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Understanding Orgasm (1968)

Tiresias who had been both man and woman, was asked, as Ovid’s legend goes, to mediate in a dispute between Jove and Juno as to which sex got more pleasure from lovemaking. Tiresias unhesitatingly answered that women did. Yet in the intervening 2000 years between Ovid’s time and our own, a mythology has been built up which not only holds the opposite to be true, but has made this belief an unswerving ideology dictating the quality of relations between the sexes. Women’s sexuality, defined by men to benefit men, has been downgraded and perverted, repressed and channeled, denied and abused until women themselves, thoroughly convinced of their sexual inferiority to men, would probably be dumbfounded to learn that there is scientific proof that Tiresias was indeed right.

The myth was codified by Freud as much as anyone else. In Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, Freud formulated his basic ideas concerning feminine sexuality: for little girls, the loading erogenous zone in their bodies is the clitoris; in order for the transition to womanhood to be successful, the clitoris must abandon its sexual primacy to the vagina; women in whom this transition has not been complete remain clitoralIy-oriented, or sexually anaesthetic, and psychosexually immature In the context of Freud’s total psychoanalytic view of women-that they are not whole human beings but mutilated males who long all their lives for a penis and must struggle to reconcile themselves to its lack-the requirement of a transfer of erotic sensation from clitoris to vagina became a prima facie case for their inevitable sexual inferiority. In Freud’s logic, those who struggle to become what they are not must be inferior to that to which they aspire.

Freud himself admitted near the end of his life that his knowledge of women was inadequate. If you want to know more about femininity, you must interrogate your own experience, or turn to the poets, or wait until science can give you more profound and more coherent information, he said; he also hoped the female psychoanalysts who followed him would be able to find out more. But the post-Freudians adhered rigidly to the doctrine of the master, and, as with most of his work, what Freud hoped would be taken as a thesis for future study became instead a kind of canon law.

While the neo-Freudians haggled over the correct reading of the Freudian bible, watered-down Freudianism was wending its way into the cultural mythology via Broadway plays, novels, popular magazines, social scientists, marriage counselors and experts of various kinds who found it useful in projecting desired images of woman. The superiority of the vaginal over the clitoral orgasm was particularly useful as a theory, since it provided a convenient basis for categorization: clitoral women wore deemed immature, neurotic, bitchy and masculine; women who had vaginal orgasms were maternal, feminine, mature and normal. Though frigidity should technically be defined as total inability to achieve orgasm, the orthodox Freudians (and pseudo-Freudians) preferred to define it as inability to achieve vaginal orgasm, by which definition, in 1944, Edmond Bergler adjudged between 70 and 80 per cent of all women frigid. The clitoral vs. vaginal debate raged hot and heavy among the sexologists – Kinsey’s writings stressed the importance of the clitoris to female orgasm and contradicted Bergler’s statistics-but it became clear that there was something indispensable to society in the Freudian view which allowed it to remain unchallenged in the public consciousness.

In 1966, Dr. William H. Masters and Mrs. Virginia E. Johnson published Human Sexual Response, a massive clinical study of the physiology of sex. Briefly and simply, the Masters and Johnson conclusions about the female orgasm, based on observation of and interviews with 487 women, were these:

1) That the dichotomy of vaginal and clitoral orgasms is entirely false. Anatomically, all orgasms arc centered in the clitoris, whether they result from direct manual pressure applied to the clitoris, indirect pressure resulting from the thrusting of penis during intercourse, or generalized sexual stimulation of other erogenous zones like the breasts.

2) That women are naturally multiorgasmic; that is, if a woman is immediately stimulated following orgasm, she is likely to experience several orgasms in rapid succession. This is not an exceptional occurrence, but one of which most women are capable.

3) That while women’s orgasms do not vary in kind, they vary in intensity. The most intense orgasms experienced by the research subjects were by masturbatory manual stimulation, followed in intensity by manual stimulation by the partner; the least intense orgasms wore experienced during intercourse.

4) list there is an Infinite variety in female sexual response as regards intensity and duration of orgasms To anyone acquainted with the body of existing knowledge of feminine sexuality, the Masters and Johnson findings were truly revolutionary and liberating in the extent to which they demolished the established myths. Yet two years after the study was published, it seems hardly to have made any impact at all. Certainly it is not for lack of information that the myths persist; Human Sexual Response, despite its weighty scientific language, was an immediate best seller, and popular paperbacks explicated it to millions of people in simpler language and at a cheaper price. The myths remain because a male-dominated American culture has a vested interest in their continuance.

Before Masters and Johnson, men defined feminine sexuality in a way as favorable to themselves as possible. If woman’s pleasure was obtained through the vagina, then she was totally dependent on the man’s erect penis to achieve orgasm; she would receive her satisfaction only as a concomitant of man’s seeking his. With the clitoral orgasm, woman’s sexual pleasure was independent of the male’s, and she could seek her satisfaction as aggressively as the man sought his, a prospect which didn’t appeal to too many men. The definition of feminine sexuality as normally vagina], in other words, was a part of keeping women down, of making them sexually as well as economically, socially and politically subservient.

In retrospect, particularly with the additional perspective of our own limes, Freud’s theory of feminine sexuality appears an historical rationalization for the realities of Victorian society. A prisoner of the Victorian ethos, Freud had to play the paterfamilias. Freud’s analysis implied that woman’s low status had not been conferred upon her by men, but by God, who created her without a penis.

