Luce Irigaray’s essay called “This Sex Which Is Not One” (1977) is one that all women must read. The title of the piece has two meanings. First, it refers to women’s sex as “lacking,” which she doesn’t believe, but in fact uses this piece to refute Freud’s analysis of women’s sex as missing the only desirable component. Second, it refers to her position that women do not have one sex; they have multiple sex organs all over their bodies, not to mention two lips that encompass our pleasure.
To summarize Freud, he believed that women’s inferiority lies in the fact that they do not have a penis. In the pre-Oedipal and Oedipal stages of childhood, both boys and girls abandon the mother in lieu of the father’s love because they both realize that she is “lacking” not only the male organ but also the power that comes with it. According to Irigaray’s criticism of this limited way of thinking, a woman’s “sex organ, which is not a sex organ, is counted as no sex organ. It is the negative, the opposite, the reverse, the counterpart, of the only visible…sex organ…the penis” (qtd. in Lorber 386). This is why, in the notable work of Freud, we have come to associate women with the term “penis envy.” Women remain as the “other,” inferior and secondary in power and place in society because they see themselves as lacking that which men are naturally born with. The problem with this wayward thinking is that it is common, even today. Freud’s position on the inferiority of women was supported by his life’s work, and the idea of biological determinism is a prevailing mechanism used to derail women’s efforts at rising above the substandard and subordinate position they have been placed.
Luce Irigaray’s essay is powerful in that it asserts that Freud’s theoretical approach towards women’s sexuality and social position—and everything we have come to know about women and men’s sexuality—has “always been theorized within masculine perameters” (384). In other words, from literature to medicine to law to psychology to politics, men have consistently attempted to define women, their sexuality, and their social status because men are the ones who dominate these fields of research and discoveries. Everything we have come to know about ourselves, we have come to know from men. Even the clitoris is described as a small penis, because men have given it a term like their own—from their perspective. From the moment we are born, we are told that we lack something important: a penis. And in this natural and inherent lack, we are deemed insufficient and defective. We are substandard where the standard is masculinity.
Irigaray moves away from the male perspective of women’s bodies, which they cannot understand themselves unless they are women, and shows multiplicity of female pleasure: “woman has sex organs just about everywhere…the geography of her pleasure is much more diversified, more multiple in its differences, more complex, more subtle than is imagined” by phallocentric ideologies (387). She closes her essay by beckoning women to rediscover themselves and their bodies, without using men’s perspectives as their lens. Before they can do this, however, women need to analyze what they have come to know and believe as true. Women must analyze the multiple machines of oppression that are used to define and limit the potential not only of their bodies and sexuality, but also of the social and political roles they play outside their home. Until this happens, “neither women’s sex, their imaginary, nor their language can exist” (389).