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  WINDY CITY TIMES

Author and educator Sarah Chadwick talks new book on female sexuality
by Carrie Maxwell
2021-02-21

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Sarah Chadwick's debut book, The Sweetness of Venus: A History of the Clitoris, was the result of her desire to understand the status of female sexuality in the West from an historical perspective.

During Chadwick's research, she was looking to answer questions such as: How and when did female pleasure lose pace with male pleasure in society? Why when reproduction is central to life has reproductive anatomy and the female urge for sexual pleasure become so taboo? Why didn't our relationship with women's bodies change as choices about reproduction changed? Why does society at large still understand it so inadequately, such that there is a huge orgasm gap in heterosexual relationships and complete misunderstanding when it comes to lesbian sex?

While researching, Chadwick discovered that Realdo Colombo called the clitoris the "Sweetness of Venus" in 1559. She thought that would make a great title for the book.

"I wondered how we had gone from that point in history where the clitoris was given such a loving and appropriate name to now, where our language is so limited. Where did that erasure come from?" said Chadwick.

One thing that shocked Chadwick was when she found out that it was not until 2005 that the full anatomical structure of the clitoris had been mapped with 3-D imaging. Chadwick added that she considers herself an educated, open-minded feminist but until she started writing the book she did not know what the full clitoral structure looked like.

"Why don't we know this?" said Chadwick. "It is so much larger than we tend to think, and sits within the pelvic cavity, and swells with eight to eleven times its blood when aroused. I have not met many women who know that about their clitoris. "That is when I backtracked to the fact that actually science knew about the structure of the clitoris in 1844 and there were accurate drawings depicting it that year.

"The world of science consistently moved away from it after that fact. Why wasn't it in the Gray's Anatomy textbook in 1949? Still today, clitoral anatomy is not covered in the detail that the anatomy of the penis is covered in medical anatomy textbooks. Why is the clitoris so taboo when it is central to female desire and pleasure?"

As Chadwick was delving into the topic, she was alarmed by how much science and the patriarchy had suppressed the full breadth of female anatomy and the function of the clitoris as well as their aversion to female sexual desire.

Of the many entities Chadwick points out in the book is the Catholic Church's role in suppressing sexuality and how a group of white men are still making decisions about female sexuality which angers her. Chadwick also points out the different versions of Anne Frank's diary and how, until 1995, the diary entry where she talked about her own genitalia and questions about sex and childbirth was omitted.

"Many kids are going to grow up to be responsible for young adults themselves," said Chadwick. "Inclusive sex ed is important. Even if you are very sure of your own sexuality that is not to say you are not going to have kids under your care that need access to different information. Cisgender men will have sisters, daughters and friends. For parents with intersex children, or children undergoing transition, this information matters. Editors omitting that diary reference for all those decades did young people a disservice. As do all the sex ed books that only mention the clitoris in passing, represent it as a small dot and do not say that it is central to female pleasure."

In terms of the book as a whole, Chadwick said, "I was surprised by the resistance to it. Initially, publishers said they loved the writing but felt the topic was 'niche'—like more than 50 percent of the population does not have one. Or they said they had already 'done' a 'period' book last year, as if this explained away the need for a book about the repression of female pleasure. It illustrated the general lack of understanding around the importance of the clitoris to those with one. The consistent erasure and the way it permeated into so many cultural aspects—science, religion, art and culture. It was as if they were all colluding."

While writing, Chadwick was delighted to find out how "funny" she ended up being. Chadwick said writing this book was when she found her voice. She added that the key to talking about the clitoris is through everyday communication and understanding and that no body part should be taboo. Chadwick wanted her book to have that lens so talking about the clitoris would be "accessible, fun and cheerleading for pleasure …to enjoy the provocation …entertain, as well as challenge."

When asked what else Chadwick would have included in the book, she said that since her experience is heterosexual, she wishes she'd talked to more queer women.

"I have been surprised about the ignorance in the heterosexual community of lesbian sexuality," said Chadwick. "I think self-sexualization is so important to well-being and it is not just about orgasm. The orgasm gap is a problem in the heterosexual community, but sexuality is about more than that. I cannot speak about the impact of the erasure of female sexuality, desire and pleasure for queer women. However, I do believe the book is the story of all women no matter their orientation. It is about more than sex."

Chadwick said that she wants the world to move away from penis in vagina as the "defining sex act" to a definition that is more inclusive however one gives and receives sexual pleasure, it is sex. And adults should be educating young people from this perspective. One of the ways she advances this is through her instagram.com/its.personalgirls/ page.

When asked about her reactions to living in Chicago, versus the UK which is where she is originally from, Chadwick said she felt she became a Chicagoan when she waited in line for five hours in sub-zero January morning temperatures in 2017 to get tickets for then President Obama's farewell address.

Chadwick added that her loyalty to Chicago is strong and she "still finds winters romantic, so perhaps it is young love. I would miss the Joffrey Ballet, music venues, Millennium Park summer concerts, swimming off the ledge, the neighborhoods, Unabridged and Volumes book stores and the way Chicagoans know how to have fun. And the way they protest. Not to mention the many friends I have made."

As for her future plans, Chadwick is doing an Instagram takeover for the Museum of Contemporary Photography (MoCP) for the week of March 22-28 to highlight their "Reproductive: Health, Fertility, Agency" exhibition. She will also be doing a panel session for MoCP with multimedia cliteracy artist Sophia Wallace. The tentative date for that event is April 15.


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