How to Pick a Lover

Posts tagged ‘modern sexuality’

Women Turning On: The Big O

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 Pl...

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.

Discovering Female Sexuality

The man’s desire is for the woman; but the woman’s desire is rarely other than for the desire of the man.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge,
Specimens of the Table Talk of Samuel Taylor Coleridge

In Victorian times and, indeed, well into the twentieth century, the dominant view of sexuality in the Western world was the Puritan Christian view. Sex was considered to be evil, albeit a necessary evil. Sex was evil not only in and of itself but also because it caused other evils. It was a sinister force to be denied, sublimated, and suppressed as much as possible. It was an impulse to be controlled through both the law and the moral codes associated with Christian marriage. The drive for sexual expression was believed to be a masculine trait, and the problem in controlling sexuality was viewed mostly as a problem of repressing the lust and lasciviousness of men.

The History of Sexuality

The History of Sexuality (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Most men in the Victorian era believed that most women did not have sexual feelings. More amazing than that, most women seem to have believed it as well. Sexual involvement for women was not supposed to be intrinsically enjoyable, at least not for respectable women. Good women were believed to be sexually motivated only by the desire to please their husbands, or at least to appease them, and by the desire for children alongside a sense of Victorian duty. We now laugh at those by-gone days when mothers advised their soon-to-be-deflowered daughters to “lie back and think of England.” Thinking of England wasn’t a ruse to get the virgin to dissociate from what was happening to her; it was a strong reminder of her duty to populate England and, particularly within the aristocracy, to provide “an heir and a spare” so that the land holdings remained in the family and increased its prestige and wealth. Bad women, who were whores or fallen women or women of the demimonde, were motivated by money or other kinds of exchange for their sexual favors.

The tradition of sexual repression began to be modified by major thinkers writing at the turn of the twentieth century. Havelock Ellis had a major impact with his seminal work Studies in the Psychology of Sex. The writings of Sigmund Freud placed the libido at the center of human experience and interpreted a wide range of behavior in terms of sexual impulses. Bertrand Russell expounded a philosophy of sexual expression and challenged Christian tradition with the publication of his controversial Marriage and Morals. By the time the Roaring Twenties started to roar, the secret was out. Men were sexual creatures but so were women. Sex was not all that bad; in fact, sex was a creative force. Rather than acceptance of an ideology of sexual repression, there arose an intensive quest for an ideology of appropriate sexual expression. Rather than being viewed as an evil, sex came to be seen as a positive force valuable not only as an end in itself but also as a means of contributing to personal growth and development.

Sadly, even with all the positive changes, the freedom of sexual expression continues to face strong opposition as we enter the second decade of the twenty-first century—as witnessed by the impassioned crusade of Evangelical Christians to ban premarital sex and demonize same-gender relationships

Tag Cloud