THE DILEMMA OF DESIRE (SXSW2020) – Review by Leslie Combemale

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Are you ‘cliterate’? How many of you out there know the exact physiological structure of the clitoris? How many of you are uncomfortable with it being brought up, or even written in a sentence? That is what the new documentary The Dilemma of Desire considers as part of a larger examination of the disconnection from, and vilification of, women’s sexuality, and how it damages self-acceptance and self-value for women around the world.

The clitoris, The Dilemma of Desire explains, is fundamental to female pleasure. The film centers on the stories of four women who are working to change perception and smash the myths around women’s bodies, including researcher Dr. Lisa Diamond, conceptual mixed media artist and activist Sophia Wallace, Neuroscientist Dr. Stacey Dutton, and award-winning industrial designer and femme-focused sex toy inventor Ti Chang. There are also interviews with women who are actively working to re-center their thinking around their own sexuality. Umnia, Becca, Jasmine, Sunny, and Coriama share their very different personal stories, but they all have much in common: the discovery of their own sexual power was, in some way, stifled by their upbringing or social environment.

Dr. Diamond is working to inform and enlighten the public with correct information about women’s arousal. Dr. Dutton is studying the biology of the clitoris, and is committed to championing a reframing of anatomical textbooks to include the clitoris: That’s right. There are anatomical textbooks in circulation and being printed today that don’t even mention it. Chang heads a company called CRAVE, which designs impressively elegant vibrators for women, including one that is worn as a necklace, which was written up in an article in Glamour magazine.

Wallace is going around the world with her viral project CLITERACY, which is based in the anatomical design of the clitoris, and graphic statements like “The Hole is not the Whole”, and “Democracy without Cliteracy” Phallusy”. She has had events around CLITERACY in Spain, Austria, Mexico, Italy, Nigeria, and Australia, and has works in the permanent collection of the Leslie-Lohman Museum. She even has a TED TALK.

At times it seems the personal stories of the women interviewed have no direct bearing on the subject matter, and make the film lose a bit of its focus. They do eventually loop back, and drive home the fact that until women are seen and accepted as sexual beings, and in equal measure to men, they will always be less than fully in their power, both for themselves, and the world around them.

One of the most striking, and welcome aspects of the film is how inclusive it is across sexual orientation, race, and class. Judgment is left at the doorstep, which is essential to an authentic exploration of the topic. Through these interviews and discussion with femme-identifying folk of all backgrounds and experiences, the film reveals the limited thinking, and the destructive, reductionist perspectives held around the world. A strong case is made that women’s place in society, and their access to power and autonomy, have been, and continue to be squelched, through the way media represents male vs female sexuality. Representation, both literal and metaphorical, of the male sex organ is ubiquitous, whereas female sex organs are not only not shown, but often forbidden for public display.

Two-time Peabody Award-winning documentary and feature film director Maria Finitzo both helms and has a producing credit on The Dilemma of Desire. She is well-suited to it, given much of her career has been focused on amplifying subjects that matter to us all, like the controversial science of stem cell research, the command and control of nuclear weapons on an international level, and the complex psychology of adolescent girls.

There was supposed to be a panel on the subject of both the film and ‘cliteracy’ at SXSW, called “The Politics of Pleasure: Can we come together?” which would have included film subjects Ti Chang and Sophia Wallace. What a loss to the curious and femme-supportive. The panel would have no doubt built upon the documentary, allowing discussion on how to subvert the overt and covert ways in which women, and their core sexuality, are undermined on a daily basis. AND WHAT WE CAN DO ABOUT IT.

It’s a discussion essential to our growth as a world community, and one that The Dilemma of Desire sensitively, but honestly brings into the open.

3 1/2 out of 5 stars.

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Leslie Combemale

Leslie Combemale writes as Cinema Siren for websites including LikeABossGirls.com, where she promotes women in film with her own column. She is in her third year as producer and moderator of the "Women Rocking Hollywood" panel at San Diego Comic-Con. Find all her interviews and reviews at cinemasiren.com.