by JC Gonzo
[Editor’s Note: Sophia Wallace met up with JC Gonzo & Red Cell in Santa Fe, NM through Joseph Pulse.]
Sophia Wallace understands the power of images. Through simple, direct visual statements she’s developing a refreshing discourse on the female body, pleasure politics, and human sexuality as a whole. Sophia Wallace demands “Cliteracy,” the truth behind the often misunderstood female sex organ. “You don’t know what you think you know about the clitoris,” states one of Wallace’s 100 Natural Laws – a series of text-based panels delineating sexual facts, myths, and avoided truths. Before the Cliteracy project, Wallace was primarily a photographer of sexually charged, gender-queer portrait studies. Since her Cliteracy launch, she’s expanded into multiple mediums including performance, photography, graphic design, street art, sculpture and installation all within this single project.
Soon after sharing a few images and writings on her Tumblr page, the project took off and Wallace’s newfound adoration of the clitoris was lovingly spread by the Huffington Post, Hyperallergic, and many more. However, when it comes to the clit, there is no such thing as enough attention. In fact, Wallace and her large following of clit-supporters are dedicated to educating as many as possible and encouraging an open dialogue. This begins by examining what the widespread social implications are of anatomical misconceptions and sexual shame.
We sat with Sophia Wallace over coffee and talked about the clit.
What initiated your interest in the clit? You’ve broadened your previous practice since.
SW: Before I knew the language for the clit, having one, I thought it was fabulous when I found it. My work deals with power and how that can be represented visually. I’m interested in how some subjects are idealized, pathologized, and treated as ‘The Grotesque’ in society. I’ve been focusing on queerness, gender, race, and how queer subjects have used fashion as an intervention in their own subject formation to not be seen as ‘The Other.’ I use my own work to create the images I’d like to see in the world, to show how I see my lover, for example. I personally adore, admire, and am sexually attracted to butch women, women on the masculine spectrum, gender-queer people… and I almost never get to see my desires shown in images. For the most part, images of women are hyper-feminine. I feel like something photographers get to do is show and engage with their desire and reify them throughout the world. They get to focus on the muse. Doing that for myself was a political gesture and greatly gratifying. Using photography as a tool to gives viewers an invitation of looking through a queer lens, an opportunity to admire this gorgeous butch women or this gorgeous trans man.
When the ideas for Cliteracy came to me I didn’t want to work on them because you just can’t get much worse than female genitals when it comes to taboo. I already feel as a queer artist I’m fighting against marginality, so going into sex and genitals, I was like ‘this is like queer suicide!’ Nevertheless, as you know, when you get ideas you can’t really ignore them, they haunt you. I’d be out at parties, work meetings, or just anywhere and I’d be obsessively talking about this subject matter. I was appalled at the hypocrisy of never seeing the clitoris in any visual representation of sex. Yet, that’s where the 8,000 nerves are, that’s what needs to be stimulated… and no one is calling bullshit on this. You turn on any film, any depiction in art, hear any joke, the metaphors, the train into the tunnel, drilling for oil, etc. and it’s all about the penis and penetration. They give the notion that the vagina is the female sexual organ. It’s taken for granted and no one questions it. I also knew that a lot of women were not having orgasms, were faking it and having sex without orgasms, being sexually active their whole lives, delivering babies, and never have an orgasm. That is a fucking tragedy.
Yes, equality between the sexes can’t exist if women are perpetually lying about having orgasms.
SW: It’s one of those things, unlike most problems in the world, illcilteracy is amazingly simple to solve.
Do you think there’s still a lot of shame and guilt for women in having orgasms and enjoying sexuality?
SW: Absolutely, I think there’s a psychic rupture that happens at a very young age. As a child, you know where you body feels good and where it doesn’t. But society is fixated upon your vagina, constantly saying ‘vagina this – vagina that.’ Even the word ‘vagina’ is a misnomer, a red herring. It’s a Latin word that means sheath for a sword. It does not medically or technically include the clitoris, it only includes the opening. When you go to the doctor, it’s ‘what’s going on with your vagina?’ Everything is about the vagina. Literally and metaphorically the body is reduced to a hole. As a little girl you don’t have much use for that, what are you going to do with it? It doesn’t feel like anything, you’re not menstruating at that point, you’re not necessarily interacting with it at all. Then in sex education and they talk about boys having erections, wet dreams, this is how you get pregnant. Girls – here’s your uterus, here’s your fallopian tubes… don’t get pregnant. Use condoms. No one talks about the clitoris.
There’s a reinforced message that natural sex is this [mimics penetration with her fingers] and your clitoris doesn’t matter. If you actually want that area where your nerves are to be stimulated, there’s something wrong about you. I can’t tell you how many times in my life I’ve had women tell me with embarrassment that they can’t get off without touching themselves. Well, of course! That’s where the 8,000 nerves are. You’re the majority and no one knows.
