I had just finished reading the chapter on sex in South Korea we published in our Continuum Complete International Encyclopeda of Sexuality when I met a Korean graduate student anxious to tell me how he used my college sexuality textbook to help his cousin and bride who were still virgins two years after marriage. In their chapter in the CCIES, the physicians had repeatedly apologized for the lack of information about sexual behavior in Korea and for the traditional taboo on sexual talk—between parent and child, between spouses, between doctor and patient. I asked the student how he could talk so openly and comfortably with his cousins. Was the younger generation ignoring the traditional taboo? Not really. More important was another fact: He announced, “No problem! I’m gay!”
When I mentioned the Korean tradition to a colleague just back from a year with the So people of Uganda, she told me the So have all kinds of words for male sexual anatomy, masturbation, orgasm, and ejaculation, but no words for female orgasm, clitoris, or anything female. Female masturbation was preposterous! Unthinkable! Breasts? They’re for babies. With no loveplay or vaginal lubrications, vaginal penetration has to be painful. Another colleague reported that female medical students in the Sudan had never experienced female orgasm: “Women who have been circumcised cannot experience an orgasm because they do not have a clitoris.” He gently corrected their misinformation, to the delight of their husbands.
Then I read about Muslim women in Northern Cyprus who do not like to discuss their sexual problems with strangers, family members, especially a spouse, or even with a trained sexual counselor. And I recalled the authors of our Nigeria chapter reporting on the Ibo people who believe any sexual talk is vulgar, unnecessary, and taboo. Sex education should not exist.
In our chapter on Israel, Marilyn Safir and David Ribner commented on the major problem they have with Ultra-Orthodox Jewish wives who receive no sex education and have no language to describe the sexual parts of their bodies and the bodies of their husbands. Haredi women are encouraged to avoid being verbally explicit about their own intimate desires and to use nonverbal clues. “Men have more leeway in this than women, but it is difficult for either men or women to be conscious of sexual desires when both have been taught to repress any sexual thoughts or fantasies about their spouse.” It is not uncommon for Haredi wives seeking help for their “infertility” only to be told their infertility is due to their virginity, an unconsummated marriage.
All this, and many more examples from around the world—including the good old USA—have left me wondering where this common, often unrecognized repression of talk about sexual intimacy, started. And why it is so common, so widespread.
Why are our cultures so uncomfortable with female sexuality?
Why are so many cultures dedicated to repressing female sexuality?
How about some thoughts, theories, and comments from readers of our International Encyclopedia?
Robert T. Francoeur, Co-Editor of CCIES