What Do Women Want? Hint: Batteries Required

The Technology of Orgasm: Hysteria, the Vibrator and Women’s Sexual Satisfaction , by Rachel P. Maines. Johns Hopkins University Press, 181 pages, $22.

What is sex? A woman trying to come and a man trying not to. This sad little joke sums up the tragedy of sexual intercourse: its lack of orgasmic mutuality.

For reasons that do not seem to be the fault of anyone, except perhaps God (I’ll get to that presently), a large majority of women do not have orgasms during sex. By sex, of course, I mean the penetration of the vagina by the penis to male ejaculation, which, as every schoolboy knows, is the carnal act behind procreation.

Already, there is something very wrong with my story. I have unwittingly fallen for the “androcentric model” of human sexuality. In other words, I have defined sex from a male point of view. That, at least, is what Rachel Maines, the author of this extremely interesting book, would say. The androcentric model of sex has been oppressive to women over the centuries, she argues. It has made the inability of most women to climax during sex into a kind of disease, one requiring treatment by the medical profession. If a woman does not have an orgasm once in a while, she will develop “hysteria”–which comes from the Greek for “that which proceeds from the uterus.” To avoid this disagreeable condition, she should visit a doctor regularly for a vulvular massage.

Unhappily, 19th-century physicians were not especially pleased to have inherited the task that so many husbands and lovers failed at: inducing orgasm in women. Rubbing the female genitalia for the hour or so required for the curative “paroxysm” was a pleasureless chore for them, despite the handsome fees it regularly brought in. It was, in Ms. Maines’ round phrase, “the job nobody wanted.”

There were, to be sure, some natural alternatives (as distinguished from that unnatural and hence forbidden option, masturbation). Vigorous horseback riding might afford relief, a practice known as “orgasm by equitation.” Hydrotherapy–douches, high-pressured nozzles and the like–was another possibility. One woman afflicted by anorgasmia reportedly went so far as to take her douche in the form of Niagara Falls, allowing water crashing down from a height of six stories to play about her loins. “The Water Cure commends itself to the ladies,” remarked her physician approvingly.

Not every woman has ready access to Niagara Falls, however. Recognizing this, an English physician of the 1880’s invented an appliance that proved a godsend to orgasmically challenged women and their weary doctors everywhere: the vibrator. The first vibrators were wind-up devices, and, as Ms. Maines comments, they “had a distressing tendency to run down before treatment was complete,” much like many male lovers. But soon the miracle of technology brought vibrators powered by batteries; by steam power, air pressure and water turbines; even, alarmingly, by street current through lamp-socket plugs. By delivering up to 7,000 pulses per minute, they cut down the time physicians required to treat “hysterical” patients from hours to mere minutes–which leads the author to characterize them as a “capital-labor substitution innovation.”

The next step was to eliminate the middleman. Why pay a physician to apply an electromechanical vibrator to the vulva when you could perform this “medical treatment” yourself? Thus did vibrator advertisements begin to appear in women’s magazines at the turn of the century. And that was how Ms. Maines came to have a scholarly interest in the subject. She had been drudging away at a history of needlework when she began noticing the ads. Could these strange “therapeutic” contraptions, euphemistically described in old periodicals and mail-order catalogues, really be engines of eros, or did she simply have a “dirty mind”? Was the 125-pound Cadillac of vibrators, “the Chattanooga” (available for $200 in 1904), a thinly disguised orgasmatron for libidinous women?

As Ms. Maines began to delve into the matter, the authorities at the small university where she was teaching part-time elected not to renew her contract, fearing, she claims, that alumni would get wind of this kinky research and cut off their contributions. Now an “independent scholar,” she wrote an article on orgasmic vibrators that appeared in a journal published by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers in 1989. Readers assumed it was a parody, and the journal’s editors were obliged to give proof that Ms. Maines actually existed.

The Technology of Orgasm , which grew out of this article, is a riotous pleasure to read. Ms. Maines’ scholarship extends all the way back to Plato, who held that the uterus was “an animal inside an animal,” which, when bored by a lack of orgasms, would wander about the body causing problems, particularly strangulation as it crawls up the chest and windpipe. The author writes with a lambent flicker of feline humor, and some of the illustrations make the very paper on which I am writing this blush.