Or if you’re willing to stimulate the clit for your partner you’re “doing her a favor.” It’s special, not just normal sexual practice.
SW: Right, sex is defined as heterosexual reproductive sex and penis stimulation. It doesn’t have to include the stimulation of the clitoris. I think this definition runs so deep that women realizing there’s no clitoral stimulation going on is maybe the 20th thought on her mind during sex… they’re more like ‘I don’t know what’s wrong with me, I don’t know why I’m not getting off. I just need to relax, breath more, have more wine, use more warming gel…’
As if there’s something wrong.
SW: I’m going to go out on a limb here and make a hyperbolic generalization, but lesbians aren’t faking orgasms and we’re not having bad sex. Everyone’s having orgasms, queer men, queer people… for them sex equals pleasure. However many times you get off with your partner or partners – there’s no limit. What defines a sex act? That can be whatever floats your boat. It’s not about one specific thing, it’s about what makes you feel good. I think that’s what true sex and sexuality is. Unfortunately, I think that reproduction is totally fetishized. Anything that is not reproductive is pathologized and pushed aside. Even straight people who are having reproductive sex, let’s say they want to reproduce and have 3 kids. Fine, but you probably want to have sex more than 3 times in your life. Over the course of your life, it’s about pleasure and if it’s about pleasure you should have access to that pleasure. Therefore, all people are implicated in this. Queer people, straight people who want to have sex without being attacked by their church, younger people, older people, we all deserve access to that. This is what my project is saying.
You’ve gotten a huge response from a really broad spectrum of people, why do you think so many different groups have been gravitating to your project?
SW: I think Cliteracy is about freedom for everybody and respect for everyone’s body. It’s a symbol for body integrity, including pleasure. Everyone deserves access to that and it can’t be separated off into male/female, queer/straight, trans/cis… it’s everyone’s birthright. It’s a new way to talk about sexuality, it’s positive, open, empowering, and even funny and irreverent at times. There’s 100 Laws of Cliteracy, they can’t all be seen online, which is part of my needing the actual art to be exhibited. You can’t just come across it online and say ‘okay I’ve read it, I’m done.’ You actually have to experience it.
You have to ride the giant golden clit!
SW: You have the ride the giant golden clit, yes!
How did the Kenneth Thomas collaboration come about?
SW: I was doing a residency and had a studio space next to a sculptor from Mississippi. We came from very different backgrounds, he was making all these surreal and amazing, sort of ‘masculine’ pieces while I was doing my Cliteracy thing and wheat-pasting. I was really impressed with what he was doing and he really dug my work so we decided to collaborate. We didn’t really know how that would happen, so we started having meetings and found a common ground of our work being critiqued along gender lines. His work was perceived as really ‘macho and dominating’ and they wouldn’t look beyond that. My work was just considered feminist, ‘that’s only for women, for queer people.’ We both felt our work was not being judged by its merits, but rather, being categorized and dismissed along the lines for identity politics This myopic, ghettoizing approach to our work frustrated both of us. We created an exciting common ground in this space. So the ‘solid gold clit’ thing is swag, claiming the clit in this really positive way.
We decided to host the world’s first Clit Rodeo. He would play the character Clit Eastwood and I was the Clit Bandit. We had three judges that would rate your performance. What makes someone a good lover? We chose three things: generosity, creativity, and agility, or maybe it was dexterity! So it was like how wild, crazy, how original you could be with the clit. Like, if you’re just about generosity but have no skills… well, that’s not that great. If you have these crazy skills but you’re just not in touch, well… that’s not great. If you’ve got amazing moves but it’s the same thing every time… that’s kind of boring! So we put all this together, it was fascinating and it was really fun. We had some collaborators, Soraya Odishoo, a sound artist who did a Clit Rodeo score. Dages Juvelier Keates choreographed a Clit Rodeo line dance that we taught the whole audience and also performed on the Clit. There was also a performance by Laura McMillan as Clitopatra.
Winners received Clit Rodeo bandanas by Zebadiah Keneally and Douglas Eberhardt. So if you had a top score you’d get one bandana and then we’d have a battle royale. The top rider would get the set of all four. So the bandana is something you’d wear around your neck. You wipe your face with it, you fold it neatly, put it in your pocket, flag it… it’s something precious, something intimate. Some people have said I should make a bag. A bag?! And some people have suggested I make a giant vagina that people can crawl into… I would never do that. You’re missing the whole point!
Focusing on the hole not the whole, right?
