Literature Study GuidesThe Second SexVolume 2 Part 1 Chapter 3 Summary

The Second Sex | Study Guide

Simone de Beauvoir

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The Second Sex | Volume 2, Part 1, Chapter 3 : Lived Experience (Formative Years) | Summary



This chapter, titled "Sexual Initiation," examines the asymmetry of male and female eroticism that accounts for differences in initial sexual experience in the lives of men and women. Predictably, the complications which make sexual pleasure more elusive for women than for men originate in the developmental crises for girls, and the continuing difficulties for the late adolescent—most notably, sexual initiation.

According to Beauvoir, "woman has a more authentic experience of herself." This does not mean the woman is superior, but in her development and the trauma of her sexual initiation, her pleasure in her sexuality is long in coming, and often hard won. The loss of virginity is a breaking with the past, and usually an experience of physical pain even for a girl matched with a sensitive lover. She leaves the adolescent world of romantic daydreams for the real and appraising eyes, and the groping hands of an implacable reality. Finally, there is in the sexual act the danger and life-changing prospects of a child. For some women, sexual pleasure is forever elusive. The statistics for frigidity in women are substantial, but the woman who accepts her passivity and her otherness, as well as her subjectivity, can find delight in erotic pleasure.

Man's "anatomical destiny" is different from women's "from the biological, social, and psychological points of view," Beauvoir argues. Male sexuality is originally transcendent. He reaches out for a partner with his hands, his penis, and his mouth. Consummation is accompanied by his pleasure, as well as by the fulfillment of his biological imperative, his ejaculation. In his "aggressive role and satisfied solitude of orgasm ... he hesitates to recognize himself fully as flesh." That is, he fails to find himself objectified in the very ways the woman is flesh to him. Still, according to Beauvoir, if he covets the flesh of his partner while recognizing her freedom, she feels both desire and respect in him, and "the lovers can experience shared pleasure in their own way." Alterity is, therefore, no longer hostile in character.


The singular achievement of this work rests in the author's ability to capture both conscious awareness, and an event's registration in the unconscious, in a single stroke. That is, perhaps, the way events are registered in a moment of experience, and stored as the basis of future experience. In this case, the primal traumas yield the fact that pain and pleasure, terror and acceptance, revulsion and pleasure, occupy two sides of a very thin coin. Consider, for example, the Beauvoir's statement with its alarming diction and point of view: "The vagina ... becomes an erotic center ... through the intervention of the male, and ... a kind of rape."

The context here is the developmental shift the girl must make from pleasure in her clitoris, to vaginal sensitivity—at least as an accepted proposition in psychoanalytic theory. If the erotic zone of the mature male is the penis, it is a simple matter for the boy/man of what comes naturally, a message from his body to his receptive mind and memory. For the woman, her mature erotic zone is established by a body outside her own, and unlike her own. And this adjustment is not easily achieved. Finally, the feminine adjustment to sexual pleasure is initiated in rape, in the forceful penetration demanded by the virgin body. This speaks volumes, of course, of the strange complementary connections of the male and female bodies, of the relation between men and women—of what in this text is called alterity. In a single statement, alterity is defined not merely as anatomical complementarity between the sexes, but as a psychosexual and social phenomenon as well.

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