The Story of O
How could something that most of us only experience for 12 minutes a year be the driving force of humanity? A new book explores the rich, strange history of the orgasm.
"Aside from the need to breathe and eat," writes Jonathan Margolis, "the pursuit of orgasm has been one of the strongest single determinants of human behavior throughout history." It is hard to disagree with him, especially once you've come to the end of his new book, O: An Intimate History of the Orgasm. Documenting attitudes toward sex from the cavemen to modern times, Margolis shows how human culture has been driven by the pursuit of that most elusive, fleeting and inconsistent pleasure. For despite our obsession, he writes, "most individuals will experience a mere twenty seconds of orgasm a week, a minute or so a month, or a total of twelve ecstatic minutes a year."
Margolis, a British journalist, draws on biology, evolutionary theory, sociology, anthropology and psychology throughout his book. Thanks to that research, O is rich in fascinating statistics, studies and news of the weird. Did you know, for example, that a practice called Avisodomy requires breaking a chicken's neck before penetration, so the sodomizer can benefit from the death spasms? Or that the Sambia of New Guinea think that semen isn't created by the body? Rather, they believe older men must supply the young, and so boys regularly fellate their elders in order to build up their store? More useful news, perhaps, to modern folk might be the theory that it could be a genetic advantage for women to have a variety of mates, for if you lose one father for your children, you've always got another. And those who have mastered the G-spot might be interested to know that women also have a U-spot, an X-spot and a cul-de-sac—all areas of reportedly intense sexual pleasure.
Before he set out to uncover the mysteries of the orgasm, the 49-year-old Margolis spent 15 years writing about show business, publishing biographies on John Cleese, Michael Palin and Uri Geller, the spoon-bending mystic. He then turned his attention to new technology and modern culture, which he now covers for the Financial Times and Evening Standard.
Margolis spoke by phone about sexology, gender myths, the way Christianity changed the way we think about pleasure, and his own personal "mattress theory" on orgasm.
You write mostly about new technology. What made you turn your attention to the orgasm?
Like most men in their 40s, I pretty much thought I knew about sex. And then I read a column in the (British publication) Guardian, by a columnist here, Julie Burchill, on Viagra. She was saying, what is it with you guys that you think all that women want is this enormous stiff penis that remains stiff for hours on end? And what is this male idea that any woman is going to have an orgasm simply by his banging away? And I was honestly quite shocked at that, because I'd always thought, surely that's what all girls want, isn't it? Guys all tell these stories about going for hours and hours, and Sting talks about his eight-hour sex. And so I started asking female friends, isn't your ideal man someone who can keep it up for hours and come six times? Women would say, we love the sensation of penetration, we certainly don't want to go with someone who's impotent, but don't you know it has nothing to do with orgasm? Most women would say maybe once in their lives they had come to orgasm as a result of penetration and nothing else.
I thought it was remarkable that half the world doesn't actually appreciate the most basic physiology of how the other half works. We're supposed to be able to have what in technology terms I'd call compatibility, and yet we don't have it, because nobody communicates. People go entire lives without actually explaining to their sexual partners what they want. And it seems to be shrouded in so much myth and embarrassment.
What are some of those myths?
Well, when I was at school, boys in the locker room always used to have these conversations about how when we'd masturbate, we'd "hit the ceiling." I went to the age of 48 without realizing that my minuscule amount wasn't freakish. And then I found out projectile ejaculation was a complete myth. And yet it's kept alive, even on women's porn sites!
Then I discovered in a secondhand bookstore a book called Ideal Marriage by Dr. [Theodor Hendrik] van de Velde. It was basically a '20s sex manual written by a Dutch gynecologist in the 70th year of his life. It remained the standard sex manual until the '60s. And it was a fantastically liberal book. He would say things like, any man who didn't ensure that his wife had had an orgasm by the end of sex was criminally negligent. But his view was that the only valid form of orgasm was simultaneous orgasm achieved by penetrative sex. He further believed that a woman could not orgasm until the semen actually touched the walls of her vagina. In other words, it had to be without contraception, and it had to be simultaneous through penetrative sex.
