Orgasm, just as sex, is essentially embedded in inter-personal relations as well as the various social institutions. In this paper, we will critically examine the notion of orgasm and in the process, will uncover much about the distribution of privilege and power within society.
We will attempt to explore the ways in which social forces and interactional construct situate our understanding of orgasm. Though most consider orgasm to be a physiological experience tied to raging hormones and impulses, we will show that at its very foundation, orgasm is a social experience very much grounded in inter personal relations, social scripts and cultural norms and value We will also show that apart from being the “natural” goal of sex, orgasm is an experience that is shaped and affected by social forces and the means to achieve orgasm is learned through interaction with others. Orgasm too, varies across both temporal and geographical boundaries. That is, our understanding of what orgasm is and means depends much on when and where we are born, our sex, age, ethnicity, social class, and marital status and who your friends and family are.
This paper will uncover a set of factors that define and shape orgasm. It will also illustrate that orgasm is a vital part of the self and the social order and that a true understanding of orgasm cannot be possible without an analysis of the relationship between and individual and orgasm.
We will begin by first exploring the social constructionist perspective on orgasm and discuss the various meanings that are attached to orgasms in different cultures. Next, we will examine the social construction of orgasm in contemporary America before comparing it to the history of orgasm in America in order to illustrate that orgasm, especially that of a female as been shaped predominantly by patriarchy.
Social Constructionist Perspective
Social constructionism is a theoretical perspective that holds that reality is created and sustained through human interaction. The social constructionist perspective is typically contrasted with essentialism. Essentialism holds that there is a core, fundamental essence that inheres in the objects or features of our world. This essence is fixed, unchangeable, definitive and has an objective reality. This essence, essentialists argue, exists independently of culture and human discernment. For social constructionists, however, the social order is not part of the nature of things. It exists only as a product of human activity.
Issues of definition are thus of particular concern for social constructionists because they are said to serve the interests of the powerful. The privilege members of the social order have the most control over how reality is constructed and hence have a greater ability to delineate and circumscribe the world in ways that are beneficial to them. 1 In fact, one of the most acclaimed sociological works that heralded the emergence and prominence of the constructionist approach to the study of sexuality was John Gagnon and William Simon’s work on the Sexual Conduct: The Social Sources of Human Sexuality. In it, they argued that sex is not natural but rather has been naturalized historically.2 The same could be said of that of orgasm. One of the hegemonic understandings of orgasm is that it is assumed to be the final “goal” in heterosex. Therefore, it is now considered the “natural” order of events that one has to undertake in order to achieve orgasm would be to engage heterosex with penile penetration.
As such, we will utilize the social constructionist perspective to examine the meaning of sex in contemporary American society. This perspective posits that orgasm, rather than being the natural goal of sex, it is, in fact produced within specific cultural context. We will begin by deconstructing the meaning of orgasm in contemporary American society. Deconstructing orgasm involves analyzing the hidden assumptions built into how orgasm is defined and understood. What is more, the deconstruction of orgasm will reveal both the possibilities and the limits of existing meanings. It will also shed some light on how existing meanings work to privilege some social at the expense of others. All in all, these discussions will show that orgasm, rather than being a totally personal experience, is predominantly shaped by the meanings attached to it by factors external to the individual.
Varying Meanings of Orgasm
Constructionists would argue that if orgasm were the natural end to sex, it would take consistent forms across all societies. This is however clearly not the case. There are indeed variations in the meanings of orgasm in different cultures. Below are some examples:
Inis Beag is a small island off the coast of Ireland. The inhabitants of the island have never heard of french-kissing, kissing the breasts, hand to penis contact (hand-jobs), cunnilingus (going down on a woman) or fellatio (going down on a man). Sex education is virtually non-existent, and it is assumed that newly-weds will just figure it out. The husband always initiates sex, which only takes place with the man on top. Female orgasm is a foreign concept, doubted to exist. And if it does exist, it is considered deviant
In Mangaia, an island in the South Pacific, sex is actively encouraged. Mother’s are proud of their daughters multiple sex partners. The average “good” girl has had 3-4 boyfriends between the ages of 13 and 20 and all women learn to have orgasms. A boy of 13 years gets serious sexual instruction. He is taught, at this tender age, how to perform cunnilingus and how to bring his partner to orgasm (perhaps several times) before he has his own orgasm. After this theoretical training, he has sex with an older, experienced woman. She gives him the practical training required for his sexual future. She shows him various positions and teaches him how to hold back until his partner is on the cusp of orgasm.
