4 Historical Myths About Female Orgasm That Some People Still Believe
Sometimes it feel like there are very few problems in life that having an orgasm can't solve. After all, orgasms can tone down your period cramps, combat insomnia, lower stress levels, strengthen your immune system, and possibly even help fight cancer — they can basically do everything except wax your car and check your bank balance. And they do all that despite the fact that they'd be amazing even if they did nothing besides make you feel good! Given all of this, people of the past can be kind of forgiven for assuming that orgasms have semi-magical powers over women's minds and bodies.
The key phrase there is "kind of." Because while people throughout the centuries believed many myths about the female orgasm, those myths were not terribly respectful or helpful to women. No one postulated that orgasms made women smarter, or, say, able to reassemble the carburetor of a 1964 Dodge Plymouth. Instead, people believed that orgasms controlled women in ways that made it seem like women had little free will, or that their free will was misplaced. Beliefs about orgasms were often used to punish women — to tell them how to "properly" be a woman, or to make it seem like they were responsible for problems that were not actually their fault.
Unfortunately, we still see plenty of echoes of that kind of thinking today. We're not completely out of the woods when it comes to people saying and believing ridiculous things about female orgasms or sexuality — people still equate a "female orgasm" with a "vaginal orgasm," despite the fact that about 80 percent of women need clitoral stimulation to orgasm, and we still regularly see "Why Does The Female Orgasm Exist?" think pieces, as if female orgasms were Stonehenge or something — but these four myths show us how far we've come.
Myth #1: You Can't Get Pregnant If You Don't Have An Orgasm
Remember a few years back, when garbage-skulled politician Todd Akin postulated that "legitimate" rape victims rarely become pregnant because "the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down"? Remember how shocked people were about this ridiculous theory that this moron had come up with?
Well, while Akin was the most outspoken advocate for the "women can only get pregnant when they're enjoying it!" theory in recent memory, he wasn't the first: the idea that orgasm is necessary for conception is actually an idea with roots in science ... medieval science, that is (so yeah, Akin is still a moron).
British legal texts from the 13th through early 19th century claim that if a woman becomes pregnant from rape, she was likely not actually raped, because, as the 1814 medical text Elements of Medical Jurisprudence put it: "For without an excitation of lust, or the enjoyment of pleasure in the venereal act, no conception can probably take place." According to Vanessa Heggie, writing in The Guardian, this legal standard was set in place because, "Through the medieval and early modern period it was widely thought, by lay people as well as doctors, that women could only conceive if they had an orgasm." This is because doctors at the time viewed the female reproductive system as a mirror image of the male reproductive system — and thus it was assumed that women also had to "spill their seed" while having an orgasm in order for a conception to take place.
While this myth mostly died in the 19th century, versions of it still pop up from time to time — and the people supporting it aren't always boosting an anti-woman political agenda. Sometimes they're just boosting an extremely goofy scientific agenda — such as when Desmond Morris argued in a 1967 book that female orgasms had evolved to aid in conception, due to the fact that they keep a woman lying down for a longer period of time than she would if she didn't orgasm. What's the scientific term for "Uh, no"?
Myth #2: Orgasms Keep Women From Becoming "Hysterical"
What is "hysteria," besides the best album made by Def Leppard? For generations, doctors thought that "hysteria" was an ailment that afflicted women, causing them to act, well, basically any way men didn't want them to act. The concept of hysteria is often credited to ancient Greek physician Hippocrates, who believed that many women suffered from health problems that occurred when their wombs decided to very casually stroll out of their abdomens into other parts of their bodies. Though we often think of hysteria as a problem synonymous with Victorian women, we're unfortunately wrong — as noted in the New York Times, diagnoses of hysteria in women lasted from "the fourth century B.C. until the American Psychiatric Association dropped the term in 1952."
And what kind of symptoms could help clue in a medical practitioner that their patient was grappling with this horrible disease? Well, hysteria supposedly caused sufferers to experience nervousness, anxiety, insomnia, sexual fantasy, and frequent vaginal lubrication. Gee, that "disease" sounds an awful lot being antsy because you haven't masturbated or had sex in a while, huh? (Doctors throughout these eras also attributed symptoms including depression, forgetfulness, and stomach pain to hysteria, suggesting that it was probably just used as a clearinghouse for whenever women had ailments with unclear causes).
And so, fittingly, one of the most popular "cures" for hysteria was inducing orgasm. As 17th century medical writer Pieter van Foreest claimed of patients who seemed to be suffering from hysteria:
When these symptoms indicate, we think it necessary to ask a midwife to assist, so that she can massage the genitalia with one finger inside, using oil of lilies, musk root, crocus, or [something] similar. And in this way the afflicted woman can be aroused to the paroxysm.