These are myths that aren't just held by a few but are commonly held myths, about this subject which is supposedly so close to our hearts. And it seems to me a tremendously important part of our lives.
You say that sexology is an inexact science. So how did you arrive at the data that you present in the book?
Sexological data barely deserve the description "data," because it relies entirely on what people say. If you want to research the orgasm, you at least need to know that people know what an orgasm is. But a study at one university did some research with female students, and some students who thought they were having an orgasm had no measurable signs of an orgasm—no muscular contractions, no signs of anything that could possibly be construed as an orgasm. Whereas women who were having what muscularly appeared to be an orgasm claimed they hadn't had one. In other words, there's an enormous confusion of what it actually feels like.
Then you have other experiential data from [the writer] Hanny Lightfoot-Klein working in Sudan, where she had extensive, lyrical descriptions by clitoridectomized Sudanese women describing what appear to be orgasms. And these are women whose clitorises have been removed and can't possibly have what we regard as an orgasm.
And you have Dr. van de Velde in 1926. who quoted women who said, as one woman put it, "Until I feel a refreshing flood of my husband's semen, washing against the walls of my vagina, I cannot possibly have an orgasm." Either he made it up, or the woman was telling him what he wanted to know.
So a lot of the data is basically unreliable. I think just by quoting lots of it, you get a smell of what's right. There's a marvelous Canadian website called Queendom.com that has terrific descriptions of orgasm by women. I thought their data such as it is smelled right.
It struck me that your history of the orgasm is really a history of how men have perceived women's sexuality throughout the ages. Do you think that's true?
What I hope it is, actually, is a history of sexual pleasure, as opposed to sex for any other reason. I would hope it's not skewed extensively to a male view.
If anything, I was terribly short of male data. It's impossible to find men describing what an orgasm is like. Even when men describe orgasm in literature, they describe their partner's orgasm, not their own. Jonathan Franzen almost kind of describes a male orgasm [in The Corrections]; there are almost no others.
One of the themes of the book is that when women have skillful partners, they get a much better deal out of sex. From what I can tell—nobody's ever experienced both—the female orgasm seems to be a hell of a lot better than ours.
You say that testosterone "has been the single most influential chemical in human history." Can you explain that?
When you look at the history of human orgasm, so much has been explained by sexual jealousy, sexual passion. We have an entire dynasty over here in England, not just the royal family but the whole political-religious system, that changed because Henry VIII wasn't satisfied with the sex he was getting with his first wife. More than 50 percent of the people in Western, urban cultures divorce at some stage, and you don't have to be a marriage counselor to know that practically all the problems stem from sex. Sex is the battleground on which marriages are fought.
The family largely exists because of sex. It's a very neat anthropological theory, but one that is still relatively current, that the disparity between the male and female orgasm is an evolutionary adaptation. To make it far harder for a women to orgasm means that her male partner needs to know her very well and probably spend a lot of time with her, maybe years with her. It seems that we need that system to exist because biologically, we need stable family units. Women will stay with a partner that can satisfy them. Men will stay with a partner they can satisfy. That works to the benefit of our children.
I can't think of any other bodily longing that we suffer that causes quite so much disruption both on a micro, social basis, or on a grand international stage.
You call men "ejaculation addicts." Is that not a little reductive, implying that men are completely driven by sexual desire?
I think men are. Certainly from the age of 12 or 13 to the late 50s. I'm at the stage of my life where it is not quite as important to me as it was. But it is a very powerful desire. As an extreme example, rape is an attempt to gain ejaculation by violent means. But I don't think it quite applies to women, which is why I'd like to see women running the world.
You write that in pre-Christian days, sex was an integral part of religion—so what happened?
