Anti-Climax

The Nature and Evolution of Female Sexuality

by Mary Jane Sherfey MD.
Random House, 182 pp., $5.95

The Female Orgasm: Psychology, Physiology, Fantasy

by Seymour Fisher
Basic Books, 521 pp., $15.00

In these days of sexual politics it becomes necessary to separate the scientific study of female sexuality from its misuse by theorists who wish to establish strategic positions in the struggle between the sexes. For this reason, and because her ideas have already assumed importance within the women’s liberation movement, one cannot ignore Mary Jane Sherfey’s The Nature and Evolution of Female Sexuality.

Dr. Sherfey is a New York psychiatrist whose research originated with an interest in premenstrual tension but now extends into many other fields. Her book is mainly the reprint of a long and very technical article which appeared in 1966 in the Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association. A later issue of that journal was largely devoted to papers by fellow psychiatrists who attacked many aspects of Sherfey’s argument. Marcel Heiman, clinical professor of psychiatry at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, went so far as to conclude that “Sherfey has completely misunderstood and misinterpreted the facts established by embryology.” Others documented her “inconsistencies” and lack of scientific objectivity.”

In reprinting the article, Sherfey answers none of these criticisms; and in the brief introduction that now precedes the original text she merely informs us that letters of congratulation “came pouring in with each mail delivery,” that to this day she has a “special stack…from people you would call the ‘big names’ in psychiatry,” and that “there was not one letter denouncing the article or arguing with its chief propositions.”

Sherfey’s position consists of three major theses: first, that the early embryo of all human beings is female; second, that by the nature of their physiological structure women are sexually insatiable; and third, that civilization arose as a means of suppressing the inordinate demands of female sexuality that result from its inherent insatiability.

The first of these theses challenges the Freudian belief in an embryo that is sexually undifferentiated and therefore bisexual. The question is important in psychoanalytic theory because Freud assumed that the clitoris served as a residual organ of the masculine element in women, and that this condition interfered with the development of vaginal interests which he considered to be “normal” in mature females. Against this, Sherfey asserts that “the early embryo is not undifferentiated; ‘it’ is a female.” She argues that without a great deal of androgen after the first five or six weeks no embryo would become a male, but that the female does not require additional hormones of any sort. She presents us with the image of a female development in the early embryology of all human beings, who would continue to be females if the androgen bath did not deflect some of them into becoming males.

But it is only by a crude sleight-of-hand that one could reach Sherfey’s conclusion. Genetic or chromosomal sex is determined at the moment of fertilization; and while it is true that male embryos develop as they do because of the androgen bath during the fifth or sixth week, whereas …

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Letters

Come, Come Now March 8, 1973