Friday, March 07, 2008

Englishmen don't know what a tongue is for*

The Technology of Orgasm: "Hysteria," the Vibrator, and Women's Sexual Satisfaction by Rachel P. Maines

Way back towards the beginning of this deployment, I read Laura Kipnis's The Female Thing (this was back before I was regularly blogging about my daily reading, but let's just say it was pretty entertaining), and in her section entitled "Sex," she repeatedly referred to this book. So of course I had to read it.

It's a pretty quick and short history of women's orgasms as defined by the medical community, hysteria and vibrators. Maines finds evidence of the women's disease hysteria as far back as the ancient Greeks, and even some of them recommended genital massage as treatment. Many physicians throughout the years saw a connection between sex and hysteria but they differed in whether it was from too much or too little sex or both. Physicians would manually manipulate the clitoris to relieve the stress and cure the patient but due to the fact that sex was defined as penetration, it didn't raise any eyebrows (the speculum and tampons had more of a reaction). Many physicians didn't actually enjoy doing this (though they liked the money) so they often recommended to have midwives take over for them, and then started using different tools such as douches, and in the later 19th century, vibrators - naturally, they wouldn't tell women to do it themselves because masturbation is bad.

She describes the "five basic strategies [used] to reconcile perceived female sexuality with androcentric norms" (50), or the concept that penetration is the climax of the sex act. The least common was to simply acknowledge that women needed clitoral stimulation, and to recommend that it "be provided during or before coitus, not through masturbation" (50). Another was simply to equate enjoyment with orgasm. Her definitions of the third and fourth approaches go hand in hand: some doctors didn't recognize female orgasm (for example some of the ones using massage therapy didn't realize that the reactions their patients were having were orgasm, not seizures). Since they can't recognize female orgasm, they are more likely to then conclude that "women lacked sexual feeling or desire" (51). Lastly, Maines mentions that the final way to deal with the presence or absence of orgasm was to completely ignore it in their discussions.

As seen through all but the first of these ideas, the doctors' views of female sexuality were very much based on male sexuality. Penetration makes men come, so as a result, it should work for women, too. If they don't, that's because there's something wrong with them or women just don't react that way. Obviously, they couldn't have been too concerned with women's satisfaction if they couldn't even recognize an orgasm. Maines uses several different statitistics to show how what apparently should be considered normal for women is not. She cites two men's reactions to Kinsey's study: these men "insist that there is no scientific difficulty with arguing that 80 to 90 percent of all women are 'abnormal' . . . real women are only satisfied by penetration" (62). She states that "more than half of all women, possibly more than 70 percent, do not regularly reach orgasm by means of penetration alone" (5) but despite these stats, many women still feel the desire to do so - or at least, protect men's egos, and pretend they did. Apparently it is okay to "suggest that half of the heterosexual couple . . . sacrifice orgasmic mutuality in order to avoid the inevitable stresses on the relationship caused by rocking the androcentric boat" (119). Even people that realize the importance of the clit don't necessarily see the point of burdening the man: "women who need clitoral stimulation to reach orgasm are thought to be making unfair and unreasonable demands" (113). Here, specifically, she is referring to a text from the 1960s but it seemed to be a prevalent idea at different points in time.

Maines admits herself that in some cases her writing might be a little unorganized due to the fact that the medical communitity's views were conflicting and often changing. Mostly, it's easy to read, and she also displays a sense of humor and sarcasm throughout. When she discusses Freud's failure in using the massage treatments used to treat hysterics, she remarks, "it hardly seems surprising that the man who, notoriously, did not know what women wanted was less than successful as a gynecological masseur" (44). While some of the doctors that Maines describes believed sexual satisfaction derived purely from vaginal intercourse, and didn't recognize other actions as sexual, Freud recognized the importance of the clit in achieving orgasm but then pathologized it. After all, it was Freud's theory that as girls grew up, they were supposed to mature into a vaginal orgasm rather than a clitoral orgasm. Women that continued to need clitoral stimulation to orgasm hadn't fully accepted their role as women, and needed psychotherapy to help them embrace proper feminity, gender roles and sexuality as defined by men. Some of his predecessors were ignorant about women and sex, and Freud made it more acceptable to talk about sex. But instead of using his influence and ideas to help liberate women sexually, he too succumbed to the androcentric view and defined their sexuality according to male needs.

In comparison, Alfred Kinsey was the truly ground-breaking researcher. Freud based all his theories on a handful of patients, while Kinsey conducted thousands of surveys, gathering as much data as possible. He questioned the existence of the vaginal orgasm (before the women's movement of 1970s), and supported experimentation - he had no issue with masturbation for example. Some of his figures were, of course, flawed, and even he had a bias - he probably analyzed the data in a way that made the existence of homosexuality more prevalent than it was, but he did not attempt to judge. (Some felt maybe he should have judged a little more, since he interviewed pedophiles, and was also interested in child sexuality - to see when it started developing). He also introduced the Kinsey scale ranging from 0 to 6 to determine how hetero- or homosexual one's interests are, and he believed that sexuality was fluid, and that one's number could be different in different times of life.

I definitely enjoyed the book, and it was kind of thought-provoking. I'm not sure if completely agree with everything she says (perhaps my own reluctance to let go of the androcentric view) - I definitely agree with the importance of the clitoral orgasm, but it seems like perhaps more women can achieve vaginal orgasm than she gives credit. Of course, this is purely anecdotal. Perhaps, more men are also now making an effort to make a woman come than before. While Maines could perhaps argue that some people, and even women, are confusing what an orgasm is, I hesitate to make that argument even though I think it might be true in some cases, especially if the woman hasn't ever attempted to masturbate or used a vibrator. Mainly, though, I don't want to presume to tell other women what they are or are not experiencing. Maybe it's time for another sex survey a la Kinsey to figure out the real numbers.

I also thought this quote about the notion of confusing enjoyment and orgasm (or the second of the approaches listed by Maines) was interesting but it didn't quite fit into the rest of the analysis (partially due to its length), so I'll just wrap things up now, and leave it here, for anyone interested. As noted above, when she says, "popular discussions," I'm not sure if she is also hinting that women themselves might confuse the two or at least conflate them for simplicity's sake.

"A propensity to equate enjoyment of coitus with orgasmic satisfaction remains embedded in both medical and popular discussions despite nearly a century of study of female sexuality . . . For most men, apparently, orgasm is satisfaction. Women, however, traditionally have been expected to find enjoyment in an activity - coitus - that results in orgasm for women in only a minority of instances. Thus women's pleasure in sex, which may consist of arousal, enjoyment of physical intimacy, or the expression of affection it represents for both partners, is routinely interpreted both by scientists and even by some historians as orgasmic experience, whether or not it actually is" (63).

*Yes, that would be two Braveheart references in a week.

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