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The Orgasm Perplex

The Female Orgasm: Psychology, Physiology and Fantasy by Seymour Fisher Basic Books, 521 pp., $15.00

By Sharon Shurts

EVER SINCE EVE sprang, as we are told, from Adam's rib, the nature of female sexuality has been a subject of profound puzzlement. Seemingly more complex and less consistent in her sexual response than man, woman has been encouraged to accept a number of distorting and often disparaging myths regarding the function of her own body. Woman is naturally less orgasmic than man, the story goes, because she is simply a less sexual animal, or because she is simply a less sexual animal, or because she finds her ultimate fulfillment in pregnancy and childrearing rather than copulation.

No less "mythical" and unsubstantiated by experimental procedure are the hypotheses of psychoanalytic theory. Freud's underlying assumption--that a woman's psychological health stood in some direct relation to her sexual capacities or preferences--is widely maintained today. Women seeking psychiatric help in college health services will more often than not find the initial questions of their counselors probing their sex lives. And women still long after the elusive vaginal orgasm, having been told that it is more "fulfilling" or "feminine," and been warned that a preference for clitoral stimulation was a sign of immaturity or maladjustment.

The Masters and Johnson findings regarding woman's potential for numerous multiple orgasm, and the lack of any physiological distinction between "vaginal" and "clitoral" orgasm seemed to suggest the need for major reappraisals of these theories. The first such effort was Mary Jane Sherfey's The Nature and Evolution of Female Sexuality-- originally appearing in 1966 as an article in the Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association. Sherfey is a New York psychoanalyst whose initial research into premenstrual tension led her to more radical speculations about female sexuality. Her book is largely a summary of the Masters and Johnson findings, but with the addition of another hypothesis--one treated with much skepticism in medical circles--that the early embryo is, until the sixth week of development, essentially "female," A refutation of the Eve-from-Adam's-rib syndrome, this claim is apparently meant to discredit the psychoanalytic theory that the "aggressive," "masculine" woman is really longing after a lost, bisexual embryonic Eden. Those qualities, Sherfey would argue, are on the contrary innate in woman from the beginning, and it is from woman that male "masculinity" is derived.

SHERFEY'S INTERPRETATIONS of the Masters and Johnson report are no less positively inclined toward the Woman's Lib point of view. She suggests that woman, given optimal conditions for realizing her sexual potential, is virtually insatiable: one orgasm stimulates the need for another, and so on to sheer physical exhaustion. The only reason that woman's sexuality is now in such an apparent state of inhibition is that society has curbed her appetites, in the interest of stable monogamous relationships and successful child rearing. Sherfey plans a second volume in her study--a kind of "Civilization and its Discontents"--exploring the greater implications of woman's unlimited sexuality.

Much as we need radical efforts at disproving and dispelling the erroneous assumptions of psychoanalytic theory, Sherfey has presented us with what is least helpful in the quest for sexual enlightenmnet--a counter-mythology. Her statements are for the most part purely speculative and overtly feminist, and they contribute only to prolonging, rather than resolving, a tedious battle of the sexes. In the effort to proceed from sexual politics and polemics to knowledge, Sherfey's tack is a dead end.

SEYMOUR FISHER'S The Female Orgasm is much more fertile ground for enlightened thinking about female sexuality. It is the first significant post-Freudian study of the psychology of sexual response--of the extent to which sexuality may both reflect and influence the individual woman's personality. Fisher and his staff carried on an intensive examination--through interviews, questionnaires, and an immense variety of psychological and physiological tests--of the character of sexual response and the personality traits of 287 married women. At no point were any of the women, in the Masters and Johnson style, actually observed in sexual intercourse in the laboratory. Admitting the inadequacies of a woman's description of her own sexual response, Fisher felt that this method was for his purposes no less distortive than the unnatural laboratory setting.

In the course of intensive analysis of these women, Fisher sought out any possible correlation between a woman's past history, anxieties, interests, tastes, and political, social, and moral attitudes, and her sexual preferences and orgasmic capacity. Moving from physiology to the more obscure realm of psychology, Fisher had to handle a far greater number of variables, and variables of a less measurable sort, than did Masters and Johnson. His findings are, as one would expect, much less conclusive.

BUT GIVEN the limitations of any such ground-breaking inquiry, Fisher's results are remarkably persuasive, and often unexpected. He performs his greatest service in disproving many popular and seemingly reasonable explanations for the puzzling fact that 30 per cent of all adult women never or only occasionally experience orgasm. He found no correlation whatsoever between a woman's orgasmic capacity and early traumatic sexual experiences, puritanical or repressive upbringing, traits of her sex partner, variety of techniques practiced, or years of sexual experience. He also concluded that a woman's likelihood to climax could not be measured by any externally perceived characteristics such as passivity, femininity, sociablity, uninhibitedness, or degree of anxiety. After strong doses of psychoanalytic theory, we can utter a sigh of relief as Fisher writes that a woman's ability to be sexually responsive is "only one aspect of her life and should not be used to classify her in any general sense as a psychologically adequate or inadequate person."

Fisher discovered only one substantial correspondence between psychological data and orgasmic capacity--an intriguing correspondence which warrants much further research. The greater a woman's difficulty in reaching orgasm, the more consistently likely she was to be concerned about the "lack of dependability of love objects." The more likely she was, in particular, to have experienced in childhood an absent, undependable or distant father. Fisher could offer no real evidence as to what extent these attitudes were ineradicably formulated in early childhood, and to what extent they could be influenced by a woman's relationship with her sex partner.

FINALLY, FISHER offered fascinating new evidence on the vaginal/clitoral controversy. In contradiction with Masters and Johnson, he found that there was an actual experiential difference between the vaginal and clitoral orgasm. However, he discovered no corroboration for the psychoanalytic theory that the vaginal orgasm was "superior," more normal or mature than the clitoral orgasm. The majority of women, even those who could easily achieve both kinds, found clitoral orgasm more "exciting" and "pleasurable." If anything, the vaginally oriented woman showed more traces of anxiety than the clitorally oriented--probably, Seymour hypothesized, because she generally feels less control over her bodily response.

When the Masters and Johnson report first came out in 1966, I remember my mother remarking that she never wanted to read it, because it destroyed all the romantic "mystery" of sex. Older and wiser now, I would argue that nowhere, and in matters of sex least of all, has ignorance proven a virtue. Knowledge of the physiology of female sexual response and of its relation to psychological characteristics is not an inhibition but a necessary liberation from erroneous expectations and constraining stereotypes.

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