In many countries in Africa, in Oman, Yemen and in the United Arab Emirates, clitoridectomies (the surgical removal of the clitoris) are quite commonly performed on girls. There are several different procedures, but all of them are exceedingly painful and mutilating. The risk of infection is often very high, and girls do die from complications. These operations are generally performed between infanthood and adolescence. There are many intricately ensnarled reasons for female circumcision, including traditional customs, religious beliefs, curbing sexual desire, protecting virginity and preventing immorality. Female circumcision, as anyone can imagine, seriously impedes or totally extinguishes any potential enjoyment of sex for the woman.
In Maori society (New Zealand), gender roles differ from our own. Here, women initiate romantic relations and sex. While it is becoming more common for women to “make the first move,” modern society generally operates on the principals that the male is the aggressor, the main instigator of the couple. This brief overview of sex across the world is enough to suggest that modern societies certainly do not possess the most repressed culture, but nor are they the forerunners of sexual liberation.
As shown, there can be variations to meanings of orgasm. It is the culture that one is socialized in which provides the template upon which one’s understanding of orgasm is shaped. And because we would experience the same cultural socialization as the other members of our society, generally we would share the same understanding and attach the same meanings to orgasm. Hence, it appears that meanings attached to orgasms arte indeed invariant, universal and natural when it is not.
The implications of this perspective challenge many traditional notions about orgasm. For example, a constructionist perspective asserts that women are were actually rather passionate creatures with sexual desires and that female masturbation is not inherently wrong or sinful. Rather, constructionists feel that meanings and values surrounding orgasms are learned and that they can, and do change. In the following section, we will adopt a constructionist framework to critically analyze and deconstruct cultural assumptions of orgasm that are embedded within contemporary American society.
The Social Construction of Orgasm
Penetration ; Male Agency
One of the most important components of the social construction of orgasm in our culture is that of penile penetration. Penile penetration goes to include that of vaginal, anal or even that of oral clearly places males, who are considered the agents, and their orgasm in a more superior position as compared to that of the women, who are thought to be passive recipients, and the female orgasm. This can be clearly seen in the pornographic movies that we have whereby the orgasm is portrayed when the male ejaculates as a proof that real sex is involved. According to Beatrice Faust, many acts of fellatio includes scenes where women let the semen come out of their mouths so that the audience can see that the male has reached orgasm and hence, real sexual activity.3 The portrayal of a visible, repeatedly ejaculating penis is pornography’s clearest manifestation of phallocentrism4. In short, pornography institutionalizes the sexuality of male supremacy.5
This cultural privileging of male orgasm through penile penetration reveals a conceptualization of orgasm that is tacitly connected to male agency. In fact, women’s orgasm had been constructed by men to protect male dominance in society, to favour male sexual preference, to secure male sexual power and even to the extent of easing male anxiety in the bedroom.6 In our culture’s hegemonic articulation of orgasm, it is men who are defined as the sexual actors who seek to achieve orgasm and whom notions of orgasm are invariably constructed.
Heterosexuality & Orgasm
Another important assumption built into our cultural system is that orgasm should be achieved from heterosex. Sex should be penetrative, male agentic and must take place between a man and women. However, must heterosex be the only means by which one can achieve orgasm? If so, we would be asserting that gay men and lesbians are not able to achieve orgasms when in fact mutual genital stimulation can result in orgasms between two lesbians.
Role of orgasm
Another issue, which we would have to consider, is the role of orgasm in sexual encounters. Not all orgasms are created equal in our culture. Male orgasm in heterosexual coital relations is the event that is most closely associated with human production and that both males and females would feel that it is essentially male orgasms that signal whether a particular sexual interaction qualifies as sex. And even though many females are capable of achieving multiple orgasms, it is usually the number of times a male ejaculates that heterosexual partners count when describing how many times they had sex. The constructionist would argue that such a behaviour is learned and as time passes without people actually questioning or coming out with alternative conceptualizations as to conceiving sex.
