If a recent history of the subject is to be believed, the average man or woman will spend 20 seconds a week in orgasm—or, to extrapolate, around twelve minutes a year or ten hours in a typical lifetime. For something that takes so little of our time, the orgasm occupies a grossly outsized portion of our economy, science, and cultural imagination. There’s no shortage of handbooks—ancient and modern—that can advise you about the best ways to satisfy your lover. If we want to say something is good we describe it as “better than sex”; anything that tastes delicious or illicit is “orgasmic”; and Arnold Schwarzenegger is even able to describe flexing his biceps as “as satisfying as ejaculating.”
For ancient medics the orgasm was what Thomas Laqueur, author of Making Sex, has called a “bodily signal of a cycle of mortality and generation.” Ancient thought held that certain conditions—sluggishness, for example—were caused by an excess of phlegm in the body. The congestion could be relieved by ejaculating; Aristotle actually calls semen “the secretion of an excrement.”
Simultaneously, semen was believed to be the purest form of blood, which contained, naturally, the very essence of life. In this way the male orgasm was not just a prerequisite for procreation, but could also regulate the temperature and the disposition of the body; it kept a person in balance. I say person because many ancient medics believed in a “two seed” model of procreation in which both men and women ejaculated and contributed “seed” to the generative mix. The second-century CE doctor Galen even thought he had discovered female seed when he observed fluid in the horns of the uterus (the fallopian tubes, to you and me).
For Aristotle, though, pleasure and procreation were distinct. The pleasure men experience in orgasm is not connected to the production of semen. His evidence? Young boys and old men experience pleasure even though they are unable to produce offspring. What was the orgasm then? For most ancient philosophers it was a final blast of heat that expelled generative substances from the body.
Interestingly, for ancient and medieval writers, women were expected to orgasm during intercourse. The sixth century physician Aetios of Amida thought of the female orgasm as a sign of conception: “[if] in the very coitional act itself she notices a certain tremor… she is pregnant.”
Even though the clitoris was not identified as a locus of pleasure until 1558, medieval midwives thought that the female orgasm was both routine and a necessary prerequisite for conception. The rapturous shudder of orgasm was a sign that the womb has drawn the semen into itself and sealed itself off to allow pregnancy to commence. The orgasm, therefore, was a potential liability: excite a woman too much and too soon, said Hippocrates, and her womb will close up.
What might sound like a refreshing pause in oppressive male-centered attitudes toward sex was actually the reverse. For, if women cannot get pregnant without orgasm, it should be impossible for rape victims to get pregnant. The thirteenth-century British legal text Fleta, written in Latin, stipulates, “without a woman’s consent she could not conceive.” Similarly, Samuel Farr’s Elements of Medical Jurisprudence (1814) states, “without an excitation of lust… no conception can probably take place.” The legacy of this literally medieval idea is still felt today among, for example, Republican candidates who think, “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”
The description of enjoyable sex as sinful is linked to the rise of Christianity. Certainly it is not the case that religious leaders always and everywhere deem sexual gratification immoral, but in the 16th century Dr Francisco Bezerria, a canon in the church of Antequera (Spain), declared that “the sex act in marriage is always sinful” and that “Our Lord can no longer tolerate the sinfulness of coitus in marriage.”
Bezerria is at the extreme, but a cloud of suspicion hung over sexual practices that were not “natural” intercourse. Orgasm from foreplay, in other words, was a mortal sin. Instead, woman were encouraged to remain passive and emulate the example of Zenobia, ancient queen of Palmyra (modern day Turkey), who did not engage in sex unless she was trying to become pregnant, and who allegedly “had no more sensitivity in her sexual parts than in her feet or hands.”
How would a woman do this? Well, according to the practical advice of 17th-century theologian Tomás Sánchez by lying still, making the sign of the cross, and praying that God not allow the male partner “to slip into orgasmic pleasure.”
It wasn’t until the 1940s that Kinsey reported that 40% of women achieved their first orgasm through masturbation. Later research was interested in the evolutionary purpose of the female orgasm. In 1967, Desmond Morris, the author of The Naked Ape, hypothesized that the evolutionary purpose of the female orgasm was to enable females to select appropriate mates.
