Come Again?

A history of the orgasm completely misses the point.

I may travel in different, less optimistic circles than Jonathan Margolis does, but when I “look around the world,” I do not see “a civilization living and breathing orgasmic longing, orgasmic tension and orgasmic release.” I do not see “billions of people … desperate to have orgasms like the ones they read about all the time.” As pleasurable as orgasm is, I am skeptical that much crime in the Western world is caused by men having inadequate ones or that “much of the raw violence in fundamentalist societies must stem from male sexual frustration.” (The problem seems to be that men have shortsightedly deprived themselves of “the joy of shared orgasmic pleasure” by oppressing women.) When all this is sorted out—and Margolis assures us it will be soon —“women in the Third World and fundamentalist regimes will begin … to make progress towards getting their share of pleasure from sex,” and “the world will become a calmer, better place.” It is hard to take this seriously.

And Margolis’ O: The Intimate History of the Orgasm does not take its subject seriously. It is ill informed, hyperbolic, contradictory, and silly all at the same time. “Fascinatingly, in preliterate cultures around the world where the sex/babies connection is unknown or misunderstood, women, sole suppliers of the delicious snack for the sensation known as orgasm,” have, Margolis assures us, “more power than in better informed societies.” Really? In fact, it is not clear that any such society exists; women are not monopoly “suppliers” anywhere. (As Margolis himself points out relentlessly, masturbation is universally available—free—as are same-sex sources of “the delicious snack.”) Insofar as women have more power in hunter-gatherer societies, it is because they have a larger share in providing day-to-day sustenance, not orgasms.

He seems to think that sex is “natural,” that morality, religion, and politics just screw things up. Neolithic man at the dawn of civilization got it right, and it has been downhill all the rest of the way. But then Margolis tells us about the modern day Mangaian boys of the South Pacific—untouched, it seems, by all the restraints of civilization—who go through elaborate training in cunnilingus and breast sucking and are “taught always to bring their partner to orgasm several times” before having one of their own. So much for just letting nature take her course.

Why, we might ask, does an intelligent man who has done a lot of reading about orgasm write something that is so intellectually lazy? It could be the genre. Journalists writing about sex seem to feel that their subject is sufficiently titillating to make any dog’s breakfast of facts and pseudo-facts attractive to the public, while at the same time that it is sufficiently abject  to require a kind of coy hype as a linguistic fig leaf. But the real problem is a crude reductionism, popular in the late 19th century and making a comeback today.

What else explains taking something as complex as sexual desire, attraction, and pleasure, and saying that it all comes down to orgasm—and that orgasm is just biology? It is not a physiological event that attracted Antony to Cleopatra, Edward VIII to Mrs. Simpson, or Prince Charles to a woman who is said to look like a horse rather than “to one of the most desired women in the world,” three of Margolis’ examples of how orgasm altered the course of history. It was passion, love, infatuation, and friendship, among much else, that brought them together—and that draws humans together in sexual encounters of all sorts.

These do have a history. A man of Marc Antony’s class in Rome could have had any combination of boy or girl, man or woman, provide him as many orgasms as he could have wanted, in any form he wanted them. He did not give his life to Cleopatra for that. Orgasm in history and culture is not the same as orgasm in nature, and even orgasm in nature, among man or beast, is not necessarily the same as sexual attraction or the instinct to mate. (Even the history of what we actually do to one another is only tangentially connected to orgasm. Fist fucking, the only sexual practice invented in modern times, has little to do with it.)

Margolis says that “an evolutionary paradox”—the fact that men and women have different sexual desires, experiences, and aims and do not need each other for orgasm—stands at the core of his book. It does not stand at the core of a history of orgasm, but the mistaken belief that it does forces him to offer a compilation of mutually contradictory evolutionary just-so stories that try to resolve it. Historical questions are thus reduced to pseudo-biological ones.

Maybe women who had difficulty having an orgasm were selectively advantaged because they favored sex with husbands who knew them well rather than with casual partners, Margolis hypothesizes. Or maybe men see women’s orgasms as a sign of their virility and reap the benefit of more sexual opportunities if she feels good. In any case, the responsive asymmetry is conducive to the pair bond and bourgeois sexuality. Selfish lovers lose out. If this is true, one wonders about the orgasms of all those birds that mate for life, but never mind. And how about the Hadza, a big-game-hunting tribe in Tanzaniathat Margolis discusses, in which extra mates help women get more of those carcasses that their men insist on sharing with others.

The point is, of course, that sexual fulfillment and the infinite variety of human expectations and coupling arrangements are not something that need, or can, be explained by evolutionary biology. Biochemistry—testosterone (“the most influential chemical in human history”), oxytocin (the chemical that “makes orgasm Nature’s sugarcoating to disguise the bitter pill of reproduction”), and assorted neurotransmitters—is not the answer either. Of course we feel through our bodies. But sexual pleasure, attraction, and orgasm exist in time and context. If we are to have a serious history of orgasm, we need to ask not only about the facts of its bare existence, which are hard to get at today and nearly impossible to know about before the middle of the 20th century, but more importantly about what it has meant to men and women over the ages. Why, we need to ask, have these meanings changed?

We might want to think about the evolving significance of orgasm as the “little death” over the millennia. It was for ancient medicine and its successors the bodily signal of a cycle of mortality and generation. It is itself the end: of longing, of courtship, of the pleasures of love for the troubadour tradition; of the torrent of passion for the libertine; of a love that exceeds this world and can only resolve in the Liebestodt. Nowhere more than in the sharp, sweet, ephemeral, melting quality of orgasm are the great tropes of birth and death more clearly inscribed on the body.

One might also want to think about orgasm as a civil right. It is a way of claiming one’s body and its pleasures. Interest in mutual simultaneous orgasm, for example, arose precisely when, for the first time in Western history, divorce became widely available and lifelong sexual compatibility seemed suddenly the best guarantor of a stable family structure. Contracts to give each other pleasure seemed to safeguard civil contracts that were newly vulnerable. The story of orgasm in the women’s movement of the 1960s and ‘70s remains to be written.

No few seconds of pleasure—a few hours at most over a lifetime—are more deeply bound up with human desire, passion, life, and death; none are more complex and mysterious than orgasm. A feeling so elusive both in its natural and its cultural history deserves better than it gets here. There are excellent popular histories of the Founding Fathers and the Civil War, of the French Revolution, and of medicine in all its aspects. Sex deserves as much.