From the time that Aristotle first argued, more than 2,000 years ago, that only women “of a feminine type” ejaculate, the female orgasm has been the subject of a massive misinformation campaign. The Greek physician Galen, convinced that a woman’s reproductive organs were the exact inverse of a man’s, maintained that the female orgasm was necessary for procreation, a belief that lasted into the 18th century. (Galen also believed that women were immune to postcoital tristesse, clearly never having hung out by my bedside. “Every animal is sad after coitus,” he opined, “except the human female and the rooster.”) The ostensible correlation between pregnancy and female pleasure materializes again and again over the centuries, popping up in everything from a 13th-century British legal treatise to a guidebook for Renaissance midwives. But while you might think that this misconception would be to the medieval woman’s advantage, compelling her brutish husband to finally pay attention to her needs, it also offered a convenient defense for rape apologists, who seized upon the link between propagation and womanly lust to argue that nonconsensual sex could not possibly result in childbirth. (Or, as Republican Congressman Todd Akin so memorably put it in 2012, during his failed bid for Senate, “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”)
Not until 1730 was it finally proven that the female orgasm was not, in fact, a requisite for reproduction; only then did anatomists begin to develop a relatively accurate conception of female anatomy. Even so, it took at least another century for the German anatomist Georg Ludwig Kobelt to produce one of the earliest detailed diagrams of the clitoris, the only human organ built for pleasure alone, and one that, with more than 8,000 nerve endings, is decidedly not the inverse of the penis. You’d think, once again, that women might be the beneficiaries of such progress, but no: Coupled with the relegation of the female orgasm was the relegation of female desire, with the result that many Victorian doctors believed that women were actually incapable of climax. As the British gynecologist William Acton wrote in 1857, echoing the prevailing wisdom of his colleagues, “The majority of women (happily for them) are not very much troubled by sexual feelings of any kind.”
Rachel Maines, a historian of technology, has argued—speciously, some scholars say; more about that in a moment—that around this same time, pelvic massage became a profitable enterprise for doctors seeking to cure their female patients of “hysteria,” the symptoms of which were said to include anxiety, sexual desire, loss of sexual desire, and a general predilection for troublemaking. The history of this nebulous “disease” (the American Psychiatric Association wouldn’t abandon the diagnosis until 1980) stretches way back, as does the practice of massaging women to better health—good old Galen tells the story of an afflicted widow who was advised to rub her “female parts” with “customary remedies,” thus eliciting the “pain and pleasure” that traditionally accompany intercourse. By the mid-1800s, Maines writes, hydriatic massage (of the sort my 11-year-old self would later discover) was developed, and some European spas had high-pressure jets specifically designed for treating “female disorders.” And yet, because it was understood by then that women were unequipped for sexual excitement, the results of such treatments were known not as orgasms but as hysterical paroxysms.
Maines also suggests that we have this history to thank for the creation of the vibrator, which was patented in the 1880s in England—well before the vacuum cleaner—as a labor-saving device for doctors who had been complaining of chronic hand fatigue. Other historians have disputed Maines’s claims, citing myriad discrepancies between her source material and her conclusions, and they lament that her work—which has made its way into countless books, films, scholarly articles, and even a Broadway play—has gained such widespread acceptance. Indeed, as I discovered while researching this essay, Maines has so completely shaped the discourse around sex and technology that it’s difficult to discern where the truth of physician-assisted paroxysm actually lies. Nevertheless, there’s no doubt that home use of the vibrator took off quickly, with advertisements for “The Little Home Doctor” and “Aids That Every Woman Appreciates” appearing in such mainstream publications as Popular Mechanics, Woman’s Home Companion, and the Sears and Roebuck catalog. (While vibrators would eventually lose the imprimatur of social acceptability, they gained traction again on the heels of the women’s movement, not to mention the Rabbit’s cameo on Sex and the City. By 2009, some 53 percent of American women admitted to having used a vibrator at least once in their life.)
With the 1953 publication of Alfred Kinsey’s pioneering research, Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, which included the revelation that 62 percent of American women had masturbated, the Western world finally embarked upon a period of relative sexual enlightenment—what Jonathan Margolis, the author of O: The Intimate History of the Orgasm, calls “the unsteady Western path from Victorian hangover to cautious advance.” Since then, much of the discussion around the female orgasm has centered on the evolutionary mystery of why it exists in the first place. Indeed, the male and female sexual organs would appear to be very poor complements: as a surprisingly large number of men and even women seem not to realize, the physical location of the clitoris means that only about one-fourth of women, according to some estimates, are able to achieve orgasm from penetration alone.
Which raises the question of why, evolutionarily speaking, women climax at all. Or, as Stephen Jay Gould wondered in 1987, “How can sexual pleasure be so separated from its functional significance in the Darwinian game of life?”