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Nothing illustrates the feminist adage "the personal is political" better than a running argument I've been having with my girlfriend. According to my widely read and -bed sweetie, the vaginal orgasm is a myth, the clitoris is the seat of female sexual pleasure, and any other interpretation is phallocentric drivel. I, on the other hand -- not myself possessing a clit, but having slept with slightly more women than she -- believe that women can experience pleasure and, yes, sometimes even come from vaginal stimulation. Besides opening up the disturbing possibility that a large percentage of my former girlfriends have been faking it and that I have no idea how to please a woman, our little disagreement illustrates an important point: The way that people have thought about something as fundamental as how women's parts work hasn't remained constant over time.

That the female orgasm is An Important Thing is hardly a new idea. Medieval scholars, following the second-century physician Galen, thought that female genitalia were nothing more than inside-out boy parts that had failed to properly develop. The upshot of this "one-body" theory was that the female climax was as important as the male in making babies. As Berkeley history professor Thomas Laqueur writes in his Making Sex, if the woman didn't come, the "female seed" wasn't released and conception could not take place. Accordingly, premodern treatments for infertility usually involved making sure she was properly stimulated.

Historians such as Laqueur usually read these instructions as the medieval equivalent of "you'd best find that clitoris, boy," but if you examine medieval medical texts, they turns out to be a lot more vague than The Joy of Sex. You'll find all sorts of references to "heat" and "emission of seed," but no practical advice like, "verily,

Venus was still a kind of penis.

twiddle ye her clit until thy varlets can hear her screaming on the battlements." What's more, the doctors' ideas were only one sort of discourse on female pleasure amongst many. For instance, if you look at medieval ideas of sex in the bawdy stories called fabliaux (my favorite is the one where the wife wishes for her husband's body to sprout penises all over), they're thinking of female pleasure in terms of cock-in-cunt, not hand-on-clit.

The ancients were also rather vague on what, exactly, the clit was. Galen, for instance, prescribes that women suffering from "hysteria" caused by an "excess of seed" (i.e., who haven't gotten laid in a while) should have their external genitalia rubbed by midwives to orgasm, but isn't specific about what parts should be rubbed. In fact, the clitoris was only "discovered" by Renaldus Columbus in 1559, who wrote that it is "preeminently the seat of woman's delight" and that it should be called "the love or sweetness of Venus." But Venus was still a kind of penis: "if you touch it, you will find it rendered a little harder and oblong to such a degree that it shows itself as a sort of male member." It had taken men more than 1,300 years to find the clitoris, but they still had no idea of what to do with it.

It was the Enlightenment that came up with the two-sex model — that women are fundamentally different than men — with which we are still living. Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century doctors still knew where the clitoris was and what it did, of course — little Victorian girls who masturbated might get theirs burned off by carbolic acid, and the cure for "hysteria" was still having your genitals rubbed until "hysterical paroxysm" occurred. However, the ideal bourgeois woman, wrote such experts as Richard von Krafft-Ebing, didn't have much of a sex drive at all. Rather than female orgasm being as essential to procreation as the male's, women's role in conception was entirely passive.



Commentarium (9 Comments)

Mar 20 07 - 12:58am

Appreciate the author's even-handed approach (err, no pun intended) but I do think he does indeed need to contemplate the disturbing possibility that a large percentage of his former partners faked their look-ma-no-hands! vaginal orgasms. He may have slept with more women than me, but I've talked to more, and in all that time, I've heard many women cop to faking, and only one to having true "vaginal orgasms" (i.e. there was NO simultaneous stimulation of the clit) That's not to suggest the vagina is a non-entity--most women, myself included, regard it as a crucial component of sexual pleasure. But alone, it ain't enough for most women. To my mind, it's roughly analagous to stimulating a man's testicles--they almost all enjoy it, but only a few will find it enough to reach orgasm. My motto: women, enjoy your vagina, but don't obsess on getting a "pure" orgasm from it. Men: when in doubt, assume the clitoris is the primary sexual organ, with the vagina as a very pleasant accessory ....the designer purse to the little black dress?

Mar 19 07 - 10:00pm

as a woman who has never had a vaginal orgasm (not for lack of trying mind you), i have to say that it seems to me like the women who DO cum from penetration without clitoral stimulation probably cum because during the in and out action there is eitehr direct friction w the clit or its just really fast fucking which makes everything down there move and vibrate.
personally the thing i like most is the combo, really fast furious fucking coupled with fast and furious clitoral stimulation. nothing better than that... sorry guys you might have to work a bit more...

