The female orgasm is often spoken of as if it were a lost treasure to be found only with maps, detailed instructions, a packed lunch and a diamond dick. The intrepid sexual adventurer boldly sets out, like Indiana Jones, to navigate the mystery of the female body, to read the clues, solve the puzzle and choose wisely before drinking from the Holy Grail. The male orgasm, on the other hand, tends to be spoken of as if it were a bottle of coke; shake it up, until it explodes out the end and makes everything sticky. Job done. Almost all slang terms for orgasm throughout history refer to male orgasms, rather than female, with women effectively sharing terms for orgasm with men rather than owning ones of their own; cumming, spending, climaxing, orgasming, etc., (with the possible exception of squirting) are all unisex. Whereas there are thousands of noun words for semen, how many can you think of for the natural lubricant women secrete during sex? Thankfully, Roger’s Profanisaurus arrived in the 1990s to nourish the lexical wasteland with such gems as ‘fanny batter’ and ‘gusset icing’. And however welcome such editions may be the fact remains that slang for semen and the male orgasm could fill a dictionary, and the female equivalent could fill a footnote.
Perhaps it’s not too surprising that male and female orgasms are discussed in very different terms. Elisabeth Lloyd's comprehensive analysis of 33 studies of sexual behavior, conducted over the past 80 years, reveals up to 80% of women have difficulty orgasming from vaginal intercourse alone and between 5% and 10% of women never experience an orgasm. Ever. (Lloyd, 2005) To date, there have only been a handful of studies into the orgasms of trans women after penile-inversion vaginoplasty, but this research has shown that 18% of trans women could not orgasm by masturbation alone (Lawrence, 2005), 14% of trans women complained of anorgasmia (Imbimbo, 2009) and up to 20% of women experienced difficulty orgasming post surgery (Hess, 2014). Studies have shown that most women require at least twenty minutes of sexual activity to climax and there are myriad factors that can kibosh a lady’s snap, crackle and pop; age, stress, atmosphere, smells, self-esteem, whether or not his flatmate is singing along to ABBA in the next room. Frankly, a girl's depth charge is a known flight risk. In his 1948, Sexual Behaviour In the Human Male Alfred Kinsey found that 92% of men masturbated (when asked what this told him about men, he quipped it told him that the other 8% were lying.) Stacked against the complex and infinite variables of the female orgasm, a man’s big O begins to look like Forrest Gump. But then we are talking about a creature that can’t tell the difference between sex and a bus. (Sorry chaps, that was mean.) Comparably straight forward the male orgasm may seem, but the history of male orgasm is anything but simple. The historical understanding of what happened to a man’s body and soul once he had blown his beans is a dark and deeply troubling one.
The history of a gentleman’s credentials is truly fascinating, from the medieval theologians who recommend beans to cure impotence as they believed an erection was caused by air inflating the penis, to Roman priests of Cybele who castrated themselves in frenzied ceremonies, it’s been a bumpy ride for the demon rod. But, it’s the link between orgasm and energy that I want to focus on here; on an ancient theory that orgasm weakens a man’s strength and ultimately saps his virility. You know the one. In Rocky (1976), the Italian Stallion’s legendary trainer, Mickey, tells him ‘women weaken legs’. British sprinter Linford Christie used to say making love the night before a race made his legs feel like lead. Boxer Carl Froch abstained from sex for three months before knocking out George Groves in their world title fight last weekend. Each world cup, rumours abound about which coach has imposed a nookie embargo on his players before a match. It’s important before going any further to state that there is absolutely no scientific data to support this theory. A systematic review of all the current scientific evidence on the effects of sexual activity on sport performance, in 2016, found that ‘evidence suggests that sexual activity the day before competition does not exert any negative impact on performance.’ The general conclusions echo the sentiments of New York Yankees manager, Casey Stengel, who said “It's not the sex that wrecks these guys, it's staying up all night looking for it.” However, the myth persists.