History of orgasm
America has a history of sexual repression. Today, we would laugh at the following statement from a 19th century sex manual: “As a general rule, a modest woman seldom desires any sexual gratification for herself.” But this statement is a precursor to the prevailing idea that a woman should focus on being desirable and not on her own desire. Of course, it is very hard to tell what sex was really like in other times because so little personal sexual experience is recorded. However, we do have evidence that can enlighten us to the historical attitudes that still may linger in the most progressive minds of today.
Contrary to modern perception, Victorian America did not stifle all sexual discourse. In fact, according to Seidman, the Victorians originated the modern idea of a sexual instinct that is natural, omnipresent and powerful7. Increasingly, young people engaged in premarital sex and used contraception; consequently, the nineteenth century experienced a steady decline in the birth rate.8 In practice, the procreative function of sex was in a downward trend. However, in theory, advice authors and physicians insisted on the primacy of sex for reproductive ends and affirmed the proper place of sex as inside of marriage. A popular manual of the era written by physician Henry Guernsey, emphasized sex as an expected and necessary part of a happy marriage, but asserted that procreation is its principle purpose and sex for sexual pleasure is unacceptable.9 This attitude sums up the late Victorian approach to sex: sex was important to a couple’s spiritual contentment and the continuation of the family, but should be moderate in both frequency and pleasure.
It is ironic that such a moderate prescription of sex is found alongside extreme framings of women’s attitudes towards sex. The dueling perceptions of female sexuality found in the literature of the era are striking. One view held that women were (or should be) passionless, with either no sexual desires or significantly less desire than men. For example, the famous sexologist, Richard von Krafft-Ebing, insisted that women who are physically and mentally normal have no sensual desires.10 This leads to the question, why then should women bother to marry? The resounding answer from experts pointed to the spiritualization of reproduction: “Married love has a divine dimension, and at conception God joins together with a man to infuse life into the womb”11 This view of women as spiritual matrons devoid of sexual feeling was certainly one way of alleviating male sexual anxiety.
Assuming the wife to be asexual, a number of experts encouraged women to have orgasm in the marriage bed anyway, for the good of their health. Maines explains that many physicians subscribed to the theory that orgasm in women achieved through intercourse, and intercourse alone, was healthful in that it prevented an assortment of ailments, including hysteria and pelvic congestion.
End of Victorian America
The late Victorian sentiment held that women should experience orgasm only within the prescribed setting. Orgasm outside of intercourse was considered dangerous to a woman’s well being, and those warnings represent an alternate view of women’s sexuality. In fact, according to Tuana, women were more lustful than men and that their sexuality was a danger to men.12
Throughout the nineteenth century, female sexual passion was tied to prostitution and women of the lower classes; sexual appetite was a male quality.13 Given the fact that sexuality was gender coded, a key issue was how women could be sexually expressive yet conform to an ideal of feminine spiritual and moral virtue.The message was clear – women who sought sexual pleasure outside of marital intercourse were of a lower caste and shame worthy.