Evolutionary biologist Robin Baker slightly disagreed. In his bestselling 1996 Sperm Wars, Baker argues (in a manner analogous to earlier theories) that the purpose of the female orgasm was to draw semen into the uterus. Baker’s research has drawn criticism for its small sample size and methodological errors. In either theory, as Jonathan Margolis puts it, “making women feel good may help men to win the Darwinian contest of supremacy.”
Biologically purposeful or not, people have long recognized the difficulty in providing women with orgasms. The invention of the vibrator as a treatment for hysteria was much less about helping women than it was about sparing the doctors performing “pelvic massage” from developing repetitive strain injury. Margolis describes the education of the Mangaian boys of the South Pacific, who receive formal instruction in cunnilingus and are “taught always to bring their partner to orgasm several times” before climaxing themselves.
The shift towards an evolutionary understanding of the orgasm has given way to the study of the medical value of the orgasm. Thus, while there’s no definitive theory of the purpose of the female orgasm, recent research into the subject has focused on its supplemental health benefits. Orgasms have the potential to boost one’s mood, improve brain function, boost white cell levels, and even diminish a person’s experience of pain.
These shifts in scientific focus correspond to cultural shifts: the rise of women’s rights in the 1960s. As divorce rates have risen and the idea of sexual compatibility has taken center stage in our cultural hierarchy, we have begun to see the orgasm, as Lacquer has put it, as a “civil right.”
The idea that the orgasm is a means for moderating good health, though, is an ancient world. Dr. Jessica Baron, of the Reilly Center for Science, Technology and Values, told me that “Even in our most sexually liberal phases, there’s always been an idea, at least in medicine, that passions and different types of energy that flow throughout the body should be moderated for optimum health. When these energies become stagnant or pent up, they become dangerous and so even in some relatively repressed times we see orgasmic remedies designed to cure people.”
Orgasm is not all good. For men, the fleeting moments of euphoria experienced during orgasm sometimes give way to sadness: men are depleted and vulnerable. Galen wrote, “Every animal is sad after coitus except the human female and the rooster.” The seventeenth-century philosopher Spinoza agreed, writing in his On the Improvement of the Understanding that “after the enjoyment of sensual pleasure is past, the greatest sadness follows.”
All sex has the potential to make men unhappy. And then there are the issues associated with illicit orgasms, masturbation in particular. In 1994 Jocelyn Elders, the surgeon general, was allegedly fired because she endorsed the public health values of masturbation and suggested “perhaps it should be taught.”
Anxieties about masturbation are relatively novel. The ancient Greeks did not seem to attribute much significance to masturbation, and medieval theologians were more worried about sodomy and adultery. It is not the case that Christian writers endorsed masturbation, but rather that they did not expend much intellectual effort on denouncing it.
When famous seventeenth-century diarist Samuel Pepys described bringing himself to orgasm while being transported on the Thames, he seems rather gleeful that he managed to bring the event to completion without use of his hands. It was only when the sight of the Queen and her court led him to masturbate in a Church, on Christmas Eve no less, that Pepys expressed any kind of guilt.
According to Laqueur’s Solitary Sex, the turning point in the history of masturbation was the publication of a brief tract entitled Onania around 1712. The title was based on the biblical character Onan, who, rather than copulate with his brother’s wife Tamar, “spilled his seed on the ground.” Onania cast masturbation as a disease and sparked a frenzy of medical interest. Masturbation was now believed to be the cause of everything from pimples to spinal tuberculosis to madness. Casanova (yes, that Casanova) reportedly told a Muslim sage that Christians believe that “young men who indulge in the practice impair their constitutions and shorten their lives.”
It might seem like a simple (or not-so-simple) biological function, but our understanding of the purpose of the orgasm, the designation of certain orgasms as illicit, and the cultural and symbolic meaning of sexual delight are constantly shifting. If all of this seems like too much speculation, there are always the immortal words of Dorothy Parker: a “little coitus never hoitus.”