The theory that orgasm creates an energy leak stretches back to ancient China and Taoism. A key belief within Taoism is seminal vitality (yuan ching), and that semen must not leave the body, but be reabsorbed to nourish the brain (huan jing). Whilst a man is encouraged to have sex, it must be a dry bob if the life force is to be preserved. Some of the earliest records of yuan ching come from the jin wen (writings on bronzes) from the Zhou dynasty (ca. 1100 —221 BC). The Su Nu Jing, an ancient treatise on sex, written in the 3rd century CE, writes that "Intercourse without ejaculation strengthens the energies... After intercourse twice without ejaculation, one's hearing and sight improve. After three such experiences, all physical disorders disappear." Practicing semen retention is still widely practiced in Taoism and Neo Tantra groups today, who believe energy and health can be increased by corking the cum. But, before you all start saving up your axle grease in a cosmic spunk dump, recent research from Harvard University has linked not ejaculating with a marked increase in prostate cancer. ‘Men who ejaculated 21 or more times a month enjoyed a 33% lower risk of prostate cancer compared with men who reported four to seven ejaculations a month throughout their lifetimes.’ An Australian study had similar findings, concluding that ‘men who averaged 4.6 to seven ejaculations a week were 36% less likely to be diagnosed with prostate cancer before the age of 70 than men who ejaculated less than 2.3 times a week on average.’ But, I digress.
The ancient Greeks and Romans believed that constantly cracking your marbles was damaging to your health and depleted essential energy reserves. Hippocrates taught that a healthy body required a balancing of the humour fluids (blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm). Logically, losing too much baby bouillon could disturb this delicate balance and effect health. Aristotle believed that too much sex activity could stunt your growth. Plutarch advised men to ‘store up his seed’. Plato wrote ‘if any man retains his semen, he is strong, and the proof is athletes who are abstinent.’ To make sure there were no nocturnal emissions, Galen recommended athletes sleep on lead plates.
This belief persisted throughout the Middle Ages. Saint Albert the Great (1200-1280) claimed dogs followed lustful people around as ‘the body of a person who has had a great deal of intercourse approaches the condition of a cadaver because of all the rotten semen’. Of course, if one could lose too much sploodge, one could conversely have too much of the stuff which would also unbalance the humours. In 1123, the First Lateran Council imposed compulsory celibacy on all priests. As you can imagine, this decree was met with considerable opposition from the clergy, and medical reasons were often cited. Gerald of Wales, was archdeacon of Brecon in the 12th century and wrote of a number of cases where celibacy had caused the death of various priests and bishops. Gerald recorded the death of an archdeacon of Louvain, whose ‘genital organs swelled up with immeasurable flatulence’ because of his vows of celibacy. The archdeacon refused to break his vows, and died shortly afterwards. This is by no means the only example of such medical advice in medieval Europe. It may seem strange that the Church would encourage sex, but the medieval church understood lust to be sinful; whereas sex was essential to fulfil God’s command to ‘go forth and multiply’; so functional, fun free intercourse was the order of the day. The medieval Church operated like a semen sat-nav, directing a chap’s dilberry to its lawful uterine destination with minimal wrong turns and in the most efficient way possible. Semen that had missed its mark was dangerous stuff indeed. Medieval theologians taught that demons stole semen from masturbators and couples practising coitus interruptus, and used it to impregnate women. St Thomas Aquinas in his Quaestiones Quodlibetales wrote that demons took the form of beautiful women, called a succubus, inflamed lust in men, seduced them and harvested his seed. Then the demon would take the form of a man (incubus) and impregnate a willing woman.
This nice little theory is repeated and expanded upon in Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger’s guide for hunting witches, the Malleus Maleficarum (1487); a text so extreme in its misogyny it could send Piers Morgan in search of a pussy hat and a Women’s March placard. Although the text acknowledges that men can be witches too, it argues ‘a greater number of witches is found in the fragile feminine sex than among men.’ It goes on to argue that unlike men, women ‘know no moderation in goodness or vice’, and that ‘all witchcraft comes from carnal lust, which is in women insatiable’. The fear of women dominating men, castrating them or stealing their magic beans and draining his strength runs throughout. Now, I’m not saying the witch hunts of Europe were directly linked to man's subconscious fear of demonic bean burgling nymphomaniacs on brooms, but the fear an orgasm weakened men, and that women wielded power over the penis, is palpable.