Mar 20 07 - 5:36pm

Vaginal orgasms are real. I have them, my girlfriends (sometimes) have them, they exist. Clearly, some women don't have them, and there's nothing wrong with that - I've had hardly any clitoral orgasms myself. Just based on what I hear from my female friends, it seems like some girls are more vaginally inclined and some more clitorally (is that a word?) inclined. But that's very anecdotal.

Apr 23 07 - 1:48am

I think you're overlooking a pretty important aspect of this story - the female perspective. Is it a coincidence that the demise of the "vaginal orgasm" coincided with the sexual revolution? Why would we trust medieval physicians' perspectives on female sexuality? With only a few generations of female self-determination of sexual pleasure, there's still a lot of baggage to be dealt with, but in the meantime, I'd suggest deferring to what you hear from your girlfriend, since she's the one you're sleeping with.

Me, I take a lot of pleasure in penetrative intercourse, but I'm not about to have an orgasm during it unless I'm also using a vibrator on my clit. I also enjoy being spanked and having my nipples licked; not everything I enjoy in bed directly contributes to my orgasms.

May 06 07 - 8:23pm

Sorry - you can only climax through clitoral stimulation. i have had 'vaginal ' orgasms with 'no direct stimulation' of the clitoris but it was a happy coincidence of motion and stretching of skin (large circumference of penis) etc. The orgasm can only be clitoral - and so fuckin what if you have slept with more women than your girlfriend. i would never presume to know more about men and male anatomy just because i have slept with more men than my male lover ( i would guess he has slept with NO men actually) guess that makes ME the expert. What an arrogant ass you are to think you know more about female anatomy and female pleasure than the women you sleep with. i agree with the previous poster - the vagina is a lovely thing and to be penetrated can be exquisite - but the orgasm is clitoral - PERIOD.

May 07 07 - 11:13am

In regard to the debate on female orgasms, a lesson in little-known anatomy (of the female body) ends the argument -- both are correct.

Up until recently, even the medical student's bible, the text book Grey's Anatomy, illustrated the clitoris incorrectly as a small pea-size appendage that existed largely externally.

Turns out the clitoris is as a long, if not longer, than most penises -- it extends inside a woman's body, divides into two "legs" that go on either side of the vagina. It also sits upon a bunch of nerves, which would account for the legendary "g-spot" in the northern part of a vagina.

So, the answer is both yes and no. Either you can say it's all a clitoral orgasm, or you can say that it's both.

May 07 07 - 2:43pm

Though he may ultimately end up legitimizing phallocentric views of sexuality, this is an unfair reading of Freud. He does not assign any value to the transference of sexual stimulation from the clitoris to the vagina. Nor does he argue that it is biologically determined. Instead, it is a product of the norms of socialization (which can change over time). In fact, it is easily possible to read Freud as a proto-feminist because he argues that this shift is a result of repression brought on by the patriarchal family structure and can lead to extreme psychological disorders. Yes, it is true that he says that vaginal stimulation is more "mature," but he does not say this because he thinks that it is "better" than clitoral stimulation. One should think of "well adjusted" in the most simple and descriptive sense: it is when one has adjusted oneself to the requirements of one's surroundings. Though Freud is neutral on this question, the political lesson that can be taken from him is that it is the patriarchal family structure that should be changed so that to be "well adjusted," on no longer would need to repress one's sexual energies.

May 21 07 - 5:53pm

I have experienced both realities. For much of my life I experienced clitorally-stimulated orgasms only. I enjoyed intercourse but it took clitoral stimulation to get me off. Then my preferences changed - in my mid thirties, post childbirth, and in the midst of an unprecedented libido increase - I began to have orgasms during intercourse. And not just one culminating orgasm but rather many and varied orgasms during intercourse. I have no idea why and I am not worrying about it excessively (more like celebrating it). It has shifted my whole approach to and interest in sex. I need and want much less foreplay - and I love the waves of orgasms while fucking. I know I am an N of one - but I am tired of hearing and reading about how women do not get off from intercourse. It may be that intercourse stimulates my clitoris - but I know that I prefer a penis in my vagina as the stimulant than any finger or toy option. I understand that for many women this is not the case - as it was not the case for me for many years - but I resent the implication that my preferences make me somehow less feminists and feminine.

Sep 07 11 - 7:25am
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