As technology became more advanced and more women were "diagnosed" with hysteria (according to historian Rachel Maines, by the 19th century, some doctors thought that 75 percent of middle-class women had hysteria), vibrators were introduced into hysteria treatment as a way to help doctors give hand jobs — uh, I mean, "arouse to paroxysm" — to their patients.
While that might sound like a fun problem to have, know that this wasn't just a case of entire countries playing a large-scale, erotically-charged game of "doctor." Many people believed that hysteria was a real and dangerous disorder which could eventually lead to death if not treated, which a wide variety of quack-ish cures — which sometimes included removing the clitoris or burning it with acidic substances — were prescribed to cure, too.
Myth #3: All Women Can (And Should) Orgasm Only From Penetration
History has bestowed many titles upon Sigmund Freud; "the father of psychoanalysis" is one of them — but "empathetic friend to womenfolk" is not. Throughout his groundbreaking psychological work, Freud often marginalized women, frequently producing work aimed at telling women how to behave rather than how to best live with their psychological issues. And perhaps nowhere was this more obvious than in Freud's conception of the vaginal orgasm.
As Marie Helene Colson put it in her 2010 article published in the journal Sexologies, Freud thought that the clitoris was childish, and using it to achieve orgasm was immature and improper:
According to Freud, it was only later in life, after renouncing her clitoridian orgasm as infantile and immature, that a woman could reach adult sexuality, by finally obtaining a vaginal orgasm. Women who did not have vaginal orgasms were frigid (Bonierbale, 2000). Women must ‘‘change their directive sexual zone’’ and move their sexual centre of gravity from the clitoris to the vagina in order to prove their sexual maturity, and hence their femininity.
What this actually meant: women who couldn't have vaginal orgasms were considered by a vast majority of people to be simply "unable" to have orgasms. Vaginal orgasms were what adults did; an adult having a clitoral orgasm was considered roughly as acceptable as an adult demanding to sit in a booster seat and color on the tablecloth. (It is worth noting that Freud's concepts about vaginal orgasms were developed without consulting women about their own sexual or orgasmic experiences, obviously).
Freud died in 1939, but his idea that vaginal orgasms were the only on-ramp to the Proper Female Sexuality Highway didn't die with him — even though Alfred Kinsey's research in the '50s showed that many women thought to be "frigid" were able to orgasm quickly when allowed to masturbate clitorally, Freud's ideas about the supremacy of the vaginal orgasm lasted through the 1960s and '70s. I'm not joking — in 1962, Frank S. Caprio, M.D. wrote in this book, The Sexually Adequate Female , that:
whenever a woman is incapable of achieving an orgasm via coitus, provided the husband is an adequate partner, and prefers clitoral stimulation to any other form of sexual activity, she can be regarded as suffering from frigidity and requires psychiatric assistance.
Yup — if you couldn't have a vaginal orgasm, you were legitimately considered to be suffering from emotional problems. This line of thinking was extremely mainstream until the second wave of the women's movement pushed for a view of healthy women's sexuality which included clitoral orgasms, most famouly in Anne Koedt's classic text "The Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm."
Myth #4: Women Can Only Have One Orgasm At A Time
If you've ever been lucky enough to have multiple orgasms, you know that they're kind of like lunar eclipses — one of those awesome natural phenomenons that reminds you how truly cool it is to be alive. However, for a very long time, most people thought multiple orgasms were more like Bigfoot — something that was just made up by bored people trying to kill time until someone invented Vanderpump Rules.
This was until the groundbreaking sexual research team of Williams Masters and Virginia Johnson joined forces in the 1960s to conduct clinical experiments on how arousal and orgasm actually function. Prior to Masters and Johnson, most sexual research just relied on having subjects self-report about their own experiences — a technique which is notoriously unreliable (this focus on self-reporting would explain why so many sex surveys in the pre-Masters and Johnson era reported that the average man's penis was, "like, really long. Super-long. Much longer than Jeff's penis!").
But when Masters and Johnson began running lab tests, they found that the reality of most people's sex lives were different than what was painted as "normal" — a reality which sometimes included multiple female orgasms. According to Thomas Maier, who wrote the definitive biography of Masters and Johnson, their study showed that:
women had the capacity for multiple orgasms in a way that men would go into what they called 'a refractory period' after having the initial sexual orgasm. Women were capable of multiple orgasms, and the second and the third was more intense than the first, and ... they didn't necessarily need to have a man to have an orgasm. And this was something that was done with about 380 women, almost an equal number of men, and they recorded something like 10,000 orgasms over a decade-long study.
While this may sound like a real "no duh" to us now, Masters and Johnson's research rocked the world. Though they didn't single-handedly challenge all sexual myths or change sexual discourse, they ushered in a new era where sexual research was based on real biological study, instead of just how the people in charge thought things should be. And we've been working our way to the truth about women's sexuality — one scientifically observed orgasm at a time — ever since.
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