It will come as no surprise that we place a lot more focus on the importance of the female orgasm and enjoyment of sex than say, a hundred years ago. But if we wind the clock right back to medieval times, they placed much more stress on the female orgasm than the Victorians. This was down to an (albeit completely incorrect) belief that women needed to orgasm in order to fall pregnant – which made husbands extremely attentive that their wives should climax.
This unfortunately had a tragic consequence – it became law that if a woman fell pregnant from a suspected rape, she could legally not be deemed to have been raped, because she must have orgasmed during the act. As late as 1814, Samuel Farr’s textbook ‘Elements of Medical Jurisprudence’ stated, “Without the enjoyment of pleasure, no conception can take place.”
Victorian doctor Pierre Briquet claimed that a quarter of women suffered from “hysteria”, symptoms of which included sexual desire and “excessive vaginal lubrication”. The repressed Victorians had turned normal female sexuality into a medical condition. The usual prescribed treatment was “pelvic massage”, essentially the use of very early vibrators – treating women’s “hysteria” by bringing them to orgasm. These devices were some of the unsexiest devices imaginable; the 1891 ‘Manipulator’ was steam-powered and so noisy you couldn’t hear speech above it.
One positive to come from this regressive period of history though was the spread of the vibrator from doctor’s surgeries to supermarket shelves. In fact, the vibrator was the fifth home appliance to benefit from electricity (after the toaster, fan, kettle and sewing machine). These vibrators flew off the shelves, but were never marketed with their true purpose – generally described as “massagers” or “blood stimulators”.
It took until the 1940s for proper discourse to occur on the topic of female sexuality. The Kinsey Reports were huge bestsellers, with Alfred Kinsey’s iconic surveys revealing amongst other things that almost half of women experienced their first orgasm through masturbation. Finally, the topic was being discussed openly. It still took until 1952 for the American Psychiatric Association to abandon the diagnosis of “hysteria”, following a widespread change in understanding that these so-called symptoms were normal and healthy.
It wasn’t until 1957 that the first medical research into female orgasms took place – as social barriers had only just eased enough for this to be considered an acceptable field for scientists. Masters and Johnson conducted ground-breaking studies - examining how and why women orgasm, and paving the way for what we know today.
Third-wave feminism in the early 1990s broke down many remaining taboos around the topic of female pleasure, and it became an increasingly familiar topic across books, films, TV and stage – such as in the 1996 play The Vagina Monologues.
The female orgasm still gets much less press than its male counterpart, likely a result of a still casually sexist society. It takes all of us, male and female, talking about the topic – openly and without embarrassment – to finally get it equal billing in the public consciousness. After all, it’s as old as civilisation itself – what could be more natural?