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orgasm The term ‘orgasm’ — derived from ‘organ’, meaning to grow ripe, swell, or be lustful — is applied equally to the sexual climaxes of women and men. The medical lexicon distinguishes orgasm from ejaculation; the latter term specifically describes a sudden spurt of fluid released in response to sexual excitement. The distinction arises partly because there is some question about whether female orgasms may result in an ejaculation, and partly because males can experience orgasms without ejaculation. (Pre-adolescent males and some adult males can apparently reach orgasm without the emission of semen.)

Poets have long sung of the pleasures of orgasm. Perhaps the most common literary trope for orgasm is that which likens the experience to dying; orgasm became, for seventeenth-century poets, la petite morte. (The historian and philosopher Michel Foucault famously punned on this relationship between l'amour and la morte.) Thus, in Imperfect Enjoyment, even while bemoaning the problem of premature ejaculation, Etherege looked with pleasure on that moment ‘When, overjoyed with victory, I fall/Dead at the foot of the surrendered wall.’

Sexologists in this century have struggled to put the orgasmic experience into more precise, clinical terms. Probably the simplest description comes from Alfred Kinsey, the American human-sex researcher, who, in his classic 1948 study, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, suggested that ‘the most important consequence of sexual orgasm is the abrupt release of the extreme tension which preceded the event and the rather sudden return to a normal or subnormal physiologic state after the event.’ Kinsey's description of orgasm in his 1953 Sexual Behavior in the Human Female was a bit more dramatic: ‘This explosive discharge of neuromuscular tensions at the peak of sexual response is what we identify as orgasm.’

In short, sexologists of today have only confirmed what the poets of yesteryear knew — that sexual climax and dying share some key physiological similarities, not the least of which is the occasional loss of consciousness. Wrote Kinsey, ‘Some, and perhaps most persons may become momentarily unconscious at the moment of orgasm, and some may remain unconscious or only vaguely aware of reality throughout the spasms or convulsions which follow orgasm.’ Pleasurable? Kinsey wondered, on noting the intensity of experience, so similar to epileptic fits and physiologic responses to electric shock. ‘In the most extreme types of sexual reaction, an individual who has experienced orgasm may double and throw his [or her] whole body into continuous and violent motion, arch his back, throw his hips, twist his head, thrust out his arms and legs, verbalize, moan, groan, or scream, in much the same way as a person who is suffering the extremes of torture.’ Kinsey could only conclude, ‘this makes it all the more amazing that most persons consider that sexual orgasm … provide[s] one of the most supreme of physical satisfactions.’

Satisfying indeed, but to what end? Two questions pervade two millennia of medical constructions of the orgasm: ‘Can you suffer from too few or too many?’ and: ‘What purpose does the female orgasm have?’

Aristotle worried that the wombs of over-stimulated women would become slippery and inhospitable to fetuses, but generally early anatomists were relatively unobsessed with questions of frequency. Humoral theories tended to require, for health, some periodic release of ‘seed’ (or at least a careful diet which would reduce production of the excitable stuff). Humoral theory held that semen was made up of phlegm — interestingly, the same stuff as the brain. (Upon opening, post-mortem, the head of a particularly lecherous fellow, an early-modern anatomist noted, without surprise, that there wasn't much brain left.) To relieve pressure, early-modern English medical texts recommended regular intercourse or even occasional episodes of masturbation. But too much activity was thought to risk the health or production of offspring, as well as one's own health.

The nineteenth century saw much bile spilled over the concern that people were excessively spending their energies on sexual gratification. Many Victorian physicians, enamoured of a conservation-of-energy approach to physiology, warned that frequent orgasms would only drain the life from the body and leave the other systems wanting. (A far less happy sex-and-death link.) This essentially constituted a new version of the old bodily-economy trope. Inventors designed devices to discourage erections (these tended to involve sharply-barbed clamps), and many physicians recommended clitorectomies for ‘hysterical’ women, particularly those who enjoyed too much sex or sex with other women. Even well into this century, versions of this dire belief — that one's bodily supply of energy could be squandered by sexual emissions — hung on. Most male athletes are familiar with the aphorism which prohibits ‘spending’ oneself before a match.

