Pleasure centre: a history of the female orgasm
In 2002, Kim Cattrall—the English-Canadian actress best known for portraying venturesome ‘try-sexual’ Samantha on Sex and the City—released a book (her first) in collaboration with her then husband (her third): a hardcover sexual-instruction manual titled Satisfaction: The Art of the Female Orgasm. Both Cattrall and partner Mark Levinson, a man Wikipedia calls “an audio designer and jazz bassist” and the New York Times reports to be “ruggedly handsome, even with tufts of grey hair sprouting from his ears,” hoped their joint foray into prose might achieve something other self-help guides hadn’t: that through soft-focus drawings and digestible technical details and a glossary of symbols (the anus here appears as a naive sun), they might finally redeem American women from the wasteland of sexual dissatisfaction.
Satisfaction is a heteronormative, couples-focused guide, indicative of the pair’s own preferences. The sparse text, for all its deadpan sincerity, is pretty nauseating, with oleaginous lines from Levinson such as, “One night Kim said, ‘You’re an artist.’ That was one of the greatest compliments I received in my entire life.” (There’s also the grossly inaccurate assumption, peppered between close-ups of vulvas, that all women require a man to coax them out of their shell.) But the very existence of this volume—which retails at £25.74 on Abe Books for a signed copy with a “very good dust jacket”—is indicative of more than an attempt to squeeze extra juice from the sassy SATC brand. It conveys a gaping hole in our collective understanding of female sexual experience and the scramble of writers, publishers and celebrities to fill it. Cattrall’s glossy picture book is not a loner, but part of an ever-growing body of literature that aims to shed light on an eternal, slippery mystery: how women might achieve something like enlightenment via orgasm. (Other partisan how-to titles dedicated to this enigma are equal parts earnest and crass, with titles like O Wow: Discovering Your Ultimate Orgasmand The Lowdown on Going Down and The Female Orgasm: How to Bring Out the Pleasure Cooker in Her.)
Most people know what an orgasm is, even if they haven’t experienced one firsthand1. This particular breed of erotic rapture is—like us—complex and multifarious. So complex, in fact, that we’re still yet to pin it down; in the early 2000s a pair of Canadian academics synthesised at least 25 coexisting definitions. Some focused on biology, some on our psychological state, and others integrated the two approaches. For instance, when talking about women, Reubens (1982), deemed climax as “involuntary reflex action accompanied by uterine/vaginal contractions”. For Wallin (1960) and Wallin and Clark (1963), it’s is relegated to gratification: a “climax of intense feeling, followed by feeling of relief and relaxation.” Schiavi and Segraves (1995) made it about both: an “acme of sexual pleasure with rhythmic contraction of perineal/reproductive organs, cardiovascular and respiratory changes, release of sexual tension.”
As a layperson, the paper’s key takeaway is sobering. We can do many complicated things in 2016. We use our mobile phones to navigate in real time. We’ve invented robots so brainy that it’s estimated they’ll render six per cent of all jobs in the United States useless by 2021. We have just discovered what might be water vapour plumes on Jupiter’s moon, hinting at the possibility of life there. All of this and yet we cannot agree on what sexual climax—something elemental and carnal and near universal—actually means.
Not every orgasmic element is inscrutable. Human orgasms, we’re certain, are controlled by the automatic nervous system, a division of the peripheral nervous system comprising nerves and ganglia outside the spinal cord and brain. They occur following physical sexual stimulation, either self-initiated or with a partner. When experienced in healthily functioning bodies, they have certain shared traits. The heart races. Blood pressure elevates. There are rhythmic muscular contractions around the pelvic region. Other responses have also been observed: muscle spasms, anal contractions, sweating, shouting, shuddering, body rigidity. For females, the pain threshold might increase by 50% or more. While all this jolting and jarring is going down, the neural activity in each sex is roughly the same: our brains are flooded with dopamine. Everything is on fire. According to one researcher: “What we see is an overall activation of the brain; basically it’s like all systems go.” Perhaps this is why in particularly cheesy movies, sexual summit is subbed out for fireworks; instead of romping flesh we witness a triumphant fusillade of noise and smoke and light. For most men, the part that comes next—where their privates are satisfied but rendered temporarily useless—continues to mimic a pyrotechnic moment: the part where all those floating materials slowly descend, then disappear from view.
You probably know this next bit, but an essay (of sorts) on female orgasms demands a rudimentary outline of their mechanics. The penis has a single route that carries sensations to the brain, while the female genital tract has three or four. Overwhelmingly, the common way women eventually hit euphoria occurs via the clitoris, with its more than 8000 sensory nerve endings. (One descriptor crafted by a BBC journalist is too wonderful not to include here: the clit is here dubbed a “pebble-shaped nubbin, plonked in an awkward position, a centimetre or so in front of the vaginal opening.”)