But, it is easy to understand why our ancestors would link orgasm to a loss of strength and potency. The French called an orgasm ‘la petite mort’ (the little death), and with good reason. Ask yourself how you feel after orgasm when the red mist has lifted. I’m generalising, but for women the orgasm is like an end of level boss; a violent show down, after which we level up and want more – only harder. Though many women experience painful sensitivity in the genitals post orgasm, we can keep going and, as Cosmo, keeps assuring us, can achieve multiple orgasms. But, once the man has shot his duff, it’s all over, and before you can say ‘I’m ready, darling’ he is snoring in the wet patch. This special time is known in medical terms as the ‘male refractory period’. It is defined as ‘the transient period of time after ejaculation associated with detumescence, reduced interest in sexual activity, inability to ejaculate or experience orgasm, and increased aversion to genital sensory stimulation’ (Masters and Johnson, 1966). The finger of blame for this period is often pointed at central serotonin and prolactin fluctuations in the brain. But as pre- and post-orgasmic elevations in prolactin and serotonin are observed in both men and women, this is not regarded as an explanation as to why men and not women experience a refectory period (Turley and Rowland, 2013). Whatever the reason, the MRP is very real, and the post orgasm crash from super horny sex god to sleepy man child seemed irrefutable proof that an orgasm undermined masculine strength faster than Toy Story Three.
This all seemed perfectly obvious to Dr Samuel-Auguste Tissot when he published Onanism: A Treatise on the Maladies Produced by Masturbation in 1758. Tissot argued that the loss of one ounce of semen equalled the loss of 40 ounces of blood, and that masturbation was the most damaging way to lose liqueur séminale. He recorded numerous case histories where patients’ health deteriorated after ejaculation, in some cases fatally; “he had an emission of semen without coition, which was immediately followed with fever, delirium, convulsions, and other violent symptoms, which caused death in four hours.”
The picture Tissot painted of a man who ejaculated too frequently is not a pretty one. He argued excessive masturbation, nocturnal emissions and coitus interruptus caused,
“A general wasting of the animal machine, a debility of all the bodily senses, and of all the faculties of the mind: the loss of the imagination, and of the memory: imbecility, the shame and the disgrace attendant upon it, all the functions disturbed, suspended, or painful, long, severe, and disgusting diseases, the pain sharper and constantly recurring: all the diseases of old age in the period of vigor: an inaptitude for all the occupations for which man was born, the humiliating thought of being only a useless weight on the earth, the mortifications to which he is daily exposed: the disgust for all honorable pleasures; weariness, an aversion for others and for himself; horror of life, and the dread of someday committing suicide, anguish of mind worse than the pains, and remorse worse than the anguish, which increases daily, and doubtless assumes new power, when the soul is enfeebled only by attachment to the body, will serve perhaps for eternal punishment, and unquenchable fire.”
Tissot’s work set in motion a crusade against masturbation that would last for the next 200 years. The solitary vice, self-pollution, Onanism or herkin the gerkin would come under increasing medical scrutiny and men’s soft and danglies were subject to various quack cures, ranging from the mildly amusing to the outright dangerous. By the nineteenth century, medical theories that a loss of semen was seriously injurious to health had become firmly established. Men were warned to conserve their ‘essence’ by avoiding fornication, masturbation, and by limiting sex within marriage. Numerous anti-masturbation devices were available to prevent ‘nocturnal emissions’, or to stop young boys interfering with themselves. Physicians are recorded as applying acids, needles and electric shocks to the penile shaft in an attempt to cure what was then known as ‘spermatorrhea’ (weakness caused by loss of semen.) Sparse diets were recommended to subdue lust, and purity crusaders, such as John Harvey Kellogg (1852-1943), manufactured plain cereals to suppress urges. Kellogg argued that masturbation could cause "cancer of the womb, urinary diseases, nocturnal emissions, impotence, epilepsy, insanity, and mental and physical debility’ (Kellogg, 1877). But, Kellogg went much further than peddling a cock block in box. He was full of useful information for parents on how to ‘cure’ a child masturbating.
“Bandaging the parts has been practised with success. Tying the hands is also successful in some cases; but this will not always succeed, for they will often contrive to continue the habit in other ways, as by working the limbs, or lying upon the abdomen. Covering the organs with a cage has been practised with entire success.” (Kellogg, 1877)
But, the method Kellogg felt most successful in stopping the knuckle shuffle was circumcision – without anaesthetic.
