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'Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of life's longing for itself' Kahlil Gibran, 1883-1931
The first act of sexual intercourse, the earliest example of two like creatures coming into intimate contact for the purpose of combining their DNA to create a new creature, probably took place about one and a half billion years BC, at a location deep in the primordial oceans. The lovers and parents to-be are thought to have been a type of single-celled blob called eukaryotes.
Sexual intercourse subsequently became the normal method of reproduction for practically all animals. Compared to asexual reproduction - or 'cloning', as practised by bacteria, shrimps and stick insects - sex between a male and a female is a far better way of improving the genetic stock of a species and ensuring the long-term benefits of natural selection.
However, the first sexual act by which two like creatures sought intimate contact expressly to give one another physical and emotional pleasure, in an explicit and mutually understood spirit of social, political, intellectual and economic equality and regardless of whether or not they succeeded in reproducing their DNA, may well not have taken place until some time in the twentieth century AD, most likely at a location in Western Europe or North America.
The paramours on this occasion, needless to say, were of the genus Homo, species sapiens, a distant and highly adapted descendant of eukaryotes. Many million examples of these Homo sapiens have since refined their sexual behaviour and begun to enjoy as a joint, democratic pleasure the powerful orgasmic spasm exclusive to their species, and differentiated again between males and females whose orgasms are so different, yet so similar.
So while sex is nothing new or particularly unique to humans, orgasm - in the sense of the pleasurable sensation enjoyed by the two sexes outside a reproductive context and sought in a pre-meditated, practised way - is both. On the evolutionary scale, Homo sapiens is a global newcomer and the orgasm is a complex, sophisticated phenomenon unique to these strange, new, bipedal creatures. A few isolated species and sub-species aside, non-humans do not share our studied pleasure in orgasm. Even in the modern era, most Homo sapiens who have begun to appreciate this subtle, tricky, fickle but deeply moving neurological reward for the drudgery of reproduction have yet fully to exploit its delights. And by extrapolating Western surveys, which repeatedly report on the lack of sexual fulfilment suffered by a large proportion of sexually active people, we can reliably surmise that for the majority of humankind, satisfactory exploitation of the capacity for orgasm remains an unfulfilled ambition, a rigorously proscribed societal taboo - or a pleasure of which they are simply unaware.
The paradoxes and inconsistencies of orgasm make it a phenomenon to rival quantum mechanics in its fickleness. One indication of the orgasm's immaturity in the scheme of things is that the anatomical machinery designed, or so it appears, for male/female pairings to enjoy the orgasmic spasm simultaneously and thereby promote the worthy cause of a couple's mutual happiness and spiritual bonding, often works creakily, if at all. Men are prone to have orgasms too easily, while women tend not to have them easily enough. The existence of prostitution by women for men in every society, but the reverse only in a tiny minority of Western cities, suggests additionally, and eloquently so, that men are also more physically dependent on frequent orgasm than women - dependent, that is, in the crude, urgent, mechanical 'offloading' sense that only they perhaps know. As a famous London madam, Cynthia Payne, once succinctly put it: 'Men are all right as long as they're de-spunked regularly. If not, they're a bleeding nuisance.' Masturbation too tends to be quicker and less of a production number for men than for women - although, so far as we can tell without the benefit of anyone who has masturbated as both a man and a women, it seems to be a rather less satisfying activity for males.
Rarer and the result of a more refined longing as they are, however, women's orgasms, with their satisfying multiple muscular contractions, are an infinitely bigger and more expansive experience than the sensation men have when they ejaculate - a fleeting feeling not dissimilar, when the emotion is stripped out of it, to common-or-garden urination from an overfull bladder, a sneeze or an urgently needed bowel movement. The most prosaic analogy to be heard from a woman along such lines is that having one's ears syringed is not unlike a very small orgasm.
There are more fundamental inconsistencies between the two genders' orgasms, too. One such apparent mismatch in heterosexual intercourse is that men's orgasms are practically essential for reproduction to take place, whereas women's do not have any obvious function other than to be pleasurable. A woman is designed to conceive after intercourse regardless of her sexual response during it.
