Science

The Princess and the Pea: Princess Marie Bonaparte’s Search for a Vaginal Orgasm

By Clara Wade

Sigmund Freud famously asked, “what does a woman want?” The woman he addressed this question to was his close friend and patient Princess Marie Bonaparte, the same person who paid his ransom to Nazi Germany. And she knew exactly what she wanted – a vaginal orgasm. Vaginal penetration never did it for Marie and she could only orgasm from clitoral stimulation. Marie’s indefatigable quest for a vaginal orgasm would lead her to undergo surgery three times to relocate her clitoris. Criticised by some as a deluded defender of phallo-centricity, she should be seen instead as a courageous advocate of a woman’s right to her own sexual satisfaction.

Marie was born in 1882 to the grandson of Napoleon’s disgraced brother, Lucien. Her mother’s death shortly after giving birth spurred her to want to be a physician. However, her father did not approve. He hoped that a successful marriage would reinstate the family’s status and believed that Marie becoming a physician would thwart this plan. Marie admired her father and gave up her aspiration in order to please him. Her parental relationship influenced her interest in the Oedipus complex that she viewed as a central component of female sexuality.

Marie married Prince George of Denmark and Greece in 1906. Initially she thought herself in love with her “handsome giant”. But she later confessed that part of her love came from happiness at fulfilling her father’s wishes. George, like her father, was an older man with a similar character.

The relationship did not have a promising start. Marie wrote of her wedding night: “You took me that night in a short, brutal gesture, as if forcing yourself, and apologised, ‘I hate it as much as you do. But we must do it if we want children.’” Despite having two children and various affairs in the course of her marriage, Bonaparte was perpetually frustrated by her failure to have an orgasm during sex. At the time, females who were only able to climax via clitoral stimulation were viewed as sexual failures, stigmatised and labelled as frigid. Marie became obsessed with women like her who found sexual gratification through clitoral stimulation and this led her to try and find the explanation for her own so-called “frigidity”.

Marie hypothesized that the clitoral condition may be affected by genital anatomy. Doctors allowed her to be present during gynaecological examinations and she conducted 243 observations where she took genitalia measurements and asked the women about their sexual experiences. Her initial hypothesis that the size of the clitoris was responsible for vaginal orgasms was not supported by her findings and she instead concluded that it was the distance between the clitoris and the vaginal opening that was responsible for vaginal orgasms. When the distance was short, females were able to reach orgasm during sex and she referred to this as “paraclitoridennes”. When the distance was greater than 2.5 cm, the females had “teleclitoridiennes” and, like Marie, experienced difficulty reaching orgasm. She published these findings in her 1924 paper Notes of the Anatomical Causes of Frigidity in Women under the pseudonym A. E. Narjani.

Bonaparte described five women with teleclitoridiennes who underwent surgery to reduce the gap by repositioning the clitoris closer to the vaginal opening. Although the results were inconclusive, Marie employed surgeon Josef Halban to carry out the same procedure on her own body. After the first operation failed to result in improved sexual pleasure, she had surgery twice more. Neither of these operations resulted in her achieving the orgasm she desired; she would likely only have been left with discomfort, pain and reduced sexual sensation. 

But why did Marie think that vaginal orgasms were imperative to female sexual fulfilment? What could possibly have compelled her to undergo operations three times on her own body, an act we think of today as mutilation?

Marie was deeply interested in Freudian theories of female sexuality and the Oedipus complex which Freud viewed as central to psychosexual development. Freud argued that young girls desire their fathers. They then realise that their clitoris is phallic and marks where the penis they possessed was castrated. Females subsequently develop penis envy and this leads to resentment of the mother who is blamed for their castrated state. When the girl ends her own phallic activity of clitoral stimulation she castrates herself from her own female phallus – the clitoris – and accepts passivity to the male. By separating from her father and identifying with the mother and her female gender role, her Oedipus complex can be resolved.

Central to the resolution is the shift from clitoral to vaginal orgasms. Freud believed that clitoral orgasms were sexually immature, childlike and masculine. It was necessary to move away from clitoral pleasures experienced in infantile stages of sexual development. To be sexually mature and feminine, the orgasm had to be moved to the vaginal orifice. This meant having an orgasm through vaginal, heterosexual coitus. 

Marie believed she had psychobiological problems because she had not relocated her eroticism during puberty. In not separating herself from loving her often distant father she was unable to mature sexually. In her desperation to fulfil her gender role, and sublimate to the male penis, she went under the knife three times.

