July 15, 2024

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

Appearing in this winter's physical edition of I, Science, this piece delves into the scientific history of the female orgasm

(By Olive Bradshaw on 14th February 2023)

In the hushed annals of human history, female pleasure has been both a source of fascination and an instrument of oppression. Veiled in taboo and obscured by societal norms, the female orgasm – or the elusive ‘O’ — has captivated scientists and scholars for centuries. In this feature we embark on a journey through time, revealing the complex history of female pleasure from ancient myths to the contentious ‘pleasure gap’. The quest to unlock herstory is a testament to our enduring curiosity surrounding this enigmatic facet of the female experience. 

The historical understanding of female pleasure has diverged on distant trajectories in the East and the West. Since the 4th century, Taoist texts have documented the sexual experience in great detail, framing intercourse through the principle of ’yin’ and ’yang’ — polar, independent forces. The female ‘yin’ was deemed as evil, a negative and passive force, while the male ‘yang’ was considered active and superior. Achieving the purest manifestation of these forces, ‘ching’, hinged on simultaneous orgasm for both partners. A man would be expected to prolong intercourse, inducing multiple orgasms in a woman before he could orgasm only once. Reaching orgasm without achieving a woman’s yin could have fatal consequences… 

At the same time, in Northern India, the Kama Sutra was published offering guidance on how a man should approach intercourse to ensure mutual satisfaction. Despite lacking explicit reference to the female orgasm, later texts state “that both male and female experience the delight of emission”, describing how during intercourse “she gradually becomes… wet like a broken water vessel”. These early descriptions of the female orgasm formed the basis for sexual exploration in many Eastern civilisations. 

On the other side of the world, rooted in the works of Greek physician Claudius Galenus (129–200 AD), Western understanding remained stagnant into the 17th century. Women were believed to exist as similar yet inferior versions of men, possessing the same sexual organs just ‘inside out’. The vagina was likened to the penis, the ovaries to the testicles, the labia to the foreskin and the uterus to the scrotum. Taken to be a result of a failure in development — what was called a “lack of vital heat” — the woman as an inferior version of man proliferated in contemporary thought.  

The ancient Greek invention of hysteria, a mental disorder caused by a “wandering womb”, also lingered throughout the early modern period. In the 17th century, hysteria was the second most common medical diagnosis in women after fever. Defined by a constellation of vague symptoms including anxiety, nervousness and erotic fantasies, such prescriptions over psychological problems in women ignited the start of an era of a medical mal(e)practice into the female sexual experience. The wandering womb was described as a woman’s uterus choking due to sexual deprivation. Women were told to marry as treatment, or otherwise take up horse riding or start using swings. Physicians tasked with treating women by means of “genital massage” complained that it was strenuous and time consuming, frequently handing off responsibilities to female midwives. Treatment for hysteria climaxed in the 1880s with the invention of the first “electromechanical vibrator”, the long-awaited solution to a problem which had cursed practitioners for centuries.  

Hang-ups of Victorian era morality and the ground-breaking ‘proof’ that the female orgasm was not necessary for conception was reflected in perceptions of female sexuality throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. Women were expected to embody traits of modesty, purity, chastity and domesticity. Religious dogma and societal norms at the time constrained exploration into the understanding of the female orgasm. Sexuality was repressed, and any deviation from societal expectations risked condemnation and ostracisation. As the English urologist William Acton proclaimed in 1875, 

 “A modest woman seldom desires any gratification for herself. She submits to her husband’s embraces, but principally to gratify him; and were it not for the desire of maternity, would far rather be relieve of his attentions.” 

Despite the medical advances of the 1700s, this period witnessed the vilification of female sexuality. Exploration into female anatomy was stifled and the veil of mystery shrouding female pleasure was deepened. 

At the turn of the 19th century, discourse around female pleasure gained a second wind. Sigmund Freud’s controversial ideas about female sexuality rekindled interest in both academic and popular circles. Freud instigated discussion around “penis envy”, ties between female sexual satisfaction and psychological issues — a painful hangover of the 18th century — and the superiority of vaginal over clitoral orgasms. People were talking, but it wasn’t until the early 20th century that things really began to change. The burgeoning women’s suffrage movement challenged traditional gender roles, drawing attention to women’s autonomy in various aspects of life including sexual independence.  

The sexual revolution of the 1960s and 70s propelled shifts in attitudes towards female sexuality. The introduction of birth control pills marked a step forward in second wave feminism, pushing for reproductive rights and sexual freedom. Women could, for the first time, have non-procreational sex at their will, information on female sexual pleasure was available and liberal sexual values became popular. There was even porn being made specifically directed towards women. The elusive female orgasm was back, and society began engaging in more open dialogues about sexual orientation, gender identity and the diversity of the female sexual experience. 

Despite the apparent triumph of sexual liberation, the male-centric view on female sexual pleasure persists. There is still reticence from the general public towards discussions around the female orgasm. Advances as recently as 2001 towards medication “[that] ends the faked female orgasm” underscore society’s androcentric framing of female pleasure and the continued medicalisation of female sexuality. 

The disparity in sexual satisfaction between men and women, particularly in heterosexual relationships, has been a focal point of discussions surrounding gender equality and sexual pleasure. A recent study by Durex found that only 5% of women claimed to always orgasm during sex, another reporting that as many as 22% of women have not climaxed at all from penetrative sex. This ‘pleasure gap’ encompasses various social, cultural and physiological tensions which contribute to a persistent sexual dissatisfaction. Sexual violence and rape culture remain pressing issues in society today. Unravelling the enigma of the ‘O’ is not just a matter of scientific curiosity, it is a vital step toward gender equality and sexual liberation.  

Bridging this gap requires placing emphasis on open communication in sexual relationships, prioritising mutual pleasure and satisfaction for all genders and, above all, advocating for comprehensive sexual education to address the diverse experiences of women. The female orgasm is something that should be celebrated, not shunned. It is an essential part of human sexuality that deserves recognition, understanding and the right to be enjoyed without constraint.