There are important grey areas here that need to be clarified early on in an account such as this. One is the question of whether male orgasm is a straight synonym for ejaculation. Ejaculation in men is the physiological expulsion of seminal fluid, whereas orgasm is the 'climax', the peak of sexual pleasure. Orgasm and ejaculation generally coincide, but they have been acknowledged for many thousands of years to be distinct processes that can occur independently. Some semen may be emitted before the male has even become very sexually aroused. And most men are familiar with the 'dry' orgasm that can result from a number of sexual dysfunctions, as well as be consciously cultivated, most famously by 'Tantric sex' practitioners, in an attempt to preserve sexual stamina and erection. The muscular pulse of orgasm proper, however, serves to aid conception a little by pushing sperm on its way along the eight to thirteencentimetre-long vaginal passage.
The female orgasm is not completely divorced from conception, either. In fact, women may, according to one veteran British sex resercher, Dr. Robin Baker, retain slightly more sperm after orgasm than in climax-less sex, and while orgasm is occurring may even draw the sperm up through the cervix and into the uterus. This is a marginal effect, however. Orgasm is functionally unnecessary for successful conception.
Yet for billions of women, neither Baker's contention that orgasm aids conception, nor the model of female orgasm as a pure pleasure finer than anything males will ever know, means a great deal. This is for the very good reason that orgasmic pleasure remains elusive for much or all of their life. Female orgasm even in today's supposedly more knowing world is an all-too-rare thing, and there is little reason to suppose the situation has ever been any better. Lionel Tiger, Charles Darwin Professor of Anthropology at Rutgers University, states a truth for all times when he declares in his 1992 book The Pursuit of Pleasure that, 'The gross national pleasure is far lower than it need be.' It is ironic that, mechanically speaking, in terms of reliability of orgasm, male homosexual intercourse and its female parallel 'work' rather better than the reproductive (or pseudo-reproductive) heterosexual variety.
If it is not all, then, an agglomeration of curious design flaws, the best that can be said of the human orgasm is that it is a work in progress. But 'progress' implies a history, and how can we know anything of the human orgasm's history? Does it even have a history? To answer the second question first, we can be reasonably confident from the study of surviving isolated primitive societies, many of which have language and customs relating to both male and female orgasm, that it has existed for the 100,000 years or so that humans have been 'civilized'. And if we take an overview spanning from those days to now, we can tell that, far from being some fleeting neurological phenomenon like blinking, orgasm has consistently been of disproportionate importance to the way people have evolved both as organisms and in societies.
But has the orgasm changed; has it improved or deteriorated, in any progressive or regressive way, down the millennia? History is above all a narrative and without evidence of a traceable journey what follows might as well be an account of constipation through the ages - even though this might, on reflection, not be such a fatuous idea; many great people, from Martin Luther to Mao Ze Dong, suffered from the affliction and may well have owed their temperament and actions in part to its miseries.
But the human sexual climax is more important than constipation. The orgasm's has been a long intellectual journey, during which whole civilisations for long periods in their history have advanced, then backtracked, then advanced again. If orgasm were merely humankind's profoundest pleasure, it would be a matter of some importance - especially given the tortured relationship various cultures at different times have had with the curiously controversial idea of enjoyment.
But the orgasm's existence, as we shall see in this and subsequent chapters, has been influential in more than just the history of human physical gratification. Orgasm has been central, principally, in defining how both men and women and same-sex partners form and maintain couples. This in turn has been crucial to directing the way the human family has developed, to determining important facets of how we live together in broader communities under religious and legal constraints, and even to shaping, via the institutions of marriage and subsequent property inheritance by children of a sexual union, how we distribute land and material goods.
The pursuit of orgasm has, indeed, been one of the most powerful impulses we have. Its iconic importance has been manifest in every culture and country in the world - never more so than today. And a large proportion of the world's literature and art has been preoccupied with the endless, appetitive, unquenchable craving for orgasm; the sexual compulsion, of which orgasm is the goal, has routinely made and destroyed marriages, and occasionally dynasties.