By the 1920’s, vibrators began to appear in stag films, and their true function became obvious. Falling from respectability, the vibrator went underground until the 1960’s, when it unblushingly re-emerged as a sex aid–a kind of microwave oven of the bedroom, a fast and efficient way of redressing the orgasmic imbalance between the sexes. By the 70’s, the gadget was being hailed by sexologists as “the only significant advance in sexual technique since the days of Pompeii.”

So much for the technological history. Now on to the really engrossing topic: the female orgasm. Why do we hear so much about it? Because it is so rare, Ms. Maines suggests. But is this really true? And if so, can that fairly be blamed on us men? Skeptics might say that the female orgasm is fascinating the way the Loch Ness monster is, because it is nonexistent–or at best a counterfeit female aping of the male release. But that would be unscientific. The event can be observationally characterized in precise fashion–as, according to one authority quoted by Ms. Maines, “a highly variable peak sexual experience accompanying involuntary, rhythmic contractions of the outer third of the vagina, and frequently of the uterus, rectal sphincter, and urethral sphincter as well, and the concomitant release of vasocongestion and muscular tension associated with intense sexual arousal.”

Next question: Does it have a procreative function? Answer: quite possibly. Some studies have suggested that the chances of conception are increased by a female orgasm brought off anywhere from one to 45 minutes after the male ejaculates. There is also a mysterious correlation in some populations between female orgasm and the conception of male children–which might be an incentive for some would-be fathers to undertake any heroic measures necessary to get their mates to climax (not to mention a standing reproach to men who have sired a large brood of girls).

But if the female orgasm does make biological–as opposed to merely hedonistic–sense, then why do around 70 percent of women not regularly have one while being penetrated by a man? (That figure, by the way, comes from the 1976 Hite Report , and has been borne out by surveys since.) The answer has to do with the fact that the most efficient way of producing a female orgasm is by titillating the clitoris. And nature installed the clitoris in the wrong place. There’s the rub.

Penile penetration misses the clitoris. Even the most priapic shaft, pneumatically pumping away for an hour or more, will not be able to cause a climax in a woman whose orgasmic threshold is high. One of the most disturbing things I learned from Ms. Maines’ book is that, contrary to what one gleans from stag films, real vibrators are not dildos of Jeff Stryker proportions. They are not penis-shaped at all. The vibratode is at right angles to the handle, the better to stimulate the clitoris.

Now, if the clitoris were located inside the vagina, the story would be quite different. The whole problem of orgasmic mutuality stems from an accident of anatomical architecture. That’s why I blame it on God. If someone could wave a wand and make the clitoris migrate into the vagina, or otherwise lower the orgasmic threshold of the 70 percent of women who are orgasmically challenged, the whole business of “androcentric models” and “hysteria” and “oppression” would go away. Everything would be for the best in the best of all possible worlds.

Or would it? One gets the feeling from her book that Ms. Maines doesn’t think so. She would rather be hard on men. Take the androcentric model she deplores: male penetration to ejaculation. If this was all there was to the dominant view of sex, then men could do no wrong. Has she ever heard of “premature ejaculation”? What about “insufficient foreplay”? Men are expected to avoid these failings, and feel pretty low when they don’t. And even if they do, the sought-after female orgasm may still happen too early, or not at all. From a procreative point of view, the best time for clitoral stimulation is after male ejaculation. And, ladies, let’s be reasonable: A guy needs his sleep.

That is why a man invented the vibrator. The author of this book sounds almost triumphant as she flouts the conventional wisdom that “penetration of the vagina is the only kind of sex that matters and the only kind that can and should result in sexual bliss for most women.” One gets the feeling that she would not wave the magic wand that would make the androcentric model fully satisfying to women.

Which raises a special case of Freud’s question: What does Rachel Maines want? I have always suspected that, if you totted up all the orgasms in history, the women would be way ahead of the men. Surveys show that about 76 percent of women indulge in masturbation, versus 98 percent of men. Like a man, a woman can masturbate to orgasm in about four minutes, even without a vibrator. Unlike a man, a woman can have as many as 50 orgasms in a row. You do the arithmetic.

What Do Women Want? Hint: Batteries Required