SW: Just deal with the clit. You don’t get to have it or eat off it or hold it in your hand or see a literal vulva that you can take in with your eyes. You just have to deal with this amazing beautiful clit shining across the landscape that everyone wants to be close to. There it is! One thing I wondered about was if the Clit Rodeo was going to get really mundane, but people were incredibly creative. Someone surfed the clit, read erotica to the clit, some person actually blindfolded the clit and did this whole tease show, and some people stripped for it.
There was this one situation where the clit got broken off of the spring. My heart just sank. At that point, an artist came up and asked if she could still ride it. She went ahead and did the most amazing ride – in the air, all around the hay, up and down! We realized the true state of the clit was freedom and it could never be limited by the spring… it crashed and burned and rose up from the ashes like a phoenix. It was amazing, hilarious and better than ever. For some reason when the clit broke off the spring some people left and turned their back on the clit, but then some more people arrived and showed their true love, like ‘don’t abandon the clit, the clit can never be destroyed!’ It was very intense experience.
You’re literally (cliterally) changing the language we associate with the clit. When we talk about your project, words like ‘huge’ or ‘massive’ because of how many different mediums it encompasses, all the people and cities you involve. We’re used to describing the clit as ‘hidden’ or as a ‘button’ – very small, or only in relation to something else – but you make the clit giant and hard to ignore.
SW: It’s a greek word that means “little hill.” Even the language of the clit is diminutive. It’s keeping it in it’s ‘proper place.’ Recently I got this tweet “Sophia Wallace, no one wants to flick your bean.” Bean? Your metaphor gives you away. Here’s some anatomical research for you, get it together. Something all genders get defensive about is the idea that there is something they don’t know about the clit, or that everything they think they know could be incorrect. I mean, I didn’t know the anatomy until I started this project.
If you showed anybody the clit’s anatomy isolated from anything hardly any would know what that is.
SW: Yeah, nobody knows!
What have you learned about the clit since you started the project that you didn’t before?
SW: So much! Pretty much all of the material was new to me. I didn’t know about the true anatomy of the clit, I had no idea the word ‘vagina’ awfully reduced the genitals to a void, I didn’t know about the female spotted hyena. There are multiple mammals, including the spotted hyena, who have external clitorises that stick out quite far. We’re talking seven to nine inches. They get erections and actually have sex through their clitoris, they actually gives birth through their clitoris. Scientists were confused, figured they were inter-sex and had a hard time realizing they were female. They were baffled. In the case of the spotted hyenas, the females are dominant over the males, the lower ranking female hyenas will lick the clitoris of the higher ranking females. All the males will lick any female’s clit and the females never lick the male’s penis. These animals’ clitoris were named “pseudo-penises.” Rest assured, males have the real thing and females have the fake version.
That reminds of Freud’s ‘immature orgasm,’ which is the clitoral orgasm. The real orgasm involves penetration with the penis.
SW: One of my Laws is that the penis is not the axis in which the universe of sexuality revolves. The Earth is still flat when it comes to the female body. Masturbating inside women is not sex, it’s Stone Age. It goes on… hopefully, you’ll get to see all 100 Laws. I’m certainly not the top expert on anything. I’m putting these things together in my own unique way as an artist. I have a background in political science and I came into art through that. Art is my expression, but where it comes from is a place of power, society, justice, structure, freedom…
Is that why you choose to represent most of your work like an ad campaign?
SW: When I first graduated from college I got a job at AOL in Times Square – the land of massive, illuminated billboards. I was spending all my time walking through this tableau of imagery where my life, in no way, appeared in. During this, Sakia Gunn, a young butch lesbian, was stabbed to death in New Jersey. In comparison to the reporting of Matthew Shepard, less than 30 came out about her. Also, a friend of mine had an aneurysm and passed away, 24 year old lesbian who wasn’t out to her father but was out to her mother. When she passed away her mom pretended she wasn’t gay. So my friend who was a total tomboy, always wore blue, had a natural afro, was totally transformed. They straightened her hair, put all this makeup on her, they put her in a fucking pink rosebud coffin and said she was a God-fearing woman. All of us, including her girlfriend, were totally banished from the family. None of us were supposed to come to the funeral. Her entire history was erased. This was when I started my documentary work, the Girls Will Be Bois series. I would go to these meetings with Time, the New York Times, Newsweek, the New Yorker, and they wouldn’t be able to tell any of my subject apart. They’d say, ‘you know, this isn’t really working for me. But what would work is if you took some naked shots of them, or, it’s not really newsworthy, but maybe if you get them getting gay bashed.” Basically, they can only appear if they appear nude or in violence.
