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The Myth Of The Vaginal Orgasm

The Myth Of The Vaginal Orgasm image The Myth Of The Vaginal Orgasm image The Myth Of The Vaginal Orgasm image
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TT a M W wm ld s + 3 m. A. Tiresias, who had been both man and woman, was asked, as Ovid's end goes, to medíate n a dispute between Jove and Juno as to which sex got more pleasure from love making. Tiresias unhesitatingly answered that women did. Yet n the ntervening 2,000 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. Woman's sexuality, defined by men to benefit men, has been downgraded and perverted, repressed and channel sd, denied and abused until women themselves, thoroughly convinced of their uat nferiority to men, wou ld probably be dumfounded to learn that there is scientifc proof that Tiresias was indeed right. The myth was codif ed by Freud, as much as by anyone else. In "Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality," Freud formulated his basic deas concerning feminine sexuality: for little girls, the leading 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 clitorally-oriented, or "sexually ie" and "psychosexually immature." 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, novelists, popular magazines, social scientists, marriage counselors, and experts of various kinds who found it useful in projecting desired images of women. 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 were deemed immature, neurotic, bitchy, and masculine; women who had vaginal orgasms were maternal, feminine, mature, and normal. Though idity should technically be defined as total inability to achieve orgawn, the orthodox Freudians (and pseudo-Freudians) preferred to define t as nablity to achieve vaginal orgasm, by which def inition, in 1944, Edmond Bergler adjudged between 70 and 80 percent of all women frigid. The clitoralill vs. vaginal debate raged hot and heavy among the sexologists-although Kinsey's writings stressed the mportance of the clitoris to female orgasm and contradicted BergJer's statistics - but it became clear that there was something indispensable to the society in the A an view which allowed t to remain unchallenged n 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 femal orgasm, based on observation of and ê interviews with 487 women, were these: 1 )Thatthe dichotomy of vaginal and clitoral orgasms is entirely false. Anatomically, all orgasms are centered in the clitons, whether they result from direct manual i pressure applied to the clitons, indirect pressure resulting from the thrusting of penis j daring intercourse, or generalized sexual stimulation of other erogenous zones like the I breasts. 2) That wo men are naturally multi-orgasmic; that is, if a woman is immediately stim-l ulated following orgasm, she s 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 were experienced by women during mtercourse. V 4) That the female orgasm s as real and identif iable a physiological entity as the male's; it ' follows the same pattern of erection and detumescence of the ditoris, which may be seen as the female equivalent of the penis. 5) That ther is an "infinite variety of f male sexual response" as regards in tensity and duration of orgasms. To anyone acquainted with the body of existing knowledge of feminine sexuality, the Masters and Johnson f indings were truly revolutionary and liberating in the extent to ï which they demolished the established myths. Yet four years after the study was published, it seems hardly to have made much of an impact at all. Certainly it is not for lack of information that the myths sist; Human Sexual Response, despite itsweighty 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 mythology remains intact because a male-dominated American culture has a vested interest in its continuance. Dr. William Masters had searched for a woman co-worker for his researh because, as he said, "No male really understands femal sexuality." Before Masters and Johnson, female sexuality had been objectively defined and described by men; the subjective experience of women had had no part in defining their own. sexuality. And men defined feminine sexuality in a way as favorable to themselves as possible. If a woman's pleasure was obtained through the vagina, then she was totally dependent on the man's erect penis to achieve orgasm; she wou ld 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 def inition of normal feminine sexuality as vaginal, in other words, was a part of keeping women down, of mak ing them sexually, as well as economically, socially, and politically subservient. Freud's insistence on the superiority of the vaginal orgasm seems almost a demonic determination on his part to ■■ finalize the Victorian's repression of feminine eroticism, to stigmatize the remaining vestiges of pleasure feit by women, and thus make them unacceptable to the women themselves. For there were still women whose sexuality hadn't been completely destroyed, as ewidenced 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, hystena, epilepsy, w and other diseases. The Victorians had needed to repress sexuality for the success of tern industrialized society; n