The first few decades of the twentieth century saw woman’s suffrage, rising public demand for birth control, the arrival of psychoanalysis, an influx of young women into the realms of wage work and leisure, and the discarding of “stodgy” Victorian norms. These all contributed to a newfound appreciation of sexual pleasure and greater equality between the sexes .14 Where the literature of the late nineteenth century permitted some discussion of sexuality, the literature of the early twentieth went so far as to promote sexual pleasure.15 In Victorian terms, sexual union had signified a spiritual bond between husband and wife; now sex was perceived as strengthening a couple emotionally.16
Sex experts sought to advise on women’s pleasure in such a way that reinforced male and female roles within the sexual power hierarchy. Women were now allowed to experience orgasm for pleasure’s sake, but they must first be “awakened” by their husbands. This could be done without threatening the man’s sexual authority because husbands themselves would guide this transition. Even women’s rights and birth control advocate Margaret Sanger embraces the idea of female orgasmic dependence on men and she argues that in leading her successfully, nay triumphantly, through this mysterious initiation, the man becomes for her a veritable god – worthy of her profoundest worship.17
While the loosening sexual norms and new emphasis on pleasure seemed promising for women, sexual experts writing from 1900-1930 reassert male sexual privilege. Men’s satisfaction came first and foremost, and women’s orgasm was often couched in terms of his pleasure. For example, Van de Velde coached men to be attentive to their wives’ pleasure because her active participation increases his pleasure. 18 Maines argues that heterosexual men have always looked to female orgasm as proof of their own sexual bravado.19
Nowhere is the male attempt to define and control women’s sexuality as evident as in the era’s construction of female “frigidity”. The term “frigid” took hold based upon Sigmund Freud’s writing on female sexuality, which had a profound influence on those working within the medical and mental health fields. He argued that a “true” women’s pleasure arose from vaginal orgasm, and orgasms attained through clitoral stimulation were “immature” and possibly “masculine”. 20
Fundamentally, “frigid” was used to describe women who did not have vaginal orgasms during intercourse. In practice, the term became a psychological and medical diagnosis assigned to separate out women deemed abnormal in any number of ways. Gerhard writes that the label of frigidity represented a marker of that which threatened patriarchy as clitoral sexuality embodied women’s refusal to accept their feminine roles and that it represented women rejecting their passive and maternal destinies. Frigid women were the Freudian era’s version of the Victorian sexually dangerous woman. Sex experts then used Freudian theory to support their claims that healthy women’s erotic selves depended on men. Freedman argues that the projection of sexual pathology onto women may have freed men to assume positions of power.
Physicians and Freudians may have been championing the theory that vaginal orgasms were superior, but the truth is that many women were having whatever kind of orgasms came easiest and most pleasurably for them. Female masturbation was held in deep contempt prior to Freud, now the clitoral orgasms it produced were pathological as well. Havelock Ellis and others were troubled by female masturbation, as they believed it caused “marital aversion” in women.21 Even more distressing to experts, however, was the idea of married women masturbating. Their behavior, according to Maines, raised doubts about the ideal of mutual bliss in coitus
The next thirty years following the roaring 1920’s, was marked by a tension between sexual expression and containment, especially for women. On the one hand, the “modern” woman was now more likely to be in the workforce, have contraceptive knowledge, and receive a higher education. On the other hand, there was enormous pressure on her to be feminine, stand by her man, and bear children. According to the discourse of this tumultuous era, a woman’s sexual dissatisfaction could be blamed entirely on her refusal to submit fully to her role as wife and mother. 22
Freudian theory on female orgasm had cast a large shadow by the 1950’s, powerfully influencing physicians among others. The vaginal orgasm became a standard through which women’s sexual impulses were deemed healthy or pathological.23 The medicalization of women’s sexuality went a long way to take the sexual onus off of men. To deny women native erotic desires was to safeguard man’s sexual adequacy. However he performed, it would be good enough.24 Maines argues that as long as women’s orgasms were medicalized, attention need never be drawn to the uncomfortable fact that most orgasms are not achieved through coitus. Deviations from the traditional sexual norm were frowned upon and the frigid woman was now viewed as more dangerous than ever.
This era was bursting with threats to traditional masculinity. Neuhaus explains that just beneath the optimistic rhetoric of the 1950’s lurked a great deal of fear and anxiety around sexual subversion, including shifting gender norms and homosexuals. An analysis of the sexuality at that time reveals an emphasis placed on soothing fragile male egos. A new directive emerges in the sexual advice literature – frigid women should fake orgasms to ease male sexual anxiety. Dr. Eustace Chesser’s popular Love Without Fear (1947) instructed women who did not need to have an orgasm to feel fulfilled to simulate climax for the satisfaction of their husbands.25 The take-home message is that women who do not achieve orgasm through vaginal intercourse are still defective, but should at least feign orgasm for the benefit of the man.