“A remedy which is almost always successful in small boys is circumcision, especially when there is any degree of phimosis. The operation should be performed without administering an anaesthetic, as the brief pain attending the operation will have a salutary effect upon the mind, especially if it be connected with the idea of punishment, as it may well be in some cases. The soreness which continues for several weeks interrupts the practice, and if it had not previously become too firmly fixed, it may be forgotten and not resumed.” (Kellogg, 1877)
If women were habitual masturbators, Kellogg recommended burning out the clitoris with carbolic acid as an ‘excellent means of allaying the abnormal excitement, and preventing the recurrence of the practice.’ (Kellogg, 1877) It is in no small part thanks to anti-masturbation crusaders, such as Kellogg, that circumcision is still so widespread in America today. In 1902, Professor L. Emmett Holt of New York College of Physicians and Surgeons recommended ‘hygienic circumcision’ for all infants. New mothers were advised in parenting guides to snip their boys to keep them 'clean'. Although circumcision rates are declining, almost 80% of American babies are circumcised today, and the most widely cited reason is 'hygiene'. I'll just say here that the penis is self cleaning, surgical intervention is not required, and that uncircumcised men are not walking around with barnacles on their bellends. Horrific as this type of 'treatment' may sound, it’s important to remember that Doctors like Kellogg truly believed they were helping people, and that orgasms were debilitating. How many penises and vulvae have been mutilated over the centuries in a misguided quest to squirrel away orgasm energy is unknown, but spare them a thought when you're next staring at Kellogg's cock on a box.
[Below are extracts from a very rare French book entitled Le Livre Sans Titre (The Book without a Title) (1830). The book is a warning against the perils of self-pollution, and graphically illustrates the effects of wasting semen through masturbation upon the body. Images from the Dittrick museum blog.]
It was the sexologists of the twentieth century who challenged theories of spermatorrhea. In 1908, Albert Moll identified four phases of orgasm, and defined orgasm as a ‘voluptuous acme' that gave way to a ‘sudden cessation of the voluptuous sensation’ and detumescence. Wilhelm Reich described orgasms as a ‘bioelectric discharge’ and the work of Kinsey revealed that masturbation was an almost universal human experience. it was the work of Masters and Johnson in 1966 that finally revealed exactly what happens to the male body before, during, and after orgasm, and identified the ‘refractory period’. And whilst you may hesitate to bring up the subject of rubbing your nubbin over tea with vicar, I like to believe we’re now in a place where ejaculation and masturbation are no longer subjects shrouded in mystery and shame. But better than that, new science is emerging all the time to show how important orgasms are within human relationships. In 2004, Bartels & Zeki demonstrated that the areas of the brain activated during orgasm were also activated when looking at pictures of their lover, suggesting orgasm creates a physical, sexual memory of that person within the body. The work of Komisaruk & Whipple (2005), Kurtz (1975), Yang et al., (2007) all show that the brain activity during orgasm in humans and animals are linked to memory consolidation, meaning orgasms actually bond partners together and even encourage sexual fidelity. The work of Genaro A (2016) build on this and demonstrates that orgasm is key to pair bonding partners, even in developing an attraction to certain ‘types’. In 2007, Stuart Brody studied the vaginal orgasms of some 1256 women and concluded regular orgasms led to ‘greater satisfaction with sex life, mental health, relationships with both partners and friends, and life in general. In 2011, Cindolo, et al, showed that not ejaculating regularly led to a notable decline in the micturition reflex (the ability to pass urine from the body). One study found that 32% of 1,866 U.S. women who reported masturbating in the previous three months did so to help go to sleep (Ellison, 2000). The same study also found that orgasm can increase levels of endorphins and corticosteroids that raise pain thresholds, easing discomforts associated with arthritis, menstrual cramps, migraine, and other conditions (Ellison, 2000). In 2013, research showed that orgasm relieved the pain of migraines or cluster headaches for up to a third of patients. And I have only just scratched the surface of research into why an orgasm is good for you.
So please, blow your beans, spank your monkey, diddle your dumpling and pull your pud; as long as no one else on the bus minds, orgasm to your heart's content. Its medically recommended. And every time you do, think of your orgasm as a tribute to all those before you who have paid an incredibly high cost for, what Megan Hart described as, "one more miraculous function our body provides, no more shameful than a sneeze or the beating of our hearts.”
This article has discussed gender as a binary and in terms of male and female. This is done, not to perpetuate Cis gender narratives, but to locate the research within historical attitudes that understood gender as binary and violently policed gender constructs as they saw them. Understanding historical attitudes to gender identity is essential if we are to fully appreciate how heteronormativity and constructs of the binary of masculine and feminine came to dominate cultural narratives, and how deviations from this model were socially and legally sanctioned. Thanks to the work of the LGBTQ community the binary model is slowly being dismantled, but we need to know the historic attitudes governing the prejudice being challenged. Historically, the biology of being understand as a male or female person, what happens to the body identified as male or female, and how this is linked to notions of masculine and feminine has underpinned trans and homophobia. By showing how penile ejaculation has been falsely linked to 'masculine essence', I hope to draw attention to the history and dangers of understanding gender in terms of binary essentialism.
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