Two thousand years ago, Christians were the modernizing force, the revolutionaries. They regarded themselves as forward-thinking, futuristic. And they found the whole idea of sex for pleasure as tied with lust and greed, and it was animalistic. The modern guy or modern woman would not submit to animal urges. So you have St. Francis throwing himself into a thorn bush when he felt an erection coming on, which is probably an apocryphal story, but it's interesting somebody had bothered to make it an apocryphal story.
I think you have to be quite understanding of the early Christians and their suspicion of the old behaviors. They were followers of this incredibly forward-looking martyr. It's a modernistic cult, and part of the cult is getting away from the old ways as they saw it. You had the ancient Hebrew ways of satisfying your wife and saying it's ungodly not to do so. [To the Christians] this was disgusting stuff.
Incidentally, Jesus had no stated views that we know of about sex. He must have presumably liked it quite a lot, hence Mary Magdalene. Like Karl Marx famously said when he saw what was happening in the name of Marxism, "If these people are Marxist, then I'm not a Marxist." I think Jesus would have probably taken a dim view of these excesses in his name, the most appalling of which is celibacy. Again, I talk about testosterone being this deathly important chemical in our makeup. Just look at the mess [with sexual abuse] in countries like Ireland, where you have Catholic priests who are maintaining this absurd celibacy, which was only imposed on them as a method to avoid priests having children, because the church was terrified that the church property would end up in the hands of priests' children. And in the States as well you've had disruptions in the Catholic Church. Men deprived of orgasm in their normal way seek them in other ways. So you have whole families destroyed, you have communities destroyed, purely based on an 11th century edict originally promulgated as a property-protecting measure.
That's a good example of what you call the "mattress theory," that sexual repression manifests expression in different outlets.
Yep, force priests not to have sexual relationships, and they'll (have sexual intercourse with) kids. Simple as that. It won't happen with them all; there are some wonderful priests out there who are serious about celibacy. But sadly, there are a lot of priests who aren't. As you were saying, if you repress a behavior, it will simply come out somewhere else.
Do you think we'll ever see an age when we'll have true sexual freedom and equality?
In a way, I think we've kind of moved toward that age. I'm very optimistic about the future. The sexual liberation of the '60s really was no sexual liberation, because the pill came along and took away a woman's right to say no. It was politically incorrect not to sleep with just any guy. I love the way that the "Sex and the City" generation has assumed a more male view. Young women will sleep with whom they wish, as and when they wish, in whatever way they wish. And if they want to end it, they'll just end it. So I love the way women have taken the initiative. And I think it's one of the few examples of progress in our society. I also love the way men are prepared to talk about the subject and admit their inadequacies.
At the fringes of society, or really, not the fringes but the whole of Manhattan, the whole of London, the whole of Los Angeles or any major U.S. city, men understand their responsibilities, their rights and duties in bed, and women have a far greater understanding of their needs, requirements and expectations. It's really one of the few areas in which we've improved. It's incredible to think that probably even the most liberated man in the world 60 years ago thought that women couldn't possibly orgasm unless they were having unprotected penetrative sex with a man. Now we know women can orgasm in a million different ways. The "gross national pleasure"—which is not my expression but that of the wonderful professor Lionel Tiger at Rutgers—is increasing. And that's a really nice thing.
I have to ask you about the anthropological studies you mention in your book. You talk about the !Kung bushmen, who, as you write, believe "if a girl grows up without regular sex, she will lose her mind and end up eating grass and dying." Then there are the Muria of India and the Mangaia in the South Pacific, who teach children how to give sexual pleasure.
You know, you were talking earlier about data, and anthropological data is probably one of the few reliable things that exist. I don't know whether some of those anthropologists were seeing the worlds through rose-tinted spectacles, that they weren't dirty old men looking for their fantasies. I don't believe so; I think they were reliable people that were reporting what they found.
All those islands, those strange little communities, they're really interesting, because they could be the kind of templates for how we'll all be one day. It's quite a cool idea really, that older women could be drafted into training young boys sexually. I think there's a lot to be said for that! So I don't think those societies should be taken entirely as comedy. The Muria in India, the people of Mangaia, the bu—there's a lot of great sexual wisdom out there, which suggests there was probably great sexual knowledge and wisdom in preliterate societies. And that there are a number of ways to crumble this particular cookie.