I still haven’t really shown that work except in my thesis show. It’s never been curated, or it’s been curated in a way where I couldn’t show it… you know, in a queer space, for two weeks, in the summer when no one goes or buys anything, in a show where they’re like ‘LESBIANS! Do everything! Here’s your one shot! We don’t own you in our collection! We don’t curate you for solo shows but here’s your two week slot in the summer time! Have at it!’ No. Realizing what I was up against is why I started using fashion. It was purely as an intervention against prejudice on the part of my viewer. You want to see pretty pictures? Fine. I’ll light, I’ll style, I will show you how important these people are and you’ll be thinking you’re viewing an ad campaign for jeans or for perfume, but in fact, you’re looking at a campaign for female masculinity. I’m selling you butchness, eat it.
By the time I got to Cliteracy, I felt limited with photography and its obsession with the beautiful, the young, the skinny and so on. I couldn’t do what I needed to do with pictures, hence the clit-splosion with text and 100 Laws. I’m still taking pictures and I love it, but I don’t know if I could ever convey a fraction of what I need to with them.
You see a lot of “raging-against” in art by those with a similar impotence, and I get why, but it’s exciting to see such proactive subversion.
SW: Everywhere we go there’s this saturation of images that are non-consensually pushed at us by whomever can afford to buy that ad space. It’s annoying that the ideas that get to be expressed are so limited. It’s not just defined by money, I had a patron who wanted to buy me a billboard in New York. We submitted the artwork, which said “democracy without cliteracy, phallusy” but it wasn’t accepted because it was too risque. It goes back to this idea that the body is profane, particularly the female body. Women can’t show their breasts. Men’s breasts are fine, but women’s, God forbid… Lisa Brown, House Representative, was silenced on the House floor for saying “vagina” in the abortion debate. It was the context of the word, but what better context would “vagina” be in? So this is the state we’re in, this is the false logic that Cliteracy is up against.
Thank you for saying the word “logic” because I feel like a lot of what you put out is simply common sense, for any humanitarian at least.
SW: It comes back to your question about why such a broad spectrum of people are resonating with Cliteracy. There’s so many of us who won’t accept such old, hierarchal ideas. Men are from mars, women are from venus. Virginity is sacred unless you’ve got this huge diamond from a husband you’ll give it up to. Yet, we don’t have any other language to represent our beliefs. This is why you offer something positive into the conversation, like a new word like Cliteracy, Clitstorm, Clitigator, Clit Eastwood… and people keep on coming up with ones I’d never thought of. My hope is that people make more language. This is just a starting point, the audacious claim that we don’t have to accept the language that we have because we can make new language.
It seems to be this is more like an ever expansive conversation than a standalone piece. Where do you want to take Cliteracy from this point?
SW: Everywhere. My goal is to find translators and share it all over the world. I have people saying ‘we need it in Egypt’ and people in Australia asking for posters, people in Portugal, Norway, asking to use this as a teaching tool… So first, translation, then dissemination. I also want to an exhibition on billboards and public walls all over the country. I want Cliteracy to be a meme. As audacious as this may sound, I do believe this is historic work and that it deserves a historic discourse on the body, citizenship, sexuality.
Knowledge is power and this information needs to be spread. I didn’t know female genital mutilation could be restored, for example. Is there really only one doctor who can repair this type of mutilation?
SW: Dr. Pierre Foldes could easily be the saint of the clitoris. His story is pretty amazing. He was working with Doctors Without Borders and was encountering all these women with mutilated genitals. He was pretty devastated by this and felt he had to do something about it, and he’d tell his colleagues but they’d just say the damage is done. But his refusal to take no for an answer lead him to a procedure that utilizes the 1998 anatomical discovery by Dr. Helen O’Connell in which you can expose a portion of the internal organ by cutting off scar tissue from the vulva. Suddenly women would start feeling pleasure or having orgasms again. I’m happy to say that he’s no longer the sole practitioner because he’s doing trainings. Unfortunately, I don’t think the surgery is covered by many insurances, it’s so new and un-researched. All the doctors have said they did this with no funding or support. Sadly, even with their findings, no one is adopting them. Yes, the full anatomy of the clitoris was discovered in 1998 but nobody knows about it, so as far as I’m concerned the world is still flat. Not being cliterate should be embarrassing. The clitoris has 8,000 nerves, it’s own direct blood supply, and apparently, the more orgasms the clitoris has the more it wants. It never gets tired! This is somehow terrifying to people.
The biological reality of the clitoris challenges the patriarchal notion that experience is limited to men. I think that just the notion of an organ only existing for pleasure can be intimidating.
SW: What I say to those people who find it intimidating is that warheads are intimidating, I think genocide is intimidating, I think nuclear reactor fluids spilling in Japan is terrifying. I don’t find this organ that makes some people feel really good intimidating. I’ve gone after as many sacred cows as I could with this project, dismantling them one by one.
[For further reading about Sophia Wallace’s time in New Mexico, read Joseph Pulse’s feature here.]