When sexologist Alfred Kinsey published his groundbreaking study on women’s sexuality in 1953, it shattered the idea of the vaginal vs. the clitoral orgasm. Sexual Behavior in the Human Female questioned the validity of the vaginal orgasm and dared to suggest that many women do not achieve orgasm during intercourse, or do so sporadically, simply because sexual intercourse is an extremely inefficient way to stimulate the clitoris. Clitoral stimulation, Kinsey argued, led women neither to lesbianism nor pathological envy of men but merely to orgasm. Of the majority who masturbated, 45 percent of these women achieved these clitoral orgasms in less than three minutes. Moreover, more than half of the women interviewed reported the ability to experience multiple orgasms. Among other “outrageous” findings was that 26 percent of the married women in the study had experienced extramarital intercourse by age forty. 26
It is telling that Kinsey’s study of female sexuality stirred up much more controversy than his study of male sexuality five years earlier. Kinsey’s critics attacked him for reducing women’s sexuality to mere orgasm; they argued that women could not and should not separate love and sex. Kinsey’s exploration of topics such as female masturbation and extramarital sex outraged many. Melody ; Peterson writes that the 1950’s wife was supposed to be her husband’s sexual playmate; the idea was for her sexuality to exist only within the context of marriage. The study laid the groundwork for the coming decades’ frankness regarding the wide range of real sexual expression and practice.
As illustrated, throughout the period of American history and even up till now, we find that female sexual pleasure was constructed by men and often for men. Normative sexuality has always been shaped by heterosexual male desires. In fact, perceptions of and attitudes towards the female orgasm shows clearly the powerful reflection of the wider American societal attitudes towards female sexuality, whether it is seen as dangerous and hence must be eradicated, or simply needing to be brought into a more complimentary role with the male sexual needs.27 Catharine MacKinnon puts it bluntly, “What is sexual is what gives a man an erection.
Whatever it takes to make a penis shudder and stiffen with the experience of its potency is what sexuality means culturally”28Conversely, women’s knowledge of their own orgasms has often been nebulous. Women, traditionally have been expected to find enjoyment in an activity – coitus – that results in orgasm for women in only a minority of instances. 29 Thus, as female pleasure was first being explored in American writing from the years 1880 to 1960, many women felt uncertain by the term “orgasm” meant exactly. Although it is probably not the case now as females are beginning to take knowledge of their sexual pleasure into their own hands and head towards sexual enjoyment, male ideas and wishes still dominated discourse around female orgasm.
1 Tracey Steele (ed), 2005, “Sex, Self & Society: The Social Context of Sexuality” Belmont, California: Thomson Wadsworth
3 coursepack pg 91
4 coursepack p 92
5 tx readings p335
6 Emily Pollard, Orgasm over Eighty Years: Women’s Sexual Pleasure in America1880-1960, 2004
7 Steven Seidman. “The Power of Desire and Danger of Pleasure: Victorian Sexuality Reconsidered.” Journal of Social History. 1990
8 Estelle Freedman. “Sexuality in Nineteenth Century America: Behaviour, Ideology and Politics.” Reviews in American History. 1982
9 Steven Seidman. “The Power of Desire and Danger of Pleasure: Victorian Sexuality Reconsidered.”
10 Rachel Maines. “The Technology of Orgasm: Hyateria, the Vibrator and Women’s Sexual Satisfaction” Baltimore. The John Hopkins University Press. 1999
11 Melody, M.E & Linda M. Paterson. “Teaching America about Sex: Marriage Guides and Sex Manuals from the Late Victorians to Dr Ruth”. New York. New York University Press. 1999
12 Nancy Tuana. “Coming to Understand: Orgasm abd the Epistemology of Ignorance.” Hypatia. 2004
13 Carl. N Degler ” What Ought To Be and What Was: Women’s Sexuality in the Nineteenth Century.” The American Historical Review. 1974
14 Jane Gerhard. “Desiring Revolution: Second Wave Feminism and the Rewriting of American Sexual Thought, 1920-1982” New York. Columbia University Press 2001
15 Peter Laipson. “Kiss Without Shame, for she desires it: Sexual Foreplay in American Marital Advice Literature, 1900-1925. Journal of Social History. 1996
16 Melody, M.E & Linda M. Paterson
20 Emily Pollard
22 Jessamyn Neuhaus ” The Importance of Being Orgasmic: Sexuality, Gender and Marital Sex Manuals in the United States, 1920-1963″ Journal of History of Sexuality
23 Jane Gerhard
25 Melody, M.E & Linda M. Paterson
26 Judith Long, Laws & Schwartz Pepper “Sexual Scripts: The Social Construction of Female Sexuality” Washington DC. University Press of America. 1999