On the heels of the Victorians, Sigmund Freud invented new ways to worry about (or worry about worrying about) sexual gratification. Most infamous among feminists is Freud's belief that truly mature women achieve vaginal orgasms, not clitoral ones. Laqueur aptly notes that, ‘prior to 1905 [the publication of Freud's theory], no one thought that there was any other kind of female orgasm than the clitoral sort.’ In his Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, Freud argued that, while pre-pubescent girls might enjoy clitoral orgasms, clitoral stimulation in the adult woman was only meant to ‘[transmit] the excitation to the adjacent female sexual parts’, namely the vagina, ‘just as — to use a simile — pine shavings can be kindled in order to set a log of harder wood on fire.’ If a woman could not move her seat of excitation to her vagina, she would only wind up frigid. Meanwhile, Freud argued that the very transfer of excitation from clitoris to vagina over the course of a woman's maturation left her prone to hysteria.

Kinsey's studies did much to dispel the vaginal-orgasm dogma of Freud. Indeed, Kinsey, who saw vaginal orgasm as a ‘biological impossibility’, took Freud to task for leaving thousands of women in a well of frustration and shame. Masters and Johnson's 1966 tome, Human Sexual Response, and The Hite Report of 1976 confirmed Kinsey's findings: most women do not experience orgasms directly from intercourse, and female orgasms originate from stimulation of the clitoris. By the 1960s, so fascinated with orgasms had the populace become that the British writer Malcolm Muggeridge declared in 1966, ‘The orgasm has replaced the Cross as the focus of longing and fulfillment.’ Popular quasi-medical texts today offer clues about how to achieve more, better, and better-timed orgasms.

Freud's impetus towards vaginal stimulation did not die away after Kinsey, Masters and Johnson, and Hite. Sexologists continue to investigate the sensitivity of the vagina and the ability of certain women to achieve orgasm without direct clitoral stimulation. Reports of a ‘G spot’ — a zone of high sensitivity in the vagina — are yearly put forth and summarily condemned. ( Beverly Whipple and John Perry named the ‘G spot’ after the gynecologist Ernst Graefenberg.) Some researchers posit that stimulation of a vaginal ‘G spot’ can lead to ejaculation.

Perhaps because science has been mostly a male sport, few scientific minds have pondered the question of the purpose of the male orgasm, but many a man (and a few women) have contemplated the point of the female orgasm. Early anatomists, who presumed essential similarities between men's and women's bodies, figured that, if men's orgasms were needed for reproduction, so were women's. Thomas Laqueur, in his historical study of sex, imagined the logic of Hippocrates: ‘Like a flame that flares when wine is sprinkled on it, the woman's heat blazes most brilliantly when the male sperm is sprayed on it … She shivers. The womb seals itself. And the combined elements for a new life are safely contained within.’ Aristotle figured that, if a woman did not climax, she would not become pregnant. These ideas led to some curious (and ineffective) attempts at birth control.

Well into the early-modern period, the assumption stood firm that woman's well-timed orgasm was necessary to conception. Patricia Crawford has argued that, in early-modern England, this belief had both good and bad implications for women. On the one hand, men who wanted heirs would have worked harder for their partners' satisfaction. But ‘if a rape were followed by pregnancy, the law deemed it no rape because the woman had, by definition, enjoyed the encounter.’

Once it became clear that women's orgasms were in fact unnecessary for pregnancy, the question of their purpose attracted the attentions of evolutionists. (That women can have multiple, closely-timed orgasms particularly bothers certain theorists.) Sarah Blaffer Hardy, Randy Thornhill, and other sociobiologists have offered reasons for why the female orgasm might be (or have been) functionally adaptive in evolution — that is, why female orgasm would be conducive to a lineage's life. (Thus sociobiology tries to translate the female's petite morte into the species' grande vie.) Other evolutionists, like Stephen Jay Gould, have argued alternatively that female orgasms have no adaptive purpose — that they are just a pleasant side-effect of the fact that human males and females share embryological roots: the clitoris and the penis are embryological homologues, so it makes sense that the clitoris would be super-sensitive and able to be stimulated to climax. Gould has sensibly noted that many non-scientists really don't care all that much why orgasms exist.

Alice Dreger


Gould, S. J. (1987). Freudian slip. Natural History, 96, 14–21.
Laqueur, T. (1990). Making sex: body and gender from the Greeks to Freud. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.
Porter, R. and Teich, M. (ed.) (1994). Sexual knowledge, sexual science: the history of attitudes to sexuality. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

See also coitus; ejaculation; fertility; sexuality.

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