particular, the total repression of woman's sexuality was cruWcial to ensure her subjugation. So the Victorians honored only the male ejaculation, that aspect of sexuality which was necessary to the survival of the species; the male ejaculation k 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 doublé standard. When Kinsey laid to rest the part of the doublé 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 socializèd 'as though Kinsey had never described what they would I be Mke when they grew up. Boys were taught they should get their sex where they could find it, "go 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 ' mpose sexual restraints. In whatever sex education adolescents did manage to receive. f were told that men had penises and women vaginas; the existence of the clitoris was nol tioned, and pleasure in sex was never discussed at all. Adolescent boys growing up begging for sexual crumbs from girls frightened for their W utations"-a situation that remains unchanged to this day-hardly constitues the vanguard of a f 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 Tiarriage, and that husband and wife should be able to make sure that the wife was not robbed of continucd on page 18 Masters and Johnson concluded that the otomy of vaginal and clitoral orgasms is entirely false. Anatomically, all orgasms are centered in the clitoris. r Freud maintained that for little girls, the leadinq eroqenous zone is the clitoris; in order for the transition to womanhood to be successful, the chtoris nust abandon its sexual primacy to the vagina. Vaginal Orgasm continued trom page 17 her sexual birthright to orgasm, just so long as t was vaginal (though the marriage manuals did rather reluctantly admit that since the clitoris was the most sexually sensitive organ n the female body, a little clitoral stimulation in foreplay was n 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 new pressure on women. The swing was from repression to ===== pation 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 endorsement by the marriage manuals of the desirability of vaginal orgasm insured that women would be asked not only, "Did you come?," but also, "Did you conform to Freud's conception of a psychosexually mature woman, and thereby valídate my masculinity?" Rather than being revolutionary, the present sexual situation istragic. Appearances notwithstanding, the age-old taboos against conversation about personal sexual experience still haven't broken down. This ret-icence has allowed the mind-manipulators of the media to créate myths of sexual supermen and superwomen. So the bed becomes a competitive arena, where men and women measure themselves against these mythical rivals, while simultaniously 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," the reasoning goes.) Our society treats sex as a sport, with its record-breakers, its judges, its rules, and its spectators. As anthorpologists have shown, women's sexual response is culturally conditioned; historically, women defer to whatevei model of their sexuality is offered them by men. So the sad thing 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 "secret shame," gnominious n the eyes of other women as well as those of men. This internalization can be seen in the literature: Mary McCarthy's and Dons Lessing's writings on orgasm do not differ substantially from D. H. Lawrence's and Ernest Hemmingway's, and even Simone de Beauvoir, in The Secotul Sex, refers to vaginal orgasm as the only "normal satisfaction." Rather than working to alleviate the pressure on them, women have increased it. Feeling themselves insecure n a competitive situation, they are afraid to admit their. own imagined inadequacies, and Me to other women about their sexual experiences. With their men, they often fake orgasm to appear "good in bed" and thus place an intolerable physical burden on themselves and and a psychological burden on the men unlucky enough to see through the ruse. One factor that has made this unfortunate situation possible is ignorance: the more subtle and delicate aspects of human sexuality are still not fully understood. For example, a woman's ability to attain orgasm seems to be conditioned as much by her emotions as by physiology and sociology. 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 levéis." Two years later this statement seems naive and entirely too optimistic. Certainly the sexual problems of our society will never be solved until there is real and unfeigned equality between men and women. This idea is usually misconstrued: sexual liberation for women s wrongly understood to mean that women will adopt all the forms of masculine sexuality. As in the whole issue of women's liberation, that's really not the point. Women don't aspire to imítate 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 the public consciousness, hopefully to replace the enshrined Freudian myths, then woman at long last will be allowed to take the f irst step toward her emancipation, to define and enjoy the forms of her own sexuality. The preceding article was excerpted from Sisterhood is Power ful: An Anthology of Writings front the Womeñ 's Liberation Movement, edited by Robin Morgin (published by Vintage Books,1970)