When modern women discovered the orgasm, it was (combined with modern birth control) perhaps the biggest single nail in the coffin of male dominance.
—Elaine Morgan, The Descent of Women
Once it was finally established that women could have orgasms and that even good women could have good orgasms, there began an intensive search for the Big O. We became less concerned with “does she or doesn’t she have sex” and more concerned with “does she or doesn’t she have orgasms.” The tone of many discussions divided women into two classes: those who were sexually aware and those who were frigid. It was as if sexual feeling was something a woman did or did not have, the way she did or did not have blue eyes or big breasts, and the lucky ones were those who happened to have it. Frigidity was a problem in the woman.
Orgasm Inc. - The Strange Science of Female Pleasure (Photo credit: k-ideas)
It was then discovered that frigidity was perhaps in the situation, not in the woman. If women could have orgasms and had a right to have them, then it was the obligation of the man to give them to her. His task was to please her, and if she was not pleased, it was somehow his fault. A common saying of this time was: “There are no frigid women, there are only women with incompetent husbands.” In some ways, this attitude has not changed all that much as evidenced in an episode of Seinfeld, in which Jerry learns Elaine faked her orgasms while in a romantic relationship with him. He feels emasculated by Elaine’s revelation and accuses her of “sexual perjury” and having orgasms “under false pretenses.” To restore his wounded masculinity, Jerry begs Elaine for another sexual opportunity to prove he is capable of giving her an orgasm.
Sex under these circumstances, evaluated in terms of an important but vague criteria for satisfactory performance, became a difficult and rather joyless task. It was especially threatening for the young and inexperienced boy who was justifiably worried that he might not do it “right” and would thereby fail to meet his partner’s expectations. Thinking along these lines, a curious double standard evolved. The man was considered proficient if he could delay orgasm for a long time: the woman was considered proficient if she could accelerate it.
The whole task was made more difficult by the folk belief that if men and women did everything correctly, they would achieve not only orgasms but simultaneous orgasms. Anything short of this ideal was some kind of failure. No wonder Andy Warhol concluded that “sex is work!” It was not until the sexual revolution of the sexy sixties that we came around to more enlightened views.
The sexual freedom of the sixties was fostered by the introduction of the Pill and the freedom from worry that it granted. It was accelerated by the seminal work of William Masters and Virginia Johnson in Human Sexual Response. Their laboratory study of female sexuality finally produced real data to dispel speculation.
Masters and Johnson established that all (or nearly all) women were capable of sexual feelings and of sexual feelings leading to orgasm. They further established that an orgasm is an orgasm and that the clitoral kind is no more or less real, or more or less mature, than the vaginal kind. More important than these clinical insights, Masters and Johnson taught
us that each individual should take responsibility for his or her own sexuality. The man was not held accountable for the woman’s failure to have a climax; the woman was not held accountable for his failure to become erect. Instead, the sexuality of each individual was defined as something unique to the person, stemming from his or her background and experiences and an aspect of life with which he or she must come to terms. Frigidity and impotence were renamed merely “sexual dysfunctions” and were considered something that should and could be cured.
The new perspective on sexuality minimized performance aspects and stressed sensuality and mutuality. The women’s magazines stopped talking about whether or not women could have orgasm and went on to talk about how women might have multiple ones. Increasingly, it was possible to define sexual encounters not as obligatory tasks to be performed but as opportunities for shared delight. Women were finally becoming empowered to take a more active role in their own sexual pleasure—feeling comfortable enough to touch themselves, to guide their partner’s hand, or to tell their partner what felt pleasurable.