The ‘C’ Word: Learning to Speak the Language Written on the Wall
Author Sarah Chadwick and University of Leeds, Graphic Designer Eilidh Doig discuss the future of the clitoris in design and in society.
It’s approaching lunch-time in Chicago, dinner-time in London, and I’m sat on Zoom (where else?) chatting quite casually about the history of the clitoris. This is a new experience for me. I’ve never had a conversation about the clitoris before. In fact, when I think long and hard about it, aside from an awkward bedroom fumble back in my teenage years (“yes, there! Don’t move! That’s it!”), the clitoris has been the part of my anatomy that has had the least air-time. That is, until my conversation with author Sarah Chadwick and graphic designer Eilidh Doig.
“Talking about pleasure, how one experiences pleasure, whether one wants to experience pleasure, are all important conversations to be having” says Sarah, citing this as one of the main reasons for the writing of her book, The Sweetness of Venus: A History of the Clitoris. Sarah has penned what I hope will, for clitoris-owners at least, become something close to the holy-grail. The Sweetness of Venus tells an alternate history of female sexuality, pleasure and desire: one where the site of female pleasure – the clitoris – is at the forefront. Much to the distaste of centuries of androcentric philosophy and science that came before.
“I realise that I had assumed that today, everyone was far better informed than I had been because of the internet and access to information. With the wealth of information available, unless you know what it is you’re looking for, you very quickly get fed free-porn, which sticks to a very patriarchal model of sex: penis-in-vagina, women lying back, hands-free, with everyone reaching orgasm very quickly.” Speaking to Sarah, you’ll find that she is anchored in directness, self-possession and surety. She begins sentences knowing exactly where she is going to finish them. It’s both comforting and unnerving. “My intention, by writing such a straight-talking and honest book, was to give the reader the choice.”
Sarah reminds me of that brilliant great aunt that shows up occasionally in comedy shows. She’s never had kids and she probably never will. She might show up to one-in-every-five family events. But boy, when she does, you’ll hear her from the next room, slightly tipsy and talking shamelessly about the wild time she’d had the evening before. You love her for her abrasiveness and her ability to make natural the things that at first, seemed so alien, so unspeakable. Our conversation had started with some complications – you know how the internet loves to play up when you’re most reliant on it. I look down at my phone to see it vibrate with a text from Sarah: “Don’t worry! We’ll get it sorted. It will make talking about the clit seem easy!” it says.
While we wait for Sarah to join us, any and all tension now relieved, Eilidh gives me some background to her design work. After collaborating with Sarah on the designs for her Instagram platform (@its.personalgirls), Sarah asked Eilidh to work with her on the cover design for The Sweetness of Venus. This wasn’t a straightforward project, I’m told. In fact, a great deal of negotiation was required to get the clitoris just right. I’m beginning to learn that nothing involving the clitoris is as straightforward as it should be. “I wanted to show the clitoris on the cover” Eilidh says with absolute certainty. “But if the book was lying on the coffee-table then it would also have to be suitable for that environment. It was the challenge of introducing those ideas but in a way that wouldn’t be seen as offensive or disgusting.”
Eilidh visualized the design on what she called a “shock-scale”. She had to put a lot of thought into what it means to be working within a commercial market. Designing the right cover was a tight-rope walk and a balancing act. “You want the cover to intrigue. But you also have to think about where you draw the line. It has to be intriguing enough to pick up without scaring people away.” Why the colour palette? Red and orange? “There are a few reasons why. When I started working with Sarah, it wasn’t for the book, but for her Instagram platform. We wanted to choose a colour palette that was feminine but not fluffy. It was straight to the point, it was fact, it was exciting, it was…” she reaches for the right word. “Passionate.”
“From a visual perspective, everyone knows what the penis looks like.” Of course, when you think about it, that’s true. If you haven’t seen the male anatomy elegantly carved into the Sistine Chapel, or the sweet cherub boy proudly relieving himself into a public fountain, you would at least have been exposed to a half-hearted scribble on a back of a classroom chair. Young boys marking their territory in crude sharpie pen. The penis is everywhere in modern culture and yet we barely bat an eye.
“When Sarah first sent me that image of the clitoris, I didn’t even recognise it!” Eilidh laughs. Seeing the anatomical image of the clitoris was somewhat of a shock to me too (Google it. Or read Sarah’s book). Perhaps the reason why we don’t see the female genitalia scribbled on public walls is because we don’t know what it looks like. I’d like to think. “I think that the clever thing about the cover is the way that Eilidh incorporated the real structure of the clitoris, like wall-paper, all over the book.” Sarah says. It was a detail so subtle that I hadn’t noticed before, but now that I had seen it, I couldn’t un-see it. The clitoris was in the very walls. Clever.
The Sweetness of Venus: A History of The Clitoris can be ordered via Amazon. Click here.
When writing this piece, many questions came up for me. Some were more abstract and unrelated to my position as a writer. Does a parent want to know if their kid is having sex? If they’re watching porn? If they’re masturbating? Others were more personal. A piece about the clitoris? How is that going to look for my portfolio? More than that, how do I talk about something that I’ve never had the vocabulary to talk about?
To both Sarah and Eilidh I posed the final question of how we move forward. Now that I have had the time to think back, her oh-so simple answer clarified many of those questions for me. “What do you think?” Sarah fired back. Sarah tells us about how one of her sons had shared a post on his social media, proudly sharing her book. He’d uploaded it with the caption, “when your mum writes a book you pretend to read it. But when your mum writes a book about the clitoris…you actually read it.”
There are many things I could have said in praise of The Sweetness of Venus. That small anecdote that Sarah shared with us, says it better than I could have; it is this call for open, honest conversation that is really at the heart of Sarah’s book. Clitoris-owner or non-clitoris owner, sex education is more than “condoms on bananas” and the labelling of parts. Sex equality starts only when we start being able to talk about it. “The future of the clitoris?” Sarah says. “Well actually, I want the book to be about more than the clitoris. The clitoris is a vehicle for talking about sex equality, about the quality of the pleasure that people experience everywhere.” As straight-talking as ever.
Words by Jessica Fynn
All images were provided courtesy of Sarah Chadwick and Eilidh Doig.
Sarah Chadwick can be reached via her Instagram page: @its.personalgirls
Eilidh Doig can be reached via her Instagram page: @ecd_desgin