Marie’s personal history also informed her ideas about infantile masturbation. She described when her nurse, Mimau, came across her masturbating at eight years old. Mimau, greatly shocked and distressed, proclaimed, “It’s a sin! It’s a vice! If you do that, you will die!” and issued the child nightgowns with drawstrings at the bottom to prohibit her from carrying out such a ‘dangerous’ act. Marie recalled feeling deeply ashamed, guilty and fearful of death and subsequently stopping clitoral masturbation. This trauma likely remained with her as in her later writings she proposed that one of the causes for clitoral fixation post puberty is excessive infantile masturbation. In pleasuring oneself, the female is less inclined to wait for male gratification, and may, heaven forbid, experience orgasm before puberty. She wrote:

“Thus, the little girl who is destined to be truly feminine must generally have abandoned clitoral masturbation before she succeeds in obtaining end-pleasure, orgasm, and so enters the latency period with only the memories of inadequate fore-pleasure. Thereupon, like the Sleeping Beauty, pierced in the hand – the hand of guilty masturbation – by the mother’s phallic distaff, the preformed libidinal organization of the little girl will sink into slumber until such time as the husband’s advent through the briars of the hymeneal forest awakes her from sleep.”

Marie’s views on female sexuality are alien today. It is no longer accepted that a ‘mature’ female orgasm requires a man. The Freudian definition of sexual frigidity has no currency. It may seem puzzling that a ferociously curious and intelligent woman like Marie should have thought that female castration was necessary to achieve sexual satisfaction. Some feminists now regard her as an antifeminist, an extension of Freud’s inherently misogynistic and harmful views on female sexuality. 

This is unfair. Marie was challenging contemporary views about the clitoris as she realised the important role it played in penetrative sex. Her male sexologist counterparts viewed clitorises as dangerous. Wilhelm Stekel, one of Freud’s pupils, argued that females who did not orgasm when their husbands did were resisting both natural male dominance and their own natural female instinct to accept pleasure subserviently at the same time as the man. Marie belonged to a generation of women who were gaining new freedoms. They were finding paid work and seeking more independence from men. But men were theorising that they would never have mature sexual pleasure without a man’s penis. A female who clitorally climaxed without a man on her own or with another female was challenging this masculine social power. Their orgasms were inferior and they were “frigid”. 

There was also a cultural pressure to repopulate after the devastating losses of the First World War. Females pleasuring themselves clitorally were not only undermining masculinity, they were doing so in a non-reproductive manner and threatening the growth of the nation. 

But Marie realised that the clitoris was intrinsic to female sexual satisfaction. Her obsession with the vaginal orgasm didn’t involve rejection and disgust for the clitoris, as advanced by her male sexologist counterparts. Instead, she was concerned with how to optimise her chance of coital pleasure, believing that surgery to relocate her clitoris to a more accessible position would give her a vaginal orgasm.

In 1968, Koedt’s paper The Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm debunked the misogynistic myth: orgasms arising from vaginal penetration can only be credited to the clitoris. Further technological advances have enabled scientists to understand the phenomenally complex and intricate structure of the clitoris. In 2010, Buisson et al ultra-sounded the clitoral complex while a volunteer couple had intercourse and showed that the penis was hitting the roof of the clitoris. We now know that all female orgasms are clitoral.

Knowing this, Marie’s perseverance with surgery makes more sense. She was in pursuit of pleasure and her understanding of female sexual pleasure was advanced for her time. That she turned to self-mutilation seems shocking and tragic. But Marie Bonaparte was subjected to the misogynistic sexual views and gender roles forced onto her by a male-led society. Clitoral pleasure provoked a male anxiety that manhood was redundant. In response, men – like Freud – insisted that any female orgasm without a man, and his penis, was inferior.

Marie’s pioneering female sex research placed women as the subject of their own desire. At the time, nearly all understanding of female anatomy, sexual acts and sexual pleasure was formulated by men. Female body parts were named after the men who ‘discovered’ and ‘claimed’ them. The fallopian tubes after Gabriele Fallopio. The pouch of Douglas after James Douglas. The history of sex and sexual pleasure has always been written by men. Sexual views at Marie’s time were aggressively patriarchal. But Marie Bonaparte came up with her own ideas about the female body and in subjecting herself to the surgeon’s knife three times, she became her own experiment.

Marie realised the importance of her clitoris but she couldn’t accept that her clitoris was enough. She was lured into the Oedipal trap of penis envy and clitoral inferiority. Marie Bonaparte should not be dismissed as an anti-feminist, a blind follower of the phallo-centrism of her age. She should be admired as a female scientist who courageously investigated the female sexual experience and instigated anatomical research of female sexual pleasure, however unsuccessful her experiments might have been.

Works Cited:

Bertin, C., 1983. Marie Bonaparte. Paris: Librairie académique Perrin.

Freud, S. (1905). Three essays on the theory of sexuality. Standard Edition 7: 123- 246.

Lister, K., 2020. A Curious History Of Sex. Unbound, pp.49, 62-67.

McLeod, S. A. (2019, July 18). Psychosexual stages. Simply Psychology. https://www.simplypsychology.org/psychosexual.html

Moore, A., 2009. ‘Relocating Marie Bonaparte’s Clitoris’. Australian Feminist Studies, 24(60), pp.149-165.

Moore, A., 2009. Frigidity, Gender and Power in French Cultural History. French Cultural Studies, 20(4), pp.331-349.

Thompson, N., 2003. Marie Bonaparte’s Theory of Female Sexuality: Fantasy and Biology. American Imago, 60(3), pp.343-378.

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