Female Orgasm – The Change in Perception Over the Years

Orgasms are the peak sexual arousal experienced by men, women, and mammals alike. The overpowering pleasure exudes multiple sensations for a person in their body. Some factors that indicate orgasm are ‘the release of tension and rhythmic contractions of the perineal muscles, anal sphincter, and pelvic reproductive organs’, according to the American Psychological Association.

Men usually mark their orgasms with ejaculation, while women ejaculate during orgasms or sexual activity. However, a sexual response so rudimentary has a disparate perception for males and females since time immemorial. Dating back to medieval times, the discussion related to female orgasms has undulated with each passing epoch. Being considered once as equally important as male ejaculation for reproduction, female orgasms caused many women to be diagnosed with the pejorative ‘hysteria’ in the later years. Here’s an overview of the change in perception and evolution of female orgasms throughout the years!

A Medieval Belief

It was believed, during medieval times, that the sexual organ of a female and male were essentially the same except that a woman’s organs were inverted. Experts presumed the lack of ‘vital heat’ to be the cause of this inversion. Going by this theory, ‘the vagina was matched by penis, the ovaries by the testicles (“stones of women”), the labia by the foreskin, the uterus by the scrotum.’

This meant that a woman played an equivalent role in reproduction. Ejaculation was expected from the man as well as the woman to conceive a baby. Hence, men of the 13th century made it a point to make their female partners orgasm to create a baby. “Without the enjoyment of pleasure, no conception can take place,” remarked Samuel Farr in his textbook ‘Elements of Medical Jurisprudence’, in 1814.

The falsified perception about female orgasms by the 13th-century people did not bode well for women. On one hand, women enjoyed maximum sexual satisfaction because men didn’t rest until their partners reached the climax. But on the contrary, if a woman gets pregnant in the instances of rape, the molestation stands nullified since women cannot be impregnated without orgasming. Her orgasm was an indication of pleasure, of her enjoying the act. 

The Rise of Hysteria

By the 1730s, experts figured out that women need not orgasm for reproduction. With it, ceased the extravagant effort by men to assure sexual peak for their female partners. “For centuries the medical world had considered both male and female orgasm as essential for procreation,” describes writer and historian, Emily Brand.

She continued, “But during the 1700s, new understandings of the body and new social roles for women meant – sadly for them – that their pleasure during sex was seen as much less important than it had been previously.”

It was then, during the 18th and 19th centuries, that ‘hysteria’ was rampantly created to be a disorder amongst women. Hysteria became an umbrella term diagnosis for any and all issues dealt by women, or traits that men found unmanageable in the women of their lives. 

Some symptoms of hysteria included: “a swollen abdomen, suffocating angina [chest pain]or shortness of breath, difficulty swallowing, cold extremities, tears and laughter, oscitation [yawning], pandiculation [stretching and yawning], delirium, a close and driving pulse, and abundant and clear urine.” 

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Doctors prescribed a variety of treatments for the ailment. It varied based on doctors and physicians, and the techniques that they followed. Typically, it involved a lot of rest, avoidance of physical and intellectual activity, psychosomatic therapy, among other cures. But the alleged treatment that stood out the most was the massaging of the clitoris for sexual release.

In the 1999 book ‘The Technology of Orgasms‘ by Rachel P. Maines, elaborately presented how doctors of Victorian times resorted to clitorial stimulus to treat women diagnosed with hysteria. The author went on to add that it was then that vibrators were concocted to simplify the labor process of the physicians. “In the Western medical tradition, genital massage to orgasm by a physician or midwife was a standard treatment for hysteria, an ailment considered common and chronic in women”, she wrote in her book.

However, every claim made in the book turns out to be inaccurate. Lieberman and Eric Schatzberg, the chair of the School of History and Sociology at Georgia Tech, points the lack of tangible citations to prove the truth about the actual use of a vibrator as well as the vulvular massage. 

“It was salacious. It was sexy. It sounded like a porn,” Lieberman said to The Atlantic.“It fit into our belief that the Victorians weren’t as educated or knowledgable as we are about sex—and this idea that we progressively get more enlightened about sex, and that history follows this narrative from progression to progression. It fits so well into this. It fits into ideas that people had that women’s sexuality wasn’t understood.”

The Evolution of Orgasms

A question pondered by scientists is ‘why do women orgasm?’ Evidently, it offers no benefit during reproduction, so what gives?

In a recent study published in the Journal of Evolutionary Zoology, researchers write that female orgasms could have evolved in time to be what it is today. They suggest that, like cats and rabbits who release eggs during intercourse for reproduction, it is quite likely that women also followed the same mechanisms of spontaneous ovulation. However, over the course of evolution, orgasms remained to be a bonus sexual pleasure for women.

“Lack of evidence of an adaptive role for women’s orgasm should not be taken as evidence that it is simply a byproduct or ‘side effect’ of men’s orgasm and that it has no role,” said Barry Komisaruk, a professor in the psychology department at Rutgers University.


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