Is it OK—or is it unethical—to pretend you had an orgasm?
"Of course I've embellished," one woman told me about faking orgasm. "Not screaming and yelping and making a mountain out of a molehill. It's a question of intensity and attention. Sometimes I'm all there and sometimes I'm not. When I'm not, I work it a little, partly for me and partly for him. Mechanics aside, it strikes me as supremely arrogant and mean to have your mind in the next county while your body is otherwise engaged right here. That's a matter of respect and courtesy, and sometimes a little embellishment can be a way of priming the motor."
Call it what you will—an embellishment in the service of priming the motor here, an over-the-top working it there—it still begs the question: Is it ethical to fake an orgasm?
"On the one hand, faking an orgasm is a kind of lie to your partner," says Janet R. Jakobsen, director of the Barnard Center for Research on Women at Barnard College. "But then we have to think of what kind of lie, and it probably varies from situation to situation. Is it the small, make-things-go-smoother type ('Yes, your haircut looks good'; 'Yes, you played well at the company baseball game') or something more serious?"
A female colleague considers faking orgasm to fall squarely in the white lie category—“those times when you want to be careful, when to tell the truth is to hit somebody over the head with a railroad tie."
But some psychologists who specialize in sexuality warn that there's an inherent danger in lying of any sort in sexual relationships. "The problem with dishonesty is that when it succeeds in one area, then there's temptation to use it in another area," says Bernie Zilbergeld, a psychologist and author of "The New Male Sexuality."
What's more, on a practical level, faking can have long-term implications in the sack. Lonnie Barbach, a psychologist and author of numerous books on female sexuality, including "For Yourself: The Fulfillment of Female Sexuality," says: "If you're faking it, you're teaching your partner exactly the wrong thing to do. You're not going to lead yourself to a better sexual relationship because your partner is just not getting the information." As a result, instead of discovering how to really please a sexual partner, men may go away satiated and smug in their belief that no woman of theirs has ever stooped to faking it.
It may be that most men are either oblivious to any faking going on or in deep denial that they're not able to bring a partner to orgasm. But it could just be that their female partners are truly gifted fakers. Without exception, the men I talked to said that their sexual partners rarely, if ever, embellished so much as a tad during sex.
"I always worked hard at my craft," one guy said. "If they didn't have an orgasm—which they sometimes didn't—they didn't act out the death scene from Scarface to make me think they were having a good time. They had pleasure and that was what we were there for."
Other guys admitted that sometimes a partner may not reach orgasm—which is fine as long as the guys have given it their best shot. "It's better for both of us if she's really having the orgasm," one guy told me. "But personally, I'd rather she not fake the scream and such. If it happens, great. If it doesn't, don't pretend for my sake. It doesn't make me feel like any less of a man to not get a woman to orgasm, particularly if I'm doing everything possible (listening to what she wants, responding, being in the moment, asking questions, getting out the scuba gear and ostrich feathers) to make it happen."
In the spirit of equal treatment on the faking front, a quick aside here: It is indeed possible for men as well as women to fake orgasm. What men can't fake is ejaculation.
"There are men who can ejaculate without having a pleasurable sensation associated with it," says Dr. Richard F. Spark, author of Sexual Health for Men: The Complete Guide. Spark, who teaches at Harvard Medical School, adds that in most healthy sexual responses ejaculation and orgasm "are really so linked in time that we don't tend to think twice about it."
So while men do fake orgasm, more typically it's the woman who's doing the faking and the guy who's left in the dark. And if the woman decides to wait until late in the relationship to tell her partner that all those countless orgasms he tallied up were mere figments, it can have disastrous consequences.
"There's something about misleading somebody along the way that can develop mistrust," says Barbach, "that can lead a partner to wonder, ’Can I trust them on anything?'"