The G-spot is credited with kick-starting the less common but equally luminous vaginal orgasm. Named after German gyneacologist Ernst Gräfenberg—known best for his 1950 write-up on female climax for the International Journal of Sexology—this sensitive, knobbly patch of tissue is theoretically located inside the vagina’s front wall. Plenty of well-meaning articles explain just how to cajole the spongy bit of skin, though its anatomical existence remains suspect. Urologists like Helen O’Connell suggest erectile clitoral tissue stretches right into the vagina’s anterior wall, making the hyped G-spot just a misnamed part. It is, she seems to say, a sort of ‘greater clitoris’—just as the stretch of terrain from Wyong to Gosford is classified greater Sydney. Barry Komisaruk, a psychology professor at Rutgers University, agrees it’s fuzzier than self-dubbed sexperts claim. “The bulk of evidence,” he says, “shows that the G-spot is not a particular thing. It’s not like saying ‘Where is the thyroid gland?’ The G-spot is more of a thing like New York City is a thing. It’s a region, it’s a convergence of many different structures.” G-spot or not, there’s pleasure to be gleaned from cajoling this patch—and for some, it can result in ejaculation or squirting.
In attempting to pin down other pathways to climax, a quick Google search sprouts a litany of suggestions. You will find blended orgasms, which are a kind of bumper-edition that twins the vaginal and clitoral modes. You’ll spot coregasms, triggered by hanging leg raises and other gym thingys. You will notice orgasms of the nipple, anal, skin and A-spot variety, and a pseudo-spiritual sounding ‘energy’ orgasm. The urge for orgasms—in singular form, in dizzying multiples—pervades cultures and age groups; for many, the inability to climax is a sign of malady or incompleteness. And like dieting and relationships and other topics involving our bodies, the domain of sex/pleasure is ripe for exploitation by so-called experts; especially attractive to quacks and drivellers. Even during the writing of this article, media chatter around how to overcome anorgasmia grew louder once more, this time centring around the ‘O-Shot’, a non-surgical, non-FDA approved treatment trademarked by showbiz-y practitioner Charles Runels. Designed to increase lubrication, sensitivity and the overall quality of orgasms, the shot extracts platelet-rich plasma from a patient’s blood, usually via an arm, and redistributes in the clitoris and vagina ceiling using a syringe. There’s money to be made when it comes to redressing sexual failure, and in this case it’s anywhere from US $1200–$1500 a pop.
At least gratification is on the agenda. Before the era of self-help sex books and YouTube masturbation tutorials, before Alfred Kinsey’s seminal report uncovering masturbation practices in the 40s and Masters and Johnson’s painstakingly collected lab data on sexual response in the 60s, women’s titillation remained a non-priority for centuries—save a few glittering moments countering long bouts of sexual repression.
There is no concrete way to discern how long women have been experiencing orgasms. Presumably, they stretch back into time immemorial. Clay models from the Ice Age, known as ‘Venus Figurines’ show a woman with a full chest, round belly, vagina and labia. One model even depicts a clitoris. In ancient Greece and Rome, from around 600 BCE to ACE 200, female ejaculation was discussed often, with the inner labial lips nicknamed nymphaea or ‘water goddesses’ (a cheeky nod to their yielding of juice—get it?)2. Orgasms also abounded across other olden cultures. In India’s Tantric temples, giant female statues squatted nonchalantly—breasts exposed, bodies bejewelled—their privates emitting streams of fluid. Nearby, duos were frozen in the midst of their entanglement, preserved forever in fits of lust. In 16th century Japanese woodblock prints, same and opposite sex couples were depicted in glorious, explicit union, their genitals uncovered and often supersized. In some preserved artifacts, single women—their slender forms wrapped in kimonos—clasped heikonoinhos, or dildos between open thighs. A basin below captured the watery overflow, which was believed to have aphrodisiac properties when drunk.
By the Victorian era, of course, we’d pulled up our pants, zipped our skirts and kept any hint of arousal firmly out of the public domain. For anatomists and physicians the clitoris was largely forgotten, and masturbation demonised. Women had no sex drive, they said; they were but fleshy receptacles for the desire of a superior sex. (You can just picture the soul-rotting romps on four-poster beds.) Oddly enough, it was during this era that the electromagnetic vibrator was patented (1880, to be exact). The contraption was designed as cure of sorts for doctors with tired hands. They’d found, through careful examination, that massaging women’s privates in a very specific manner seemed to relieve them of hysteria, that now-debunked female nervous condition marked by sleeplessness, irritability and heaviness in the lower abdomen. While all this genital massaging proved an effective treatment for long-neglected patients, it was prone to overworking the doctor’s fingers, and they searched for some kind of mechanical replacement. That, in itself, seems to embody much of the thinking around women’s satisfaction. A history of female climax—as recorded in books and artworks and by physicians both well meaning and cruel—is in fact a history of the world, with its awkward relationship to the female body, to primal urges, to fear, to lust and to sensuality.
1 In a short article published in Psychology Today this February, it was estimated that men report orgasms in around 95% of heterosexual encounters “but for women, depending on the study, the figure ranges from only 50 to 60 percent”. Other studies suggest only 25% of American women orgasm reliably with intercourse.
2 The emission of each sex, while pleasurable, was assumed to have a greater biological purpose. Hippocrates, for instance, suggested the essence female and male essence must mix to create new life—ejaculation of both was absolutely required. Aristotle speculated that a male’s essence alone was responsible for contraception, and that female essence was only crucial to nourish the foetus.