Why you should care
Marie Bonaparte’s interest in the clitoris went an inch too far.
In the mid-2000s, Kim Wallen, an Emory University psychobiologist with an interest in the roots of sexual experiences, told his colleague Elisabeth Lloyd, of the University of Indiana, Bloomington, about “a far-fetched idea” that he’d been mulling over for a couple of decades: Might individual variations in the shape of biologically female genitalia at least partially explain why some people with vaginas find it easier or harder than others to orgasm during penetrative sex? Lloyd’s own research, which went a long way in advancing popular understanding of female orgasms, had found that three-fourths of women don’t report consistently achieving orgasm from penetrative sex. But neither she nor any other modern sex researcher Wallen was aware of had tried to figure out whether anything physical might account for that.
Lloyd knew of one researcher who’d had the same idea, decades before Wallen, and published a mostly forgotten paper on it, in 1924. Intrigued, Wallen tracked down the text and discovered that its author, A.E. Narjani, was a pseudonym for an early, and unexpected, modern sex researcher: Marie Bonaparte, princess of Greece and Denmark, great-grandniece of Napoleon, heir to the fortune of Monte Carlo and aunt to Britain’s Prince Philip.
Bonaparte’s search led her to measure the contours of 243 women’s genitals and gather data on their orgasmic experiences.
Born in 1882, Bonaparte had an irrepressibly sharp mind, a penchant for no-holds-barred confessional writing and a deep desire for sexual satisfaction. She wrote and spoke openly about her sex life and desires. That’s how we know her 50-year marriage to Prince George of Greece and Denmark was loving but largely sexless — most likely because he was predominately, if not solely, sexually attracted to men — and that Bonaparte had a slew of affairs, including a long-running one with 11-term French Prime Minister Aristide Briant. Her interests were so well-known that when Bonaparte persuaded Romanian sculptor Constantin Brâncusi to make a bust of her in 1909, it morphed into Princess X, a big bronze phallus.
Although we often think of the 19th and early 20th centuries as sexually repressed eras, Bonaparte’s sexual interests weren’t entirely unusual. Alison Downham Moore, a historian of European sexuality at Western Sydney University who is writing a chapter on Bonaparte for an upcoming book on women who changed the world, explains that there was plenty of contemporary scholarly and medical dialogue about female sexual pleasure.
But a good amount of sexual dialogue of the era was dominated by long-standing beliefs that female sexuality was all about the vagina. Medicalized fears of masturbation and overt female sexuality had slowly gained purchase since at least the 18th century. In 1905, Sigmund Freud distilled these threads of thought into a biologically ignorant yet popular theory that clitoral stimulation and masturbation were immature, and that any woman interested in anything but vaginal penetration needed psychological help. “This was a really strange idea,” says Moore, but a widespread one “that probably just resulted in many women not ever experiencing any kind of orgasm.”
Bonaparte was steeped in this toxic sexual ideology. She started a correspondence with Freud in 1924, and by 1925 had become one of his favorite psychoanalytic patients, undergoing at least two hours of analysis every day. She noted that she could have orgasms with clitoral stimulation, but not solely through vaginal stimulation, and viewed herself as clinically frigid because of that.
Bonaparte openly broke with Freud in the 1920s, seeking physical, not psychological, causes of her so-called frigidity and refusing to write the clitoris off as irrelevant or immature. Her search led her to measure the contours of 243 women’s genitals, gather data on their orgasmic experiences and publish her 1924 paper arguing that the distance between the clitoris and the vaginal opening might account for the trouble some women experienced with climaxing via penetration alone. Her theory was that women with clitorises 2.5 centimeters or fewer from their vaginal openings might get more clitoral stimulation via penetration than those with clitorises farther away. Lloyd and Wallen later confirmed Bonaparte’s finding, based on analyses of both her dataset and another one, in 2010.
Lloyd and Wallen call Bonaparte’s research groundbreaking, especially given the trickiness, even to this day, of taking genital measurements and the prevailing anti-clitoris attitudes of Bonaparte’s time. Hers was an important counterpoint to the widespread advance of those attitudes, says Moore.
Unfortunately, Bonaparte took her research too far. She and Austrian gynecologist Josef Halban developed a surgery known as the Halban-Narjani procedure, which severed the suspensory ligaments around the external clitoris and pulled it closer to the vaginal opening. Bonaparte subjected herself to the surgery, previously only performed on cadavers, in 1927, but found herself still frigid — she likely suffered scarring around her clitoris and a subsequent lack of sensitivity. Meanwhile, mainstream gynecologists tore her to shreds by identifying cases of women with clitorises more than 2.5 centimeters from their vaginal openings who could orgasm during intercourse. Bonaparte lacked the statistical knowledge to understand that these findings did not invalidate her theory, and so resigned herself to the belief that her work and conclusions had been wrong.
Freud’s shadow eventually blotted out her work. Today, Bonaparte is primarily known for her work establishing Freudian psychoanalysis in France, propping up the Psychoanalytic Publishing House with her fortune and helping Freud and a couple hundred other Jews escape the Nazis in the late ’30s. She became a psychoanalyst, and supposedly subjected François Mitterrand to an impromptu session during Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation, in 1953, while they were both bored. The few modern sex researchers and activists who know about her, Moore says, “have tended to underestimate her as merely a lackey of Freud.”
It’s hard not to wonder where Bonaparte’s research could have led if she hadn’t been ground down by personal misfortunes and prevailing Freudian theories. But in remembering Bonaparte and unearthing her work to build upon it, as Lloyd and Wallen have done, we can perhaps move toward the nuanced, open understanding she sought.