In spite of the mistrust, however, Barbach is quick to point out, there are times when it might be perfectly honorable to fake an orgasm. "If you know that you just tend to be nervous in the beginning of a relationship and know you're not going to have an orgasm, it's not misleading your partner. It's just that you need time to relax, and you don't want to make it a bigger issue than is warranted."
So embellishing for the "right" reason, whether out of courtesy or in anticipation of eventual relaxation, is copacetic. The trouble is, who's going to decide what the right reason is? Granted, it's your body and you'll sigh if you want to, but how do you know if an embellishment here and a tad over the top there are right for your partner?
The thing about ethical dilemmas is that there are rarely clear right and wrong answers. Instead, we need to operate while a healthy dose of ambiguity is mucking up the works.
"The sexual relationship doesn't have to be perfect," says Thomas Moore, author of "The Soul of Sex." Moore, a former Roman Catholic monk who now lives in New England with his wife and two children, believes that faking orgasm may fall into the category of imperfection. To Moore, it isn't the act of faking an orgasm that is the real problem. "You need to try to get to the subtlety of exactly what each person is experiencing. Then you might ultimately come to the question of the real moral issue, such as: Is it right for you to stay with this person when you know deep down there's no love there?"
Some men have found that even with a diligently executed orgasm, without a deeper love the sex alone wasn't enough. "She was mechanical," said one man. "She was a technician. She knew what it took for her to arrive at orgasm, and we had to maneuver through the entire pre-flight checklist to reach this destination. Nothing wrong with this, really; I'm willing to do what works. But she was relentlessly methodical about it—no sense of spontaneity. She was under warranty and I was Mr. Goodwrench. It became boring and predictable very quickly, and we both moved on."
But in more than one loving relationship, women talked about how they might exaggerate some because they thought it would "make the experience more pleasurable for the other person."
Things would undoubtedly be a lot easier if couples would just talk more openly about their sexual relationships. But as we all know, it's difficult for most couples to talk about sex. For one thing, the cultural shame associated with admitting that somehow you've failed yourself and your partner is pervasive. And, on a more practical level, getting all the natural equipment required during sex primed and pumped so that everything happens right on cue, in the right place, with the right velocity and with a dash of insouciant bravado is no easy feat. Too much talk might add to the already pent-up pressure to perform and cause failure.
"If I put these things under the microscope," said one woman (referring to the act rather than the equipment), "I would only complicate the experience and throw up another inhibitor."
Indeed, Moore suggests that talking about the sex itself may not be the best tactic. He suggests that if a couple experiencing sexual difficulty could see that almost every other aspect of their life was implicated in their sexual relationship, they wouldn't have to limit their conversation to just what it's like to make love.
"They could talk about what books they're reading, how much they eat at night. How much do they work? What kind of work do they do? How do they talk about their work? Is there some pleasure there? I would want to see the sex, the lovemaking, as the final stage in the whole sexual process." Such discussions, Moore contends, can help couples rediscover that deep-down love they have for each other.
Of course, in some cases both people may know there's a little bit of faking going on and be entirely fine with it as part of their sexual folderol. So it would be nuts to conclude that faking orgasm is always unethical, always ethical or always something in between. It would be equally crazy to bullet-list 10 points you could use to measure how your or your partner's faking registers on an ethical scale (although I'm pretty confident that if the ostrich feathers and scuba gear come out, you're doing just fine).
But in any serious, loving relationship, you do have to wonder about just how healthy, honest and real that relationship is if the partners find it impossible to tell each other the truth about their experience of sex. And I don't just mean an embellishment here or there in expressing how delighted you are during particular moments of the sexual act. I'm talking about something that goes far deeper, something in the relationship that makes you fearful that telling your partner that you didn't find sex with him or her pleasurable this time will either devastate him or her or lessen you somehow in your partner's eyes.
There's nothing inherently wrong with exaggerating or faking an orgasm. What is problematic is when you know something's wrong in your sexual relationship and you fake orgasm to cover over the problem. Pleasurable sex without a scintilla of fakery isn't a requirement for every truly deep and loving relationship. But honesty is.