The superiority of the vaginal orgasm seems almost a demoniac determination on Freud’s part to complete the Victorian repression of feminine eroticism, to stigmatize the remaining vestiges of pleasure felt by women and thus make them unacceptable to the women themselves. For there were still women whose sexuality hadn’t been completely destroyed, as evidenced by one Dr. Isaac Brown Baker, a surgeon who performed numerous clitoridectomies on women to prevent the sexual excitement which, he was convinced, caused insanities, catalepsy, hysteria epilepsy and other diseases. The Victorians needed to repress sexuality for the success of Western industrialized society; in particular, the total repression of woman’s sexuality was crucial to ensure her subjugation. So the Victorians honored only that aspect of sexuality which was necessary to the survival of the species – the male ejaculation; made women submissive to sex by creating a mystique of the sanctity of motherhood; and, supported by Freud, passed on to us the heritage of the double standard.

When Kinsey laid to rest the part of the double standard that maintained women got no pleasure at all from sex, everyone cried out that there was a sexual revolution afoot. But such talk, as usual, was deceptive. Morality, outside the marriage bed, remained the same, and children were socialized as though Kinsey had never described what they would be like when they grow up. Boys were taught that they should get their sex where they could find it, so as far as they could. On the old assumption that women were asexual creatures, girls were taught that since they needed sex less than boys did, it was up to them to impose sexual restraints. In whatever sex education adolescents did manage to receive, they were told that men had penises and women vaginas; the existence of the clitoris was not mentioned, and pleasure in sex was never discussed at all.

Adolescent boys growing up begging for sexual crumbs from girls frightened for their reputations-a situation that remains unchanged to this day-hardly constitutes the vanguard of a sexual revolution. However, the marriage manual craze that followed Kinsey assumed that a lifetime of psychological destruction could, with the aid of a little booklet, be abandoned after marriage, and that husband and wife should be able to make sure that the wife was not robbed of her sexual birthright to orgasm, just so long as it was vaginal (though the marriage manuals did rather reluctantly admit that since the clitoris was the most sexually sensitive organ in the female body, a little clitoral stimulation was in order), and so long as their orgasms were simultaneous.

The effect of the marriage manuals of course ran counter to their ostensible purpose. Under the guise of frankness and sexual liberation, they dictated prudery and restraint. Sex was made so mechanized, detached and intellectual that it was robbed of its sensuality. Man became a spectator of his own sexual experience. And the marriage manuals put now pressure on women. The swing was from repression to preoccupation with the orgasm. Men took the marriage manuals to mean that their sexuality would be enhanced by bringing women to orgasm and, again co-opting feminine sexuality for their own ends, they put pressure on women to perform. The marriage manuals’ endorse

went of the desirability of vaginal orgasm insured that women would be asked not only, ‘Mid you come? but also, ‘Mid you conform to Freud’s conception of a psychosexually mature woman, and thereby validate my masculinity?

Appearances notwithstanding, the age old taboos against conversation about personal sexual experience haven’t yet been broken down. This reticence has allowed the mind-manipulators of the media to create myths of sexual supermen and superwomen. So the bed becomes a competitive arena, where men and women measure themselves against these mythical rivals, while simultaneously trying to live up to the ecstasies promised them by the marriage manuals and the fantasies of the media (If the earth doesn’t move for me, I must be missing something) Our society has made sex a sport, with its record-break- its judges, its rules and its spectators.

As anthropologists have shown, woman’s sexual response is culturally conditioned; historically, women defer to whatever model of their sexuality is offered them by men. So the sad thins for women is that they have participated in the destruction of their own eroticism. Women have helped make the vaginal orgasm into a status symbol in a male-dictated system of values. A woman would now perceive her preference for clitoral orgasm as a a secret shame, ignominious in the eyes of other women as well as those of men. This internalization can be seen in literature: Mary McCarthy and Doris Lessing’s writings on orgasm do not differ substantially from Ernest Hemingway’s, and Simone de Beauvior, in The Second Sex, refers to vaginal orgasm as the only normal satisfaction.

One factor that has made this possible is that female sexuality is subtle and delicate, conditioned as much by the emotions as by physiology and sociology. Masters and Johnson proved that the orgasm experienced during intercourse, the misnamed vaginal orgasm, did not differ anatomically from the clitoral orgasm. But this should Dot be seen as their most significant contribution to the sexual emancipation of women. A difference remains in the subjective experience of orgasm during intercourse and orgasm apart from intercourse. In the complex of emotional factors affecting feminine sexuality, there is a whole panoply of pleasures: the pleasure of being penetrated and filled by a man, the pleasure of sexual communication, the pleasure of affording a man his orgasm the erotic pleasure that exists even when sex is not terminated by orgasmic release. Masters and Johnson’s real contribution was to show this infinite variety in female sexual response; that one experience is not better than another, but merely different.

There is no doubt that Masters and Johnson were fully aware of the implications of their study to the sexual liberation of women. As they wrote, With orgasmic physiology established, the human female now has an undeniable opportunity to develop realistically her own sexual response levels. Two years later this statement seems naive and entirely too optimistic, Certainly the sexual problem of our society will never be solved until there is real and unfeigned equality between man and women. This idea is usually misconstrued: sexual liberation for women Is wrongly understood to mean that women will adopt all the forms of masculine sexuality. As in the whole ism of women’s liberation, that’s really not the point. Women don’t aspire to imitate the mistakes of men in sexual matters, to view sexual experiences as conquest and ego-enhancement, to use other people to serve their own ends. But if the Masters and Johnson material is allowed to filter into die public consciousness, hopefully to replace the enshrined Freudian myths, then woman at long last will be allowed to take the first stop toward her emancipation: to define and enjoy the forms of her own sexuality.

-Susan Lydon

Source: Ramparts Magazine

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