There is a good argument that testosterone, the chemical catalyst for desire in both sexes, has been the most influential compound in human history. Bill Clinton's predilection for oral sex in the Oval Office was only the latest chapter in a long dirty book. Today, additionally, in an era when it is no longer widely taboo, the quest for orgasm has become even more of a business proposition than it was when the oldest profession was the only profession. Orgasm has become the universal yearning that underpins industries ranging from fashion to film to pornography to pharmaceuticals. Britney Spears even released a song in 2003, Touch of my Hand, expressly about masturbating. It is not merely for sensationalist impact that the zoologist Desmond Morris called Homo sapiens 'the sexiest primate alive' - and he did so thirty years before that key date in the history of orgasm, March 1998, when the US Food and Drug Administration approved sildenafil citrate (marketed as Viagra), the first oral pill to treat male impotence.
But we have been sexy in different ways at different times. Evidence that human sexuality is a completely different thing when you compare, say, Ancient Rome, Renaissance Florence and 1980s San Francisco, implies that the orgasm is effectively a cultural artefact, and that the sexual urge is shaped as much by society as by hormones. As the scientist and philosopher Jacob Bronowski wrote in 1969, in his book The Ascent of Man: 'Sex was invented as a biological instrument by (say) the green algae. But as an instrument in the ascent of man which is basic to his cultural evolution, it was invented by man himself.'
Unlike when palaeontologists find a bone or archaeologists an arrowhead, anthropologists and historians have no access to the cultural artefact of orgasm, to people's actual experience of it. We have contact only with the edifice of text and artwork surrounding the artefact, which is not quite the same thing; a Princeton University scholar, Professor Lawrence Stone, has explained that even when data does survive on historical lovemaking, it is highly selective. Few historical letters or diaries allude directly to sex, and those that do - like some of the earthy British seventeenth- and eighteenth-century diaries of men like Pepys and Boswell - give an entirely male perspective. Assessing women's experience of sex in these circumstances is extremely difficult. We, the modern and post-modern Western cultures, have accordingly 'created' the orgasm in the same very real sense that we have 'created' radio from naturally existing but disorganised electromagnetic waves.
But the orgasm is, additionally, the principal example of the extraordinary human genius for intellectualising and making a pleasure for its own sake of natural phenomena that happen to be necessities of life. From the need to eat and the resultant discovery of cooking food, we developed gastronomy. From the need to communicate and the resultant evolution of language, we developed poetry. From the requirement to keep warm and the resultant clothing, we developed fashion. From the need to keep fit for hunting and fighting, we developed sport. And from the need to reproduce, we have honed the byproduct of our reproductive act, the phenomenon of orgasm, into a leisure pursuit which we follow for the sheer enjoyment of it. Even medical science, with fatal diseases still unconquered, has found time to concern itself with differentiating between pleasure and reproduction.
Not all the evidence for orgasm being a cultural construct is to be found in literature or art, however, nor even in the peculiar moral blanket with which myriad cultures and religions have attempted down the years to smother orgasm and try to suppress or kill it off altogether. The most telling way in which we have built a cultural superstructure on the foundations Nature gave our species is to be seen in the manner in which we have succeeded, through contraception, in separating the natural coincidence between sexual climax and babies. It is remarkable that today heterosexuals barely think about squalling, puking, doubly incontinent infants when they have sex. Sex is primarily seen as being about romance, glamour, pleasure, good living, happiness - almost anything other than nappies, sleepless nights and teething rings. To the straight couple having wild sex in the dunes or simpering at one another in an expensive restaurant, it might even seem 'unnatural' and strange that what they are doing has the slightest connection with baby production.
Excerpted from O: An Intimate History of the Orgasm by Jonathan Margolis Copyright © 2004 by Jonathan Margolis. Excerpted by permission.
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|1||The sexiest primate||1|
|2||Coming, coming, gone||13|
|5||The way we were||83|
|6||The evolutionary paradox||102|
|8||Sex and the city state||155|
|9||Orgasm in the Orient||182|
|10||Faith, hope and chastity : orgasm in the early Christian world||206|
|11||Orgasm in the Middle Ages||224|
|12||The foundations of Victorian prudery : the orgasm from the late Restoration to 1840||249|
|13||A tale of two sexes? : the orgasm from Victoria to health & efficiency||274|
|14||The orgasm from Freud to Lady Chatterley||303|
|15||The orgasm comes of age : from Kinsey to the swinging sixties||321|
|16||A little coitus never hoitus : from fear of flying to sex and the city||344|
|17||Epilogue : how was it for us?||385|