perhaps regulation of sexuality has been more effective and widespread (than strains of thought that Gandhi contributed to concerning fasting, for instance) because people need to eat to survive, while having sex or reaching orgasm through masturbation is not necessary for human survival, in spite of health benefits it may bring.

Margaret Sanger’s Case for Birth Control (1924) proposes a regulation of sexuality that does not classify sexual desire as misguided or inherently sinful as Tuesday’s texts did. Instead, she focuses on potentially deleterious social effects that pregnancy may have when parents are under a certain age, were recently married, already have some number of children, cannot economically support their children, or have had a child who was born with some special need or condition. It seems somewhat practical though very prescriptive, even commanding in its language and layout of nine reasons to not have children. Amartya Sen would likely taken a skeptical approach to Sanger’s article in light of her own discussion of contemporary international anxiety about distributing family planning information and materials to third-world countries, in support of a disputed “world population problem.” Margaret Sanger played a prominent role decades after her 1924 manifesto was written in the development of the Pill, which has widely been understood as empowering to women as a means to enhance their bodily autonomy. However, in light of Sen’s article, how should we interpret birth control efforts that target women of color and socioeconomically disadvantaged women? Should they be understood as further regulation of women’s sexuality? On the other hand, are distributing birth control methods and providing abortions inherently empowering to women because these services allows them to prevent or end pregnancies, which clearly temporarily compromise their bodily autonomy?


On another note, re: Lacquer, attached is a more recent article about female orgasm. I thought this passage was particularly interesting as we consider how debates about the connection between conception and orgasm in women has changed so much over time.

“The female orgasm is like the male nipple. It has a clear function in one sex, but not in the other,” she says.

The male orgasm positively reinforces ejaculation and therefore encourages males to propagate the species, Lloyd says. Women get a parallel ability as a “fantastic bonus” because their tissues and nerves are laid down at the same time during fetal development.

In support of the fantastic bonus theory, Lloyd points out that only about 8 percent of women reliably have otherwise unassisted orgasms during penile-vaginal intercourse, while nearly all men do. In addition, these women seem to be benefiting from an accident of physiology — they happen to have clitorises that are close to their vaginal opening, according to new research by Lloyd and Emory University psychology professor Kim Wallen, PhD, in press in Hormones and Behavior.

“Very few women can climax through intercourse alone, but in Hollywood, that 8 percent [of women] is portrayed as 100 percent,” she says. “It’s like, in some misguided bid for equality, we are trying to make women’s orgasms serve the same function as men’s.”


2 thoughts on “Regulating Desire and Sexuality

  1. If birth control is a way of creating bodily autonomy for women (and I am not arguing here that it isn’t), I suppose there is a certain danger in that it is artificial. If limiting or disallowing birth control is as simple as it takes to take reproductive freedom away from women, that just seems alarmingly easy. I can’t say that I have a more permanent solution, short of social change, but the fragility of progress is something to keep in mind.

  2. I don’t have an answer to your questions so much as a suggestion- it may be helpful to consider the relationship between sexuality and reproduction as we consider the role of birth control in sexual freedom. I do think that there is a lot of freedom in the power to prevent or end pregnancies, regardless of whether or not that autonomy is artificial. However, I’m also wary of birth control efforts that target women of color and women in specific socioeconomic circumstances, because education is such an important part of sexuality that has gone nearly unrecognized in our readings. Although my personal and political opinion is that birth control is empowering, I’d be interested to hear a discussion on how reproductive freedom impacts the autonomy of female sexuality.

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