The Dilemma of Desire | On Culture | Chicago Reader

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The Dilemma of Desire

A new documentary celebrates cliteracy.

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Given that—as legal pundit Jeffrey Toobin recently and so unexpectedly reminded us—everyone is sexual, here’s a question: If I handed you paper and pencil right now, could you draw a clitoris?

Not just the button. Could you draw the whole thing?

The Dilemma of Desire, a new documentary from Kartemquin and Chicago director Maria Finitzo, poses this question early on, and then takes a hard look at the reasons why you probably can’t, and their consequences.  

For starters, neuroscientist Stacey Dutton pulls a vintage Gray’s Anatomy from her book shelf, locates “clitoris” in the table of contents, and then searches in vain for any discussion of this subject in the text, though there’s plenty there about the penis. “As a woman biologist,” Dutton asks herself, “how is it possible that I don’t know what my own biology looks like?”

The answer, according to the film? We put a man on the moon in 1969, but it wasn’t until 1998 that the full clitoris was extracted from a human body. By a woman doctor.

The visible part of the clitoris, it turns out, is the tip of the iceberg—a tiny bowed head on a hidden neck. Behind it stands a staunch root with two pairs of branching appendages that hug the vagina. The entire, wishbone-shaped structure might bring to the boggled mind a tulip, or a cephalopod, or—for those inclined to something more anthropomorphic—a long-limbed, dancing humanoid.  

If you already knew this, it could be because you’ve seen the work of Sophia Wallace, a New York-based artist who’s featured prominently in the film. Wallace turns the clitoris into jewelry and sleek metal sculpture, plasters clitoris stickers on museum art, and is the creator of Cliteracy: 100 Natural Laws, a poster-style text installation that’s been touring since 2012, covering gallery walls with facts and proclamations like, “The Hole is Not the Whole,” and “Democracy without Cliteracy? Phallusy.” 

She’s driven by the memory of her grandmother, who bore five children but didn’t think she’d ever had an orgasm.

The film intersperses glimpses of Dutton, Wallace, University of Utah psychology professor Lisa Diamond, and industrial designer Ti Chang (who creates sex toys that look like lipsticks and can be worn as pendants) with profiles of five Chicago women shot over a three-year period. Identified only by first name, they are artist and activator Coriama, Northwestern University dropout and stripper Jasmine, economist and budding stand-up comic Sunny, artist and poet Becca, and Umnia, whose memories and video clips from a loveless marriage make for some poignant, hard-earned wisdom.    

There’s a lot of Chicago on screen: Coriama interviews bearded local drag queen Lucy Stoole, Becca gives away her poetry at a Fullerton Avenue bus stop, Sunny and a friend shop for vibrators in Lakeview, and Umnia reminisces about her father on a deck with a view of the downtown skyline at night. Jasmine strolls down Michigan Avenue, and the “Democracy without Cliteracy? Phallusy.” slogan is projected onto Trump Tower.

But the takeaway is anything but strictly local. The movie opens (and closes) with the searing words of Black lesbian poet and essayist Audre Lorde, initially in her own voice, reading from “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power,” at Mount Holyoke College in 1978: 

“The erotic offers a well of replenishing and provocative force to the woman who does not fear its revelation,” Lorde says in that essay. But also, “We have been taught to suspect this resource,” and to suppress it, because “women so empowered are dangerous . . . We have been raised to fear the yes within ourselves.”

The point is that the absence of information about the source of female erotic pleasure is no accident: it’s integral to a system that wants to control women and trap them in a position of inferiority. “Girls are separated from the reality of their bodies,” Wallace tells the camera: “They don’t think they have the right to feel good.”

“While this is a film about sexual desire,” Finitzo told me in a phone interview last week, “it’s mostly a film about equality and power, and how if you don’t understand the full capacity of your body in your life, then you’re disconnected from your power both politically and personally.”  

The Dilemma of Desire was slated to premiere at SXSW in March, but it was canceled a week prior to screening by COVID. Finitzo is hoping for an in-person Chicago premiere in 2021, but we don‘t have to wait that long to see it. It’ll be available for online viewing as part of the DOC NYC festival, November 11-19; tickets are $12 at docnyc.net  v

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